Sitting at her moldy kitchen table, Kelsey hunched in her bathrobe, cupped her chin in her hand, and skimmed the front of the local newspaper. The headlines discussed events for the town’s 300th anniversary, the dignitaries to participate in the parade, and the timing of the firework extravaganza. Flanking articles provided the weekend weather report: partly sunny with thunderstorms on the way, an analysis on the high school’s production of Cats, and another exposé on the search for the cause of holes dug on the north-facing hills known as the Parkland.
“Maybe they need a hand.”
Gathering up her highlighter, Kelsey flipped through the pages. Classifieds and the want ads occupied the last two. Bypassing the sale of decades old sailboats, she focused on the few square advertisements seeking help, the smell of highlighter, brewed coffee, and ink invading her nose.
The coffee machine popped before she’d circled any and, pitching aside her marker, Kelsey stood. Her mug waited on the grooved butcher-block counter, a scoop of sugar lightening the navy ceramic. She poured and set the pot back on the hotplate.
The doorbell’s off-tune buzz added to the hiss of coffee drips.
“No,” said Kelsey to the pot, “I don’t want to donate anything to the festival.”
Working out the sticky cutlery drawer, she grabbed one of the floral stemmed spoons and stirred. The handle knocked against the mug’s rim when the bell buzzed again. Slamming the spoon down, she trundled along the corridor, the hardwood floors groaning under her tiger-striped slippers.
Two shadows stood on the other side of the front door’s foggy glass, grime and cobwebs blurring their gray outlines. Stopping at the foot of the stairs, Kelsey set her hand on the banister’s knob and pulled the collar of her buttercup robe close.
“Hello?” said a baritone, his voice dulled against the door’s mahogany.
“There’s nobody home, Deacon.” A clink and clank joined the shuffling of the shorter shadow, his bass humming in satisfaction.
“Walt. Wait,” said Deacon. “We can come back later.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” A zipper slid and a hand holding something long and slender motioned upwards. “Look at this place. No one’s going to show up.”
“There’s a car in the driveway.”
“A hunk of junk.”
“My junk,” whispered Kelsey.
Padding forward, she rested her hand on the door’s latch.
Deacon froze. “Put those away.”
He hushed Walt, and then the doorbell buzzed.
Kelsey opened the door a crack. “Can I help you?”
Walt shoved a duffle behind his back while Deacon gaped.
“Morning miss.” After a throat-clearing cough, Deacon extended his hand. “Deacon Marshall.”
Kelsey kept hold of her robe, leaving him to wiggling his fingers before stuffing them into his slate-gray jeans.
“I—we hate to bother you so early, but we were wondering if we might take a look at your house.”
Kelsey glanced between the two, their features hardly older than her own despite fresher tans and more grit on their clothing. Deacon’s encouraging smile quivered while the shorter Walt scanned her up and down. A toothy grin bunched his round face.
She closed the door a hair. “Who are you?”
“Researchers,” said Walt. He elbowed Deacon who nodded in agreement.
“Right, we’re researching the history of the area, namely some piracy activities back in the eighteen hundreds.”
Kelsey cocked a speculative eyebrow. “So what’s that got to do with my house?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I know many things,” said Kelsey, “but perhaps you can enlighten me as to what you’re referring to in this particular instance?”
Deacon set a quieting hand on Walt’s thickset shoulder when the shorter man bristled at her tone.
“Your house, miss, was built around that time period. The ownership goes back generations, all the way to the house’s construction.” His gaze left hers to scan the façade. “I’d imagine you’ve heard stories about what’s gone on here.”
“Not really.” Kelsey leaned against the doorframe, the wood creaking. “I inherited this place from my great aunt who passed away about a month ago.”
“Oh,” said Deacon. “I, ah, I’m sorry for your loss.”
She shrugged. “I never met her. Before the will, I’d never heard of this place either.”
Even the stubble on Deacon’s face brightened. “Maybe we can help you out then. Tell you more about your family history, your lineage.”
Walt covered a cough, muffling a reprimanding, “Deacon.”
“Right.” A half-hearted version of Deacon’s smile returned. “I’m afraid we’ve actually got a lot of ground to cover today. If we could just take a look around we’ll be able to move on.”
Kelsey eyed the two of them again, noting Walt’s duffle, Deacon’s satchel, each lacking telltale signs of notebooks, laptops, or excavating tools. “That doesn’t sound like very thorough research.”
Walt’s grin spread. “It’s just an initial pass, to get the lay of the land.”
“Exactly,” said Deacon. “I’m sure we’ll be back.”
“Lucky me.” Kelsey squinted at the clouds rolling on shore. Their gray promised rain, sooner rather than later, and dimmed her hopes for a morning walk, a last gasp of summer air before scrubbing and scraping. Resigning herself to the musk and chores, she stepped back and opened the door.”You guys like coffee? It’s all I got.”
“That’d be great,” said Deacon as he strode inside.
Walt hustled at his heels, and with her robe’s hem fluttering around her legs, Kelsey led them to the kitchen.
“Help yourself.” She pointed out the coffee maker, sitting alone on the block. “Mugs are above, sugar too, milk’s in the fridge. If you don’t mind waiting here, I’d rather walk around with you.” She motioned at her robe and then flushed when the gesture dragged both men’s attention to her plush-wrapped state. “I’ll be right back.”
“No problem, miss,” said Deacon.
“Please don’t, miss makes me feel like an old maid. My name’s Kelsey, Kelsey Young.”
“Sure,” said Deacon.
While Walt attended to the coffee pot, Kelsey darted through the side swing door, across the hallway, and into the makeshift bedroom she’d assembled in the one other room free of leaks or drafts. She hustled into her outfit from yesterday, the jeans and tee-shirt lying at the foot of the mattress tossed onto the floor. Adding sneakers and a bulky cardigan, she tugged the charcoal wool around her frame and tiptoed back across the hall.
“Sure,” said Deacon, “but we could find a reason.”
Walt, she guessed, set down his mug. “We don’t have time for you to be messing around.”
“Who says I’m messing around?” A slurp of suction told of the fridge opening. “I’m being thorough.”
“We need to investigate the house, not the occupants.”
“She’s cute though.”
“I’m not arguing, but you’ve got to stay focused. You know why we’re here.”
The fridge closed with hard slam, the milk jangling on the wire racks. “I know, I know.”
“Know what?” whispered Kelsey. Padding back across the hall, she made a bit more noise upon her second approach and pushed back into the kitchen. “Where did you guys want to start?”
Deacon turned from the fridge, mug in hand, grin on his lips. “Hi.”
Walt rolled his eyes.”If we could start at the top and work our way down, Miss, we should get a good overview and be out of your hair.”
“If you say so.” She thumbed at the corridor.”Stairs are this way but watch yourself.”
Behind her mugs rattled on the butcher block and the two followed. During the ascent, she warned them about the banister, the weak spots to avoid on certain treads, the fourth step to skip altogether. On the second floor, they pushed past furniture draped in dusty tarps, piles of molded curtains, and the odd seascape painting or fishing equipment. The third set of stairs led to the top floor and the angled ceiling matching the slope of the tiled roof.
Pattering rain began drumming overhead, and Kelsey eyed damp patches, waiting for leaks. “It’s all yours.”
“Thanks.” Deacon scanned the wallpapered surroundings, the tiny roses faded, then peered over Walt’s shoulder when the smaller man beckoned.
He had a compass in his hand and pointed along one side of the house. “That’s north.”
Deacon fetched a stud finder from the satchel slung across his chest and pressed it against the indicated wall. He swept slowly, the steady beeps identifying the supportive beams hidden beneath peeling paper.
Kelsey perched on a tarp-covered chair. “What are you looking for?”
“Gaps,” said Walt. He peered at the ceiling. “Do you have an attic?”
“Not that I’ve found.”
He snorted in what sounded like disbelief and returned to his compass. “We might want to check up there next.”
Kelsey crossed her arms. “Check for what?”
Walt’s voice went crisp. “Like I said. Gaps.”
“Holes don’t mean anything,” said Kelsey, “it’s the stuff that’s in them that matters.” A thought struck her and she pointed an accusing finger. “You’re the two who’ve been digging around in the Parkland.”
Deacon’s hung head confirmed the truth as clearly as Walt’s muttering. He strode to the wall, seized the stud finder, and murmured, “Fix this,” beneath his breath.
Deacon pivoted, his hands raised in placation. “There’s a reason, Kelsey.”
“There better be,” said Kelsey, rising off her seat. “That’s protected land.”
“I know, trust me, I know this area better than most.”
“Then what the hell are you doing digging it up?”
“We’re looking for someone.”
Deacon’s answer caught her tongue. She glanced over his jeans, boots, flannel, then Walt who hadn’t stopped searching. Neither seemed dangerous, or outwardly insane, but, she figured, sometimes crazy’s on the inside. “What do you mean someone? Did somebody get kidnapped or something?”
“No, no. They’re dead.” Deacon beamed, as if the revelation made the situation clearer. “But they have something we need to find. I can explain—”
“Deacon,” said Walt.
Despite the reprimand, Deacon stare didn’t shift. “Okay, I can’t explain, but if you let us finish up here, I promise you we’ll be gone.”
“You came in here under false pretenses. Now you admit to breaking the law. And you expect me to let continue snooping around my great aunt’s home?” Kelsey thrust her finger at the door. “I want you both gone now.”
Deacon clasped his hands and held his knuckles beneath his nose. “Kelsey, please.”
“That’s Miss. Young to you.”
“Deacon,” said Walt, now crouched by a tear in the wallpaper.
“I’m sorry,” mouthed Deacon before turning. “What?”
“I’ve got something.” Walt beckoned without taking his gaze from the finder. “Give me your knife.”
“Knife? No.” Kelsey stormed forward and loomed over Walt, one hand protectively set on the wall. “You two are leaving.”
Walt peered up at Deacon, towering on his other side. “This might be it.”
“Then we’re going to have to explain,” said Deacon.
“Make it quick then,” said Walt. He started scratching at the plaster. “You know they won’t be far behind.”
“Who won’t?” Kelsey leveled Deacon with her scowl.
“We’re not the only ones looking for this marker.” He brushed dust off the wallpaper’s roses. “Captain Horatio Jones was an ancestor of yours. He ran every kind of cargo you can think of and stole more than you’d probably like to admit.”
Kelsey eased her hand from the wall and resumed her snug hold. “He was a pirate?”
“In simple terms, yeah.” Deacon met her gaze. “He left clues to the location of his stash in various places.”
Walt snorted. “Various corpses.”
Deacon flinched but didn’t contradict. “We need to find him. He has the last marker.” Out of his satchel he brought a small case, long enough to hold a necklace but without the velvet coating. A chill raced under Kelsey’s cardigan and she rubbed at her sleeves while he lifted the lid.
She recoiled and covered her gasp. “Are those—”
“Teeth.” Deacon flipped the case around, showing the back of the twenty some canines and molars. “But if you look at it this way.”
Kelsey tipped forward, her fingers at her lips. Her eyes widened at the dark brown lines etched on the back. “Those are symbols.”
“A code, actually.”
The same geometric signs in ink on parchment swirled through her mind. “I’ve seen them before—”
“Got it,” said Walt.
Looking down, she found Walt had sliced a line three feet long into the wall. “Hey, I didn’t say you could do that.”
Ignoring her, Walt turned the box cutter at a corner, sliced across and then down again. After retracting the blade, he handed the knife back to Deacon and punched at the bottom edge.
“Help me pull it off.”
“It’ll be okay.” Deacon tucked the case and knife away, before digging his fingers into the carved slit.
Kelsey backed up, her gaze locked on space where they worked. She flinched at each punch, winced at the rip of paper, and tightened her self-embrace when wood snapped.
The two fell back, a cloud of dust and musk puffing from the opening.
She brushed the grainy haze from her face while the others coughed and a click activated a flashlight. The beam swept through the gloom and Kelsey let out a shriek when a glint caught on a polished eyeball.
Walt hacked and laughed at the same time. “Jackpot.”
“Not yet,” said Deacon, a pair of tweezers some maniacal dentist might have used in his hand.
The cloud dispersed, revealing the entire skeleton tucked within the wall. Leather and cloth had decayed on the bones, nibbled edges suggesting mice or rats having gotten to the clothing or, Kelsey suspected, flesh.
Deacon seemed immune to the grave sight, to the glare of the false eye, the glow in the mouth from a golden cap. He counted aloud when the tip of his tweezers hit each tooth and then seized a yellowed upper incisor.
Fumbling at the arm of the chair, Kelsey set her hand on her stomach as the skeleton wobbled during each of his tugs.
“Sorry about this, Jones,” whispered Deacon. He gripped the skull and put his back into his next yank.
The floor shook when he fell, but he held the tooth into the beam of Walt’s flashlight.
“Is it?” Walt squatted beside him, curving his body to share the view. “Well!?”
Kelsey’s knees caved, whether from curiosity, or disgust she couldn’t say, but from her lowered angle she noted the symbols matching those in the case. “Is that the last one?”
“Yeah,” said Deacon.
“So you know where it is? Where this treasure is?”
Walt snatched the tweezers and rose with a hoot. “Damn straight we do.”
“Once we figure out the code.” Deacon sat up and draped his arms on his knees.
Kelsey leaned against the chair. “What do you need to do that?”
Deacon looked to Walt who’d stopped his victorious prance. The shorter man shrugged and popped the tooth into his palm, his fingers wrapping it up in a quick fist. “You told her this much.”
Deacon took a moment to wipe the dust off his face and rake debris out of his hair. “We’ve found a few of the symbols in various correspondence, but haven’t located them all yet. It’s another thing we’re looking for.”
“I…” Kelsey hugged her legs against her chest, the wool of the cardigan failing to warm her when she shuddered.
Deacon scooted closer. “I what?”
“I found some letters in my aunt’s hope chest.” She wiggled a finger at the tooth. “They had some of the same marks.”
Walt froze and Deacon inched near. “Would you show them to us?”
Far below, the buzz of the doorbell rang. The discordant sound rattled up the intervening floors, echoing against the plastic tarps, splintered wood, a glass eye, and expectant silence. Deacon and Walt shared a quick, worried glance, and then returned to her, breaths held.
Kelsey pulled her legs closer. “Who is that?”
“We’re not the only people looking for this.” Walt added the tooth to Deacon’s case and tucked the box into his duffle.
“But we’re a hell of a lot nicer.” Deacon got to his feet, helping her stand along the way.
The bell buzzed again, and then three demanding pounds knocked against the door.
Another chill iced her skin when Kelsey glanced at the skeleton, some part of her wary of ending up like her ancestor, a dead body within the old estate.
“Then we better hurry.” Grabbing Deacon’s arm she hauled him from the room. “Her chest is this way.”