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Bitter Reckoning by Heather Graham (1)


 

 

 

 

Prologue

Ally

 

 

“Hallowed Angel Cemetery and Mount Misery. A couple of the eeriest places you’ll ever see,” the man driving Ally Caldwell said casually. He glanced her way, adding, “Especially around what we refer to as harvest time. They say the land was cursed from the time the natives came, and they were glad to leave it all to the Europeans. October always seemed especially harrowing here.”

Ally thought she had hired a driver—not a tour guide. She should have known better when he hadn’t opened the back door for her but had opened the front passenger’s side of the sedan they would take, instead.

What the hell?

Fine, she hadn’t cared where she sat. She was late and just wanted to get where she was going. But now…Ugh. She really had no patience for conversation—she was in the car for a ride, nothing more. Besides which, she didn’t believe in eerie places, old legends, or anything of the like. She was on the way to a conference where her planned speech could mean the difference between a little bungalow just outside the city for her, or an elegant house in the French Quarter or Garden District.

Mount Misery and Hallowed Angel Cemetery might be creepy, eerie, or anything else—didn’t matter. They had nothing to do with where she was going. Her destination was the Honeywell Lodge situated on a small but charming bayou to the northwest of New Orleans and southeast of the city of Lafayette.

Calling anything “Mount” here was a major exaggeration. But she understood; land fill in this area had created something that resembled a rise, if not a hill; and so, she supposed, they were welcome to call the area whatever they wanted. His conversation was jarring, however. She thought they were past Halloween—and all the nonsense that went with it—people jumping out here and there and thinking they were funny, and the motion-operated creatures that went off every damned time she walked down an aisle in a drug store. She didn’t want this idiot talking about anything weird or creepy. It was over. She didn’t even want to exert the energy to block him out.

She was just eager to reach her destination.

Ally hadn’t been there yet, but she had seen pictures. The lodge was charming in every manner of the word. Every room was a suite, the restaurant offered gourmet food, and there was both an indoor and outdoor swimming pool. The place was so well cleaned and maintained that even the stables seemed to shine in the photos.

“You know,” the driver continued—heedless of the fact she’d ignored his attempts at conversation so far, “lots of old cemeteries are now surrounded by civilization. Neighborhoods—businesses. They’re in the light. I mean, look at St. Louis #1 back in the Big Easy. Right there off Rampart Street—not that you can go there anymore without a guide. But it’s there—surrounded by city. Lafayette Cemetery in NOLA—Commander’s Palace is across the street, elegant homes, a wonderful book store. Nothing around Hallowed Angel Cemetery. On one side is the swamp! Marshland and sugar cane—miles and miles and miles of sugar cane. Really. There are just a few houses on the spits of solid ground around it. The entrance is way back off the Bayou Teche. Then to the right of it and down the road, there’s a big warehouse for farm equipment, and most of the time no one is around.”

He turned his head looking at her directly, hoping for a reaction.

She gave him none. Hopefully, that would make him quit talking.

Nope. He kept on anyway.

“The cemetery is filled with old, broken, decaying mausoleums, headless angels, cherubs, weird pyramid tombs, ‘oven vaults,’ and there’s even a banshee riding a winged horse in a section where some Irish were interred. A bunch of Civil War soldiers—both North and South—got thrown into a big tomb together. By the time crews got to the dead, lots of bugs and stuff had been at work, and they weren’t even sure who the tell-tale belt-buckles and all had gone to!” He paused to grin. “Sometimes, there are even bones sticking out when the old tombs get broken. Oh, so much more—it’s overgrown—funny, like they say about New Orleans often enough—it’s pure decaying elegance and creepiness. If you go to Hallowed Angel at night, it’s dark—and worse on nights when the moon is full—shadows are everywhere. Or of course, Cursed Yvette is running around with her light. Then again,” he added cheerfully, “that made the land for Honeywell Lodge incredibly reasonable when Colleen wanted to invest in another place!” He grinned at her, waiting for a reply—some comment of fear or horror. “And the resort is on good land. It was planned for some kind of a research center, and the idea got canned by budget cuts, but a lot of landfill was already there so it’s great property.”

He looked at her again hoping for a response.

Ally was not going to give in to him. The man was in his early thirties. She had never met him before—she’d just been promised a driver. But he was probably one of the brown-butts, trying to climb the ranks within Colleen’s upstart company, Rankin Enterprises. She had originally formed it as just a dating site, but she’d been so successful that her company had grown unbelievably through her visions—and belief.

Colleen Rankin…Ally’s boss.

Ally sighed inwardly.

Colleen was still—rather ridiculously, in Ally’s mind—a big believer in romance and all things romantic. To be fair, Colleen had begun her dating site—Let’s Meet—with a pure and loving heart, never ripping anyone off for the pleasure of meeting someone else. But meetings could be awkward, so when Colleen’s father had passed away leaving her some seed money, she’d opened her first location, Meet Me Face to Face, seven years ago. By sheer luck, Ally was certain, Colleen had secured beachfront property in the Florida panhandle. There had been an old beat-up motor hotel on the property, and Colleen had it redone with a concentration on public areas that allowed for mingling—and a few private areas within the space for more personal conversations. The hotel was small, just seventy-five rooms, and she had welcomed guests herself for the first year and arranged for special parties which she also attended.

After Meet Me Face to Face, Colleen had built Coffee and Conversation in North Carolina. Again, she had worked there herself, setting the tone and the standard.

Now, they were heading to Honeywell Lodge, Colleen’s newest resort just two hours outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, and while she hadn’t seen it yet, Ally had been a part of all the planning, and many of her ideas had been embraced.

As much as she had come to hate Halloween, she was the one who had suggested opening and having a massive “Harvest Costume Ball” to celebrate the opening.

With the success of the other operations and Colleen’s pleasure with Ally’s ideas and successful marketing plans, Ally was ready to pitch her idea for the Caribbean. It was a place she was certain that could rise above anything thus far in Colleen’s imagination—or of any of the other idea people and designers in the company.

“There, look, there’s the entrance to the cemetery!” the driver pointed out.

It wasn’t unusual to see nothing but miles and miles of green land, bayou, and marsh once the big city was left behind in Louisiana, but it seemed, having turned off Highway 90, they were cruising no-man’s land. They were now officially in the middle of nowhere. She knew the area had been settled by the French and the French Canadians and still retained much of its “Cajun” personae; but when the Spanish had ruled Louisiana, they had also left their stamp. Then the English had come and also the Americans, Italians, Portuguese, and more; but it retained a flavor of Cajun country; something that worked for Colleen since her mother had been born in Broussard, Louisiana.

They filmed a few ridiculous reality shows out in this area—guys without teeth chasing alligators, swamp people living in muck, and other such annoying fare. Ally wasn’t from here, but she had been out on a site inspection and she knew if she were from here, she’d be royally ticked off. She’d met a fair amount of people. They’d all had their teeth.

As hard as she’d worked to ignore her driver, she couldn’t help looking up as they reached the ridiculously named cemetery. Which, of course, allowed him to believe his playful attempts at spooking her had credence. A crumbling old stone wall surrounded the cemetery, but it was, at its highest points here and there, barely two-and-a-half-feet high. Still, massive iron gates with a stone arch announced the entry, leading to an overgrown road that apparently twisted through acreage of the dead—memorialized with crumbling stones, above-ground sarcophagi, mausoleums, vaults, headless cherubs and wingless angels. The driver had slowed the car, so they could see.

He wasn’t hampering anyone by barely moving his vehicle. There wasn’t a car anywhere around them.

Ally had no interest in slowing down for any kind of a cemetery. She was about to speak, but the driver beat her to it.

“Look!” he said suddenly.

She couldn’t help it, she looked in the direction of the cemetery and saw a little light was sparking here and there in the cemetery—as if a small flashlight had been tied to a cat’s tail. As the light moved, it illuminated bits and pieces of the old cemetery—broken statuary, a half-crushed tomb, broken stones surrounded by weeds growing amok along the barely discernible trails throughout.

“Lights,” Ally said flatly. She checked her reflection in her compact mirror. Still looking good. She was nearly forty-five but could pass for a good ten years younger. She had been blessed with rich, almost black hair—only touched up a bit at the roots now—and luminous green eyes. She was attractive and knew two things—one, she had to be ruthless as a woman in business; and of course, two, she had to know how to play it all very sweetly when necessary. Attractiveness was a boon. A cold heart was a necessity. Business was a game.

A game she knew how to play.

This weekend was important. She was something of a goddess, her driver was barely worth her notice, and he wasn’t going to get her with his silly stories.

“Cursed Yvette!” he said, stopping the car by the gates.

“Oh, God,” she murmured, saying the words aloud in annoyance.

She didn’t hinder him in the least.

“There are many tales, and then again, it seems around here, many unfortunate women happened to be named Yvette. Anyway, one of the legends has it there was a farm house near here and a Cajun girl fell in love with an English boy. The family wouldn’t have it—the whole affair had shadows of Romeo and Juliet. Yvette taught religious classes and the children loved her, but her English lover’s parents wanted nothing of her. He finally caved and told her he’d never be with her. But he couldn’t stand it and went back to her. When his mother discovered the truth she went, found Yvette, dragged her out to this cemetery and killed her—stabbing her to death. Right at harvest time, no less, during Martinmas!”

He paused for a minute, waiting to see if she’d ask about Martinmas. She knew what it meant—it was a French festival for St. Martin. They had built their ball around it.

Nope. Still not talking to him.

Didn’t bother the man in the least.

“You know, around these parts it’s not just Martinmas—it’s a whole two-week period where everything revolves around the harvest.” He made a face. “Mostly sugarcane in these parts; but it’s still very cultural, French first, and then, of course, harvest festivals went on all over Europe.”

There was no way she was going to feed into him; she remained silent.

He continued with, “So—stories! Yvette was then supposedly buried on the spot where the evil deed was perpetrated, hidden for all time, or so her killer—her lover’s vengeful mother—thought. The villagers believed Yvette left because she couldn’t bear losing her English love and had gone on to find a good Cajun boy somewhere. Then, just a year later her one-time lover’s mother was found in the cemetery, stabbed to death and left tied up on a pole like a scarecrow. She was found all bloody and broken—her head bashed in, too. Halloween week again, no less! She was found above dug-up ground, and in that ground, they found the bones of poor Yvette. Of course, deep down, Yvette’s mother had always known the truth, and wasn’t about to let her daughter’s murder go ignored. She was half Irish—those Irish came up with that whole Jack-o-lantern thing, you know—and she also had Haitian blood, which meant she had the whole voodoo thing going on, too. So now, it’s said around here, scarecrows come to life, and you can still hear Yvette crying out in the night! And…”

He paused, grinning at her.

“And?” As soon as she spoke, Ally could have kicked herself. She was encouraging him!

“Through the decades—the centuries, even —ever since then, every now and then a bitchy woman is found dead in the cemetery. Always right around Martinmas.”

“Let’s see. You’re saying I’m a bitchy woman—”

“Never!” he assured her.

“—and,” she continued, “fate has decreed women like me wind up dead here.”

“No!” he said with horror. “No, I would never call you a bitch—or suggest in any way you should wind up dead here!”

She sighed. They were so close now to her destination. If only he’d shut up and drive!

If she wasn’t so anxious or so irritated, she would have told him that though she might not hail from the area, if something was going to run around and create havoc all over, it would be a rougarou, or the local form of a werewolf, and not a screaming woman or a scarecrow.

But she didn’t want to have a conversation. She didn’t want to feed into him in any way.

“You know, you can call me anything you want. But can we just go—”

She broke off as he frowned suddenly, jerking to the side of the road—right in front of the rusting cemetery arches—and cutting the car’s engine.

“What are you doing?” Ally demanded. “Seriously. This is getting old, boring—and damned wearisome. Let’s go.”

“No, no—did you hear that? Someone was screaming.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ally said, but then she paused, wincing. Yes, someone was screaming, and the sound seemed to be coming from the heart of the cemetery.

“It’s just kids!” she said. “Kids playing around—because it is a spooky old cemetery.”

The scream kept sounding, as if someone was terrified or in agony.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, staring at her as if she were made of ice—or maybe rethinking his bitch opinion. He reached into the glove compartment for a flashlight as he added, “I can’t ignore that—it’s a cry for help!”

Then he was gone, the driver’s door slamming in his wake. Ally stared after him in surprise.

He pushed at the old arching ironwork gates and disappeared, racing down one of the overgrown paths and behind an old oak, heavy-laden with branches and growing right through a worn tombstone.

Ally let out a deep sigh of aggravation and pulled out her cell phone, checking her email messages.

She had a long missive from Colleen who was very happy. Many of her singles and couples had arrived early. They were enjoying the pools and spas, the little “cinemas” she’d set up, the cabanas, the restaurants, and the clubs. Colleen couldn’t wait for her to see how well it was going.

Ally had missed the first mixer—which was happening now and was just about over.  Well, she’d had work to do. But Colleen had texted her from the event and she was happy about her mixer—it had gone off just about over.

And here she was, staring at cemetery gates.

“Right!” Ally muttered aloud. “Yep, they’ll all get together. Some will get lucky, some will get mad…but, go figure. Maybe just getting lucky is what people want.”

She had a few other emails. She read them, then turned to look back toward the cemetery.

Where the hell is that driver? Surely, he could have saved the fucking world by now.

It had been late when they left New Orleans. The greenery seemed to be very dark in color. All the world around her seemed darker still. One thing her loquacious driver had said was true, though. Where they were…it was damned dark. The moon shed some weak light. The only other light came from the beams at the front of their rental car. It was just dark.

The darkness intensified as she had sat there, but she’d been reading emails on her phone, and…

The moon really didn’t help much. It seemed to cast a gray glow over the entire decaying spit of land that held the weed-laden cemetery with its chipped and broken everything.

“Come on, where are you—asshole!” she said aloud, looking around for her driver.

Irritated, she got out of the car. Surely, someone else had to be headed to the resort, someone who would have to pass by this road. She would hitch a ride.

She waited. She watched the darkness seem to grow deeper still.

She wasn’t afraid of cemeteries—dead people couldn’t hurt her—nor did the decaying statuary and weeds or the forlorn appearance of the place scare her.

The problem was, the color of the night was annoying; the yellowish glow of the moon created a strange green-gray cast that seemed to cause bizarre shadows to sweep around tombs, tombstones, broken angels and more.

The dead, she reminded herself, were the safest people on earth.

It was the living ones who could be dangerous.

As she stood there waiting—and waiting—she began to see faces in the shadows. She cursed at herself—she was not going to be frightened.

There had been no more screams, but neither had her driver reappeared or anyone else for that matter.

Someone…someone would come.

Someone did.

A beat-up old truck came sliding up alongside the sedan. She shielded her eyes from the headlamps. Once her eyes adjusted, she saw, to her great disappointment, the man at the wheel appeared to be…filthy. Cruddy, filthy—an old drunk, maybe! He had a thin wrinkled face, and a long graying beard that surely held crumbs from his last ten meals.

Disgusting.

He was the kind of person they made those bad reality shows about—he probably had no teeth.

He leaned toward his open window. “Hey, girlie, you want a ride?” he shouted out.

“No. I’m waiting,” she said flatly.

“You sure you’re good here? Weird things happen in these parts,” he warned, shaking his head. “Some beau leave you just standing here while he went off exploring? It’s all right—I’ll give you a ride,” he said.

She wasn’t particularly rude—most of the time. It didn’t make good business sense. But now she was anxious, impatient, and growing furious. She could admit it, she hadn’t really cared what her driver had found, until she realized he couldn’t have discovered anyone in real distress, because if he had, he’d have called for an ambulance or the police, and by now there would be someone…bathed...out here, asking if she needed a ride!

“I’m fine!” she snapped, waving a hand in the air.

He shrugged, but then she saw the truck moving forward and pulling off the road as well!

She wasn’t afraid of danger; she was afraid of vomiting if the man touched her. So she did the only thing she could think of, she turned and headed into the cemetery, shouting for her driver.

There was no answer; she hurried in. As she did so, she could hear the disgusting bearded man grumble. “Hey, lady, I was just trying to help!”

Ally followed one of the overgrown trails and walked by several of the above ground single tombs or single sarcophagi—whatever they called those above ground enclosures—and to what she thought was the side of the trail, a place where a gnarled old oak was growing right through a tombstone.

Suddenly, she saw the light.

Light. That had to mean her driver.

She couldn’t help herself; she started walking toward it, and now she was shaking with fury. “You son of a bitch, you lousy bastard, get your ass back out here…”

Her voice trailed.

She heard a sobbing sound, high pitched, almost like an animal wail in the night.

The light did not belong to her driver. Rather, it flooded over a macabre spectacle, that of a scarecrow…a scarecrow with a bizarre skeletal face stuffed with straw and with straw arms wrapped around a woman, a once flesh and blood woman, who dangled now from those straw arms. The thing’s wire mouth dripped with blood.

So did the woman.

She lay, caught in that bizarre grip, white dress smeared with red, black hair falling around her, the way in which she was held reminding Ally of a ballet dancer in a bizarre pose.

The woman looked like…her!

Then Ally heard something, a dry cackling, rising into the air again like a sob that became a howl. The scarecrow started to laugh. It looked like the wire mouth moved.

Then Ally felt it. The first touch of the blade.

She screamed and screamed as she fell to the ground—her scream oddly echoing the scream she heard earlier, the scream that had taken the driver away, the scream she had thought to be part of a prank…

No prank.

Her pain was real. Her blood, spilling upon the ground…was real.

The dead…

It wasn’t so safe among the dead after all…

As she watched the green/gray color of the night grow darker, she knew she was about to be…

Among them.

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