Shades of Gray: Justice for Sarah Watts

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

Martin Cox stood with his son Daniel on the brick sidewalk facing a three story Georgian manor. The two hundred-year-old manor home was situated at the end of a quiet avenue at the crest of a hill near the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry. The small engine house where John Brown had made his final stand in 1859 was only a short stroll away.

“Lots of character and older home charm,” Martin read off the classified listing in the wrinkled copy of the The Journal in his hand. He glanced back and forth at the home’s quaint description in the newspaper and its dirty red brick and its white paint peeling off the trim. “It has five bedrooms, two baths, wood floors, natural woodwork, and new roof,” he read. A single round window just below the cornice shimmered in a hint of sunlight. Two thin, white muntins paired like a Greek cross divided the window into four equal parts. “Well, at least there’s a new roof,” Martin grumbled.

His son, a young man, twenty years old, stared at a group of tourists making their way up the street. “No wonder this place is so cheap,” he finally said. “It creeps me out. Look at it. It looks like it should be condemned.”

“Yeah, it certainly does have charm,” Martin said while adjusting his clip-on sunglasses. “The realtor wouldn’t even come with us. But hey, for this price who cares if it’s a fixer-upper.”

“Are we going to check it out, or what?” Dan asked impatiently.

Martin folded his newspaper and strolled up the weed-choked sidewalk to the front steps. The cement stairs were cracked, but still intact. Small circles were ornately carved into the sides of each step. The temperature seemed to drop as Martin and his son were drawn out of the afternoon sun as they neared the door.

“Wait,” Dan said. “There’s something in the mailbox.”

Martin turned just in time to see his son retrieve a piece of paper from the faded blue mailbox. “What does it say?” he asked as a sudden breeze ruffled his hair.

“I don’t know,” Dan replied and ran up the steps with the paper in his hand. “It’s some kind of list.”

“Bring it in,” Martin grumbled as he imagined it was a list of repairs and saw his investment go down the drain. He reached the door and jiggled the tarnished handle.

“Don’t you have the key?” his son asked.

Martin continued to play with the knob. “Not exactly,” he answered. “But I don’t see the harm in checking it out. The house is going to be ours soon anyway, right?” Martin slammed his shoulder into the door, which shook violently.

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Shades of Gray: The Old House

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

The two story plantation home stood inconspicuously on the opposite side of the highway from Cold Harbor National Park. Its simple clap-board siding, hardly covering a third of the original brick and timber, was bleached by over a century of exposure to the sun’s rays. Mike, Greg, and Aurelia parked their dark blue Toyota Corolla next to a battered, beige pickup truck in the gravel parking lot along the side of the highway and made their way to the door.

A tall man wearing the uniform of a park ranger and sporting a carefully trimmed beard was there to receive them. Expecting guests, or perhaps having heard the heavy thunder of boots on the wooden stairs, he opened the door just as Mike reached for the handle. He greeted the three visitors with a reserved “hello” and eyed them suspiciously, looking over each one carefully before inviting them inside. “Did you pass anyone on the way in?” he asked. “I could lose my job if anyone knew you were here.”

“No,” Mike said as Greg, Aurelia, and he stepped into the foyer. “The highway was practically deserted.”

Aurelia, a well-built woman with dark brown hair tied up in a ponytail, held herself arrogantly as she followed Mike and Greg into the house. Like a bird of prey, her eyes scanned every visible corner of the room, but she was secretly apprehensive. With an uncanny ability to see what others could not, she sensed deep pain soaked into the wood and brick—it was almost overwhelming.

From the foyer, the group made their way into the front room, which was decorated with a Spartan sensibility. The furniture—even down to the sofa frame—was wood, and a television, a glass of water, and papers stacked on a TV tray were the only indications that someone lived there. The park ranger was visibly nervous. He reluctantly retreated into the room while herding Mike, Aurelia, and Greg like a tightly-knit tour group. He looked ready to shoo them back out the door at the slightest provocation.

“You explained on the phone that you were having some kind of experiences here,” Mike prompted. “Why don’t you start at the beginning? Would it help if we all sat down?” Mike and his two companions sat on the stiff sofa, but the park ranger remained standing.

The ranger paced in front of the television like he was guiding a tour for the first time, then took a few deep breaths and began to explain. “Up until a few years ago, this old house was abandoned,” he said, “but let me start at the beginning. It was used as a Union and Confederate hospital during and after the battle of Cold Harbor. The Civil War saw plenty of blood baths, but Cold Harbor was one of the worst. General Grant led his men into a slaughter. During the battle, the family that owned this house hid in the basement while the Union army brought their wounded inside and laid them out on the floor and on tables. The blood from the wounded seeped through the floorboards and dripped down onto the family. There’s no way of knowing how many men died in here.

“At any rate, sometime after the war the park service bought up the land around here—including this property—and tried to preserve the house as best they could, but kids would sneak in here all the time after dark because it was abandoned. They said that you could see lights inside and hear strange noises. Finally, the park service got fed up and rented it out to their employees. They figured that was the best way to stop the trespassing and vandalism. I’ve only been here for a couple of months, but I’m at my wits end.”

“What kind of things have you seen?” Greg asked.

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Shades of Gray: The Ghosts of Train Nine

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

This was the third night the train woke James Shriver. Too late to be Amtrak, he thought as the diesel-electric locomotive’s whistle blared twice, then a third time, and then once more as it raced past his bedroom window. The walls shook in unison with the steady thunder of the steel rails pushed against the tar-stained ties by a multi-ton load of scrap metal, refrigerated meat, and wood chips. James rolled over, pulling his sweat soaked sheets with him. His heart pounded. The green display of his digital clock read 10:34.

He sat up and wiped his eyes clear as the train continued to roll past. His storm window was missing, leaving only one pane of glass between him and the racket outside. Nearly four days ago he’d had to sweep the glass shards from his porch after unloading the final box from the moving van, and his landlord had assured him the window would be fixed before he got settled in.

Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. Sometimes he thought he heard it when the train wasn’t even around.

James found the switch to his lamp, flicked it on, then removed his jeans from the back of his computer chair. He pulled a green t-shirt over his undershirt and found a pair of gym shoes under the futon in the living room. Hastily throwing on the clothes he had collected, he stepped out his apartment door just in time to see the last gondola car disappear down the tracks. His mind ached from lack of sleep, but the train kept it that way. It woke him up at night and in the early morning before he had to go to work. It happened with such regularity that he stopped setting his alarm.

His apartment was one of three units in a large house located at the dead end of an alley that terminated at the railroad tracks. A truck rental sat on the other side of the alley, and next to that was a park featuring a gazebo and a small monument. Main Street ran parallel with the railroad tracks just a few yards away, but the tracks had to be crossed to get there. Instead of negotiating the tracks to the shops and restaurants along Main, James began walking along the rail bed, past the signal station, toward Fifth Avenue. The gray and crimson ballast scraped beneath his feet.

Some people might have felt uncomfortable on that side of town this late at night, but James didn’t mind. At twenty to 11 o’clock on a Thursday, the neighborhood was quiet. His only companions were the trucks and cars that occasionally whooshed past on Main Street. The only light came from the businesses on the opposite side of Main and the street lamps that were few and far between.

Fifth Avenue was empty as well, and only a handful of cars sat in the parking lot of the Fifth Avenue Pub. Not a very inventive name, but this was where James found himself for the past couple of nights. The pub was as dimly lit as the street. Its interior was mostly wood—wood paneling, wooden tables, a heavy oak counter—but decades of patrons had carved messages in the walls and tables until they were colored in red, blue, and black ink. The messages chronicled proclamations of love and hate, phone numbers and addresses, and some were scribblings only decipherable by their long-departed artists. The whole place reeked of the beer soaked into the tables and the body odor of the old men who sat at the same table in the corner, at the same time, every day. James picked an empty bar stool and sat down.

The bartender was a clean-cut black man in his mid thirties, dressed in a silver shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Sweat and oil glistened on his forehead. Every few minutes he spat into what James hoped was a sink or trash can. “What’ll it be tonight?” he asked.

“Don’t you want to see my ID?” James replied as he reached for his wallet.

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Shades of Gray: Abraham Milestone’s Revenge

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

FBI Agent Annetta Nixon stood with her cell phone pressed against her ear at the crest of a hill near an abandoned Baptist church just outside of Norfolk. A sprawling cemetery rested a few yards behind the white, clapboard church, and a large neo-classical mausoleum sat in the middle of the cemetery. The setting sun painted the sky orange.

“I’m here,” the agent said. “I don’t see any activity.” She ran her free hand through her short, brunette hair and scanned the area with her well-trained eyes. “I’m going to proceed to the church—will report back if I find anything.”

She slapped her phone closed, slid it into her pocket, and moved that hand over the grip of her pistol just in case. Cautiously, she headed toward the church doors. Before she could determine whether the rusted chain around the handles was locked, the sharp wail of a siren pierced the air and a searchlight fell against the dirty white walls of the tabernacle. She sighed in frustration.

Two squad cars, one blue and one white, pulled up the driveway to the summit of the hill. Virginia Beach Police Department was painted on the side of the blue cruiser, and Norfolk Police Department on the side of the other. They stopped just behind Agent Nixon’s car, blocking her exit, and two uniformed men got out. One of their doors struck her vehicle, but neither police officer seemed to notice.

“Good evening ma’am,” the lead officer, who wore a dark blue shirt, said as he approached the church. The officer that followed wore a tan shirt, but the pair were both noticeably overweight.

Agent Nixon readied her badge. “My name is Annetta Nixon, FBI,” she said with authority. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

“We got a call about some vandals up here,” Kipp Leet, the lead officer, informed her.

“No one is supposed to be up here after dark,” the other officer, Ron O’Dell, a local Norfolk policeman, added.

Agent Nixon glanced up at the sky, which was still illuminated by the last rays of sunlight. “I’d say it’s a little early for a trespassing charge, isn’t it?” she asked with a touch of sarcasm. There was no response from either of the two police officers, so she continued. “I’m here to investigate the possible site of a meth lab,” she said. “If either of you would like to assist me that would be fine, but otherwise please stay out of my way.”

“Excuse me, but who gave you the authorization?” Officer Leet demanded. “This is a city matter. You don’t have jurisdiction here.”

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Shades of Gray: The Lost Regiment

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

The old lady smiled as she gingerly poured another round of tea into antique cups. A trio of strangers in their early twenties, two men and one woman, sat across from her. Two heavy, red leather photo albums were laid out on the burgundy coffee table, and drops of tea were spattered perilously close to the yellowed photographs. In one of the photographs, a young girl wrapped in a white cotton dress sat in a porch swing. In the other, a group of uniformed men stood in a field in front of several flowering dogwoods.

Mike, a young man of medium build with light brown hair, glasses, and a distinctive chin, cringed whenever a dab of liquid threatened to overflow onto the table. “Are you sure you don’t need any help with that?” he asked as he watched the old lady’s hands tremble. His companions, an inscrutable young woman with dark brown hair and piercing eyes named Aurelia, and a short man with a pocket-marked complexion named Greg, did not pay the situation any mind.

The old lady did not seem to mind either. “When I was a girl, my mamma used to tell me a story,” she began, “which is why I asked you to come here today.” She paused, and Mike, Greg, and Aurelia leaned closer. In the hallway, a black and white spotted cat’s paw peeked from under a locked door and massaged its trim.

Several tense seconds passed while the old lady poured the last drop of tea. “When I was a girl,” she continued as the teapot clattered back onto the tray, “my mamma used to tell me about Great-Grandpa James Earl Chesterton II. Now, my mamma’s great-grandpa—my grandfather—fought in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.” She recited the name with great pride. “He fought from the Second Battle of Bull Run all the way to a place called the ‘Wilderness.’ Some folks say he even survived Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but some folks ‘round here will say anything.”

Mike pinched Aurelia, who had started to nod off. “Go on,” he urged.

The old lady smiled and her eyes twinkled as if she was hearing the story herself for the first time. “My great-grandpa was a dashing officer, but no matter how many fights he was in with Yankees, he fought even harder with his fellow officers. In 1864, during the Battle of the Wilderness, he and his regiment were ordered to escort a wagon through the Wilderness south to Richmond. No one knows exactly what was in that wagon, but it must have been valuable—artillery, ammunition, shoes—maybe even gold or silver bars. I know one thing: no one would have sent that many men to guard some supplies if they weren’t of great importance.”

“What happened to them?” Greg interrupted, suddenly interested.

“No one knows for sure, but my mamma always told me that the regiment caught the cholera in the forest and died, but before the illness took Great-Grandpa James, he managed to haul the loot to his family’s farm and hide it.”

“Where’s the farm?” Mike asked.

The old lady smiled, wryly. “We’re here right now. I wanted to buy this place for years and finally, when my Charles passed away, I did.”

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Shades of Gray: Widjigo

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

It was dusk on the night of April 2, 1865 on the banks of Hatchet’s Run a few miles southwest of Petersburg. Major General Andrew Humphreys of the Army of the Potomac had hurled his II Corps at the remnants of Major General Henry Heth’s once feared Confederate division throughout the day. The Confederates, grimly determined in the midst of the smoke and thunder of battle, fought for every inch of ground. The smoldering orange embers of scattered fires crackled deep inside the breastworks and the timber. Blackened, barren trees sprawled over the land like a sea of twisted thorns, and small shapes scrambled under the cover of sulfuric smoke like mealworms. 10-inch siege mortars thundered in the distance and lit up the horizon with a sickening yellow glow.

In a nearby root cellar, a family whispered around dim candlelight and listened to the sounds of battle crawl near. A goat bellowed in the distance. Its cries were heard between the loud crashes of thunder, and then it was gone. William Gilmore heard it too, and he prayed for the souls of the men and boys who had spewed hot iron and lead at each other in the trenches around nearby Petersburg for almost a year. William had once felt the sting of battle, but now his hair was nearly white, arthritis crippled his hands, and wrinkles cut deep into his skin. Still, he clutched tenaciously to his grandson—as well as to his ancient Springfield flintlock musket—waiting until it was safe to go out.

* * *

The remnants of a battered Confederate infantry company hid in the forest above the farm where they waited for the enemy to come. They had been ordered to cover the retreat of Heth’s Division, and to protect the wagon train from attack, but their dirty and hollowed faces knew it was a useless gesture. The chain of command had disintegrated, and their once formidable force was reduced to fighting in lone pockets with a trickle of supplies and no hope of victory. They faced an ocean of enemies that threatened to wash over them at any moment.

A little more than two dozen of these men, Private Nathaniel Beverley among them, crouched behind makeshift piles of dirt and wood they had hastily thrown up that evening. At any moment, the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps was going to close in on their position, and it was their duty to delay it as long as possible. The group’s self-appointed commander, a middle-aged, grizzled veteran named Dixon, had put Nathaniel on watch that night, so Nathaniel’s eyes were trained on the creek in the valley below. He detected no movement in the growing darkness, but the smoke hovering over the valley did much to obscure his line of sight.

Nathaniel hadn’t slept in days. He was at the point of exhaustion and starving from a sparse diet of hardtack, horsemeat, and rotten potatoes that his unit had taken from the local farmers. They had no fire with which to cook, because the flames would give away their position. Already, the 88-pound mortar shells slammed into the riverbed below. Their report had lost their effect on Nathaniel long ago, and now the strangely rhythmic explosions seduced him to sleep. He struggled to keep his eyes open. It became hard to focus, and his cloudy breath warmed his face just enough to make the soft cradle of his arm inviting.

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Shades of Gray: Nothing Will Keep us Apart

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

It’s freezing outside, Luke thought as he pulled his windbreaker tighter and walked along an old, empty boulevard west of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. His parents and he had moved to the city two days ago, and he thought it would be a good idea to wander the town and get his bearings. It was late in autumn, so the wind blew sharply and bit at his cheeks. The houses on either side of the street were all over a hundred and fifty years old, and emitted a pleasant, aged perfume he could smell even from out on the sidewalk. Grand porches stood empty as though not a soul was home.

The future was on Luke’s mind that afternoon. He would be starting school late into the year, and he had a hard time making friends. His was a military family, and his father had been recently stationed at Fort A.P. Hill, a few miles southeast of town. This was their third move in four years. His mother assured him this would be their last for a while, but he could not help but harbor doubts.

As he walked south past Kenmore Park, he caught a glimpse of a person standing beside an old maple tree. The figure, at first obscured by shade, slowly morphed into a young woman with long brown hair that was tied up in a delicate, black snood. The breeze teased the few strands of unrestrained hair neatly away from her eyes, and as Luke got closer, he noticed she was staring at him. He continued walking, knowing it was rude to return the stare, but he could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about this mysterious woman. She smiled at him as he passed by. He felt a chill run through his body and he hurried toward Cornell Street.

Luke turned north down Cornell and then continued south on Washington Avenue. After a few yards, thick bushes marked the end of the residential neighborhood and a tall brick fence appeared on the right-hand side of the sidewalk. Beyond it, white, granite headstones peppered the sun-bleached field. The sea of graves stretched south and constituted the Fredericksburg City Cemetery and the much older Confederate Cemetery. Luke felt very alone, but he also felt drawn to the graveyard. As he neared the Confederate section of the cemetery, the strange feeling increased until every part of him tingled with nervous anticipation. Not even an animal seemed to stir. He opened the creaking, rusted gate, and stepped inside the cemetery.

Even the trees appeared dead as their long, barren branches sadly swayed in the autumn breeze. Luke speculated that they must have stood there at least a hundred years. He imagined women in black hoop skirts carrying parasols, and men dressed in top hats and black suits with coat tails, coming to the cemetery to mourn their loved ones. He was transported back in time at this place, and a sense of despair hung over the area, as if the cemetery itself longed for bygone days. All of that was gone now, and Luke stood alone under the chestnut trees among the faded gravestones.

He did not know what caused him to turn around, but when he did he was surprised to see that the young woman from the park was standing right behind him. He had not heard anyone coming, and he wondered how it was possible for her to have gotten there in such a short amount of time. She was wearing a long, white dress that was yellowed with age. Her skin was pale and moistened with sweat, as though it was the month was July instead of November.

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