An Unquiet Grave
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
The Christmas lights were already up. He had the top down on the Mustang and he could see them as he drove up, a cluster of small white lights that someone had strung on the coconut palm in his yard. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the gulf, moving the fronds and sending the lights bobbing and dancing like fireflies on a hot summer night.
Louis Kincaid turned off the engine and just sat there, looking at the lights. Fire flies. July Fourth. Michigan. But there were no fire flies here. It was November, not July. And he was in South Florida. His mind was playing tricks on him. He reached over and popped the glove box, pulling out his Glock. Grabbing his overnight bag, he got out and headed to the cottage. Maybe he was just tired. The job up in Tampa had been dull and drawn out.
Surveillance of a woman who was suing a big trucking company because a semi had clipped her Honda and left her "permanently disabled and in extreme mental stress." He had spent four days tailing her with a video camera, finally getting a shot of her banging her car floor mats against the fender of her car -- after she had come home from the beauty salon. The film was played in court. The woman got two grand for medical bills. He got five grand for his pay. Good money for a P.I., he supposed. At least it was enough to keep him in Grouper sandwiches at Timmy's Nook for the next few months.
The mailbox was stuffed. He dug out the fliers and envelopes and opened the door.
"Honey, I'm home," he said, throwing down his bag. Issy came trotting out of the bedroom. The cat looked up at him, its tail swishing on the terrazzo.
"Okay, okay," he said with a sigh. He headed to the kitchen, tossing the stack of mail on the counter. He shook a bag of Tender Vittles into the bowl on the floor. The other bowl was filled with clean water. At least his weasel landlord Pierre had been taking care of things like he promised. He had half-expected to come home and see a cat carcass laying on the floor.
He pulled open the fridge. One Heineken and a carton of Chinese takeout probably left over from the ice age. He stood there for a moment, letting the cold air wash over his sweaty face, then grabbed the beer and closed the fridge.
There was one lamp on in the living room, but the small cottage seemed dark and stale from being closed up. He went to the TV and punched the remote, unleashing a rainbow of light and sitcom laughter into the shadows. Finally, after a moment, he muted the sound and tossed the remote aside.
He cranked open the jalousie windows, and the warm gulf breeze wafted in. He stood there, breathing in the salt and night-blooming jasmine, holding the cold beer bottle up against his forehead.
He still wasn't used to it, even after three years of living in Florida. September would come and he would be waiting for that cool kiss in the air, yet the temperature stayed in the nineties. October would come and he would be expecting the first frost on the windows, but there was nothing but the cloud of humidity. And then came November, when the trees should have been turning brown and gaunt. But here...here in Florida, everything was green and lush and sultry.
He hated the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Back-to-back reasons to give in to that small but powerful part of him that wanted to slide into silence and solitude.
His eyes drifted to answering machine on the counter. The red light was blinking. Ten messages. He rewound the tape.
The first one was a time share come-on. Three hang-ups. A man wanting to hire him to spy on his "whore wife." Two more hang-ups. Then a familiar voice with its unmistakable Mississippi drawl.
"Oh! My...a machine! I didn't know you finally got one. Oh dear...how much time do I have? Louis, this is Margaret."
Louis took a drink of beer.
"I'm calling to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner. We're fixing to have a real feast this year B- I'm making my sweet potato pie -- and I know you don't have any family to go to --"
Louis could hear Sam Dodie yelling in the background, telling his wife what to say. She hung up, forgetting to leave a number. But Louis knew the Dodies' number by heart; he had spent many an evening at their table, eating Margaret's cooking, listening to Sam's war stories. Now that his ex-boss had retired to Florida, Sam Dodie's need to talk about his years spent as a Mississippi sheriff seemed to grow. It was either listen to it or go fishing.
The next voice came on, the thin soft voice of a boy. "Hi Louis. It's me. I guess you're not home yet."
Louis leaned closer to the machine.
"I wish you could come over for Thanksgiving, but Ma says we gotta go see Grandma Cockran up in St. Augustine. Chewbaca is getting real big but Ma says he can't sleep with me cuz I got allergies." A long pause. "Okay, I gotta go. I love you. See ya!"
Louis's smiled. Chewbaca was one of Issy's kittens, conceived last winter during Ben's kidnapping. Ben had needed a lot of time to recover from his experience, and Louis believed the kitten somehow helped him do that. He still worried about the boy, worried him being twelve and not having a father in his life, worried about his being able to ever trust people again. That was why he tried to see Ben as often as he could. But work had been demanding lately and there didn't seem to be enough time.
The last message. Another familiar voice. Female, deep, deeply familiar.
"Hey there. It's me. Just wanted to let you know I pulled some strings and got Thanksgiving and Friday. I've got two Swanson's turkey dinners and a good bottle of French Chablis on ice, so get your sweet ass over here as soon as you can. Call me as soon as you get in."
She hung up.
Louis just sat there, staring at the machine. He took a drink of the beer then replayed her message just to hear her voice.
He hadn't seen Joe in weeks. She was a homicide detective for Miami PD. He had met her when she came over to help work the homicides connected with Ben's kidnapping. They had started an intense affair, and for Louis, it was just what he needed.
Louis finished off the beer. Two invitations to Thanksgiving dinner. Not bad. But now he had to choose. A great feast at Margaret Dodie's table. Or two days in bed with Joe. A slow smile came to his face. Well, maybe Margaret would save him some leftovers.
His eyes went to the pile of mail near his elbow. He began sifting through it. The blue envelope with the familiar Michigan address made him stop.
His birthday . He had forgotten again. But Frances never did.
He slit open the envelope and pulled out the birthday card from his foster mother. He opened it and a crisp twenty dollar bill fluttered to the counter.
November 18, 1988
Dearest Louis. Well, here you are at 29! How the years have flown by! Though you are far far away, always know that our thoughts and love are with you on this special day. We hope you can find some use for our e gift!
Love and kisses, Frances and Phillip
It was written in Frances's frilly hand. The card came as regular as the sun every November 18, written by Frances, signed for them both, and always with a twenty tucked inside.
He shook his head slowly and picked up the twenty. It was only then that he noticed the piece of white paper that had fallen to the floor. He stopped to pick it up and unfolded it. The note was in black ink, the handwriting heavy and unfamiliar.
Dear Louis, Frances does not know I am writing this to you, and for now I would ask that you don't mention it to her. I suppose I should have called you about this, but every time I picked up the phone, I couldn't quite figure out what to say. Writing things down has always been easier for me. Although nothing about this is easy really. I have a friend whose grave I have been tending for sixteen years. The cemetery is being relocated and since my friend has no family, I made arrangements to move the coffin. But I was told it is empty. As you can imagine, I am quite upset and do not know where to turn. No one will help me and I feel I owe this to my friend. There is no way I can fully explain all this in a letter, so I hope you will just trust me when I say I need help. I am sorry to have to burden you with this, but I am quite desperate.
Please don't tell Frances anything about this. If you were able to come home for Thanksgiving, she wouldn't suspect anything and I could explain it all to you then. But if you have other plans, I understand.---Phillip
Louis stared at the letter, re-reading the middle paragraph, then the final line. If you have other plans...
It was the first time Phillip had ever asked anything from him. Except the night when he was eleven, caught again going out through the bedroom window.
Where you going, Louis? I don't know. Just away. If you keep running off like this, they'll take you away from me. Do you want that? I don't care. But I do. Promise me you won't run away again. All right. And he hadn't. Louis folded the letter and just sat there for a moment, listening to the whisper of the surf. Finishing off the beer, he picked up the phone and dialed Joe's number in Miami. He got the machine and left her a message asking her to call back. Then he called American Airlines and made a reservation to fly to Detroit in the morning.
Phillip Lawrence turned the Impala into the driveway and cut the engine. Louis looked up at the yellow brick tri-level. The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhoods was a house. Other things came, too B smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, he chose to look back on them.
But a house was different. It was solid and permanent, and it allowed people to say I existed here. My memories are real.
He pushed open the car door and climbed out. Phillip brought his suitcase to him, and they walked to the front porch, Louis automatically slowing in deference to Phillip's limp. Christmas lights were strung around the eaves, and a wreath hung on the door. He recognized the wreath. Old newspapers stuffed into an oval of chicken wire, spray painted red and green, and covered with gobs of shellac. He knew the back read: Louis, Age 11.
"It scares me what else Frances kept," Louis said, nodding toward the wreath.
Phillip unlocked the door and pushed it open. "Don't look in the attic then." Louis paused in the front hall, the assault to his senses almost bringing a sting to his eyes. Pot roast and lavender air freshener.
Phillip asked for his coat and Louis shrugged out of it, his gaze moving slowly over all the photographs. Boys. Dozens of different faces, at dozens of ages. Some in Little League uniforms, some Boy Scouts, some standing outside a camper-trailer, some around the big blue Dough-Boy pool that once dominated the backyard. Boys...all the foster kids who had passed through this home for more than twenty years.
"Leave your suitcase here, Louis," Phillip said. "Frances is anxious to see you."
Louis followed Phillip, the pot roast aroma growing stronger. She was standing at the stove, her hands clasped in front of her apron. She had put on a few more pounds, her face round and flushed from the heat of the oven. Her hairstyle was the same, a halo of light brown hair, a few curls sweat-plastered to her forehead.
"Louis," she said, coming to him. She crushed him to her soft chest. "Oh, it's so good to see you. You look too thin," she said. "You're not eating."
He smiled. "I make do."
She gave a snort and turned to the counter, coming back with a tray. "Here," she said.
The tray held a container of Win Schuler's cheese and a plate of carefully fanned crackers and tiny pickles. There were two blue cloth napkins and a silver cheese spreader.
"How long til dinner?" Phillip asked, pulling two beers out of the fridge.
Frances wiped her forehead. "A while. Why don't you two go downstairs and have one of your visits. I'll call you when I'm ready."
Phillip nodded his head toward the door to the basement and Louis followed, carrying the tray. Louis slowed as he neared the bottom of the stairs. Knotty pine paneling and a bar. Blue tiled linoleum he had helped Phillip install during his junior year. Christmas lights twinkled in the mirror behind the bar. On the bar itself was an old radio, a blue rotary dial phone, a bowl of walnuts and a miniature aluminum tree.
Louis knew Phillip was fifty-six, and except for the limp from the Korean War, he was lean and healthy. His face was still striking, and as Louis watched him now, he had a memory of one afternoon when he was twelve and was watching TV and happened upon the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still."
He had looked at Michael Rennie and wondered what his foster father was doing playing a spaceman in some corny old black and white movie. It was a full year before he finally worked up the nerve to ask and Phillip had just laughed and laughed. It was years later that Louis stopped thinking of Phillip Lawrence as some mysterious alien presence in his life.
Louis considered Phillip's face now. The network of lines had deepened and there was something else in his foster father's face he had never ever seen before - a deep, aching sadness.
Phillip felt his gaze and looked up. Louis looked away, picking up his beer and swinging his stool on the pretense of looking around the basement.
"You seem different, Louis," Phillip said.
"Different how?" Phillip's eyes came to his face. "Different as in...calm. Maybe even happy."
"Things are good right now."
"I'm glad to hear that. You've waited a long time."
Louis watched him. He wanted to tell him that he seemed different, too. But instinct was telling him he had to leave it up to Phillip to tell him about his friend and the empty grave.
The furnace kicked on, and hot air puffed down from the ceiling vents. From the kitchen above came the sound of clattering plates and Frances humming quietly. Louis reached for a cracker and spread some cheese on it. He heard Phillip take a deep breath and he figured he was about to tell him why he had asked him to come up.
But Phillip was quiet, cracking the walnuts.
Louis realized he would have to do the prodding. All those countless times when Phillip had been the one to urge him out of his shell. It felt odd to have the roles reversed.
"Phillip, why did you want me to come here?" Louis asked. "What exactly is going on?"
Phillip glanced at him, then went back to the walnut, carefully picking the bits out of the shell.
"I don't know where to start," he said quietly.
"Try the beginning."
Phillip set the nutcracker down and turned to face Louis. "I've been visiting the grave of my friend for sixteen years. Last month, I went out there and there was a sign saying the place had been sold and that families could claim the remains for relocation."
"You said that in your letter," Louis said.
Phillip nodded. "But when they found out I wasn't a relative, they wouldn't tell me anything. But there was this woman there, I guess she felt sorry for me or something. She told me that my friend's family..." Phillip paused. "They didn't want the remains."
Phillip brushed his hands together to get rid of the walnut shells. "I asked if I could do it and she said yes. So I signed a paper and made the arrangements for a new plot back here at Riverside in Plymouth. I even bought a new casket. But when they went to transfer the body, that's when they found out..."
Phillip stopped. His hands encircled the beer bottle but he didn't move to take a drink.
"You said in your letter the coffin was empty," Louis prodded.
"No, it wasn't empty. It was filled with rocks. That's what they found when they opened it."
Phillip was sitting there, like if let go of the bottle it would fall apart in his hands.
"So," Louis went on, "You think your friend could be alive?"
Phillip shook his head slowly. "No, no. I know that isn't possible."
"You said in your letter you didn't tell Frances. Why not?"
Phillip was very still, his voice low. "Because my friend is a woman I knew before Frances. I don't think Frances would understand."
Louis took a drink of his beer, his mind already forming questions, some too personal to ask. "Phil, I can't lie to Frances."
"I know, I know." Phillip looked at Louis. "I just want to find out what happened. Maybe there was just a mix up at the cemetery, a bookkeeping error or something. Things like that happen, don't they?"
Louis nodded. "I just want to see my friend reburied." Phillip's expression was beseeching. "Can you maybe just look into things? Can you help with that at least?"
"All right," Louis said. "I need to go to the cemetery," Louis said.
"We can go first thing in the morning."
There was no sign for the cemetery. Only a listing black iron fence, its gates stuck deep into the mud, as if they had been left open for quite some time. Two towering pines stood guard on each side of the entrance and the land beyond it was a flat expanse of brown grass bordered by thickets and trees. As they walked up to the gate, Louis could see a silent backhoe sitting at the far end next to a heap of black dirt. Near it was a gangly yellow hoist, used to lift the concrete vaults from the graves. Three muddy vaults sat off in the far corner of the cemetery.
Only the cawing of crows broke the still cold air. Louis looked up and spotted two of the birds staring down at them from the two sentry pines. Phillip walked on ahead and Louis followed, scanning the ground. The grass wasn't very tall, only five or six inches, but Louis didn't see any headstones or monuments. A yard or two into the cemetery, he spied a plot of freshly disturbed ground where he guessed someone had been dug up and the hole refilled. Then there was another, and a third, before Phillip finally stopped.
At his feet was an open grave, the bottom puddled with dark water. Phillip knelt at the head of the grave and pushed aside the dead grass. Louis stepped closer. A small stone square was pressed into the ground, no larger than six inches by eight inches. Louis squatted to look at the stone. It was well worn, but someone, probably Phillip, had scraped away the moss and mud, and the engraving was easy to read.
No name. Just a number B 1304.
"What kind of cemetery is this?" Louis asked, looking up at Phillip.
Phillip rose slowly, his eyes drifting back to the road they had driven in on, and beyond, to a cluster of taller trees. "There's a hospital over there. This is where they buried their unclaimed dead."
Louis looked off in the same direction as Phillip, but he was saw nothing. "What kind of hospital?" he asked.
"An insane asylum?"
"Your friend died there?"
"Yes. At least that's what I was told."
Louis looked back at the stone marker embedded in the grass. "And all these people got were numbers on their graves?"
"I suppose it started out as some kind of privacy thing, maybe to keep the curiosity seekers from coming in and vandalizing the graves," Phillip said. "There were a couple of well known criminals who were sent here back in the fifties and sixties."
Louis looked off at the far trees. Something was coming back to him. He stood up, facing Phillip. "This is Hidden Lake, isn't it?"
"Yes," Phillip said. "You know about it?"
Louis hesitated. He knew. He had heard about Hidden Lake many times, mostly in hushed conversations with other kids. Talk of crazy people screaming behind iron bars, stories of secret operations, torture and brain removals. No one he knew had ever seen Hidden Lake, but every kid knew what it was like. Hidden Lake was hell, Halloween and a chamber of horrors all rolled into one. It was where all the really crazy people were kept, where your mother would threaten to send you if you were bad. It was where all the insane killers were locked away.
A memory came to him suddenly. A serial killer from the late sixties, a man who prowled lover's lanes, chopping off heads and eating the eyeballs of teenagers. The killer had been sent here, hadn't he? Or what that just another story whispered in tents at a summer camp, a story spawned of some boy's fevered imagination?
© P.J. Parrish