"It's nice to see some live children around here."
The voice came from behind Joanna—unnerving in itself—but as the ghoulish implication settled in, she shivered.
The figure seemed to have appeared out of nowhere—The Old Woman in the Wood in a frayed straw hat. There was a trace of dirt on her cheek, and when she smiled, one front tooth pushed just slightly forward, giving her a charming, imperfect appeal. "Welcome to my garden of eternal repose."
Joanna couldn't control it—her eyes ran up and down the woman in a conspicuous once-over. Thick-soled shoes layered with soil, baggy men's dungarees, a canvas apron anchored by four large pockets—all topped by a lined face with crinkled spaniel eyes. A cottony bun peeked out from under the hat. This was a grandmotherly face—not ghoulish, not unearthly. Thoroughly earthly, in fact.
Cautiously, Joanna returned the smile. "I hope it's all right. I thought we'd just stroll through, but when they saw the swing . . ."
Suspended on thick ropes from an enormous oak tree was a grayed slat of wood, where now perched a young girl, propelled by her brother's indulgent heave-ho.
"It certainly is." Placing her small spade and bucket of weeds on the grass, the woman lowered herself onto the bench. She smiled again at Joanna, patting the seat next to her. "Lovely to have you here. I've been waiting to meet you."
The woman laughed, clapping both hands on her knees. "Sounded like the grim reaper, did I?" She slipped off a work glove and held her hand out. "Doe Janssen. Proprietress. And you're Joanna Collier."
Clasping the proffered hand somewhat tentatively, Joanna sat down. If she wasn't outright rattled, she was getting there. "How did you know?"
"Wouldn't take a soothsayer to figure it out. One look at that little boy and you know he's a Collier. But I've seen you before—at your father-in-law's funeral last year. And I knew that Frank had moved his family into Brynmor."
Joanna looked over at Charlie, surprised. She hadn't thought he took after her husband whatsoever. "You know the family?"
"Oh yes. Hedy's a dear friend. We go back decades." Joanna was beginning to wonder if she was hallucinating.
Sitting in the middle of a graveyard with this rustic stranger—a little old lady in trousers who seemed to know a lot about her life—was peculiar enough. But even more bizarre was the idea that her husband's stately, refined grandmother could have somehow befriended a cemetery custodian.
"Do you live in the house?" Joanna nodded toward a hulking brick manor of indeterminate style that sat within the tall iron gates, surrounded by headstones large and small.
"Oh yes . . . it goes with the territory. In Grange House, we have dwelt—nigh fifty-seven years." She recited the line like poetry. "My husband moved me in as a bride, and we've never left." Pausing, she gazed around. "It may seem strange, given the circumstances, but it's turned out to be a lovely life. We've known most everyone in Bethlehem, and those who have moved in here are quite good company."
Curious about the earth-streaked little woman in the tattered hat, Charlie and Daisy had quit the swing and were now hovering at their mother's elbow. Charlie—shy at six but naturally inquisitive— ventured a question: "How many people live here?" He was looking toward the house.