“Can I go back to the house?” she asked him.
“She won’t be alone,” Avery assured him.
He glanced at Avery and tried to smile. It was a weak effort. “That’s great,” he said. “I know David and Katie and Sean and Vanessa and maybe some of the others can hang in for a while, too. My cousin and his group are editing a documentary on strange incidents around here, so they’re on their own schedules. Well, except for Katie, but she’s off tonight, anyway.”
“Whatever,” Avery said staunchly. “I won’t be leaving her.”
“I’ll call you as soon as I can leave today,” Liam said. He grimaced, meeting her eyes. “I do have to deal with Gary White. He was a drifter, but not an evil man, and every human being deserves justice. I will find out what happened to him.”
He looked awkward, as if he wanted to kiss her cheek or give her a hug but wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. She stood up and put her arms around him. He held her close for a long minute. He lifted her chin and whispered softly, “Is it cool if I still hang around the house, too?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she assured him.
She watched Liam go. And she knew that to her mind, he was the most stunning and beautiful man she had ever known.
Liam was barely out of the bar before his phone rang. It was Katie.
She wasted no time.
“He’s gay,” she said.
He almost laughed out loud. He’d realized, when he’d seen the man and it had seemed that his entire body knotted with jealousy, that the way he felt about Kelsey had to include trust. If she’d been that close with someone in California, Kelsey would have told him. He hadn’t understood completely, but he was going to go on trust.
“Did you hear me? It’s all right, Liam. Oh, my God, though, I can think of so many friends for him!”
“Katie, whoa, calm down. He may be in a relationship in California already.”
“I didn’t want you to be worried.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
“Like hell!” She laughed.
“Okay, I was a little worried. The guy could win in Olympic wrestling. But I’m glad he’s here, because he’ll hang tightly with her while everything is sorted out,” Liam said.
“Yeah? You think that finding Gary White’s body could have anything to do with Cutter Merlin, Kelsey or the Merlin house?” Katie asked.
“Let’s just say I believe…I don’t know what I believe. But I won’t stop until I find the truth. I’ve got to work, Katie. Hang in there for me, huh?”
“We’re all here,” she assured him.
He thanked her and hung up. He headed first to his office, sinking into his chair. The desk sergeant gave him slips with all the calls they had received from the local media, so he quickly wrote up a statement for what they knew thus far and set the desk sergeant to returning the calls with the information. It was a mistake to tell media “no comment.”
They would make up their own comments. And Key West was certainly small enough for everyone out there to know that the body of a local had been found on the Merlin property.
Liam’s first order of business was to find Chris Vargas. He and Gary White had been caught together seeking some small item to steal from the Merlin estate.
A walk down Duval Street and a few questions to old conchs and fresh water conchs might help him find out where Vargas had last been seen. Bartholomew, who had been pacing quietly beside him, said, “You know, she saw me today. Or she heard me… Felt me, at least.”
“What are you talking about?” Liam asked.
“Kelsey Donovan. She was rather breaking my heart at the cemetery. I touched her cheek. I whispered to her. She heard me,” Bartholomew said. “You should tell her that I exist.”
“Just like that. Hey…you sensed something at the cemetery. Don’t worry. It’s Bartholomew, the ghost of a pirate—”
“Good Lord, when will you stop saying that? I was a privateer,” Bartholomew interrupted, deeply aggravated. “Over and over again, I must explain this fact!”
“I’m sorry. Truly sorry,” Liam said, almost as aggravated. “You look like a pirate.”
“Then every man of my decade looked like a pirate, as well,” Bartholomew said.
“All right, so we associate the fashion of the era with pirates,” Liam said, distracted. “Bartholomew, I have a dead body on my hands. I think the fellow was murdered, because I don’t think he headed out to the Merlin property to die of natural causes or to commit suicide. We need to concentrate on the murder.”
“You don’t know that it was a murder. You don’t know that Cutter Merlin was murdered,” Bartholomew protested.
Liam stopped in the street and stared at him.
“All right, so…there is something going on at the house, and it certainly looks as if the fellow, Gary White, was murdered,” Bartholomew said. “But I think you’re overlooking someone who can really help you solve everything that’s going on.”
Bartholomew looked at him seriously. “Kelsey Donovan,” he said.
Liam paused, hands on his hips. “Okay, Bartholomew, when you think that she has actually seen you, we’ll bring her on the paranormal side. Otherwise, I can’t just ask her to go into a trance or something and connect with the ghosts of her dead grandfather, her mother—or Gary White!”
“She’ll see me soon enough,” Bartholomew assured him. “It would be easier if you just told her about me first, but…”
Liam groaned and kept walking. He realized a moment later that the privateer was no longer following him.
He stopped by a coffee shop and questioned a man who hired Vargas now and then for cleanup work. The man shrugged and told him that when Vargas wasn’t working, he usually spent his days on U.S. 1 with an inventive sign so that he could beg cash from visitors.
Liam drove around the island and found that Vargas was doing exactly that—he had a sign that proclaimed him a Desert Storm vet, a family man with kids to feed, who was just out of luck.
Vargas saw him, and paled.
Liam parked his car and walked over to the sidewalk by the light where Vargas had been begging.
“You gonna arrest me?” Vargas asked.
“I’ll quit right now,” Vargas said earnestly. “It’s just been bad lately, you know? I mean, stockbrokers are out of work, you know?”
“Yes, it’s been a bad time,” Liam agreed.
“So…you gonna give me a break?” Vargas asked.
“I need to know about the last time you were with Gary White,” Liam told him.
Vargas looked puzzled and scratched his head. “Gary? Well, we went to the Merlin place together—but you know that. You saw us together. Why? Oh, Lord, what did Gary do?”
“Gary is dead,” Liam told him.
“Dead?” Vargas said, horrified.
“Dead—as in deceased?” Vargas said.
“Very. He’s been dead for days—I don’t know how many,” Liam said.
“Oh, God!” Vargas said. He put his hands on the sides of his head and sank down to the sidewalk. “Dead…how? Where?”
“I found him on the Merlin estate. I don’t know how he died yet. The medical examiner is going to have to answer that question,” Liam said. “I need to know the last time you saw him.”
“Oh, man…the last time I saw him was when you caught us in the house, Liam. He must have gone back. I told him not to. I told him that you were watching the place…that the cops would be keeping an eye on it. But…oh, man! You don’t know what happened?” Vargas asked. He sounded scared.
“That’s the last time you saw him?” Liam pressed.
Vargas squinted hard, thinking. “Yeah, that was the last time I saw him. Oh, man. He was young. He might have… Well, he could play a guitar. He might have had a chance.”
“Yeah, he was young,” Liam agreed.
“Lord, oh, Lord,” Vargas said.
“Look, did you see or hear anything unusual? There were kids who had broken in as well, and they were terrified. They thought that someone—or something—was in the house with them,” Liam said.
Vargas sniffed loudly, about to burst into tears. He shook his head. “No. But you know what? I think that Gary was scared that day. He wanted to get out. He seemed uncomfortable in the house, you know?”
“Uncomfortable—that’s it?” Liam asked.
Vargas thought and lifted his hands. “Yeah. Well, you know, old man Merlin was a weirdo. There were all kinds of things in that house. I mean, there’s a goddamned mummy in the place. Gargoyles. Coffins. He was weird. And those animal heads! It’s a flipping horror house, really, you know?”
“There’s absolutely nothing else you can tell me?” Liam asked.
Vargas thought. “Yeah, yeah, there is,” he said.
“What?” Liam asked.
“There’s the guy across the water.”
“What guy across the water?” Liam asked.
“Jonas. Jonas Weston. The guy who owns the bed-and-breakfast. Hell, I remember him when he was a little kid. Always watching the place. You know what? I think, even when he was a kid, he was jealous. I think he loved the house—weird as it was. You know what else? I think he had a thing for Kelsey Donovan. Yeah. Really. I think he wanted Kelsey Donovan, and I think he wanted Cutter Merlin’s house. I mean, he has a place, yeah. But it’s nothing like the Merlin house.”
“Vargas, Jonas Weston has always lived across the water. You can see the Merlin house from his place. There would be no way that he wouldn’t look at it,” Liam said.
Vargas sniffed. “He’s a fuckin’ Peepin’ Tom, that’s what he is. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen him watching the place.”