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Grave secret, p.1
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       Grave Secret, p.1

         Part #4 of Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris
Grave Secret

  Chapter One

  "ALL right," said the straw-haired woman in the denim jacket. "Do your thing. " Her accent made the words sound more like "Dew yore thang. " Her hawklike face was eager, the anticipatory look of someone who is ready to taste an unknown food.

  We were standing on a windswept field some miles south of the interstate that runs between Texarkana and Dallas. A car zoomed by on the narrow two-lane blacktop. It was the only other car I'd seen since I'd followed Lizzie Joyce's gleaming black Chevy Kodiak pickup out to the Pioneer Rest Cemetery, which lay outside the tiny town of Clear Creek.

  When our little handful of people fell silent, the whistle of the wind scouring the rolling hill was the only sound in the landscape.

  There wasn't a fence around the little cemetery. It had been cleared, but not recently. This was an old cemetery, as Texas cemeteries go, established when the live oak in the middle of the graveyard had been only a small tree. A flock of birds was cackling in the oak's branches. Since we were in north Texas, there was grass, but in February it wasn't green. Though the temperature was in the fifties today, the wind was colder than I'd counted on. I zipped up my jacket. I noticed that Lizzie Joyce wasn't wearing one.

  The people who lived hereabouts were tough and pragmatic, including the thirtyish blonde who'd invited me here. She was lean and muscular, and she must have tugged up her jeans by greasing her legs. I couldn't imagine how she mounted a horse. But her boots were well-worn, and so was her hat, and if I'd read her belt buckle correctly, she was the previous year's countywide barrel-riding champion. Lizzie Joyce was the real deal.

  She also had more money in her bank account than I would ever earn in my life. The diamonds on her hand flashed in the bright sunlight as she waved toward the piece of ground dedicated to the dead. Ms. Joyce wanted me to get the show on the road.

  I prepared to dew mah thang. Since Lizzie was paying me big bucks for this, she wanted to get the most out of it. She'd invited her little entourage, which consisted of her boyfriend, her younger sister, and her brother, who looked as though he'd rather be anywhere else but in Pioneer Rest Cemetery.

  My brother was leaning against our car, and he wasn't going to stir. Until I'd done my job, Tolliver wouldn't pay attention to anything but me.

  I still thought of him as my brother, though I was trying to catch myself when I called him that out loud. We had a much different relationship, now.

  We'd met the Joyces that morning for the first time. We'd driven down the long, winding driveway leading between wide, fenced-in fields, following the excellent directions Lizzie had sent to our laptop.

  The house at the end of the driveway was very large and very beautiful, but it wasn't pretentious. It was a house for people who worked hard. The Latina who'd answered the door had been wearing nice pants and a blouse, not any kind of uniform, and she'd referred to her boss as "Lizzie," not "Ms. Joyce. " Since every day on a ranch or farm is a working day, I hadn't been surprised to see that the big house felt pretty empty, and the only glimpses I caught of other people had been distant ones. As the housekeeper led us through the house, I'd seen a Jeep coming up one of the tracks that ran between the huge fields at the rear of the house.

  Lizzie Joyce and her sister, Kate, had been waiting in the gun room. I was sure they called it the den or the family room, or something else to indicate it was where they gathered to watch television and play board games, or whatever really rich people did with their evenings when they lived way the hell out in the sticks. But to me, it was the gun room. There were weapons and animal heads all over, and the décor was supposed to imply this was a rustic hunting lodge. Since the house had been built by the Joyce grandfather, it reflected his taste, I guessed, but they could have changed it if they'd objected. He'd been dead for a while.

  Lizzie Joyce looked like the pictures I'd seen of her, but the impression was strictly practical. She was a working woman. Her sister, Kate, called Katie, was a scaled-down version of her big sister: shorter, younger, less seasoned. But she seemed just as confident and hard. Maybe being brought up with gobs of money did that to you.

  The gun room had a wall of French doors leading out onto a wide brick porch. There were urns that would be filled with flowers in the spring, but it wasn't time yet. The temperatures still dipped below freezing sometimes at night. I noticed that the Joyces had left their rocking chairs outside during the winter, and I wondered what it would be like to sit out on the roofed brick porch in the morning in the summer, drinking coffee and looking out over all that land.

  The Jeep came to a stop at the foot of the gentle slope leading up to the back porch, and two men climbed out and came in.

  "Harper, this is the manager of RJ Ranch, Chip Moseley. And this is our brother, Drexell. "

  Tolliver and I shook hands with the men.

  The manager was rugged, weathered, and skeptical, green eyed and brown haired, and he was as ready to leave as the brother. Both of them were only here because Lizzie wanted them to be. Chip Moseley gave Lizzie a casual kiss on the cheek, and I realized he was her man as well as her manager. That might be awkward.

  The brother, Drexell, was the youngest of the Joyces and the most anonymous looking. Lizzie and Katie both had a certain hawk-nosed flamboyance, but Drexell's round face was still a bit babyish. He didn't meet my eyes as his sisters had.

  I had a niggling feeling that I'd seen both men somewhere before. Since the huge Joyce ranch wasn't too far from Texarkana, and I'd grown up there, it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that I'd met Chip and Drexell-but the last thing I wanted to do was bring up my previous life. I hadn't always been the mysterious woman who could find bodies because she'd been fried by lightning.

  "I'm so glad you could find time to come here," Lizzie said.

  "My sister likes to collect the unusual," Katie told Tolliver. She definitely had her eye on him.

  "Harper is one of a kind," he said, and he glanced at me. He looked a little amused.

  "Well, you better give Lizzie a good show for her money," Chip said, his weathered, handsome face giving me a big dose of warning. I looked at him more closely. I didn't want to be seen showing interest in someone else's honey, but there was something for me in Chip Moseley, something that spoke to my special talent. He was moving and breathing, which normally meant disqualification.

  My business is with the dead.

  Since Lizzie Joyce had found a website that followed my travels, she apparently hadn't been able to rest until she thought of a job for me to do. She'd finally decided she wanted to know what had killed her grandfather, who'd been found far away from the main ranch house, collapsed by the side of his Jeep. Rich Joyce had a skull injury, and the presumption was that he'd slipped and fallen when he was getting into or out of his ride; or maybe the Jeep had hit a rock and tossed him sideways, cracking his skull against the Jeep's frame, though no evidence of such an impact had been found. Anyhow, the Jeep's ignition had been switched off, and Rich Joyce had been dead, and no one else was within miles; so his death had been attributed to heart failure, and he'd been put in the ground years ago. Since Rich's only son and his son's wife had died in a car accident some years before, his three grandchildren had inherited, though not equally. Lizzie was legally in charge of the family's fortunes now, Tolliver's research had indicated, but the other two had shares that were slightly less than a third apiece; just enough to keep Lizzie in the driver's seat. Easy to tell who Rich Joyce had trusted.

  I wondered if Rich Joyce had ever known his granddaughter had a streak of mysticism, or maybe simply a love of the unusual. That was why Lizzie had led us to Pi
oneer Rest Cemetery, and why I was standing waiting for her to give me the go-ahead.

  Hardheaded Lizzie wanted value for her money, so she wasn't going to lead me directly to the grave that was her grandfather's. She hadn't even told me the purpose of my search until I'd gotten out of my car thirty minutes before. Of course, I could wander around to read all the headstones until I found one with appropriate dates. There weren't that many Joyces under the dirt and rocks. But I'd spin this out, give her some freebies, because she hadn't flinched at my fee.

  I'd taken off my shoes for the reading, though I had to watch where I put my feet. There are thorns hidden in the grass in Texas, no matter how pretty it looks. I cast a final glance across the panorama of rolling ground and trees and emptiness. This little cemetery might as well have been on the moon, the landscape was such a contrast from the thickly clustering housing developments and settled communities we'd seen as we drove to our last job in North Carolina. We'd ended up in a small town, but it hadn't had the isolated feel that I got from the landscape here. There'd always been the awareness that another settlement was within a few minutes' drive.

  At least it wasn't as cold here, and at least we could be almost certain there wouldn't be any snow. My feet stung in the chilly air, but nowhere near as much as my whole body had ached in freezing, wet North Carolina.

  The Joyces were buried close to the live oak. I could see a large boulder that had been chiseled smooth on one side, and the name JOYCE was carved in it in huge letters. It would have looked willfully naïve to have ignored that clue. I stopped at the first grave I reached in that plot, though it was clearly not the one I'd come to read. But what the hell, I had to start sometime. The tombstone read, Sarah, Beloved Wife of Paul Joyce. I took a deep breath, and I stepped on top of it. The connection with the bones beneath my feet was electric and immediate. Sarah was waiting, like all of them, the longtime dead and the recently dead, those buried neatly in graves and those tossed aside like debris. I sent that extra sense I had down into the ground. Connected. Learned.

  "Woman in her sixties, aneurysm," I said. I opened my eyes and stepped to the next grave. This was an older one, much older. "Hiram Joyce," I said. I stood there, trying to get a firm fix on the few remaining bones in the ground under my feet. "Blood poisoning," I said finally. I walked to the next one, rested for a moment until the buzzing impelled me: that was the call of the bones, the remains. They wanted me to know about them, what had killed them, what their final moments had been like. I looked at the headstone. No point in reinventing the wheel.

  This was not a Joyce, though the burial was within the family plot. The date was eight years and a few months before. The carved name was Mariah Parish. Though I sensed the two men, waiting under the scanty shade of a twisted tree, were standing much straighter, I was too intent on the connection to wonder about that.

  "Oh," I said, softly. The wind whooshed past, lifting my short dark hair and teasing it. "Oh, poor thing. "

  "What?" asked Lizzie, her harsh voice sounding simply confused. "That's my grandfather's caregiver. She had a burst appendix or something. "

  "She had a hemorrhage, bled out after childbirth," I said. I put two and two together and glanced over at the two men. Drexell had actually taken a step closer. Chip Moseley was stunned; he was also furious, whether because the information was a shock to him, or because I'd said it out loud, I couldn't say. But whatever they were feeling, it was too late for Mariah. I looked away and stepped over to the right grave, the one I'd been brought to read. It was the biggest headstone in the plot, a double one. Richard Joyce's wife had predeceased him by ten years. Her name had been Cindilynn, and I discovered she'd died of breast cancer. I said so out loud, and I glimpsed Kate and Lizzie look at each other and nod. I stepped to the ground just adjacent, Rich Joyce's side of the headstone. Rich had died eight years ago, not long after his caregiver. I cocked my head as I listened to Richard's bones.

  He'd seen something that startled him. I got that, but it took me a few seconds to understand that he'd stopped the Jeep and gotten out because he'd seen someone he knew.

  I didn't have a picture of that person in my head. It's not like I'm watching a movie. It's like being inside the person for a moment or two, thinking the person's thoughts, feeling his emotions, in the last seconds of the person's life. So I understood from Rich Joyce that he'd stopped because he'd seen someone. I didn't go through the process of recognizing that person and reasoning that I should stop because he was standing there. As Rich Joyce, I turned off the Jeep, stepped out, and then the snake came flying through the air, the rattlesnake, giving me (Rich Joyce) such a shock that my (his) heart stopped working properly. So hot no water can't reach phone oh my God to end like this and then it had all gone black. With my eyes closed to see that scene more clearly, that scene visible only to me, I related what was happening.

  When I opened my eyes, the four people in the Joyce party were staring at me as if I'd developed stigmata. Sometimes it grabs people that way, even when they've asked me there to do exactly what I just did.

  I creep people out or I fascinate them (not always in a healthy way). . . or both. However, the fascination thing wasn't going to be a problem today. The boyfriend was looking at me as if I were wearing a straitjacket, and the three Joyces were gaping. Everyone was silent.

  "So now you know," I said briskly.

  "You could've made that up," Lizzie said. "There was someone there? How'd that happen? No one has said they were there. Are you telling me someone threw a rattlesnake at Granddaddy? And that gave him a heart attack, and then that someone just left him? And you're saying Mariah had a baby? I didn't hire you to tell me lies!"

  Okay, that pissed me off. I took a deep breath. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Tolliver had started over to me, the beginnings of alarm evident on his face. Behind them all, Chip Moseley had retreated to the Jeep and was standing with one hand braced on it, doubled over. I realized he was in pain, and I knew he wouldn't thank me if I drew attention to him.

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