“It’s a necessary meal,” he said. “Just teasing. Was that an invitation?”
“Yes. I’m going to the store. What do you like?”
“I’ll tell you what. We’ll head out somewhere tonight. You can make use of all your culinary skills tomorrow.”
“I don’t remember saying that I had any,” she said, smiling.
“Ah, well, that’s to be seen, then, hmm?” he said. “I’ll be around sometime after five. I’m day shift—unless something serious happens at night,” he added.
She smiled, a little dismayed that the fact that he was coming over seemed so wonderful. She realized, too, that coming back was easy. The property was just as it had been. The house seemed like home. Even as cluttered and dusty as it had become. Her mother had died here, but before she had died, there had been many good times. She remembered the grand parlor when it had been all decked out for Christmas—her parents had always gone all the way. There had been ornaments on the antlers of the mounted animal heads on the walls, and the mantel had been strewn with decorations, from a Nativity to Christmas-clad Disney characters. Lights in a multitude of colors had blazed all around the property, making it a beacon in the night.
“I’ll see you soon, then,” she said softly.
They said goodbye and clicked off. Kelsey decided to put her call through to Joe Richter and then decide whether to shop first or drive out to see him.
Dialing, she left her list on the table, walked to the family room and then outside. Looking northward, she saw nothing but the endless horizon. The sky was a beautiful blue; the ocean was calm. The little snatch of sandy beach was inviting.
As she stood there, though, she thought that she smelled something unpleasant.
Death. It was the smell of death and decay, organic matter.
It was gone with a whisper of the breeze. She shook her head and winced. Cutter had died inside. She didn’t smell it inside. Whoever had been there had cleared the house of the smell.
Liam had probably seen to it.
Her heart seemed to take a little lurch. She had to stop; she was getting sucked back into the past far too quickly.
Determined, she turned around and headed back inside.
The phone call to Joe Richter put the day in order; she’d stop by to see him, and then she’d head out shopping.
But when she stepped out of the house to drive to the lawyer’s office, she was struck again by a strange and haunting scent on the air.
It was in her mind, she thought. It had to be.
Franklin Valaski was in the middle of an autopsy when Liam arrived at the morgue. His receptionist, Lizzie Smith, had worked for the county almost as long as Franklin. Between them, the pair might have been an advertisement for clean living and longevity, except that Liam knew well that Franklin enjoyed an evening glass of single-malt Scotch—perhaps several—during the week, and also indulged in cigars.
So much for clean living.
Katie had always said that the old folks from the morgue had hung around their embalming fluids for so long that they were alive and well and preserved. Since everyone liked both Franklin and Lizzie, it was a good thing.
“Lieutenant, what can I do for you today?” Franklin asked, coming out to reception. He had stripped off his gloves, but he still wore his magnifying goggles, and his eyes appeared huge. He might have been the mad professor from a movie about aliens.
“Hey, Franklin,” Liam said. “Who is on the table? Anyone I should know about?”
Franklin shook his head. “No, thank the good Lord above! No young traffic fatality or victim of foul play, though, of course, by law, since Mrs. Annie Merriweather died alone in her trailer by the sea, I am responsible for assuring the state that she indeed died a natural death. Alas, good Annie produced three children, outlived all of them, and actually has doting grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were not present when she expired in front of her television. Annie recently turned one hundred and one, and indeed the autopsy has proven that she expired when her dear old heart gave out probably while she was dozing through an episode of Jeopardy. What can I do for you?”
“I just thought I’d stop by. I know that you ruled Cutter Merlin’s death as natural, but I was still curious. You commented about his expression. And you said that you’d seen it before on his daughter’s face. You didn’t find anything out of the ordinary during the autopsy, did you?” Liam asked.
“Like Mrs. Merriweather, Cutter Merlin expired when his heart gave out,” Franklin said. “But I am having a strange anomaly with the man,” he said.
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Liam followed the M.E. down the hall, trying not to breathe too deeply. There was an excellent air-conditioning-and-exhaust system here, but even so, the smell of chemicals clung to the air: chemicals that spoke of death.
In the area Franklin referred to as “the fridge,” the medical examiner went straight to a metal door that was second down from the top and pulled. Cutter Merlin, covered reverently in a sheet, lay on his cold metal bed.
Franklin pulled down the sheet that covered the face. To Liam’s surprise, he saw that coins had been set on the eyes, something he had seen before only in historical pictures.
“His eyes keep opening,” Franklin explained. “This is an old method of keeping them closed, but…well, I am an old man, nearing retirement, you know. Best I can do until his granddaughter tells me where she wants the body taken. I expect I’ll hear shortly—talked to Joe Richter earlier, and he said that he was expecting her to make final arrangements today.”
“She just got into town yesterday, after hours, so, yes, I’m sure she’ll make her decisions today, though I’m assuming she’ll have him interred in the family plot at the Key West cemetery. Her mother is there,” Liam said.
“Yes, of course, I remember that interment. So very sad,” Valaski said, shaking his head. “Such a young and beautiful woman. Such a tragedy.”
“You performed her autopsy, right?” Liam asked.
“And she died of a broken neck from a fall down the stairs—but her eyes were open, as well,” Liam said.
Valaski shrugged. “When I first arrived at the Merlin house, she was in her husband’s arms. But, yes, her eyes were open.”
“And you’re certain that Cutter Merlin died of heart failure, or cardiac arrest?” Liam asked.
“As certain as I am that night follows day,” Valaski said.
“I’m still wondering how Chelsea Merlin Donovan managed to fall down a stairway she’d known since childhood. She was young, thin, coordinated, and she managed a terrible tumble. And yet you said that she had the same terrified expression that Cutter was wearing when we found him,” Liam said.
“She saw that she was tumbling down a staircase,” Valaski suggested. He waved a hand in the air. “Liam, I know you’re busy, so I never should have spoken that day. I didn’t mean to suggest anything. Naturally, they resembled one another. Chelsea was Cutter’s daughter. And good God, man, Cutter was nearly as old as Mrs. Merriweather, since he didn’t settle down to procreate until he was in his fifties!” He sighed. “Sadly, Cutter Merlin rather slipped through the cracks. He wanted to be a hermit. In Key West, we respect that. God knows, he might well have been suffering a form of age-related dementia. The human brain is the most miraculous computer out there, and we all know what happens when a computer gets a virus.”
Valaski studied Liam, frowning.
“Liam, you can’t be thinking that anything wasn’t what it seemed in either death…can you?”
“Hey, Doctor, you’re the one who mentioned that Cutter and his daughter had the same expression on their faces when they died,” Liam told him.
“Yes, yes, I did,” Valaski admitted, casting his head to the side and staring at Liam with his still-enormous, magnified eyes. He shook his head. “But I’m good at what I do. Chelsea died of a broken neck. Cutter died of heart failure. Cutter was old. He had Lanoxin in his system.”
“A heart medication?”
“Yes. And it can cause hallucinations.”
“Can a person die of being frightened to death?” Liam asked.
“Sure—if fear causes the heart to give in,” Valaski said.
“Or if it causes someone to misstep, and they go crashing down the stairs?” Liam asked.
“They died years apart,” Valaski pointed out. “There were other people in the house—it was a normal house when Chelsea died. Well, an almost-normal house. It was still filled with all kinds of oddities. Hey, Ripley had nothing on old Cutter Merlin, really,” he added, and grinned suddenly. “What? You think the mummy arises and scares folks to death? If there had been something there, wouldn’t George Donovan have seen it, too? He was in the house. If I remember right, he heard his wife’s scream, and the thudding as she fell. He would have run to her in a split second. If he had seen something, he’d have been after whoever or even whatever in a flash. That man loved his wife.”
“I’m sure he did. What about Chelsea, though? She was young—she couldn’t have been on any kind of medication.”
Valaski was quiet for a minute, his brow furrowed. “Actually, if I remember correctly, Chelsea had been taking a pain medication at the time. I’m…I’m thinking it might have been Darvocet-N. I’d asked about it, naturally. She’d been seen by Dr. Nealy, who has passed away now, too. He’d given her a prescription because she’d twisted her back on a dive excursion.”
“You’re telling me that both of them might have been scared to death by hallucinations they experienced in the house because of medication?”
“I’m not telling you anything except for the medical findings. Autopsy is my job, Liam. Anything else is your job. You want me to pull the records on Chelsea Donovan and find out?”