The grand house rose from the ground as if it grew in that one spot, nurtured for years by the sun and rain. Trees encroached from all sides, their branches leaning toward it, as if seeking to gain some of the same sun and air. Despite time and neglect, the building remained strong, the corners sharp and the roofs perfectly angled. Whoever had built the Victorian masterpiece in the woods had done so with painstaking precision. It was meant to last.
The Blackwood Estate was the last stop on my survey, and I intended to get permission to search the extensive grounds and do a few digs. Acres and acres of woods, unused farmland, and various creeks and river branches would provide months—if not years—of interest. But my main focus at that moment was the immense home hidden in the dark forest.
I’d pushed the main gate open, the hinges screeching in disrepair. The driveway was mostly clear, the cracks in the concrete streaking like dark lightning. I’d rolled steadily forward, eyeing the gentle hills and wondering what archaeological treasures lay buried beneath the fertile Mississippi Delta dirt.
At the end of the drive, I’d found the faded mansion, vines growing along the sides and a front porch swing rocking in the breeze. Despite its strong bones, time had worn away much of the home’s superficial beauty—the gray and white paint peeled, dark green shutters along the first floor hung askew, and the windows carried a film of dirt, making it hard to tell if someone lurked inside, watching.
A shiver ran through me at the prospect. Slowing, I took in the house’s worn façade and maneuvered around a fallen limb. I eyed the second floor windows, but nothing moved. It was as if the house was holding its breath, waiting for something. For me?
I drove to the side of the structure, the driveway continuing further into the dark property. Gathering my notepad, I climbed out of the car and took the full brunt of the winter wind. Fall had come and gone, leaves littering the ground and crunching beneath my feet. A surprisingly cold winter had followed in its wake, the low temperatures often the first subject of any conversation I’d had with the locals.
The sun flirted with the tops of the trees to my left, throwing dappled shadows against the turret that rose three stories along the side of the house. A weather vane sat atop it, though it seemed frozen, the direction signifying nothing.
Pulling my red pea coat closed, I climbed the front steps and knocked on the dark brown front door with as much authority as I could muster. The wood was too thick and seemed to absorb the sound from my knuckles so that only someone standing right next to it would even hear it.
“Hello?” I banged on the door with the side of my fist. A solid thunk of flesh on wood was my only reward.
I glanced around for a doorbell or a knocker. Nothing.
The wind picked up again, whistling along the eaves of the house like an unruly ghost.
I swore under my breath and knocked again. “Is anyone home? I’m Elise Vale from the university. I just have a few questions.”
No luck. The house remained silent, watching me. Turning, I walked along the front porch, past the rusted swing, and to a set of dusty windows. I bent over to peek inside.
The interior was so dark that what little sunlight filtered through the surrounding trees was still too much. The gold reflection blinded more than it illuminated. I dropped my note pad onto the swing and cupped my hands on the chilly glass to peer inside.
When I saw a face only inches away from mine, I shrieked and stumbled backwards, falling on my ass with a thump.
The front door creaked open, but not enough for me to enter or the man to come out. Relief flooded my veins. The man I saw through the window wasn’t someone I wanted to meet face to face, not when I was out in the boonies alone.
I scrambled to my feet and clutched my notebook. The county records indicated the land was still in the Blackwood family, now owned by Garrett Blackwood, thirty-two years old. Could this be the same man? Surely not.
“What do you want?” The voice was low and gruff, scratchy from disuse.
“I’m Elise Vale from the university.” I brushed off my pants.
“I’m not deaf, Red.” His voice boomed through the crack in the door. “I heard that part. What do you want?”
I took a few hesitant steps closer. “I’m working on my Ph.D. in archaeology, and my focus is on Choctaw culture.” Usually that was enough to shake loose a question or an expression of interest from the landowners I spoke with. Not this one. I continued, “The woods and fields here in the Delta are littered with artifacts, and the university has made some great finds over the past few years in several of the areas near here. I was hoping you’d allow me to survey your land and perform a few digs—all with your express permission, of course. I wouldn’t do anything or dig anywhere without first gaining your approval.”
A few beats went by. I tried to see into the dim interior of the house, but the darkness was all-consuming. Only his voice and the tips of his fingers—the nails dirty and black—along the edge of the door proved that a man stood just inside.
“Go.” He pushed the door, closing the narrow pathway between us.
I put my hand out and stopped the door before it closed all the way, only a sliver of space left. “Please. I’m counting on this to finish my Ph.D. Most of the land around here has already been searched and studied. The Blackwood”—I gestured to the skeletal forest encroaching on the house—“is the only untouched site in this part of the eastern Delta.”
A harsh laugh cut through the air. “Untouched? Nothing here is untouched. Everything is spoiled, ruined. You want to hunt for remains of a murdered civilization? Look around; you’re surrounded by ghosts. No digging necessary.” He pushed the door all the way shut, and the clink of a lock sounded from within the thick wood. “Leave.” His voice barely made it to my ears, though I suspected he leaned against the door when he spoke. It was as if I could feel him through the surface, the fibers separating at microscopic levels to carry his cruel voice to my ears. “Stay off my land or I’ll call the sheriff.”
My stomach sank. I needed to dig on this property.
And not just for my Ph.D. project.
“Please reconsider, Mr. Blackwood. I’ll leave the papers in the letterbox out here if you change your mind.” I opened the rusted letterbox next to the door, the hinges squeaking angrily, then slid the permission documents inside. “My phone number is on the first page, and you can call my thesis advisor, Dr. Stallings, if you have any questions. His number is there, too.”