Home > The Third Grave (Savannah #4)

The Third Grave (Savannah #4)
Author: Lisa Jackson

 

CHAPTER 1

Bronco Cravens was sweating bullets.

Not only because of the heat from an intense Georgia sun.

But from his own damned case of nerves.

He rubbed his fingers together in anticipation but didn’t move, just searched the undergrowth through narrowed eyes one last time. He tuned in to the sounds of the lowland: the lap of water against the muddy banks, the whir of dragonfly wings as the narrow-bodied creatures darted along the shore and the tonal croak of a bullfrog hiding somewhere in the reeds.

The air was still and thick. Sultry enough to paste his shirt to his body.

His nerves were stretched thin, his blood running hot at the thought of what he was about to do. He searched the heavy undergrowth for any kind of movement and licked his already-chapped lips. Sunlight and shadow played through the Spanish moss–draped live oaks, but he saw no one, no flicker of movement, felt no eyes boring into his back.

Squinting, he tried to distinguish sunlight from shadow through these dense woods. The swollen river moved quickly in a soft rush, mosquitoes buzzing near his head, but he heard nothing out of the ordinary.

No sounds of footfalls or twigs snapping. No murmur of hushed voices or the crunch of tires on old gravel just over the rise. No whine of a distant siren.

No, it seemed, he was all alone.

Good.

No time to lose.

He patted his pockets, had the keys, his cell phone, a flashlight and his pistol, a Ruger LCP, a lightweight semi-automatic that was forever with him. All set. “Let’s go,” he hissed, glancing over his shoulder to his boat, where the dog he’d inherited sat at attention, ears cocked, waiting for a command. Fender had been a gift from Darla. The dog was a purebred bluetick heeler if the previous owner were to be believed. But that was before Darla had left suddenly, slamming the door behind her while screaming, “Don’t you ever call me again, you fuckin’ loser! And you can keep the damned dog.”

He had. Kept the dog, that was. And yeah, he’d never phoned or texted again. Nor had she tried to contact him. Which was just fine.

Today, bringing the heeler along may have been a mistake. Sleek coat glistening in the sun, Fender leapt over the edge of the boat to land in the shallows and followed as Bronco took off, running, his boots sinking into the thick mud. Fleetingly Bronco remembered playing on the grounds as a child, fishing, catching snakes and bullfrogs, skipping stones across the pond, watching dragonflies skim the surface, their wings crackling, sunlight catching on their iridescent bodies. He’d run this path often as a kid, but it had been years since he’d taken out his father’s fishing boat or stole some of his Camel Straights, or hid a six-pack in the old culvert. Back then, those had been the worst of his sins.

Now, of course, there were others.

More than he wanted to count.

Now the stakes were a damned sight higher than pissing off his old man and risking Jasper Cravens’s considerable wrath. But he wouldn’t dwell on that now, couldn’t dare think about his run-ins with the law. Just the thought of prison, of being hauled back to a cement-walled cell, made his skin crawl. He couldn’t go back there. Wouldn’t.

And yet, here he was. Trespassing. Tempting fate. Intending to break into the Beaumont mansion, where his grandfather had once been caretaker and had sworn the old lady who had lived there had secreted a fortune. His blood ran hotter at the thought of it. Wynn Cravens had admitted he’d seen the rare gold and silver coins, some dating back to the Civil War, along with a cache of jewels and silver certificates and thousands of dollars that old Beulah Beaumont had secreted in the basement of the once-grand home. Beulah had been mad as a hatter, Gramps had claimed, but he’d sworn the valuables were there—viewed with his own eyes.

Bronco was about to find out.

And change his life.

He grinned at the thought.

No time to lose.

Sunlight was already beginning to fade.

Yesterday’s hurricane, named Jules and a goddamned category five, had torn through this part of Georgia, leveling homes, splintering trees and flooding the city. Telephone and electric poles had been uprooted, the power was out for miles, and cell phone service patchy at best.

A disaster for most of the citizens of Savannah.

And a blessing for Bronco.

He crested a rise, a natural levee that had kept most of the flood waters surrounding the old home within the river’s banks. From the corner of his eye, he caught a flash. Movement. His heart nearly stopped. But it was just his stupid dog taking off through the tall grass, startling two ducks. Wings flapping noisily, quacking loudly, they took flight.

Shit!

His heart leapt to his throat, but he heard no footsteps, or shouts, or sirens, or baying of hounds.

Good. Just keep moving.

Get in.

Find what you’re looking for.

Get out.

No more than fifteen minutes.

Twenty, tops.

He saw the sagging fence with its rusted NO TRESPASSING sign dangling from the locked gate and vaulted over what was left of the mesh, then spied the house, built on a rise, surrounded by live oaks, the once-manicured lawn surrendering to brush. The whitewashed siding was now gray and dimpled, paint peeling, roof sagging and completely collapsed around one of four crumbling chimneys.

For half a beat, Bronco stared up at the house, its windows shuttered and boarded over, graffiti scrawled across the buckling sheets of plywood, the wide wraparound porch listing on rotted footings.

His grandfather’s voice whispered to him: Don’t do it, son. Don’t. This—what y’er contemplating—is a mistake, y’hear me? It’ll only bring you trouble, the kind of trouble no man wants. He set his jaw and ignored the warning. He’d waited long enough. Now, finally, the old man was dead. As if Wynn Cravens had heard his thoughts, his raspy voice came again: Boy, you listen to me, now.

Bronco didn’t.

Y’er gonna get caught, Wynn Cravens cautioned from beyond the grave. Sure as shootin’. And then what? Eh? Another five years in prison? Hell, maybe ten! Could be more. Don’t do it, son.

“Oh, shut up,” Bronco growled under his breath. Something he would have never said to his big, strapping grandfather if the man were still alive. Of course he wasn’t. Wynn Cravens had given up the ghost just two weeks earlier, his big heart stopping while the old guy was splitting wood.

With Wynn’s passing, Bronco’s fortune had changed.

This was his big chance, maybe his last chance, and Bronco was going to make the best of it. After all of the bad breaks in his life, finally something good was coming his way. He took the hurricane as an omen. A sign from God Himself.

Right now all of the cops and emergency workers were busy being heroes.

Which gave Bronco some time.

From the corner of his eye he caught a glimmer of movement, a blur through the trees. Not the dog this time. Fender was right on his heels.

He felt his skin crawl. There had always been rumors of ghosts haunting the grounds, lost souls who’d found no escape from the tarnished history of the Beaumont family. Bronco, though he hated admitting it, couldn’t help believing some of the old stories that had been whispered from one generation to the next. Even his grandfather, a brawny no-nonsense Welshman, had believed that tortured spirits moved through the stands of live oak and pine and had sworn on the family Bible that he’d seen the ghost of Nellie Beaumont, a seven-year-old girl who drowned in the river in the late 1990s. Bronco knew nothing more than that her death had devastated the family. Glimpses of the girl had always been reported the same: a waif in a dripping nightgown, dark ringlets surrounding a pale face, a doll clutched to her chest as she forever wandered along the edge of the water.

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