The Stalking – Heather Graham

Dark legends come to life With the execution of a serial killer known as the Artiste, Cheyenne Donegal thinks a grim part of her past is finally put to rest. Her cousin had been the twisted killer’s final victim, and then-teenage Cheyenne was integral in bringing him to justice. That tragedy drove her to become an FBI agent. And now she’s back in Louisiana because someone is murdering young women in the same manner as the Artiste. Krewe of Hunters agent Andre Broussard has deep ties in New Orleans and Cajun country beyond. He knows that more than one monster has stalked the bayou. Has a deadly threat been resurrected, or does someone have a dark inspiration? With the life of a missing woman on the line, Cheyenne and Andre have to set aside their doubts about each other and work to discover the truth. The case is too close and too personal—but they can’t let it go, especially now that a ruthless killer has turned the tables and is hunting them.


 

The jazz band played a mournful tune under great oaks that swayed in the breeze, dripping moss as if the trees themselves cried. The priest moved forward, silent and somber, leading the funeral procession. Though it was the traditional funeral that should accompany the farewells for any member of Janine’s family, it all seemed so very wrong to Cheyenne Donegal. Step by step, they neared the cemetery, the Louisiana “city of the dead” where the body of Janine Dumas would soon lie in the family tomb of her ancestors, ashes to ashes in the fierce heat of the Louisiana sun, in a year and a day, as they said. This was a special city of the dead, begun as a private family cemetery, with an old mansion that was considered to be the most haunted for miles—perhaps in the state. It had a reputation for evil and death, and though that reputation had originated way back when, legends and myths never died. They just grew.

The procession had not had to come far; the funeral parade had begun at the old Justine Plantation building, where Janine had lain for viewing for a night and a day after leaving the county morgue, and where, they said, the haunts of the old cemetery—begun by the Justine family in the early 1800s— came out to welcome the newly dead. Still, this area had been Janine’s home, where she had lived and loved and believed in a spectacular future for herself, adventure and excitement to come. No more. Janine had been just sixteen, a young and beautiful girl, full of energy and love and enthusiasm, a flirt, a tease, perhaps, yet so full of life that her death still didn’t seem possible, even though her family and loved ones had seen her lying in her coffin, had seen her mother scream and cry and try to pull her body out. The coffin, drawn along in an old bier by two white mules, arrived at the cemetery. The jazz band, the pallbearers and the mourners entered the great ironwork gates of the cemetery and followed the path between the multitude of family crypts, coming at last to the one belonging to the family Dumas. Cheyenne Donegal stood at her mother’s side, along with their neighbors, teachers, friends and family as the rest of the procession entered the cemetery. They took their positions at the Dumas family grave as the priest stepped out of the line of mourners. Cheyenne heard her friends whispering to each other. “You look so bereft… Janine wasn’t perfect, you know,” someone whispered at her side.

“She was so young,” Cheyenne murmured, turning to see the boy at her side—Christian Mayhew. He’d been in Janine’s class, three years ahead of Cheyenne. “She knew how to take me down a peg or two,” Christian murmured. “She could be…cruel.” Cheyenne didn’t reply; her mother was staring at her, frowning. At her mother’s expression, she sensed something was wrong—and then she remembered what. Christian Mayhew had died. Heartbreakingly, by his own hand almost a year ago. Cyberbullied and picked on at school, he’d apparently been able to take no more. A slew of drugs had been found by his bedside.

He’d lain there, rumor had it, as if he’d chosen a long nap—and taken it. But that couldn’t be right. Because here he was. As the priest continued to drone on, Cheyenne heard another voice. “Christian, I was never mean to you. Yes, I might have teased you a little. But I was never mean to you on purpose.” It was a voice she knew well. Her cousin Janine’s! Cheyenne managed not to scream, shout—or collapse. Instead, she turned slightly.

And there was Janine, next to Christian. Janine looked so beautiful, but then, she had always been a beauty, blessed with big dark eyes and sleek hair in the deepest brown, almost black. The priest was still talking, his voice rich, his speech powerful, and still Cheyenne couldn’t discern his words. How could Christian and Janine be there, standing slightly behind her, watching as she watched? “Great funeral,” Christian told her. “Mine was…not.” Janine didn’t seem to hear him. She was staring across the crowd, across the neat rows of tombs, some a picture of decaying elegance, lost to time, others meticulously maintained, kept up by those living but destined to join their family members within the mausoleums. Her gaze traveled past angels and cherubs and Madonna statues, beautiful funerary art that could haunt the living and the dead. Janine was looking, Cheyenne thought, back toward the old plantation, now a mortuary chapel. Cheyenne could have sworn that her cousin clutched her shoulder, that she felt her hand.

But of course, she did not. Her cousin was dead. Her earthly remains were being put into the family tomb, and there she would lie and decay, a year and a day in the blistering heat, down to bone and ash, scooped into the holding area, leaving room for the remains of family to come. “That’s him!” Janine cried. Her voice seemed to tremble. The hand that touched Cheyenne’s shoulder was shaking. “That’s him.” Him? Cheyenne knew the police believed that Janine, her beautiful young cousin, had been killed by a man they called the Artiste. His victims had been between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, pretty, precocious and energetic. The first three had been working girls—vivacious, bright young women who had worked for an escort agency.

The fourth had gone missing after telling friends she was meeting with a drop-dead gorgeous man she had met through an online site. The fifth had been a runaway, living in New Orleans. And the sixth had been Janine. Cheyenne looked at the man who was standing on the trail between the old plantation house and the tombs. She knew who he was. Ryan Lassiter, a substitute teacher, sometime guitar player with various bands in New Orleans and all the way out to Lafayette, New Iberia and beyond. He was young, cool and hot. The kids loved him. “Mr. Lassiter?” she said aloud.

“Cheyenne, dammit, don’t you think I know what happened to me?” Janine asked, a catch in her ghostly voice. “I was so stupid! I thought I was so cool. Yes, I flirted with him. I had a ridiculous crush on him, and I thought he was… I thought I was so hot, and I was flattered, since for sure I had to be something…something for him to want to be with me.” Christian was looking at her. “Oh, Janine,” he said. “We saw it…so many nerds saw it. Jody Baylor said that you told him you were meeting with Lassiter—here, as a matter of fact, to do research on the old plantation house. Jody said that it was sick, gross. He’s—older.

You’re still a kid, Janine… You were still a kid. And he took those pictures of you…in life and then he fixed you all up and took the pictures of you…in death.” Janine heard his words but didn’t reply. She stared straight ahead, at the man she claimed was her killer. “I was a fool…so ridiculously filled with myself and my infatuation. I thought he was going to wait for me to graduate, and then he’d marry me, and… You have to stop him, Cheyenne,” Janine pleaded. “Tell them, tell them that he did it, that he killed me, that he stole my life, that he left me…there!” Janine pointed to her casket and added, “I could be so careless of others… I could be self-centered, I know—selfish. But I would never want what happened to me to happen to anyone else, not my worst enemy. Cheyenne, don’t let him get away with it—don’t let him get away with what he did!” She was looking at her cousin’s killer—and a man who acted so concerned, so kind, so giving with others. But he had done such cruel and horrible things to others, he had tortured women, mentally and physically.

How could she prove it? No one else could see Christian and Janine…her friend, the suicide, and her cousin, the murder victim. Would they just say that she was crazy? “Do something, Cheyenne!” Janine begged. The priest was still speaking; the members of the funerary jazz band were preparing to start up with another song. The cemetery workers were waiting for them all to leave so that Janine, in her coffin, might be sealed into the family tomb. Ryan Lassiter was looking toward her then. Or was he? Here, just outside Broussard, the landscape curled and dipped. The old plantation house was up a very small rise, with a smokehouse, original kitchen, carriage house and other structures seeming to fall away just behind it; the cemetery sat down the hill and to the right of the sweeping entrance to the house. Cheyenne looked around: her parents were there; Janine’s parents, teachers and friends; Mr. Beaufort, the gym teacher; Mike Holiday, captain of the football team; Nelson Ridgeway and Katie Anson, seniors, a class ahead of Janine, but friends with whom she had studied and partied; Mr. Derringer, the organist from the church; Emil Justine, hereditary owner and operator here, tall and dignified, caring and capable; and many others who had come to pay their respects.

Who was Lassiter looking at? Was it someone who looked back at him, as if they shared a confidence, as if someone else knew? “Cheyenne, it’s up to you!” Christian whispered. “You have to do something.” “Please,” Janine said softly, and then she turned to Christian, tears appearing to sting her eyes. “You could have been glad for what happened to me,” she said. “I wasn’t always so nice to you.” “You weren’t my friend, but you didn’t do this to me. It wasn’t you, it was many things,” Christian told her. “And I certainly forgive you. I hope that I am forgiven, too.” Christian stared firmly at Cheyenne again.

“Now, Cheyenne. You’re the only one who can help right now.” “Please!” Janine said again. Cheyenne thought about what had been done to her cousin…and the other young women. They had been kidnapped; they had been kept alive. Pictures had been taken of them and sent to the newspapers —he’d forced them to smile. And then he had killed them, and dressed them up and set them in strange death poses, and sent those pictures to the papers, too. And still, what can I do? Something, anything! She looked up for a moment at the massive winged angel kneeling above the family tomb. In a matter of minutes, the rite at the graveside would be over. And Ryan Lassiter would have watched the spectacle, chuckling inwardly over every tear shed, and walked away, handsome and charming, never a suspect… Free to kill again.

Cheyenne really didn’t know what to do. And so she lifted her arm, pointing toward Lassiter, and she began to scream. “That’s him…that’s the man who had Janine!” she said. She didn’t know how she would prove it, but more than one of their friends had seen Janine with him and they’d gossiped that it was disgusting, the older man going for the teenage girl. “Ryan Lassiter is the—the Artiste!” The priest stopped speaking. Cheyenne heard discordant sounds as the musicians one by one stopped playing and turned to look at her. “Cheyenne, Cheyenne,” her mom said, turning to her and clutching her shoulders, eyes wide with surprise, worry and confusion. “Cheyenne—that’s just Mr. Lassiter, the substitute teacher and musician, honey, he’s not a—” “He is—he’s a monster. He seduced Janine—he had her meet up with him.

She didn’t want anyone to know. She had a thing for him, and you should have seen the way he looked at her! Mom, he killed her. Stop him! Stop him!” Lassiter, with his flashing dark eyes and a sexy brown lock of hair falling over his forehead, stared down the aisle between the tombs, gaze hard on Cheyenne. Then, he pointed at her and mouthed the words, You’re dead. But he was seen, and the trombone player set down his instrument and went after Lassiter. The musician, one Jimmy Mercury, was tall and handsome—and built like an ebony battleship. He shouted something to the guitar player next to him, another tall man, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with dark hair and tawny skin, and built like a brick house. Lassiter began to run, but he was no match for Jimmy, a former linebacker for Louisiana State, who now had him trapped. The dark-haired young man, already past Lassiter, doubled back to see that he didn’t escape. Lassiter went down hard.

The musicians held him with knees on his back. Soon the sound of sirens blared through the cemetery, all but shaking marble angels and cherubs. Once the police were there, chaos reigned in the middle of the funeral, as other young people who had been friends with Janine stepped forward, shouting accusations. Ryan Lassiter protested all the while. There was no physical evidence—not there, not then. This was hysteria, he claimed. But for his own safety, the police assured him, they were taking him in. They would get to the bottom of it. Cheyenne didn’t really know the outcome that night. Her parents called one of their friends—a fellow who had retired from the FBI just a year earlier—and he came over to keep an eye on her if Lassiter got out.

Her father had been a hunter in his younger days; he still had his shotgun. Cheyenne didn’t see her cousin or Christian again that day; they had disappeared in the melee. It wasn’t until the next morning—when she was barely awake—that her mother came to sit by her, eyes filled with concern once again. “Cheyenne, they got a search warrant and a warrant for Lassiter’s DNA and…you were right, he was a killer. He killed all those young women… He killed our beautiful Janine. The DNA isn’t back yet, they told me, but they’re sure they’ll get matches. He confessed! He confessed! And…oh, my God, Cheyenne, he was holding another girl. They were able to get to her before…before he killed her. She was locked away, out in a storage shed. He—he would have killed her.

He’d already sent her ‘living’ picture to the police. How—how did you just see him there in the cemetery and know it was him?” Cheyenne carefully hid any expression from her mother. “I—I had heard kids talking. All the girls thought he was fine, cool…sexy. Janine wouldn’t have gone with just anyone, but I know that she did think he was an amazing poet and…” She paused, smiling, and yet with the sting of tears in her eyes. “It was almost as if Janine was there with me…right there, in the cemetery. And, Mom, I couldn’t let him get away with it.” Her mother accepted her words. Ryan Lassiter was tried for all six murders. He received the death sentence, and began his long route for appeals.

The years went by. When Cheyenne was eighteen and about to leave New Iberia, Iberia Parish, Louisiana, for the big city of New Orleans and an education at Loyola, she went back for a final visit to the cemetery and the family tomb. The surname Dumas was chiseled into the arch at the top; it was Cheyenne’s mother’s maiden name. When Cheyenne’s time came, she would have a place waiting for her here, too. Her dad was what they called “English,” even though he was a mix of Irish, British and more—all American. Her mom had been born in Cajun country, and was Cajun to the bone. Cheyenne loved her heritage, her hometown, but she was ready to move on. And while home would only be about two and a half hours away, she felt that she was leaving. And she had to say goodbye to Janine. She stood by the tomb, her hand upon it, and spoke softly.

“I’m heading out this afternoon, moving into my dorm. The big city—well, however big a city NOLA might be. Janine, I’ll never know how, but…you did it. You got that man into prison. The cops had DNA and fingerprints, but even though Lassiter was substitute teaching, he’d managed to submit other fingerprints than his own into the system, so he wasn’t flagged that way. Because of you—and Christian—he was caught. I have a scholarship. I’m going to major in forensics and criminology. I want to help others, and stop others from dying.” She hesitated.

Her cousin had been gone for five years now; she still felt the overwhelming sadness when she was in the graveyard. “Like you did!” she said softly. She nearly jumped a mile high when she felt a touch on her shoulder. Janine was there, still so beautiful, her eyes alive and dark and flashing. And Christian was at her side—standing just slightly behind her, as Janine rather liked others to be. “You’re still here!” Cheyenne whispered. Janine smiled, slipping one of her ethereal arms around Christian. “No, no, no—we’re not still here. We don’t hang around in the cemetery—there are many, many places better to be.” “Especially at Halloween,” Christian said.

“So much fun to scare the bejesus out of people at the haunted houses.” “He’s still such a child,” Janine said, rolling her eyes in mock horror, but with deep affection in her voice. “We go all over.” “We’re here today for you,” Christian explained. “The living apparently think that the dead hang around in cemeteries and graveyards. I mean, seriously?” “Am I really seeing you?” Cheyenne whispered. Janine laughed softly. Cheyenne felt spectral arms around her, as gentle as a whisper of air. “Cousin, I am here, and I am somehow ridiculously free. I’ve got Christian and…thing is, we don’t know exactly why we’re still here.

” “We just want you to know that we’re watching over you—when we’re not at some big social event that Janine just has to attend!” Christian said. Janine bopped him on the shoulder, and then her face became sad and serious as she said, “I’ll be there if you need me, Cheyenne. Oh, Cheyenne, remember Maw-Maw?” Janine was referring to their grandmother, gone now for a good decade. “Of course,” Cheyenne said. “She always said someone would have the clairsentience in the family. It’s you—and it’s strong in you. You gave me justice. I will be there for you.” “We’ll be there,” Christian corrected. They faded away, and Cheyenne stood alone in the old cemetery, amid the rows of tombs and marble angels, St.

Michaels, and weeping Madonna statues. Night was beginning to fall. In the distance, she could see the old plantation house, high up on its hill, well maintained but still haunting in the looming dark with its columns, cupola and Victorian gingerbread balconies. To an unfamiliar observer, the very house could seem dark and evil. But the house was not frightening to Cheyenne, nor were the darkness or rising mist—or the row upon row of tombs that graced the cemetery. It was not the dead who threatened the innocent. It was the evil in certain human beings who were very much alive.

.

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