by Amy Wilkins, Harlequin Digital
Do you like spooky mysteries with a paranormal twist? New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham has a book right up your alley this month with her latest Krewe of Hunters book. Mix the FBI, an old West tourist town, and a group of people with special hunters and you have The Night Is Watching, on sale now from Harlequin MIRA. Keep reading for an excerpt!
About The Night is Watching:
The Old West town of Lily, Arizona, is home to the Gilded Lily, a former theater…and bawdy house. These days, it offers theatrical productions geared to tourists, but the recent discovery of a skull, a real skull, among the props and costumes shakes everyone up.
So, who do you call? The Krewe of Hunters, a special FBI unit of paranormal investigators. In this case, it’s agent Jane Everett. Jane’s also a talented artist who creates images of the dead as they once were. But the Krewe always works with local law enforcement, and here that means Sloan Trent, former Houston cop and now sheriff. His great-great-grandmother was an actress at the Gilded Lily…and she’s not resting in peace.
Then more remains appear in the nearby desert. As they search for answers, using all the skills at their disposal, Jane and Sloan find themselves falling into danger—and into love.
Jane Everett was entranced.
She’d been to a ghost town or two in her day, but never a functioning ghost town.
But then, of course, Lily, Arizona, had never really been a ghost town because it had never been completely deserted. It had just fallen by the wayside. It had seen good times—when the mines yielded silver and there’d been a hint of gold, as well, and the saloons and merchants had flourished—and it had seen bad times when the mines ran dry. Still, it had the look of either a ghost town or the set of a Western movie. The main street had raised wooden sidewalks and an unpaved dirt street. Muddy when it rained, she was certain, but that was seldom in this area.
The car her boss, Special Agent Logan Raintree, had hired to bring her to town let her out in front of the Gilded Lily, where she’d be staying. The driver had set her bag on the wooden sidewalk, but she waited a minute before going in, enjoying a long view of the street.
There were a number of tourists around. She heard laughter from across the street and saw that a group of children had come from a shop called Desert Diamonds and were happily licking away at ice cream cones. Farther down, a guide was leading several riders out of the stables; she could hear his voice as he began to tell them the history of the town.
But the theater itself was where she was heading so she turned and studied it for a moment. Someone had taken pains to preserve rather than renovate, and the place appeared grand—if grand was the right word. Well, maybe grand in a rustic way. The carved wooden fence that wound around the roof was painted with an array of lilies and the name of the theater; hanging over the fence and held in place with old chain were signs advertising the current production, The Perils of Poor Little Paulina. Actors’ names were listed in smaller print beneath the title. She knew the show was a parody of the serialized Perils of Pauline that had been popular in the early part of the twentieth century.
No neon here, she thought, smiling. They were far from Broadway.
She’d read that the Gilded Lily had hosted many fine performers over the years. The theater had been established at a time when someone had longed to bring a little eastern “class” to the rugged West; naturally, the results had been somewhat mixed.
As she stood on the street looking up at the edifice, a man came flying out the latticed doors. Tall and square as a wrestler, clean-shaven and bald with dark eyes and white-winged brows, he bustled with energy. “Jane? Jane Everett? From the FBI?”
“Yes, I am. Hello.”
“Welcome to Lily, Arizona,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m Henri Coque, artistic director of the theater for about a year now and, I might add, director of the current production, The Perils of Poor Little Paulina. We’re delighted to have you here.”
“I’m delighted to be here,” she responded. “It’s a beautiful place. Who wouldn’t want to come to a charming, Western, almost ghost town?”
He laughed at that. “I’m glad to hear that, especially since I’m the mayor here, as well as the artistic director. Lily itself is small. Let me get your bag, and I’ll show you around the theater and take you to your room. I hope you’re all right with staying here. Someone suggested one of the chain hotels up the highway, but everyone else thought you’d enjoy the Gilded Lily more.”
“I’m happy to be here,” Jane assured him. “I can stay at a chain hotel anywhere.”
She was happy. They’d been between cases when Logan had heard from an old friend of his—a Texas cop, now an Arizona sheriff—that a skull had appeared mysteriously in the storage cellar of a historic theater. It had sounded fascinating to her and she’d agreed to come out here. The local coroner’s office had deemed the skull to be over a hundred years old and had determined that handing it over to the FBI was justified, so that perhaps the deceased could be identified and given a proper burial. Like most law enforcement agencies, the police here were busy with current cases that demanded answers for the living.
The skull, she knew, was no longer at the theater. She would work at the new sheriff’s office on the highway, but she was intrigued by the opportunity to spend time at the historic theater, learn the history of it and, of course, see where the skull was found.
That was the confusion—and the mystery. No one remembered seeing the skull wearing the wig before. Granted, the theater had been holding shows forever; it had never closed down. And people had been using the various wigs down there forever, too. From her briefing notes, Jane knew that everyone working at the theater and involved with it had denied ever seeing the skull, with or without a wig. It seemed obvious that someone had been playing a prank, but Jane wasn’t sure how identifying the person behind the skull—given that he or she had been dead over a hundred years—would help discover who’d put it on the rack.
The sheriff, Sloan Trent, had wanted to send the skull off to the Smithsonian or the FBI lab, but the mayor had insisted it should stay in Lily until an identification had been made. So, Sloan had requested help from his old friend, Logan Raintree, head of Jane’s Texas Krewe unit of the FBI teams of paranormal investigators known as the Krewe of Hunters. And that had led to Logan’s asking Jane, whose specialty was forensic art, to come here. The medical examiner who’d seen the skull believed it was the skull of a woman and he had estimated that she’d been dead for a hundred to a hundred and fifty years.
“Come, Ms.—or, I guess it’s Agent—Everett!” Henri said, pushing open the slatted doors and escorting her into the Gilded Lily. “Jennie! Come meet our forensic artist!”
Jane tried to take in the room while a slender woman wearing a flowered cotton dress came out from behind the long bar behind some tables to the left. The Gilded Lily, she quickly saw, was the real deal. She felt as if she’d stepped back in time. Of course, her first case with her Krewe—the second of three units—had been in her own hometown of San Antonio and had actually centered on an old saloon. But the Gilded Lily was a theater and a saloon or bar, and like nothing she’d ever seen before. The front tables were ready for poker players, with period furniture that was painstakingly rehabbed. To the right of the entry, an open pathway led to the theater. Rich red velvet drapes, separating the bar area from the stage and audience section, were drawn back with golden cords. The theater chairs weren’t what she would’ve expected. The original owners had aimed for an East Coast ambience, so they, too, were covered in red velvet. The stage, beyond the audience chairs, was broad and deep, allowing for large casts and complicated sets. She saw what appeared to be a real stagecoach on stage right and, over on stage left, reaching from the apron back stage rear, were railroad tracks.
The woman who’d been behind the bar came around to the entry, smiling as she greeted Jane. She thrust out her a hand and there was steel in her grip. “I’m Jennie Layton, stage mother.”
“Stage mother?” Jane asked, smiling.
Jennie laughed. “Stage manager. But they call me stage mother—with affection, I hope. I take care of our actors…and just about everything else!” she said.
“Oh, come now! I do my share of the work,” Henri protested.
Jennie smiled. “At night, we have three bartenders, four servers and a barback. And we have housekeepers who come in, too, but as far as full-time employees go, well, it’s Henri and me. And we’re delighted you agreed to stay here.”
“I thought the theater history might help you in identifying the woman,” Henri said.
“Thank you. That makes sense. And it’s beautiful and unique.”
“Lily is unique! And the Gilded Lily is the jewel in her crown,” Henri said proudly.
“Well, come on up. We have you in the Sage Mc-Cormick suite,” Jennie told her, beaming.
The name was familiar to Jane from her reading. “Sage McCormick was an actress in the late 1800s, right?”
“All our rooms are now named for famous actors or actresses who came out West to play at the Gilded Lily,” Henri said. “Sage, yes—she was one of the finest. She was in Antigone and Macbeth and starred in a few other plays out here. She was involved in a wonderful and lascivious scandal, too—absolutely a divine woman.” He seemed delighted with the shocking behavior of the Gilded Lily’s old star. “I’ll get your bag.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Jane said, but Henri had grabbed it already.
“Tut, tut,” he said. “You may be a very capable agent, Ms. Everett, but here in Lily…a gent is a gent!”
“Well, thank you, then,” Jane said.
Jennie showed the way up the curving staircase. The landing led to a balcony in a horseshoe shape. Jane looked down at the bar over a carved wooden railing, then followed Jennie to the room at the far end of the horseshoe. This room probably afforded the most privacy, as there was only one neighbor.
“The Sage McCormick suite,” Jennie said, opening the door with a flourish.
It was a charming room. The bed was covered with a quilt—flowers on white—and the drapes were a filmy white with a crimson underlay.
“Those doors are for your outdoor balcony. It overlooks the side street but also gives you a view of the main street, although obstructed, I admit,” Jennie said.
“And the dressing room through here.” Henri entered with her bag, throwing open a door at the rear of the spacious room. “It’s still a dressing room, with a lovely new bath. Nothing was really undone. The first bathrooms were put in during the 1910s. We’ve just updated. And, you’ll note, this one retains a dressing table and these old wooden armoires. Aren’t they gorgeous?”
They were. The matching armoires were oak, with the symbols of comedy and tragedy carved on each side and on the doors. “They were a gift to Sage when she was here,” Henri said reverently. “A patron of the arts was so delighted that he had these made for her!”
Jane peeked beyond. The bathroom was recently updated and had a tiled shower and whirlpool bath. The color scheme throughout was crimson and white with black edging.
“This is really lovely. Thank you,” Jane said again.
“It’s our best suite!” Henri gestured expansively around him.
“How come neither of you are in here?” Jane asked, smiling. “And what about your stars? I don’t want to put anyone out.”
“Oh,” Jennie said. “Our ‘stars’ tend to be superstitious. They’re in the other rooms on this level.” With a quick grin she added, “And Henri and I are quite happy in our own rooms.”
Jane waited for her to say more.
Henri spoke instead. “Sage McCormick…” His voice trailed off. “Well, theater folk are a superstitious bunch. I mean, you know about her, don’t you?”
“I know a little,” Jane said. “She disappeared, didn’t she?”
“From this room,” Jennie explained. “There’s all kinds of speculation. Some people believe she was a laudanum addict, and that she wandered off and met with a bad end at the hands of outlaws or Indians. Laudanum was used like candy back then. Lord knows how many people died from overusing it. Like today’s over-the-counter pills. Too much and—”
“And some people believe she simply left Lily with her new love—supposedly she intended to elope—and changed her identity,” Henri said impatiently. “Prior to that, she’d met and married a local man and they had a child together.”
“Really? But she still kept her room at the Gilded Lily?” Jane asked.
“Of course. She was the star'” Henri spoke as if this was all that needed to be said.
“Anyway, the last time anyone reported seeing her was when she retired to this room after a performance,” Henri went on.
“Her esteemed rendition of Antigone!” Jennie said.
“What about the husband? Was he a suspect?” Jane asked.
“Her husband was downstairs in the bar, waiting for her. He was with a group of local ranchers and businessmen. One of her costars went up to get her, and Sage was gone. Just…gone. No one could find her, and she was never seen again,” Jennie told her.
“Oh, dear! You’re not superstitious, are you?” Henri asked. “I understood that you’re a forensic artist but a law enforcement official, too.”
Jane nodded. “I’ll be fine here.”
“Well, settle in, then. And, please, when you’re ready, come on down. We’ll be in the theater—I’ll be giving notes on last night’s performance. Join us whenever you’re ready.”
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt a rehearsal.”
“Oh, you won’t be interrupting. The show is going well. We opened a few weeks ago, but I have to keep my actors off the streets, you know? You’ll get to meet the cast, although the crew won’t be there. This is for the performers. As Jennie mentioned, the cast lives at the Gilded Lily while performing, so you’ll meet your neighbors.”
“Thank you,” Jane said, and glanced at her watch. “Sheriff Trent is supposed to be picking me up. I’ll be down in a little while.”
“Oh! And here’s your key,” Henri said, producing an old metal key. “The only people here are the cast and crew—”
“And bartenders and servers and a zillion other people who’ve come to see the show or have a drink,” Jennie added drily. “Use your key.”
“I will,” Jane promised.
Henri and Jennie left the room. Jane closed the door behind them and stood still, gazing around. “Hello?” she said softly. “If you’re here, I look forward to meeting you, Sage. What a beautiful name, by the way.”
There was no response to her words. She shrugged, opened her bag and began to take out her clothing, going into the dressing room to hang her things in one of the armoires. She placed her makeup bag on the dressing table there, walked into the bathroom and washed her face. Back in the bedroom, she set up her laptop on the breakfast table near the balcony. Never sure if a place would have Wi-Fi, she always brought her own connector.
Jane decided she needed to know more about Sage McCormick, and keyed in the name. She was astounded by the number of entries that appeared before her eyes. She went to one of the encyclopedia sites, assuming she’d find more truth than scandal there.
Jane read through the information: Sage had been born in New York City, and despite her society’s scorn for actresses and her excellent family lineage, she’d always wanted to act. To that end, she’d left a magnificent mansion near Central Park to pursue the stage. She’d sold the place when she became the last surviving member of her family. Apparently aware that her choice of profession would brand her as wanton, she lived up to the image, marrying one of her costars and then divorcing him for the embrace of a stagehand. She flouted convention—but was known to be kind to everyone around her. She had been twenty-five when she’d come out to the Gilded Lily in 1870. By that point, she’d already appeared in numerous plays in New York, Chicago and Boston. Critics and audiences alike had adored her. In Lily, she’d instantly fallen in love with local entrepreneur Alexander Cahill, married him almost immediately—and acted her way through the pregnancy that had resulted in the birth of her only child, Lily Cahill. On the night of May 1, 1872, after a performance of Antigone, Sage had gone to her room at the Gilded Lily Theater and disappeared from history. It was presumed that she’d left her husband and child to escape with a new lover, an outlaw known as Red Marston, as Red disappeared that same evening and was never seen in Lily again, nor did any reports of him ever appear elsewhere. Her contemporaries believed that the pair had fled to Mexico to begin their lives anew.
“Interesting,” Jane murmured aloud. “So, Sage, did you run across the border and live happily ever after?”
She heard the old-fashioned clock on the dresser tick and nothing else. And she remembered that she’d promised to go downstairs. The sheriff was due to pick her up in thirty minutes, so if she was going to meet the cast, she needed to move.