An Ice Cold Grave Page 7

"Yes, darling, I came as soon as I could," he said, and if my head hadn't felt so fragile, I would have gaped at him.

He moved to my bedside with the lithe grace of a gymnast and took my free hand, the one without the IV line. He raised it to his lips and kissed it, and I felt the stud in his tongue graze my fingers. Then he held my hand in both his own. "How are you feeling?" he asked, as if there were no one else in the room. He was looking right into my eyes, and I got the message.

"Not too well," I said weakly. Unfortunately, I was almost as weak as I sounded. "I guess Tolliver told you about the concussion? And the broken arm?"

"And these gentlemen are here to talk to you when you're so ill?"

"They don't believe anything I say," I told him pitifully.

Manfred turned to them and raised his pierced eyebrow.

Stuart and Klavin were regarding my new visitor with a dash of astonishment and a large dollop of distaste. Klavin pushed his glasses up on his nose as if that would make Manfred look better, and Stuart's lips pursed like he'd just bitten a lemon.

"And you would be...?" Stuart said.

"I would be Manfred Bernardo, Harper's dear friend," he said, and I held my expression with an effort. Resisting the impulse to yank my hand from Manfred's, I squeezed his bottom hand as hard as I could.

"Where are you from, Mr. Bernardo?" Klavin asked.

"I'm from Tennessee," he said. "I came as soon as I could." Manfred bent to drop a kiss on my cheek. When he straightened, he said, "I'm sure Harper is feeling too poorly to be questioned by you gentlemen." He looked from one of them to the other with an absolutely straight face.

"She seems all right to me," Stuart said. But he and Klavin glanced at each other.

"I think not," Manfred said. He was over twenty years younger than Klavin, and smaller than Stuart - Manfred was maybe five foot nine, and slender - but somewhere under all that tattooed and pierced skin was an air of authority and a rigid backbone.

I closed my eyes. I really was exhausted, and I was also not too awfully far from laughing out loud.

"We'll leave you two to catch up," Klavin said, not sounding happy at all. "But we're coming back to talk to Ms. Connelly again."

"We'll see you then," Manfred said courteously.

Feet shuffling...the door opening to admit hospital hall noises...then the muffling of those noises as the SBI agents carefully pulled the door shut behind them.

I opened my eyes. Manfred was regarding me from maybe five inches away. He was thinking about kissing me. His eyes were bright and blue and hot.

"Nuh-uh, buddy, not so fast," I said. He withdrew to a safer distance. "How'd you come to be here? Is your grandmother okay?"

Xylda Bernardo was an old fraud of a psychic who nonetheless had a streak of actual talent. The last time I'd seen her had been in Memphis; she'd been frail enough then, mentally and physically, to necessitate Manfred driving her to Memphis and keeping tabs on her while she talked to us.

"She's at the motel," Manfred said. "She insisted on coming with me. We drove in last night. I think we got the last motel room left in Doraville, and maybe the last one in a fifteen-mile radius. One reporter checked out because he got a more comfortable room at a bed and breakfast, and Grandmother had told me to drive to that motel fast and go into the office in a hurry. Every now and then, she comes through in a helpful way." His face grew somber. "She doesn't have long."

"I'm sorry," I said. I wanted to ask what was wrong, but that was a stupid question. Did it really make a difference? I knew death quite well, and I'd seen it stamped on Xylda's face.

"She doesn't want to be in a hospital," Manfred said. "She doesn't want to spend the money, and she hates the ambience."

I nodded. I could understand that. I wasn't happy about being in one, myself, and I had every prospect of walking out of this one in one piece.

"She's napping now," Manfred said. "So I thought I'd drive over to check out how you were doing, and I found the Dynamic Duo asking you questions. I thought they'd listen to me if I said I was your boyfriend. Gives me a little more authority."

I decided to let that issue ride for the moment. "What are you-all doing here in the first place?"

"Grandmother said you needed us." Manfred shrugged, but he believed in her, all right.

"Wouldn't she be more comfortable at home?" It made me feel very guilty to think about the aging and ill Xylda Bernardo dragging herself and her grandson to this little town in the mountains because she thought I needed her.

"Yes, but then she'd be thinking about dying. She said to come - we came."

"And you knew where we were?"

"I wish I could say Grandmother had seen it in a vision, but there's a website that tracks you."

"What?" I probably looked as dumbfounded as I felt.

"You've got a website devoted to you and your doings. People email in to report sightings of you."

I didn't feel any smarter. "Why?"

"You're one of those people who attracts a following," Manfred said. "They want to know where you are and what you've found."

"That's just weird." I simply didn't get it.

He shrugged. "What we do is weird, too."

"So it's on the Internet? That I'm in Doraville, North Carolina?" I wondered if Tolliver knew about my fan following, too. I wondered why he hadn't told me.

Manfred nodded. "There are a couple of pictures of you taken here in Doraville, probably with a cell phone," he said, and I was floored all over again.

"I can hardly believe that," I said, and shook my head. Ouch.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Manfred asked. "What happened here?"

"If I'm talking to you and not a website," I said, and the look on his face made me instantly contrite. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just freaked out about the idea that people are following my whereabouts and watching me, and I didn't have a clue about it. I don't think you'd ever do that."

"Tell me how you came to get hurt," he said, accepting my apology. Manfred settled into the chair by my bed, the one Tolliver had been snoozing in.

I told Manfred about the graves, about Twyla Cotton and the sheriff, about the dead boys in the cold soil.

"Someone here's been vanishing guys for years, and no one noticed?" Manfred said. "This is like an Appalachian Gacy, huh?"

"I know it's hard to believe. But when the sheriff explained why there hadn't been a public outcry about the disappearances, it seemed almost reasonable. The boys were all at that runaway age." There was a silence. I wanted to ask Manfred how old he was.

"Twenty-one," he said, and I gave a jerk of surprise.

"I have a little talent," he said, trying for modesty.

"Xylda can be such a fake," I said, too tired to be tactful. "But she's the real deal underneath."

He laughed. "She can be an old fraud, but when she's on her game, she's outstanding."

"I can't figure you out," I said.

"I talk good for a tattooed freak, don't I?"

I smiled. "You talk good for anybody. And I'm three years older than you."

"You've lived three years longer, but I guarantee my soul is older than yours."

It was a distinction too fine for me just at the moment.

"I need to take a nap," I said and shut my eyes.

I hadn't anticipated that sleep would drag me down before I'd even had a chance to thank Manfred for coming to see me.

Bodies have to have rest to heal, and my body seemed to need more than most. I don't know if that had to do with the lightning that passed through my system or not. A lot of lightning strike victims have trouble sleeping, but that has seldom been my problem. Other survivors I've talked to on the Web have a grab bag of symptoms: convulsions, loss of hearing, speech problems, blurry vision, uncontrollable rages, weakness of the limbs, ADD. Obviously, any or all of these can lead to further consequences, none of them good. Jobs can be lost, marriages wrecked, money squandered in an attempt to find a cure or at least a palliative.

Maybe I would be in a sheltered workshop somewhere if I hadn't had two huge pieces of luck. The first was that the lightning not only took things away from me, but left me with something I hadn't had before: my strange ability to find bodies. And the second piece of luck was that I had Tolliver, who started my heart beating on the spot; Tolliver, who believed in me and helped me develop a way to make a living from this newfound and unpleasant ability.

I could only have been asleep for thirty minutes or less, but when I woke up, Manfred was gone, Tolliver was back, and the sun had vanished behind clouds. It was nearly eleven thirty, by the big clock on the wall, and I could hear the sound of the lunch cart in the hall.

"Tolliver," I said, "do you remember that time we went out to get a Christmas tree?"

"Yeah, that was the year we all moved in together. Your mom was pregnant."

The trailer had been a tight fit: my older sister, Cameron, and me in one room, Tolliver and his brother, Mark, in another, Tolliver's dad and my pregnant mom in the third. Plus, there was a never-ending flow of the low-life friends of our parents coming in and out. But we kids had decided we had to have a tree, and since our parents simply didn't care, we set out to get one. In the fringe of woods around the trailer park, we'd found a little pine and cut it down. We'd gotten a discarded tree stand from the Dumpster, and Mark had mended it so it would work.

"That was fun," I said. Mark and Tolliver and Cameron and I had come together during that little expedition, and instead of being kids who lived under the same roof, we became united together against our parents. We became our own support group. We covered for each other, and we lied to keep our family intact, especially after Mariella and Gracie were born.

"They wouldn't have lived if it wasn't for us," I said.

Tolliver looked blank for a minute, until he caught up with my train of thought. "No, our parents couldn't take care of them," he said. "But that was the best Christmas I'd had. They remembered to go out and get us some presents, remember? Mark and I would rather have died than say it out loud but we were so glad to have you two, and your mom. She wasn't so bad then. She was trying to be healthy for the baby, when she remembered. And that church group brought by the turkey."

"We followed the directions. It turned out okay."

There'd been a cookbook in the house, and Cameron had figured we could read directions as well as anyone. After all, our parents had been lawyers before they fell in love with the lifestyle and vices of the people they defended. We had smart genes in our makeup. Luckily, the cookbook was a thorough one that assumed you were totally ignorant, and the turkey had really been good. The dressing was strictly Stove Top Stuffing, and the cranberry sauce came out of a can. We'd bought a frozen pumpkin pie and opened a can of green beans.

"It turned out better than okay," he said.

And he was right. It had been wonderful.

Cameron had been so determined that day. My older sister was pretty and smart. We didn't look anything alike. From time to time, I wondered if we really were full sisters, given the way our mom's character had crumbled. You don't suddenly lose all your morals, right? It happens over time. I caught myself wondering if my mother's had started to erode a few years before she and my dad parted. But maybe I'm wrong about that. I sure hope so. When Cameron went missing, it felt like my own life had been cut in half. There was before Cameron, when things were very bad but tolerable, and after Cameron, when everything disintegrated: I went to foster care, my stepfather and my mother went to jail, and Tolliver went to live with Mark. Mariella and Gracie went to Aunt Iona and her husband.

Cameron's backpack, left by the side of the road the day she'd vanished on her way home from school, was still in our trunk. The police had returned it to us after a few years. We took it with us everywhere.

I took a sip of water from my green hospital cup. There wasn't any point in thinking about my sister. I'd resigned myself long since to the fact that she was dead and gone. Someday I'd find her.

Every now and then, I'd glimpse some short girl with long blond hair, some girl with a graceful walk and a straight little nose, and I'd almost call out to her. Of course, if Cameron were alive, she wouldn't be a girl any longer. She'd been gone now - let's see, she'd been taken in the spring of her senior year in high school, when she was eighteen - God, she'd be almost twenty-six. Eight years gone. It seemed impossible to believe.

"I called Mark," Tolliver said.

"Good. How was he?" Tolliver didn't call Mark as often as he ought to; I didn't know if it was a guy thing, or if there'd been some disagreement.

"He said to tell you to get well soon," Tolliver said. That didn't really answer my question.

"How's his job going?"

Mark had gotten promoted at work several times. He'd been a busboy, a waiter, a cook, and a manager at a family-style chain restaurant in Dallas. Now he'd been there at least five years. For someone who'd only managed three or four college semesters, he was doing well. He worked long hours.

"He's nearly thirty," Tolliver said. "He ought to be settling down."

I pressed my lips together so I wouldn't say anything. Tolliver was only a couple of years younger, plus a few months.

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