For residents of Salem, Massachusetts, the day after Halloween brings empty candy wrappers, sagging pumpkins, and a community-wide identity crisis. That is, until Lee Barrett’s TV production class suggests extending the spooky season with the traditional Mexican celebration Dia de Los Muertos. But when the students discover not all of Salem’s dead are resting in peace, the post-October blues don’t seem so bad after all . . .
As if a series of haunting graveyard visits isn’t disturbing enough, Lee and her policeman boyfriend connect the crime to an unsolved missing person case. Driven by a series of chilling psychic visions, Lee calls on her cleverest allies—including her shrewd cat, O’Ryan—to go underground and dig up the evidence needed to put a lid on a cold case forever . . . before the latest headstone in town has her name on it!
Praise for the Witch City Mysteries
“Perfectly relaxing and readable.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This rewarding paranormal cozy series debut will have Victoria Laurie fans lining up to follow.” —Library Journal
“[A]n entertaining story that keeps readers guessing until the very twisted and eerie end.” —RT Book Reviews
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If you've ever been to my hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, during the month of October, you know how crazy it can be — and the closer you get to Halloween, the nuttier it becomes. The following week though, is the exact opposite — kind of like a deflated balloon. The empty candy wrappers have been swept from the streets, the carved pumpkins have gone soft, their jagged-toothed smiles sagging crookedly, and most of the visiting witches and witch wannabes have left town.
I'm Lee Barrett, née Maralee Kowolski, thirty-two, red-haired and Salem-born. I was orphaned early, married once and widowed young. I teach a course in Television Production at the Tabitha Trumbull Academy of the Arts — Salem's newest school. We call it "the Tabby." The sprawling building was once Trumbull's Department Store, back in the 1960s before the shopping malls came. Tabitha Trumbull, the school's namesake, was the founder's wife.
I've worked in television, mostly in front of the camera, ever since graduating from Emerson College, but this was just my second year as a teacher. My lesson plan called for special emphasis on interview skills and investigative reporting. I'd been boning up on those topics myself, with the aid of a shelf full of textbooks and some real-life investigation advice from my police detective boyfriend, Pete Mondello.
Today, one of my students thought of a way to spice up the annual let-down that invariably follows Halloween and to, at the same time, fulfill our annual class assignment — producing a video involving some aspect of Salem's history. Hilda Mendez thought it might be fun to get the city involved in celebrating Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — the traditional Mexican celebration that takes place at the beginning of November.
"It's a happier holiday than Halloween," she said. "It celebrates all the cool stuff people enjoyed when they were alive — food and drink and fancy clothes and parties. There are sugar skulls and paper skeletons and flowers at the gravesides and everybody has a good time." Hilda's enthusiasm was contagious. "Salem has such wicked cool cemeteries. Think about it! Close-ups of those really creepy headstones — the ones with the winged skeleton faces and the weird inscriptions. What great video!"
Therese Della Monica, a returning student (and a novice witch-in-training), chimed in. "I'm sure at least one of the old cemeteries is haunted. Maybe all of them!"
"I like it," I said. "Those cemeteries are historical sites for sure, and the whole celebration seems like a perfect fit for Salem. What do the rest of you think?"
I glanced around my classroom which was located in what had been the mezzanine shoe department of the old Trumbull's Department Store. Now a giant flat screen TV, assorted monitors, news desk, green screen and cameras — both rolling and stationary — shared space with vintage Thonet chairs, a lithographed cutout of Buster Brown and his dog Tige, a neon macaw advertising Poll Parrot shoes and a large half-model of a black patent leather pump.
Two men and four women had signed up for the course. Therese was back for more behind-the-camera training. Hilda and the others were new faces. The arts courses offered at the Tabby held attraction for people of all ages who'd always wanted to act or paint or dance or write or — as in the case of my classes — to be involved in the world of television, either behind or in front of the camera.
My oldest students were a pair of over sixty-five identical twins — retired Boston police officers named Roger and Ray Temple, with aspirations of investigative reporting. The two not only dressed alike, but often spoke in unison and/or finished each other's sentences. Quite disconcerting until you got used to it.
"Well," began Roger, "gotta go by the book here, y'know. Pull the right permits. Involve city hall."
"By the book," echoed Ray. "Can't just go around stomping through cemeteries, violating ordinances."
Shannon Dumas paused in mid-application of lip gloss to a perfect pout. "Anybody can visit the graveyards. They even have tours you can go on." Shannon, at nineteen, was the youngest of the group and planned on a career as a television anchor. "Can we wear those great off-the-shoulder Mexican dresses? With all the gorgeous embroidery?"
The twins gave synchronized headshakes and arm foldings. Hilda nodded and Therese looked thoughtful. The remaining woman in the class, Dorothy Alden, spoke up softly — too softly for the on-camera investigative reporting role she seemed to be envisioning, but we were working on that. I leaned forward to catch her words.
"Maybe we could go on one of those tours Shannon was talking about?"
The suggestion was met with "yeahs," and "good ideas," and a simultaneous nod between the twins.
"I know one of the best guides," Therese said. "Want me to see if we can get a reservation for a private tour? Just us? No tourists?"
"A reservation is probably a good idea," I said. "The summer visitors have pretty much left, but the leaf-peepers are here now, and in a few weeks the Halloween mob will start showing up."
"It doesn't give us much time to plan if we're going to pull this off in November," said Hilda, "but it's not a super complicated event. We should be able to do it."
"Maybe we can involve the Art Department," Therese offered. "Maybe Costumes and Makeup too."
"Of course we'll need Mr. Pennington's approval," I said. "I'm sure he'll like the idea though."
Rupert Pennington was the director of the Tabby, and since last year's video project had scored the school a substantial federal grant, I was confident he'd okay the plan. Besides that, Mr. Pennington was dating my sixty-something ball-of-f ire aunt, Isobel Russell. Aunt Ibby was the one who'd raised me after my parents died in a plane accident when I was five.
"How many cemeteries are there in Salem anyway?" Shannon asked. "We ought to check them all out to be sure we pick the best one."
Hilda held up her smart phone. "There are ten," she said. "I already checked."
"We should probably narrow it down to the really old ones." Dorothy spoke a little louder this time.
Hilda nodded. "Yeah. The ones with the really creepy headstones."
"It's the Howard Street Cemetery then, for sure." Therese's tone was firm. "It has the creepy headstones and it's definitely haunted."
"Haunted? Really?" Shannon's already wide eyes grew even bigger.
The twins snorted in unison. "Nonsense," said Ray. "No such thing," Roger sputtered.
Therese smiled. "You'll see. Old Giles Corey is still there ... floating around ... touching people with his cold, dead hands." She waved her arms in the air, fixing the twins with a blue-eyed stare. "And it was the sheriff who tortured him to death. Piled rocks on the poor old man's chest until he suffocated, just because he wouldn't admit to being a witch." She dropped her voice to a whisper, still smiling. "Hey, you guys weren't sheriffs by any chance, were you?"
That brought firm headshakes of denial from the two.
Hilda snapped her fingers. "Hey! The cemetery covers the history angle and we can probably get some interviews from people who think they've been groped by a ghost."
"Then we can investigate the dumb ghost story," Ray said, "and debunk the whole thing."
Roger nodded. "That's real investigative reporting. Right, Ms. Barrett?"
"That's one way to look at it," I agreed. "It's a short ride over to Howard Street. What do you say we take a little field trip? Then we'll put together a proposal for Mr. Pennington."
The idea of a field trip, of spending time outside of a school building, is just as attractive to adult students as it is to little kids. Car pooling arrangements were hastily made. The twins would take Shannon with them in their Ford Crown Victoria, Hilda and Therese would ride in Hilda's Jeep and Dorothy would come with me in my almost new two-seater Corvette Stingray.
Since second-year student Therese had the most experience with camcorders, I entrusted her with one of the Tabby's new Panasonic shoulder-mounted models. "Therese, put on your director's hat. You're in charge." I could tell by her shy smile that she was pleased with the responsibility. "The rest of us can use our phones or personal cameras," I said. "This is just a preliminary exercise. A little 'show and tell' for Mr. Pennington."
In a more or less orderly fashion we trooped from the classroom area to the mezzanine landing where a life-size portrait of the old store's founder, Oliver Wendel Trumbull, gazed benignly across the main floor of his once-upon-a-time retail kingdom. Together we clattered down the broad stairway, across the polished hardwood floor and through the glass doors onto Essex Street.
At the entrance to the Tabby's parking lot we separated, each of us heading for his or her designated ride. I motioned for Dorothy to follow me to the Laguna blue 'vette, glad for the opportunity to spend a few one-on-one minutes with the soft-spoken young woman. She'd told us that she'd come to Salem from Alaska, but other than answering a few general questions about cold weather, northern lights, ice fishing and the presence of bears in her backyard, she'd shared very little information about herself.
"What a beautiful car." She gave the sweet curve of a rear fender a gentle pat and I noticed that her fingernails were bitten down to the quick. "Bet it's fast too," she murmured.
"Sure is," I said. "My late husband, Johnny Barrett, was a NASCAR driver. Got my love for big, speedy American cars from him."
She climbed into the passenger seat and I took my place behind the wheel.
"I'm sorry," she said, "about your husband. I know what it's like to lose someone you love."
I waited for her to continue — to tell me about her own loss. But she'd lapsed into silence, turning away from me, seemingly intent on the passing scenery. It had been three years since Johnny's death but I still didn't like talking about it, so I could understand her not opening up. I searched for another topic as we approached the fenced-in green expanse of the Salem Common before she spoke again.
"It seems to me there ought to be sheep in there, enjoying all that nice grass."
"A few hundred years ago, I guess there were. But the only livestock on the Common these days are the squirrels and, of course, dogs chasing Frisbees."
"Do you have a dog?"
"Nope. No dog. Just a big yellow cat. Do you?" I smiled, thinking of O'Ryan, the very special cat who shared the big house on Winter Street with Aunt Ibby and me. O'Ryan is far from being an ordinary housecat. He once belonged to a witch — her "familiar," some say. In Salem, a witch's familiar is to be respected — and sometimes feared.
"I have several dogs, back in Alaska," she said. "They're quite necessary for transportation."
"Transportation?" Surprise showed in my voice. "You mean like dog sleds? Mush? Like that?"
She ran her fingers through short brown hair and smiled. "I guess I didn't mention that I've been living 'off the grid,' as they say, for several years."
"Wow." I was seriously impressed. "I've never met anyone who did that before. No TV? No indoor plumbing? No electricity?"
"That's about it," she said as we turned onto Howard Street and moved slowly downhill toward the cemetery. She leaned forward in her seat as staggered rows of tombstones came into view. "And as soon as I've learned what you can teach me about conducting an investigation, I'll be heading back to Alaska."
"I'll do my best," I said. "I think you'll find the course useful. Are you planning a TV reporting career up there?"
Again, the soft laugh. "Hell, no. I just think your class might save me some time in figuring out who murdered my sister."
Before I'd had time to react to that little bombshell we'd reached the parking lot between the cemetery and the old Salem jail. I parked beside the Crown Vic and, with a smile, Dorothy climbed out and joined her classmates at the cemetery entrance.
"Come on, Ms. Barrett," Shannon called. "Therese is going to get a shot of us going in."
"Try not to get any ghosts in the picture, okay Therese?" Hilda said, with a sidelong glance at the twins. "I've heard that they can ruin a whole photo shoot with those darned floating white orbs."
"Lot of graves in there," Ray said, peering over the wrought iron fence.
"Whole lot of graves," Roger echoed.
"Over three hundred," Hilda said. "I looked it up."
Following Dorothy, I joined the group as Ray pushed the gate open. Roger stood to the side waving us onto the grassy surface one by one. The two men hesitated, still standing outside the burial ground. Therese waved an impatient hand. "Come on, you guys. Group shot. Inside the gate. Smile, everybody."
Once assembled to the photographer's satisfaction, we dutifully trooped up the incline to the top of one of the family crypts cut into the side of a hill. Therese focused on a memorial plaque for a moment, then directed us to walk around, look at tombstones, take pictures with our own cameras and phones. I tried to stay with Dorothy, hoping to hear more about the dead sister — Had she said "murdered"? — but Dorothy had scampered away, following Hilda along a narrow path bordering Howard Street. The cemetery stretches uphill along almost the entire length of the street and the two were quickly out of sight.
Shannon and the twins stood together watching a young man who knelt in front of an ancient looking stone, one of those with the winged death's heads at the top. I moved closer, looking over the man's shoulder. He's making a gravestone rubbing, I thought, and moved closer to get a better look at the process.
"He's a grave rubber," Ray whispered. "I think that's against Massachusetts law."
"No, he's not a grave rubber. See? He's not touching the gravestone at all. Besides, at least he's not a grave robber." Roger snickered at his own joke. "Get it?"
On closer inspection I saw that Roger was right. The man wasn't touching the stone. He was working at an easel and the death's head was taking shape on paper. Wishing I'd worn flats as the heels of my boots sunk into damp, uneven ground, I headed up a small hill in the direction Dorothy and Hilda had taken and caught up with them at the back part of the cemetery. Therese approached from the opposite direction and the four of us met beneath an oak tree, its leaves tinged with gold. Therese aimed the camcorder toward jagged remnants of the turreted roof of the old prison. "They're making the place into condos over there," she said. "Nice ones, I heard."
"Haunted?" Hilda wanted to know.
Therese shrugged. "Could be. Even if they aren't haunted, with a cemetery view and right next door to where they squooshed old Giles Corey to death, people will say there are ghosts in there anyway."
Dorothy smiled. "In Salem that's probably a good selling point."
"Sure. The place will be on all the ghost tours." Hilda moved closer to the fence separating us from the old jail property. "You believe in ghosts, Ms. Barrett?"
It wasn't a question I'd expected and I wasn't quite sure how I should answer it. Actually, I have good reason to believe in ghosts, but it wasn't anything I cared to discuss with my students. I decided to treat it lightly. "I guess I have to," I said. "Didn't you know the top floor of the Tabby is supposed to be haunted by Tabitha Trumbull?"
Dorothy interrupted, saving me from any further conjecture about Salem's ghost population. "Is this really the place where they crushed that old man to death? Right here?"
"It wasn't a cemetery back then," Therese said. "Just a big open field next to the dungeon where they kept the witches before the trials." She adjusted the Panasonic on her shoulder and started down the hill. "I'm going back to check out the front row grave stones. Those look like the oldest ones. Need to get close-ups of the creepy inscriptions."
Dorothy pointed to an obelisk-shaped stone. "They all look pretty old. They don't still bury people in here, do they?"
"Nope." Hilda held up her phone. "Not since the 1930s. I looked it up."
Dorothy fell into step beside me, facing the back rows of markers while Hilda gave us a brief wave and — alone — followed the path beside the wrought iron fence surrounding the old cemetery.
Dorothy pulled her phone from a vest pocket, knelt on the grass and took several shots of a tall headstone with a carved weeping willow at the top. "Look. Poor Dorcas Sims. Only thirty-six years old. Bummer."
"It's a sad place," I agreed. "The children's headstones get to me. People died way too young in those days."
Excerpted from "Grave Errors"
Copyright © 2017 Carol J. Perry.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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