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"Do you mean to sit there and tell me you think Cliffwood really is haunted?" Miss An'gel Ducote regarded her sister with a frown.
Miss Dickce Ducote shrugged. "There've been stories about that house for decades, Sister. Anyway, you know Natchez is supposed to be one of the most haunted towns in the country."
"Yes, I know," An'gel replied with a sniff. "I just don't ever recall hearing that Cliffwood was riddled with ghosts as you put it." Her brow wrinkled as she paused to think. "At least I don't remember hearing Jessamine or her husband, Marshall, ever talk about it."
Dickce snorted. "That old goat. He was too busy running around after women to notice ghosts. How Jessy put up with him for all those years, I'll never know."
"Fifty years ago, women thought they had to put up with it for the sake of their sons," An'gel said. "Not to mention that Jessy would have starved if Marshall had left her for another woman. She was one of the sweetest girls I ever knew, but she could get lost in her own closet. She'd never have kept a job."
"That's a terrible thing to say about an old sorority sister." Dickce snorted with laughter. "Even if it's true." She laughed again.
"At least Marshall had the good sense to die before he threw away all his money; otherwise she'd have had to sell Cliffwood."
"We've wandered away from the subject." Dickce pointed to the letter An'gel held. "Mary Turner and Henry Howard Catlin are asking for our help. Even if we don't quite believe in ghosts, Mary Turner evidently does."
"I know." An'gel laid the letter aside on her desk. "I suppose we could go spend a few days in Natchez and see what's going on. I suspect there's nothing supernatural about it. Someone's playing tricks on them, I'd say."
"You're probably right," Dickce replied. "I'm game to go ghost-hunting, and I'll bet Benjy will get a hoot out of the whole thing."
"No doubt," An'gel said. Their young ward, Benjy Stephens, had a lively intelligence and a healthy curiosity, and he would enjoy seeing the antebellum treasures of Natchez, potential apparitions included. "We can't take that for granted, however, and I wouldn't want him to feel obliged to go if he's uncomfortable with the idea."
"I don't think the idea of ghosts will faze him all that much. Besides, Peanut and Endora can help, too," Dickce said. "Animals are supposed to be sensitive to ghosts. If there are any supernatural presences at Cliffwood, they'll let us know."
"Let's hope they don't run across any tortured spirits that need to be laid to rest." An'gel grimaced. "I'll call Mary Turner and tell her we'll come on Monday. That ought to give you enough time to pack."
Dickce rolled her eyes at her sister. "I'm not the one who has to have a different pair of shoes for every outfit I take."
"If you wore anything other than dark colors in the autumn months, you might see the need." An'gel reached for her cell phone. "Why don't you go tell Benjy about the trip and see what he thinks of the idea of ghost-hunting?"
Dickce nodded and walked out of the study.
An'gel skimmed through Mary Turner's letter again. Given the contents, she wasn't surprised that the young woman had chosen to write a letter, rather than simply calling. An'gel appreciated having the time to think about Mary Turner's story rather than having to respond immediately during a live conversation. She did wonder, however, why Mary Turner hadn't e-mailed her after all. She decided she would ask during the call.
She picked up her cell phone and tapped out the number. After three rings, a high, light voice said, "Hello, Mary Turner Catlin speaking."
An'gel identified herself. "Sister and I were discussing your letter, and of course we'd be happy to help you in any way we can."
Before An'gel could continue, Mary Turner broke in. "Oh, Miss An'gel, bless you and Miss Dickce. Henry Howard and I are about to go stark raving mad, and we didn't know whom else to turn to. Grandmother always said the Ducote sisters never lost their heads in a crisis, no matter what." She paused for a moment. "And if this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is. We're completely booked for Thanksgiving in two weeks, and if word gets out about this, we stand to lose a substantial amount."
An'gel heard a strangled sob. "Your grandmother was a dear friend, and Sister and I will do our best to live up to her confidence in us. I'm sorry that you and Henry Howard are so upset by all this. There's got to be a perfectly rational explanation behind what's happening there."
Mary Turner sobbed again, then choked it off. "I pray every day and night that there is, but we . . ." Her voice trailed off.
An'gel frowned. Had Mary Turner hung up? Or had her darn cell phone dropped the call? She waited a moment for Mary Turner to come back on the line, but when she didn't, An'gel ended the call. After about ten seconds she called again. Mary Turner answered immediately.
"I'm so sorry," the young woman said. "But that's the kind of thing that's always happening. Phone calls get cut off, our e-mails don't go anywhere, all kinds of odd things. That's why I wrote you an actual letter instead of e-mailing you."
"Heavens, this really is a mess," An'gel said, shocked by Mary Turner's words. "I wondered why you chose a letter. I can't remember when I last received an actual handwritten letter from anyone."
Mary Turner sounded grim when she responded. "So far the ghosts haven't been able to stop the post office from working."
"It's no wonder you and Henry Howard are at your wit's end," An'gel said. "Sister and I will be there around lunchtime on Monday, if that's convenient."
"That's wonderful," Mary Turner said. "We'll never be able to thank you enough."
"We're glad to help," An'gel replied. "Now, there is one thing. We'd like to bring our ward, Benjy, with us, along with our dog and cat, Peanut and Endora. Will that be all right?"
"You bring whomever you want," Mary Turner said. "The more help, the better. I've heard that animals are especially sensitive to the supernatural."
"You and Sister," An'gel muttered. Then she spoke so Mary Turner could hear properly. "Thank you, my dear. Help is on the way."
"See you on Monday."
As An'gel laid the phone aside, she reflected that, by the end of the call, Mary Turner had a new note in her voice. She sounded hopeful, An'gel decided.
She was glad she'd managed to make Mary Turner feel better, but she wondered whether she and Dickce had committed themselves to solving a problem that would turn out to be more than they could handle. She figured a real live human being was playing tricks on the Catlins for some unknown purpose, but Cliffwood was an old house. Many sad and unpleasant things had happened there, particularly before, during, and right after the Civil War.
An'gel didn't believe in ghosts-not really-but there had been odd things that happened at Riverhill over the years. Doors closing on their own, the occasional cold spot in a room, small objects moved from their accustomed spots-nothing all that frightening, An'gel reflected, but odd. Definitely odd.
She and Dickce, along with Benjy, would have to keep their wits about them at Cliffwood, she decided. She wouldn't let odd things frighten her away.
The moment Dickce mentioned the word ghosts to Benjy, he grinned.
"Awesome." He looked down at the Labradoodle at his feet. "What do you think of that, Peanut? Are you ready to track down some ghosts?"
The dog gazed adoringly into the young man's face and barked twice. Benjy patted his head. "That means yes."
Dickce smiled and continued to stroke the Abyssinian she held in her arms. "What about you, Endora?"
The reddish-brown feline yawned and stretched, then began to purr.
"Sounds like they're both in," Benjy said. "How long do you think we'll be there?"
"I hope it won't take more than a week to get to the bottom of what's going on," Dickce replied.
A snort sounded from the direction of the stove. Dickce looked over to see the housekeeper, Clementine Sprayberry, arms folded over her chest, frowning at her.
"You and Miss An'gel don't need to go hunting ghosts anywhere," Clementine said. "Especially Natchez. I reckon you've heard how haunted it is. You're just asking for trouble if you go and stir things up."
"That's even more awesome." Benjy laughed. "A whole town that's haunted."
"You laugh all you want to," Clementine said. "I bet you'll be the first one out the door ten seconds after some horrible thing wakes you up in the middle of the night and tries to get you."
"What kind of horrible thing?" Dickce felt a chill at the conviction in the housekeeper's voice. She knew Clementine believed in spirits, and she herself had never made up her mind about them.
"No telling." Clementine shook her head. "Terrible things happened all over that town for three hundred years, and you don't know what might still be lurking."
Benjy's expression of amusement faded, Dickce noticed, in the face of Clementine's unrelenting certainty. He turned to Dickce. "How bad can it really be? I don't know anything about Natchez."
"There are a few books on Natchez in An'gel's study," Dickce said. "The town has a fascinating history, and you might want to do some reading before we go. Terrible things happened during the Civil War when the Union Army took over the town, and Natchez was a violent place in its early days. The books will give you all the details that I can't remember."
Benjy brightened. "Would Miss An'gel mind if I went in there right now to look for the books? If she's really busy, I don't want to disturb her."
"I'm sure she wouldn't mind, even if she is busy." Dickce knew her sister was as pleased about Benjy's interest in reading as she was. They had high hopes for him when he started Athena College the coming spring semester.
"Awesome." Benjy rose from his chair, his sang-froid seemingly restored. "Come on, Peanut, you know Miss An'gel always likes to see you." The dog loped after the young man as Benjy headed out of the kitchen.
"Whereas you, Missy," Dickce said to the cat still nestled in her arms, "are another story. An'gel can't get over the fact that you prefer me." She chuckled.
"Gracious, the way y'all talk to those animals." Clementine laughed.
Dickce shot the housekeeper a pointed glance. "I've heard you talk to them both plenty of times yourself."
"Well, I reckon so." Clementine turned her attention back to the stove and picked the lid up from a pot of chicken and dumplings. "If y'all are going to treat 'em like people, I guess there's no reason I shouldn't do it, too." She stirred the pot for a moment. "Lunch is just about ready. Ten more minutes."
Dickce sniffed appreciatively. "The perfect thing for a cool fall day."
Clementine looked up from the stove. "Miss Dickce, y'all ever told Benjy about the things that go on here sometimes?"
Dickce stiffened, and Endora squeaked a protest. Dickce forced herself to relax. "What do mean, the things that go on here?"
"You know what I mean," Clementine said. "Doors closing all by themselves, things moving around after I've dusted, and you know I know to put things right back in the exact same place they've been the last hundred years." She sniffed. "Unless you and Miss An'gel are going around behind my back, trying to play tricks on me, you know ain't no earthly thing doing that."
"An'gel and I would certainly never play that kind of trick on you, and you know it." Dickce shook her head at the housekeeper. "I don't have any better explanation for it than you do, and to answer your original question, no, I haven't said anything to Benjy. I don't imagine An'gel has either. Since he has his own quarters above the garage, he probably might not ever notice anything here in the house."
"Maybe so." Clementine focused her attention on the stove again. "Still, y'all might better tell that boy, 'specially before y'all go hunting spirits in Natchez."
"You might be right. I'll discuss it with An'gel." Dickce set the cat on the floor. "Come on, Endora. After I wash my hands, we're going to set the table." To her amusement, the cat, after a yawn and a stretch, padded after her to the powder room under the stairs and waited until Dickce finished her ablutions.
While Dickce set the table, Endora sat in the doorway and watched. After a couple of minutes, apparently bored, she disappeared down the hall. Dickce figured she had gone in search of Peanut and Benjy.
Dickce performed her task without giving much thought to what she was doing. Her thoughts focused on the upcoming trip to Natchez, and their reason for going. She hated to admit it-and she doubted she would admit it to An'gel-but Clementine's dire warning had spooked her a little. As had the housekeeper's reminder about the occasional unsettling experience here at Riverhill. She and An'gel really should tell Benjy, she decided. He ought to know, because someday he would most likely be the owner of the house, since she and An'gel had no blood descendants to inherit from them.
The last piece of cutlery in place, Dickce gazed at the table. Had she forgotten anything?
"Looks fine to me," she murmured.
As she continued to think about the housekeeper's words, Dickce felt a prickle on the back of her neck.
What if Clementine is right? What if we stir up something in that house we can't handle?
Benjy braked the car gently to a halt, shifted into Park, and switched off the ignition. His shoulders ached lightly from the long drive, as did his head, but he figured a little pain was a small price to pay for having arrived at Cliffwood in one piece. Miss Dickce had pouted for a few minutes when Miss An'gel asked him to drive them all the way to Natchez. Miss An'gel refused to budge over her sister's protests. Miss Dickce acted like a good sport and hadn't sulked for long.
If Miss Dickce had driven them, Benjy reckoned, she would have received several tickets coming down the Natchez Trace. The speed limit was only fifty miles an hour, and Miss Dickce had trouble driving less than eighty no matter where she was going. He enjoyed the more leisurely pace because it afforded him the opportunity to appreciate the hues of the fall foliage-rich golds and yellows, vibrant reds, browns, and greens. Where he grew up in Southern California, there was nothing like this panoply of autumn colors.