I gazed up at the neglected beauty and tingled with excitement. I was so ready to turn this old eyesore into the grand masterpiece it had once been.
The venerable lighthouse mansion was situated on a large tract of land surrounded by a once-lovely green lawn that had become overgrown and scruffy with crabgrass and brown weeds. A fi layer of sand covered the entire expanse, having been carried by the wind from the dunes that bordered the beach nearby.
The lighthouse tower stood a few yards away to the north of the house. To the west, the rough, rocky break- water speared into the sea. Waves crashed and a fine mist of salt water was spewed in every direction.
“I love my job,” I murmured as I grabbed the thick roll of blueprints from the narrow backseat of my truck. I slammed the door shut and marched across the sprawling lawn.
The rough March wind gusting off the ocean lifted my mop of wavy red hair and blew it around until I couldn’t see straight. I finally had to stop at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the front porch or risk tripping on the steps. I set down the tool chest I was carrying and shoved the hair back off my face. And that’s when I beheld the wondrous sight before me at the top of the stairway.
MacKintyre Sullivan, world-famous, bestselling thriller writer and former Navy SEAL, stood with his arms crossed as he leaned against one of the smooth Doric columns that braced the roof covering the wide porch. The man looked for all the world like some handsome, dashingly entitled lord of the manor—if the lord of the manor happened to be an unrepentant pirate with a wicked smile and a gleam in his dark blue eyes.
Mac had moved to Lighthouse Cove, California, a few months ago and almost immediately looked into buying the famous mansion by the lighthouse. The purchase had to be approved by both the town Planning Commission and the Historical Society. Not only was the mansion a local landmark with a lot of history attached to it, but the new owner of the home would have to be responsible for upkeep of the lighthouse—for which our town was named. Mac was willing to do the work.
“Those are the new blueprints?” Mac asked, pointing at the thick roll of papers in my hands. “So this is it? No more delays?”
“No more delays—I promise you.” I picked up my tool chest and made my way up the eight steps and onto the sturdy wooden porch. Flashing him a determined smile, I added, “And no more red tape from the Planning Commission. No more whining from the Historical Society. And, especially, no more tiny white rats to send me screaming from this house again.”
He laughed, and I couldn’t blame him. It was still a source of deep embarrassment to me that a few weeks ago, I had spotted the little-bitty rodent skittering across the kitchen floor.
With a shriek, I had dashed out of Mac’s kitchen and hadn’t stopped until I’d made it all the way across the wide lawn to my truck.
What can I say? Rats creep me out.
“Then we’re finally ready to get started.” He pushed away from the column and strolled toward me. “I’ve cleared my schedule for the next two weeks.”
“Perfect.” Because, to be honest, Mac’s busy schedule had also produced a number of holdups lately. Flying off to New York, meeting with editors, dining with agents, going on book tours. Deadlines. The world-famous writer was a busy man.
I recalled one more unhappy distraction that had occurred recently and prayed there would be no more funerals, please.We didn’t need anyone else dying in Lighthouse Cove. Besides being unbearably sad, the recent suspicious death of a dear friend had indeed thrown a shocking wrench into the schedule, causing yet more delays to Mac’s plans to start the renovation of his new home.
Another gust of wind rushed up from the ocean, but before it could whip my hair into a greater tangle of curls, I turned toward the wind and lifted my face to catch the mist.
“Man, I love it out here,” Mac said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his Windbreaker.
“It’s a good day.” Cold, windy, with dark clouds forming out on the horizon; there would be rain within a few hours. Still, it was wonderful to be here, ready to begin the job of rehabbing the most iconic house in Lighthouse Cove for the hunky Mac Sullivan.
I checked my watch, eager to begin. Once my guys and I finished going through the house with Mac, I would work out a schedule and make up a list of supplies and equipment we would need. And within a few days, my crew and I would start restoring this wonderful old Victorian to its former glory.
That was why Mac had hired me, after all. My name is Shannon Hammer, and I’m a building contractor specializing in Victorian-home renovation and rehab. I had taken over my father’s construction business five years ago when Dad suffered a mild heart attack and decided to retire. Since then, I liked to think I’d proven to my clients that the best man for the job is often a woman. Namely, me.
“Wade and the guys should be here any minute,” I said, referring to my foreman, Wade Chambers, and two of my most reliable crew members, Sean Brogan and Johnny Schmidt.
“In that case,” Mac said, “I’ll get this out of the way.” And with that, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. I didn’t protest. I should’ve, but instead I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, reveling in the warmth of his touch. This really was not a good idea. And I would put a stop to it any minute now.
A truck horn sounded out on the highway and I jolted and took a quick step backward. It took me a moment to catch my breath. “Uh, that must be the guys.”
Mac was smiling broadly as he let go of me. “Must be.” I coughed softly, knowing the guys’ truck wouldn’t actually show up in front of Mac’s house for another minute or two. I just needed to give myself a few more seconds to recover from the unexpected kiss. “Hmm.”
He laughed and stroked my hair. “I’m crazy about you, Irish.”
I was kind of crazy about him, too. But since I was afraid of setting myself up for a fall, I gave him a weak smile and said nothing.
Mac and I had grown close over the past few months, since he’d moved to Lighthouse Cove. It helped that he’d rented the guest apartment over my garage and lived only a few yards away from me. We’d had a few late-night adventures while chasing down a killer and, yes, there had been a few kisses. I had hoped that maybe we’d grow closer and, well . . . Anyway, things got complicated the morning I saw him escorting a gorgeous blond supermodel out of his apartment. Ever since then I’d been rethinking the idea of getting involved with one of the most sought-after bachelor millionaires in the world.
I probably should’ve demanded to know what he’d been thinking by flirting with me while seeing some supermodel on the side. But it wasn’t like me to be pushy that way, an obvious flaw in my character. Don’t get me wrong—I could be plenty assertive in other areas, but when it came to men and dating and such, I tended to hold back. Considering my checkered dating history, it made sense. In the past nine years, I’d dated exactly three men. One turned out to be gay, another was a car thief, and the third ended up dead—or, to put it more bluntly, murdered. Was it any wonder that I didn’t want to probe too much? Better to just walk away with my sanity and ego intact.
That was one more reason why I should’ve ended the kiss as soon as it began. Another was that kissing a client on the job probably wasn’t the most professional thing I could’ve been doing right then, especially with my crew guys about to drive up at any second. But did that stop me? Obviously not.
In my defense, Mac was a world-class kisser.
I shook off those thoughts and took the opportunity to study the elegant old porch. It was wide and stretched across most of the front and halfway along the north side of the house, following the curve of the corner tower. Double Doric columns gave the graceful, circular porch a worldly style that belied the mansion’s utilitarian roots. With its incomparable ocean view, the porch could be turned into a wonderful outdoor living/dining space.
Currently, though, it was pretty shabby. The floor planks were dull and a few of the boards around the outer edges were spongy and crumbling after sustaining years of dam- age from the sun and ocean air. Once those boards were replaced, we could re-sand the surface and add several coats of clear varnish, and all of it would be shiny and new again.
Things wouldn’t go so easy for the beams above our heads. The porch roof had actually begun to sag from water damage, and those rotten headers and crossbeams would need replacing immediately. The sooner we started work on this portion of the house, the better. I figured if I could see the wood decomposing with my own eyes, it had to be even worse beneath the surfaces. I jotted down more notes on my tablet and then used the device to take some photographs of the decaying beams in order to remind myself how bad the damage
Wade’s truck finally came into view and Mac jogged down the steps and over to meet the guys. I took the moment to regroup, breathing in more ocean air and staring at the spectacle of waves tumbling and crashing against the rocky coastline.
Once I’d cleared my head and regained my senses— that kiss really was more potent than I’d realized—I was able to relax and watch Wade’s truck jerk and buck to a stop. There was nothing wrong with his truck; the lurching was due to the timeworn cracks and potholes that pitted Old Lighthouse Road, right up to the edge of Mac’s property. I had a feeling he would want to repave the path eventually, unless he liked replacing tires on his SUV more often than usual.
I waved to my guys, who were unloading their tool chests and ladders, with Mac lending a hand. Since they had things under control, I continued making notes on the exterior repairs needed to make to bring the house back to its former splendor.
For some unknown reason, people in Lighthouse Cove had always called this place the lighthouse mansion. Yes, the house stood within a few yards of the lighthouse, but it was the mansion part of the phrase that had always seemed misleading. That was because our town was famous for its abundance of breathtakingly massive Victorian homes, while Mac’s new place wasn’t all that large. But the home had a quiet, stately presence, unencumbered by the ostentatious gingerbread detailing that Victorians were known for. The term mansion just seemed to suit it.
Despite the lack of decorative clutter, the mansion still had many of the classic Queen Anne features, including the convoluted roof lines, the seemingly random placement and sizes of the windows, the multiple chimneys, and the many different surface textures that changed from floor to floor and gable to gable.
On the second floor, a shingled overhang sheltered a set of arched Palladian windows braced by more Doric columns. I made a note to check those charming old fish-scale shingles for termite damage.
A small balcony off the master bedroom on the second floor cried out for a new railing. The copper gutters circling the third-floor tower would have to be replaced. I could see the gaping holes from where I was standing.
I hadn’t seen the basement yet, but according to the blueprints, it ran the entire length and width of the house. You didn’t see that feature in many Victorian homes, and if Mac wanted to, he could probably create the biggest man cave in town. But chances were good that some load-bearing posts and a beam or two would have to be replaced before any other work could occur. Wind and water damage was the price a homeowner paid to have a house this close to the shoreline.
I took a quick walk down the steps and around to the south side of the house, where a jewel-box-sized solarium had been built to connect with the first-floor parlor, or living room. It was a true rarity, made of strong white galvanized wrought iron and tempered-glass panels. I stared through one of the windows and saw the worn brick floor in a room just large enough to contain a few dozen plants and some potted trees, along with a small conversation area made up of a settee and a chair or two. It would be the perfect sunny place to read a book or take a nap.
The presence of a solarium might’ve seemed frivolous at first glance, but I’d read that the navy had built it specifically to grow citrus trees in pots, in order to provide juice for the sailors who were once stationed here. No scurvy for those boys.
Past the solarium was the root cellar with its thick wooden door, detached, deteriorating, and leaning against the side of the house. As I’d noted on my last visit, there were shutters hanging off their frames and several bricks missing from the chimney at the back of the house. The paint on most of the exterior walls was peeling badly, but there was plenty of other work to be done before we could start scraping, sanding, and painting.
Call me perverse, but seeing all the damage just made me more excited to explore the entire house. I took a quick moment to stare up at the spectacular sight of the lighthouse tower standing sentinel over the town and this stretch of the coast. It never failed to impress me with its clean white surface shooting one hundred feet into the sky. I’d climbed its spiral wrought-iron staircase many times over the years and knew the view at the top was sensational. Gazing up at the glass-walled lantern room at the very top, I wondered if Mac had ever been up there. I would have to remember to ask.
I circled back to the front where Sean, Johnny, Wade, and Mac were trudging up to the porch with tool chests, a ladder, and other equipment for the walk-through.
“Hey, boss,” Sean said, laying his eight-foot ladder down at the far end of the porch and out of the way.
“Hi, guys,” I said. “Are we ready to get started?” “You bet,” Wade said.
Johnny nodded. “Let’s do it.”
Even though I had a key to the front door, I gestured to Mac. “You go ahead. It’s your new home.”
He unlocked the door, walked in, and looked around. I knew he was familiar with the first- and second-floor rooms, but he’d never seen the whole place from attic to basement. Mac had bought the house after barely half an hour of walking through a few rooms and strolling around the property. That was all the time it had taken for him to fall in love and make an offer.
“I had the power and water reconnected a few weeks ago,” Mac said, “so the lights should work.”
“If there are still any bulbs in the fixtures,” Wade said. Mac grinned. “Right.”
Wade flicked the nearest light switch and the foyer lit up nicely, thanks to the old-fashioned chandelier hanging from the twelve-foot-high ceiling. “Oh, man. This place is awesome. Look at all that mahogany paneling.” “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I ran my hand over the rich wood surface of the stairwell. Unlike some Victorian en- tryways that were dark and narrow and barely had room to hold an umbrella stand, this one was a large square, well-lit room. On one side of the foyer was a double door- way leading into a paneled living room, and on the other was an arched doorway that led to a formal dining room. The broad staircase hugged the wall from the second landing down, until it curved and widened to meet the parquet flooring of the foyer. Roomy staircases always made me think of my father, who specialized in them because the old-fashioned, steep, skinny Victorian stairways made him claustrophobic.
The ceilings of all the first-floor rooms were twelve feet tall with ten-inch-wide crown molding, a picture rail below that, and carved plaster medallions in the centers of the ceilings that created a base for hanging chandeliers. In addition, the dining room had twelve-inch-high base- boards and a chair rail. Even though some of the crown molding, the leaf-patterned cornices, and the stone corbels were crumbling with age, the rooms had maintained their elegance. And we could easily replicate and replace the damaged embellishments.
Sean walked over to the living-room fireplace and studied the mantel. “Holy moly,” he muttered, running his hand along the smooth, highly varnished, six-inch- thick piece of wood. “This is fantastic.”
Mac joined him. “From what I was told, it was taken off the ship that went down in Lighthouse Cove Bay.”
Sean’s eyes bugged out. “Seriously? This is from the Glorious Maiden?”
“That’s what the guy from the Historical Society told me. It was part of the ship’s bow. Apparently the Coast Guard members stationed here would occasionally find pieces of the ship washed up on the rocks and were able to put some of them to good use.”
“Cool,” Sean whispered. “The fireplace is great, too.” I agreed. Beneath the wood mantel, the chimneypiece was made of black marble and the fender was cast iron. Whimsically painted tiles lined the jambs. The inner brick walls were blackened from decades of fire and smoke. I thought the fireplace suited Mac perfectly, giving the room a strong, masculine vibe.
“Let’s see what condition it’s in,” Wade said. He got down on one knee and bent over to get a look at the flue. “Looks clear.” He reached in and fiddled with the damper.“Seems to move well. I’ll make sure everything’s working once we’ve started the job.”
“Thanks,” Mac said. “I appreciate it.”
“Part of the service,” Wade said, standing and slapping his hands together to get rid of the soot he’d gotten on him.
I wandered over to the floor-to-ceiling bay window at the opposite end of the room from the foyer. It was one of my favorite features of the house and it faced north, giving Mac a fantastic view of the coastline. The windows looked to be in good condition, but, given their age, I suspected we’d have to replace the sashes and hardware and, in some cases, the glass itself.
Wade went out to the porch and carried a card table into the house.
He set it up in the living room and I spread the blueprints out, rolling them backward a few times to get them to lie flat. Now I’d be able to refer to the new prints anytime I needed to.
I pulled out my tablet again.“If you’re ready, I thought we could start at the top with the third-floor attic and work our way down. The only room I’ve really seen is this one, plus the kitchen, although I didn’t stick around in there long enough to make many notes. We’ll take another look before we leave.”
“Yeah, we’ve all heard about your adventures in the kitchen.” Sean snickered.
I groaned out loud. “Okay, fine. So I was freaked-out by a rat.”
Johnny blinked dramatically. “Rat? I heard it was the tiniest mouse ever seen in these parts.”
“It was a rat,” I said through clenched teeth. It had indeed been tiny, but I wasn’t going to mention that.
Johnny and Sean laughed at my expense and I finally had no choice but to join in. What could I say? I suppose I was glad my guys were comfortable enough around me to give me grief on a daily basis. I would’ve hated to have a crew that treated me like the boss.
As we climbed the stairs, Mac talked about turning the attic space into another bedroom. I thought that was a smart idea, even though the house already had six bedrooms. I assumed the attic was a finished room since it had probably been used as a dormitory bedroom during World War II, when the mansion was famously occupied by a group of coastguardsmen charged with safeguarding the Northern California coastline from Japanese submarines.
The stairs leading from the second floor to the attic were a bit steeper and narrower than the main staircase.
Back in the day, the attic might have been where the lowliest servicemen bunked, or it may have been used as servants’ quarters. As a rule, no one was very concerned over the help having to carefully maneuver down a scary staircase.
At the top of the stairs was a short hallway that ended abruptly. There was only one door and it was locked. Mac used his key to unlock the door and jiggled the handle a few times when he couldn’t get it open.
“I got it unlocked, but it’s stuck.”
“Let me try,” Sean said with a grin. “I’m younger and in better shape than you.”
Everyone laughed. Mac was in fabulous shape and only a few years older than Sean, but Sean was the big- gest, strongest guy on my crew. That was saying a lot, because the men who worked for me were plenty sturdy. But Sean was my expert when it came to demolishing a room with a single sledgehammer.
Mac stepped aside and Sean grabbed the doorknob with both hands, pulling as hard as he could. He gave it a few more tugs before admitting defeat. “That door is stuck.”
Mac patted him on the back. “You gave it a good try.”
Sean stared at the door, scratching his head, unwilling to give up the fight.
I looked at Mac. “Do you mind if we break it down and replace it later? It’s probably swollen shut from years of water damage so you’ll probably want to get a new one, anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Might as well.” “You’ll need a sledgehammer,” I said.
“I’ll get one from the truck,” Johnny said, and hustled downstairs and outside.
He returned in less than two minutes, carrying a sledgehammer and a powerful- looking ax. He held them out and Sean, who had pulled his work gloves on in the meantime, reached for the ax. Mac, Wade, and I moved quickly down the stairs and out of Sean’s swinging range.
“Everyone safe?” Sean asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny said, stepping out of Sean’s way. “Take your best shot.”
Sean lifted the ax and brought it down, splintering through the center of the door. After three more strikes, the door was hanging off its hinges with wood shards everywhere. He used the haft or handle of the tool to break up and push the remaining splinters and shards of wood out of the way. Then he gripped what was left of the door and ripped it away from the jamb, hinges and all.
“Okay, guess you’re a pretty strong guy,” Mac acknowledged.
Sean grinned and stepped into the dank, dark room.
Johnny was right behind him.
Mac, Wade, and I scrambled up the stairs to join them, but before we could make it to the attic door, Sean said, “You guys should check this out. Looks like someone was living in here.”
“What the heck?” Mac was there in an instant, and Wade and I were right behind him.“Oh, man. That’s funky.” “Ick,” I said. We all stared at the dirty old mattress spread out on the floor by the window. The thing sagged in the middle and there were unspeakable stains scattered across the top. I didn’t want to think about all the bugs and bacteria crawling around inside it.
I stepped farther into the room and looked around. Despite the lack of lighting, I could see that the walls were nicely finished with lath and plaster, supporting my theory that this room had been used as a bedroom or dormitory sometime in the past. After I glanced around the dim space, my gaze returned to Mac. “I don’t see any sheets or clothing or anything else besides the mattress. Do you?”
Mac had been walking the perimeter, checking the walls and windows. He stopped when he reached the mattress. “No. I’m pretty sure whoever once crashed here is long gone.”
“There aren’t any closets up here,” Wade observed, and aimed his powerful Maglite around the room. “Just the dumbwaiter.”
We all stared at the small cupboard door on the far wall. “Did you look inside?”
“I tried,” Wade said. “It must be locked. But, look, if you really care about some ratty old sheets, we can check the basement. Maybe they tossed them down the chute.”
Mac nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”
I stared at him for a long moment. “Are you okay? This is kind of weird.”
He shrugged. “As long as whoever was crashing here is gone now, I’m fine. But we’ve got to get that mattress out of here. I don’t even want to think about what it might’ve been used for.”
I grimaced at the possibilities.
“Johnny and I’ll drag it downstairs before we leave today.” Sean looked at the mattress again and frowned. “As soon as I find a hazmat suit.”
“Thanks,” Mac said. “I’ll be glad to help.”
I made a note on my tablet about the mattress. And since we were up there anyway, I got my guys to open the windows and check the condition of the shingles on the third-floor exterior. I couldn’t see the gables clearly enough from the ground, so I would normally wait until the scaffolding was in place. But this was a quick and easy way to get a general idea of what, if any, damage would need repair. Also this window faced the front of the house and featured a decorative cutout wooden panel on a narrow overhang. Wade wanted to get a closer look at it.
Maneuvering to a sitting position on the window’s ledge, he leaned back to take a look. “It’ll have to be taken down,” he shouted over the crashing of waves. “The wood has a bunch of holes that’ll need to be filled, and the paint will have to be stripped off and then re-applied.”
It was a small detail that would make a difference once the entire exterior was finished and looking new.
“Okay,” I said, making notes. “Now come in off that ledge before you give me a heart attack.”
After Sean removed the demolished attic door from its hinges and leaned it against the wall, we moved downstairs to the second floor to explore the bedrooms and bathrooms in depth. Wade ran down to grab the blueprint sheet for this floor, and we checked it and made notes as we walked. The bay windows in the rooms facing west showed off the spectacular ocean and breakwater views and allowed the afternoon sunshine in to light up the rooms. The windows filled the walls and were beautiful—or they would be once we’d fully refurbished them.
Every bedroom contained old, dark, shabby wallpaper that would have to be stripped off, and the walls painted. I noted the places where the oak floor planks would have to be replaced. The upstairs bannister would need a complete overhaul. As in the downstairs rooms, many of the ceiling moldings and cornices upstairs were beginning to disintegrate.
Mac and I had discussed opening up the master bedroom, but a load-bearing wall presented a complication. My thought was to join the master bedroom with a smaller bedroom next door, opening the wall wide enough to allow a sizable passageway while maintaining the integrity of the wall. The smaller room would be a sitting room—or, as he called it, a high-tech playroom. Another small bedroom on the other side would become a walk-in closet.
“It’s not like I have a ton of clothes,” Mac explained, “but I’d like the space to walk around and see what I’ve got.”
Also, since each of the bedrooms had a maximum of two electrical outlets, I planned to add at least a dozen more on this floor alone.
And it went without saying that every bathroom in the house would be redone from top to bottom.
In the hallway, Mac stopped and studied what looked like another cupboard built into the wall around waist level. “What’s this?”
He pulled on the small handle and the cupboard opened. “Is that a laundry chute?”
“Yes. Isn’t it great? I love those kinds of features.”
He stuck his head up close to the opening. “I can’t see farther than a few feet.”
“I assume it goes to the basement,” I said, “but since it’s underground, it’ll be too dark to see anything.” I took a peek through the opening and ran my hand along the interior. “This one’s made of wood, so you’ll want to re- place it with a galvanized-steel chute. We’ll add a self- closing door at the bottom to comply with the fire code.” He grimaced. “The last thing I want to do is ignore any fire codes.” An hour later, we had finishedthe second-floor walk-through and returned to the ground floor. The good news was that we didn’t find any clothing or sheets that might’ve been used by the person who had brought the mattress into the attic. But that just led to more unanswered questions that would have to be investigated at some point.
“Let’s take another look at the kitchen and the exterior,” I said. “And then I think we’ll be finished.”
“I’ve decided I’d like to redo the kitchen,” Mac admit- ted. “It’s too old and funky to deal with.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And not that it matters to you, but the Historical Society won’t care about the kitchen.”
He chuckled. “You know I live to keep the Historical Society happy.”
Wade grinned. “Even though they’ve fought you every step of the way.”
“Not me,” Mac said, aiming his thumb in my direction. “Shannon. She’s the one who’s been dealing with all of their demands and requirements.”
I waved off the comment. “That’s what I’m here for.” We walked into the kitchen and looked around at the dark-stained wood cabinets that had been there as long as the house had been standing. It would take an army of housecleaners to scrub off more than a hundred years’
worth of food spills and grime.
Mac might not want them, but those cabinets were real wood and too darn good to throw away. I was al- ready making a mental list of where I might use them once they were stripped down to the bare wood and varnished to a high shine.
I mentioned this to Mac, then said, “So unless there’s something in the old kitchen you want to keep, we’ll do a complete demo of the room. I’ll give you some catalogs and magazines to look at that’ll give you some ideas of what materials and colors you might want to use. Mean- while, you can think about all the fun stuff, like whether you’d like a bigger window over the sink, or if you want French doors instead of the single door that leads to the back area.”
“French doors might be nice,” Mac muttered, wander- ing around the room. “Hey, maybe a deck off the French doors.” He peered through the window screen to the outside and made a face. “Would a deck drive the His- torical Society folks crazy?”
“If it can’t be seen from the road or the beach, I don’t see why they’d care. They’ve signed off on the project, so I’d say it’s ultimately your decision.” I stared at the cab- inet built into the far wall. “Hey, I forgot about the dumbwaiter. Do you want to keep it?”
Dumbwaiters were another fascinating feature of many Victorian homes, and I couldn’t wait to see how this one operated. The last time Mac and I had been here, I’d had every intention of checking out the dumbwaiter, but that darn white rat had distracted me.
“Let’s check it out,” Mac said, and joined me in front of the cabinet. “Do you think I’ll ever use it?”
“They’re very practical in a two- or three-story house,” I said. “You’ll want to keep it if you decide to entertain abovestairs.”
“Abovestairs, huh?” He grinned at me. “I just might. Do they make them more modern-looking than this?”
“The outer frame can be anything you want it to be. You could get a sleek stainless-steel front or a nice blond Douglas fir to match the rest of the cabinetry. Whatever you decide, it’ll look fabulous.”
I unbolted the dumbwaiter’s vertical sliding door and lifted it. The old wood was stiff and heavy, but I managed to get it opened all the way. I stuck my head inside and looked up, but it was too dark to see anything, so I grabbed Wade’s flashlight and took another look. “I’m not sure the old pulley mechanism is still working. It looks like the platform is stuck upstairs somewhere.” I pulled my head out and glanced at Mac. “If you want to keep using it, I can install a new electric motor with an automatic control. The shaft runs from the attic all the way down to the basement, and it’s a good-sized space. At least two and a half feet square.”
He calculated the size with his hands. “That’s not bad.” “I wonder if I can get it unjammed,” I said, and reached inside to tug at the pulley.
“Boss, wait,” Sean said. “Why don’t you let me take a look at that?”
I frowned at him. Did he think I was afraid of getting dirty? I gave the ropes another yank and felt them go slack just as a loud cracking, splintering sound erupted from above and echoed through the shaft. I yanked my hand out of there just in time; the entire dumbwaiter platform shattered and fell three stories and crashed onto the basement floor.
The strong whoosh of air and dust coming from the shaft knocked me back a foot. Mac pulled me farther away from the opening. “Are you all right? What the hell was that?”
“The platform must’ve rotted out.” I let out an unsteady breath.“The whole thing broke apart and dropped straight down to the basement.”
“You could’ve been killed,” he muttered, and rubbed my shoulders while I tried to calm my rapidly beating heart. I didn’t want to admit how close to the truth his words were.
Once the dust had settled, I ventured over to the shaft and leaned inside to see what damage had been done. Shining the flashlight’s powerful beam downward, I caught a glimpse of the pile of splintered wood—and something else.
“What the—” I jerked my head out of that dark, empty space as fast as I could move. The flashlight fell from my hand, hitting the floor with a bang. I stared at my empty hands and watched them tremble uncontrollably. I shook my head back and forth. “Oh my God.”
Mac grabbed my arms. “Shannon, what is it?” “What’s wrong, boss?” Johnny demanded. “Did you see another rat?”
I couldn’t believe I was still shaking, unable to tell what I’d just seen. Could I have been mistaken?
Sean grabbed the flashlight off the floor and leaned inside the dumbwaiter to see for himself what I was freaking out about.
“Holy moly,” Sean said, backing away from the space. “What is it?” Mac said. “What’s wrong with you guys?”
Sean’s cheeks puffed out and he exhaled heavily. “In the basement. There’s, like, bones down there.”
“Jeez, you guys, relax,” Wade said cynically. “It’s probably a dead raccoon.”
“No,” I said, my voice sounding scratchy and far away. “It’s more like a dead human.”