Anamaria Duquesne slowed to a stop at the intersection and gazed up at the street sign. When Mama Odette had told her she would be living on Easy Street in Copper Lake, Georgia, she’d taken the words for symbolism. Mama Odette liked symbolism.
But her grandmother hadn’t been striving for some deeper meaning. The street really was named Easy, though it was clearly a place where some hard living went on. For every streetlamp that glowed in the night, another two were burned out. The street was narrow and lacked shoulders but dipped into ditches that filled with water when it rained. Trees and bushes grew thick, and grass was sparse. The ten houses she passed before reaching the end of the street hadn’t seen a new coat of paint in her lifetime. The cars were old, and a couple of scroungy-looking dogs stretched to the end of their chains to watch as she pulled into the last driveway.
She sat for a moment, studying the scene in the headlights’ beams. There was only one tree in the front, a magnificent live oak that shaded the entire front lawn. On the sides, the grass had long since surrendered to weeds that were thigh-high. The house was square, not large, but big enough for a mother and her daughter.
A screened porch stretched across the front; she knew from memory that the door opened into a central hall. On the left was the living room and, on the right, a bedroom. At the rear, there was a kitchen and another bedroom. A bathroom separated the two bedrooms.
This was the house where Anamaria had lived the first five years of her life. Just her and her mama, and a black puppy named Ebony. Ebony had made the move to Savannah with Anamaria. Her mama had not.
Despite the warm spring night, a chill crept across Anamaria’s skin. She cut the engine and climbed out of the car, pausing to listen, smell, remember. She heard tree frogs, whip-poor-wills, a night train on the not-too-distant tracks. A faraway dog barking, an answering bark, a car. She smelled dampness from the nearby river, the lush new growth in the woods that backed the house, the faint scents of decay, despair…hopelessness.
And she remembered…very little. Climbing the live oak. Helping with her mother’s flower garden. Playing with her mama as if they were both children.
Glory Duquesne had been little more than a child when she’d given birth to her first child at sixteen. This led to her dropping out of school, following the path with men and motherhood that Mama Odette had taken, and every other Duquesne woman before them. She had been beautiful—not just a daughter’s memory but verified by photographs—with café-au-lait skin, coarse black hair, eyes as brown as the earth and a smile that could stop a man in his tracks.
It’s a curse, Mama Odette said. Duquesne women love well and long and unwisely, and we never marry. But we make beautiful daughters. It was hard to tell with her whether It’s a curse meant an actual curse. Mama Odette believed in the old ways, in evil and curses and The Sight and atonement. She’d supported first her own babies, then her grandbaby, by telling fortunes, offering healing and charms and advice.
Taking two suitcases from the trunk, Anamaria made her way across the yard and climbed creaky steps to the porch. There were tears in the screens, along with enough rust to obscure the view. She crossed to the door, fumbled with the lock, then stepped inside and flipped the light switch. She’d called ahead to the power company, so light illuminated the hallway.
For a time she stood just inside the door, anticipation— fear?—tightening her lungs. Then she drew a breath. She’d expected something. Some flood of memories. Some sense of Mama. Some feeling of horror. But nothing came. The few memories she’d already examined were it.
Thanks to the cleaning service she’d hired, the house smelled of furniture polish and wood soap. Twenty-three years of abandonment had been scrubbed away, leaving the rooms spotless but shabby. The wallpaper was faded, the furniture outdated, the linoleum worn. The metal kitchen cabinets were fifty years or older, but the refrigerator and stove were in working order. There was no dishwasher and no microwave, but she didn’t mind.
Walking along the hall, she wished for a memory, a whisper, a ghost. But talking to the dead was Mama Odette’s strength. Those who’d passed ignored Anamaria as thoroughly as the living ignored them. They dismissed her, finding her unworthy of their endless supply of time.
She stopped in the doorway of her old room but didn’t venture inside. There was one other memory tied to this small, dark, unwelcoming room, of her five-year-old self sobbing in bed, terrified by the first vision she’d ever seen. If she stepped across the threshold, she might hear the faint echoes, feel the faint shudders, hear her own hysterical words. She’s in the water. Mama’s in the water.
Maybe she’d cross the threshold sometime. But not tonight.
She backtracked the few feet to the bathroom: sink, toilet, tub, leaky shower. The last room was Mama’s bedroom. Three windows each on the outside walls. Iron bed frame, walnut veneer dresser, oak veneer night table. Faded paint. Empty closet.
After Mama Odette had moved Anamaria to her house in Savannah, Auntie Lueena and her daughters had packed up only the personal belongings from this house—the clothing, the toys, the mementos. The furniture, lacking value, had stayed. Lueena had broached the subject of selling the place, but Mama Odette had refused. It wasn’t theirs to sell; it belonged to Anamaria.
She smiled thinly. A shabby old house on Easy Street. A few good memories, one truly horrific one. Not much of a legacy for Glory.
No, she corrected herself as she lifted one suitcase onto the dresser top and opened it. Glory’s legacy was her children: Lillie, who’d gone to live with her father’s people when she was a baby. Jass, who’d done the same three years later. Anamaria, whose father remained a mystery.
And the newborn infant who’d died when her mother had.
She unpacked everything she’d brought—clothing, toiletries, dishes, groceries—then made the bed, changed into a nightgown and sat cross-legged on the bed with an ancient wooden chest in front of her.
The box was built of tropical wood, heavily carved with symbols and words in another language. Duquesne women loved unhampered by taboos. Race had never mattered to them; the blood and beliefs of Anamaria’s male ancestors ran far and wide.
Love was all that mattered to Duquesne women. Hot, passionate, greedy, breath-stealing love.
Glory had excelled at that kind of love. Lillie’s father had been the first true love of her life, followed by Jass’s father. Did Mama love my daddy? Anamaria had once asked, and Mama Odette had assured her she did. But she didn’t even know who he was, Anamaria had protested.
But she loved him, chile. Your mama loved every man in her life just like he was the onliest one.
Nerves dancing on edge, Anamaria rubbed her fingers over the carved lid. Family history said the chest had been a wedding gift to Lucia Duquesne, filled with gems and gold coins by her lover. Come the wedding day, though, Lucia had disappeared, the chest with her. Now it held part of Anamaria’s family history. Mementos of the years she’d lived in this house with Mama. Memories she couldn’t retrieve from their hiding places in her head.
She opened the filigreed gold latch, hesitated, then folded it back into place. She would delve into the chest’s mysteries, but not tonight. She was too unsettled. She needed to locate her center of peace before she lifted the lid on her greatest love, her greatest loss.
Rising, she placed the chest in the darkest corner of the closet. For good measure, she pulled an empty suitcase over to block it from sight, then returned to the bed.
It was early for sleep, but she’d begun a long journey that day, longer than the one hundred and twenty-five miles between Savannah and Copper Lake suggested. She had an even longer road ahead of her.
She was going to find out everything she could about her mother’s life in this town. And her death.
Office hours at Robbie Calloway’s law practice were nine to five for his secretary, one to five for his paralegal and pretty much whenever he couldn’t avoid showing up for him. On the second Tuesday in April, that was eleven o’clock, and then only because he had a last-minute appointment.
Ursula Benton, his second cousin’s mother-in-law, looked up when he walked in at five till. With glasses perched on the end of her nose and her fingertips on the computer keyboard, it appeared she was hard at work. But Robbie knew it was more likely that she was chatting online about her passion in life, cross-stitching, than doing anything work-related.
“He’s in your office,” she said. “Here are your messages.”
He accepted a handful of yellow slips. Except for a call from his mother, Sara, the rest were from attorneys or clients. He tried to keep his client load to the bare minimum needed to justify an office and two employees. Law wasn’t a career for him; it was an interesting diversion. Thanks to a family who’d always had good fortune, he didn’t need the income. And unlike his brothers, Rick, Mitch and Russ, he wasn’t all that enamored with real work.
However, Harrison Kennedy, who was waiting in the office, did require real work of Robbie from time to time. After the Calloways, the Kennedys were the wealthiest and most influential family in this part of Georgia. Harrison had been friends with Robbie’s father, Gerald, until his death, and his wife, Lydia, remained Sara’s closest friend.
Harrison was standing at the window, gazing out over the Gullah River, a glass of whiskey in hand. Robbie glanced at the brownish liquid, his mouth watering, before helping himself to a bottle of water and going to stand at the opposite end of the window.
“A good day to be out there with a fishing pole and a cooler of beer.” Harrison stared out the window a moment longer before turning to face him. “I didn’t get you out of bed too early, did I?”