Page 29

“Not a pleasant sight, our old friend Gary,” Valaski said.

“I don’t know of any relatives. They’re working on that at the station,” Liam said.

“Well, let’s hope they don’t find any,” Valaski said.

Liam nodded. The scent in the room was a horrendous mixture of chemicals and decomposition. Valaski handed him a white mask to filter the air. Liam accepted it without comment.

“Hell of a day, huh?” Valaski asked.

“Agreed. So?”

“Well, our friend Gary died of something like a pinpoint prick to his heart. Actually, the death appeared to have been a heart attack, or heart failure, but!” Valaski announced. “I’m an old buzzard, and I don’t fall for many tricks. Even if a man is someone on the fringe of society. In this morgue, no matter how rich and powerful or poor and sad in life, we find the truth.”

“Franklin, there is no one more grateful for your honor and your expertise,” Liam told him, “but, come on. Please. Explain.”

“Well, here you go. Come here…look at the scans. It might have appeared that the heart was ripped up soon after death, the body was in such a sad state. There are bits and pieces of sharp coral in the area of the peninsula spit where he was found—probably dredged up years ago when harbors were fashioned for the ships…or, who knows? I’m no geologist or geographer. God knows how we have more of a key now than we did before, though I suppose I could—”

“Franklin. All right. We’re looking at an area where mangroves are growing, and thus it’s enlarging constantly, and away from the beach that was also dredged out long ago, we have roots, we have crabs…and there’s an occasional toss up of long-dead coral. I got that. So?”

“Well, where he was found, it just might have appeared that he’d fallen on rock, and thus causing this area—” Franklin pointed to a mass in Gary White’s chest “—where the heart itself bled out. Aha! But before the chewing and decomposition, I don’t believe there was a tear of any kind in the man’s chest, or in his heart. This looks like it was caused by a needle of some kind. I don’t think it was done by something so many centimeters in circumference as an ice pick, but…there is that possibility.”

“He was murdered, and murdered by a slim stiletto-like object, possibly a needle, and, less likely but possibly, an ice pick,” Liam said.

“Precisely!” Franklin Valaski said, looking pleased. “Well?”

“Well, a man was murdered and left to rot,” Liam said.

“Yes, yes, but at least he didn’t die like Cutter. He was cleanly murdered. No mystery—no strange look, no books or guns or talismans in his hands,” Valaski said.

“Franklin, he was murdered,” Liam said. “When?”

“I don’t know exactly. It might have been three or four days, or maybe a week.”

“What? You can’t pin it down more than that?” Liam asked, dismayed.

Valaski shook his head. “There was water in the lungs, so if he hadn’t died from the piercing of his heart, he would have drowned. I believe he was caught under a root or something, beneath the water, but for how long, I don’t know.”

“I thought you people studied larvae, flies?”

Valaski rolled his eyes. “We people do. But he was underwater. No flies. No maggots. No larvae, not at first. It’s impossible for me to tell you what day he was killed. Please, Liam! He was half-eaten. It’s amazing I have what I do.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated.”

“Ah, yes. Man’s inhumanity to man, but nothing as eerie as Cutter’s death!”

Liam shook his head. “Please, Franklin. It’s more of a mystery,” Liam said.


“Why on earth murder a poor, down-and-out man specifically on the Merlin property? There was nothing to steal from him. He wasn’t high-powered. He didn’t have a wife or a mistress. There was no reason in hell for anyone to kill him,” Liam said.

“Well, you’re quite right, Liam,” Valaski agreed.

“Unless he saw something. Unless he knew something,” Liam said.

“And so it does have to do with Cutter and the Merlin house,” Valaski said.

Liam nodded. “He saw something, or he knew something, or…”


“Or he was simply the right victim, lured out to the Cutter estate because he was an easy mark. No family, a drifter, no friends who would immediately worry about his whereabouts.”

“Why would anyone kill for that reason? Unless you have a serial killer on your hands who just seeks out victims,” Valaski said.

“Not this time, Doc,” Liam said.


“He may have been lured out to the Merlin house and murdered there precisely because the property had belonged to Cutter Merlin. And someone wants everyone to be afraid of the house, to think that it’s hexed or cursed.”

Valaski stared at him, frowning. Then he shrugged. “I solve the mystery of the body, my friend. The mystery of murder is up to you.”

Darkness had fallen when Kelsey awoke.

She felt puzzled for a moment, not sure where she was. Then she knew, of course. She remembered the compulsion that she had to keep her door locked or she would awaken to find someone staring at her.

She felt a moment’s pure terror; there was someone there. Someone just staring at her, watching her sleep.

She jerked up in panic, desperate for light. She felt encompassed by the night, certain someone was there and horribly afraid that she would discover that she was right.

She wasn’t alone; there was someone with her, watching her in silence.

She jumped out of the bed and stumbled to the light switch by the wall. Her room was instantly bathed in a glow, and she flung around in terror, searching out every corner of the room.

The edge of her fear began to fade away. She gave herself a shake. She was alone. It had been her imagination, the paranoia that was growing within her—even while she insisted she wasn’t afraid of the house. The bathroom!

She strode to it with long, angry footsteps. She had to see if someone was there. Better to face whomever or whatever it was!

But the bathroom was empty.

She shuddered and then laughed aloud at herself.

She wasn’t even alone in the house. Avery was somewhere napping, poking through the oddities or reading and sipping a cup of tea.

She walked back and checked her door; it was still locked.

She shook her head, smiling at her own foolishness, and opened the door to the hallway. The entire house was dark.

With the glow from her room guiding her, she walked along the hallway and turned on the overhead light.

“Avery?” she said her friend’s name softly and decided he had to be in one of the rooms upstairs, sleeping. She backtracked. He would have chosen the guest room just a few doors down from her own. She opened the door quietly and saw that Avery was indeed there, snoring softly.

“Ah, yes, gorgeous, but you do snore!” she whispered affectionately. She closed the door again, letting him sleep. It couldn’t be very late; Liam would have been back. She glanced at her watch. It was just seven.

A two-hour nap had been good. She had slept off the effects of the Guinness and felt alert and decent. When Liam returned, she’d find out if they would just cook in or take Avery out to a good Key West seafood restaurant. Avery ate just about everything, but he loved fish.

She headed toward the stairway.

Then she froze.

The upstairs hall light wasn’t enough to clearly illuminate the grand parlor below.

The parlor with its mounted heads, gargoyle, mummy, coffin and more.

Between two neat stacks of boxes and crates, near the authentic voodoo altar and fireplace, there was a shadow, dark against gray, swirling and moving in the night.

She stared in pure open-mouthed terror as the thing rose and waved, wafted, disappeared and returned.

It seemed like a massive black swatch of evil, taunting and teasing her.

It was malignant; it was the darkness that lived in the house, that came out and killed.

She wanted to scream; the sound choked in her throat. She wanted to turn and flee down the hallway and waken Avery, but she couldn’t.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

And there was a sound. Like a growl on the air, a whir, a laugh. Oh, God, yes, a soft laughing sound that mocked her.

She blinked.

It didn’t go away.

She worked her throat.

And then, somehow, she found the light switch for the stairway, and the switch that brought the parlor alive with a brilliant glow.

And it was still there, sleek and black, and moving…!

Turn! Scream!

She did neither. She was so frozen, she stared at it. And then, as she did so, she realized that it was doing the same thing, over and over again. And she wasn’t hearing a growl, a laugh, a whisper or any such thing. It was a whir, like the sound of a motor.

“What the hell?” she demanded, speaking aloud.

Angrily she walked down the stairs, straight toward the boxes. The closer she came, the more evident it was that she was seeing some kind of a magician’s trick.

When she reached the ground level and the boxes, crates and voodoo altar, she almost laughed aloud at herself.

One of the large crates was open. The evil, black, malignant shadow was nothing but a silky cloth, and it was springing up from a motorized board that sat in the open crate.

“Cutter!” she said, shaking her head. “Great trick! You almost gave your granddaughter a heart attack, you dear old geezer!”

She caught the flying material and twisted it around enough to see that it was controlled by wires, and the wires were controlled by a motor within the box and a simple switch turned it off. Something must have triggered it to start.

She heard her cell phone ringing from a distance, and she tried to remember where it was. In her purse, up the stairs, in her room. She hurried back up the stairs.

“Hello?” She caught it when it rang again for the second time.