"It's really the Seven League Bridge, but most folks around here call it Crybaby Bridge," said Caro Starke. "A place of haunted sadness." She stared straight ahead, focusing on the iron span as though it might disappear if her attention faltered. Muscles worked in her jaw. A breeze ruffled strands of black hair around her bony face.
Caro took a deep breath and continued, "The spirit of Ginny Little stole my sister Paulette's baby. That's the truth, so make of it what you will."
FBI Special Agent Dawn Masters shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ms. Starke. I just don't believe in ghosts."
For the first time since coming out to the bridge, Caro looked at Dawn. Her gaze was as intense as a blow, and Dawn involuntarily took a step backwards. Caro said, "Stick around Waterboro much longer, Agent Masters, and you will. Hell, I know you think Paulette killed her baby. I'll tell you one more time, and you can take my word or leave it as you choose - Paulette would never hurt that child."
Dawn glanced away, uncomfortable in the face of Caro's unswerving conviction.
She had come to Waterboro at the request of Sheriff Aiken, when the disappearance of Paulette Starke's six-month-old infant was deemed a possible kidnapping. Several days had passed with no ransom demand, no trace of the perpetrator, no evidence supporting the kidnapping theory. It was still possible, but Dawn had found herself leaning further towards considering the mother to be a prime suspect.
She suspected Sheriff Aiken was thinking along the same lines, but he had to handle the case with kid gloves. The Starkes were not wealthy, but the family was prolific, and related to almost everyone else in Waterboro. In a town where kin ties were held nearly sacred, it would require concrete proof for Aiken to arrest and charge Paulette with murder.
They had not yet found a body, despite divers borrowed from the State Police. Seven League Bridge spanned a relatively narrow section of the Blacksnake River, but the water was deep and dark, the current strong. Volunteers had literally beaten the bushes for five miles on either side of the Blacksnake, but found nothing. Of course, if Paulette Starke had killed her baby, there was no reason to believe that she had gotten rid of it in the river. They had only her statement to go on, and it was probably false.
Paulette Starke was a single mother, her husband a philandering truck driver who had divorced her a year ago, before baby William Jr.'s birth. The father's alibi had already been checked and verified - William Sr. had been on the road at the time of the disappearance, taking a load of pork products to Charlottesville, Virginia. He could not have done it, nor did he seem overly concerned when interviewed. William Sr. didn't give a damn about his ex-wife or his son. He was shacking up with an exotic dancer, and had no desire to saddle himself with a child.
Having eliminated this as a case of custodial kidnapping, Dawn turned next to Paulette's statement.
She had just gotten home from the night shift at the diner. Her mother, Arlene, took care of cranky, colicky William Jr. while his mother was at work. Arlene left around ten o'clock. At eleven-thirty, Paulette took the baby for a drive, hoping to lull him to sleep. She was crossing the Seven League Bridge when her automobile broke down. It was pouring rain, and Paulette did not want take William Jr. with her while she walked the quarter mile back to town. Accordingly, she had kept the lights on, locked the doors and windows, and left the baby alone inside the car.
Not the brightest thing to do, Dawn thought. Then again, Waterboro is a relatively crime-free town, except for the occasional drunken brawl or domestic disturbance. Seven League isn't that popular because it's narrow, a single-lane span. Most people use the Cook Bridge upriver. The chance was very slim that anyone would come across the baby.
Paulette reached the Gas n' Go station at twelve-twenty, where she placed a call to her cousin John Starke (confirmed by phone records). John picked up Paulette at the gas station about ten minutes later. They drove back to Seven League Bridge, where they found the car still locked up, the engine still running... but William Jr. was missing. Paulette collapsed into hysterics. John forced her back into his truck, and they returned to Waterboro to alert the sheriff.
Dawn had read the reports. There was no sign of a struggle, no evidence of forced entry into the automobile. Forensic trace revealed nothing beyond the ordinary. It was as if the child had simply vanished, somehow spirited away while his mother struggled through the driving rain.
The most obvious answer was, of course, that whoever had taken William Jr. had a key to Paulette's battered old Plymouth in their possession. Paulette claimed no one else had a key. To Dawn's mind, that was almost an admission of guilt.
Now Dawn was standing here in the bright summer sunshine with Caro Starke, Paulette's sister. No two women could have been more different. When not shaken by bouts of helpless weeping, Paulette was a soft, plump, pretty young lady, with a sweet and sometimes bewildered disposition. Caro Starke was hard as stone, tough as nails - lean and rawboned, sun scarred, with a fan of wrinkles at the outer corners of her cold blue eyes. She projected an aura of violence contained only by the strength of her will. It amazed Dawn that someone like Caro would believe in ghosts, and she said so.
"Agent Masters, it ain't a question of belief." Caro turned her icy gaze back to Seven League Bridge. "As I said, take it or leave it - the truth is sitting right over there." She nodded towards the bridge. "Ginny Little took my sister's baby, and no mistake."
Dawn had already eliminated Caro Starke as a suspect. She had been in a bar in Okalacheecola, thirty miles away from Waterboro, with her domestic partner, Reba Hathaway. Caro and Reba were involved in a stable relationship, and a dozen witnesses put them both in the bar at the time of the disappearance.
"I've never heard about Ginny Little," Dawn said. "You know, you'll find places named Crybaby Bridge all over the country. What makes this one so different?"
"You'd best check with Sheriff Aiken. His daddy was a sheriff, too. This ain't the first time somebody's baby got took on Crybaby Bridge." After that cryptic statement, Caro walked away, back to her pickup truck.
Reba Hathaway was sitting in the passenger seat. Sunlight reflected off the windshield, a dazzling blaze that obliterated Reba's face. Only her arm was visible, sticking out of the window - denim shirt, sleeve rolled up to display a dozen glittering silver bracelets on her skinny wrist. Long crimson-colored nails drummed against the truck's side. Caro wrenched the door open, climbed inside. The engine started with a coughing roar, muffled like distant thunder. While Dawn watched, the truck backed up the gravel trail, stones rattling beneath oversized tires. In a few moments, they were gone.
Dawn went to her rental car, a white Toyota whose air conditioning only reached lukewarm temperatures. She paused before stepping inside, looked at Seven League Bridge over her shoulder. Crybaby Bridge.
A place of haunted sadness.
By all rights, she should return to the District Office. The FBI had no jurisdiction in a case involving simple murder. That would be handled by local authorities. She had been in Waterboro for five days, long enough to determine that her involvement was no longer required.
However, something about Caro, about the helpless bewilderment in Paulette Starke's eyes, about that iron bridge squatting there in the sunshine, made Dawn want to stay. Uncover the truth. Solve the mystery.
A place of haunted sadness.
Shooing a cloud of midges away from her face with her hand, Dawn got in her car and followed the gravel trail to Route 43. From there, it was a fifteen minute drive to Sheriff Aiken's office.
Sheriff Elmo Aiken was a jowly, no-nonsense man whose beer belly overhung his belt buckle. The fan sweeping back and forth in his cramped office was not sufficient to prevent sweat stains from darkening the underarms of his khaki uniform shirt. A scar tugged one eyebrow upward, giving him a slightly sardonic look, but his smile was reasonably friendly.
"Whoo!" he said, when Dawn entered the dim reception area. "Hot enough for ya, Agent Masters?"
"If one more person asks me that question," Dawn replied, "I might start shooting."
Aiken guffawed. "C'mon in. Ain't that much cooler than outside, but you can have a Coke from the ice box." He opened a squat refrigerator near his desk, retrieved a sweating can of cola. From a drawer, he removed a half-empty bottle of bourbon. "For medicinal purposes," he said, shaking the bottle invitingly.
Dawn accepted the Coke, shook her head at the bourbon. "No, thank you. This is fine." She rubbed the cold can over her forehead, the back of her neck, the base of her throat. "How can you get anything done in this heat?"
"We manage as best we can." Aiken sat back in his chair, whose springs creaked alarmingly. "This is fairly mild for the time of year. Now, had you come around mid-August... well, that'd be a real humdinger. So dry, the trees are bribing the dogs." He unscrewed the cap on the bourbon bottle, took a sip.
Dawn opened her Coke, swallowed gratefully. "I just had a talk with Caro Starke," she said. "Caro thinks that some ghost took her sister's baby."
Aiken's unscarred eyebrow rose. Slowly, he said, "So that's the way it is. Yes, ma'am, I figured somebody would drag that old story out sooner or later."
"Would you mind telling me the story?" At his blank look, Dawn continued, "I'm at a disadvantage here, Sheriff. I don't know the local lore, or how it might fit in with the current case. Caro mentioned that this was not the first time a baby had disappeared from Seven League Bridge. She hinted that you - or your father - might know more about it."
"Hmph!" Aiken consumed another sip of bourbon. "Most everybody in Waterboro can tell you about Crybaby Bridge. As to that... the whole thing started back in the 40's. Young gal named Ginny Little had a baby out of wedlock. In those days, the condition was a mighty shameful one for mother, child and all the families involved. Ginny kept mum about the father, though. Nobody knew who it was. Well, the baby got born, and Ginny's parents had a talk with some lawyer, who promised the child could get adopted out of state. That suited them, but not Ginny. She loved that baby to distraction, only there weren't many single mothers in Waterboro, as you can imagine."
"Go on." Dawn finished her Coke, put the empty can on his desk.
"Anyhow, one night Ginny took the baby for a walk down by Seven League Bridge. It was summer, hot and muggy, and the baby was irritable. While they were on the bridge, a car come along and hit Ginny, knocked her and the baby into the water. She was badly injured, but my daddy reckoned she was still alive. Maybe Ginny heard the baby crying and went looking for it. At any rate, they found her and the child about a mile downstream, both dead. The baby was snagged under a tree root. A great tragedy for all concerned."
"But I imagine also a great relief for Ginny's parents," Dawn ventured.
"They were good Christian people, Agent Masters," Aiken said, thumping his fist on the desk. The empty cola can fell to the floor, unnoticed. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Good Christian people who loved their daughter."
"I'm sorry." Dawn's scalp prickled with sweat. "That wasn't very polite. Please accept my apologies."
"Don't matter." Aiken dismissed her apologies with a wave of his hand. "The accident was a hit-and-run, the driver never identified. No evidence, I should say. This was my daddy's case. The file's probably in the back somewhere, along with everything else."
"And what about other infant abductions?"
"There's a belief here in Waterboro that if you drive out to Seven League Bridge with a baby in your car, the ghost of Ginny Little will appear and try to take it. Don't hold much with that sort of thing myself, but there have been three other child kidnappings under similar circumstances. Mother alone, car breaking down, the woman going for help, her baby gone when she returns. The last time it happened was back in '72, as I recall. Right before my daddy retired."
Dawn sat up straight, trying to muster energy for what she knew was going to be a long, hot afternoon. "I'd like to see those files."
Aiken gestured towards the door of the file room - hardly more than an airless closet filled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes. "Help yourself, Agent Masters. Stuff from the 40's will be way back. The rest are... lemme see... Lavernia Hawkins, 1952. Ora Lee Summers, 1967. Dixie Watkins, 1972. Good luck. To my mind, that dog won't hunt, but so be it."
"Thank you." Dawn stood up, wishing she was not representing The Bureau. All field agents had to dress in suits, be well groomed, and absolutely could not wear shorts and a halter top while on duty, no matter how insanely hot it was. She did take off her jacket, hung it neatly over the back of the chair. Her blouse was creamy silk, tucked into trousers. Opening the door of the file room, she eyed the dusty, cobwebbed boxes and sighed. My drycleaner is going to bankrupt me, she thought.
After that, she was too busy, too dirty and too sweaty to think about her ruined clothes.
It was dark before Dawn found all the necessary files. Sheriff Aiken (or his father, or his father's predecessor) had a disorganized filing system. Each box was labeled with a year, but the contents were mixed up, the files simply thrown in on top of each other. After an hour, she found that some files were in the wrong boxes - a shooting from 1959 tucked between a domestic disturbance and a drunk driving charge from 1952. That meant she had to start over from the beginning, and physically go through each box to find the files she was looking for. By the time Dawn had finished, she was completely covered in dust and dirt, her hair festooned with cobwebs. Her silk blouse sported a long grease streak down the front, not to mention damp patches where she had sweated heavily. She also had a sore, stinging patch beneath one breast, where her bra had rubbed her raw.
Dawn blew out a breath, examined the files she had retrieved - Little, Hawkins, Summers, Watkins. She decided to go back to her motel, take a shower, and catch up on Waterboro history afterwards. Stuffing the folders in her oversized purse, Dawn left the sheriff's office. Aiken himself had already gone home, leaving her a key so she could lock up when she was done.
There were no hotels in Waterboro. Dawn had rented a room in nearby Okalacheecola at a family-operated motel - the Comfort Cabins. Not luxurious by any means, but the rooms were clean, there were ice and soda machines, and best of all, air conditioning. True, the window unit was a wheezing, bubbling contraption that seemed on the verge of explosion or expiration, but it worked. Dawn let herself in, drew the drapes, tossed her purse on the bed. Seconds after tearing off her clothes, she was standing in the shower, a drizzle of cool water making her feel human again.
When she was finished, Dawn wrapped herself in a towel, kicked her filthy clothes in a pile near the bed.
There was a 24-hour restaurant next to the motel called the Kountry Kitchen. Dawn had tried the food once. It was uniformly greasy, and everything tasted like bacon fat (even the coffee). The cooks had never heard of bran muffins, green salads or baked anything. If it could be fried, it was. If it couldn't, it wasn't on the menu. Dawn's arteries threatened to close at the mere thought of eating there again.
There was a knock at the door. Dawn's trained response was to reach for her gun, which she had placed on the formica nightstand. Drawing the weapon from its holster, she called, "Who is it?"
"It's me. Caro Starke. I want to talk to you."
"It's late, Ms. Starke. Can this wait until morning?" Dawn slid off the bed, thumbed the safety off her gun. A precautionary measure, in case Caro had decided that the way to get rid of her sister's problem was to eliminate an FBI Agent.
"I brought you some supper."
Dawn went to the door, looked through the peephole. She saw Caro Starke's slightly distorted figure. The woman did not seem to be armed - indeed, she was carrying a brown paper grocery sack under her arm - but Dawn never took chances. She slid the chain off the lock and backed away, holding her weapon steady. "Alright. Come in."
Caro did so, shutting the door behind her. When she caught sight of Dawn, standing there in a towel, holding a gun in a classic two-handed grip, she commented mildly, "I guess you weren't expecting company."
Slowly, Dawn lowered her weapon. "What are you doing here, Ms. Starke?"
"I told you, I wanted to talk. I met Sheriff Aiken on my way to pick up Reba." Caro jerked her chin to one side. "She's a cocktail waitress over at the Fortune. You know, that hooky-jook over yonder."
Dawn puzzled over this piece of information, finally decided that Caro meant that Reba worked at the Fortune Bar, which was a couple of blocks away from her motel. "I see," she replied, putting her gun back into its holster.
"Anyhow, Sheriff Aiken done told me that you were looking into his files. He reckoned you might be at it all night. So I dropped Reba back home and drove over here, figuring you might want something to eat." Caro pulled the paper bag out from under her arm, offered it to Dawn. "I thought I might leave it up front if you weren't back yet, but Cousin Earl said you was here."
Dawn took the bag, opened it to reveal several styrofoam boxes. The smell was delicious. She put the bag down on the bed, said, "Give me a second." A quick rummage in her suitcase, and she found a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Dawn went into the bathroom to put them on. When she returned, Caro was sitting cross-legged on the floor, studying the files from Aiken's office.
"Um, those are official police documents," Dawn said, trying not to sound too officious.
"Aw, hell... Aiken may be sheriff of Waterboro, but that man couldn't pour piss out of a boot with directions printed on the heel." Caro turned a page. "Better eat that food while it's still hot."
Dawn pulled boxes out of the bag. A barbeque pork sandwich, slathered in sauce, topped with a heap of coleslaw. Thick-cut french fries, barbeque beans, an ear of corn with butter. A heap of paper napkins had been provided, along with a plastic knife and fork, and a styrofoam cup of sweet iced tea. Dawn took a bite of the sandwich, rolled her eyes.
"Good!" she said around a mouthful of pulled pork and spicy red sauce.
"I'm glad you like it."
Caro read silently while Dawn ate her belated supper. When she had finished, Dawn said, "Anything interesting?"
For answer, Caro simply handed her the files. "I'm going for a Coke. You want something?"
"No, I'm fine."
Dawn was so immersed in her reading that she lost track of time. When she finally glanced at her watch, she realized that Caro had been gone for forty-five minutes. Puzzled and slightly alarmed, Dawn left her room, went to the soda machine. The woman was not there. Cousin Earl, the night desk clerk, told Dawn that Caro had peeled out of the parking lot about a minute after exiting Dawn's room.
"Shit!" A sudden flash of insight nearly blinded her. Dawn sprinted back to her room, grabbed purse and keys and gun, along with the original Little file - the case that had started it all.
The previous sheriff's notes indicated that a young man named Lester Watkins had been suspected of being the father of Ginny Little's baby. His alibi for the night of the hit-and-run was supported by his best friend, Izzard Hawkins; Izzy's girlfriend, Millie Summers; and an independent witness - Poe Starke. The sheriff had thought that they were lying, but he could not prove it.
Then Izzy died in an accident on Crybaby Bridge about six months later, his car driving off the narrow pass. His girlfriend survived the accident. She claimed to have seen the figure of a woman appear in front of the car just before it plunged off the bridge.
Dawn jumped into her Toyota, intent on catching Caro before anything tragic occurred. She was worried and simultaneously pissed off, realizing that she had been used.
Caro wanted me to get those files. She wanted to see them, try to connect the disappearances somehow. In her mind, the fault lies with whoever killed Ginny Little and her baby. How nice, bringing me supper, stabbing me in the back. And I fell for it like an idiot! Dawn frowned, pressed her foot harder on the accelerator, one hand on the wheel. She pulled out her cell phone with her free hand, dialed Sheriff Aiken's home number.
A man's voice answered sleepily, "Hey, Aiken here."
"Sheriff Aiken, this is Special Agent Dawn Masters. I need some information, and I need it now."
"Do you know what time it is?" Aiken sounded aggrieved.
"Wake up, man! This is urgent! Life or death!"
"Well, don't get your knickers in a twist. What's the problem?"
"I need to know about Lester Watkins, Izzard Hawkins, Poe Starke and Millie Summers."
"Christ on a crutch! You call me up at two in the morning to ask me that? Can't it wait?"
"No. Start talking, sheriff, or there may be a murder to investigate in the morning."
"All right, all right. Lemme see... Lester Watkins married Dixie McKay. Poe Starke never married, he moved to Atlanta, died of a heart attack in 1981. Millie Summers got a job out in Charlottesville, got married some time back. She has several grandchildren now, or so I've heard told. Izzard Hawkins is dead."
Dawn skidded her Toyota around another driver, who blared his horn at her recklessness. "What relation is Poe Starke to Paulette Starke?"
"Her cousin. Son of her father's brother."
"And Dixie McKay... that's the Dixie Watkins whose baby disappeared in 1972?"
"Ain't hardly likely," Aiken answered dryly. "However, Lester and Dixie had a daughter called Betty Jo, and she had a daughter named Dixie after her grandmomma. Betty Jo's the poor woman who lost her baby."
"Okay." Dawn was trying to keep it all straight in her mind. "Did Izzy Hawkins have any close relations?"
"Sure did. His younger brother, Maynard. Dammit, Agent Masters, what the hell is going on?"
"Is Maynard connected to Lavernia Hawkins?"
Aiken sighed. "Yes, ma'am. She was his wife. And before you ask, yes, it is the same Lavernia Hawkins whose baby was stolen back in 1952. I reckon I can anticipate your next question. Millie Summers had a much younger brother, Charles. Surprised all hell out of Momma Summers, since she was forty-six when little Charlie popped out of the hatch. Charles Summers married Ora Lee in the spring of 1966. Their baby was abducted in 1967." He let out a huge yawn. "Anything else I can help you with, now that I'm up?"
"So all the children who have disappeared are related in some way to the original people involved in the Little case: Lester Watkins, Izzy Hawkins, Millie Summers, and Poe Starke."
"Yes, ma'am. Where are you headed with all this?"
"Is Lester Watkins still alive?"
"He lives alone, in a trailer park out on Crabapple Road, north of Main Street. The Twilight Gardens. Hey, you don't think old Lester had anything to do with Paulette's baby, do you? He's all stove up, can't hardly get around these days. Hey, what were you talking about... a murder?"
"I've got to go. Thanks." Dawn cut Aiken off, threw her phone on the passenger seat. She now had a good idea of what Caro intended to do. I'm too late to prevent her from getting to Lester at the Twilight Gardens, but I think I know where she's taking him. If she hasn't killed him already. In a parallel universe, all of it would make some weird kind of sense. In this world, Dawn was going on nothing but intiution. Her guts were in a roil, sour bubbles breaking against the back of her throat.
Dawn wrenched at the wheel, made an illegal U-turn. Brakes squealing, tires smoking, she fishtailed out of the turn and managed to straighten her Toyota back into the right lane. Protest of horns followed her as she sped east.
Straight as the crow flies, to Crybaby Bridge.
"Confess!" Caro said loudly. She was pointing a shotgun at Lester Watkins, and there was no doubt that it was loaded. Caro handled the weapon with the ease of a woman who had grown up hunting.
She and the old man were standing in the middle of Crybaby Bridge, illuminated by her truck's headlights. Dawn drove right up behind the truck, got out, her gun in hand. "Caro Starke! Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head!" she shouted.
"You don't understand!" Caro called back. "He did it. He killed Ginny Little and her baby. He's the reason!" She gestured with the shotgun towards Lester, who cowered away from the barrels.
Lester Watkins was in his seventies, a bent-backed man with a liver-spotted skull, wattles of wrinkled skin bobbling on his jowls. He shaded his eyes with a hand that shook badly. "Hey, you there! Shoot this damned crazy Starke afore she kills me!" His voice was cracked, wheezing.
"Shut up, you old bastard!" Caro snarled.
Dawn wiped sweat off her face. A mosquito buzzed in her ear; she brushed the insect away. "Caro, listen to me. Maybe Lester Watkins killed Ginny Little all those years ago, but that has nothing to do with what happened to Paulette's baby."
"The hell it doesn't!" Caro said through gritted teeth.
Dawn was startled to hear Reba saying from behind her, "Best listen to her, Agent Masters, and put that popgun away before somebody gets hurt." Dawn turned her head. Reba came out of the shadows, holding another shotgun. Like Caro, the way she held it told Dawn that Reba knew how to use the weapon very well.
She allowed Reba to take her gun, and cursed herself for being fool enough to forget to strap her hold-out pistol to her ankle. The little .22 was only effective at close range, but it could give an opponent a nasty surprise. She had left it at the hotel. Reba pushed Dawn forward, until they were standing next to Caro. Lester Watkins watched, his mouth working in ineffectual rage.
"Well, what about it?" Caro pulled back both hammers with her thumb. They made a chilling snick-snick sound that carried in the still night air, echoed back from the bridge's iron supports. "Call her, Lester. Call Ginny Little. For once in your miserable life, you're going to do the right thing and tell the truth."
Lester gave her an awful grin. "Just who do you think you are? Nothin' but a no-count Starke!"
"I'm done debating with you, old man. Call Ginny Little. Tell the truth about what happened. Do it now, or I'll blow your kneecap off. Won't kill you right off, but it'll hurt some. Then I'll do the next kneecap. After that, I reckon I'll work my way up from your toes. I got plenty of ammunition, Lester. Deer shot. And we got all night to play."
"Please don't do this," Dawn said, struggling to remember anything that she had learned during a hostage negotiation seminar she had taken about five years ago. "Caro, I'm begging you. Don't do anything now that you'll regret later."
"Me and Sheriff Elmo Aiken are going to have words after this night's work," Caro replied, ignoring what Dawn had just said. "He could have ended this a long time ago, if he and his daddy had more'n a penny's worth of courage between 'em."
It was difficult to tell in the stark white light of the headlights, but Lester's color had heightened. Spots of scarlet burned on his cheekbones. "How'd you find out about it, anyway? Was it that no-good Poe Starke? I paid him good cash money to stick to his story. I knew that Starke couldn't be trusted!"
Dawn's eyes widened. Poe Starke had been bribed to support Watkins' alibi! So Lester had lied, and Millie had lied, and Izzy had lied, too. Lester had gotten away with cold blooded murder. Another connection made. She still could not bring herself to believe in ghosts, and yet...
Lester continued, "All right! I did it! I killed the bitch! Is that what you want to hear? Yes, ma'am, I run her down in my brand new Ford, and that brat of hers went with her. Right down into the Blacksnake River. See, Millie lived next door to the Little place; she called me and told me when Ginny walked out that night, bastard child in tow. I followed 'em to the Seven League Bridge and run her down. Poe Starke saw me, so I paid him to keep his mouth shut, tell the sheriff I was with him and Izzy and Millie over to his place."
"Why?" The question slipped out before Dawn could suppress it.
"Because Ginny was gonna to tell everybody that I was the baby's daddy!" Lester wiped a streak of spittle from his chin. "She was quiet for a while, hopin' I'd marry her, save her from disgrace - the poor dumb bitch! I wasn't going to marry no white-trash Little, ruin my life with an ignorant wife and a puking bastard child. No, ma'am! I had my eye on another girl. Prettier, better mannered, pure as the driven snow. Miss Dixie was the one I wanted for my bride. Her daddy had money. Dixie was a real lady, not cheap and trashy. Women like Ginny ain't good for nothing 'cept one thing, and I swear every hot-peckered boy in town had had a poke at her. I couldn't be sure if I was the father, and I sure as hell didn't care. I wasn't going to let no whore ruin my chances, was I? No, ma'am! I solved the problem, got on with my life. So you can kill me if you wish, Caro Starke of the no-count Starkes, but I'll die proud of what I did!"
Dawn saw it out of the corner of her eye - a white mist gathering on the surface of the black water. Bellowing frogs fell silent, as did the crickets' chirping. No sound at all except a sighing breeze that stroked ripples across the river, made wavelets lap at the weedy banks. The moon was obscured by clouds. From below, a rusting iron support groaned once, and fell silent.
"I knew it," Caro said with tight-lipped triumph. "I wasn't sure 'till Paulette's baby got took. I needed them police files for the whole story. Nobody remembers right 'cause it was a long time ago, folks get mixed up and tell it wrong. Everybody knows about Crybaby Bridge, only they don't know what really happened." She paused, blinked sweat from her eyes. "I reckon the dead are pretty patient; Ginny waited for her chance to get you back, Lester. You and them others that told lies, covered up the truth. When she got the opportunity, she took it. The sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. Watkins, Starke, Hawkins and Summers - all those families have paid for your sins. My sister's baby, Lester - God damn you for a selfish sumbitch!"
Lester stared at her. "What do you want me to do about it? I'm an old man. I'll pay for my own sins soon enough."
"Not soon enough to suit me." Caro nodded at him. "Go on, Lester. Call Ginny Little up from the river. Let her decide when it's time for your sins to catch up with you."
"Maybe so, but I'm the one holding the gun."
Lester turned; the headlights threw stark shadows across his withered features. "Ginny Little! Ginny Little, come out! I'm the one that killed you, girl. I reckon you're burning in Hell, but if you ain't, then come out and face me!"
Dawn shivered, gooseflesh prickling her arms. "Do you see that?" she asked Reba out of the corner of her mouth.
Reba pursed her lips. "Hush," she breathed. "It's a-comin'."
The mist grew, gathered into a swirling ball that danced lightly upon the water. Lester cackled, held up his hands in a parody of a boxer's stance. "C'mon, girl! The dead can't harm the living, so bring it on!"
Slowly, almost gently, the mist formed into the figure of a young woman. Opaque, softly lit from within, she looked like a shaft of moonlight fashioned into human form. Ginny Little wore a flower-patterned dress that billowed around her knees. She stood on the surface of the Blacksnake River, bare feet supported by rippling black water.
Lester trembled, lowered his hands. "Ginny?"
The spirit said nothing, merely watched him with a reproachful expression. She seemed to be waiting for something.
Before Dawn could gather her wits, Caro stepped forward, nudged Lester with the shotgun. "Go on," she said harshly. "Get along with you, old man. Reap what you've sowed. Join your lover and your child." She pushed him onto the edge of the bridge, where tarred wooden trestles hung out over the water. There was nothing between Lester and the river except a forty-foot drop. He said nothing, just continued to tremble and shake.
Caro seemed prepared to simply shove him over. Reba called out, "Honey, wait! You'll kill him."
"He deserves it," Caro replied, a stubborn expression on her bony face. "He killed that woman and her baby." Nevertheless, she hesitated, and the spirit of Ginny Little struck back at her murderer with a sudden swiftness that was terrifying.
One moment, Lester was poised on the trestles. The next, he was wrapped around with misty tendrils, a woman's scream of rage rending the air again and again. Caro stared into the Blacksnake, while Reba and Dawn were involuntarily drawn to join her at the edge of the bridge. Dawn could not tear her eyes away. She was rooted to the spot, paralyzed by horror and fear and fascination.
From somewhere, a baby began crying. The sound grew louder, then faded altogether as Lester whimpered and pleaded, arms lashed to his side by glowing moonlight mist. He was dragged off Crybaby Bridge and into the river, held in a ghost's implacable embrace. There was hardly a splash, hardly a ripple as cold black water closed over his head. A few bubbles broke the surface, then nothing. The fog rolled back, grew thinner, and vanished.
After a moment that seemed like a lifetime, a frog began its full-throated bellow. Crickets chirped.
A baby started crying again.
The sound broke her paralysis.
Dawn jumped off the bridge a split second after Caro. She hit the water feet first, floundered around in wet darkness until her head was out, and she was gasping for air. Feeling as if she had swallowed half the Blacksnake River, she shouted, "Where is it?" and gagged as more gritty water sluiced down her throat.
"Over here! Over here!" Caro's voice came from somewhere to her left. Dawn swam in that direction, powerful strokes that were only a little hampered by the jeans and T-shirt that she wore. When she reached Caro, the woman was supporting a screaming baby, treading water while trying to keep William Jr. afloat with one hand.
Sirens pierced the night. A police car tore up the gravel trail, stones crunching loudly and scattering when the driver slammed on the brakes. "What the hell is going on here?" called Sheriff Aiken. He pulled a portable searchlight out of his car, trained it on the river. Dawn blinked as brightness seared her vision, leaving dancing red spots behind.
"We're over here!" Caro said. She tossed her head, slinging strands of wet black hair out of her eyes. She looked at Dawn, and grinned. "Do you believe in ghosts, Agent Masters?"
Well, ma'am," Dawn said, deliberately mimicking Caro's drawl, "I reckon I do now." She was elated, and did not care if she was grinning like a fool. Later, she might feel pity for Lester, but not now. Miracles deserved to be celebrated.
William Starke, Jr. cried lustily, waving his tiny fists in protest. Caro guffawed, choked on a mouthful of water.
Sheriff Aiken and Reba slid down the riverbank with glad cries, welcoming the prodigal son back home.