Read The Angel Whispered Danger Online

Authors: Mignon F. Ballard

The Angel Whispered Danger

The Angel
Whispered
Danger

MIGNON F. BALLARD

ST. MARTIN’S MINOTAUR
NEW YORK

Table of Contents

TITLE

COPYRIGHT

DEDICATION

C
HAPTER
O
NE

C
HAPTER
T
WO

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

C
HAPTER
F
OUR

C
HAPTER
F
IVE

C
HAPTER
S
IX

C
HAPTER
S
EVEN

C
HAPTER
E
IGHT

C
HAPTER
N
INE

C
HAPTER
T
EN

C
HAPTER
E
LEVEN

C
HAPTER
T
WELVE

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTEEN

C
HAPTER
F
OURTEEN

C
HAPTER
F
IFTEEN

C
HAPTER
S
IXTEEN

C
HAPTER
S
EVENTEEN

C
HAPTER
E
IGHTEEN

C
HAPTER
N
INETEEN

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY-ONE

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY-TWO

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY-THREE

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY-FOUR

C
HAPTER
T
WENTY-FIVE

For Laura, with thanks

C
HAPTER
O
NE

“I saw an angel today,” Josie announced.

“Really?” I glanced at the ten-year-old in the passenger seat beside me. My daughter was sometimes given to flights of fancy, but since these were the first words she’d spoken to me in over an hour, I jumped in feetfirst. “And where was that?” I said.

“On the beach this morning. Walked right out of the water—had on a dress.”

“She was wearing a
dress
in the ocean? What kind of dress?”

“I don’t know . . . a wet one, I guess.”

I looked to see if my daughter was teasing, but her expression didn’t change. “Looked kinda brownish-green. Junglelike,” she added.

“Did she have wings? How do you know she was an angel?” I asked.

Josie looked out at the green expanse of a cornfield on our right: shoulder high in early July and rinsed tender with last night’s rain. The car window was down and wind ruffled her soft butterscotch bangs. “I just know,” she told me, adjusting the fluorescent pink-rimmed sunglasses on her sunburned nose. “But I don’t think I was supposed to see her.”

I smiled. “Why not?”

She shrugged. “Because . . . when I looked back, she was gone.”

We could use an angel
, I thought. A whole passel of them. How did you count angels? A bevy? A flock? A band? I remembered the stirring refrain from the opera
Hansel and Gretel
I’d learned as a child, something about fourteen angels guarding sleep. Fourteen might get a bit crowded, but we could surely make room for one or two.

I slowed to make a turn and glanced at Josie, who had grown silent again, and now sat stiffly, arms folded. Stubborn to the core, even to her taffy-colored curls that went this way and that and wouldn’t stay put if you slicked them with “bear grease,” as my mama liked to say. Just like mine, only lighter. But my eyes were blue; Josie’s were like her dad’s—warm and brown with flecks of light, like the sun on Buttercup Creek, where my sister and I used to wade.

At least she had my imagination. I hoped it was only imagination. Had Ned and I driven our child to hallucinating?

The two of us were on our way to a family reunion at Bramblewood, my great-uncle’s sprawling place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and Josie had made it clear from the first that she didn’t want to go. The reunion was an annual event, and the three of us: Ned, Josie and I, usually looked forward to attending, combining it with a visit with my parents, since Bramblewood was just outside Bishop’s Bridge, the town where I grew up. This year the festivities were to last several days to mark the fiftieth year Uncle Ernest had hosted the affair. And for the first time, Ned would not be accompanying us.

For the last couple of years, life together had not been all that pleasant for my husband and me, and so at the beginning of the summer, without a whole lot of discussion, we’d decided to try it apart. To appease our daughter, I had just spent what seemed like the longest week of my life in a “borrowed” cottage in Isle of Palms, South Carolina.

“Now, look here, Kate McBride, I’m not taking no for an answer. The time away will do you good,” a friend had insisted, pressing the key to her family’s beach house into my hand. “Walk on the beach, build sand castles with Josie, relax. You need this time together.”

But guilt had led me to invite Josie’s friend Paige along for the trip, and the longest conversations the two of us had were over what television shows they certainly were
not
going to watch. I had been more relaxed during the process of a root canal.

“Paige seemed to have a good time,” I said to Josie’s stony profile. “Did you two have fun together?”

My daughter’s lip stuck out far enough to ride to town on. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t let me stay at Paige’s. Her mom said it was okay. Why couldn’t you just leave me there until that old reunion’s over?”

Josie had been pouting since we had dropped off her friend back in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“Because, Josie, this is a family reunion, and you happen to be my family.”

“Dad’s your family, too,” she said with a question in her voice.

“Yes, of course he is, but he’s busy getting ready for that seminar in California. You know that, honey.”

“Are you and Daddy getting a divorce?” Josie stared into her lap, and the catch in her voice was barely noticeable. But I noticed it, and it was all I could do to keep from stopping the car, pulling my hurting child into my arms and kissing her doubt away. Lately, however, my daughter had become an untouchable: no good night kisses, no impromptu hugs, and the lack of them was peeling away at my emotions a little at a time. If emotions could bleed, I’d be a big red puddle. A Band-Aid wouldn’t help either of us.

“Your dad and I just need to take a little time to work things out,” I said, trying to speak in a steady voice. “This training session’s important, and he needed extra time to prepare for it. That’s why he couldn’t go to the beach.”

I wished that were the only reason. The truth was that things hadn’t been right between my husband and me since we lost our baby during the third month of my pregnancy over two years before. Over a period of time, my once warm and lovable husband had turned into an unapproachable stranger. Ned hadn’t been invited to go to the beach, and from all indications, wouldn’t have accepted if he had, but I was already in the dump heap as far as Josie was concerned, so why pile on more?

“So, when’s he coming home?” she wanted to know.

Please don’t ask, because I don’t know!
“The seminar lasts several weeks,” I said, “and your dad’s conducting one of the later sessions, but he’ll phone, Josie. You know he won’t forget you. Your daddy loves you, and so do I.”

Something that sounded very much like a snort came from the seat beside me. “Hey, how about some ice cream?” I offered, seeing a fast-food restaurant ahead. “Been a while since lunch.”

“I’m not hungry,” Josie said.

How could somebody one-third my age who didn’t even come to my shoulder aggravate me so? I found myself grinding my teeth. “Come on now, Josie, you have camp to look forward to this summer—why, just think, in a couple of weeks you’ll be swimming and canoeing—all that good stuff, and when we get back from Uncle Ernest’s, you’ll have a brand new bike to ride.” Since he would be away for her birthday, Ned had given our daughter her present early.

“I don’t want to go to Uncle Ernest’s! It’s creepy there. Darby says you found a dead man in those woods. And there’s an old graveyard back there, too. He says it’s haunted.”

“Josie, your cousin’s just trying to scare you. There used to be a church adjoining Uncle Ernest’s property, but it burned years ago. The cemetery behind it has been neglected, I’m afraid, but it certainly isn’t haunted. When did Darby tell you that?”

“When we were there at Christmas. He said I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

I wondered who had told Darby. My cousin Marge’s boy was not much older than Josie, and both were impressionable.

“Well, did you?” she persisted. “Did you really find a dead man? Darby said he’d been murdered!”

“That was a long time ago, honey,” I said. “I wasn’t much older than you.” So why did it seem like yesterday? To this day, I avoided that section of the thicket behind Bramblewood.

“Weren’t you scared? Was it somebody you knew?”

Scared wasn’t the word. Every time I thought of that day, I felt again icy flames leap in my belly. The man, a vagrant, had been dead for at least twenty-four hours, we learned later. His blue eyes stared at nothing and dried blood matted his hair. He lay across a fallen log close to the trail that meandered along a tributary of the Yadkin River at the far end of my uncle’s property, and the cigarettes that had probably dropped from the pocket of his blue denim shirt were scattered on the ground.

“Of course I was scared. We were all scared, but that’s not going to happen again. He was somebody just passing through, and even after we learned his name, nobody knew who he was or why he was killed.”

Tobias King
. The name still sent a spike of fear right through my middle. My friend Beverly, who had been with me that day, experienced nightmares for years, and my cousin Grady won’t talk about it to this day.

“How do you know that whoever killed him won’t come back?” Josie asked, glancing over her shoulder as if the murderer were in hot pursuit.

“I don’t know why he would. That was almost twenty years ago,” I said.

“What if he never left?” Her brown eyes were accusing, as if I were to blame for allowing a murderer to run loose.

“Josie McBride, I’m not going to let anything happen to you! We’ve gone to Bramblewood every year since you were only a few weeks old. Just remember to stay out of those woods unless an adult is with you and you’ll be fine.”

“Darby and Jon go back there all the time. They say that place is haunted.”

“What place?” I knew my cousin Marge would skin her two boys if she knew they were wandering that close to the river.

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