Skeleton's Key

By: Stacy Green

A Delta Crossroads Novel




1




Cage Foster wasn’t afraid of the dark. He didn’t believe in creepers going bump in the night, and he could deal with the occasional nasty critter. But something about Ironwood Plantation’s cellar made the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention. And he’d already been down there once today.

The cellar stunk. It reeked of mold-covered earth, stale air juiced up with God knows what dead animal carcasses, rotting wood, and several decades’ worth of dust. Like so many antebellum homes, Ironwood’s cellar was made of earth and bricks with some decaying Mississippi cypress thrown on top. Late afternoon sun shined in the kitchen windows and cast a shadow down the basement steps. An old light bulb and an equally ancient string hung somewhere past the bottom step, but since the entire fuse box had crapped out, Cage had to fumble down the rickety steps and hope he didn’t end up landing ass over backwards on the dirty cellar floor.

“Wiring up to code my ass.” His nose curled at the odor. “If it were, that cheap sander wouldn’t have blown the fuse.”

“You gon’ go down with me?” Harvey Lett, a square–shaped man with tobacco-stained teeth and a graying beard that desperately needed a trim, stood behind Cage. The only electrician willing to hurry out to an abandoned plantation house with old wiring and a fuse box from the Cold War era fixed Cage with a hawklike stare. “Or you gon’ stand there?”

Cage raked his hand through his hair–he’d been letting it grow the past couple of months as some sort of gesture to his supposed new start on life–but so far he wasn’t feeling any more carefree. Only irritated.

He avoided the basement as much as possible. The creaky stairs trembled at every step, and the layers of dust set fire to his allergies.

Plus the stinking hole gave him the creeps.

Fortunately, nothing important to Ironwood’s renovations was stored in the basement. In the last three months, he had only been down there twice. But now he’d sent the whole house into darkness, and he was on a tight schedule. After all, he had to have Ironwood up to par for the damned Yankee invader.

Smaller than some of the prized antebellums in Roselea’s historic district at just under 8,000 square feet, Ironwood was one of the few pre-Civil War era homes in Adams County that hadn’t been restored into a showplace. Adams County Baptist had done its best to keep the home from falling down, but the last decade had seen lousy renters and years of emptiness. A year ago, the church hired Cage to act as caretaker. Being a sheriff’s deputy didn’t rake in the big bucks, and the job offered cheap rent in a decent place: Ironwood’s carriage house, the only part of the plantation that had been properly restored.

One of the church members had called Ironwood a lost cause. The mansion had been neglected for too long until Cage arrived.

The plaster on its columns was cracked, the porch badly weathered, windowsills rotting. Inside, dust nearly an inch thick decorated nearly every surface. A previous tenant had left food in the 1930s refrigerator, and bits of garbage had been scattered about by whatever animal had used the back screened–in porch for its personal bathroom. He’d spent weeks just cleaning the 8000-square-foot home.

He knew all about lost causes. He’d spent years waiting for the only woman he’d ever loved to finally open her eyes and see what she was missing, and then she’d gone and fallen for his ex-brother-in-law. If his sister were alive, he might have had a shot. But Lana was dead, and Nick and Jaymee had moved on together. Leaving Cage stagnant and alone.

Sometimes he wallowed. Drank, too. Figured he’d be alone and bitter about it for the rest of his life.

Then one night he got sent out on a trespassing call to the old Ironwood Plantation–or what was left of it. Most of the land had been parceled off and turned into subdivisions, but the old house and nearly three acres still sat empty and wild, and an apparent hangout for teenagers.

Cage and another sheriff’s deputy broke up the party, and Cage found a new love. The old home, silent and dark and still breathing, called to him. He’d contacted the church about purchasing it. Couldn’t afford the price tag, but he’d jumped at the chance to be caretaker and had spent the last several months slowly making the big house livable.

He’d been semi-happy until three weeks ago, when he’d received the call from Adams County Baptist informing him that Ironwood Plantation had been sold–and to a damned Yankee, no less. Danny Evans, some rich Northerner set to come down here and make a mint off restoring one of Roselea’s last antebellum relics. Evans, a fancy restoration expert from Indiana. What did some Midwesterner know about the South and her plantations?

Cage had been kept on as caretaker and was now tasked with getting the big house decent enough for Evans to live in. The Yankee would arrive in a week, and Cage had too much left to do. And naturally, the fuse box was in the basement, and Cage would rather eat dirt than venture down there.

“Let’s get to it, then,” Harvey said.

Cage switched on his flashlight and stepped onto the first shaky step. “Be careful. These suckers aren’t exactly in top condition.” Ironwood had been built in 1835, and he had little doubt these stairs were original. He reached for the railing before he remembered it had rotted and fallen off.