She was scared, definitely scared. Terrified. But it didn’t really seem to register. She was going to fall down, and there would be nothing he could do.
She started to slip. He dragged her up, shaking her again. “How much coffee did you drink?”
Her heart sank. Whatever he had drugged her with had been in her coffee. And it had been so good. She’d had several cups.
She smiled at him. “A lot.”
Suddenly she saw that he had a huge blade out, next to her face. He forced her down to the floor, the point of his knife near her eye. “Kelsey, I’ll cut you to ribbons before I do worse things to you and then kill you,” he said. “Or, I’ll tell you what. Your friend Jonas is lying on the ground outside. I haven’t killed him. Yet. I’ll drag him in here and cut out his eyes and tongue in front of you. How’s that?”
“You want the reliquary?” she asked him. “Take it.”
He slapped her. Hard. For a moment, her teeth rattled and the room spun.
“Where is it?” His voice was shrill.
“Tell me how you killed my mother, and I’ll give you the reliquary,” she said.
He started to laugh. “Your whole family loves coffee, Kelsey. That, combined with her painkillers and a phone call I made to her. She was rushing—rushing down the stairs because she believed a madman was killing you in the living room. That’s how she fell. That was my first. I didn’t know that it had worked. Stupid, huh? But I slaughtered a bunch of beautiful Key West roosters for that one. And it worked. So, you know how your mother died. Now give me the reliquary. Her death was supposed to force Cutter to give up the reliquary—I would have killed you, and your father next, if you hadn’t left so quickly.”
He pressed the blade of the knife close to her right eye.
“The crown,” she said. “Take it. You won’t get far with it. Liam will come after you.”
“Liam is passed out cold somewhere. Maybe he had a traffic accident. Maybe he’s dead. The world will know that the house is cursed. What do you mean, the crown?”
“The doll’s crown,” she managed.
She didn’t see him reach for it. He’d had to drop her to do so. She heard his exclamation of pleasure.
And she knew then that he would kill her.
Liam took great care, crawling through the trapdoor as carefully and silently as he could. It took some effort; the Persian rug covered the trapdoor.
He made it into Cutter Merlin’s study and carefully stood, drawing his gun.
The door was ajar. He could hear Vargas talking to Kelsey. She was still talking.
He started out. “Vargas!”
Vargas spun and dropped, dragging Kelsey up in front of him. Liam saw that he was holding a large bowie knife, and that the blade was now against Kelsey’s throat.
“You’ve got the reliquary. Leave her,” Liam said.
Vargas shook his head. “I need her. She has to come with me.”
“Come with you where? There’s no way out.”
“There is,” Vargas assured him. “Stay back.”
With his eyes on Liam and his arm tightly around Kelsey, Vargas started to back up. Liam followed him.
He looked into Kelsey’s eyes. They were glazed. She was trying to move, trying not to be dragged like such a limp rag doll.
“Shoot him,” she mouthed.
“Stay back!” Vargas demanded.
He was going all the way through the house. Liam knew that his men were out back, but they’d also been told to stand down until given an order. They wouldn’t risk Kelsey’s life.
Where the hell did he think he was going?
Vargas must have read his mind. He started laughing. “I have a boat back there, Beckett, under the dock. When I’m some distance away, I’ll let Kelsey go. You rush me now, and I’ll slit her throat,” he said. “I’ve been the smart one, you stupid cop. All these years.”
“So smart I caught you killing a goat,” Liam said.
That gave him pause. He hesitated. But then he started moving again, backing slowly away. The knife was chafing at Kelsey’s throat. Liam saw a thin trickle of blood.
He lifted his hands. “I just want Kelsey.”
“Drop the gun, then.”
Liam dropped the gun. He lifted his hands again. “I just want Kelsey.”
Vargas kept going backward.
Step by step.
They came to the back door. He keyed in the alarm and opened the door; the reliquary tucked under his one arm, his grip around Kelsey treacherous as he held her and the knife, and worked the alarm and the door.
A trapdoor. How often had the man been in there with him? He’d done work for the Merlin house. He’d found the door. And that had begun it all.
“I’m keeping my distance,” Liam said.
He silently cursed himself, wondering when the man had gotten the boat to the docks.
He kept his eyes on Kelsey for a moment, willing her to live.
She stared back at him gravely.
The door was open; Vargas dragged her down the steps and slowly, slowly backward toward the dock and the beach. Liam followed at a distance, now keeping eye contact with Vargas. At the foot of the docks, Vargas tightened the knife. “Stay there, stay there…. No, come out. Do what I say or she dies, do you understand?”
“What do you want?”
“The boat. Get into the water. Drag it out.”
Liam jumped down into the chest-deep water. His heart sank. The boat was a Donzi, a speedboat.
But as Vargas asked, he drew it from beneath the dock and loosened the ties.
“Now get back!” Vargas shouted. He was getting nervous, it seemed. Liam realized that he should have been drugged like Kelsey, and Vargas had imagined that he’d take the reliquary and dump her in the water before anyone was any the wiser.
He backed up slowly. Vargas had a bad time getting into the boat, trying to get his balance, drag Kelsey in and keep the knife at her throat all the while. It took him some time. Bartholomew was on the dock, trying to steady Kelsey, trying to trip up Vargas.
Liam prayed for the moment when he could move, take his chance to rush the man.
Vargas would never let her live. He’d throw her over in deep water. And she was drugged; she wouldn’t be able to stay afloat.
Vargas was almost in the boat. Liam was ready to leap when the boat suddenly tilted out of the water.
Kelsey crashed overboard. Vargas tried to hold on to her, and he went in, too.
Liam made a dive into the water, desperate to find Kelsey. Something swirled around his feet.
It was the dolphin. A good twelve feet long, powerful. The animal had caused the boat to tilt. And, though he couldn’t really believe it, the dolphin was leading him to Kelsey.
He dived, and dived again, following the large, sleek sea creature.
And his arms came around Kelsey. He pulled her from the water, screaming her name as they surfaced. She gasped, choked, coughed, and opened her eyes and stared into his.
“Liam,” she said.
He half swam and half dragged her to the shore. As he did so, something like an iron fist landed on his back.
Vargas. Vargas, rolling him over, straddling him, lifting the knife high over him in a frenzy. He bucked with all his strength and threw the man from him. Vargas lifted his arm to throw the knife.
His aim went askew as Kelsey staggered to her feet and threw herself against him. The knife went flying to the ground, and Vargas shoved Kelsey aside, desperate now. He turned and ran for the house.
Liam jumped to his feet, racing after him. Kelsey came behind him. As they tore into the living room, Vargas suddenly stopped.
Just stopped, dead still.
“No.” Vargas was staring at nothing. Staring toward the fireplace.
“No!” he repeated.
Liam started forward. Vargas rushed to the fireplace and reached into it, drawing out the shotgun that Cutter had held on his lap, the shotgun that had disappeared on cleaning day.
“Kelsey, down!” Liam said and made a dive himself for the police-issue Smith & Wesson he had dropped earlier.
Vargas shot wildly, at nothing.
But it wasn’t nothing.
There was a woman in the room, slowly materializing. She was wearing a blue dress, and she had long dark hair and had beautiful blue eyes. Kelsey’s mother.
The shots went straight through her.
She walked to Vargas and said softly, “There is a hell, and you will rot in it. You will never touch my child!”
“Witch! You’re not real. I’ll show you your precious daughter!”
Vargas let out a long gale of hysterical laughter and spun around, aiming the gun at Kelsey. She rolled swiftly to the side, and Vargas tried to follow her. His finger twitched on the trigger.
Liam took fleeting aim with the Smith & Wesson.
And he shot the man.
Liam could hear his men out in the yard, running now toward the house. He hurried to Kelsey, trying to help her up. She was still staggering, but when she’d gotten to her feet, she whispered, “Liam, I’m…I’m fine.”
He eased his hold on her. He watched as she walked to the apparition of her mother.
“I loved you so,” Kelsey whispered.
A spectral hand touched her cheek with infinite tenderness, and then disappeared in a soft glow of light.
“Love is forever, my darling child,” Chelsea Merlin Donovan said. “I will always love you.”
“I must admit, I was afraid that you’d want to do one of those Titanic deals. You know, how the woman threw the gem back into the sea!” Jaden said.
Kelsey laughed. “Hell, no! That’s too much money. I’ve divided it between a lot of Cutter’s favorite charities. AIDS, cancer, heart, diabetes and the animal shelter! The reliquary itself is being returned to the Church and France, and I’m actually well on my way to getting a great deal of Cutter’s collectibles to the museums where he wanted them to be. Oh—the fake reliquary? We’re giving that to you and Ted, Jaden,” Kelsey added.