“Is this something, or what?” the cop was saying now. “I remember the newspapers being filled with something similar just a few years ago—the mortician comforting the grieving relatives, then dumping the bodies of the deceased and selling the coffins again. Coffins aren’t cheap. Even cheap coffins aren’t cheap, and the satin-lined, down-stuffed ones will really cost you. There’s lot of money to be made selling those suckers over and over again. I guess there have always been people willing to make an extra buck or two off the dead, no matter how they do it.”
Caleb looked around the library. Most of the plaster had been torn out, revealing piles of bones between the studs. Some of the bones were still attached to each other by bits of mummified sinew and tendon, preserved inside their plaster prison.
It was a gruesome sight, even for him. In some cases shreds of clothing remained. One of the corpses was wearing the remnants of a Civil War-era hat. It looked as if they had stumbled on a particularly bizarre scenario for a haunted house. Someone might easily think the remains were the result of an exhibit designer’s mad imagination.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Jamison asked. “Hell, I’m a homicide cop. I’ve worked in Jacksonville, Miami and Houston—tough towns, all of them—and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The lieutenant shook his head, staring at the remnants of what had once been living, breathing human beings.
A small man was standing close to the wall, the epitome of the absent-minded professor with his glasses and tufts of wild gray hair, peering closely at the remains, a penlight in his hand. “You know, embalming started becoming popular after the war—the Civil War. They had to try to get those dead boys back home to their mamas and sweethearts. But it really came into vogue for most Americans because of Abraham Lincoln. When he died, his widow wanted him buried back in Illinois, so they held a public viewing as the body traveled cross-country by train, so they had to keep Abe looking good for the mourners. He was embalmed by injecting fluids through the veins, but I think these poor souls were embalmed in the much less efficient fashion of the day, such as disemboweling a corpse and stuffing it with charcoal, or perhaps just immersing the body in alcohol. I imagine they were given proper viewings to satisfy the families, and then they were walled up. You can see here—” he pointed out different shades of plaster that had been chipped from the walls “—that they were put in at different times. Just guessing from the look of the corpses, I’d say this was all done within a ten-year period. See how the bones have darkened just a bit more? That ten-year span was a very long time ago. Fascinating, the way some of the corpses have mummified. My office will retrieve the remains in the morning. Legally, we could arrange removal right now, but I want to bring in specialists to make sure everything is handled correctly. This is quite the find.”
The man finally turned from his macabre monologue, saw Caleb and sized him up. He pocketed his penlight and offered him a hand. “How do you do? You’re that out-of-towner who found that fellow who’s been missing a year, aren’t you? I did his autopsy this afternoon. I’m the M.E. here in town, Florence Benson—my parents were fans of the Ziegfeld follies, I’m afraid—so they call me Doc Benson or Floby around here. Nice to meet you. You solved a sad mystery today.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Doc Benson, and I’m glad to have been of service,” Caleb assured him. “Did you find out anything interesting regarding the body I found?”
“I sent what tissue samples I could gather out to the lab, but after a year in the water…it’s hard going. I’m reserving my comments until I’ve completed my work.”
“Very smart,” Caleb said.
“Yes, especially given the circumstances. I’m working with little more than bone on that corpse, too, which is proving to be more tedious than you’d imagine. At least I know where all his body parts are. Here…well, as you can see, some of these skeletons are still more or less together, and some have fallen completely apart. This is going to be interesting, to say the least.”
“So it appears,” Caleb agreed.
The man studied him again, up and down, making an assessment.
“You work for some secret agency, huh?” the medical examiner asked him.
“Hardly secret,” Caleb said. “We’re just licensed investigators, like lots of other firms. But my boss doesn’t advertise. He’s the quiet kind and only takes on cases that call for what we can offer that other agencies can’t.”
He knew that Tim Jamison was watching him as he spoke, intrigued. Tim had been asked by the mayor, who been asked by the governor, to bring Caleb in on the case of the newly missing girls. He was both wary, and curious. But he seemed open-minded enough, and that was all Caleb really cared about.
“So where has Miss McKinley gotten herself off to, Tim?” Floby asked.
“She left for the night. She grew up here—she’s got plenty of friends around who would offer her a place to stay for the night. I’m not sure where she’s headed. She loves this old place, though. This has to be a big setback for her.”
“Not so bad—unless the whole house turns out to be riddled with corpses,” Floby said cheerfully. “And I don’t think it will. This seems to have been the…dump, shall we say? And as I said, I’ll have the pros in tomorrow to clear out these unwanted tenants, you cops and that professor will do some investigating—though I’m sure you’ll find out these people were already dead before they got stuck in the wall, just in case anyone was worried about that—and then everyone will get the burial they should have gotten years ago. And she’s a historian with on-site experience, so she’ll understand the significance of this find. And since she’s not a shrinking-violet kind of girl, I’m betting she’ll want in on the investigation herself.”
“I’d really appreciate permission to help, too,” Caleb said.
Floby looked at Tim Jamison, who nodded, giving Floby the okay to allow a stranger in on the find.
“We’ll be starting bright and early, so we can catch all the light we can. Someone will be posted out on the porch twenty-four seven to keep the lookie-loos away, so you just check in with him whenever you get here,” Floby told him.
“Thanks. I’ll leave you two, then. I appreciate being let in on this, Lieutenant,” Caleb told Jamison.
Jamison shrugged. “I don’t know who you know, but they sure as hell know all the right people.” He grinned. “You proved your abilities this morning. I’m happy to keep you in the loop—all the loops. And I’m sure you’ll do me the same courtesy in return.”
Two handshakes and Caleb was out the door. He took a minute to turn and stare up at the house—just as a small crowd was still doing from the sidewalk, gruesomely speculating on the state of the bodies.
Caleb moved quickly past the crowd to avoid being questioned by those who had seen him leave the house and moved farther down the street, then stopped and studied the house again.
Brick, mortar and wood. The place embodied everything that old-town Southern charm should be. It was a decaying but grand old edifice. It wasn’t evil, it was just a house. Still, he felt that there were things waiting to be discovered there, things that he needed to know.
But no ghosts danced on the wraparound porch. No specters wavered in the windows.
The house was just a house.
He turned and headed back toward his B&B, planning to check his e-mail and then head out for something to eat. He’d barely made it around the corner when he saw Sarah McKinley ahead of him, towing a small wheeled overnight bag along behind her. She was alone. That surprised him; she’d been with a group of friends last time he’d seen her.
Suddenly she stopped, as if sensing someone behind her. For a moment she went dead still. Then she swung around and stared at him before asking, “What the hell are you doing here?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Are you following me?”
“M an, that was really creepy,” Caroline said, walking along Avila Street. She shuddered and moved closer to Will. It was strange. She had known Will most of her life. They had fought and teased one another as kids. They had become friends as adults. They had shared their trials and tribulations with other members of the opposite sex with one another.
They’d been together one night—at Hunky Harry’s, as a matter of fact—and in the middle of laughing at something together, they had looked at each other and their laughter had stopped. And now…well, it wasn’t as if they’d gone insane or anything, but they were both carefully negotiating the transition from friends to the realization that they wanted to be much more.
Will set an arm around her shoulders. “Leave it to Sarah. And what happened earlier today, that was pretty damn creepy, too.”
“Yeah, tell us about it. Who is this Caleb guy, anyway?” Barry asked, strolling up alongside Will.
“Hey, wait! What about me?” Renee demanded, pushing forward.
“What are you trying to do? Block the whole sidewalk?” Caroline complained.
But they all wanted to hear what Will had to say, so they crowded together and walked along in an awkward group, trying to hear him clearly.
“I think the guy is some kind of corpse magnet,” Will said. “We were looking for that missing girl, Winona Hart, and Lieutenant Jamison said Anderson had to be on the dive team. He didn’t explain why, just said the mayor had told him to extend every courtesy to the guy and let him work with us. He has connections in Washington. Some hotshot sent him down here. I have to tell you, we were ticked at first. But the thing is, in the last year, we’ve dived that area a dozen times, and no one ever found that car. But—he found it as easy as if he had a map. Now that’s creepy.”
“So who was the guy he found?” Renee asked.
“Frederick J. Russell, a banker from Jacksonville,” Will said. “He was reported missing about twelve months ago.”