He trembled at the beauty and the horror of what he saw. In a place where only darkness should have been, light glared, stinging his eyes. A surreal gabble of voices and dissonant music hurt his ears. The squawk of a horn startled him, but he remained motionless, drowning in strange sensations and images. When his vision cleared, he was too weak and shaken to leave the sanctuary of the archway. It was night. That was somehow important. Yet it wasn't really dark. Pink wisps of cloud colored the indigo sky. He knew where he was. Yet this wilderness couldn't be the home he remembered.
Disorder and decay surrounded him. Wild roses choked the coral archway above his head. The flagstone path was a crumpled ribbon flung in the chaos of flowers and vines that had once been the formal garden. He felt like a sleepwalker, awakening in the wrong time and place. His heart wept for the lost years. His eyes burned, unable to cry.
It seemed like yesterday that the cream of society had poured through those wrought iron gates, rusted now, hanging on sagging hinges. The rich and famous had come to lavish parties, swam in bathtub gin and sipped contraband rum. Tuxedoed valets had parked cars made by Bugatti and Studebaker.
Prohibition. Brave men could make a fortune.
He stumbled one step, then two, and the loop of the driveway drew him faster past rustling palms, the meticulous lawns a riot of tall grass, but now he was only vaguely aware, his mind reeling again. He rounded a curve and came up short near the rusted main gates. A concrete sidewalk slashed a premature end to the tree-lined drive. Strangers strode across his property. Didn't they know they were trespassing? A spark of anger flickered to life.
On the sidewalk, a child froze, his eyes wide, pointing at him. He folded his arms over his chest, glanced down, expecting to see bloody fingertips. He'd clawed his way out of the mausoleum, but there was no blood. The pale skin was whole. His long, translucent fingernails were dirty, but not one chipped or broken.
"Look, Momma, a ghost." The lilting cadence of the boy's voice teased memory. "Told you that old house is haunted."
Jamaican-that was the accent. A memory of wind-tossed seas and ships ferrying forbidden cargo brought a smile to his lips. The mother narrowed her eyes to peer into the gloomy shadows of the palm fronds. Their eyes met. The intruder gasped, grabbed her son's hand and pulled him along, her high heels beating a rapid staccato of fear.
"I am a ghost," he whispered, his voice breaking.
A heady, intoxicating scent lingered in the humid air. He inhaled the dusky human fragrance, and a sweet longing trembled through him. Saliva flooded his mouth. This desperation of mind and body was hauntingly familiar-half passion, half hunger-an overwhelming crescendo in his veins. Memories knocked at the gates to his mind. He mustn't open those gates or he'd go mad.
He raised a skeleton claw, the veins blue cords beneath tight transparent skin. Dirt-matted hair draped the shoulders of his coat, the once fine fabric rotted. The reek of the grave clung to him, but he was corporeal, not a ghost.
An ocean breeze stroked his face. He inhaled the cleansing salt fragrance. He'd go to the shore, strip and bathe in the waves. Oh, yes, he'd loved the sea!
More sure-footed, faster than he dared believe, he raced along the overgrown path. As he slid down the bank to wriggle his toes in the warm water, a tide of memories swept the child-like smile from his lips. There'd been another whom he loved more than the sea.
Her name had been Jessica Starling, and she was the essence of her age-the Roaring Twenties. Everyone called her Jesse. When they married, she hadn't taken his name. "You don't need me to wear your brand to know I love you."
Tears clotted in his throat. He swallowed grief. Jesse's death had sent him on a rampage. He'd gone quite literally mad. Yes, that's how it had been. The last night he'd dwelt amongst the living, he'd killed seven innocents who didn't know who Jesse was or why their lives were exacted to pay for another man's sin. He hadn't even taken their blood. He'd watched them slowly bleed to death. Death, in its arrogance, had snatched her away. Arrogant and lethal as Death, he'd demanded Old Testament justice-an eye for an eye. Yet seven times seven lives couldn't avenge his loss. And so he'd laid his living body beside his wife's corpse.
Behind him, down a dark path, the mausoleum doors yawned wide-a mouth to the other world. If he surrendered to memory, he'd return to her, but his Jesse wouldn't know, hadn't known any comfort from his cold embrace. The immortal ocean lapped sand from the mortal shore. A full moon cut a white circle from the black sky. Life rang in him clear as morning's bells. He yearned to be free of the lethargy and the stench of death.
And the past that had driven him to the grave.