Team One’s section was beautiful. Every headstone in it had been carefully cleaned, and each and every one sparkled in the morning sunlight. The stone paths were pristine. I swear, the white flowers they’d planted in two huge urns bordering the entrance to the section came right off the cover of a Martha Stewart Living magazine.
It was impressive.
I was bummed.
“Hey, cheer up.” Absalom poked me in the ribs. We were standing on the sidelines watching the final judging, and with the camera rolling, he had to keep his voice down. “They got big bucks on their side, but no way they have our style.”
He was trying to make me feel better, so I smiled even though I didn’t feel like it.
After the points we’d scored for our bachelor auction, we were ten points behind Team One in the competition. Had their gorgeous landscaping sealed the deal and left us runners-up? We were about to find out.
When the judge from the art museum stepped forward, I held my breath.
“It’s all very lovely,” she said. “The lines are clean and pleasing. The flowers are cheery without being disrespectful. My fellow judges and I… we’re awarding Team One ten points.”
“Ten?” I groaned. “That means we’re twenty behind. We’re never going to catch up. Not twenty points.”
“Hey, team captain!” Reggie slapped me on the back. “You’re the one who usually gives the rah-rah speeches. Don’t lose faith now.”
I wished I could be so optimistic.
When Greer ordered us to get moving, we tromped over to our section. The judge’s words whirled through my head and for the first time since we’d planted our flowers, I second-guessed our color scheme. Our team had decided to honor Sammi with our plantings, and since we figured he had as much right to put in his two cents as anyone else, we consulted Virgil. He’d come up with the perfect plan, and he’d even chipped in to buy gigantic new flowerpots, too. They stood at the entrance to our section, jam-packed with flowers in Wonder Bread colors-red, yellow, white, and blue.
I guess the judges got the message, because as they neared our section, they stopped and took a careful look around. The guy from the Art Institute went a little pale.
When they were done with the flowers, they checked out our little fountain (we’d had a problem with the pump, and it wasn’t flowing as much as it was belching), and the bench we’d put nearby that we hadn’t been able to get perfectly level, no matter how hard we tried. They walked up and down the rows of headstones, stopping, checking, scratching comments in their notebooks. When they were done, they put their heads together and talked for so long, I thought I was going to burst from anticipation. Finally, the lady from the art museum stepped forward. Absalom was on one side of me, Delmar was on the other. I grabbed both their hands and held on for dear life.
“Well!” The art museum lady laughed, uncomfortable. “This section certainly isn’t restored as perfectly as Team One’s.” I stifled a curse. “But…”
The single word gave me hope. I tightened my hold on Absalom and Delmar.
“This section has a certain panache that demonstrates something the other section didn’t. Yes, cemeteries are places where we honor our dead. But they are also places where we celebrate the lives of the people who’ve gone before us. This section certainly shows that aspect of celebration. We’re awarding Team Two twenty points.”
“Twenty!” We whooped and hollered.
That is, until I did the math.
“We’re tied,” I said, and I knew that Team One realized it, too. That’s why they were throwing death-ray looks our way.
“The final points will be awarded once the Monroe Street volunteers arrive,” the art museum lady said. “That’s when the fundraising money will be turned over to them. The team that raised the most money will be our winner.”
“Cut!” Greer yelled, and while everyone scrambled around, getting ready for the next shot, my team and I gave each other high fives.
Oh yeah, we knew what was about to happen. We were about to be declared Cemetery Survivor winners.
In honor of the moment, I stepped aside to refresh my lipstick and check my hair. I’d just put my mirror back in my purse when Bianca walked over.
She reached into her own purse and pulled out a business card. “I took the liberty of having these made. I hope you don’t mind.”
The card was printed on heavy stock, the font was elegant, but not over-the-top. Under the distinctive La Mode logo, it said:
PEPPER MARTIN, FASHION CONSULTANT
I caught my breath. “Does this mean… You’re asking me to… You want me to… The offer’s still open?”
She laughed, the sound of it as sweet and soothing as our fountain was supposed to be. “Of course. That is…” Bianca lowered her voice. “It could be yours, Pepper. If things work out the way they should.”
I was puzzled. “If things work out? You’re not talking about-”
“The contest, of course.” She smiled at me the way she’d smiled from the covers of so many magazines. “If Team One gets that final twenty-five points-”
“But there’s no way. It’s based on how much money each team brought in, and you know we raised more than you did. You’re not asking me to-”
“No one will know.” Her smile stayed firmly in place. “A few hundred dollars, who would miss it? And if anyone does… well… just look at your team.” She did, and I looked over their way, too. They were eager for the next scene to shoot. This was their big moment and even Crazy Jake’s expression shone with pride. “No one would be the least bit surprised if there was money missing.”
I weighed what she said against the beautiful business card in my hands.
Pepper Martin, Fashion Consultant.
I tore the card in half, gave the pieces to Bianca, and walked away.
“Congratulations.” I wasn’t surprised to see Quinn at the cemetery for the big announcement. Ever since that night at the car lot when he finally spoke those three little oh-so-wonderful words, we’d been pretty much inseparable. I mean, when he wasn’t out catching bad guys and I wasn’t finishing up the restoration and winning Cemetery Survivor.
I’d like to say he looked happy about our victory, but truth be told, he looked sort of nervous. It was unlike him, and it was contagious. The smile vanished from my face, and I excused myself from where my team and I were celebrating our victory and ducked behind the moldy mausoleum.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Not a thing.” He poked his hands in his pockets.
Quinn never puts his hands in his pockets.
I eyed him carefully. “Then why do you look like you just swallowed a frog?”
His mouth thinned. “I do not-”
“You do. You’re supposed to be happy for me.”
“Then you might try smiling.”
He did. It didn’t last long. “Look… I’ve been thinking. About everything that happened. Bad Dog Raphael, and Bud the hit man, and about how your art show was vandalized, and-”
“It’s cool, isn’t it?” It was, and I laughed. “Everything’s tied up in a neat little package. Everything is explained. You think you’ll convict them?”
We were back on solid ground; there’s nothing a cop likes better than facts. “We found Vera Blaine’s locket in Raphael’s house. The sick bastard kept it as a souvenir,” Quinn said. This was news, and I was as glad to hear it as I was happy about the rest of what he had to say.
“Bud is more than willing to squeal on Raphael, Raphael is more than willing to squeal on Kowalski, and Kowalski is willing to give them both up in exchange for some consideration from the prosecutor.”
“So all’s well that ends well.” I knew it was; when I got to Monroe Street that morning, I saw Jefferson Lamar watching and smiling as Helen brought him a bouquet of flowers. “So why are you looking so glum?”
“I’m not glum. I’m pissed. The more I’ve talked to Mad Dog and Bud and…” Quinn scraped a hand through his hair. “The more I hear from them, the more I think…” He let out a sigh of epic proportions. “It’s the same old, same old, Pepper. You sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong and putting yourself in danger. You were up in that damned car, and Raphael was waving a gun at you! And I thought things were different between us these days.”
“They were. They are!”
“Yeah, well, different doesn’t explain why you keep getting involved in these things. In fact, it only makes it worse. I told you I loved you. And you-”
“You know I feel the same way.” I wasn’t sure where this conversation was headed, but something told me I wasn’t going to like the destination when we arrived. I took a quick step toward Quinn. “I’m sorry that you keep worrying about me, but you shouldn’t. I can take care of myself.”
“That’s not what’s bugging me. I don’t understand what’s going on, and I don’t like the feeling. Why do you keep getting yourself into these situations? How does it happen? I want an explanation, Pepper. I need one. I think I deserve one.”
He was right, and I knew it.
Now that the moment had come for me to explain what I thought I’d never tell him, my stomach got queasy, and my voice wobbled over the words. “I hit my head back at Garden View,” I said, giving him the Reader’s Digest condensed version. “After that… well…” I was losing my nerve-fast-and I couldn’t let that happen. Before I could change my mind, I blurted everything out.
“I see dead people,” I told him. “They come to me because they can’t cross over to the Other Side without my help. So that’s what I do. I help them solve their murders. Or I help clear their names, like I did for Jefferson Lamar, and that’s why I get involved in all these things, and it’s not like it was my idea, but they’re going to haunt me if I don’t, so I might as well, you know?”
I froze, waiting for his response. It didn’t take long.
Quinn walked over, put his hands on my shoulders, and kissed me quick. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” he said.
“‘Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?’” He’d already moved away, and I went after him. “I just told you the biggest secret of my life, and all you have to say is maybe I’ll see you around sometime? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about how if you’re not going to tell me the truth… if you’re going to hand me some story about how you commune with the dead-”
“It’s true. I do!”
“Yeah. Right. Good-bye, Pepper.” Quinn’s shoulders were rigid when he walked out of my life.
I don’t know how long I stood there, torn between running after him and crawling into that hole in the mausoleum floor and never coming out again. I only know that after a while, my team came over to find me.
They closed in on me so fast, I barely had time to wipe the tears off my cheeks.
“We’ve got something for you,” Absalom said, and handed me a picture. It was a publicity shot taken not long after the competition started, and it showed me standing near the Monroe Street entrance with my entire team. It said “Thank You” across the bottom in artsy graffiti-like lettering.
“I should be thanking all of you,” I managed to choke out the words.
“Hey, don’t get all emotional!” Absalom patted me on the back. “And get back over near the fountain. Ella brought over a bottle of champagne. We’re going to celebrate!”
They hurried off. Crazy Jake hung back. “I have a special present for you,” he said, and he shoved something in my hands and followed the rest of my team.
It was kind of hard to see what it was, with the tears in my eyes and all, but I looked down at the black and white photograph Jake had handed me.
The picture had been taken the night of our bachelor auction. There I was, breaking all the rules, standing next to the statue of President Garfield inside his memorial.
I wasn’t alone.
There on my right was the statue of the President at the center of the rotunda. There was me. There on my left…
On my left was the misty image and I’d bet anything that Jake thought it was nothing more than a reflection.
I knew better. I saw an imposing man with a beard. And I wondered what Jake would say if he knew he’d taken a picture of the ghost of President James A. Garfield.
It took a while for my paperwork to be approved, and that meant I had time to fret and worry and second-guess myself.
I did a pretty good job of it.
But then, it’s not like I had a lot of other things to think about. We wrapped up Cemetery Survivor, and I was back at work at Garden View, and there was no sign of a presidential ghost or any other restless spirits. I didn’t have my team to keep me company, and I was sleeping alone. What else did I have to occupy my time?
Remember that old saying I’ve mentioned before? The one about being careful what you wish for? I guess it pretty much came true. I was leaving for the airport when I found a bouquet of flowers outside the door of my apartment. Like anyone can blame me for thinking-for one, brief, shining moment, anyway-that they came from Quinn?
No such luck. No sign of Quinn, and no sign of a signature on the card that came with the flowers, either. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t a message:
No TV show. I’ll have to watch you in person.
“Creepy.” On my way to my car, I took both the card and the flowers down to the Dumpster in back of my apartment building, and if I hadn’t been avoiding thinking about what I’d been avoiding thinking about for as long as I could remember, I might have convinced myself that the flowers were a fluke.
The case was wrapped up, and thanks to the careful questioning of the police (not to mention the fact that he was hoping to get a little something back in exchange for any information he gave the cops), Mad Dog had admitted that he’d sent that mugger after me and that the same man-Bud-was the one who came after me at the Lake View and killed Sammi instead.
But he’d never said a word about flowers.
Like a scene in a cheesy movie, my memories flashed over everything that had happened that summer: the flowers, the lipstick, the cheap chocolates.
“If it all didn’t have something to do with the case…” I murmured to myself, and a slow chill shimmied up my back. Like anybody could blame me for glancing over my shoulder?
Thankfully, there was nobody around, but that didn’t stop me from getting in my car as fast as I could, and from locking the doors once I was in there.
I gripped the steering wheel and let my brain follow the logical progression.
“If the flowers are still coming, they had nothing to do with your case. If they had nothing to do with your case, that means somebody you don’t know about is sending them. And that means…” I swallowed hard. “Stalker?”
Even though I wasn’t looking forward to where I was going, I was grateful to be getting out of town.
When I finally arrived at my destination and parked my rental car, I was far from home, and I wasn’t thinking about my stalker any longer. That didn’t keep my heart from beating double time. I blamed it on the altitude. It was better than admitting I was nervous.
I’d taken a flight to Colorado and driven from the Denver airport with a voodoo doll on my front seat next to me. I gave the doll a pat for luck, got out of the car, and went inside the prison to visit my dad.