The caged grave was an anomaly in Beaufort County. In all my cemetery travels, I’d come across only a handful of mortsafes, all of them in Europe. They were a Scottish invention, cleverly devised and manufactured in the early nineteenth century as a means of thwarting the nefarious grave robbers that dug up fresh human remains for profit.
But body snatching wasn’t a modern-day concern, and from what I could see through the tall grass, the cage didn’t appear that old. No more than two or three decades, if that. The heavy iron grates had rusted in the salt air, but the rods and plates were still intact and I could see the dull gleam of a steel padlock on the gate.
My pulse quickened as I made my way along the overgrown pathway. It wasn’t every day I stumbled across such a fascinating find. Although stumbled was perhaps a misnomer because I’d been drawn to that desolate spot for a reason. Lured from my work in Seven Gates Cemetery by a presence as yet unknown to me.
For the past several months, I’d been working in a small graveyard that was located near the ruins of an old church in Ascension, South Carolina. Until now, there had been nothing unusual about the restoration. I gathered trash, cleaned headstones and chopped away overgrowth until sunset, and then I went home to a cool shower, a solitary dinner and an early bedtime.
It had become a welcome routine. Even my nights had been uneventful and mostly dreamless. The dog days of summer left me so drained that I slept the sleep of the dead as the Lowcountry sweltered in the August heat. The small air conditioner in my rental provided only the barest relief and so I’d taken to sleeping in the hammock on the screened porch. There was something intrinsically soothing about the sea breezes that swept in from the islands and the songbirds that serenaded me from the orange grove.
Here in this coastal oasis, Charleston seemed a million miles away and so did John Devlin. I told myself that’s what I wanted. After the events that had unfolded over a year ago in Kroll Cemetery, the gulf between us had widened until I’d felt I had no choice but to give Devlin the space he seemed to need.
His leave from the Charleston Police Department had turned into a permanent resignation, and the last I’d heard he was working for his grandfather, a situation I couldn’t have imagined a year ago. A lot of things had happened that I could never have imagined, not the least of which were the changes I’d undergone. The one constant, however, was the ache in my heart. After all this time, Devlin’s absence from my life still pained me.
Which was why a challenging restoration in a new location was a welcome distraction. Seven Gates had come at just the right time after a long, lonely winter of hibernation. Spring had brought resolve and renewed commitment to my work, and the peace and quiet of the cemetery had restored my rocky equilibrium. But I should have known the calm wouldn’t last for long. It never did.
A shadow passed across the landscape and I glanced skyward where a buzzard floated in lazy circles over the treetops. The day was hot and still. The Spanish moss hung nearly motionless from the live oaks and the resurrection fern clinging to the bark had curled and browned in the heat.
As I stood watching the vulture, my heart started to pound even harder. Nothing stirred. Animal, ghost or otherwise. And yet I knew something—someone—was there, hidden among the shadows.
Why did you bring me here? I silently implored as I turned to scour the woods behind me. What do you want from me?
No answer. Nothing but the silken rustle of the palmettos.
The mortsafe was an intriguing find, but I didn’t think it the sole reason I’d been drawn to this place. Nor was the isolation of the interment. Quarantined graves were hardly unique, and in bygone days, any number of reasons—suicide, thievery or suspicion of witchcraft—could have kept the deceased from a consecrated burial in the churchyard. No, something more was at play here. A mystery that had yet to reveal itself.
A stray breeze ruffled the damp tendrils that had escaped from my ponytail, and despite the heat, I felt the dance of frosty fingers up and down my spine. Another vulture joined the first and I tracked them for a moment longer before dropping my gaze to comb the shadowy tree line. I could have sworn I heard chanting coming from somewhere deep in the woods. A distant singsong that dissolved into silence as the wind died away.
I turned back to the path, trudging onward as I slapped at the mosquitoes and gnats rising up from the grass to flog me. The palmettos barely stirred now and no other sound came to me. The utter silence of the clearing engulfed me.
The fingers that tickled the base of my neck now slid with icy precision across my scalp. The hair on my arms lifted as the still air suddenly became rank with the sulfurous odor of the nearby salt marsh. The chanting came to me again, hushed and distant, no more than a whispered repetition that vanished the moment I glanced over my shoulder.
I hurried my steps, driven by a force I had yet to understand. Not once did I consider the alternative of fleeing back along the path to the cemetery. I had come too far and the prodding from the watcher in the woods was too strong.
As I drew closer, I could see the cage more clearly through the weeds. It was a heavy device with a series of rods and plates padlocked together to safeguard the buried remains. In the old days, the contraption would have protected the grave until decay rendered the corpse useless to the medical schools and anatomists that employed the body snatchers. Then the mortsafe would have been unlocked, removed and placed over another grave.
Not so this cage. The edges were anchored in cement, making the safe virtually immovable by human hand or Mother Nature. Thorny vines with heart-shaped leaves coiled around the rods and weeds jutted up through the grates. So thorough the camouflage, a casual passerby wouldn’t have glimpsed the cage at all. No telling how long it had remained hidden and forsaken until the watcher in the woods had summoned me here to find it.
I was near enough now that I could see the sunken dirt beneath the grid. At any other time, I would have searched for a marker or headstone, but now I gave the grave only a cursory examination because something else had caught my eye.
About ten feet to my right, I’d glimpsed another cage. From what I could see through the weeds and vines, the device appeared identical to the first except for one grisly addition.
Inside the mortsafe, a pair of hands rose up out of a freshly mounded grave to grasp the iron grate.