by Nene Adams
An arsonist is burning Antioch, Georgia, one site at a time, eerily parallel to the Big Burn of ’45 that destroyed most of the town. Distracted by her burgeoning and unsettling ability to see the unquiet dead, Mackenzie Cross realizes almost too late that she may be able to find the real cause of the fires.
With the help of her girlfriend, Sheriff Veronica Birdwell, Mackenzie delves into shameful World War II secrets: an internment camp, murder and jealous vengeance that has separated two lovers, even in death. Journeying ever more deeply into the mysteries of the lands of the dead, this time Mackenzie might not be able to come back.
A Mackenzie Cross Paranormal Mystery from talented storyteller Nene Adams
GCLS Goldie Awards
Burn All Alike— Finalist, Lesbian Paranormal.
Praise for Nene Adams
Winner, IPPY Award for Gay/Lesbian
Finalist, Goldie Crown Literary Awards for Lesbian Mystery/Thriller
Few things frightened Mackenzie Cross. Almost dying of a rattlesnake bite in the recent past had turned her liver white, as Meemaw Cross used to say, but haunted by the ghost of a murdered woman from the fifties? Not so much. She’d been more annoyed than scared until Annabel Coffin had taken a poisonous revenge against her killer and presumably gone on to whatever reward awaited her on the Other Side.
World without end, amen.
However, sitting in her office and confronting the attorney seated across from her desk turned her heart to a cold, lumpy fist clenched tight in the middle of her chest.
“Well, Ms. Cross, here we are,” Alexander Purvis said primly, every syllable laced with poisoned honey and surrounded by an artificial smile. “Anyone can make a mistake. Oh, good heavens, yes, even I’ve been wrong a time or two.” His expression suggested otherwise. “But my client trusted you to make a fair and informed valuation of his…let me see—”
Mackenzie interrupted. “Reproduction desk,” she said flatly.
“No, no, no,” Purvis said, wagging a finger at her. “A secretary desk in the Chippendale style crafted by Goddard and Townsend, circa 1780, worth an estimated seven point five million dollars. Your negative, and may I say, negligent, ill-advised, and incorrect appraisal of my client’s property caused him to underinsure this valuable antique, which was subsequently destroyed in a warehouse fire last month.”
Mackenzie shook her head. Was this jackass serious? “The piece of furniture I examined was a modern replica worth, on a good day, a couple of hundred dollars.”
“My client strongly disagrees with you.” Purvis extracted a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. “He’s suing for the full value of the piece. However…” He paused.
“What?” Mackenzie snapped.
“If you agree to pay him reasonable compensation of a million dollars plus legal fees and expenses, he’ll agree to drop the suit,” Purvis said, his eyes gleaming. “An out-of-court settlement will save you a great deal of hassle, not to mention the expense of—”
“Get out,” Mackenzie gritted, clutching the edge of her desk to prevent herself from leaping over the top and knocking the smug bastard over the head with a blunt object.
He had the audacity to pretend surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, get the hell out of my office, you blackmailing son-of-a-bitch.” She rose from her chair, buoyed on a wave of righteous indignation. “You can tell your client, that goddamn chickenhearted, lily-livered, moronic ass clown Turnip Erskine—”
“Turner Erskine,” Purvis corrected.
“There’s a reason we called him Turnip in school,” she went on darkly. “If you’d ever seen the boy without his Underoos, you’d understand.” She let a breath whistle out between her bared teeth. “You tell him he’ll not see one red cent of my money, nor will you, sir. Now get your overpriced butt out of my office before I call the police.”
“I had hoped to avoid unpleasantness.”
“Very well.” Purvis stood, his dignity intact. He took a moment to smooth his tie. “I will so inform my client. Good day, Ms. Cross. I’ll be in touch with Mr. Erskine’s decision. If you’ll take a piece of advice, free of charge: hire your own attorney. You’ll need one.”
As soon as Purvis left, Mackenzie collapsed in her chair. She knew, with a certainty in the very marrow of her bones, the piece of furniture she’d examined for Turner Erskine two years ago as a favor for his sister, Debbie Lou—her ex-girlfriend and Queen Bitch of the Universe—had been a reproduction, likely no more than a few years old.
“What the hell is Turnip’s game?” she wondered aloud.
The answer was a no-brainer: to extort money from her, of course. Turner had a pretty good chance of getting some kind of payment, too. In a case of his word against hers in court, the judge might rule in his favor.
On the plus side, she had a much better reputation than a jailbird who, at last count, owed support to two ex-wives, a passel of illegitimate children, and lived with a stripper named Twinkle Starr. On the negative side, she had no proof her assessment had been correct in the first place since the secretary desk in question was gone, destroyed in a fire…wait a minute. An incredibly convenient fire.
She halted the train of suspicious thought, reached for her cell phone and called her friend James “Little Jack” Larkin, a reporter at the local newspaper, the Antioch Bee. He answered the call on the first ring, surprising her until she heard a series of rapid-fire beeping tones. “Jack!” she cried loudly. “I’m on the line!”
“Kenzie?” he asked tentatively after a moment. “I didn’t hear my phone ring.”
Mackenzie put a smile in her voice. “Oblivious and busy as usual.”
“Well, actually, now that you mention it, I am in the middle of something.”
“Just a quick question: did the Bee cover a warehouse fire last month? The one in that industrial park over by the soup factory. I think I saw a piece about it on the news.”
Larkin sounded distracted when he muttered, “Soap factory…soap factory…”
“Oh, come on, Jack. Ma Parker’s Pot O’ Soup. You used to swear by the chicken noodle when you had a cold,” Mackenzie reminded him. “Anyhow, a warehouse close by the factory caught fire and burned to the ground about a month ago.”
“And you want to know if we covered the fire? I’m sure we did.”
“Can you help me out with a copy of the story and any follow-ups?”
“Why don’t you come over later this afternoon, Kenzie? I’ll get an intern to help you with the archives. Okay? Right now I’ve got to—damn it, Roy, that’s not what I asked for!” he shouted, making Mackenzie’s ear ring before the call abruptly disconnected.
She sighed and decided she needed a strong dose of caffeine to get through the rest of what promised to be a long and aggravating day. Leaving the office, she headed around the block to her favorite coffee shop, Mighty Jo Young’s—owned and operated by her best friend since high school, Josephine Joanna Young.
As usual, the shop was busy, the lines at the counter long, and Jo-Jo herself worked frenziedly behind the counter pouring, steaming and sprinkling at the monstrous espresso machine. The space had been customized to accommodate her big-boned, broad-hipped, Amazonian frame and still allow the baristas access to the machine and other supplies.
Somehow, Jo-Jo sensed when Mackenzie came up to the counter. She turned, her lipsticked mouth curving in a big grin. “Hey, Kenzie!” she called. “What’ll it be?”
For a brief moment, Mackenzie allowed herself to admire Jo-Jo’s magnificent bosom, almost an entity unto itself and covered by approximately an acre of pink, polka-dotted, frou-frou dress and a lacy apron. Maybe her ogling was sexist or something, but if Jo-Jo minded, the woman hadn’t said a word in all these years.
Her girlfriend, sheriff’s deputy Veronica Birdwell, theorized that Jo-Jo liked the attention. Case in point: when Jo-Jo had worked as a professional female wrestler, her signature move in the ring was called the Snuggle Pup Slam.
“Cappuccino,” Mackenzie ordered, ignoring the filthy looks she received from assorted customers standing in line. She briefly examined the contents of a new baked goods display case. “And a slice of chocolate Swiss roll with blood orange mousse.”
“Bakery Sam’s trying out some new recipes. I tasted a sliver of the Swiss roll this morning. Gooder n’ grits,” Jo-Jo remarked over her shoulder.
A college-age barista, her hair dyed an unnatural shade of blue that clashed with her shocking pink uniform top, slapped a slice of cake on a plate and slid it across the counter at the same time Jo-Jo delivered the cappuccino in a thick, white china cup.
Taking her order, Mackenzie surveyed the tables. Occupied to capacity, damn it. She squeezed through the mass of people at the counter, earning more stink-eyes and muttered imprecations, and took a position in the corner where no one could jostle her. She didn’t need to spill hot coffee down the front of her blouse. She might be scrawny, flat-chested and possess no curves to speak of, but a scalding wouldn’t help.
She tasted the cake, finding it as delicious as advertised. A light chocolate cake, not too sweet and slightly bitter, offset by a tangy orange filling coating her mouth with richness. Sam with the unpronounceable last name, who owned the bakery next door to her office, ought to win gold medals with a cake like this, she thought.
Under the soothing influences of chocolate, cream and sugar, she could almost forget Turner’s bullshit lawsuit. She took a sip of cappuccino and licked foam off her upper lip. A loud siren caught her attention. The sound originated outside in the street and grew louder as the source came closer to Jo-Jo’s place. Police? Ambulance?
She stuck the last forkful of cake in her mouth and moved to the big window at the front of the shop in time to see a fire engine go screaming past, emergency lights strobing red and white. An ambulance and a second engine followed.
Somewhere in Antioch, something burned. She blinked the dazzle out of her eyes.
A man in a business suit stumbled inside. “The police station’s on fire!” he shouted.
The plate and cup slipped from her nerveless hands to shatter on the floor.
“Oh my God! I hope everyone’s all right.” Jo-Jo suddenly took hold of Mackenzie’s upper arm. “Honey, you’re as white as a sheet,” she added, leaning down so they were face-to-face. “Sit down before you fall down.”
“I’ve got to go,” Mackenzie mumbled through numb lips. She took a step, her shoes crunching on broken china. A needle sharp sense of urgency penetrated the fog surrounding her mind. “Veronica!” She attempted to yank herself out of Jo-Jo’s grasp. She might as well have tried pulling free from a bear trap. Jo-Jo worked out regularly and bench-pressed four hundred pounds. The woman resisted her efforts with ease.
“D’Ante, you run to the back and get a mop, clean up this mess,” Jo-Jo told a young man hovering nearby. “Zelda Mae,” she said to the blue-haired barista, “a double espresso on the house for the gentleman who just came inside. As for you,” she went on to Mackenzie, “sit your butt down right this minute and catch your breath. No, don’t shake your head at me.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. The volunteer fire department’s already there.”
Mackenzie found Jo-Jo’s matter-of-fact observation hard to swallow. “But—”
“And even if she’s not fine,” Jo-Jo interrupted, “there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it. So unless you plan to go over there and join the rubberneckers, you’re better off here, out of the way. Let the professionals do their jobs.”
“Damn it, Jo, I’m not ten years old,” Mackenzie grumbled.
Jo-Jo’s grip relaxed. “No, but you are my friend.” She folded her arms around Mackenzie in a hug. “I care about you and I don’t want to have to worry about you too.”
Despite the impatient desire to run to the police station as fast as her legs would carry her—logic could take a flying leap—Mackenzie permitted herself a moment to appreciate the sensation of having her head enveloped by soft breasts redolent of talcum powder and Fair Trade Ethiopian coffee. She put her arms around Jo-Jo’s waist and squeezed. When she was released from the embrace, she leaned up on tiptoe and brushed a kiss over Jo-Jo’s cheek, careful not to disturb the carefully applied makeup. “I’m headed over there anyway.”
Jo-Jo sighed. “At least take a cappuccino with you. And don’t forget to eat later. And if you need me for anything, Kenzie, you call me, hear?”
While she waited for the replacement cappuccino, Mackenzie heard the man in the business suit say in a disbelieving voice, “Damnedest thing I ever saw.”
He’d found a seat at a table since most of the coffee shop’s customers had gone to stare out the window or moved outside to the sidewalk to point their cell phones and film the parade of fire engines, police cars and ambulances.
“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he repeated, staring in haggard fascination at the double espresso Zelda Mae plunked in front of him.
“What do you mean?” Mackenzie asked.
He glanced at her. “I was there, you know. My car was stolen. I was there to file the paperwork. At the police station.” He fumbled with the cup on the table, lifted it to his lips and drained the espresso in three swallows. The curl of lemon peel fell on the floor.
“I don’t know. I was standing by the desk and I heard a loud pop, like one of those firecrackers the kids toss around on the Fourth of July, you know? I turned around and the whole wall went up in flames, just like that! Damnedest thing I ever saw.”
Several people surged closer and began asking him questions.
Mackenzie didn’t stay. As soon as the perpetually scowling Zelda Mae offered her a to-go cup, she was out the door and down the street in the direction of the police station. Not running, but walking at a fast clip. To stretch her legs, she told herself, ignoring her heart’s panicked thudding.
When she arrived at Stubbs Park, she found the expected onlookers indulging in the time-honored pastime of gaping at a spectacle. Even the woman who ran the mobile coffee kiosk in the park had abandoned her business to join the rest of the crowd staring mesmerized at the fire engines parked in the street in front of the police station.
Mackenzie scanned the firefighters and police personnel. To her relief, she quickly identified the familiar figure of Veronica Birdwell, a pretty brunette whose milk and roses complexion had turned blotchy in the heat and turmoil. She raised a hand when Veronica appeared to glance her way, but got no response. At least Ronnie’s safe. So’s Jimmy, thank God, she thought on seeing her cousin, Detective James Austin Maynard.
She smiled. She and Maynard had had an adversarial relationship since their first meeting when she was two years old and she’d bitten the older boy on the ear in a defining moment of oil vs. water. Adulthood hadn’t made them any better friends. Even so, blood was blood and besides, Mama would be inconsolable if her favorite nephew came to grief.
A fireball erupted from the police station’s roof, startling her. A column of thick, black smoke belched into the sky. Volunteer firefighters plied their hoses, sunshine striking rainbows from the jets of water directed at the burning building.
Brilliant yellow light flared in her peripheral vision. She half turned. The light disappeared as if it had never existed. She sipped her cappuccino, dismissing the incident as a sunbeam reflecting off window glass, metal, or chrome on one of the parked vehicles.
In the corner of her eye, the yellow light flared again.
This time, she didn’t try to look straight at the light. She let her gaze wander over the source in a vague sort of way, finally focusing a few inches above it—a trick she’d learned not long ago during Annabel Coffin’s haunting. For some reason she didn’t care to understand, she couldn’t see spirits except when she caught them sidelong.
Her eyes began to water. She lifted a hand to dash away tears and hoped she wouldn’t go blind. Looking at this particular apparition indirectly still felt like holding a staring contest with the sun on the longest day of the year.
The silhouette of a man—no, a woman—became visible in the heart of a searing corona of flames. An incandescent tendril reached toward her, the end questing hungrily.
Mackenzie stumbled a step backward, bumping into someone who told her she should watch where she was going. To her relief, the tendril returned to the main body of flames. She wasn’t sure the fire could harm her. She felt no heat despite the eager burning, but who knew how far a spirit might go or what powers it might possess?
Try as she might, she couldn’t make out the silhouette’s features or any other details. To her perception, the ghost might as well have been cut from a sheet of black paper. Was it even aware of her watching it? she wondered. Her pulse slowed to a steady trot instead of a gallop, only to convulse painfully when the figure turned its head to look at her.
Mackenzie froze, fixed in place by bright golden eyes. The molten color spread from corner to corner uninterrupted by irises or pupils. She sensed a definite malignancy to the spirit’s inspection. A lack of facial expression or features like a mouth or a nose didn’t stop her from understanding that nothing this spirit wanted could be good.
The businessman’s words in the coffee shop came to her: the whole wall went up in flames, just like that. She stared at the ghostly fire with new apprehension.
A smell made her gag. Smoke, burning hair, charred meat with a metallic undertone, and an unpleasant, putrid, sweetish odor clinging to her tongue and throat. Not quite decomposition—she’d smelled stomach churning roadkills—but somehow worse.
The coffee cup went into a nearby garbage container. She turned away and bent over the fountain to splash a little cool water on her face. Though she kept her eyes squeezed shut while water dripped over her cheeks and chin, she felt the spirit watching her. The skin on the back of her neck tightened, as if she’d stayed out in the sun too long.
A hand curved over her shoulder.
The touch burned.