This novel is set in the late 1800s along the Gulf Coast of the US. The Imperial is a combination hotel for those wanting to enjoy the beach and solitude and home to several who make the hotel their permanent residence, Henry Jean being one of them. Captain Morrissey brings supplies and mail and takes her mysterious packets to Mobile. A furious night of wild storms and then death!
“That’s not Matthew Jackson,” they said in unison.
Their simultaneous comment along with identical deduction shocked Henry Jean. She gasped again and stepped away from Morrissey.
He stood and shot her a questioning glance but said nothing else.
When the silence dragged on beyond politeness, she decided that he waited for her to speak first about her conclusion. Years of experience went into her observation and statement but he—no one—knew that. Therefore, she would state the obvious without explanation.
“White skin pressed against…black.” She dropped her arms to her side in order to appear staunch in her statement; however the stench of burned flesh overrode her wishes. She threw her arm over her face again and spoke from behind ruined material. “That is Carol. I recognize the ring she wears.” She nodded to the hand, devoid of flesh, nothing but blackened bone that rested on the man’s back.
“So, we know who she is. But who is he?” Once again Jamie stood with arms across his chest, one finger rubbing his lips side to side, deep in thought.
“Gottfried!” He bellowed the name so suddenly, so loudly, that Henry Jean jumped.
The sound of trotting feet came toward the room. Gottfried stuck his head in the door but refused to enter. “Yes, Captain?”
“I need a strong light. A lantern will do.”
Retreating steps moved quickly away in the hall.
“What do you need that for?” Henry Jean stepped back when Jamie moved closer to the bed. He seemed so lost in thought he had no idea he almost ran over her. He was completely focused on the corpses.
As he bent closer, she wondered how he stood it, being that close to burned flesh. Her mind whirled with words that described the room, the man, her being there and the death that had come so suddenly.
Suddenly? Why did these two die in bed when she had plenty of warning and escaped?
“Humm?” His nose was so close to the man’s body, she marveled at his stout constitution.
“Why are they dead?”
Morrissey propped his arms on his knees again and shot her a speculative look. “Spake.”
“The fire came through the wall in my bedroom next door. The smoke woke me first. I had time to run. It’s apparent the fire started in here. They are still in bed. They should have run. If they were still alive when the fire…” Her thoughts tumbled with fevered imagination. The man and woman could not escape. They were…
“Already dead when the fire broke out.” As if he read her mind, Jamie finished her sentence. “Aye, seems that way. But we need proof before…”
This time, Henry Jean finished for him. “We know they were murdered.”
A shiver ran up her spine. A chill settled in her body despite the day’s growing heat and humidity.
By common consent they dropped the subject when Gottfried came down the hall. He sat a lantern inside the doorway but withdrew without a word. Apparently he wanted nothing more to do with the deaths of two of his residents. She couldn’t blame him. The suite with its dead bodies was rather macabre.
Since Jamie still knelt by the bed, he nodded toward the lantern. Henry Jean took that to mean she was to bring it to him. She rolled her eyes in disgust but retrieved the kerosene lamp and took it to him.
She stood back and observed, determined to use this morbid scene in one of her stories. Who would ever know it really happened? Her characters would die in a fiery blaze in some other place. New York City perhaps. Or London. Maybe Paris. She had grown up in New York and spent time in both European cities. Before she got too lost in plotting her story however, she forced her attention back to Jamie.
He used the stick to remove debris from the body on top—the man. A black man. Once the body was uncovered, she saw that he was taller than Carol Jackson by at least six inches. His body lay curled around hers. Intimate. Sad. Hopeless for a man and woman of two different races to be discovered together in such a state. Henry Jean was no innocent. She wrote about such things, knew they happened. But to see it first hand was something else entirely.
Jamie used his stick to poke around the feet. He moved up the body, lifting it now and then to see the other body beneath. He worked so carefully that neither body was disturbed by movement.
So far Henry Jean—and she was sure the captain would agree—saw nothing to indicate how the two had been killed. No one would have stayed in that position and intentionally die such a grizzly death.
She wondered what Jamie was thinking as he began to lift the man’s shoulder.
Without warning, the corpse’s head popped off his shoulders, rolled off the mattress to land with a crackling plop on the floor at her feet!
Henry Jean opened her mouth and screamed bloody murder!