Home > Haunted House (Krewe of Hunters #35.5)(9)

Haunted House (Krewe of Hunters #35.5)(9)
Author: Heather Graham

As he walked up, he spoke to several uniformed officers standing on the porch, watching for interference.

Crime-scene tape marked off the entire yard, and several cars were already near the house.

Neighbors had come out to watch the procedures, as well. He noted that people watched from the houses to the left and the right—and also from all the way down the street.

Of course.

“I guess they’re all asking what’s going on, huh?” Jon said. “Have they been out here all night?”

“Most of them emerged in the last few hours. The older gentleman to the right—a Mr. Charles Flannery—demanded to know what was going on.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“That it was an ongoing investigation and I wasn’t at liberty to say anything right now. But he insisted that I tell him if Brenda Riley was all right. He seemed very concerned.”

“I guess she must have met them all when she came out to see the place,” Jon murmured. He looked down the street, making a mental note to run the plates of every person who watched, and look into every neighbor who lived there.

“I assume you’re right,” Ben told Jon. “Come on in. The medical examiner is ready to take the corpses—or the corpse and the bones and fragments, anyway. We called in a forensic anthropologist. She came up from Boston and is waiting at the morgue.” He grinned. “Apparently, she doesn’t mind playing with bones. But she didn’t want to come out to the house to deal with the newly dead.”

“There is a difference,” Jon said lightly. “A very old set of bones likely means no one to be devastated when they find out someone they loved is dead.”

“And no smell,” Ben said. He drew in a breath. “The fresh corpse hasn’t been there for long. So, unless you’re close… In another day, if that wall hadn’t caved in, Brenda Riley would have likely been down in the basement looking for the critter that crawled in and died.” He waved toward Brim House. “Come on in and see for yourself.”

Jon entered the house. It was a mix of styles. He thought it had been an old saltbox originally, with the basic square of the entry and parlor sitting over the original foundations. He’d need to study the architectural plans, but he thought the den might have been added on in the mid-seventeen-hundreds. The stairs in the parlor area had clearly been part of the original house, leading to the second floor. Across from the den, a modern kitchen had been added at some point, along with a dining area.

Jon followed Ben through the main house to the den. He could quickly see the portion of the wall that had given way. Old wallpaper—perhaps from the 1800s—had covered it. But at the area where it had broken through, he could see that new wallpaper had been added at some point.

When the false wall first went up, Jon thought. Whoever had discovered the passage had removed one of the boards to add a new corpse and then simply replaced the board that had been removed and smoothed the wallpaper back over it all.

The wallcovering was deteriorating. He saw slits and holes in many places, making it easy for the killer to replace the board and paper and not have it stick out like a sore thumb.

Jon could easily see how Brenda simply leaning against another board would have meant her crashing through. Especially since the integrity of the boards had already been disturbed.

She had seen the skull first.

Lights blazed in the house now from the ceiling fixtures and two electric sconces on either side of the entry door. The police had also brought in two bright lights they’d aimed at the narrow space stretching the length of the room behind the false wall.

The skull sat at a level that made it appear as if it were attached to the bones underneath. It had become wedged against a brick in the structural wall, and the old fragments of what looked to be a dress kept some of the bones together. But Jon could see many had fallen and lay on the floor, as well.

Behind the skeleton lay a dead woman, her head hanging. The body was standing only because the same wedges in the brick that held the skull also kept her propped up.

She had brown hair and, in life, he reckoned, had been about five feet six inches tall and weighed perhaps a hundred and twenty pounds.

He slipped on a pair of gloves and glanced at Ben.

Ben nodded toward the other side of the room.

“Dr. Samantha Ridgeway,” he said. “She’s done what she can with the corpse in the wall. She didn’t mind waiting for your arrival.”

The doctor was a tall, slim woman with chestnut hair wrapped up in a bun. She had a narrow face with good features that resulted in an attractive and professional appearance.

Jon walked over to the medical examiner, ready to shake her hand, remembering that his hand was gloved.

So was hers.

They shook anyway.

“Jon Dickson,” he said.

“These guys just call me Sammy,” she told him.

“May I lift her head?” Jon asked.

“Yes. And then we’ll start removal. My assistants are waiting in the kitchen. Ben has seen to it that there are dozens of crime-scene photos, but he wanted to wait until you got here to do anything more. By that time, we were all assembled with the house roped off anyway, and we knew it wouldn’t be long.”

“Thank you. I deeply appreciate the professional courtesy,” Jon told her sincerely.

He wasn’t sure how it would help that he had seen the old bones and the fresh corpse as they had been discovered, but it had been a damned decent courtesy.

He very gently reached past the skull to lift the head of the woman behind it.

The body was ice-cold. There hadn’t been electricity in quite some time, and it was the end of October in Salem. The temperatures had been dropping. He detected the smell of death now being so close to her, but the cold had also kept decomposition from progressing as quickly as it might have otherwise. She’d been about forty, he thought. Nothing marred her body, and he found no obvious signs of death—no bullet holes or knife wounds.

“The other woman, the one in the jack-o’-lantern, was killed with poison,” Sammy said from across the room. “I believe this will be the same.”

“What poison?” Jon asked.

“Strychnine. The victim’s stomach contents held a mixture of fruit juices—and her blood alcohol level was high. We believe the killer invited her out for a drink.”

Jon nodded and looked at Ben.

“Do we have that warning out?” he asked.

“Just thirty minutes ago. We strongly cautioned our visitors—and locals—about accepting drinks or food from strangers.” He let out a breath. “Finished up a video for the various news agencies about twenty minutes before you got here. Oh, that’s when the rest of the neighbors appeared on their porches and started watching from the sidewalk, too.”

Jon took a step back. “Thank you,” he said again. “Have you questioned the neighbors? Did they see anyone coming or going?”

“So far, we got nothing. The only people they saw were the realtor and Brenda Riley. Brenda came in at night, saw what was behind the false wall, and tore out of the place. We have a call into the realtor now. Her name is Mandy Nichols. She’s worked here in town for almost twenty years and has a sterling reputation.”

“I’ve heard the name,” Jon murmured. “May I speak with the neighbors?”

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