By the time I got to Monroe Street on Monday morning, there was a line of cars parked outside the stone archway that led into the cemetery. There were also people-two and three at a time in tight little groups-standing on the sidewalk outside the six-foot iron fence.
But things got even weirder.
Just as I got out of my car, I felt someone watching me.
I turned to see a man standing across the street just at the spot where the sunshine met the shadows of a boarded-up house. He was middle-sized and middle-aged. I didn’t recognize him, and he was so bland, I wouldn’t know him again if I tripped over him. When I looked his way, he stepped into the shadows. I twitched away the uneasy feeling that crawled up my spine, and kept right on walking. I didn’t expect to bump into Ella.
“Can you believe this?” She met me as I was about to head out into the wilderness that was the cemetery. Her eyes were as bright as the glimmery earrings and beads she wore with her yellow sundress. “I had to stop and see you. I know Jim is anxious for some feedback. But really, Pepper, did you expect this?” She smiled and waved when we passed a group of middle-aged ladies.
I may have been baffled (OK, I was plenty baffled), but I had a plan for the day, and there was no way I was going to let whatever was happening deter me. Part of that plan included cruising the perimeter of Team Number One’s section. I wanted to see what they were up to and what they’d accomplished while I was breaking my back yanking weeds the week before. I also wanted to look around my own section to see if there was any evidence of what might have happened to the box and coin we’d found at Lamar’s grave and who might have swiped it. I hadn’t seen anyone leave with the box. I hoped that meant it was still around the cemetery somewhere.
Impressive, yes? But my planning did not stop there. I was going to the hospital at lunchtime to visit Lenny Fitzpatrick, so I’d dressed even more carefully than usual that morning in skinny jeans and a just-sporty-enough-for-manual-labor tank in a shade of olive I knew looked perfect with my fiery hair. Not incidentally, as long as I looked that good, I was hoping to run into Bianca just to show her what a top-notch fashion consultant I could be.
With all this spinning around in my head and Ella still walking at my side, I turned off the drive and into the undergrowth toward Team One’s section, but once we were there, I hardly noticed what they’d gotten done. I was too distracted by the elegant, screened tent that had been set up for their supplies. It was complete with a cloth-covered table, crystal drinking glasses, and five picnic baskets, no doubt packed with tasty lunches. The second thing that caught my attention was Mae being interviewed by a reporter. Greer, of course, was recording the whole thing for posterity.
Watching me watch them, Ella put a hand on my shoulder. “You didn’t see the show last night, did you? Pepper, how could you miss something so important?”
“I tried to watch.” I cringed at the memory, and my stomach flipped the way it had the night before when I sat down and turned my TV to the local PBS station. “I saw the opening. You know, the one where the words Cemetery Survivor float across the screen. I bet Greer thought of the name of the show. She’s the only one dumb enough to think of anything that boring.”
“That’s all you saw?”
“I turned it off,” I admitted. “I even unplugged the TV. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone seeing me in a show that stupid. I couldn’t stand the thought of watching myself in a show that stupid. My mother called from Florida three times so I could tell her what was going on. I didn’t answer my phone. Two of my aunts called after the show was over and left messages about how cute it was and how good I looked. I didn’t talk to them, either. My only consolation is that they watched because they felt obligated. Nobody else could possibly have-”
“So where do you suppose all these people came from?”
I stopped dead in my tracks and looked around some more. There were a few people hanging around on the sidewalk outside Team One’s section. They were polite and apparently interested in what was going on. A couple of them had cameras.
“You’re not telling me these people actually…?” It was too weird, even for my brain to wrap itself around. I glanced from the lookers-on to Ella’s sparkling presence. “People watched? They… they actually care?”
She grinned from ear to ear. At the same time, she looped an arm through mine and piloted me toward my section. “It’s amazing how fast word travels. But don’t get carried away, there’s good news and bad news,” she said, in that motherly way of hers. “The bad news is that the judges awarded the first ten points of the competition to Team One. They said they were more organized and got more accomplished last week.”
I swallowed this bitter pill because it was, after all, the absolute truth.
“And the good news?”
“Well, the good news!” Ella beamed. “According to the station, they got hundreds of calls for more information before the show ever aired. And they’ve gotten even more calls this morning. So many people are interested, they’ve scheduled a repeat of the show in prime time on Thursday night. Isn’t it fabulous?”
I meant this just the way I said it. It was improbable that anyone would have wasted their Sunday night with the likes of Cemetery Survivor. It was pretty pathetic, too. Ella took my unbelievable to mean something more like cool. Which would explain why her smile never wilted.
“The publicity is priceless,” she said, nearly swooning. “If we’ve got this sort of a following after only one episode, imagine what’s going to happen next week.”
I was still trying to work my way through the weirdness of the whole thing. “It’s a fluke,” I said, convinced. “There may have been a few losers who watched the show, but-”
I heard the commotion before I was close enough to see what was going on, and the noise brought me up short. I turned, all set to ask Ella what was up, but she marched me right along, and like the little engine that could, she didn’t stop, not until we ducked under the branches of an overhanging tree and stepped into the section assigned to my team.
I took one look around and nearly keeled over. “You’re kidding me, right?”
Ella giggled. “Does it look like I’m kidding you?”
“No. But…” Feeling a whole lot like Dorothy when she walked out of that black-and-white house and into a technicolor Oz, I stepped closer to the scene. There were bigger crowds here where my team would be working, mostly women, and they held signs that said things like DELMAR, WILL YOU MARRY ME? and
REALLY ANY WONDER THAT
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ella didn’t know which sign I was looking at, but she didn’t care. She laughed. “Don’t you get it? You’ve got groupies!”
It had to be someone’s sick idea of a joke.
But it wasn’t. The closer I got, the more I realized that the people on the other side of the fence were there because of us. A couple people clapped when we walked by. An elderly woman brought cupcakes and insisted I take them. I would have handed them right off to Ella if she hadn’t been so busy basking in the glow of our sudden notoriety. So were Reggie and Delmar. At least they weren’t fighting. Instead, they were standing side by side, talking to a couple cute little chicas who were hanging on their every word. Jake was taking pictures. Absalom was over near his voodoo altar eyeballing the crowd with suspicion. And Sammi…
I looked around, but I didn’t see her anywhere.
At least not until I heard her scream, “Son of a…”
I scrambled over in the direction the voice was coming from, pushed through a couple shaggy evergreens, and found Sammi near the fence. There was a man on the other side of it. He was taller than her, as thin as a Dolce & Gabbana belt, and he was wearing a black Metallica T-shirt. He had a thick chain hanging from one pocket of his low-slung jeans and a tattoo on his left arm. It was a red she-devil in a short, short mini-skirt and a revealing low-cut blouse. The name “Sammi” was written over it.
“Oh no!” I dropped the cupcakes on the closest headstone and hurried forward. “It’s her boyfriend,” I told Ella, who came huffing and puffing behind me. “If he’s going to cause trouble-”
Maybe he was. We never had a chance to find out. Before we got close enough to intervene, Sammi reached a hand through the fence, wrapped her fingers around the man’s throat, and squeezed so hard, her knuckles turned as white as skeleton bones.
Ella’s gasp of horror was overshadowed by Sammi’s shout. “You seein’ her again?” She was loud enough to attract attention, and remember, we already had an audience. Even the girls with Delmar and Reggie abandoned them to see what the excitement was all about.
“I’m gonna kick your ass, Virgil,” Sammi yelled. “You think you gonna two-time me with Carmela, you got another thing comin’.” The whole time she yelled at him, Sammi tightened her fingers around Virgil’s throat. By the time I got close enough to do anything about it, his eyes were bulging and his face was a not-so-pretty shade of red.
“Sammi!” I stepped closer, but with her free hand, she swatted me away, and she might have been small, but Sammie had punch. I staggered back and would have gone down in a heap if I didn’t slam into the brick wall that was Absalom. I steadied myself, doing my best to sound calm and reasonable when I felt anything but. “This is not a good thing, Sammi,” I said. “Let him go.”
“Oh, I’m gonna let him go, all right.” Just like that, she released Virgil and gave him a shove all at the same time. He flew back, lost his footing, and went down on the sidewalk.
“Right where you belong,” Sammi screamed. “In the dirt.”
It didn’t take long for our groupies to take sides. They applauded Sammi and yelled at Virgil. It did nothing for his mood.
“You think you can do that to me?” Virgil pulled himself to his feet. “You think I ain’t gonna tell your probation officer what you just done?”
“Yeah? Right, go ahead!” She tossed her head. “And don’t forget to tell her that if I ever see you with Carmela again, you gonna be sorry you was ever born.”
“Uh, Pepper…” At my right shoulder, Ella’s voice was small and tentative. I guess she didn’t want me to be the last one to know that Greer had arrived with cameraman in tow. Oh yeah, they’d gotten the whole thing on film. I could tell because Greer was drooling. I dropped my head into my hands.
“Oh, dear.” Ella’s face paled. “Do you think this will hurt our ratings?”
I didn’t have the heart to see her suffer, so I patted her shoulder. “Drama is what makes people watch TV shows, right? We’re just giving them what they want. Next week, I bet we get twice as many fans.”
And because I was afraid I was right and didn’t want to think about it, I stepped between Sammi and the fence, the better to get her mind off Virgil. I gestured to my team and they gathered around, and since I had their attention for once, I pounced on the opportunity and handed out their assignments for the day. Greer liked this. I could tell, because after she told her cameraman to make sure he got a shot of Virgil climbing into his car and peeling rubber down the street, she had him follow me around.
“Sammi and Reggie over there,” I said. Along with a map of our section, I handed them a spray bottle full of water. “We’ve got to figure out a way to decipher some of those worn headstones and if we spray them with water, the carving will show more clearly.” Ella had called on Saturday night to offer this friendly advice, and seeing that I was actually following it, she was all smiles again.
“Absalom…” I turned his way. “Why don’t you and Delmar…” Honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted them to do. Ella’s suggestions had stopped at the water bottle. “Maybe you could-” With no particular plan in mind, I reached for a sketchbook lying nearby. It flipped open, and I was surprised to find a gorgeous watercolor drawing of our section.
Only it wasn’t.
Our section, I mean.
The drawing showed neat paths, beautiful plantings, flowering shrubs. There was a bench in a clearing that was now empty, a small trickling fountain beside it. I glanced from the picture to my team. “What in the world…? Where…?”
“You like it?” Delmar shifted from foot to foot, his cheeks as red as the geraniums in the drawing.
It was the first time I realized he took some pride in the picture. “Did you…?” I checked out the picture again and tipped it so that the members of my team-and the camera-could see it, too. “Delmar, did you draw this?”
You’d think a kid who had the guts to sign his name to graffiti on a school wall would be less shy. Delmar tried to control a smile. “It’s not perfect,” he said. “I was just messing around, you know, over the weekend, and I was thinking about this place and what it looked like and how maybe we could change it.”
“It’s wonderful.” I wasn’t kidding. The drawing was nicely done, the colors were perfect, the detail…
I took another look. “If we could make our section look like this-”
“We’d win for sure.” Absalom’s comment came on the end of a sigh of admiration.
“You’re good, dude!” Reggie slapped Delmar on the back. “Now you draw me on that park bench with that little number back there…” He poked a thumb over his shoulder to where the two girls were still watching. “Now that, brother, would be a picture I’d want to see!”
Even Crazy Jake laughed. Sammi, it should be noted, did not. Still steamed from her encounter with Virgil, she was breathing hard and shooting death-ray looks in the direction where she’d last seen him.
“Sammi?” I dared to touch a hand to her arm. “Why don’t you go along with Delmar,” I said. “You two can-”
“Don’t need you to tell me what to do.” Sammi spun around and stalked away. “Don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.”
When I made to go after her, Absalom put a hand out to stop me. “She knows she screwed up. She don’t need you reminding her. Let her be.”
It was a better plan than mine, which was to read her the riot act.
I backed off, and big surprise, my teammates actually went off in all directions, their assignments in their hands. I seriously doubted they’d make any headway-on anything-but for now, with the cameras rolling, at least they put on a good show. When Greer took off after them, I saw my opportunity. I told Ella I’d talk to her later and left her to worry if violence would help or hurt our ratings while I went off to do a little sleuthing. This time, I wasn’t going to interview anyone or even think about Jefferson Lamar. Not directly, anyway. Instead, I was on the lookout for the missing coin.
I saw a backpack I recognized as Delmar’s tucked just inside the open door of the moldy mausoleum, and I headed that way. There was no one around when I slipped inside and found that, somehow, my team had gotten their acts together enough to realize that the mausoleum was the perfect place to leave their belongings. No, it wasn’t anywhere near as snazzy as the tent the ladies of Team One had pitched (not by themselves, I was sure), but the mausoleum was cooler than outside and nice and shady in the corners farthest from the partially caved-in roof. In addition to the backpack, I found one of those personal-sized coolers with a photograph of Jake duct taped to the top of it, a bag from McDonald’s, and a purse made out of a vinyl tablecloth with blue butterflies and orange daisies on it. No mystery about who that belonged to.
I worked quickly and looked through everything in a matter of minutes. Though I found a stash of hash in Delmar’s bag, a half-eaten Egg McMuffin in the sack, and more lipstick than even I carried (none of it especially suited to her complexion) in Sammi’s purse, there was no sign of the wooden box or the coin.
Really, did I expect there to be?
I grumbled my annoyance and took the opportunity for a bit of a break. This particular mausoleum was older than most of the ones at Garden View, and in very bad shape. There had once been a window across from the door. It was long gone, and the opening was boarded up. There were burials on either side of me. Three in the wall to my left, another three on my right. Directly in front of me was a wooden platform about six inches from the ground.
Could someone have stashed the coin box under it?
I shuffled closer, leaned over, and pressed my palms against the platform.
That was when I heard the crack.
The platform gave way, and I fell headfirst into pitch darkness.
When I finally opened my eyes, the only thing I saw was a whole lot of darkness pocked with what little sunshine made its way through the tumble-down roof and the jagged pieces of broken platform. I was in a hole, and from extending my arms and feeling around, I could tell it was maybe eight feet deep and four wide.
As if that wasn’t creepy enough, it was damp, slimy, and nasty. Fortunately, I didn’t feel anything like a coffin under my feet or hear the crunching of bones. But worms don’t make noise, do they? And something told me there were plenty of worms down here.
Still shaky from my tumble, I pulled myself to my feet, a move that would have been easier if not for the whole damp-slimy-nasty thing.
I slipped, slid, and went down on my knees.
This time when I got up, I took it nice and easy. While I was at it, I brushed off my jeans and my shirt. Just so one of those worms didn’t get the wrong idea and decide to hitch a ride.
Standing, I could almost reach the lip of the hole. Almost. I jumped and tried to catch hold of it, but though I’m tall, I wasn’t tall enough. The dirt I grabbed onto crumbled in my hands, and a piece of wood from the platform scraped my arm.
Were there blood-sucking worms?
With no options, I made another effort to jump and pull myself out of the hole.
This time, I ended up on my butt.
Panic closed in, as real as the dirt walls that surrounded me. Hoping to steady the sudden, frantic beating of my heart, I sucked in a gulp of air, but it was moist and smelled like decay. I gagged and sputtered and did my best to talk myself down from the edge of a full-blown case of the screaming meemies.
“You could just wait for Crazy Jake to come looking for his lunch,” I reminded myself, my words calm and reassuring, though my voice bubbled on the edge of paralyzing fear. “Or you could just relax and wait for Delmar to decide it’s time for a hit on a joint and come to get one out of his backpack. They’ll hear you down here. And they’ll help you. They’re your teammates. They wouldn’t leave you.”
Or would they?
“Help!” My panic got the best of me, and I screamed as loud as I could. “I’m here. In the mausoleum. Help!”
There was no answer to my plea, and I waited for what felt like a lifetime but was probably closer to a couple seconds before I tried again.
“Help! Somebody, help me!”
Was that a voice I heard in response?
“Help! Is somebody out there?”
“Pepper?” I recognized Absalom’s booming voice. It was close, but muffled, like he was outside the mausoleum. “Where you at, girl?”
“I’m in the mausoleum. There’s a hole in the floor. I fell in and I can’t get out.”
“In there? In that mausoleum?”
Honestly, if I wasn’t so incredibly relieved that someone knew where I was, I would have taken the time to get pissed. I controlled the impatience in my voice, but only with effort, and only because I had a sneaky suspicion that if I gave him any excuse at all, Absalom would pretend the whole thing never happened.
“Get in here,” I told him. “I can’t get out.” As if to prove it, I made another jump for the rim and missed. “I can’t get out by myself. If you could just give me a hand up…”
“In there?” Absalom’s voice sounded closer now, like he was right outside the door. “You want me to come inside?”
“Of course I want you to come inside. What the-”
And then it hit me. Absalom’s reluctance. Absalom’s voodoo doll. Absalom’s chilly personality.
I’d assumed it was all because he was a hardened criminal.
I never even bothered to think that he might be scared to death to be in a cemetery.
“Absalom?” I called out, reminding him I was still in trouble so he wouldn’t hightail it out of there. “It’s just a mausoleum. Just a room. Like a small chapel.”
“Dead people buried in there.”
“Yeah, there are.” There was no use denying it. He was bound to see the names carved into the walls. “But they’ve been here a long, long time, and there’s never been a problem. I mean, no ghosts or anything.” I crossed my fingers as I said this, just in case one of those pesky spirits who’d greeted me my first day at Monroe Street actually was buried there. “There’s definitely no ghosts down here where I am.” I could say this with some authority. “There are worms, though. And spiders!” I felt one skitter up my arm and squealed. “If you could help me out, I’d really appreciate it.”
For what seemed like forever, there was no reply. Then I saw him peek over the edge of the hole. “You scared of spiders?” Absalom asked.
“Terrified.” I didn’t have to pretend. I stretched my arms. “If you could just-”
I never had time to finish. Before I could, Absalom latched onto my hands and pulled. One second I was sailing through the air, seemingly as light as a feather thanks to Absalom’s muscles. The next, I was standing on solid ground.
“Thank you.” I held a hand to my heart, fighting to keep it from bursting through my ribs, and I was all set to give him a hug to show him how grateful I was.
Only by that time, Absalom was already out the door.
I followed him outside, grateful for a lungful of non-moldy air. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”
Rather than answer, he looked around slowly and carefully, as if he expected something dead to pop out from behind the nearest headstone.
Of course, I knew dead things could pop out from behind headstones. But this did not seem like the right time to mention that.
Instead, I brushed off my jeans and my shirt again, which didn’t do much good, seeing as I was coated with icky mud. My knees were trembling, my arm was bleeding, my hair hung in my eyes. I plunked down in the dry, prickly grass.
Doesn’t it figure, that was precisely the moment that Greer showed up. Of course Bianca was with her.
The supermodel took one look at me, shook her head sadly, and left. Greer, though, quivered with anticipation. “Thought I heard a commotion,” she said. “Not as good as that Sammi beating up on her boyfriend. That was priceless!” She gave me a once-over, and I don’t think it was my imagination. She really did smile when she saw that I looked awful.
“Looks like you’ve had an accident of some kind.” Greer called her cameraman over. “Get this,” she ordered him. “Let’s have Ms. Martin here tell us what happened.”
This was not my idea of a good time, but trooper that I am, I pulled myself to my feet.
“We were just checking out the mausoleum,” I said.
“You? Both of you?” Greer turned to Absalom. “I don’t know. I can’t say for sure, but I thought I heard two people yelling back and forth. You know, like one of you was in that mausoleum and the other one was outside. What do you think…?” Like she was teasing, Greer elbowed Absalom in the ribs. “Think there are ghosts hanging around that place?”
He gulped, and that’s all she needed. She was all set to pounce when I stepped between her and Absalom. “We were checking to see what kind of work needed to be done in the mausoleum,” I told her in my best team-captain voice. “Absalom told me to be careful. I should have listened. I went right through an old, boarded up part of the floor. If he wasn’t here to pull me out… well, I don’t know what would have happened.”
“You’re sure?” Greer peered at me before she turned to Absalom. “That’s the way it happened? I thought for sure I heard you sounding like you didn’t want to go into that-”
“For sure,” I interrupted. “That’s the way it happened.”
Her shoulders slumped inside her navy suit jacket, but in her own way, I guess Greer was as much of a trooper as I am. She latched onto her cameraman’s sleeve and led him toward the open door of the mausoleum. “Let’s get in there, Charlie, get some mood shots. You know, dark hole and all.” She looked my way. “We could re-create the scene.”
“Not on your life!” I didn’t wait for her to try and wheedle me into agreeing. I was wheedle-proof, and besides, I knew what was going to happen next. Greer was going to try and talk Absalom into showing her how he’d saved my life. And she was going to read right through his big tough-guy facade. Just like I had.
Rather than risk it, I walked away.
Absalom came along. “You didn’t tell her,” he said.
There didn’t seem to be any use in pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about. “It’s not her business,” was my only reply.
He nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re not so bad after all.”
Reluctant to break the bond we’d forged, I scrambled for something to say and thought of it when we neared Jefferson Lamar’s grave and I saw the voodoo altar nearby. “Do you suppose that voodoo doll of yours had anything to do with you hearing me and coming to save me?” I asked him.
“I don’t doubt it for a minute. Protection. That’s what she’s for.”
“Then I’m guessing I owe her something. You got any rum?”