Hannah O'Brien walked into the large kitchen, ready to throw something. The past hour had been pure bedlamguests hysterical and screaming, she herself completely baffled.
Of course she had offered to refund everyone's money and suggest a beautiful chain hotel for them to check into.
She opened her mouth, not to scream, but to call out for immediate attention. Because she couldn't think of anything else that might have happened except that one of her permanent residents had played a not-very-funny trick on her unsuspecting guests.
Melody Chandler was already there, leaning against the refrigerator in her beautiful Victorian glory, staring at her.
"What the hell was that?" Hannah demanded. "Did you bring a friend in? A dying man with his throat slit, carrying a knife and trying to kill my guests?"
"No!" Melody protested.
"That was unbelievable. I've never had guests up and leave at 4:00 a.m. before. Never. And I've never had to refund anyone's money before, either." Angrily, Hannah crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the ghost with whom she had shared this house for as long as she could remember. The original owner had been Hannah's great-great-great grandfather on her father's side, but she had actually inherited the house, already a B and B at that point, from her uncle. She had been his favorite niece, and she had loved him and the house. Sadly, he had died in his late forties from a sudden heart attack, and she had inherited the Siren all too soon. He had known how much she loved the place. She'd spent much of her time there with him, since her parentswho had lived a few blocks away on Simonton Streethad both worked.
She knew the house backward and forwardalong with its ghosts.
She fought to control her temper. "Melody, a little spooking the guests is fun, but this time you and Hagen went too far. I'm fighting to keep this place, but I can't do that if I don't make a profit. You two just scared all our weekend guests away. And Shelly, the poor girl who saw you, was beyond terrified. And from what she described, I don't blame her."
"You did not listen to me, Hannah," Melody protested, staring at her with wide eyes, pleading to be believed. "We did not do it. Hagen would never do anything like that. You know how squeamish he can be. And look at me. Do I look like a bleeding man with a knife? And who do I know? The same spirits you do! I do not know of a single spirit walking around Key West with a bleeding neck and a knife in his hand."
Melody and Hagen didn't refer to themselves as ghosts and didn't like to be referred to that way.
Of course, tourists and most locals called the city's haunts ghosts, but Hannah was usually careful and polite, following their wishes and calling them spirits within their hearing.
And with her temper cooling, now that the brouhaha in the house had died down, she had to admit that she really couldn't picture her resident ghosts turning themselves into the terrifying apparition described by her now-gone hysterical guests. But if her two known household entities hadn't been playing tricks
?" she asked.
Someone drifted in through the closed back door and then materialized into an excellent imitation of flesh and blood.
Hannah was accustomed to such comings and goings. Hagen Dundee entered the kitchen and took up a protective stance at Melody's side, slipping a ghostly arm around her. "I heard, Hannah, and Melody is telling you the truth, I swear it. As if anyone could ever mistake her for a man! And I promise you that it was not me, either. We were not even here. We were at the Hemingway House, playing with the cats."
"Torturing the poor little six-toed creatures, probably," Hannah said, still angry. She'd lost business tonight, business she couldn't afford to lose. And she was fighting to believe it had been someone's idea of a prank; it was too frightening to think that it might be something else. Something real.
"I love cats. I would never torture cats. You know that I love all animals," Melody said regally.
Hannah swallowed, then pursued the hope that perhaps the couple had schemed with one of their island spirit friends to scare tourists.
"Honestly," she said, "we've talked about this before. It's charming and wonderful and helps business when you guys fool around and moan and groan in the middle of the night. Or, Melody, when you make an appearance at dusk, pacing the roof. Or, Hagen, when someone opens a door in the middle of the night and you're standing in the hallway, looking tall and strong and desperate to find your beloved. But what happened tonight
it was mean. One of those people could have had a heart attack."
Hagen looked at Melody and then walked over to Hannah and set his hands on his hips. His sandy hair was worn in a queue, and his bleached cotton shirt seemed to billow around his broad shoulders. She could have sworn she even saw specks of mud on his black leather boots. "Hannah," he said earnestly, "we did not do it." Then he turned his back on her and addressed Melody. "Dear, I believe we need fresh airand different company. Shall we go for a bit of a walk?"
She stepped forward and took his arm. Then, heads held high, they headed toward the back door.
"Wait!" Hannah said. "Please. Help me. If you guys didn't do it
who could it have been?"
"This island has spiritsand spirits," Hagen told her. "Most of your ghost tourists stay on at the Hard Rock when you are done talking, and maybe they imbibed too heavily of spirits of an alcoholic nature. What I do know is that we did not do itand you have deeply insulted us by suggesting we would do something so horrible. I really cannot stand here discussing this any further, Hannah. I am sorry. Melody, shall we take our stroll now? Perhaps down to the beach?" he asked, then bowed in a courtly manner and moved as if he were really opening the door for Melody. She sailed out, and he looked at Hannah again then strode off in Melody's wake.
Hannah watched them go, surprisedand more than a little shaken.
She'd grown up in this house with the two of them for company. Nothing like tonight's events had ever occurred before. She couldn't believe they would do anything so vile, but if not them
She didn't even want to think that a murderous ghost might be stalking the streets of the city she called home.
She sank down on a chair at the kitchen table, exhausted. She'd been sound asleep when she'd been startled awake, stunned and terrified herself, by the sound of screams. And Melody and Hagen were right. They didn't begin to resemble the knife-wielding apparition that had threatened her guests out by the pool.
She winced. It hurt to lose so much business. Weekdays in the Keys were slow this time of year. The Siren of the Sea wasn't a major hotel to be found on every travel site on the web, though she did have a great website of her own. During Fantasy Fest and other Conch holidays, she had it made. And she had wonderful reviews on the sites where she could be found. It was still hard to make ends meet, though. She didn't want to overprice, but she only had six guest rooms.
Her house was worth a small fortuneshe knew that. She'd received enough offers for it. But she didn't want to sellthere was certainly nothing else in the area she could afford if she sold, and Key West was her home. She'd seen a fair amount of the world, many wonderful places, but she loved Key West.
" she murmured aloud, drumming her fingers on the table.
Petrie, her humongous, long-haired, six-toed "Hemingway cat," leaped smoothly up into her lap and meowed as if in deep sympathy.
"What's going on, big guy? You're a catyou're supposed to sense things."
He merely swished his furry tail.
Hannah stood, gently sliding Petrie to the floor, and poured herself another cup of coffee before giving the cat a few treats.
It had all happened so fast. She had heard the screams and shot downstairs to see what was going on. Everyone in the place had been out by the pool within minutes, one college boy wielding a dive knife and Mr. Hardwicke, an elderly regular along with his wife, a heavy boot. But there had been no one there other than Shelly and Stuart, both of them hysterical. Their friends had been less than kind, insisting she'd freaked out over the ghost tour, that was all. But Stuart had been adamant that there had been a ghosta vengeful ghostand only their screams had driven him away. Someone had suggested they call the cops; someone else had snorted and said that cops couldn't arrest ghosts.
The next thing Hannah knew, they were all leaving. And while they'd spent most of the night, she'd decided it would be bad customer service practice not to refund their money.
Now the sun had risen on another beautiful Key West morning. Bright and early, just about 7:00 a.m., a westward breeze was coming in, the foliage was moving gently in the breeze, and the dead heat of midday was not yet burning the pavement.
She went to right one of her Victorian lawn lounges, which had toppled over in the commotion.
And that was when she saw them.
Drops of red that led off through the bushes and
She hunkered down to study the spots and froze.
They were blood. Real blood. Not astral blood, spiritual blood, ghostly blood or imaginary blood from an apparition of some kind. Real blood meant that someone or something living had come through the yardnot a ghost. There were outside lights by the pool, but at night these drops would have been invisible.
Hannah pushed her way through the foliage where the blood trail seemed to end, though the drops might have disappeared into thin air or they might have been soaked up by the dirt. She couldn't really tell. The yard here in back of the pool grew rich and lush all the way up to the bushes that lined the brick wall and the white wooden gate that led to the small alley behind her house. Vehicles couldn't traverse the narrow way; it was a footpath, normally used only by those who already knew it was there.
The gate was unhooked. There was a bloody handprint on it.
Gingerly, afraid of what she would find, Hannah pushed it all the way open.
And there he was. A man lying just two feet from the gate, sprawled faceup, staring wide-eyed up at the sun.
A brilliant crimson ribbon ran around his neck. And his fingers curled as if he had been holding something
Like the hilt of a knife.
"How did you know there was a body in the alley?" Dallas Samson asked, after introducing himself and flashing his FBI badge.
The young woman who had summoned the police was standing behind the crime scene tape that now stretched across the alley and up to her gate. Detective Liam Beckett was with her. Beckett was a city copand a friend of Dallas's. Apparently Beckett was a friend of the young woman's, too. She was extremely attractive, Dallas noted almost dispassionately. He filed away everything he noticed about possible suspects and witnesses in the back of his mind, so it was second nature to make a physical assessment. She was about five-five, maybe a hundred and twenty pounds, sleek and slim, with deep blue-green eyes and a mane of golden hair. She was, however, tense. She stood straightalmost frozen. Not panicked, but icy. Almost as if she were battling not to show any emotion, doing everything in her power to remain stoic and calm. He realized he'd barely taken his eyes off her. And the tension he was feeling himself was making him come off like a drill sergeant. He couldn't help itnot with a dead body lying in the alley and her standing there not answering his question.
He sure as hell wasn't helping her any, but it rankled that she'd been talking easily with Liam when Dallas had arrived, and now she was just staring at him without saying a word.
Her brows hiked up as she finally considered her reply to his query.
She was taking too long to answer. The tension he was feeling increased.
He pursued his question even more impatiently. "Let me rephrase. Do you usually wake up bright and early and come out to the alley looking for bodies?"
Liam cleared his throat reprovingly, and Dallas winced inwardly. He'd let his temper get the best of him, making him rude and sarcastic. He wasn't usually that way, but he was feeling a hell of a lot more tense than the blondethan any of them, at the moment.
But, then, he'd known the dead man. And he didn't like the way the man had been found.
"Hannah called me immediately," Liam said, frowning. "And, I assure you, it's the first time she's ever called me about a body."
"Of course," Dallas said. "Sorry. So, you knew he was here because" he paused, looking at Liam "because he was in your yardand still alivelast night?" He realized the implication that she might have saved him was in his voice. He hadn't meant it to be, but that didn't mean it wasn't true.
He looked around and noticed that there was a lot of confusion at the scene. A couple of uniformed officers had been first on the scene, followed by Liamand he'd been right behind. Now techs were dusting and setting out numbers by everything they found, and looking for evidence, and the medical examiner was with the body. She had touched the body, trying to see what she could do for him before realizing he was dead. If she'd been a screaming basket case, he would probably be having an easier time dealing with her. But though she was calm now, she had been screaming when she'd dialed 911. The uniformed officers had probably arrived within secondsthey were just down the street from Duval, because the department always patrolled the bar and club scene there, no matter how lateor earlythat was.
"I never saw him in my yard. Two of my guestsformer guestssaw him. But they didn't realize he was real. They thought they were seeing a ghost."
The young womanLiam had introduced her as Hannah O'Brienseemed to be growing aggravated with him. He didn't really blame her. He was usually a lot better at a crime scene.
"They thought a real manmortally injured and bleedingwas a ghost?" Dallas demanded.
"How the hell.?" he muttered.
"I can't read their minds," she said sharply. There was something almost regal about her. Maybe that was what bugged him. It compelled him, and that irritated him. He took a breath and tried to regain a professional calm.
"All right. Can you start at the beginning for me?" he asked.
"I was sound asleep. I heard a scream and came running downstairsthey were in back of the house by the pool. I looked out and saw two of my guests. One of them was insisting she'd seen a ghost in my yard," Hannah explained. "Sheher name's Shelly Nicholsonhad been on my ghost tour. She and her boyfriend, Stuart Bell, were absolutely convinced they'd seen a homicidal ghost. But there was nothing there.
"I tried to calm them down. I told them
I told them that ghosts weren't real, and even if they were, it wasn't likely they'd be able to kill anyone. I got them to quit screaming and talk it through. Nothing budged them. They insisted they'd seen a bloody ghost holding a bowie knife. By then, everyone in the place was out there and freaking out. So I got everyone checked out and sent them down to the Westin, and then, when it was light, came back out to look around." She hesitated for a long moment, glancing at Liam. "I don't even know of any Key West ghosts that supposedly run around bleeding and carrying a bowie knife." She stopped, struck by the thought that the man on the ground was now eligible to be a Key West ghost legend.
"A bowie knife?" Dallas demanded.
She nodded. "That's what Stuart said. He was one of the people who saw the
"How did he know it was a bowie knife?" Dallas demanded.