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Detective Natalie Lockhart pulled into the cemetery and parked in front of a run-down church covered in ivy and twining vines, her hands tightening on the steering wheel. This part of the weed-choked graveyard was isolated and neglected. She sat for a moment, scanning the grounds, chiseled engravings of skull-and-crossbones staring back at her with their hollowed-out eyes. Haunting stuff. The weeds grew tallest around the old slate stones from a cholera outbreak in 1825, obscuring the names of the dead. Here lyeth Ezekiel Young. God Shelters Goodwife Palmer.
Natalie shivered and glanced at her watch. Five o’clock. The sky was overcast. The Weather Channel kept predicting rain. Time to do this thing before the downpour ruined everything.
She got out of her smoke-gray Honda Pilot, popped the trunk, and gathered up her supplies—spritzer bottles full of harsh chemicals, a soft-bristle brush, trash bags, a plastic scraper, and her grass clippers. The air smelled of balsam and pitch pine. It was mid-April in Upstate New York, a time of renewal. A time for shedding the past and moving on. Except not today—not for Natalie.
Today was her sister’s twentieth deathiversary.
She slammed the trunk and, juggling everything in her arms, proceeded along the overgrown path toward the newer part of the cemetery. At the top of the incline she paused to catch her breath and locate her sister’s grave. Willow Mercy Lockhart. Fingers of fog curled around the granite slab, creating the impression of a damp loneliness. Willow would have been thirty-eight years old. Natalie was thirty, and her sister, Grace, was thirty-six. Their parents were gone.
Natalie’s father, Officer Joseph “Joey” Lockhart, had been blue through and through until the day he died, a proud member of the Burning Lake Police Department for thirty-five years. He spent his career directing traffic, rescuing kittens, breaking up bar fights, and arresting drunk drivers. He was a fitness buff with scruffy brown hair and warm hazel eyes, and his favorite saying was, “Put a fork in us, we’re done.” As the father of three daughters, he’d always wanted a son, but after his wife put her foot down and said, “No more kids,” Joey scooped up his youngest daughter—the one who adored him, the one he’d named after Natalie Wood—and taught her everything he knew about being a cop. Natalie was born with a knack for solving mysteries, Joey claimed. By the age of eight, she’d read all of Agatha Christie’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, and she beat everyone at Clue and Trivial Pursuit.
Now Natalie turned up the collar of her cheap jacket. Wow. It got worse every year. She surveyed the graffitied headstones—pentagrams, 666, upside-down crosses, Redrum. The grass was littered with crushed beer cans, melted candles, and half-burned incense sticks—evidence of hard-partying kids who were into the occult. The local teenagers liked to speculate about life and hunt for spirits in the town cemeteries, hoping to communicate with the dead. Dabbling in witchcraft was something of a rite of passage in Burning Lake, New York, and Natalie sympathized, since she’d gone through a witchy phase herself—conducting séances, wishing for a boyfriend, hexing her rivals with an acne flare-up or two. I wanna be a teen witch, fuck you. The dark side had a powerful appeal in this town.
Natalie got down on the ground and started to clip the weeds around the base of Willow’s headstone. She hacked away at the stubborn thistle stems, then sat back and glanced at the swollen sky, which was making ominous rumbling sounds. With a renewed sense of purpose, she picked up the plastic scraper and removed thin shavings of moss from the pink granite. A scrub brush and pump sprayer cleaned it up good. Now for the graffiti—pentacles, horns, hexagrams. The worst one was a resurrection spell calling Willow back to the world of the living. Come through this Mortal door. It disgusted Natalie. “Come on,” she muttered angrily. “Let her rest in peace.”
For centuries, Burning Lake had buried its most shameful secret. In 1712, three innocent women were executed as witches. It all began when two little sisters accused their village neighbors of bewitching them. Panic ensued. Accusations flew. In the end, three “scurrilous, wicked creatures” were convicted of witchcraft—Abigail Stuart, Sarah Hutchins, and Victoriana Forsyth. Many years later, their accusers admitted they’d made it all up.
Copyright © 2019 by Alice Blanchard