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.”
“I don’t want to talk about it until the cops arrive,” I answered.
Adam had locked the gift shop and followed me out the back door after I’d finished the phone call and had collected myself in the bathroom. He ran ahead of me, put a firm hand on my chest, and stopped me like I’d just walked into a brick wall.
I referred to myself as fun size. Like the candy at Halloween. Adam was movie-theater size. And my supercool, not-exactly-boyfriend, who was arriving around 10:00 a.m. to visit me, fell somewhere around share-size candy.
I was fixated on candy.
I quit smoking a month ago. It was fucking killing me.
Anyway. I was five feet three when I didn’t slouch and probably weighed a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet, so Adam had no trouble stopping me with a finger jab. Sometimes I wondered if me being his boss bothered him. He’s younger, sure, but I so don’t assume a managerial appearance. Adam dressed like—I don’t know how to describe it. Like a good boy. Me? I’m pushing forty and still wear dirty Chucks, skinny jeans, and at times, tastefully offensive T-shirts. My hair was bleached white, I wore zero-gauge plugs and a nose ring—but Key West. The number of people who care, I could count on one hand.
“Is there really a dead man in the home?” Adam asked, his voice a loud whisper.
I put my hands on my hips. “No, I’m just drumming up new publicity!” I whispered back.
Adam crossed his huge, beefy arms.
“Sorry, sorry. It really freaked me out. I don’t know whether to ask for a cigarette or a Valium.”
“You are pretty worked up,” he pointed out after a beat.
“Add a blowjob to my list of needs.”
“I can offer one of the three, but you’ll have to guess which.”
I shook my head and waved him off. “I’ve gone a full month without a cigarette. I don’t want to light up a few hours before Jun arrives.”
“I wasn’t offering a cigarette.” Adam smirked.
I laughed. “Watch it, dude.”
He stepped aside, no longer blocking my path. “A skeleton behind a false wall?”
I started walking toward the porch of the home. Herb was still passed out in his chair. “That’s right.”
“Was it old?”
Adam stopped walking. “I mean… did it have any… flesh?”
“No! That’s gross. It was old. All discolored and dusty.”
He glanced up, eyeing the third-floor windows. “Who the hell put him there?”
I shook my head. “No idea….”
“Think he was murdered?”
“Murdered?” I echoed, looking up at Adam. “Why would you assume that?”
“Someone went through the effort to hide the body,” he answered. “Who does that if the person died of natural causes?”
“I guess you have a point.” I caught Adam giving me a few nervous glances. “What?”
“I know it’s just local superstition—”
“No,” I interrupted. “Don’t say it.”
“But everyone says that the house is haunted!” Adam protested.
“No. Tess at Key Lime & Forever says that.” I motioned across the street at our dessert shop neighbor.
“Everyone does, Aubs,” Adam insisted. “All the locals say it’s Captain Smith.”
“Herb doesn’t,” I replied, pointing to the porch.
Adam rolled his eyes. “Herb also doesn’t believe in antibacterial soap.”
“All I’m saying is—if ghosts were real, I’d have a reason to haunt this place, knowing my body was crammed into some wall for over a hundred years.”
“Adam,” I began, “I’ve been managing this home for two years. I spend more time here than I do in my own house. I can absolutely assure you that it’s not haunted.”
“You’re a cynical New Yorker—what else would you say?”
“I’m not cynical.”
“I’ve seen things,” Adam insisted. “Not here, but at my grandmother’s house. It was old. We’re talking Revolutionary War old. And sometimes, at night… I’d hear someone walking up and down the stairs in heavy boots. It was just the two of us there, and my grandma’s as big as you. No way she was clunking around like that. One time,” he continued, “I decided to get up and follow the sound.”
A breeze rustled the leaves of the sapodilla trees. A few fruits loosened and fell to the paved walkway with a splat. The morning chatter and the laughter of tourists were beginning to fill the streets just past our white picket fence, but it sounded… distant. Like a bubble had encased us.
“A man was standing in the living room,” Adam said. His face had gone pale, and he licked his lips. “He was just standing there, Aubs. With a musket over one shoulder and an old hat on his head. He turned and looked right at me, and clear as day, he said, ‘I’ve got to go fight.’”
I didn’t believe in ghosts.
And I didn’t believe Adam.
But we were fairly friendly at this point, and the guy was too sweet to lie, so his story left me… puzzled.
An unwelcome shiver crept up my spine.
I jumped at the call of my name, and Adam grabbed my shoulder. The bubble around us burst, and the roar of a busy Key West morning invaded the garden. There was a plain-clothed officer standing outside the fence.
“Oh yes! That’s me. Thank you for coming.” I left Adam and hurried to unlock the gate and allow him into the garden.
“Detective Tillman. I was told there was a body on the property,” he said. He was a tall (well, everyone was, by my standards), lean guy. Brown hair, a light tan, and no features that really stood out. He wasn’t ugly or anything, just sort of someone who blended into a crowd. Except his eyes. They were sharp like broken glass. Definitely a cop, even in trousers and a button-down shirt.
“Believe me, if it had been closer to October, I’d have thought someone was pulling my leg. But this is very real.”
“Been around a lot of bodies, Mr. Grant?”
I raised an eyebrow. “I have enough understanding of human anatomy to know the difference between a plastic skeleton from Kmart and the real deal.”
Tillman’s mouth tightened.
Yeah, I could be sassy too, buddy.
“Mind showing me?”
I nodded and led the way up the porch steps. I unlocked both doors, ignored Herb’s snoring, and walked into the house. “It’s on the third floor,” I said, starting up the stairs.
“How exactly did you come upon it, Mr. Grant?” Tillman asked.
“Aubrey,” I insisted over my shoulder. “And I was getting ready to remove old wallpaper in the closet. I guess during the process I uncovered some sort of latch, the false wall gave way, and Skelly—uh, he or she came tumbling out.”
“Find many hiding places in this house?”
“Not exactly a regular habit, no.”
I led Tillman across the hall of the second floor and up another set of stairs. When we reached the landing of the third floor, I walked over to the closet.
The skeleton was gone.