Graduate assistant Jan Lindell has her hands full supervising a team of archaeology students as they excavate the site of a Colonial-era inn in central Virginia. Sweltering heat, feuding students, vandalism, a visit from the local lunatic fringe, and complaints from the handsome son of the property’s owner are all complications she doesn’t need.

Her problems increase when it becomes clear someone doesn’t want them around. Vandalism turns into threats and then attacks on the students. On the bright side, when Gary Simpson, whose mother owns and lives on the property, assists her in the effort to thwart and identify the assailants, they discover a mutual attraction.

But someone seriously wants to stop them. When the attacks escalate and threaten to turn deadly, Jan realizes she’s fighting for more than a graduate degree and an archaeological site. All of their lives may be at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Prowlers


The Night Prowlers
February 12, 2012

Light, Contemporary Romantic Suspense
Length: Short Novel
Amazon Kindle Edition
B&N Nook Edition
Smashwords

Chapter One

The man stalking toward them wore a serious scowl. It drew his brows together into a thick line that shad¬owed his eyes without hiding the angry sparks shooting from the blue centers. He approached their group with an unswerving stride and tightly focused glare that made it clear exactly where his fury was directed.

Jan shaded her own eyes with a hand and straightened up, sighing, as he approached. Whatever his problem, she wasn't in any mood for coping with it. She had enough problems of her own. It was only ten forty-five, and the morning was already blazingly hot, the students were arguing, equipment was missing, and Tom Nelson was late. Her life didn't need any more complications.

Beside her, Donna Farrell looked up and whistled appreciatively. “Hey. Whoa! Hunk alert. I wonder what he's doing out here in the armpit of the universe?” She looked the man up and down as he approached. Jan didn't think he could have heard the whistle or the words. Donna's iPod sat in a speaker box blaring out her favorite music at the top of its considerable metallic voice.

“Central Virginia isn't the armpit of the universe,” Jan answered. “Try excavating out on the desert in New Mexico.”

Donna didn't seem to hear, though whether it was due to the music or the result of distraction wasn't clear.

Jan wiped a bead of perspiration off her forehead as the man skirted the edge of the group. He bent down and said something to one of the kids at the side of the dig area. As expected, the kid turned and pointed in her direction. The newcomer followed the arm to meet her eyes. The blaze still lit his.

Donna was right, he was attractive. Neatly cut black hair framed a lean face whose bones were too strong and too sharply defined to be really handsome. The deep blue of his eyes was set off by angled black brows. He was about six feet tall.

He was also about to become a pain in the neck. Jan had the prickly sensation in the back of her head that signaled this man was going to make her life difficult—for more than just the next few minutes, she suspected.

Staring down, he stopped a couple of feet from her, looming over her slender five feet four inches. Jan hated it when people took psychological advantage of her small size. Being so much taller didn't give him any right to stand over her that way. Worse yet, she was beginning to have an ominous tickling in her nose. Being out in the field in July never did good things for her hay fever.

“Can I help you?” she asked, hoping the threatened sneeze would hold off for a few minutes.

He started to say something, but the words were drowned out by the blare from the speakers.

“Donna, kill the noise a minute!” she shouted.

Donna was still staring at the stranger and didn't hear.

Jan grimaced, leaned over, and tapped the girl on the shoulder, then yelled in her ear when she had her attention.

Donna got the message and pushed a button on the speaker box. The silence that resulted was almost as loud as the music had been.

The man sighed and looked relieved.“Thank you,” he said. “Are you aware that thing is so loud I can't hear myself think up at the house? I can't concentrate.”

“I’m sorry,” Jan said, “I didn't realize that anyone but Mrs. Simpson lived there.”

“You didn't make any effort to find out, did you?”

Sticky strands of reddish hair were escaping from the clip that held it off her face. Jan scraped them back impatiently. Her nose was still asserting its right to take over her body any time it pleased. “Why should I?” she retorted. “I had no reason to think there might be anyone else staying there.”

“Even if there wasn't anyone but my mother, does that give you the right to go dis¬turbing her peace and privacy like this?”

“She agreed to let us dig here and was glad enough to accept the stipend in return,” Jan answered. A mild spasm puckered her face but she suppressed it ruthlessly. Her dignity was already pretty frayed.

He backed up half a step. “My mother always thinks she's on the brink of bankruptcy. I can't seem to get the idea out of her head. If I'd been here when your salesman came around and pressured her into that agreement, it wouldn't have happened.”

“We do not use pressure tactics. Dr. Nelson asked her if she would be willing to let us dig on her property, in return for a financial consideration, and she agreed quite readily.”

“That's his story.”

Jan took a deep breath. “Were you there?”

“No.”

“Then don't jump to conclusions. Your mother agreed to this of her own free will, and no one was standing over her.”

“I suppose you were present?” he asked.

Jan clenched her teeth to keep from saying something she might regret later. “No,” she admitted. “But I know the procedure.” She barely got the last word out before her nose started another campaign. Despite her best efforts to hold the sneeze in, she sniffled involuntarily a couple of times.

As the impending explosion built up momentum, she groped in her pocket but came up empty. The man saw her plight and handed her a handkerchief, just in time.

“Thanks, I'll return it later,” she said, when she could speak again.

He brushed her words aside. “Don't worry about it. Look, I just want some peace and quiet. My mother agreed to let you work on her property. Surely common courtesy would suggest that you at least make an attempt to minimize the amount of disturbance you cause.”

“Your mother's more than half deaf,” Jan pointed out.

“Well, I'm not—yet. And I'm trying to get some work done.”

“So am I,” Jan said.

“Your noise and the chaos out here isn't making it any easier for me.”

“I'm sorry. But this has been arranged for some time.” Jan wiped a bead of perspiration off her forehead before it crawled into her eyebrow. “You're not making my job any easier, either.”

“I'm not into invading other people's homes.”

“We have permission!”

The man frowned, then straightened out his expression with an obvious effort. “To dig here. Just that. Let me make the position clear. I have work to do, so please keep your noise down and your band of ragamuffins out of the way, or I'll throw the lot of you off the property, along with your 'consideration.' Do I make myself clear?”

“Certainly. I wonder what your mother would have to say about this outburst.”

A muscle twitched in a stubbly cheek; he hadn't shaved in a day or two. “That's not your problem. Just do as I say, and keep a low profile.”

He turned and marched off. The wide shoulders under the striped polo shirt were still rigid as he returned to the house. Jan watched until he reached a side door and disappeared within. She wasn't the only one with eyes turned that way.

All the members of the group had stopped work to enjoy the spectacle. Several were grinning at one another, and Jan suspected they'd be laying bets on how soon he'd return and who'd win the next confrontation. She wasn't sure which of them had gotten the better of this one. He'd had the last word, but it was a lame one for all that.

“Fun's over, guys,” she announced. “Back to work. I still want that grid laid out by the end of the day. Donna, keep the music low. I mean real low. David, that stake won't last twenty-four hours if you don't get it further into the ground than that.”

“Slave driver!” Joe Brandon stood up and gave her his best dimpled, crooked grin. With his blond hair and green eyes, Joe was almost as irresistible as he thought himself, and that would probably provide another complication before they were finished.

“Yeah, but she stood up to the Incredible Hulk there and told him where to get off,” David Hardison said.

“More like the Incredible Hunk,” Donna added. “He was gorgeous.”

“Bad temper and all?” Jan asked. “Lay off him, Donna. We've got problems enough already.”

“What I do on my own time is my own business,” Donna said.

“As long as it doesn't affect our work here,” Jan warned. “Make a pass at him, and you're out. Gone.”

“You heard the lady, babe,” Joe said. “Anyway, that hulk type is better on TV than in person.”

“Who made you an expert?” Donna demanded.

“I get around.”

Donna made a face at him, but Joe gave her the grin, and she couldn't hold out. “You've been around all right,” she said. “I hear about you all over the campus.”

“Nothing but good things, though. Right?”

“Are we using your definition of good or mine?”

“Want to help me check it out in the dictionary?” Joe asked.

“No, thanks. I can't study in the middle of a three-ring circus.” Donna fastened off the cord and went to the cooler for a drink. Jan glanced back at Joe and caught him with his defenses momentarily slipping. She wished she hadn't. The way he was looking at Donna forecast more complications. Not her problem, she reminded herself. If Joe wanted to carry a torch for a butterfly like Donna, there wasn't anything she could or should do about it. The boy blinked and rearranged his expression; the mask of ultimate cool went back into position, and Jan reminded herself that Joe could handle his own problems.

The day didn't improve thereafter. Between the heat, the sneezing, and the stickiness of the sunscreen Jan was careful to keep all over herself, she decided she was reaching an all-time personal record for discomfort. Tom still didn't show up, so she had to deal with all the students' questions and mistakes herself. Her notorious wit and good humor were pushed to the wall.

At two o'clock they ran out of drinks, with more than an hour's work still to do on the grid. Jan decided she needed a break and went to get more herself, leaving the kids with explicit instructions on how to proceed. They'd probably have several better ideas and ignore all her directions, but Jan was desperate enough to trade another hour's work this afternoon for a break now.

A towel spread across the seat of her car protected her legs from being burned by the vinyl, but she needed a potholder for the ignition and none was handy. Jan wrapped a tissue around her fingers after recoiling from the first shock and managed to get her Toyota started.

The nearest town was two miles away, a three-store wide spot in the road that was a place only by grace of the U.S. Postal Service, which had chosen to put an office there. The rest of the postal building was a classic general store, updated to call itself a Hop-In Convenience Mart. The proprietor turned down the sound on the television when Jan entered, cut¬ting off the announcer on a talk show.

Jan was taking two six-packs of Coke from the refrigerator case when a pickup truck squealed to a halt outside the door. Two men in cowboy boots and baseball caps got out and wandered in, greeted Jadine, the owner, and headed for the refrigerator also. They looked Jan up and down while she took her drinks to the counter and got out her wallet. One came up and stood next to her at the checkout.

“You one of them people from the university digging up the Simpson place?” the man asked.

“Yes, I am.” Jan looked around for Jadine and saw her heading toward the register.

“What are you all looking for?” The man seemed more curious and friendly than threatening.

“We're excavating the remains of an inn that once stood near where Mrs. Simpson's house is now.”

“Really?” The man had straw-blond hair that seemed to be all over his head and had seen neither shampoo nor comb for several days. His skin was weathered and leathery, making him look older than she suspected he really was. “You gonna dig it up?” he asked.

Jan relaxed a little and laughed. “Whatever’s left of it. Not much I should think.”

“Don't reckon there is. That place's been gone a while. Had a fire there back near the turn of the century, didn't they?”

“In 1914,” Jan agreed. “The place burned to the ground. But the foundations should still be there. We plan on digging around to see if we can learn some of the history of the place. The records we've found indicate the original structure may date back as far as 1715. We hope to learn something of what the inn looked like at the beginning and get some idea of what life was like back then.”

“Can't you read some books to find out?”

“Yes and no. Most of them don't give much of a picture of what daily life was like in those times.”

“Really?” the man asked. “Hey, Bill, come here and listen to this. This lady's one of them people digging up the Simpson place. They're looking for a building that was built in—what year'd you say?”

“I didn't,” Jan said. “I just said it might date back to early 1700s. That's one of the things we want to find out. Actually, though, this is just a student exercise. I'm teaching a class in archaeology. The excavation is fieldwork for the course.”

“You're teaching the class?” Bill asked. He was a few years older than his companion, heavier and darker. “You don't look old enough to be in college yourself.”

“I graduated two years ago,” Jan assured him. “I'm working on a doctorate in archaeology.”

“Well, I'll be,” Bill said. “She's too pretty to be so smart, ain't she, Tim?”

Tim, he of the straw-colored hair, nodded. “Brave too, to be digging out there at the Simp-son place.”

“Brave?” Jan asked.

“Yeah. Don't you know about the ghosts? That place is haunted.”

“Haunted?” Jan asked.

“Way I hear it,” Tim said. Bill shrugged and nodded agreement. His eyes had a sort of blank look, but that might have been his normal expression.

“The ghosts are a couple of kids who were in love, but things didn't work out for them,” Tim continued.

“True love never runs smooth,” Jan said sardonically.

“Right,” Tim answered, pulling the tab on a can of RC Cola. Obviously he wouldn't recognize sarcasm if it bit him on the leg. “Ain't that from some song?” he asked. “Anyway... “ Tim propped his hip against the counter.

Jan realized she was about to hear the whole sad story—probably a long one, too. She suspected Tim enjoyed the sound of his own voice. She sighed inwardly, but prepared to listen. Sometimes these local stories and legends contained useful nuggets of information or clues to historical events. Jan was dubious about this one, however. If she read Tim right, he wouldn't hesitate to embroider the truth in the interest of improving a story and thrilling his listeners.

He took a long pull at the can of soda before starting. “As I heard it,” he began, “the girl was the daughter of the inn's owner, and she was a sweet, pretty little thing. She was in love with a local boy, the son of a farming family that lived a couple of miles down the road.

“Her father didn't like it one bit. The boy's family didn't have nothin' to their name but the land, and even that wasn't very good. Her dad had a better idea. I said the daughter was pretty, didn't I? Seems she'd caught the eye of some guy who'd settled around here after making a bunch of money in some business thing down on the coast. His wife had died a few years back, and he was looking to replace her.”

Tim scratched his head with the same hand that was holding the drink can. “Anyway, her dad knew which connection would be more to his advantage, so he promoted this rich guy and told the daughter she couldn't see her boy¬friend anymore. But she was a stubborn sort as well as pretty, and she wasn't havin' none of her dad's choice.”

Tim looked around at his listeners. Bill was giving the story his rapt attention, and even Jadine seemed to find it more intriguing than the talk show on the tube. Satisfied, Tim continued.

“War broke out 'bout then, and the boy went off to fight, but he secretly gave the girl his mother's ring before he left. I guess you know times were bad and mail was slow in them days. Supplies weren't too easy to get hold of either, so after a couple of letters, there was a long time when the girl didn't hear anything from him.”

“Wait a minute,” Jan interrupted. “Which war are we talking about? What period is this?”

Tim looked at her, and his tone suggested she'd skipped a few required courses in school. “War Between the States,” he answered, shaking his head. “Anyway, her dad saw his chance. He arranged for a telegram to be sent saying that the boy had been killed in battle. When the girl heard about it, she was heartbroken, of course, and she grieved for a long time, but then she finally decided there was no reason not to do what her dad wanted. So she married her rich suitor and settled down with him.”

Tim stopped and moved his hips so that he was half sitting on the counter. “Of course, the boy wasn't dead,” he continued. “And after a while he came back. Can't imagine what it must've been like when he and that girl laid eyes on each other again. I bet there was a real scene.”

He shrugged and grinned, showing crooked, stained teeth. “At any rate, the way the story goes, the girl was so upset and mad, she grabbed a rifle and went out looking for trouble. She found her father and forced him to admit what he'd done.” Tim paused to enjoy the effect on his listeners.
“Now, nobody knows exactly what happened next, but according to the note she left, her father grabbed for the gun. She wouldn't let go of it, the two of them fought over it, and during the struggle the gun went off and killed him. The girl saw all the blood, and I guess she was all to pieces about everything, anyway. She couldn't see no way out, so she turned the gun on herself and fired it again. Killed herself. After a little while, the boy went and rejoined his regiment. He managed to win a few medals for courage before he finally got hisself shot at Gettysburg.”

Tim stopped, waiting for reactions. For a few seconds no one had anything to say.

“Which one of them haunts the Simpson place?” Jan asked.
“All of them, I reckon. Folks have seen different ghosts. Some say they've seen a middle-aged man, some say they see a young woman in a pink dress, and some see a young man in a soldier's uniform. All of them have bloodstains on them.”

“Any recent sightings?”

“Reckon some school kids saw them a few years back,” Tim answered. Bill nodded. “Thought they'd show how brave they were and camped out there. Didn't stay the entire night, though. Heard strange noises, like gunshots, they thought, and then they saw something that spooked them so bad they ran back home. They couldn't describe what they saw real clearly, though, just said it was horrible.”

“And you think we might disturb these spirits?” Jan asked.

“Well, seems like a possibility, don't it?” Tim said. “You're digging up the ground around the place where all this happened. I don't know as I'd think it was a very good idea if I were you.”

Jan sighed. “I see your point, but even ghosts have to give way to science occasionally. Who knows? Maybe we'll find something that'll shed some light on the story.”

“You're a pretty brave lady,” Tim repeated. He shrugged and straightened up. “We best git goin'. Hope you find what you're looking for.”

Jan did too. Driving back to the site, with the bag of drinks on the other seat, she sifted Tim's story for anything helpful it might tell them about the inn. There wasn't much to find, she concluded. And it wouldn't be trustworthy if there was.

The ghosts could probably give them some real help, though, if she should hap¬pen to run into one of them. The conversation could be enlightening.

The site was in even more chaos than when she'd left, and Jan got her first clue to the rea¬son when she parked her car behind the stand of trees at the end of the drive. A new blue Mercedes sat there, sneering at the collection of battered sports cars and much-used sedans the students drove.

She heard Tom Nelson's voice before she saw him. “This is an archaeological site, not a campground or a garden party.” He was haranguing, his professorial voice rising above the murmur and giggles of the students. “You call this a grid? Have any of you people ever heard of a tape measure? The stakes are sup¬posed to be evenly spaced.”

Jan sighed. This might be even worse than she'd anticipated. Darn it. She'd hoped to impress Tom with how well she was running the site. It would certainly help her chances for the Ph.D. and an appointment at the university, and, she had to admit, she'd also hoped it would improve her relationship with Tom, maybe get him to notice her on a more personal level.

So naturally he had to show up while she was gone. Of course Tom would have to find some way to assert his authority as the person in charge of the dig, but if the students had really messed up, she could be caught in the middle.

Several of the kids came over when they saw her approach, offering to relieve her of the sack full of canned drinks she carried. She had no illusion that gallantry motivated their desire to be helpful. The question was whether they were more interested in getting to the refreshments or getting away from Tom Nelson's lecture.

He abandoned the talk when he saw he'd lost the students' attention and joined Jan as the others retreated with the long-awaited drinks. Dressed in gray twill slacks, designer polo shirt, and new deck shoes, Tom clearly hadn't come with any intention of participating in the work. His light brown hair was freshly shampooed, and he looked as if he'd stopped on his way to a dinner date—which was probably the exact truth.

“This is how you take charge of a dig?” Tom asked her. “Go off and leave a group of untrained kids in charge? Look at that grid.”

Jan did. Actually it wasn't very bad. All but two of the stakes were precisely where she'd marked, and the cords were neatly stretched between them. The rest was so well-done, she wondered about the two that were out of place.

Whatever the reasons, she had no intention of taking grief over it from someone who hadn't even gotten his hands dirty yet.

“Your car and office are air-conditioned, so you might not have noticed that the temperature is currently ninety-two degrees,” she pointed out, trying to keep her tone as even as possible. “Some of us have been working out here for almost six hours. Those kids have been slaving on this site for most of the day, and they don't deserve to have anyone come along and berate them for taking a break now.”

“As for the grid—” She turned to the stu¬dents, who'd plunked down on the grass in the shade of a huge old oak tree and were currently opening and consuming cans of soda. “Joe,” she yelled. He was the clearest natural leader in the group. If anyone knew why two of the stakes were out of place, Joe would.

The boy looked at her, and got up when she motioned him to come over. He brought his can of Coke with him, guzzling it as he moved toward them.

“Problem?” he asked.

Jan pointed at the grid. “Those two stakes aren't where I marked. Something wrong with the placement?”

“I wondered if someone would get around to asking,” Joe said, looking at Tom. “We hit a couple of big rocks when we were trying to drive the stakes in, and you'd made it clear you didn't want us digging anything up yet. You were so emphatic about it that we decided it was better to move the stakes than try to dig out the stones.” Joe shrugged at Jan. “Sorry if we messed it up.”

“You did fine,” she said. “You made the right decision. There's another way to handle the problem, but I wouldn't expect you to know it. I'll show you in a few minutes. Thanks.”

Joe nodded and went back to the group, chugging the rest of the contents of his can. Jan had yet to have a drink herself. “Save one for me,” she yelled at the kids.

Donna picked one out of the bag and put it down next to her leg. “This one has your name on it,” she shouted back.
Tom didn't go so far as to apologize, but he did look over the site and nod before he made his way back to the car.

Jan followed him with her eyes, wondering whether she'd made any kind of impression other than bad. She'd man¬aged to keep her temper in check—barely. But her good humor hadn't survived the onslaught. So what had she expected? She wasn't the sort of woman who could flirt and be ingratiating to sophisticated, intellectual men.

Tom did turn around when he got to the door of his car. “Keep up the good work,” he said. “I'll be out in the morning and we'll start cranking up the digging. You've got the logbook ready?”

“In my car,” Jan answered. “Along with the rest of the equipment. Except for the sieves. I couldn't find them with the rest of the stuff.”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. Someone borrowed them a couple of weeks ago. I've got them. I'll bring them along tomorrow.”

After he left, Jan joined the kids and drank the soda Donna had saved for her. While they rested, Jan related the ghost story to the group, trying to remember all the gory details for their benefit. She wasn't disappointed by their reaction. Most of them found the tale more sad than spooky.

“Dad sounds like a real old pain in the rear. I'm not sure I'd want to meet his ghost,” one of the students commented.

“I'll bet he's one nasty spirit.”

“Maybe he's seen the error of his ways, and this is how he's doing his repenting time,” an-other said.

“Naw,” the first answered. “More likely he's keeping watch on his daughter and her boyfriend, still trying to keep them apart.”

It took only another half hour of work to get the grid straightened out. Jan showed them where to place the two misaligned stakes and how to restring the cords to get the lines straightened out.

Jan wasn't sorry when they finished the job, and they all collected their stuff and left. She made sure the stakes and cord were secure and checked that the kids had cleaned up all their trash before she climbed back into her car and drove home.

It had been a long time since she'd been so grateful that her small apartment came equipped with a full-sized bathtub as well as a shower. She had a long, reviving soak in the old-fashioned claw-footed tub, fed her cat, ate a quick light supper, did a load of laundry, and finally set¬tled into bed with a novel.

Fiction was a treat she allowed herself only rarely, but she'd earned it today. Unfortunately Jan fell asleep only halfway through the second chapter, and the alarm went off far too early.

She dragged herself out anyway and began to feel ready for almost anything by the time she had her usual three-course breakfast and two cups of coffee under her belt. At least she thought she was ready for anything. But that was before she knew what anything might actually be. She wasn't ready for what she found at the dig site.

One load of students had already arrived by the time she got there. Jan first thought she was catching them in the act of preparing a practi¬cal joke. But they had no paint or brushes, and there was no sign that they had been doing anything more strenuous than pouring coffee or tea down their own gullets. The kids looked as stunned as she knew she must appear when she saw the mess.

Stakes had been pulled out of the ground and cord was scattered in knotty clumps. Luckily, though, whoever was responsible hadn't done any digging. The stakes and cord wouldn't take long to replace. A couple of boys were already starting to sort out the knots, and another was banging a post back into its hole.

Nor would all the paint damage the area.

Even the grass and trees would survive being daubed with the stuff. But seeing the red splotches, Jan had first thought it was blood spattered on the ground and shrubbery. Viewed at close range, the stains were clearly paint, though just as clearly they were meant to suggest blood. No doubt the effect was in¬tended to reinforce the message painted in the same glaring shade on the bark of a nearby oak tree.

GO AWAY AND LEAVE US IN PEACE.





Reviewers Wanted

If you'd be interested in reviewing The Night Prowlers, please email me at karen@kmccullough.com

I'll be happy to arrange for you to get a copy.