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"It's like a big animal attacked her — a dog, coyote, or somethin' like that. Coroner thought she'd been dead maybe four, five days; body started to decompose. Her throat's all ripped up and chewed on. I never seen nothin' like it in all my years takin' pictures of corpses." The coroner's photographer dropped a set of prints on the detective's desk. "Got an ID yet?"
Chief of Detectives Browning turned the set of photos around and quickly flipped through the top few. "Doyle's pulling together the report — I'll give him the pictures."
"Don't bother," the small, scruffily dressed man replied. "I'll email him digital images. These are for my private collection. She was real young — hard to tell now, but good lookin'. Long blonde hair and big —"
"Beat it, Ralph," Browning interrupted. "And take the pictures with you."
"I just wanted to know her name — for my own records, that's all."
"I said, beat it!" Browning stood up and pointed to the door. "I don't waste my time on sickos."
Ralph grabbed the photos. "Big freakin' deal," he said. "See if I do any favors for you."
"Out!" Browning sat down and stabbed at a button on his desk phone.
"Yeah, Billy," Doyle answered.
Ralph slammed the door as he left Browning's office. "Heads up — that little worm, the photographer with the coroner's office, is on the way to see you. He wants info on that young girl who got mauled in Valley Forge. Don't tell him anything. That's an order."
"I was just comin' to see you about the same thing. Got a voice message from highway patrol down in Florida while I was on lunch break — this case is gettin' really weird. You busy?" "Come on over," Browning replied. "What was the girl's name?"
"Cartwright," Doyle said. "Amy Cartwright. She was twenty-four."
* * *
Detective Doyle's large bulk hung over the sides of the gray, metal chair that sat next to Browning's cluttered desk. "Got a positive ID right away. Housekeeper came in for her regular weekly cleaning and discovered the body. The victim was an art student. Most of the time she lived alone in an apartment downtown in Philly. She spent occasional weekends at the house — it's her parents' house. The parents are well-off. Old money. They're on an extended visit out of the country — some sort of artsy, charity thing. They've been contacted and are comin' back tomorrow.
"Lotsa surprises in the coroner's report," Doyle continued. He flipped through the printed pages in a manila file folder on his lap. "Cause of death was heart failure. She'd had heart problems and corrective surgery as a child. The trauma to her throat occurred after death."
"Probably rats — rats got in the house after she died and chewed her up," the chief detective responded.
"Nope, not a rat. A human. Human teeth marks. Coroner says there's no doubt they're human. Another strange thing — there's no broken windows or evidence of forced entry. The place was all locked up tight — nothin' bigger'n a chipmunk coulda got in. No sign of a struggle, either."
Browning shook his head in disgust. "Another goddamn sicko. Someone who thinks he's a vampire, no doubt. All these vampire trash movies and books got some nutcase thinkin' about suckin' a young girl's blood."
"Well, it wasn't any vampire. I mean, they were human teeth marks."
Browning smirked. "No shit," he said, sarcastically.
Doyle didn't respond to the sarcasm. "Kid was clean — no drugs and no criminal record. The housekeeper's been with the family for years. She says the kid was an outstanding student and never got in trouble. We're checking out her friends and fellow students. With the house all locked up like that, I'd put my money on someone she knew — someone with a key."
"What about the call from Florida — you did say Florida?"
"Yeah, Florida. A highway patrol sergeant just called and left a message; he was trying to get contact info for the dead girl, Amy Cartwright. He said that her new Corvette was found abandoned at the scene of a robbery-homicide down there — clerk was shot dead inside a liquor store. I'll call the sergeant back soon as we've finished talkin'."
"We gotta keep this away from the press. The story'll go viral if they get a whiff of the vampire angle." Browning pressed another button on his desk phone. "Estelle, call the uniforms downstairs; tell them not to let that guy Ralph — the little creep from the coroner's office — leave the building. Get him back up here right away." He turned to Doyle. "We gotta get those pictures of the girl away from him, now."CHAPTER 2
The tightly drawn curtains efficiently shielded the nursery from the late-afternoon sun. Inside the darkened room, Gordon was trying to coax his baby daughters to sleep. In his soft, baritone voice, he'd read aloud their favorite stories, and then hummed an old Irish lullaby — a song Karen always sang to the girls at bedtime. Karen knew the words, but Gordon didn't, so he only hummed the tune. After a half hour of their father's stories and songs, both twins were breathing deeply, lost in sleep.
Gordon had just finished tucking the girls in when a persistent rapping on the beach cottage's side door threatened to destroy the restful atmosphere he'd created. "Damn," he whispered as he flipped the switch on the baby monitor and tiptoed from the nursery. He softly closed the door and moved down the hall to the kitchen to silence the racket before it woke the slumbering twins.
"I got it," he called to his sister Mary as he passed the living room where she was watching television.
When he opened the kitchen door a shadowed, seemingly disembodied head peered in through the outer screen. "Gordon Hale, is that you? It's Myra Silk, from next door."
Gordon was stunned. He hadn't thought about the old woman in years and assumed she was dead. "Mrs. Silk, I — I didn't know you were back on the island," he stammered. He fumbled with the rusty hook-and-eye latch and then pushed open the wooden screen door. "Please come in."
"We arrived just last evening. Hattie's here too; surely you remember Hattie?"
Gordon didn't remember Hattie, but after an embarrassingly long pause, he said, "Why, Hattie. Of course."
"We didn't open the house last season. We went to Palm Springs instead."
Gordon was thoroughly confused. While he dimly recognized the hunched-over old woman who stood before him, his only certain memory of her was that long ago, his father had sold Mrs. Silk the "big house" — the unwanted mansion next to the beach cottage that she and her nurse had made their winter home.
Mary heard their voices and was drawn to the kitchen. She blankly stared at Myra Silk until Gordon came to her rescue. "Look who's here. It's Mrs. Silk, from the big house."
"Mrs. Silk. Of course."
"I was just telling Gordon that we didn't come to Florida last season. We stayed with friends in California instead. That's why you didn't recognize me."
"Oh, I recognized you all right," Mary lied. "You often had Gordy and me to tea when we were children."
Mary's mention of tea at Mrs. Silk's jolted Gordon's memory, and unpleasant recollections from his childhood flowed into his consciousness: the musty-smelling sunroom in the big house, the collared shirt and uncomfortable shoes his mother had insisted he wear, the tepid milk, and the sawdust-like seedcakes he was expected to finish. Worst was Mary's interminably long piano solo, which she played mechanically, without rhythm, and without pause between stanzas. Tea at Mrs. Silk's was one of the torments that Gordon's overbearing mother had forced him to endure.
Mrs. Silk's jet-black hair and intense blue eyes differed little from Gordon's slowly returning recollections of the somewhat-younger woman who'd been his mother's friend. Her austere, ankle-length dress and severe orthopedic shoes reinforced his childhood memories of her foreboding presence.
She frowned and the deep wrinkles that surrounded her mouth and lined her cheeks ran together.
"I was saddened by the news of your mother's passing. Only a few of the old families are left on Castle Key. I'll miss our get-togethers."
"Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Silk," Mary said. "We miss her terribly — don't we, Gordy?"
"Of course," Gordon flatly replied.
Mary gestured toward the living room. "Would you like to come in, Mrs. Silk? I was just having coffee and watching the news."
To Mary's relief, Mrs. Silk declined. "I don't want to intrude on your Sunday evening. I just came over to let you know that we're here, and to offer Hattie's services for Gordon's poor wife. Hattie's a trained nurse — not an RN, mind you, but just as capable. She gives me my shots every day." The old woman turned toward Gordon. "Beverly, the clerk at Kopel's market, told me the sad news about your wife — brain tumor, she said."
Gordon ignored her question. He only discussed Karen's terminal illness with family and close friends.
Mary broke the awkward silence that followed Mrs. Silk's unanswered question. "Thanks for the offer, Mrs. Silk, but Karen's being well taken care of by Dr. Quigley and a day nurse. Gordy and I manage with the babies."
"Your husband and the boys aren't with you, then?"
"No, they're back in Boston," Mary answered. "And I'm here for as long as Karen needs my help."
"I haven't had the pleasure of meeting the new Mrs. Hale.
She's able to get around?"
Gordon took a small step toward the door. "Karen's sleeping, Mrs. Silk. Perhaps another time."
"Yes, all right. I see. Then I'll bid you two goodnight." Mrs. Silk extended her arthritically twisted, claw-like hand first to Mary, and then to Gordon. "Let us know if there's anything we can do for you."
"Thanks," Mary replied. "That's very kind of you, but we're managing just fine."
Gordon pushed open the screen door. Mrs. Silk nodded and stepped out into the long shadows of early evening, the crushed shell-and-gravel pathway crunching under her orthopedic shoes as she retreated. Gordon hooked the screen door and then closed the main door. He turned toward Mary and scrunched up his face. "Yuck! She's really creepy, like some shriveled-up hag from an ancient horror movie."
Mary shuddered, then turned to the chipped, porcelain sink and aggressively washed her hands with dish soap. "Psycho — that's the movie. She's like the mummified corpse in the wheelchair at the end."
"She's not that disgusting. How old do you think she is? Her hair's still jet black."
"That's dye, Gordy. She must be well over eighty. She was older than Mother, and Mother would be turning seventy-five the month after next. Even when she was younger, she creeped me out. I never understood why Mother spent so much time with her."
Gordon smirked. "Martinis, no doubt. Mother collected drinking partners."
Mary dried her hands on a dishtowel. "I think I recall Hattie, Mrs. Silk's nurse; she's an albino. Really scary-looking. You remember?"
Gordon shook his head. "Albino? I don't remember her nurse at all."
"Pink eyes and nearly transparent skin?"
Gordon shrugged. "Nope, don't remember ... I thought Mrs. Silk was dead. No one's been at the big house since Karen and I arrived last September. There haven't been any signs of life, except for the gardeners."
"There was a van in the driveway, the day before yesterday. It was probably the agents opening the house. You didn't notice?"
Before Gordon could respond to Mary's question, an urgent, woman's cry came from the master bedroom.
"Gordy, help me, I can't see!"
* * *
For a mid-February morning on Florida's Gulf Coast, it was unusually dull and rainy. Gordon and Mary were seated at the kitchen table. Mary was in her PJs, and flip-flops, feeding the twins breakfast. Her ragged blonde hair was still damp from the shower and not yet moussed and spiked into her current style.
The dark bags under Gordon's eyes revealed the emotional stress that had thrown a shadow over his life. He was robotically sorting through the mail that had piled up while he'd been away, carrying Karen's ashes back to Massachusetts, back to her frigid shelf in the Hale family mausoleum. A major snowstorm in New England had delayed Gordon's return flight by six hours and he'd arrived at the cottage after midnight. When, at sunrise, he heard the babies' first chirps, he'd sleepily pulled unwashed jeans and a Red Sox T-shirt out of the clothes hamper and onto his five-foot-ten, athletic frame and then joined Mary and the twins in the kitchen.
Mary set the jar of baby food and a feeding spoon on the stripped-pine table, just out of the twins' reach. "Ever hear of a certified nanny?" she asked.
"Is it anything like a certified lunatic?"
Mary smirked. "A certified nanny is a particularly British way of turning a young woman with a high school education into a pseudo-professional," she told him.
"The Germans do that, as well. They give everyone specialist training and a title — makes for a well-ordered society."
Janna reached across to her sister Julie's highchair and banged her tiny fist on the metal tray. "All right, greedy guts, you're next," Mary told her and turned back to Gordon. "I met one of those certified English nannies when the twins and I were getting groceries at Kopel's. She's well-spoken, probably in her early twenties, and quite pretty, in a chiseled-feature sort of way. Her name is Nila — Nila Rawlings, she said. She's staying up the beach at the Cartwrights', with Amy. Do you remember Amy, Maggie's younger sister?"
Gordon responded to her question with one of his own. "You're not seriously thinking of hiring a nanny for Butch and Barry? They're a little old for a nanny — especially a pretty, young one. They'd probably try to seduce her."
"No, numb nuts, not for Butch and Barry. For you — for the twins."
Gordon put down the letter-opener he was holding and ran his fingers through his sandy-blond hair. "I don't need a nanny — at least, not now. In a couple of months, when we go home, and I get back to the office, then I'll need full-time help. I can handle things here while I get myself sorted out. I could use a house cleaner, though — someone to come in a couple times a week. I thought I'd call Mrs. Kavlosky this afternoon. She was with Mother for years. I imagine she's retired but I expect she could recommend someone local."
Mary covered Gordon's hand with her own. "Gordy, you're seriously underestimating what it's going to take to keep up with these two tykes. Bathing, dressing, feeding, diaper-changing and trying to do all this when you're exhausted from lack of sleep is tough — tough for one baby and doubly so for two. And remember, you don't do these things once a day. You do them four or five times — and on their schedule, not yours."
"Look, my life just turned into quicksand and these little girls are the only solid ground left. I want 'em to know they're still part of a family, that they have a father who loves 'em and takes care of 'em. I can do this."
Mary squeezed his hand. "I understand," she said. "I wish I could stay longer but we have to get ready for the spring shows and Milt needs my help. While he's exceptional at the creative side, he's hopeless at running a business. Milt would give away the shop to the first pretty bride who smiled at him. Look — I have to get back to Boston soon, but I can't go until I know you'll be okay."
Gordon gently pulled his hand away from his sister's. She went back to shoveling puréed peaches into Janna's open mouth. "I think these two are having a contest to see who can eat the fastest."
Julie babbled a long, incomprehensible infant sentence and pointed to Janna, who pushed the peaches out of her mouth with her tongue and grinned.
Gordon yawned. "We'll be okay," he assured her. "I can do this. Besides, I need to start getting ready to return to the real world. While I was back in Concord I organized with the office to review our junior associate's real-estate work, online. I can take care of my girls and get ready to go back to the office at the same time. I'm sure I can."
"Gordy, you don't know anything about babies. During the next couple of months, it's likely one or both girls will get sick. Let me tell you, it's damn scary when a baby gets sick: vomiting, diarrhea, a sky-high temperature, and maybe even convulsions. It frightened the hell out of me the first time it happened to Butch. With two babies, the possibility of an accident is doubled. You, young man, need a certified nanny." She pointed at him for emphasis. "Not necessarily a live-in. Maybe just for the afternoons, so you can take a nap and get your strength and sanity back. I can't go home until I know that you'll have some help nearby in case you need it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nila's Babies"
Copyright © 2018 Jac Simensen.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book has a super interesting premise but unfortunately, the execution does not live up to that expectation. This is a very weird book, I find it hard to even describe. Ultimately I was expecting a horror story and while there are certainly horror elements, the book doesn't spend much time on its most interesting parts. Many of the characters haven't been fleshed out either. Nila's Babies just falls short all around.