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Authors: Amanda Stevens

The Sinner

BOOK: The Sinner
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I am a living ghost, a wanderer in search of my purpose and place...

I'm a cemetery restorer by trade, but my calling has evolved from that of ghost seer to death walker to detective of lost souls. I solve the riddles of the dead so the dead will leave me alone.

I've come to Seven Gates Cemetery nursing a broken heart, but peace is hard to come by...for the ghosts here and for me. When the body of a young woman is discovered in a caged grave, I know that I've been summoned for a reason. Only I can unmask her killer. I want to trust the detective assigned to the case for he is a ghost seer like me. But how can I put my faith in anyone when supernatural forces are manipulating my every thought? When reality is ever-changing? And when the one person I thought I could trust above all others has turned into a diabolical stranger?

Praise for THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN series by Amanda Stevens

“The beginning of Stevens' GRAVEYARD QUEEN series left this reviewer breathless. The author smoothly establishes characters and forms the foundation of future storylines with an edgy and beautiful writing style. Her story is full of twists and turns, with delicious and surprising conclusions. Readers will want to force themselves to slow down and enjoy the book instead of speeding through to the end, and they'll anxiously await the next installment of this deceptively gritty series.”

—
RT Book Review
s on
The Restorer


The Restorer
is by turns creepy and disturbing, mixed with mystery and a bit of romance. Amelia is a strong character who has led a hard and—of necessity—secret life. She is not close to many people, and her feelings for Devlin disturb her greatly. Although at times unnerving,
The Restorer
is well written and intriguing, and an excellent beginning to a new series.”

—Misti Pyles,
Fort Worth Examiner

“I could rhapsodize for hours about how much I enjoyed
The Restorer
. Amanda Stevens has woven a web of intricate plot lines that elicit many emotions from her readers. This is a scary, provocative, chilling and totally mesmerizing book. I never wanted it to end and I'm going to be on pins and needles until the next book in THE GRAVEYARD QUEEN series comes out.”

—
Fresh Fiction

Also by Amanda Stevens

THE DOLLMAKER

THE DEVIL'S FOOTPRINTS

THE WHISPERING ROOM

The Graveyard Queen

THE RESTORER

THE KINGDOM

THE PROPHET

THE VISITOR

THE SINNER

Look for Amanda Stevens's next novel in The Graveyard Queen series

THE AWAKENING

available soon from MIRA Books.

AMANDA STEVENS

THE SINNER

One

T
he caged grave was an anomaly in Beaufort County. In all my cemetery travels, I'd come across only a handful of mortsafes, all of them in Europe. They were a Scottish invention, cleverly devised and manufactured in the early nineteenth century as a means of thwarting the nefarious grave robbers who dug up fresh human remains for profit.

But body snatching wasn't a modern-day concern, and from what I could see through the tall grass, the cage didn't appear that old. No more than two or three decades, if that. The heavy iron grates had rusted in the salt air, but the rods and plates were still intact and I could see the dull gleam of a steel padlock on the gate.

My pulse quickened as I made my way along the overgrown pathway. It wasn't every day I stumbled across such a fascinating find. Although
stumbled
was perhaps a misnomer because I'd been drawn to that desolate spot for a reason. Lured from my work in Seven Gates Cemetery by a presence as yet unknown to me.

For the past several months, I'd been working in a small graveyard that was located near the ruins of an old church in Ascension, South Carolina. Until now, there had been nothing unusual about the restoration. I gathered trash, cleaned headstones and chopped away overgrowth until sunset, and then I went home to a cool shower, a solitary dinner and an early bedtime.

It had become a welcome routine. Even my nights had been uneventful and mostly dreamless. The dog days of summer left me so drained that I slept the sleep of the dead as the Lowcountry sweltered in the August heat. The small air conditioner in my rental provided only the barest relief and so I'd taken to sleeping in the hammock on the screened porch. There was something intrinsically soothing about the sea breezes that swept in from the islands and the songbirds that serenaded me from the orange grove.

Here in this coastal oasis, Charleston seemed a million miles away and so did John Devlin. I told myself that's what I wanted. After the events that had unfolded over a year ago in Kroll Cemetery, the gulf between us had widened until I'd felt I had no choice but to give Devlin the space he seemed to need.

His leave from the Charleston Police Department had turned into a permanent resignation, and the last I'd heard he was working for his grandfather, a situation I couldn't have imagined a year ago. A lot of things had happened that I could never have imagined, not the least of which were the changes I'd undergone. The one constant, however, was the ache in my heart. After all this time, Devlin's absence from my life still pained me.

Which was why a challenging restoration in a new location was a welcome distraction. Seven Gates had come at just the right time after a long, lonely winter of hibernation. Spring had brought resolve and renewed commitment to my work, and the peace and quiet of the cemetery had restored my rocky equilibrium. But I should have known the calm wouldn't last for long. It never did.

A shadow passed across the landscape and I glanced skyward where a buzzard floated in lazy circles over the treetops. The day was hot and still. The Spanish moss hung nearly motionless from the live oaks and the resurrection fern clinging to the bark had curled and browned in the heat.

As I stood watching the vulture, my heart started to pound even harder. Nothing stirred. Animal, ghost or otherwise. And yet I knew something—someone—was there, hidden among the shadows.

Why did you bring me here?
I silently implored as I turned to scour the woods behind me.
What do you want from me?

No answer. Nothing but the silken rustle of the palmettos.

The mortsafe was an intriguing find, but I didn't think it the sole reason I'd been drawn to this place. Nor was the isolation of the interment. Quarantined graves were hardly unique, and in bygone days, any number of reasons—suicide, thievery or suspicion of witchcraft—could have kept the deceased from a consecrated burial in the churchyard. No, something more was at play here. A mystery that had yet to reveal itself.

A stray breeze ruffled the damp tendrils that had escaped from my ponytail, and despite the heat, I felt the dance of frosty fingers up and down my spine. Another vulture joined the first and I tracked them for a moment longer before dropping my gaze to comb the shadowy tree line. I could have sworn I heard chanting coming from somewhere deep in the woods. A distant singsong that dissolved into silence as the wind died away.

I turned back to the path, trudging onward as I slapped at the mosquitoes and gnats rising up from the grass to flog me. The palmettos barely stirred now and no other sound came to me. The utter silence of the clearing engulfed me.

The fingers that tickled the base of my neck now slid with icy precision across my scalp. The hair on my arms lifted as the still air suddenly became rank with the sulfurous odor of the nearby salt marsh. The chanting came to me again, hushed and distant, no more than a whispered repetition that vanished the moment I glanced over my shoulder.

I hurried my steps, driven by a force I had yet to understand. Not once did I consider the alternative of fleeing back along the path to the cemetery. I had come too far and the prodding from the watcher in the woods was too strong.

As I drew closer, I could see the cage more clearly through the weeds. It was a heavy device with a series of rods and plates padlocked together to safeguard the buried remains. In the old days, the contraption would have protected the grave until decay rendered the corpse useless to the medical schools and anatomists that employed the body snatchers. Then the mortsafe would have been unlocked, removed and placed over another grave.

Not so this cage. The edges were anchored in cement, making the safe virtually immovable by human hand or Mother Nature. Thorny vines with heart-shaped leaves coiled around the rods and weeds jutted up through the grates. So thorough the camouflage, a casual passerby wouldn't have glimpsed the cage at all. No telling how long it had remained hidden and forsaken until the watcher in the woods had summoned me here to find it.

I was near enough now that I could see the sunken dirt beneath the grid. At any other time, I would have searched for a marker or headstone, but now I gave the grave only a cursory examination because something else had caught my eye.

About ten feet to my right, I'd glimpsed another cage. From what I could see through the weeds and vines, the device appeared identical to the first except for one grisly addition.

Inside the mortsafe, a pair of hands rose up out of a freshly mounded grave to grasp the iron grate.

Two

T
he hands were tiny and delicate. Pale with a chalky bluish tint beneath the crust of dirt. Smooth and unblemished save for the dried blood around the broken nails. Not the hands of a child, I realized, but of a small woman. Young and Caucasian.

I tried to tear my gaze from the horrifying scene, but I couldn't look away. I stood motionless, sweat soaking through my shirt as a suffocating dread settled over me. I was stunned by the discovery and nearly breathless with fright. I even had a moment of déjà vu that took me back to the Oak Grove murders and to the gruesome discoveries I'd made there with Devlin.

But even in such a distressed state, I had the presence of mind to take stock of the situation and make sure I was in no immediate danger. Except for that unknown presence in the woods, I seemed to be alone.

My evolved senses were so attuned to the environment, I could hear the ruffle of feathers high up in a treetop and the distant lap of water against its banks. I could smell the brine from the saltwater marsh and the woodsy aroma of the evergreens, but nothing human came to me. No lingering energy. No telltale malodor of sweat and excitement.

Almost against my will, I drew a deeper breath, testing the air for a hint of decay, which might have given me an indication of how long the body had been buried. The absence of putrefaction suggested a fresh death. The flesh on the backs of the hands and on what I could see of the arms jutting up through the dirt appeared somewhat supple, leaving me to wonder just how recently blood had flowed through the poor woman's veins.

Perhaps only a matter of moments before I had come upon the grave. If only I had arrived sooner...

You might also be dead
, a little voice whispered.
Locked inside one of those metal cages for all eternity.

Shaking off a stifling claustrophobia, I refocused my attention on the properties of the mortsafe. Like the first cage, the edges had been anchored in cement so that it couldn't be easily moved. The metal rods and lattice had rusted in places, but the padlock looked fairly new, having been placed on the gate so recently that the salt air hadn't yet corroded the steel.

The more obvious observation and by far the more chilling had occurred to me immediately, but I'd managed to push the revelation to the farthest corner of my mind. Now as I stared at those dainty hands, I had to face the horror head-on. The woman inside the grave had been buried alive.

Buried. Alive.

I shuddered and moved in even closer until I was staring down through the grate directly over the hands. They were filthy, the nails caked and ragged from digging. Through the grime, I could see the curlicue of a tattooed word on the inside of her left wrist and the gleam of a silver ring on her right hand. The intricate design made me think that the jewelry was old, perhaps even an heirloom. The kind of piece that could easily be traced. I couldn't help but wonder why the killer had left it. Had he or she been that certain the body would never be discovered?

Killer.

The silence deepened as the reality of my find gripped me. Only a few moments had passed since I'd first come upon the hands, but it seemed as if I had been standing there for ages, wasting precious time. A homicide had been committed and the sooner I called the police, the sooner they could identify the victim and start searching for her murderer. I knew the procedure, knew what I had to do. Yet I still hesitated because I sensed this was just the beginning of something dark and sinister. A riddle from the dead that would test me in ways I had never before experienced.

And so I remained rooted to the spot, breathing deeply and drawing out those last moments of calm before the storm hit.

As it turned out, I had very little time to vacillate. From somewhere in the woods, the warning tremolo of a loon sent a sharp thrill along my spine and I spun once more to rake the tree line. It occurred to me in the split second before the crack of a rifle sent me scrambling for cover that the killer might still be nearby.

I hit the ground as something hot seared my face. My hand flew to my cheek and I drew back bloody fingers. I'd been hit.
Shot.

Propelled by fear and self-preservation, I flattened myself in the dirt and covered my head with my arms, certain that at any second another bullet would rip through my scalp. That would be the end of me because neither my gift nor my calling could save me from a mortal wound.

Eyes squeezed shut, I braced for the impact as the reverberation from the first shot died away in the stillness. As always in moments of extreme crisis, I thought about Devlin. If I died here in this desolate clearing, would he sense my passing? Would he come here to search for my body? Or was my absence from his life such a relief that he would ignore the twinges of premonition and gut instinct that had been honed during his years on the police force?

As the disturbing notion flashed through my head, I again became aware of the absolute stillness and I tried to corral my senses. What could I see, hear, smell, taste?
Focus!

When nothing moved in the weeds, I lifted my head to reconnoiter. Touching a finger to the blood on my cheek, I realized the wound was superficial and had come from nothing more sinister than a smilax vine. And in hindsight, I decided the shot had sounded from the direction of the marsh instead of the woods, leading me to believe that a gator was most likely the target, not I. In my already heightened state of agitation, I'd overreacted.

Even so, I remained prone in the dirt for several minutes longer as I tried to quiet my flailing heart. Using the weeds for cover, I listened for the telltale sound of a sliding bolt or the snap of a twig beneath stealthy footfalls. When nothing came to me, I eased to a kneeling position and then to my feet as I dusted off my jeans and walked back over to the second mortsafe.

I almost expected the cage to be empty, those pale hands having withdrawn back down into the grave. But no. They were still there, still clutching the metal grate.

A breeze swept over me, cold and unnatural. My head came up and I made a slow turn to once again survey the clearing. As the tall grass parted in the wind I saw now what had been hidden to me earlier.

A dozen identical cages peeked through the undulating vegetation to form a large circle around me.

* * *

Dr. Rupert Shaw, the founder and administrator of the Charleston Institute for Parapsychology Studies, had once suggested that my affinity for cemeteries stemmed in part from the unbound energy left behind by the dead. According to Dr. Shaw, it was my ability to absorb this lingering force that fueled my gift and enhanced my senses. It was why I could see and hear things that others could not. I didn't dispute Dr. Shaw's theory, although I liked to think and truly believed that my love of old graveyards was far more emotional than the assimilation of unbound energy.

In any case, there was nothing to absorb from the caged graves. It was as if someone or something had been there only moments earlier and sucked out all the oxygen, leaving an eerie, vacuum-like quality to the circle.

My pulse continued to race even as I drew in several calming breaths. I didn't want to be in that circle. I didn't want to be drawn into whatever horror remained hidden beneath the other cages. I wanted to be back in Charleston with nothing more pressing on my mind than my next blog update.

But I didn't retreat because I knew from experience I couldn't run away from my gift. The days of pretending that ghosts didn't exist were long behind me as were the rules that had once protected me. I had entered a new phase of my life, accepting if not embracing who I was and what I was meant to be.

So I emptied my mind to see if anything of the dead woman's last moments drifted in.

Nothing came to me. It was as if a deliberate barrier had been erected to block whatever emotions or memories that might have remained. I'd never felt anything like it. The obstruction was cold and impenetrable. An unscalable wall of darkness.

As I knelt in the weeds, eyes closed in supreme concentration, I began to tremble even harder. The suspicion that a supernatural force had played a role in the young woman's demise terrified me because no normal police officer or investigator would be equipped to track such a culprit. Not even Devlin.

And I very much feared that was why I had been summoned.

BOOK: The Sinner
6.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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