Heart of Evil Page 1



She could see it, smell it.

Hear it.


The air was heavy with black powder, and the brilliant red color of the blood seemed to form a mist with the powder, and she was surrounded by a haze, a miasma of gray-tinged crimson. The day was dying, becoming red, red like the color of the blood seeping to the ground, making that terrible, distinctive noise. Drip, drip, drip…

Ashley Donegal was there. She wasn’t even sure where there was, but she knew that she didn’t want to be there.

Suddenly, the mist seemed to swirl in a violent gust, and then settle softly, closer to the ground. It parted as she walked through. She could see her surroundings, and, at that moment, she knew. She was in the cemetery. She had played here so often as a child—respectfully, of course. Her grandfather never would have had it any other way. Those elegant tombs, all constructed with such love, and an eye to the priorities of the day. The finest craftsmen had been hired, artists and artisans, and the place was truly beautiful. Angels and archangels graced the various tombs, winged cherubs, saints and crosses. She had never been afraid.

But now…

From a distance, she could hear shouts. Soldiers. Ridiculous. Grown men playing as soldiers. But they did it so well. She might almost have been back in time. The powder came from the howitzer and the Enfield rifles. The shouts sounded as the men played out their roles, edging from the river road to the outbuildings and then the stables, to the final confrontation on the lawn and in the cemetery. The blood would come from stage packets within their uniforms, of course, but…

This was real blood. She knew because it had a distinctive odor, and because, yes, damn it, she could smell it. Nothing smelled like real blood.

She looked at the ground, and she could see the puddle where the blood was falling, but she was afraid to look up. If she looked up, she would see a dead man.

But she did so anyway. She saw him. There was a hat pulled low over his face, but soon he would lift his head.

He did. And she saw a man in his prime, handsome, with strength of purpose in the sculpture of his face. But there was weariness in his eyes.

Weariness and death. Yet they were just playacting; that past was so, so long ago now….

She didn’t speak. Neither did he. Because his face began to rot. It blackened, and while she watched, the scabrous decaying flesh began to peel away. Soon she was staring into the empty eye sockets of a skull.

She started to scream.

Above that sound, she could hear someone calling to her. Someone calling her name. The sound was deep, rich and masculine, and she knew it….

It was Jake! He would help…. Surely he would help.

But she could only stare at the skeletal mask in front of her.

Smell the blood.

And scream.

A strange sound in the middle of the night awoke Ashley. She sat up with a start and realized she was doing the screaming. She clamped her own hand quickly over her mouth, embarrassed and praying that she hadn’t roused the household. She waited in silence; nope, no one.

That was pretty pathetic. It must have been a horrifically pathetic scream. If she ever really needed to scream, she’d probably be out of luck.

Lord, that had been some nightmare.

She didn’t have nightmares. She was the most grounded human being she knew; hell, she had grown up next to a bayou full of alligators and cottonmouths, and she had lived in a downtrodden area of New York City near Chinatown in order to afford NYU. She knew all about real monsters—ghosts were creations to reel tourists in.


With a groan, she threw her head back on her pillow and glanced at the clock. She needed to sleep. In a week’s time, they’d be celebrating Donegal Plantation’s biggest annual event: the reenactment of the skirmish here that had cost her ancestor his life.

Ah, yes, and she had been dreaming about the skirmish—or the reenactment?

That was it, she thought, grinning. She was dreaming about the events at Donegal Plantation because they were preparing for the day.

History was always alive at Donegal. The plantation house was furnished with antiques, most of which had been in the family forever. There was an attic room that contained more artifacts from the Civil War than many a museum, down to letters, mess kits, knapsacks, pistols, rifles and bayonets. Still, the reenactment remained a major undertaking.

But they’d been running it since before she had even been born. It was rote by now. All the same, there was still plenty of bustle and confusion, along with everything that had to happen before the event could take place, including a mound of paperwork on her desk that had to do with the “sutler’s tent,” the pop-up shop where period clothing and curios and other paraphernalia, such as weapons and antiques, were sold. Which meant registrations and taxes. Then there was the insurance they needed for the day, and the officers to direct traffic and so on.

That was it. She just had a lot on her mind.

And the reenactment always reminded her of Jake. He’d never been a soldier, North or South. But he’d dressed up, and he’d played his guitar and sang music from the era. And sometimes she had played with him, and he’d always known how to make it just right, to bring back the past, with the light of truth.

She eased down in her covers, determined to forget both her anxiety and Jake.

Not so easy, even though it had been a long time since Jake had been in her life.

Finally, she started to drift again. She was comfortable; she loved her bed and her room, even if she had lived here her whole life other than college. Though she loved to learn about new people and new places, she also loved to be home.

She started again, certain that she had felt a touch; something soft and gentle, smoothing her hair, stroking her cheek.

She sat up. Moonlight streamed into the room, and there was no one else here; with so many guests around, she had locked her bedroom door. She looked at her pillow and decided that she had merely rubbed against a side of the pillowcase.

As she did so, she glanced at her dresser.

There was something different about it. She studied it for a moment, wondering what it was.

Then she knew.

She kept a picture of her parents there, on her dresser. It had been taken almost twenty years ago. They were together, holding her between them, when she had been five. It had been developed in sepia tone, and they’d had it done when one of the guests at a reenactment had found a way of making nice money by pretending to be Matthew Brady, the famed Civil War photographer. Throughout the day, he had answered historical questions about photography and its place in the Civil War.

As was the custom of the day, none of them was smiling, but there was still something exceptionally charming about the picture. There was a light in her father’s eyes, and just the hint of a curl at her mother’s lips. Her father’s arm was around her, his hand coming to rest tenderly on her mother’s shoulder. She was sandwiched close between them, and in her mind, the picture had been filled with love. It had become an even greater treasure when she had lost them.

It usually faced at a slight angle toward her bed.

The picture was turned away, as if someone had been looking at it from a different angle. It was such a little thing, but…

Maybe someone had wandered into her room. Cliff ran the property and she ran the house, but they employed extra housekeepers in the main house when they had guests. They hadn’t had guests in the house in the last few weeks, but the house was usually open, and her grandfather loved to walk anyone staying on the property through it. Depending on his mood, a tour could get long.

And the picture…

She turned over, groaning. It was just the angle of the picture.

Jake Mallory should have slept well, with a hard case finally settled.

But he didn’t.

The odd thing about his nightmares was that they were a recent phenomenon. When he had begun to realize and make use of this gift or curse—those things he somehow knew—there had been no dreams.

During the summer of the storms, during Katrina and the flooding, they had all been so busy. While it had been happening, he’d never explained to his coworkers that he was so good at finding the remains of the deceased because they called out to him; they spoke to him. It was heartbreaking; it was agony. But the dead needed their loved ones to know, and so he listened. And he didn’t dream those nights.

Later, the dreams had come, and they were always the same.

He was alone in his small, flat-bottomed boat, though he’d never been alone during any of the searches.

He was alone, and the heat of the day had cranked down to the lesser heat of the night, and he was searching specifically for someone, though he didn’t know who. As the boat moved through the water that should have been a street, he began to see people on the rooftops, clinging to branches here and there, and even floating in the water.

They saw him; they reached out to him. And he felt like weeping. They weren’t living people. They were those who had lost the fight.

As he drifted along, he looked back at them all, men and women, old and young, black and white and all colors in between. He wanted to ease their suffering, but he could no longer save them. Their faces had an ashen cast, and the bone structure was sucked in and hollow; they didn’t seem to know that there was nothing he could do for them anymore. In the dream, he knew that he, like many law-enforcement officers, scent dogs and volunteers, would be called upon to find the dead in the future.

But now he was seeking the living.

They called out to him; they were trying to tell him something. Bit by bit, he saw they were trying to show him the way. He thought that there should have been sound, but there was none. He didn’t hear his passage through the water, and nothing emitted from the mouths of the corpses he passed.

Then he saw the figure on the roof far ahead. He thought it was a woman. She seemed to be in something flowing, which was not unusual. Many victims, living and dead, had been found in nightgowns or boxers or flannel pajamas. What was strange was that she seemed to be the only one alive. She was in tremendous peril as the water rose all around her. He felt that there was something familiar about her, but he didn’t understand what it was that seemed to touch him. The light of the full moon turned her hair golden and gleaming, her white gown flowed in the breeze. Amidst the destruction, she was a beautiful survivor.

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