It had been the last time he had seen her.
He couldn’t think about Kelsey or the past now. He wasn’t the same; he was sure Kelsey wasn’t the same. And the house certainly wasn’t the same. It seemed like a shell, the bones of a family and happiness that had once existed.
He owed it to Kelsey, though, to keep the miscreants and thieves away until she decided what she wanted.
Two archways sat on either side of the stairway, one leading to the dining room, the other leading to an area that was a family room—in Victorian days, the family had seldom used the proper living room or parlor. The fireplace was dual; a mantel sat on the other side in Cutter’s office. Though it was seldom that the temperature went below forty even in the dead of winter, it could be cold in the dampness of the semitropics. He had found Cutter in the rocker by the fireplace.
He cast the light over the parlor. It sat in still and brooding silence, boxes everywhere, the heads of long-dead animals staring down at him, spiderwebs reigning supreme along with the dust.
“Oh, God! Oh, God!”
The sound was coming from the kitchen. Frowning, Liam walked through the parlor and quietly continued, skirting boxes and crates and statues, until he reached the kitchen.
He cast the flare of his flashlight toward the far wall even as a bloodcurdling scream ripped through the air.
It startled and unnerved him; even Bartholomew gasped.
“What the hell…?”
“Oh, my God! You’re alive, you’re real!”
The light illuminated three people—three young people.
Teenagers, as he had suspected.
They looked like little Key deer caught in the headlights, staring back at him with white faces and terrified stares.
“Yes, I’m alive,” Liam said irritably. “Who are you, and what are you doing here? You’re trespassing.”
There were two boys and one girl. It was the girl who worked her jaw and gasped out, “There are things in here! Things! Horrible things, shadow ghosts, they touch you…they try to kill you!”
She had been hunched in terror against the wall. She had a frying pan clutched in her hands. She was dressed in capri pants and a tank top that left her stomach, and her cute little belly-button ring, visible. She was as skinny as a twig, maybe fourteen.
The boys seemed to gain courage from her. They both stood as well, and were each about an inch shorter than she was. One of them held a copper dough roller. The other was clutching a deep dish pan. Strange weapons—gained from the racks that stretched out over the brick island in the center of the room. Liam was surprised that none of them had grabbed the fire poker.
“Sir! There’s something awful in here!” one of the boys said.
“Awful!” the other repeated.
“How did you get in here?” Liam asked.
“The door was open,” the girl said. She was shaking. “Please…please get us out of here. We’ll never come back, never!”
“You can take us to jail—it will be okay!” the boy with the roller clutched in his hands told him, his eyes still huge and panicked.
“Look, just stay here, and I’ll check out the place and—”
“No!” The wail came out of the three of them in a chorus.
Liam sighed. “Look, if the door was open, someone was in here ahead of you. I’ve got to find whoever it is and—”
“No, oh, God, oh, no! You can’t leave us here! Please?” the girl begged.
Liam pulled out his phone and called the station. Jack, on the desk, answered the phone.
“Get a car out to the Merlin place for me, will you, Jack? I’ve got some teenagers.”
“Sure. Are you arresting them?” Jack asked.
“No, I just want them taken home. But I think there’s still someone in the house. The lights are down. I need some backup.”
The three teens were still huddled in front of him. He hung up and asked their names. The girl was Jane Tracy, the boy with the roller was Hank Carlin and the last was Joshua Bell. They had just come in as a prank.
“You know, it’s like…it’s like a haunted house. Like at Disney World,” Hank said. “We just wanted to have some fun. We weren’t going to steal anything. Please, can we get out? It can kill you, too, Officer, you don’t know…it’s terrible!”
“The Addams family…the Munsters…,” Jane said. “We just wanted to see. They said he had all kinds of treasures…. Can we just get out?” she begged again.
He didn’t blame them. There was something creepy about the house. The hanging utensils cast strange shadows in the glare of his flashlight, while a rocker by the fire seemed to move. Dust motes seemed like misted forms in the artificial light, as well.
“All right, come on.”
He turned, and the three came running up behind him like metal drawn to a magnet; he thought he’d trip, they were so tight against him.
Scared. They had scared themselves in the place. They’d wanted a spooky challenge; they had found one in the Merlin house.
They went out to the porch. Liam hoped the patrol car would hurry. If the door had been unlocked, someone else had gotten in. That someone might have provided the shadows and touches that had scared them so badly.
He wanted to find the trespasser before it was too late.
The three remained stuck to him like glue while they stood on the porch. “Hey!” he said. “You’ll be home in a few minutes. Look, there’s someone still in there. That person was trying to scare you out. But it’s a good lesson. No trespassing. It can be dangerous.”
“They weren’t just trying to scare us, and it wasn’t any person,” Jane said. “They wanted to kill us—they would have killed us. They were ghosts, evil spirits!”
“Jane, it’s just a house,” Liam said.
“Then the house wanted to kill us.”
“What makes you say that?” he asked.
“Because we heard it!” she whispered. “We all heard it! It was horrible, a horrible whisper in the darkness saying, ‘You’re going to die. I’m going to kill you.’”
“And he was there,” Joshua said gravely. “I saw him. I saw old man Merlin. His eyes were burning in the darkness. I felt him, felt him put his hands around my throat.”
“He shoved me,” Jane said.
Just then the patrol car arrived and Art Saunders and Ricky Long emerged. “Art, get these three home,” Liam instructed. “Ricky, come with me. Lights are out, and I want to search the place.”
“Yessir,” Art called. “You three, get your little juvenile-delinquent butts into the car,” he said to the kids.
Ricky Long had been with the department about three years. He was a good cop. He’d seen some bad things in his brief stint.
He looked sick as he walked toward the house.
“You want me to search it with you, sir?” he asked.
“Ricky, it’s a house. If there’s something in it, it’s flesh and blood. Yes, we’re supposed to guard lives and personal property. I’ll take the upstairs, you take the downstairs.”
Ricky nodded slowly.
Liam left him to search through the ground floor. Upstairs, he went methodically from room to room, aware that Bartholomew was at his back.
“I don’t like this place,” Bartholomew whispered.
Liam stopped. “Bartholomew, you are a ghost.”
“I still don’t like this place. There is something here. Remnants of evil and pain. Maybe it’s in all this creepy stuff. Mummies, coffins, shrunken skulls. Evil spirits, the memories of pain and sacrifice and human suffering. Miasma on the air. Let’s get this done and get out.”
“Bartholomew, someone human was in here. Doors don’t unlock themselves.”
“What if evil spirits unlock them to lure in the innocent?” Bartholomew asked. “I may be a ghost, but we both know that evil isn’t something that dies easily.”
Liam wondered if Kelsey Donovan was going to have Joe Richter sell the place for her, or if she’d come to Key West herself. He’d have to ask Richter. If Kelsey was going to come down and move back into the house, he had to stop whatever the hell was going on.
“Cutter Merlin wasn’t an evil man,” he said.
Bartholomew sniffed, sidestepping a huge stone gargoyle probably procured from a medieval church somewhere in Europe.
The gargoyle’s huge shoulders hunched and the eyes seemed to stare at them with malice.
“They say he practiced black magic!” Bartholomew told him.
“People make up whatever they wish regarding an old hermit,” Liam said sadly.
“He was some kind of a wizard. Or a witch, maybe. Men can be witches, right? Yeah, that’s right. They hanged men as witches in Salem, Massachusetts. And in Europe, too,” Bartholomew said.
“They hanged a bunch of innocent people caught up in hysteria or a land grab,” Liam said firmly.
As he did so, he heard a scream again. Male this time, hoarse and curt…and somehow just as bloodcurdling as the first he had heard that evening.
The sound came again, a scream of abject terror.
Then, it was broken off. Midstream, as if the screamer had…
As if the screamer’s throat had been slit.
Ricky. Ricky Long, screaming from the ground floor….
Liam forgot Bartholomew and the idiotic imaginations of the masses and went tearing down the stairs.
Liam’s call had opened the door to the past.
Odd—that was actually what she had done in her mind, she realized. Closed a door. And as if that door had been real and tangible, she had set her hand on the knob and turned it.
Cutter Merlin, her mother’s father, had been so many things. He had doctorates in history and archaeology, and he had been the best storyteller she had ever known. His beautiful old house in Key West had been like a treasure trove, filled with things, and each thing had offered a story. She had loved growing up with the exotic. While her friends could be easily scared, she loved the idea that she lived with a real Egyptian mummy. At campfires she had told great tales herself, describing how she had awakened once to find the mummy standing over her…reaching out for her.