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Kelsey Donovan was at home, working beneath the bright light above her drafting desk, when her phone rang. She answered it distractedly.
"Kelsey? Is this Kelsey Donovan?"
It was odd, Kelsey thought later, that she didn't recognize Liam Beckett's voice the minute he called, but, then again, it had been a long, long time since she had heard it, and they'd both been basically children at the time.
His voice was low, deep, confident and well-cultured, with the tiniest hint of the South. Naturally—they were from the southernmost city in the United States, even if that city had never been completely typically Southern or typically anything at all. Key West was an olio of countries, times, and people, and accents came from across the globe.
"Yes, Kelsey. Hello. I'm sorry to be calling you. Well, I'm not sorry to be calling you, I'm just sorry because of…the news I have to give you."
Her heart seemed to sink several inches down into her stomach.
"It's Cutter, isn't it?" she asked.
"I'm afraid so, Kelsey." He was quiet a minute. "I'm afraid he died a couple of days ago. We just found him."
A heart couldn't sink lower than into the stomach, could it? It seemed that the depths of her body burned with sorrow and regret. It was human, she tried to tell herself, to put off until tomorrow what should have been done today. She hadn't gone back.
Why in hell had she never gone back? She had meant to, she had promised Cutter Merlin, her only living relative, that she would do so. And yet…
Even after her father had passed away, there had been that dark, empty place that had made her afraid to do so.
"Kelsey? Are you there?"
"Yes, I'm here. I'm… Thank you. Thank you for calling me."
"Of course." He was silent, and then he cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well, there are matters, of course, that must be dealt with. The property is yours—and the decision on the final arrangements for his interment are yours as well, of course."
"Um…" She couldn't think. She didn't want to think. She didn't want to sit here and think of herself as being such a low and callous human being for not having gone back. Whatever had happened when she had been a teenager, she didn't think that it had been her grandfather's fault, no matter what her father had believed. And her father hadn't actually called Cutter evil, he had told her he was a good man. He hadn't even said that the house was evil. But there had been something. She had known that her father believed that her mother's death hadn't been an accident, and that he had taken Kelsey away from the house because he had wanted her away from Cutter Merlin.
But the man had been her grandfather, her flesh and blood! She had spoken with him on the phone after her father's death, and she had said that she would come out. But there had been the awful grief of losing her father, and then the flurry of work to learn to live with the fact that he was gone. And then…and then…
She had meant to go down to see him. She hadn't. And that's the way it was, and now he was gone, too, and she was a horrible human being. Liam had said that they had just found him, but…
He had been dead some time. He had died alone, and his body had just sat there alone in death, because he had been so alone in life.
"His attorney was Joe Richter. I'll text you the phone number and address. I suppose you can come here yourself, or make whatever arrangements you'd like with Joe."
"Sure. Thank you." She still felt numb—and filled with regret. She didn't like herself very much at the moment. She roused herself, though, curious as to why it was Liam who had called her.
"Um—how is it that you're calling?" she asked.
"I'm a cop these days," he told her. "And we've had a few shake-ups in the department lately, so… Anyway, old times, I suppose. When his mail carrier reported that he wasn't collecting his mail, I went to the house. I found him."
A cop. Of course, Liam was a cop. He'd wanted to solve every riddle, put together the pieces of any puzzle. Once, when a school lab rat had disappeared, he had discovered that Sam Henley had stolen the creature to take home; he'd pretended to find Sam's fingerprint on the rat cage, and Sam had quickly squealed—like a rat.
She closed her eyes. She was thinking about Liam. And Cutter was dead.
"Was it a heart attack?" she asked.
There seemed to be a little beat in time before he answered.
"Apparently. But his body is still with the M.E. Just procedure," he said.
But there had been something odd in his voice!
"Please go ahead and call Joe, Kelsey. Let him know what you'd like. Are you still drawing?"
The new question took a moment to comprehend. She was surprised that he remembered how she had loved drawing.
"I'm a cartoonist. I have a column, and we do a little animated thing on the web," she said. "I have an animator partner, and we're doing fairly well. Thanks for asking."
"That sounds great. Well…"
His voice trailed off. He was a cop. He was busy.
"Thank you again, Liam. I'm glad the news came from you."
"I'm sorry, Kelsey. Though I guess it's been a while since you'd seen Cutter."
"We had talked," she told him. Ah, yes, there were defensive tones to her words!
"Take care," he told her.
"Of course, thank you—you, too."
The phone went dead in her hands. She still didn't move for several minutes.
The room darkened around her. Only the bright light above her drafting table gave illumination to her apartment.
She liked where she lived. People often thought of the L.A. area as rather a hellhole of plastic people and traffic.
But Hollywood had neighborhoods. She didn't have to travel most of the time; she worked from home. She had great theater around her, and wonderful music venues. A decent, busy life in a place where there were actually local bars and coffee shops, where she knew the owners of the small restaurants near her and where, day by day, things were pleasant, good.
She didn't need to go back. She could call Joe Richter, and he could make any arrangements that might be necessary.
No, she couldn't. She owed Cutter the decency of arranging a funeral herself.
A beep notified her that Liam Beckett had sent her the text with Joe's information.
She would call him in the morning. She swiveled in her chair from the drafting board to her computer. And she keyed up the airlines, and made a reservation to reach Key West.
She was going home.
Once the reservation was made, she found herself thinking about her father. He'd been a good man. He'd loved her mother so much, and her, too. And he'd even loved Cutter Merlin, she thought. But when they had moved away, she had asked him why, and he had told her, "Because it isn't safe, kitten. Because it just isn't safe to be around Cutter, or that house, or…all that he has done. That man will never be safe, in life…or in death."
The call came when Liam was off duty, when he was down at O'Hara's having dinner—the special for the night, fish and chips.
His cousin David was frequently there, since David was about to marry Katie, Jamie O'Hara's niece, and the karaoke hostess at her uncle's bar. They'd all grown up together. Liam had stayed, while David had gone, until he'd returned recently. Sean, Katie's brother, had also spent many of his adult years working around the world. Like David, he'd gone into photography and then film.
There were others, friends of various ages, sexes, colors, shapes and sizes, who were local, and the locals came to O'Hara's with a standard frequency, though the place also catered to tourists—in Key West, tourism was just about the only industry.
The fish was fresh—caught that afternoon—and delicious, but he'd barely begun his meal, sympathizing with David about the problems inherent in planning a wedding when Jack Nissan called him from the station.
"I just got a call—something is going on over at the Merlin house. I know you cared about the old fellow and contacted his granddaughter. I thought that maybe you wanted to be the one to check it out," Jack told him. "If not, I'm sorry to have called."
"Who called, and what is the something going on?" Liam asked.
"Mrs. Shriver. She could see the place across the water from the wharf area. She said she saw lights, and knew that we'd found the old fellow dead. Should I just send someone on patrol to check it out?"
"No, Jack, thanks. I'll go on over," Liam told him.
"What is it?" David asked.
"A report of lights over at the Merlin house," Liam said.
"Want me to come with you?" David asked.
"No, it's all right. I'll be back. I'll see you later."
When he headed out to his car, Liam knew that he was being followed. He paused, turning around.
Not everyone saw Bartholomew, and frankly, he'd been among the last in their group to really see the pirate.
Bartholomew had died in the eighteen hundreds. First, Bartholomew had attached himself to Katie O'Hara.
Then, somehow, he had become Sean O'Hara's ghost, and now, with the world quiet—and, Liam assumed, because the others were all living basically normal lives and were romantically involved—Bartholomew had decided to haunt him.
It was quite sad, really. He'd listened to his cousin and the others talk about Bartholomew, but he might have actually believed that it was all part of a strange mass hallucination because of the danger they had been in.
But then, Bartholomew had decided that he needed to attach himself to Liam. It had been after the affair out on Haunt Island, when, his cousin David had assured him, the ghost had been instrumental in saving a number of lives.
At first, seeing a ghost was definitely disturbing. And as far as that went, he'd assumed you'd see some wisp of mist in the air—hear the rattle of chains—or the like. But seeing Bartholomew was like seeing any would-be contemporary costumed pirate in Key West.
The pirate—or privateer—had been a good man. He could be a fine conversationalist, and had certainly helped them all in times of great distress.
It was still unnerving to be followed about by a ghost few others could see, a man in an elegant brocade frock coat, ruffled shirt and waistcoat, and tricornered hat. Since it was Key West, with Fantasy Fest and Pirates in Paradise—not to mention Hemingway Days—it shouldn't have felt that odd to be followed about by anyone in any attire—or lack thereof. Though it was illegal to travel the streets nude, there were those who did try it during Fantasy Fest, when body paint was the rage.
Katie O'Hara, was the one who had been born with the sixth sense, gift, curse or whatever one wanted to call it that allowed people to see what others did not. Liam didn't think that the rest of them had anything that remotely resembled Katie's gifts. But they had all survived events in which what wasn't at all ordinary had played a major part.
And they all knew there were forces in the world that weren't visible to the naked eye.
And he should have been accustomed to Bartholomew by now.
In life, Bartholomew had surely been a dashing and charming individual. Even in death, he was quite a character: intelligent and with a keen sense of justice.
"What?" Liam said, spinning around.
Bartholomew stopped short. "What do you mean, what? Cutter Merlin was found dead in a most unusual way, and, God knows, the place had its reputation. You just may need me."
"It's going to turn out to be kids, I'm willing to bet," Liam said. "Teenagers who know the man died and want to break into a haunted house."
Bartholomew shrugged. "I'm just along for the ride," he said. "I haven't seen it yet. The place sounds extremely unusual, and I'm fascinated."
Liam groaned. "All right, let's go."
Liam supposed it was natural that people—young and old—would find the Merlin house fascinating, and that it did make a great haunted house. Once, of course, it had been a beautiful grand dame, but time had done its work, and with Cutter Merlin being old and alone, it had taken on that aura of decay long before the gentleman had passed. Then, of course, there was the truth—he had been a collector of oddities, including human remains such as mummies and shrunken heads.
It was a little more than a mile down Duval and around Front Street and then down around the little peninsula to reach the Merlin house. Liam parked in the overgrown yard. He exited the car and stared at the place, but not even the porch light he had left on after Merlin's body had been removed was still shining. A burned-out bulb? Or was a prankster inside?
"That's one eerie residence," Bartholomew commented.
Liam shrugged and walked up the path to the porch. He tried the front door and found it unlocked. He knew that it had been locked and they had sealed up the entrance over the washer and dryer. Merlin's attorney, Joe Richter, had the only other set of keys.
He stepped in. Somehow, the house still seemed to have an aura of death about it.
He tried the light switch by the front door, but nothing happened. He turned on his flashlight, and the parlor was illuminated.
An odd whisper emanated through the house. In his mind's eye, Liam thought about the layout of the house. The front door faced south and Old Town, Key West. Cutter's library or office was to the left, and behind it was a workroom.