January 9, 2018
Cover art: Reese Dante
Genre: Mystery, contemporary romance
People usually said to me, “Mr. Aubrey Grant, what a strange life you live.”
Which was a fairly accurate assessment.
I had once been held at gunpoint by an angry ex-wife (not mine, mind you) wielding a loaded elephant gun—long story. I’d punched a clown in the face—longer story. And I’d very briefly been part of a knife-throwing act in a traveling circus—this is unrelated to the clown. I’d seen and done enough in my thirty-eight years to not be all that shocked by what was often waiting around the corner.
Except for dead bodies.
I could positively say that I’d never expected, nor prepared myself to deal with, very dead people.
And not funeral dead.
I mean, skeleton-in-the-closet dead.
Like, a real skeleton.
I raised myself up on my elbows from where I’d fallen to the floor after screaming and tripping. I stared through the open doorway.
He… she? Our dearly departed was slumped forward, dangling out of a false wall I’d just now discovered, despite managing the historical property for two years. And it was only because the wallpaper was inaccurate for the time period and I was finally removing it.
I swallowed a few times and tried to get my breathing under control before I started hyperventilating. My entire body felt weak, and I dropped back to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. Freaking cataplexy. The involuntary loss of muscle control was a unique symptom of narcolepsy. It usually happened when I laughed a lot, but sometimes… yeah, nearly having the bejesus scared out of me could make it kick in.
The house was eerily silent after my scream. There must not have been any visitors inside, odd for March—the height of tourist season—although it was only a little after eight in the morning. The tour guide downstairs didn’t respond either, and I knew I screamed loud enough to rattle a window or two. Goddamn Herbert. He was probably asleep in one of the rocking chairs on the front porch.
I looked at the closet again.
Skelly had nothing to say about the situation.
Okay, everything’s cool. It’s just a dead dude. Or dudette. Or—fuck, it doesn’t matter.
I climbed to my feet again, then took a moment to steady myself before stepping toward the closet. Dust—over a hundred years’ worth—floated about in the morning light, finally disturbed when I’d found the hidden switch that threw the false wall open. I coughed and waved it away.
I couldn’t believe it. There was a skeleton hidden inside the Smith Family Historical Home in Old Town, Key West. Down here we were known for our gay pride, key lime pie, and the local authorities looking the other way when open containers came out to play on Duval, not whatever this was! I mean—fuck! Who was this? How’d they die? When did they die? Why were they inside my goddamn walls?
I’d spent the last two months on an intensive restoration project, which included testing the walls, to create a custom paint that would match the original color from 1853, the year chosen to represent the home. The out-of-place wallpaper in the closet, antique and beautiful as it was, was historically a no-no. I had no records of who placed it there, so unfortunately it had to go. And it figured. I did a little home improvement to satisfy the historian in me, and got a dead guy for my effort.
Like I said, I took what life gave without much gripe and a healthy dose of humor. But dead things? So not my field of preference. I couldn’t even handle the occasional roadkill without getting weird. This was the sort of bullshit an antiquing buddy of mine in New York got mixed up in, not me. I kept my nose clean and didn’t snoop into dead people anything, so I really didn’t appreciate this guy dropping into my life.
“Okay,” I said. “I need… to call someone. Like… police, probably. Good start.”
I spun on a heel and took off down the stairs like a bat out of hell.
I made a brief circuit through the second and ground floors to ensure it was completely empty before racing out the front. I yanked shut the heavy, solid wooden door and then closed the hurricane door behind it. I crouched down to lock it into place.
“Aubs?” Herb asked from his chair.
I looked sideways, catching him blinking sleep from his eyes. He was semiretired and worked as a part-time tour guide because, and I quote, “I’m bored and got nothing else to do but sit around and wait to die.” I stood and pocketed the ring of house keys. “There’s a skeleton in the third-floor closet.”
Herb pursed his lips, rubbed his thick, straight mustache, then said, “Okeydokey.”
I cocked my head to the side. “What?”
He waved his hand idly. “I know you have to leave early today, but if you were going to lock up thirty minutes after opening, why’d I bother dragging my ass here?”
I stared in disbelief for a minute. “Herb! There’s a dead guy in my storage closet!”
He settled back comfortably in his chair. “Are you drunk, Aubs?”
“No!” I shouted, maybe a bit louder than necessary.
“You’re more wound up than an old watch. Good thing that man of yours is flying in today. I swear, we’ve been saying it all month—you need a vacation.”
I felt like I was going to burst a blood vessel. I raised my hands, because even though I liked Herb, I was going to strangle him. “The house is closed off right now. I have to go make a phone call.”
“Uh-huh.” He shut his eyes and rocked the chair.
I jumped off the porch steps and raced through the gardens. That Wednesday was tropical-paradise perfect. Between the beach-going sunshine, balmy breeze, and vivid beauty of all the flowers in bloom, it was almost possible to forget about Skelly lounging around in the closet, making friends with the store-brand cleaning supplies.
A shiver of ick, yuck, ew, oh my God went up my spine, and I ran a little faster to a building that served as our ticket booth and gift shop. I entered through the back door and walked along the messy corridors created solely out of inventory because Adam Love, who manned the inside, was seemingly unable or unwilling to put anything away.
“No ticket sales today!” I said, rushing into the main room.
Adam startled and turned from the register to give me a look. He was a huge guy. Like, linebacker huge. A regular bull in a china shop, although to his credit, he’d yet to break a single tacky knickknack on the shelves. He was the newest hire, about four months ago now. And young—I think twenty-five at most. The kid had moved to the Keys to start an adventure. I wasn’t sure if Adam considered selling fifteen-dollar tickets to an old house particularly exciting, but hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
“Why not?” he asked.
“There’s a—long story. But no visits to the house, okay? Garden tours only.”
“Sure,” he slowly said.
I walked into the mess of the backroom and toward the nook that served as my office. The walls around my desk were merely boxes of holiday decorations, old stock we couldn’t move, and various antiques coming and going to the home. I sat in my chair, took some more deep breaths, then picked up the landline. This didn’t seem 911-worthy. Frankly, Skelly looked to have been there for a while. If he hadn’t been, we’d have all smelled a decaying body.
Once, I had a dead opossum in the walls of my apartment back in New York City. What the fuck an opossum was doing in Brooklyn, let alone in the walls of my apartment, I had no clue. But it reeked, and the super had to tear through the drywall to fish it out. So yeah, Skelly was old news. Still bad news that needed to be handled immediately, but not like he-might-still-be-breathing kind of priority.
I called the main number to the local police department instead. “Yes, hello. My name’s Aubrey Grant. I’m the property manager of the Smith Home on Whitehead Street. I have a rather unusual situation. … No, no. No drunks on our porch, but thank you for sending an officer last week.”
Tourists had a tendency to get trashed on Duval Street, get lost looking for their rental cottage or B&B in the middle of the night, and then end up passed out on my front steps. Such was life.
“There’s a very dead person inside my supply closet.”
“There’s a what?” Adam shouted.
I jumped and turned to see him hovering in the doorway, watching me with bug eyes. I shooed him, but he didn’t budge. “What’s that? … Yeah. A dead—yes. It’s a skeleton. I found it inside a false wall.”
“What the shit?” Adam asked.
I made a face at him. “Sorry?” I asked the person on the call. “I’m being interrupted by an employee, say that again?” I sighed and shook my head. “No ma’am, I am completely sober. Thank you for checking.”