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Mary Stone Publishing

A Taste of… Dark Bet

Chapter One

Miriam Campbell shifted her weight on her three-legged cane stool and glanced at her wrist, frowning at the wrinkles and age spots that had taken up residence on her hand and arm a few decades ago. Her old-fashioned, gold-plated watch had taken a beating over the years, too, and lost some of its plating in the process. She didn’t care.

Old, battered, and not nearly as pretty, but still ticking, just like me.

She had to squint to make out which was the hour hand and which told the minutes, but she refused to get a new watch or refer to her cell phone like everyone seemed to do these days.

Miriam sighed and studied the tombstone she was sitting beside. Morris Gendry had died ten years earlier after living for sixty-three years.

“Well, Morris, it’s just about five o’clock. About time for the cemetery to close.” She shifted on the little stool that always became uncomfortable once her knees stopped complaining about standing.

Blowing out the left one when she was a young dancer had made walking and standing for long periods of time difficult. Of course, the stool was so hard, once she sat for a minute, her backside would start to smart and burn until it eventually went numb.

This stool is going to be the death of me.

“Pardon me, Morris.” She coughed hard, clutching her chest. “Stupid lungs never give me any peace either. I need a little something to take the edge off the pain.”

Miriam pulled a dented silver flask bearing the initials G.D. out of her purse and took a swig. She returned the flask and gave the tombstone an affectionate pat.

“Sorry I can’t offer you a drop to warm your bones, but I know you’re beyond that now. I can’t stay as late as I did during summer, you know. I will tell you that you’ll be missing out on some beautiful fall leaves this year. The colors are predicted to be superb, and the foliage has already started to change.”

An unexpected lump formed in her throat, and Miriam turned away, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief she’d pulled from her pocket.

“I must tell you, I’ve enjoyed these talks of ours more than you’ll ever know. Most people see me as a dotty old woman. Used up. But not you. You’re a good listener, and you’ve never judged once. Then again, I think I’d jump out of my skin if you did.”

Miriam snorted with laughter.

“Snowy Jasmine managed to escape the house again yesterday afternoon. I heard every tomcat in town yowling over her all hours of the night. She has a well-turned paw, that one.”

She chuckled again, her laughter echoing across the otherwise empty cemetery.

“Of course, you know that. I imagine there’ll be another litter of kittens to contend with in a couple months. It seems like it’s getting harder these days to give away free kittens. Still, I don’t have it in my heart to spay her. One of us should get to have a little fun once in a while, and she’s still young enough to enjoy it.”

Miriam dabbed at her eyes again, a wave of intense longing for days gone by rippling through her.

“Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it too. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky on my trip this week with more than just the slots.”

She faced the tombstone and cocked her head.

“Didn’t I tell you? I’m going to visit that casino in North Carolina again. It makes me feel like a kid. Gambling is so exciting, especially when it’s someone else’s dime.”

She chuckled again. The laugh came out more bitter than she would’ve liked. More tears fell, and she lowered her glasses, letting them rest against her chest on their sparkly chain to give her eyes a good wipe with the cloth.

“These days, it’s nearly impossible to find machines that take anything smaller than a quarter. But I found some. And damn, are they paying out, Morr—”

Crunch!

Miriam turned as something—or someone—stepped on a pile of dried leaves behind her. She squinted against the setting sun as she tried to make out the features of the figure standing there.

Darned cataracts. I can’t see worth a flip.

She reached for her glasses, but her trembling fingers kept missing where they hung from around her neck.

“Where is it?” The voice was a low rumble, growling like a lion ready to pounce on its prey.

A cold shiver ran up Miriam’s spine.

Something wasn’t right about that voice—clearly male—but she couldn’t quite put a finger on what.

She turned and lifted her chin in defiance. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, young man.”

The blurry-faced man took a step closer. “Tell me where it is.” His words were angry, dripping with desperation.

I’ll be darned if I’m going to let this whippersnapper boss me around.

Willing her knees to cooperate, Miriam drew herself to her full height, stabbing an arthritic finger toward his chest. “Listen here, buddy. You’d better show some respect. Do you care to explain what you’re looking for?”

Rage twisted the man’s features. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, you old hag.” He lunged for her, and Miriam clutched at the cane’s handle, hoping that her knee would hold out. It wobbled but didn’t give way.

I can never outrun him.

She picked up the cane chair and wielded it in front of her. “Get away from me!”

In one swift motion, he grabbed one of the legs of the chair and gave it a hard yank. Losing her balance, Miriam struggled to keep from falling, but her knee betrayed her. With a painful twist, it dislocated, sending a ripple of agony through her.

Arms flailing, Miriam tumbled backward. She hit the tombstone with a sickening thud, sharp pain shooting through the back of her head as she slid to the grass. Unable to move, she lay on the cold, hard ground, her vision blurry and fading.

I’m on top of Morris.

Where had that thought come from? She must’ve hit her head on his tombstone.

Hot breath wafted across her face, releasing a stench so foul Miriam could hardly breathe. She tried to kick out, but her right leg was pinned under her and her left one was on fire. It would be useless until she could get the knee back in place.

“Where is it?”

As her assailant screamed, spittle hit Miriam’s cheeks. The blackness grew deeper as his words faded.

Rough hands grabbed her left wrist, pain searing through her as the maniac tugged at her finger. Miriam hadn’t removed the ring there in decades, but since she’d lost weight in the last year, he had no trouble removing the piece of jewelry from her knuckle.

Leave me alone!

The words echoed in her head, but she couldn’t force them through her lips.

He pocketed the ring as a tear escaped her eye. Then the horrid man pinched her skin as he stole her beloved watch.

As he searched her pockets, Miriam began floating on an endless dark sea. Something was terribly wrong, but she couldn’t manage to snap out of her stupor.

Maybe part of her didn’t want to. The sea was peaceful, after all. But the pain…the pain kept intruding. It grew stronger and stronger, punctuating the peacefulness until Miriam opened her eyes.

Hazy trees swayed above her. The robber seemed to be gone. Was it over? Was she okay now? A wave of nausea broke over Miriam, and she screamed.

Her knee. She had to fix her knee.

Miriam pushed up on her elbows and managed to brace a shoulder against the gravestone. After a couple of tries, she also got her glasses in place. As she sat up, her left kneecap slid off to the side.

Tears stung Miriam’s eyes as she reached for her bad knee. The leg was already straight, so all she had to do was shove the kneecap back in place.

Before she could, a shadow moved between her and the sky. Sunset was still over an hour away. So with her glasses on securely, she looked up at the figure hovering over her. She knew this man well. His face was twisted with hate and fury.

“Do you think you can cross me, old woman? No one crosses me!”

Miriam opened her mouth to tell him she hadn’t. There had to be some kind of mistake. But when her lips parted, all that came out was a weak, hollow scream.

My luck has changed again.

Staring up into his face made fear clutch at Miriam’s heart. She’d spent her whole life gambling, and now—at the end—the cost of this bet was too high. She should’ve walked away from the table when she’d had the chance.

He picked up her fallen cane stool and lifted it high in the air.

How ironic.

Miriam was sure Morris would agree. Hands trembling, she groped around for something—anything—to protect herself with, but her fingers touched nothing but grass and dirt.

Say something…anything. Tell him you’d never double-cross him…that you have what he wants, but you had to hide it from…from…what’s his name?

Confusion clouded Miriam’s brain as pain and terror consumed her.

Another panicked scream erupted from her chest as the chair raced down toward her, crashing and splintering over her head.

Pain exploded throughout her body as blood filled her mouth. Her glasses flew off her face, thrusting her into a blurry world that was darkening by the second.

“No one betrays me!”

I never did. I’m going to die here with Morris, and no one will ever know why.

The stool came down a second time, and Miriam’s luck ran out.

Chapter Two

You will die!

Those three little words had been swirling in Detective Charli Cross’s head for the past fifteen hours, riding on her shoulders through the entire workday.

Who’d written them, and why?

She’d pissed off the local Savannah Mafia not long ago, and she’d also put away her fair share of criminals. Was one of them out for vengeance? It was possible, but Charli didn’t think so. She thought this threat was much more personal.

Last night, after getting a signed confession from a man who’d snapped and gone on a killing spree, Charli had been eager to crawl into bed and sleep away the exhaustion from the last several days. Instead, she’d come home to a ransacked house and the threatening message on her sitting room mirror.

Needless to say, it hadn’t been conducive to a good night’s rest.

Charli mentally chastised herself for the hundredth time that day as she strode across the parking lot of the Savannah Police Department, thumbing through the cold cases she’d just spent the day sorting. It was amazing how many criminals—particularly killers—were never found and went unpunished.

Including Madeline’s murderer.

Charli’s best friend was kidnapped right in front of her when they were both sixteen. After months of searching, Madeline Ferguson’s body turned up brutalized and butchered. The killer’d never been found, and Charli’d never stopped searching. It was a big part of why she’d become a cop in the first place.

In the distance, a horn honked loud and long. Charli ignored it and kept walking.

She hadn’t found Madeline’s killer, but it seemed he might have eyes on her. Charli had received letters at home and at work purporting to be from Madeline’s killer. And since the break-in the night before, she’d been more than a little on edge.

After dusting for prints, bagging potential evidence, and photographing and videoing her sanctuary-turned-crime-scene, Charli realized whoever broke in had been smart. They’d used gloves while touching everything in her house. The lipstick on the mirror had even been her own.

Other than filing an official report, Charli had done everything by the book. But had she done the right thing by not reporting the break-in? The question nagged at her.

A sense of soul-crushing guilt threatened to overwhelm Charli. The last thing her department needed was to be pulled from pressing cases to investigate another empty threat to her…right? More importantly, she didn’t want her partner or the sergeant to flip out and pull her off a case. Or worse, try to protect her. She set her jaw, more determined than ever to find the person responsible.

Another long blast from a horn made her jump. It was even closer this time.

What was wrong with people? Couldn’t she just have a few minutes of blissful quiet while she walked to her car? Did everyone need to be so loud?

And just why had she parked so far away from the building anyway?

Because you need to work off the five pounds you packed on during the last few weeks of back-to-back cases, thanks to little sleep and a crappy diet. Besides, it’s—

A truck swerved in front of her and squealed to a stop. Tiny pebbles from the asphalt pelted Charli’s ankles as she jumped backward. What the hell? Her heart pounded hard, but from anger and irritation now.

“Charli! What’s wrong with you? I’ve been honking and shouting.”

Leaning out the window, Detective Matthew Church shot her a get your head out of the clouds look. Her partner was clearly impatient.

Charli forced herself to take a deep breath instead of kicking his tires. “You know, I could arrest you for assault and battery. And of a police officer, even.”

He rolled his eyes. “I never touched you, so you’ve only got assault.”

Charli pointed at her ankles. “Uh-uh. Your reckless driving caused pebbles to hit me. That’s battery, and you know it.”

“No, no.” The six-two detective wagged his finger. “That was an unforeseen consequence. Besides, it’s not my fault your pants are cropped.”

“First, the length of my pants is none of your concern, and second, you were driving recklessly, so was it really unforeseen that—”

“Unless you’re going to law school now, cut the crap and get in the truck.” Matthew ran a hand down his face. “We’ve got a body.”

Every ounce of humor fled. “Is it a kid?” They’d had an inordinate number of those as of late.

“Nah. Opposite. An elderly lady. Maybe we’ll get lucky and discover she died of natural causes.” Matthew patted the passenger’s seat. “Get in. I’m driving.”

Charli sighed and got in the truck. “You ever notice you drive a lot lately?”

“What? It helps me think.”

If Charli hadn’t been so weary, she would’ve smiled. “It’s not working very well.”

Matthew shot her a phony glare. “Ha ha. Besides, we’ll get there faster with me behind the wheel.”

Charli put on her seat belt, strapping it down tight. “But in one piece? That is the question.”

“I’m cautiously reckless.” Matthew stomped down on the gas, throwing Charli against the backrest of her seat as the vehicle shot forward.

She reached for the “oh shit” handle. “Where are we heading?”

“A cemetery.” His answer was clipped, different from his earlier jocularity.

Charli studied her partner, noting the tendon in his jaw tightening and pulsing.

“Which one?” She didn’t really have to ask. Based on his sudden change, she already had a pretty good idea.

“Bonaventure.”

Of course.

Bonaventure was arguably Savannah’s most famous cemetery. Maybe even the most famous cemetery in the entire country, with the only possible exceptions being Arlington and the one where the voodoo queen was buried in New Orleans. Even more significant, though, was that Bonaventure was where Charli and her best friend had been walking when Madeline was snatched.

“Damn.”

Matthew shot her a sorry glance. “That’s about right.”

They spent the rest of the drive in silence. Charli appreciated that Matt didn’t attempt to make small talk or, worse, get her to open up about her feelings. He had a tendency to do just that. How many times did she have to tell him things were complicated, and she was dealing in her own way, or that she’d talk about it when she was ready?

Which I’ll never be.

Once they arrived at the cemetery, an officer directed Matthew where to park while memories flooded Charli’s mind. She shook her head, determined to shove the thoughts aside and focus on the present.

Charli climbed out of the truck and perused the area. The place was quiet and even creepier at this time of the evening as dusk began to blanket the graves. That was to be expected. There was a reason so many ghost tours and thrill seekers frequented cemeteries at night.

Among the first on the scene, they signed into the logbook and exchanged pleasantries with the officer who’d shown them where to park. One cop was busy putting up crime-scene tape while two others erected floodlights.

Matthew scanned the area. “Looks like forensics isn’t here yet.”

Charli handed one of the flashlights she’d grabbed from the truck to Matthew, switching hers on. “Then let’s be careful where we step.”

“Roger that.” He took the flashlight she offered him and turned it on as well.

The officer putting up the crime-scene tape stepped into the glow from one of the lights.

Charli recognized Officer Acosta’s eager, youthful face right off. She held up her hand and waved him over, reminding herself to not call him Officer Boy Band to his face. It was the name that’d come to mind the first time she met him, and it wanted to stick.

He trotted over at a good clip. “Detectives, it’s good to see you again.” His black hair curled over his left eye, and his dimples were on full display.

Matthew shook his head. “Well, I’d say the same thing, but under the circumstances…”

“Of course. Yes, this is, you know, bad.” The poor guy was flustered, running his hands through his hair and straightening his shirt.

“It’s okay, Officer Acosta.” Charli flashed him a smile. “What can you tell us?”

“Right. The groundskeeper was locking up when he found the body. It’s an old woman.”

Charli frowned. “The groundskeeper wouldn’t happen to be Cedric—”

“De Bassio. Yes, ma’am.

Interesting. It wasn’t the first time Cedric De Bassio had found a victim in the cemetery, the previous time being when they were dealing with the voodoo case not so long ago.

Charli glanced around, searching for the groundskeeper. “Where is Mr. De Bassio now?”

“He’s with Officer Brown at the front of the grounds.”

Charli hadn’t seen the groundskeeper when they entered, but he’d likely been sitting in the officer’s cruiser.

She turned to Matthew. “Let’s go speak with De Bassio while they set up and forensics arrives.

Evidence could so easily be lost at a place like this where the soft ground would take any print, including those of the officers trying not to disturb anything.

They walked about a tenth of a mile, if that, back to the front of the cemetery. Charli had guessed right, and Cedric was sitting in the back of the cruiser with an emergency blanket wrapped around him. If she remembered correctly, he was a little over sixty. At the moment, though, as he hunched over, the ashen cast to his haggard face and dark skin made him appear much, much older.

“Mr. De Bassio, I’m not sure if you remember, but I’m Detective Charlotte Cross.” Charli showed her badge as she reintroduced herself. “This is my partner, Detective Matthew Church.”

Cedric nodded, his head jerking up and down as if it were being pulled by an invisible string. “Of course. I remember you both from that horrible voodoo business.”

Charli flashed him a soft smile as she pulled out her notebook and pen. “It wasn’t actually voodoo.”

The groundskeeper shrugged, clearly not convinced. “So you say.”

Matthew cleared his throat and crouched down near Cedric. “Can you tell us what happened here tonight?”

Cedric ran his hand over his tight gray curls, his movements erratic. The poor guy looked like he’d seen a ghost. Charli remembered him being rattled the first time, but now, he was worse. Two bodies so close together could overwhelm anyone.

Well, two bodies that weren’t supposed to be in a cemetery yet.

“Cemetery closes at five. I always check for stragglers before locking up and going home. I found…I found the old woman, her head split open.” He tugged the blanket around him tighter. “I knew straight off she was dead. I called the police, then came out here to wait. I don’t think I touched anything, but you’ll find my footprints all over.”

Charli winced. That was exactly what she’d been trying to avoid doing herself—tearing up the grass and obliterating any prints that might already be there.

Matthew nodded. “Did you get a good look at her?”

Cedric exhaled long and hard. “Fair enough, I’d say.”

Matthew’s eyes narrowed. “And had you seen her in the cemetery before?”

Cedric bit his lower lip and dropped his gaze. “I’ve seen her once or twice. At least, I think I have.”

Charli pinned Cedric with her stare. He wasn’t being truthful. “Are you sure?”

The older man hesitated before nodding. “Yes. I’ve seen her before. She sits by that same grave.”

Why had that been so difficult to admit? If the elderly woman was a regular visitor, someone might’ve known that. A cemetery was just as good a place to kill a target as anywhere else. Maybe even better. They were often isolated, and there weren’t a lot of pesky cameras around. A body could even sit for hours without being discovered.

A car drove up, and Dr. Randal Soames, a medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, rolled down his window.

He gave Charli a boyish grin. “Did someone invite me to a party?“

4.4/5

Murder holds the winning hand.

After obtaining a signed confession from the murderer on her last case, Detective Charli Cross was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Instead, she returns to a ransacked home, and later discovers a chilling threat—secured to her door with a butcher knife.

Will she ever get a moment of peace?

The investigation of these personal threats is put on hold when the body of an elderly woman is discovered in Bonaventure Cemetery— the very place where Charli’s best friend was kidnapped from years before. Why would anyone kill a sweet, seventy-year-old lady whose only vice appears to be her love of gambling?… Read More