The Dirt on Ninth Grave Page 1

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Remember, it’s never too late to give LSD a shot.

—T-SHIRT

I stood beside the booth and poured coffee into a beige cup that had the words FIRELIGHT GRILL written across it, wondering if I should tell my customer, Mr. Pettigrew, about the dead stripper sitting next to him. It wasn’t every day a dead stripper accosted one of my regulars, but telling Mr. P about her might not be a good idea. He could react the way I did the first time I saw a walking corpse a little over a month ago. I screamed like a twelve-year-old girl and locked myself in the bathroom.

For seven hours.

I admired the rascally old man, a decorated war veteran and retired NYPD detective. He’d seen more action than most. And with it, more atrocity. More depravity and desperation and degradation. He was a tough-as-nails, real-life superhero, and I couldn’t picture any situation in which Mr. P would scream like a twelve-year-old girl and lock himself in a bathroom.

For seven hours.

In my own defense, the first dead guy I saw had fallen to his death at a construction site in Kalamazoo. Thanks to a hundred-foot drop and an unfortunate placement of rebar, I had another image to add to my things-I-can-never-unsee collection. Silver linings, baby.

I pulled three creamers out of my apron pocket where I stashed them, mostly because keeping creamers in my jeans pocket never ended well. I placed them on the table beside him.

“Thanks, Janey.” He gave me a saucy wink and doctored his coffee, an elixir I’d grown to love more than air. And French fries. And hygiene, but only when I woke up late and was faced with the heart-wrenching decision of either making a cup of the key to life itself or taking a shower. Strangely enough, coffee won. Every. Single. Time.

Mr. P was a regular, and I liked regulars. Whenever one walked into the café I felt a little less lost, a little less broken, as though family had come to visit. As fucked up as it sounded, they were all I had.

A little over a month ago, I woke up in an alley, soaked to the marrow of my bones with freezing rain pelting my face and no memory of who I was. Or where I was. Or when I was. I had nothing but the clothes on my back, a honking big diamond on my ring finger, and a blinding headache. The headache disappeared fairly quickly. Thankfully the clothes and the wedding ring did not. But if I were married, where was my husband? Why had he not come for me?

I’d been waiting since that first day. Day One, I’d called it. I’d been waiting for four weeks, three days, seventeen hours, and twelve minutes. Waiting for him to find me. For anyone to find me.

Surely I had family. I mean, everyone has family, right? Or, at the very least, friends. It would seem, however, that I had neither. No one in Sleepy Hollow – or the entire state of New York – knew who I was.

But that didn’t stop me from digging in my raggedly bitten nails and clinging to the knowledge that almost everyone on the planet had someone, and my someone was out there. Somewhere. Searching for me. Scouring the galaxy night and day.

That was my hope, anyway. To be found. To be known. The spiderweb cracks in the shell holding me together were splintering, bleeding into one another, creeping and crackling along the fragile surface. I didn’t know how much longer it would hold. How much longer until the pressure inside me exploded. Until it shattered and catapulted the pieces of my psyche into space; to the farthest reaches of the universe. Until I vanished.

It could happen.

The doctors told me I had amnesia.

Right?

Apparently that shit’s real. Who knew?

While waiting for Mr. P to scan the menu he knew by heart, I looked out the plate-glass windows of the café at the two worlds before me. I’d realized very soon after waking up that I could see things others couldn’t. Dead people, for one thing, but also their realm. Their dimension. And their dimension defined the word cray-cray.

Most people saw only the tangible world. The world in which the wind didn’t pass through them but bombarded them, its icy grip only metaphorically slicing through to their bones, because their physical bodies would only let it penetrate so far.

But there was another world all around us. An intangible one where the winds did not go around us but passed through us like searing smoke through air made visible only by a ray of light.

On this particular day, the tangible forecast was partly cloudy with an 80 percent chance of precipitation. The intangible forecast, however, was angry, billowing clouds with a 100 percent chance of thunderous lightning storms and fiery tornadoes swirling in an endless dance over the landscape.

And the colors. The colors were stunning. Oranges and reds and purples, the likes of which were not found in the tangible world, glistened around me, whirled and melded together with each reaction of the capricious weather, as though battling for dominance. Shadows were not gray there but blue and lavender with hints of copper and gold. Water was not blue but variegated shades of orchid and violet and emerald and turquoise.

The clouds parted a few blocks away, and a brilliant light shot down to welcome another soul, to embrace the fortunate spirit that had reached the expiration date of its corporeal form.

That happened fairly often, even in a town the size of Sleepy Hollow. What happened less often, thank goodness, was the opposite. When the ground cracked and parted to reveal a cavernous chasm, to deliver a less fortunate soul – a less deserving one – into darkness.

But not just any darkness. An endless, blinding void a thousand times blacker than the darkest night and a million times deeper.

And the doctors swear there is nothing wrong with me. They can’t see what I see. Feel what I feel. Even in my state of absolute amnesia, I knew the world before me was unreal. Unearthly. Unnatural. And I knew to keep it to myself. Self-preservation was a powerful motive.

Either I had some kind of extrasensory perception or I’d done a lot of LSD in my youth.

“He’s a doll,” the stripper said, her sultry voice dragging me away from the fierce world that raged around me.

She leaned her voluptuous body into him. I wanted to point out the fact that he was old enough to be her father. I could only hope he wasn’t.

“His name is Bernard,” she said, running a finger down the side of his face, a spaghetti strap slipping down a scraped-up shoulder.

I actually had no idea what she’d done for a living, but from the looks of it, she was either a stripper or a prostitute. She’d caked on enough blue eye shadow to paint the Chrysler Building, and her little black dress revealed more curves than a Slinky. I was only leaning toward stripper because the front of her dress was being held together with Velcro.

I had a thing for Velcro.

Sadly, I couldn’t talk to her in front of Mr. P, which was unfortunate. I wanted to know who’d killed her.

I knew how she’d died. She’d been strangled. Black and purple splotches circled her neckline, and the capillaries in her eyes had burst, turning the whites bright red. Not her best look. But I was curious about the situation. How it had evolved. If she’d seen the assailant. If she’d known him. Clearly I had a morbid streak, but I felt this tug at my insides to help her.

Then again, she was dead. As a doornail. In winter. What could I do?

My motto since Day One was to keep my head down and my nose clean. It was none of my business. I didn’t want to know how they died. Who they left behind. How lonely they felt. For the most part the departed were like wasps. I didn’t bother them. They didn’t bother me. And that was how I liked it.

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