The only dead person Austin had ever seen before was his mother. He had been nine, and even in death she had been very beautiful. Beautiful but not alive. Despite the things one read about the dead, she had not looked like she was sleeping. This guy did not look like he was sleeping, and he was not beautiful.
Who was he? What was he doing back here? How had he died?
Austin couldn’t tell at a glance, and he didn’t want to look more closely than that.
He turned and walked very calmly, very quietly back to the front of the cellar, then up the stairs, through the scratched and paint-blistered door, and up the next flight. It seemed strange to be moving with such calm deliberation when people in movies either fainted or screamed and ran, but that was probably shock. Or maybe this was shock. This blank lack of feeling.
A man was coming down the first flight of stairs. He wore black jeans and a black sweater. He was too much like Carson to be anyone but a brother. Same slim build, dark eyes, dark curls. He checked at the sight of Austin.
“You’re Gillespie?” He too had that soft Southern inflection.
“Yes. I just found —”
“I don’t think y’all should be down there on your own.”
Truer words were never spoken. Austin started to speak again, but the man, his own age or younger, said, “I tell you what. I’ll stay down there with you. I’m Cormac Cashel.” Cormac was scowling, but the look he directed at Austin was definitely a considering one.
In another time and place, Austin might even have welcomed that au courant appraisal. He and Richard had split up three months ago, and he just hadn’t had the time, energy, or inclination to get out and meet people. As rattled as he was, he couldn’t help noticing that Cormac was very attractive, though his interest seemed a bit surreal at the moment.
“I found something in the cellar,” Austin blurted.
Cormac went rigid. “Then it’s true? You’ve found them? You found the Lee bottles?”
“No. No, I mean there’s someone down there.”
“Oh.” The eager attention faded. “That’s Faulkner. Don’t let him scare you.”
“No, it’s not Faulkner. It’s…someone else.” It occurred to Austin that the corpse in the cellar probably belonged to a family member and that he was about to deliver terrible news. “He’s not…well.”
“That’ll be Daddy,” Cormac said sardonically. “He’s often not well. Y’all want me to throw him out of there so you can work?”
“Uh…I don’t know how to say this…”
Footsteps pounded lightly down the stairs, and another figure appeared behind Cormac. Austin recognized the too-handsome Jeff Brady. He’d put on a white tailored shirt but still exuded a sexy, just-rolled-out-of-bed-and-not-because-he-was-sleeping air. He halted, spotting Cormac and Austin, and Austin guessed that Brady had been planning to pay him a visit too.
Maybe there was no TiVo this far from town?
“Something wrong?” Brady asked, looking from one man to the other.
“Naw,” Cormac said, throwing him a look of dislike.
“Yes,” Austin said. He wasn’t sure why he was now talking to Jeff, except that he had the impression that Jeff was not part of this family. Plus Jeff gave the impression of being able to handle pretty much anything that came his way. A sort of cool, smiling authority; Beauty Stuart confounding the Union commanders.
“What is it?” Jeff inquired. “Or would you rather show me?”
“I think I’d better show you.” To Cormac, Austin said, “I’m sorry, but I have bad news. I think your father may be… There’s a body in your cellar.”
Cormac recoiled, and Brady pushed past him on the narrow staircase. “Show me.”
Austin did an about-face and led the way quickly downstairs. Jeff was right behind him. Austin wasn’t sure if Cormac followed or not. He sort of hoped not, but mostly he was thinking that the scent of green apples made a welcome change from Raid and death.
“How did you happen to find him?” Jeff asked, brisk and businesslike.
“I was trying to work out why it smelled so bad down here. I couldn’t concentrate.”
“Yeah, I guess you must have a pretty sensitive nose in your line of work.”
“I don’t think anyone could have missed this.” Despite the old-house smells, the damp and the decay, Austin was still baffled no one had picked up on that putrid odor earlier. As he and Jeff reached the bottom, the smell of rotting garbage made his stomach churn. He’d have liked to wave Jeff on to the back of the cellar without him, but pride insisted that he lead the way.
All the same, he stood on the other side of the shelving, hand protectively shielding his mouth and nose while Jeff went around the corner.
There was a long moment of silence, and then Jeff reappeared, his handsome face grim.
“What makes you think that’s the old man?”
Austin lowered his hand. “Isn’t it?”
“Who is it?”
Brady opened his mouth, then closed it. “I think we’d better call the police.”
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