A T.J. Jackson Mystery #1
Last Ghost at Gettysburg
High school freshman T.J. Jackson thinks his summer will be a drag when his widowed dad dumps him off for a vacation with his Uncle Mike, a park ranger at the Gettysburg National Battlefield, Aunt Terri, and his geeky adopted cousin LouAnne.
But T.J. is in for a few surprises. For starters, Gettysburg isn't the boring Civil War town he expected. A ghostly Confederate cavalier has been terrorizing nightly visitors to the battlefield. And LouAnne isn't so geeky anymore—she's become a sassy beauty who leaves him breathless.
Things escalate when the cousins, aided by T.J.'s quirky friend Bortnicker from back home in Connecticut—who also has his eye on the lovely LouAnne—attempt to solve a murder mystery that has the local police, park rangers and paranormal investigators in a panic. Because how do you stop an undead killer from 1863 from wreaking havoc in the 21st Century?
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|Pre-Teens / Teens|
It was dark in the cemetery, especially when the full moon ducked behind the gray, patchy, late-spring clouds. Storm clouds. But Lenny Moziak and Brian Murphy didn’t mind in the least. No, although it was past midnight and the cemetery had been officially closed since dusk, they were deep within the labyrinth of tombstones that constituted the national burial ground, removed from any interference by patrolling police or park rangers. Markers and monu-ments were everywhere, from elaborate angels and crosses to simple marble and granite obelisks to white squares marked “unknown” set in the finely mani-cured turf in sweeping semicircles. And of course, there were the cannon and military plaques that noted the spots from which artillery gunners had sent cannonballs soaring into Confederate infantrymen on Day Three.
A weird place for a party. But that just made it funkier for these midnight ramblers, who’d just seen their first year—a complete disaster—end at Gettysburg College. Although they would probably be thrown out when report cards came back, Lenny and Brian were in a festive mood. The plan was to pack up Murph’s old van and boogie down to Florida for a few weeks of R&R and then play it by ear. Like everything the boys did, it was Lenny’s idea. Murph was little more than his wingman, but happily accepted his role. Tonight was a night for kicking back and mapping it out—and for getting stinking drunk.
“I must say, Murph, we’ve got style,” giggled Lenny as he swigged from a bottle of Jack Daniels. “On this hallowed ground, which has spawned the institution from which we are flunking, we do find this truth to be self-evident: Every man has the God-given right to party hearty!”
“No question, Homes,” said Murphy, lighting a Marlboro.
Lenny handed the bottle to Brian, who drank deeply. He looked around, shaking his head. “Lotta residents here, man.”
“Yeah,” replied Murph, running a hand through his shoulder-length kinky hair. “And d’ya know what the spooky thing is? Nobody even knows who a lot of ‘em are. Lookit this one here.” He pointed to a marker between his out-stretched legs. “‘Unknown.’ That’s it, man. Great way to end up. A brick in the ground. Not me, man, no way. If the Prez doesn’t end this war in Afghanistan, I’m booking. Canada, Mexico, it don’t matter. I’m history.”
“I concur.” Lenny nodded, his blond ponytail bobbing behind him. “Hey, how are we stocked for beverages?”
“Enough to get us down to Daytona, son.”
They passed the bottle back and forth, occasionally emitting a loud belch. Time passed. 12:45 A.M. became 1:30 A.M.
Murph was draining the last of the amber liquid when he heard—or felt—a pounding noise. Far off. Rhythmic. It lasted fifteen seconds, twenty seconds then stopped. Their gazes met.
“Lenny, you hear that?”
“That sound. You mean you didn’t hear it?”
“No.” But he had heard. Murph could tell.
“Lenny, let’s boogie.”
“C’mon, Murph, let me finish this cigarette, at least. Just keep quiet. It’s only police or park rangers patrolling, and we’re a ways from any of the paths. They won’t drive in here.”
“That wasn’t no car, Lenny.”
“Listen, numbskull, I—”
Hoof beats. Strong, then fading out. Then coming closer. Borne on the wind that blew the clouds which obscured the moon, blacking out the cemetery. Although the revelers were only a few feet apart, the glowing ember of Lenny’s cigarette was the only visible thing in the area.
“You there, compadre?” Murph’s voice was a little shaky now.
“Yeah. I think we’ve partaken a bit too deeply of the demon rum.” He was speaking in a dramatic baritone but it was a weak attempt at humor. He was scared stiff. “How far to the van, Murph?”
“About a hundred yards away, near the cemetery entrance. Man, it’s dark.”
“Well,” said Lenny, starting to push himself upright, “I say it’s about time we ease on down the road and—”
“Halt!” A voice, no more than a few feet away. Guttural. Threatening. “Who goes there?”
All Lenny could manage was a feeble, “What the—” That was when the smell hit him, a sweetly putrid stench carried on the wind that brought him back to a childhood incident, the time he’d found a dead squirrel in the hollow of the big oak tree in his backyard. It was in the advanced stages of decay, crawling with maggots. Lenny, who not for a few years would adopt his angry cynicism and general disregard for life, had begun to cry for the poor dead animal. A sudden flash came to him, jolted him back. It was the image of himself decaying, the whitish slugs roiling within his flesh. He squinted, hard, but could see no one.
“State your name and regiment.” The voice, distinctly Southern, directly in front of them now.
“What—who’s there?” burbled Murph, trying to rise.
“Sit down and identify yourselves!”
The two boys plopped down immediately, like they’d fallen through a trap door. Then the clouds parted and they were struck rock-rigid.
The man, or apparition, loomed over them, bathed in moonlight. He stood at least six feet in his knee-high black boots, which were mud-spattered and spurred. Though his uniform was gray it appeared off-white in the moon glow. The breeches he wore had a smart yellow stripe down the side; the tunic, with two rows of vertical brass buttons across the chest, was nothing short of beautiful. Stained white gauntlets led to gold braid, which curled up his forearms to the elbows. The high collar displayed a gold star. A saber hung from his thick leather belt, its scabbard inlaid with intricate designs. But two things in partic-ular stood out, riveting the boys’ attention.
The first was the man’s face, framed by shoulder-length black ringlets of hair. His beard and mustache were well-trimmed and highlighted striking, almost feminine features. The eyes, though, those eyes! They bore into the young men, black and hard and intense. The plumed black slouch hat that failed to obscure them seemed out of place. In fact, the entire uniform was almost comically theatrical—but the eyes made it all credible. The other thing that made it credible was the pistol.
Held at arm’s length, it was no more than two feet from the teens. To Murph, it seemed like a cannon, and indeed, the Colt .44 was a formidable weapon. Nearly a foot long, this 1860 army piece, standard cavalry issue, was deadly at close range, and though Lenny and Brian knew nothing about firearms, they did know they were in deep trouble.
“State your business here.”
Lenny tried desperately to down-shift his addled mind out of overdrive and get them out of this mess. This...person had confronted them, gun in hand, gold braid all over...Southern accent... Hey, he had no more right being there than they did, but why did he seem like he belonged? Oh man, why did they have to come here? They weren’t supposed to be in the park after dark and this maniac was gonna make them regret it. He cleared his throat and croaked, “We don’t want no trouble, man. What are you, anyway? One of those reenactor dudes? ‘Cause if you are—”
“State your business here.” Cold. Uncompromising.
“Please don’t kill us!” wailed Brian. Lenny’s head snapped around.
“Shut up!” he hissed. But it was out. Lenny felt the lukewarm spread of wetness on his thighs. Murph began to cry.
“I’ll not ask you again,” the man said in perfectly measured tone. “Tell me why you are here.”
Lenny swallowed hard. “We’re partyin’, man.”
“Please explain, suh.”
“You know, drinkin’. Kickin’ back. Listen, if you let us go we’ll never come—”
“You desecrate this soil.” The words came in a snarl.
“Hey, now, wait a second, man,” Lenny whined, desperately trying to scrabble to his feet.
The muzzle of the Colt was no more than twelve inches from his head when it went off with a thunderous BOOM. Murph gasped, hysterical. “Please, please d-don’t nonono!” he babbled, hands crossed in front of his face like a battered boxer.
“You leave me no choice. I am sorry.” And with that, the party was over.
The soldier turned on his heel, strode to a clump of trees. “Brutus,” he called softly. A horse appeared, purple-black, save for a white triangle between its eyes. He reared and his nostrils flared.
“Easy, easy old friend,” the soldier whispered, soothing the powerful steed. He grabbed the pommel of the saddle and effortlessly mounted. The sound of a motor came to him on the wind. There would be more of them, and soon. No time for the dead. Must leave now. Duty done tonight. He spurred the horse and galloped off along Cemetery Ridge toward Little Round Top and the cover of heavy woods. Halfway there, he faded out completely.
* * * *
Patrolman Rudy Herzog was jolted from his fragile catnap by the first explosion. Shaking the cobwebs quickly from his mind, he clearly heard the scream and the second shot, like the M-80s he used to light off as a kid. Rudy fumbled for the ignition, at the same time raising HQ on the radio. He was glad Vic Spence had desk duty tonight. Spence was a thirteen-year veteran and would know what to do. “Central, central, we have a disturbance in the cemetery. I’m investigating, over.”
“Where are you, Rudy?”
“Near the Codori Farm off the Emmitsburg Road. Over.”
“Rudy, any idea what it could be? Do you need backup? Over.”
By now Herzog was speeding in the direction of the noises, his lights flashing. “Oh, yeah, I need backup. I heard two shots, louder’n all get-out, Spence. Like...CANNON, man!”
“Okay, okay, Rudy. Stay calm. Maybe it’s just some knucklehead tourists. Proceed cautiously. Keep in constant touch. Reggie Peterson is clear on the other side of the park. I’ll get him over to you pronto. Over.”
Rudy stepped on the gas and took off along the twisting one-lane road that meandered through the ten square miles of Gettysburg Battlefield Park, past muted parrot guns and memorials, stone walls and Virginia fences, fields of flowing wheat once trampled flat under the heels of men at war. He reached the cemetery from the rear entrance, the familiar 1800s archway flying by. Heart racing, he jumped out, barely taking the time to put the cruiser in park, and pulled his Glock. He’d never been so scared in his life. Four years on the force and the only thing that had ever happened were a few rowdy disturbances in frat houses on the nearby college campus. That and the typical nonsense involving the days surrounding the annual commemoration of the battle, when tourists and reenactors swelled the town’s population enormously and anyone who was not directly involved with the festivities or the town’s commerce went on a cruise or to the Jersey Shore. Rudy flicked on his high beam flashlight and crept among the gravestones, finally making out two sack-like forms that were strewn across military grave markers. He knew at once they were dead. But still, he had to look. It was his job.
Herzog reached Lenny Moziak first and turned the light full on his face...except there wasn’t much left. He sank to his knees and vomited, again and again, until he was retching air. He barely heard the car radio crackle to life.
“Rudy? Rudy! What’s out there? Come in, Rudy!”
Herzog staggered to his feet, cast a quick glance at the other corpse (no reason for examination there) and stumbled to the cruiser. Breathless, weak and nearly blacking out, he clutched the mike. Depressed the button. “Vic, this is Rudy. Over.”
“Rudy, what the devil’s going on over there? Over!”
“Two kids...teenagers...male Caucasian, dead.”
“Spence, they have no faces! Their faces are shot away! Get somebody OUT here, now!”
“Okay, sit tight. Peterson is on the way. It’s gonna be all right, Rudy. Just stay cool. Over.”
Spence sat back, exhaled deeply. What in the Sam Hill had Herzog run into out there? He was an excitable kid, sure...rah-rah high school football star a few years back...but this was unlike anything Spence had heard of in all his years on the force. Not ever. He looked at the wall clock. Two-twenty in the AM. “Ah, jeez,” he sighed, and dialed up the chief’s home number.