A year ago, archaeologist Leslie MacIntyre barely survived the explosion that took the life of her fiance, Matt Connolly. In the long months since, she's slowly come to terms not only with her loss but with her unsettling new ability to communicate with ghosts, a dubious "gift" received in the wake of her own brush with death.
Now she's returned to lower Manhattan's historic Hastings House, site of the explosion, to conquer her fears and investigate a newly discovered burial ground. In this place restless spirits hold the secrets not only of past injustice but of a very real and very contemporary conspiracy with deadly designs on the city's women - including Leslie herself.
By night Matt visits her in dreams, warning her and offering clues to the truth, while by day she finds herself helped by - and attracted to - his flesh-and-blood cousin Joe. Torn by her feelings for both men, caught between the worlds of the living and the dead, Leslie struggles against the encroaching danger that threatens to overcome her. As she is drawn closer to the darkness at the heart of Hastings House, she must ultimately face the power of an evil mind, alone in a place where not even the men she love can save her.
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February 29, 2008
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Excerpt from The Dead Room by Heather Graham
One year later
Leslie paused for a minute, looking skyward. What a beautiful evening it was. The sky couldn't have been a lovelier shade of violet. But then, the countryside in northern Virginia was some of the most beautiful in the world.
More so than ever before, at least to her.
In the past year, she had come to appreciate such simple thing as the colors of life. It had been such a strange year, filled with vividly conflicting emotions. The touch of the sun, the color of a dawn, seemed more intense than ever. The anguish of learning to live alone still interrupted the newfound beauty. Life had become doubly precious, except that she felt it was such an incredible gift that it should be shared...yet she was alive and Matt was dead.
The setting sun was beautiful, and the night breeze sweet and soft. With that thought in mind, she closed her eyes and felt the waning brush of day against her cheeks. The warmth was wonderful.
She sighed, then returned to work. She needed to hurry. The light would be gone soon.
Painstakingly, bit by bit, she brushed away the dust covering the recently revealed area. She removed the last few specks, and then...
She continued to brush away the dirt from the skull fragment in the crevice, feeling a sense of jubilation. She couldn't be certain, of course, not absolutely, but it looked like they had discovered the old St. Mathias graveyard that Professor David Laymon had been certain was here. She eyed the skull for size and shape. Bones weren't her specialty. She knew objects, fabrics, even architecture, all the things that made up life, backward and forward. She knew bones only because she had come across them in her work so often.
The fragments of calico by the skull hinted at a type of hair decoration that fit perfectly with Laymon's belief that this section of the graveyard had been reserved for indentured servants, slaves and those who were simply too poor to pay for anything better.
Brad Verdun, her good friend and colleague, was busy working a few yards away. As she waited for his attention, she took her tweezers and carefully collected the bits of fabric she had discovered; a lab analysis would verify her thoughts, she was certain, but every little shred needed to be preserved.
"Yeah, yeah." At last he dusted his hands and rose, then walked to where she was working. He swore softly, shaking his head. "You were right. Again." He stared at her a little skeptically. "If I didn't know you so well, I just might agree with everyone else that you're psychic."
She smiled a little uneasily. "You would have chosen the same spot yourself," she assured him.
"Yeah, eventually." He looked across the work site, staring at the professor, who was down on his hands and knees about fifty yards away. "Well, princess of the past, announce your discovery. Give the old boy his thrill for the night."
"You tell him."
"You found the bones."
"We work together," she said modestly. "You were just a few feet away."
"You made the discovery."
"We came as a team, a package deal," she reminded him stubbornly.
"I won't take your credit."
"I want you to take the credit! Please?"
He sighed deeply. "All right, all right. I'll bring him over. But I won't lie."
"You're not lying if you say we found it as a team," she insisted.
He stared at her for a moment, then touched the top of her head with gentle affection. "Okay. You want to stay out of the limelight, kiddo, I'll do my best to help you. For a her an encouraging smile.
"Thanks," she murmured softly.
"You're going to be okay. You're coming along just great," he said.
She nodded, looking down.
Was she?A year had gone by. She functioned, yes, but she continued to hurt every day. Work was good. Friends were good.
Nights were torture.
And life itself...
Was definitely different. That difference had become clear while she'd still been in the hospital after the explosion. If she hadn't happened to pick up a magazine and seen the article on Adam Harrison and Harrison Investigations...
Well, she would probably either be dead now--having scared herself into an early grave--or in a mental hospital. Adam Harrison and his team, especially Nikki Blackhawk, had undoubtedly saved both her life and her sanity. But that was information she shared with no one. Not Brad, and certainly not Professor Laymon.
She watched as Brad walked over to talk to Laymon. Brad was definitely a good guy, the best. If she'd had a brother, he couldn't have been better to her. Years ago, when they had first started working together, she'd known that he wanted more of a relationship, but no one was ever going to stand a chance against Matt. And in fact, he'd liked Matt so much himself that they'd all fallen into a great friendship. She hesitated, watching Brad, glad that nothing had changed, that he had kept a brotherly distance from her and given his full support without any indication that his affections could turn sexual. She knew she would never feel any differently about him; there came a point in life where someone was a friend and that would never change. Brad was tall, well muscled, patient, intelligent and fun. The perfect guy--for someone else. The great thing about their friendship was that they shared their love of what they did. Some of the first enjoyment she had felt since the explosion that had killed Matt had been because of Brad, because of the excitement in his dark and arresting eyes when they made a discovery.
In large part thanks to him, sometimes, she could even have fun these days, going for drinks or dinner after work. His presence kept other guys away, but if he wanted to start something up with someone else, she didn't get in the way.
They had worked well together before the accident.
Now she relied on him more than ever--even if she was the one who usually "saw" the past more clearly and homed in on a location with eerily perfect accuracy. Sometimes he eyed her almost warily, but when she shrugged, he let it alone.
She watched as Laymon listened to Brad. His face lit up as if the sun had risen again purely to shine down on him. He was up in a flash, hurrying to Leslie's side, shouting excitedly and bringing the rest of the team--teachers, students and volunteers--in his wake. "Watch where you walk," he cautioned. "We don't want all this work trampled." Hopping over one of the plastic lines set out to protect the dig and provide the grid that allowed them to map their finds, he seemed like a little kid, he was so happy.
He stared at Leslie, eyebrows raised questioningly, then looked down at the skull she'd uncovered before turning back to her again. A broad smile lit his worn features. He pushed his Ben Franklin bifocals up the bridge of his nose and scratched his white-bearded chin. If anyone had ever looked the part of a professor, it was David Laymon. "You've done it," he said.
"We've done it," she murmured.
"We'll uncover the rest of the skeleton in the morning, then get it to the folks at the Smithsonian...right away, right away. It's too late to work anymore tonight, but we need to secure this area before we go, then get back to work first thing in the morning. From now on we'll need speed--and real care. Leslie, I could hug you. I will hug you!" He drew her to her feet, hugged her, then kissed her on the cheek. She was suffused with color, a blush staining her cheeks, as a burst of applause sounded from all around them.
"Hey, please," she protested. "We're all in on this, and Brad was the one to cordon off this particular area."
"Still, what a find," Professor Laymon murmured.
"You'll need to speak to the press. This is big excitement for this area...for historians everywhere."
"Please," she said softly, firmly, "let Brad speak to the press. Better yet, the two of you can speak as a team."
Laymon frowned, looking mildly annoyed.
"Please," Leslie repeated firmly.
Laymon sighed deeply, looking at her with sorrow in his gray eyes. "You never used to be so shy," he said. "Okay, sorry, I understand. It's just that..." He shook his head. "I understand. Whatever you want. All right, I'll get the ball rolling for the press conference, and you stay here--grab some students to give you a hand--and make sure that the site is protected until we get back to it in the morning. I'm going to see to it that we get some police out here to keep an eye on things, too."
Leslie wasn't sure why anyone would want to disturb a paupers' cemetery, but she knew that plenty of digs had been compromised, even ruined, by intruders in the past. She assured Laymon that she would stand guard until they were battened down for the night.
He stared at her, letting out a sigh and shaking his head again as he walked away. Brad walked behind him. One of the grad students, a shapely redhead, hurried up alongside Brad, slipping an arm through his. Leslie decided that she would have to tease him about her later.
For a moment, she wondered what Brad said about her when he decided to get close to a woman. Oh, my friend Leslie? Completely platonic. She was engaged,but there was a terrible accident. She almost died, and her fiance was killed. Since then she's been having kind of a hard time, so I try to be there for her. But it wasn't that long ago, just a year....
Just a year.
She wondered if she would ever again feel that there was a perfect guy out there for. Right now, all she felt was...
Just a year. A year since she had buried Matt. Buried her life...
With a shake, she forced her attention back to her work.
Despite her determination to call it an early night, she found herself dragged to a celebration dinner. They didn't opt for anything fancy--budget would always be important in field work--just a chain pancake house on the main highway. But when the group decided to go on to a local tavern for a few drinks, she at last managed to bow out.
She returned to the residence provided for those higher up in the echelon. She, Laymon, Brad and a few others were housed in a Colonial plantation that was now a charming bed-and-breakfast. Their hostess, a cheerful septuagenarian, rose with the rooster's crow, so she went to bed early. She happily saw them off each morning, and since she was a bit hard of hearing, she was also happy when they came in late at night, because she never heard a thing.
Very tired herself, but feeling a comforting sense of satisfaction, Leslie helped herself to a cup of hot tea from the well-stocked kitchen left open for the help-yourself pleasure of the guests. She took a seat before the large open hearth that dominated the room and sipped her tea from the comfort of the rocker to the left of the gently burning fire. Within a few minutes, she knew she was not alone.
She glanced slowly to her side, a smile curving her lips as she looked at the man who had joined her. He had a rounded stomach, emphasized by his plain black waistcoat and the bit of bleached cotton that protruded from his waist-band right where it shouldn't. His wig was a bit messy, but in the style of his time, and the tricornered hat he wore sat perfectly atop it. His hose were thick, white and somewhat worn; his shoes bore handsome buckles. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes a bit dark and small beneath bushy brows. He looked at her and returned her smile with a sigh of satisfaction. "Well, now, it's good and done, eh?" he asked her.
She nodded. "And you mustn't worry, Reverend Donegal. It's true that some of the bones will be boxed and sent for analysis, but the people at the Smithsonian are very careful and reverent. They'll be returned, and we'll see to it that all the dead are reinterred with prayers and all the respect that's due them. And I believe that once the significance of what we've found here has been verified, the Park Service will have its way. A lovely memorial and a facsimile of the church will be built, and generations of visitors will be able to enjoy the beautiful countryside and learn about everything that happened here during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars." Her smile turned slightly rueful. "I know you did a great deal to help refugees during the Revolutionary War, but this very house was a stop for escaping slaves during the days of the Underground Railroad. There was also a Civil War skirmish in the front yard here. It's amazing the place is still standing."
"Solid construction," Reverend Donegal said sternly.
"Folks to care for her. Why, I remember, years and years ago, of course, when I came many a Sunday to this house for my tea following services...ah, lovely then, it was. So much excitement and fear. A new country." His eyes darkened, and he seemed troubled for a minute. "Pity...one war always leads to the next. It hurt me to be here...to see so many fine men die, North and South, believing in the same God.... Ah, well, never mind. There's always hope that man will learn from his mistakes." He paused, his old eyes clouding, and she knew he was looking back to his own time, firmly fixed in his mind.
Of course, she knew his story. He had worshipped the hostess of his very house from afar, always entirely circumspect, but enjoying every opportunity to be in her company. He had faithfully served his flock of parishioners; a good man. His one pleasure had been his Sunday tea. And so, one day, he had come here, had his tea...and then died of a heart attack in the arms of the woman he had secretly adored for so many years. Leslie had thought at first that he must have been a very sad ghost, seeking the love he hadn't allowed himself in life. But that hadn't been the case at all. She had discovered that he had been at peace with himself; that his distant and unrequited love for Mrs. Adella Baxter had in actuality been a pleasant fantasy but not one he had truly hoped to fulfill. He had enjoyed his life as a bachelor, administering to his flock. He had stayed all these years because he felt so many of his flock needed to be remembered. In short, he had wanted the graveyard found.
At first, he hadn't trusted her. He'd tried a dozen tricks, moving her brush around, locking her suitcase, hiding her keys. He hadn't expected her to see him, and he certainly hadn't expected her to get angry, yell at him and demand that they talk. Once they had, he'd become an absolute charmer. Through his eyes, she'd seen the house as it had been in his day. She'd experienced his passion as he'd spoken of what he and so many others had gone through to establish a new country; his fear that he might be hanged as a traitor--something that had been a distinct possibility many times during the brutal years of the Revolution. He was deeply disturbed that so few of the people who passed through the old house were aware of just how precarious the struggle for freedom had been. "You can't understand," he had told her. "We almost lost the war. In fact, it's a miracle that we won. And all those men who signed the Declaration of Independence? They would have been hanged! So many risked so much.Ah, well, God does show his will, against all odds."
Right now he seemed lost in thought. "Thank you for your help," she said very softly to him. He nodded, then wagged a finger at her. "I expect you to play fair, young lady. You see that the right thing is done by my people. Especially little Peg. You did find her grave, didn't you, right where I sent you?"
Leslie nodded, then stared at the fire for a moment, as lost in the past as he had been. It was strange. Before the blast, she'd had intuitions, like the one that had helped her find the homeless man. As if she could close her eyes and imagine something of a life now gone, then home in on it. Logic? Instinct? Something more? She couldn't have said. But now...
Now ghosts came into her life.