Hearing the approach of the M.E.’s car, he returned to the door. He was about to unlatch the locks when he decided that he just might want to investigate the death further. He headed into the kitchen for a towel and covered his fingers to unlatch the bolts.
The M.E. was Franklin Valaski, a veteran of many a death, natural and unnatural. He was nearly Cutter Merlin’s own age, or at least he looked nearly as old. Maybe his years observing death had made him old early and given him that look of an old bulldog. He was short, stout, wrinkled and excellent at his job. He was followed by an assistant, one of the dieners at the morgue, who bore a stretcher.
“So, old Merlin finally bit the dust, eh?” Valaski said, shaking his head. “Tell you the truth, I had all but forgotten the old bastard was out here.”
“Sad, huh?” Liam murmured. “Looks like a heart attack.”
“Lead the way,” Valaski said.
Liam pointed to the rocking chair, and Valaski went on over to the corpse. The young diener nodded an appropriately grim greeting to Liam, which Liam returned, and then stared around the house.
The diener was gaping at what he saw.
You didn’t know Merlin! Liam thought.
Then, naturally, he found himself thinking about Kelsey. Her mother had died here. He didn’t know much about it—he had been fifteen at the time. It had been a tragic accident, he knew, and Kelsey’s father hadn’t wanted to do anything except escape Key West—and the place where his beloved wife had perished.
He had been brokenhearted to see Kelsey go. But then, half his class had been in love with or in awe of Kelsey—all of them budding into adolescence, a bit slowly, being boys. She had been a whirlwind of smiles and energy. In grade school, she had been a freckled little thing with thick pigtails. But in middle school she had shot up, and she had acquired an amazing shape. Unruly dark hair had become a beautiful and sleek deep brown, so shiny it seemed black, like a raven’s wing. Her freckles had faded, and her eyes had become the deepest shade of blue that he had ever seen. She had been friendly to everyone, kind to the kids other kids picked on, and she had eschewed as sophomoric the idea of being a cheerleader or belonging to any club.
Sometimes, when people had teased her about her grandfather, she had let her eyes grow big and assured them that he was the devil. Then she’d laughed and told them that he was an adventurer, and, until he had turned sixty, he had traveled the globe, battling primitive tribes on the islands of the Pacific and riding camels in the Sahara. She had defended him as the most magnificent explorer in the world. He’d even been to the North Pole!
Liam realized he hadn’t thought about Kelsey in years, either. He’d heard about her father’s death; he had succumbed to a virulent flu a few years ago.
He’d sent her an e-mail knowing that he had learned about it long after the funeral. No flowers to send—even if he had known where to send them.
Now, of course, he’d have to find Kelsey, wherever she was. Probably still in California—she had become a cartoonist, he’d heard. Naturally—she’d always been a good artist. He’d find a phone number; it was one thing to send sympathy in a note after the fact; it was quite a different matter to tell her about a death that way. He didn’t know what she would feel; Liam was pretty sure that she hadn’t seen Cutter Merlin since she’d left Key West.
“Odd,” Valaski announced.
“What’s odd?” Liam asked, walking toward the M.E.
“Looks like a coronary, but…”
“It looks as if he were…scared to death,” Valaski said.
“He was an old man, and he probably wasn’t under any medical care,” Liam said. “He might have been suffering from delusions.”
“Hmm,” Valaski said, agreeing. “Odd, though—a man who lived with a mummy, shrunken skulls, coffins and voodoo offerings. Stuffed animals. Bones. Petrified flesh. You wouldn’t think he’d scare easy.”
“He was old,” Liam said softly. Old and forgotten.
“Yes, of course. But what’s really odd…”
His voice trailed off, as if he were deep in thought. Or memory.
“Valaski?” Liam prompted.
Valaski looked up at him. He seemed to give himself a shake, physically and mentally.
“Nothing. Nothing, really. It’s just that… Well, he seems to be wearing the same expression I saw on his daughter’s face. You remember her. Chelsea Merlin Donovan. I’ll never forget. She was such a beautiful woman. She fell down the stairs—down that beautiful curving stairway right there. She died of a broken neck, and yet… Well, she had this exact same expression on her face. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Her husband was holding her, tears streaming down his face. She had fallen…and yet her eyes were open, her lips just ajar…and she seemed to be staring at the most terrifying thing in the universe. Just like Cutter here. Good God, I wonder what it was that they saw?”
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?”