Wilshire, Maryland, a quaint shore town on the Chesapeake, promises Darrell Henshaw a new start in life and a second chance at love. That is, until he learns the town hides an ugly secret. A thirty-year-old murder in the high school. And a frightening ghost stalking his new office. Burned by an earlier encounter with the spirit world, Darrell doesn't want to get involved, but when the desperate ghost hounds him, he concedes. Assisted by his new love, he follows a trail that leads to the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even the Klu Klux Klan. Then, when two locals who try to help are murdered, Darrell is forced to decide if he's willing to risk his life—and the life of the woman he loves—to expose the killers of a young man he never knew.
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The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay
"You see that widow's walk up there, with the white railing and the cupola in the center? That's where they say he died."
The high school secretary, one Mrs. Harriet Sinclair, stood beside Darrell Henshaw on the cracked asphalt parking lot, her small, blue-veined hand pointing up to the third floor.
Darrell's gaze crawled up the two floors of traditional red brick and landed on the white fencing of the widow's walk. He'd noticed the unusual feature of the building when he arrived for the job interview two hours earlier.
Harriett's high voice continued. "Years ago, a student, some poor young black kid took his life up there. Some history, huh?"
Surprised, Darrell looked at the secretary, who kept her gaze focused on the top floor. She was serious.
Then Darrell returned his glance to the widow's walk. The brass-topped cupola shone green in the morning sun and below it, a bare-chested, young black man leaned against the fence, his hands dark smudges on the white railing. The youth stared down and met Darrell's gaze. Even though Darrell couldn't read the features on the face three floors up, he was mesmerized. Somehow, an overwhelming sense of sorrow and regret seemed to emanate from the young man, and for an instant, Darrell felt it pierce him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge. He shivered and stared, unable to look away. The figure at the fence shimmered and then disappeared.
Oh, God, no. Not again.
He turned to ask Harriet, but she rattled on about some of the less morbid history of the school. "That walk is famous, all right. There was the great piglet race up there and the famous protest streamers on the walk ..."
Darrell stopped listening. He hadn't felt that ... that sensation for years. Ten years. A decade earlier, he'd had a confrontation with another ghost. One that ended in death. It still haunted him.
Then, something Harriet said registered. "That window up there to the right, that'll be your office."
He struggled to find his voice. "My office?"
"Yep. At least, if Mr. Douglass likes what he hears when he calls your references." She winked at him, one gray eyebrow curling like an albino caterpillar. "Our athletic office isn't much, only a tiny space, but it's got the best view in the building. I thought you might appreciate the vantage point better from down here."
He got the job? He couldn't believe it. After thirty-seven resumes, eighteen phone calls, four failed interviews, he'd done it. And just in time, too.
He stared open-mouthed at the building, trying to keep his exhilaration under wraps, and then remembered the shimmering image of the young black man and realized the job may come with some extras. He was not thrilled about any extras, but he really needed the job. Before he had time to think about it, Harriet was off.
For the next forty minutes, she took Darrell on a non-stop tour of the empty high school, leading him past dueling trophy cases — one for sports, one for band — through run-down classrooms, and into a dilapidated gym with collapsing bleachers. Twice he paused, seeing an award or painting hanging crooked, and reached out to straighten it. He stopped himself and then had to hurry to catch up.
Harriet charged ahead, short legs pumping like pistons, while she regaled him with more stories about the old high school. Darrell was hardly able to catch his breath. At her pace, he felt like he'd done a 5K, zigzagging through hallways and up and down creaking stairs. They finished by climbing two flights of stairs to arrive at the athletic office.
As they reached the top step, a door in the hall slammed shut. Darrell jerked. He glanced over to his escort, who hadn't even flinched. Instead, the school secretary asked, as if reminded of something, "Mr. Henshaw, uh, do you believe in ... uh, ghosts?"
Darrell's mouth went dry. She didn't just ask that.
"What?" he managed.
Harriet shrugged, the collar of her gray dress almost touching the lowest locks of silver hair. "I simply asked if you were superstitious. You know, if you believe in ghosts?" She strolled over, turned the handle, and pulled open the door.
Darrell fought not to go pale. Could she possibly know about the ghost back home? He fumbled for an answer. "Uh, no more than most, I think. Why?"
Standing at the door, she lowered her glance, as if examining her black flats. "Well, uh, some folks say the school is haunted. Ghost of that student who committed suicide I was telling you about. They say his spirit likes to prowl the hallways at night, 'specially up here on the third floor."
Darrell remembered the figure staring down at him from the railing and the prickling hairs on his neck. He studied Harriet. She was serious.
But when her gaze lifted, the secretary smile was back in place. "What do you expect? It's an old school. Bound to hold a few skeletons, right?"
Harriet stepped inside the office, burying the subject as abruptly as she raised it. She led him in, and Darrell watched as dust mites rose and danced on a wave. The cramped space was small, eight by twelve maybe, with a worn, blue couch under the broad window and a standard gray metal desk and file cabinet on the wall opposite. A lone, wooden bookcase stood facing the door, barren and sad-looking, its shelves sagging.
She moved to the window, pointing, "Great view of the widow's walk from here, too."
Several questions pummeled his brain — about what happened on the walk, about the kid who died — but he needed this job, so he didn't ask.
She plowed on. "I got to get back to my desk. Mr. Douglass will need a few more minutes. If you want to get the feel of the place, you can hang out here if you like, but make sure you're back in his office in about fifteen minutes." Two brisk steps took her to the door.
Darrell thought of one question he figured it'd be safe to ask. "Harriet, you mentioned I was the last name on Principal Douglass' list of candidates. How come?"
She turned and grinned. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you. The answer's simple, though. None of the rest of the candidates were Yankees." She waved a hand. "Anyway, you must've made quite an impression, 'specially for a Yankee. Not many get the fifty-cent tour. Enjoyed showing ya around. I'm a good judge of character, and I think you'll do fine."
"Thanks, Harriet, for the tour and all the background. And the vote of confidence."
"I'll see you downstairs in a bit." Her leg pistons chugged, and she disappeared through the open doorway.
Darrell listened to her footsteps echo in the stairwell, and when the sound died away, he said aloud to the empty room, "O-kay, then." Exactly what he needed. Move half way across the country and run into another damn ghost. His gaze swept the small office and took in the widow's walk, remembering the shadowy figure at the railing and the tingle on his neck. He inspected the entire office for paranormal evidence. He saw nothing, of course. Still, there was someone or something there — he sensed it.
Ambling over to the picture window, he took in the expansive scene, white posts and railing of the widow's walk up close — with no young black man there — and the water of the Chesapeake shining emerald beyond. He could get used to this view.
He'd take the job and ... deal with the rest, if it came.
He strolled over to the door. Something drew his attention and twisting around, he glanced back into the office. A draft of cold air struck him. He shivered again.
He turned to go but couldn't. His shoes were glued to the floor. No, it felt like two huge hands held his ankles and wouldn't let him leave. He pulled on both legs. He stared down at his legs but saw only the smooth cuffs of his dress pants and his black Oxfords.
Ugly memories resurfaced, as if it were yesterday. His uncle's ghost using him as a conduit. The death of two friends. The crippling of his brother. Oh, hell, not again.
Sweat dripped down the side of Darrell's face, and he blurted out the only thing he could think of. "I haven't even been hired yet," he said in a harsh whisper. "And won't be, unless I get back down there to see the principal."
The grip on his ankles released. He opened the door, stepped through, and slammed it. In seconds, he hit the stairs, taking them two at a time.CHAPTER 2
It was the students' first day, and Darrell wanted to be there before anyone else. In the misty dawn, he stood facing the old Wilshire High School building, watching twelve mirrored suns in the ancient windows. He took a deep breath and released it. What a sight.
Over the past month, while he got his football team ready for the season and his classroom ready for teaching, he'd struck a bargain with himself. He would put his haunted childhood and cheating fiancée behind him and focus on the students, his students. When nothing more had happened after he felt the stranglehold on his ankles, he'd almost convinced himself he'd imagined the whole thing. Almost.
Examining the school, he reminded himself, this, this was what he really loved — connecting with teens, breaking through their shells, and helping them appreciate the history of their incredible country.
He studied the building — now, his building — fifty feet across the pockmarked parking lot. The old building's two sets of six domed windows perched beneath ornate white trim at the roof line. Once a proud building, years of winds and rain off the Chesapeake had pelted the surface into submission until the mortar wept and strips of the gray, aged cement dangled out like emaciated snakes. The new high school planned for next year would open none too soon.
"You're here awfully early, kid. Who you trying to impress?" called a voice from across the lot.
Darrell lowered his gaze and caught the broad grin of Al McClure, band director. A slim five-foot-eight, the guy bounded across the cracked asphalt to where Darrell stood. Al reached up and clasped Darrell on the shoulder.
"Couldn't sleep, huh?" Al asked, his face bright, his blue eyes bloodshot behind brown-framed glasses. "First day jitters?"
"Good sign. Means you're excited ... or scared." Al released his hold. "Look, twenty-seven years now and I'm here at the crack of dawn."
Darrell had met Al on his second day, and though a generation apart, the two men hit it off immediately. During a month of football practices and marching band camp before the school year began, Al had been glad to answer Darrell's many questions. But Al also delighted in taking every opportunity to needle him.
Standing there, Al asked, "Hey kid, you know why you play two halves of a football game?"
"So the crowd's ready for the real entertainment. The band halftime show." Al laughed, and Darrell couldn't help but chuckle, a little more relaxed.
Al asked, "Now, ready to head in to meet those not-so-anxious faces?"
"Almost. Trying to take it all in." Darrell squinted at the top of the school building, arm shielding his eyes against the multiple suns' reflections.
Al asked, "Hey, did you hear about the guy who stayed up all night to see where the sun went? Then it dawned on him."
"I get it." Darrell grinned, without shifting his gaze.
Atop the small third floor stood the crown of the old school building, a thirteenth domed window, a shorter version of the dozen below. The same one Darrell had studied for the first time more than a month ago, when Harriet pointed it out. When he saw the figure and sensed it. Even though he'd been in the office, his office, almost every day since and been on the widow's walk several times, the sensation had not returned. That was fine with him. He'd had enough of a "spiritual encounter" when he was a teen. He wasn't looking for another.
Then, as if his thoughts had summoned something, someone, Darrell saw a figure in his office window, a large, bare torso of a black man. The same one he'd seen on the day of his interview? His neck hairs started to prickle again. He glanced over to his friend and then back up. The sun rose a degree, igniting that window pane and incinerating the image. When Darrell adjusted his arm to see again, the top window was empty.
"Did you see that?" he asked Al.
"I saw somebody in my office. Black kid. A student, maybe?"
"Can't be." Al pushed his glasses up his nose and peered at the top floor. "No kids allowed in the building yet. Probably Jesse Stewart, head custodian. You know, he gets here early."
Custodian with his shirt off?
Darrell concentrated on the building. Beside the empty top window sat the widow's walk, surrounded on all sides with a railing fence of elaborate, carved white trim. An octagonal copper cupola, supported by four white corner posts, covered the walk. The walk was large, he'd found when he walked out there, probably twelve feet on a side, with room for several jostling adolescents. He'd never seen anything like it on a school building.
Al marched across the parking lot, hollering back over his shoulder, "The students'll be here before you know it."
"Mornin' Mr. McClure," called a short, wiry black man, who fell in step beside Al.
Al turned and smiled. "Morning, Jesse." The two disappeared together through the wooden double doors.
Darrell hustled to catch up and then pulled up short. Jesse? He shot another look at the window in his office — empty. It couldn't have been Jesse. The hairs on his neck stood on end again. Oh, shit. He brushed hand across his neck, shaking his head, and hurried inside.
* * *
Before his students arrived, Darrell tried to dismiss what he'd seen and calm his jittery nerves by setting out the essentials on his desk — class lists, textbooks, seating charts, gradebook — in a reassuring, rectangular arrangement. Then, he decided he wasn't happy with his chosen array, so he repositioned each, twice. Shaking his head, he reached to rearrange them again.
Leave them where they are, he thought. It won't matter to the teens. He stared at the almost "perfect" arrangement and remembered a time when he didn't have to set everything into perfect order. When he didn't feel the compulsion to control every part of life possible. When it was okay to let life happen. Before the first ghost.
Breathing slowly, he focused again on his players and his other students. That's why he was here he told himself again. These kids needed him, even if they didn't yet know it.
A few minutes later, he faced his first period class, arms crossed, as the students settled in, jostling in the uncomfortable desks and messing up the perfectly straight rows he'd taken pains to organize yesterday. These teens didn't look eager to learn history or ... anything else. Like adolescents everywhere, most appeared to wear their indifference like a badge of honor.
Principal Douglass had warned him. Most of his students were poor, and their body language screamed alienation and resentment. Instead of the designer clothes he'd seen in some of his classes in Michigan, most wore weathered tees with sayings like "Just do it" and "My other car is a Porsche" above cheap stirrup pants and ripped denim.
To start off, he completed the required first-day ritual — attendance, rules and regulations, lunch arrangements — but the students took little heed. Only his story of coming to Wilshire elicited any response. A skinny, black youth in an oversized FUBU tee shirt called out, "Dude, how dumb do ya have to be to leave the big city and come to this shit hole nothin' of a town to teach?"
Amid the laughter, Darrell chose not to confront the student yet. He'd learned the ones who act out first often need the most help. "Oh, I decided I needed a change. And Chesapeake Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the country." And, he thought, I needed to get away from my ex.
With not much time left, Darrell wanted to get something memorable into their first day's class and decided to start with a lesson that might nudge them a bit. He turned his back to the class, always a tricky proposition with teens, and wrote on the scarred blackboard, "American History." Then right below it, he scrawled, "The difference between being free or slave, being here or not." He turned and stared at the students.
Another male black student, this one near the front, large with a shaved head, grumbled, "What's a pasty white face like you know about slavery?"
A white girl in the second row with short black hair and multiple studs and earrings challenged, "Who cares what a bunch of white guys did back in the day, anyway?" She drew a round of "yeahs" from the other kids.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood on the Chesapeake"
Copyright © 2018 Randy Overbeck.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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