The Unmarked Grave

A Cat Daniels mystery

by Jeani Rector

Table of Contents
Chapter 7, Chapter 8
appeared in issue 206.
Chapter 9

The story has been withdrawn at the author’s request.

As the girls began the long walk to Creekside Cemetery, Cat was nervous. Again the sky was overcast, and black clouds advanced from the west. Why do our trips to the cemetery always coincide with an approaching storm? Cat wondered. It was as if an ominous force sensed where they were headed and was determined to make its disapproval known.

Neither girl spoke much during the walk. The farther away from the populated areas they traveled, the quieter they became. By the time they reached the cracked and uneven concrete slabs that began at the outskirts of town, both girls were completely silent, lost in their own thoughts. They stepped carefully, as the sidewalk alternatively rose and sank, with grass pushing through the cracks. In the fields, weeds grew with wild abandon. Cat looked at the limbs on the feral trees — how their twisted branches resembled fingers beckoning them forward.

“Everything seems spooky out here,” Tara commented.

“It’s just that everything is so wild,” Cat reassured Tara. “Things seem to have a life of their own out here.”

Tara didn’t seem reassured. “I have a bad feeling about today.”

“Let’s get it over with,” Cat told Tara. “We’ve come this far. We’ll talk to Mr. Gatland, and then we’ll leave. We won’t stay very long.”

The girls reached Road 18. They saw a rusty old pickup truck parked in front of the old, cast-iron arbor that was the entrance to Creekside Cemetery. “That means Mr. Gatland must already be here,” Cat observed.

Everything seemed quiet — too quiet. The sense of stillness was overpowering. Where were the birds? Where were the insects, or the squirrels? There was simply no sound, no motion, as if all the creatures were silently hiding; watching and waiting.

The girls came to the entrance of the graveyard. A slight wind picked up. The intense stillness was finally broken, and movement began again, as though the world was releasing the breath it held. A creaking noise sounded, as two twisted limbs of an old, gnarled tree rubbed together in the soft breeze. The weeds fluttered with a sighing sound. The ground rustled with small creatures that fled into their holes and other hiding spots, seeking shelter in dark places.

They entered the cemetery, and the uneven gravel road crunched beneath their feet. The girls carefully picked their way through prickly weeds with cheerful yellow flowers that belied the thorns hiding underneath. Passing by a centuries-old oak, they reached the first family plot, and noticed the moss and lichens on the cement border. The entire cemetery was bent with age, as gravity pulled tree limbs towards the earth, and many headstones lay prone on the ground, victims of time and vandalism.

Creekside Cemetery felt even more sinister than the last time they were here – almost scary. The girls were watchful, eyeing all directions as they continued. They had seen the pickup truck parked in front of the cemetery on Road 18, and they

figured the truck belonged to Mr. Gatland. So where was he?

A man suddenly appeared from behind a tree, and the girls were startled. He was tall, gaunt, and wore jeans and a plaid lumberjack shirt. He had dark brown hair and had the beginnings of a beard; the stubble on his chin was flecked with gray.

“Hey there!” he called. “Are you Cat and Tara? Of course you are,” he continued before the girls could answer. “Did I scare you?”

“No,” Tara lied, “not at all.”

“We knew you were here because we saw your truck,” Cat added. “Are you Mr. Gatland?”

“Call me Bob,” he said, and strode up to them. “Are you sure I didn’t scare you?” he asked hopefully.

“Well,” Tara admitted, “maybe we were a little scared, because you just jumped out from nowhere. And, this is Halloween, and this is a graveyard.”

“That’s right,” Bob guffawed. “Say, girls, do you want a tour of Creekside Cemetery? Unfortunately there’s been some more vandalism lately. I have to keep a special eye on the Foster graves. They were sort of famous back in the 1930s, so vandals target them the most.”

“We’ve heard the stories,” Cat said. “The newspapers claimed their daughter murdered them.”

“Ain’t no ‘claimed’ about it,” Bob said. “The daughter did do it.”

“Can you show us where other people are buried? Do you know, for instance, if there’s anyone buried behind the Foster graves? And do you know where Mark Stratton is buried?” Cat asked, trying to sound casual.

“Now, how in the world do you know about Mark Stratton?” Bob looked closely at Cat.

“Oh,” Cat quickly thought up a story. She didn’t want Bob to know how much she and Tara knew about the history of Jessica Foster and Mark Stratton. “We had local history as a class project last week. You know, we learned about some of the people who lived in Rivertown a long time ago. The Foster murders are sort of a legend, and we were told that Mark Stratton was their son-in-law.”

“Mark Stratton never married anybody. And I never heard of a school teaching kids about murder cases.” Bob turned his intense stare on Cat.

“Well, at our school, they did,” Tara spoke up, and thrust her chin out in defiance. Bob turned to look at Tara.

Cat wondered silently, Does Mr. Gatland really believe that Mark and Jessica never married, or is he deliberately lying? Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Bob and Tara stared intently at each other. She had a fleeting thought: This man could be dangerous.

Then suddenly, Bob’s face lit up in a grin and his whole appearance changed. “Okay, girls,” he said cheerfully, “I’ll give you murder stories. What better way to spend Halloween, right? But first I want to show you where all my relatives are buried.”

He led the girls through the small cemetery, pointing out headstones, and identifying his cousins and grandparents that lay underground. Cat and Tara followed, listening politely as Bob told his family history.

Eventually Bob made his way back to the Foster gravesite, and the girls followed on the ancient, cracked pavement in front of the large, raised bed. They looked at the seven-inch high cement border, where inside no grass was planted. There it was — the large tombstone that contained both Foster names.

“Can you tell us the story about the Fosters?” Cat asked. She wanted to hear Bob’s version.

“The tombstone says, Joined in life through marriage, joined in death through tragedy. James R. Foster, died November 1, 1935. Edith S. Foster, died November 1, 1935,” Bob began.

He told the story. “The Fosters had a daughter named Jessie. She was pregnant and wouldn’t tell anybody who the father was. So James and Edith told Jessie she would get no money from them. Well, Jessie didn’t take to that one bit.

“Story goes, in the dead of night over sixty-five years ago, Jessie crept into her parents’ house, sneaked into their bedroom under the cloak of darkness, and then wham! She murdered her own parents with a kitchen knife. Tonight is the anniversary of the Fosters’ death — right after midnight tonight.”

Completely unnerved, Cat dropped her backpack onto the ground. The little brown ledger book dropped out and rolled almost to Bob’s feet.

“What’s that?” he cried.

Cat lunged for the book, grabbing it before Bob could reach for it. She shoved it back into her backpack.

“What’s that?” Bob repeated. “It looked like a ledger book.”

“It’s nothing,” Cat told him.

“Let me see it!” Bob demanded. Cat could tell by his reaction that Bob already knew what the little ledger book contained.

“I told you it’s nothing!” Cat cried.

“That book doesn’t belong to you,” Bob told her sternly. “Give it to me and I’ll return it to its rightful owner.”

“Who is its rightful owner? Do you mean Henry Foster? Is he still alive?” Cat was prepared to fight for the book if she had to.

But suddenly she was distracted by something she saw over Bob’s shoulder; something that caught her eye. Bob was facing her and had his back to the Foster gravesite, so he didn’t see what was behind him. But Cat could sense Tara stiffening, so she knew Tara saw it, too.

There was a shimmering light floating over the weeds behind the Foster gravesite. It was translucent and sparkled as though it was sprinkled with morning dew. It got stronger until it formed the shape of a person, but still it lacked any details, as though it was unfinished. The form seemed delicate and moved like waves in the ocean.

Both Cat and Tara continued to stare, their mouths open in surprise. Their hearts pounded in their chests as fear pumped through their veins, but the girls didn’t run. It was as though they were so frightened, they were frozen in place.

Cat felt horribly afraid, but she couldn’t stop herself from staring at what was floating above the ground. It moved and drifted in and out of sight, sometimes appearing easier to see, and other times almost disappearing.

The nearly transparent shape hovered in place, undulating as it shimmered. It resembled lace, having some substance, but thin enough to be able to see through it. It was a specter, a phantom; an elusive apparition that seemed like an impossibility, but it was there all the same.

Was it a ghost? Was Cat really seeing an actual ghost? Goosebumps raised the hair upright upon her arms, and she remained rooted in place, unable to move. She stared breathlessly at the ghost in the cemetery. She was too afraid to run, but she couldn’t look away, either, even though she wanted to close her eyes.

Ohmygosh, Cat thought in alarm, I really think I’m seeing a dead person come back to haunt Creekside Cemetery.

Then suddenly, the ghost faded into a mist and then it simply disappeared from sight.

Bob, seeing the girls’ expressions, turned around, but he was too late to witness anything. “What?” he asked in puzzlement.

“I think we just saw a ghost,” Tara said, her voice cracking.

“You girls have had too much Halloween,” Bob told them.

Cat realized she had been holding her breath, and she let it loose. “Let’s go look at where it was!”

The girls rushed to the area behind the Foster gravesites, and Bob followed. There was a circular area on the ground where the weeds were strangely absent. Scratched on the surface of the earth, as though written in the dirt with a big, pointed stick, were the words, She’s here.

“Ohmygosh!” Tara cried.

“It must mean Jessie!” Cat exclaimed. “Jessie is buried here!”

In a sudden rage, Bob jumped on the letters and furiously kicked his feet, stomping and scuffing up the dirt until the writing was completely covered with earth, sticks, and weeds. “Vandals!” he shouted. “It was just vandals!”

Cat and Tara both dropped their backpacks. “Don’t!” they cried in unison.

Bob stopped. “Listen to me, don’t you go getting any ideas about Jessica Foster being buried here. She isn’t,” he hissed at them. “She knew she would be caught for murdering her parents and so she ran away. Okay, there’s someone buried here in this spot. But it ain’t Jessica Foster.”

Cat asked, “Then who is buried here?”

“Mark Stratton. Mark Stratton was buried here in December of 1935,” Bob told them. “He was killed in a fall. Seems he fell on some farm machinery. He was very, very poor when he died, so there’s never been a tombstone here. Oh, there might have been a wooden cross at one time, but was over sixty-five years ago.”

“Mark is buried here,” Cat said softly in wonderment. She stood staring at the ground in fascination. She could still picture the ghost in her mind, hovering and shimmering. Now that it was gone, Cat no longer felt any fear.

Had the ghost been trying to communicate? Did it leave the words on the ground? Did the ghost write She’s here? What was the ghost trying to tell them? If Mark Stratton was buried underneath this piece of ground, why wouldn’t the ghost have written He’s here?

“Cat, I want to leave this place,” Tara said. “I admit it. I’m scared.” She still seemed shaken by appearance of their ghostly visitor.

Cat was also upset. It was one thing to dream about ghosts, but to actually see one in real life was an entirely different matter. “Yeah,” she agreed, “I’d like to leave too.”

“Here, don’t forget your backpacks,” Bob had one of them in his hands. He had picked it up off the ground. “Do you need a ride?”

“No, we don’t live very far,” Tara said. Neither girl felt safe with Bob, and they sure didn’t want to get into a car with him. “Thanks for the tour.”

Cat picked up the other backpack, and the girls walked back to the graveyard’s gravel road.

When they reached the centuries-old oak tree that stood sentry at the cast-iron arbor, Cat ducked behind it. She opened her backpack and searched inside.

“What are you doing?” Tara asked.

“The ledger,” Cat said frantically. “I want to make sure it’s still in here. Yes, here it is.” She sighed in relief as her fingers touched the ledger book.

“It was my backpack that Bob had in his hands,” Tara commented.

“Your backpack looks just like mine. Maybe just to be safe, you’d better take a look inside yours to see if anything’s missing,” Cat advised. “I think Mr. Gatland wanted this ledger book. I have a feeling he knows what it is. I wouldn’t put it past him to try to steal it.”

Tara rummaged around in her backpack. “Oh no,” she said, “I can’t find my address book.”

“Are you sure?” Cat asked.

“Positive.” Tara stopped searching and looked at Cat. “And you know what? My address book looked just like your little ledger book.”

“Ohmygosh!” Cat said. “Do you think Bob took it, thinking it was this ledger book?”

“At this point, I don’t care,” Tara said. “I’m sure not going back to ask him for that address book. I just want to get out of Creekside Cemetery. I never want to see this haunted place ever again. And I never want to see Bob Gatland again, either.”

The girls walked past the cast-iron arbor towards Road 18, gravel crunching under their feet. All the way home, they discussed the ghostly visitation, and also the odd behavior of Mr. Gatland.

Proceed to Chapter 10...

Copyright © 2006 by Jeani Rector


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