Skeleton's Key

By: Stacy Green


Cage pushed opened the solid oak front door. Warped and faded, but solid. He held it open for her. “After you.”

Anticipation derailed her manners and she bounded up the steps. Dani’s pulse thrummed in her chest; her stomach danced. Her eyes threatened to tear again. Taking a deep breath, Dani stepped into Ironwood for the first time.

The musty scent of old wood and the past greeted her. Her vision took a moment to adjust from bright outdoors, but when it did, she found herself staring at Ironwood’s exquisite double staircase. Directly across from the door, the grand structure took center stage.

“What a statement,” Dani whispered.

“It’s pretty awesome, but it’s not in great shape.” Cage gestured to their left. “The great hall and music room are in decent condition. Several years ago, the church had the plaster fixed and repainted. Woodwork’s not too bad. Balcony overlooking the great hall isn’t great, though. Peeling wood, missing railings.” He turned to the right. “Over here is the parlor. Floor’s rough in here, but I got it cleaned out. Kitchen is that way, just beyond that white door. It’s functioning, but everything in there is from the seventies.”

She knelt down to run her hand across the marble floors. Smooth and cool, the once bright blues had faded with age. “These are from France. Early nineteenth century. Hard to find.” A section of the marble was chipped, not from the years and tread of feet, but from some sort of crude tool. “Did you do any work to this floor?”

“Other than clean it, no. Why?”

“Someone tried to lift the tile.” She pointed to the jagged cutting between the tile squares. “Probably a renter or some sleazy explorer looking for a buck. Fortunately the craftsmanship on these is excellent, and whoever tried to steal them had a crappy tool.”

“Huh. Wonder if that’s what happened to the hardware in the kitchen. It’s all missing. So are some of the china door knobs.”

“I’m sure. You wouldn’t believe the self-entitlement of some people who explore abandoned buildings. Complete disregard for the structural integrity. Common thieves.” Looking from left to right, Dani tried to decide where to go first.

“Church keeps the butler’s pantry locked.” Cage continued to tick items off a mental list. “And I was instructed not to go upstairs until the staircase was checked out by an expert. Library needs work. Most of the family’s books were either sold or donated after the last owner’s death. Renters probably took anything left. Then of course, there’s the basement.”

The basement. Dani had forgotten about the skull. “Have you finished digging?”

“Not quite. Jeb–the coroner–left a little bit ago with a few more bones. We plan on extending the excavation site out by two feet to see if we can find any more bones.”

“You still think it’s an old body?”

“I think so, but the medical examiner will have to tell us for sure.”

She faced Cage, looking up into his serious eyes. “I want to see it.”





4




Cage wasn’t sure he liked Dani. She talked too fast. She was frenetic. Jittery. She’d practically accused him of messing up the house he loved; another damned Yankee assuming the Southern hick was stupid.

Still, he would have replaced the windows if he’d been given the money. And that made his insides burn with embarrassment.

But the emotion on her face when she’d stood at the bottom of Ironwood’s steps pierced his heart. She’d looked ready to cry, and he wasn’t sure if they were tears of joy, sadness, or both. As he watched her in the foyer, her gaze darting from one aspect of the house to another with wide eyes, she reminded him of the way his sister had always looked on Christmas. Not at the presents or the food, but on the holiday lights tour when their parents would pile everyone into the car and drive through the antebellum district. That had been Lana’s favorite part of Christmas, and he hadn’t been able to tour the lights since her death.

He’d like to try to do that this year. Keep moving forward like his sister would want him to.

Dani fanned herself with her hand. “How many window air conditioners you have?”

“Just two,” Cage said. “Both downstairs, on opposite sides of the house.”

“Costs a mint to put central air in these places, but I’m going to have to figure out a way to do it.”

“You get used to the heat.”

She raised an eyebrow. It was as light as her hair. “I’d like to see the basement,” she repeated. “It’s got to be cooler down there.”

Cage led the way across the parlor. Dani stopped to inspect the large picture window overlooking the western lawn. “The sill’s not in too bad of shape. Are there any window dressings left in the house?”

“Might be. Like I said, haven’t been upstairs. I’m not sure the stairs are safe, and the church locked up those rooms a long time ago, just like the library and butler’s pantry. Trying to protect the house.”

“Awfully trusting of their renters not to break the locks.”