Better Than Gold

By: Mary Brady

CHAPTER ONE

A STARTLING thwack reached Mia Parker where she stood on an upended bright orange bucket, chipping away at eighty-year-old plaster.

“Holy crap. Oh, holy Jesus, save us!” Charlie Pinion’s irreverent bellow buffeted her, and the pry bar she had been using clattered to the floor.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” This cry from another, the ordinarily sane member of her construction crew, concerned her more than the first.

“Hey, what’s going on back there?” She hopped down onto the old wooden floor and headed from the storefront section of the building toward the rear of her future dining room. The two areas were divided by a twenty-foot-long, four-foot-thick wall with open doorways on each end. Storage closets were tucked into the ends of the dividing wall. An odd arrangement, but the building was two hundred years old, so many opinions and various needs had altered the floor plan over the years.

Mia stopped in what was left of the doorway and tugged the dust mask from her face.

Charlie stood, posed like a burly statue, raised sledgehammer still clutched in his pudgy fists. He gaped at something his large body blocked from her view. Beside him scrawny Rufus Boothby slowly drew down his mask to tuck it under his neat red goatee.

The workers had demolished most of one closet and stripped the plaster, lath and support frame from the far side of the dividing wall. In the middle where the closets terminated stood a column of gray granite. Another oddity. There should be no column in that wall.

“Charlie!” Stella LaBlanc’s excited shout came from the direction of the newly installed Women’s Room in the hallway past the kitchen area. “Charlie, you big creep, I told you to wait ’til I got back.”

She rushed out tugging at the zipper of her jeans as she sped across the room. “The treasure! You found the treasure! I knew it had to be—”

The dark-haired woman threw up her arms as if to ward off something and skidded to a halt between the two men, her ponytail flipping forward over her shoulder. Then slowly she lowered her hands and leaned forward a bit. “Oh, wicked cool.”

Mia tried not to get too excited about what this trio had found. Being their keeper, making sure they stayed on task, was practically a full-time job. Plus the residents of Bailey’s Cove, Maine, had been searching for the treasure of the pirate Liam Bailey for two hundred years and no one had found a trace. She didn’t expect that to change today.

Stepping up to the group, Mia followed their collective gape to the exposed column of rough granite, three feet wide and deep and taller than Charlie.

What the heck?

Then she saw the hole, waist high—and inhabited.

Mia blinked and blinked again. No matter how many times she closed her eyes and opened them, she didn’t see anything but hollow eye sockets staring out from a foot-wide gap where Charlie had knocked away the stone with a sweep of the big hammer.

“Holy— Oh, my God. I can’t believe it. You’re right, Charlie. Holy—er—cow.” Her words fell into the silence as she gawked with the rest of them at what she could not possibly be seeing.

A skull. Inside the hole. A human skull, not that she was any expert, but it didn’t seem all that hard to assume at that moment in time.

Light from a naked ceiling bulb bathed the dull brown skull, highlighting the emptiness where someone’s brain used to be. Mia closed her mouth and looked up at Charlie.

Charlie let out a shuddering sigh and the heavy hammer hit the dusty floor with a sharp crack.

“Hey, Charlie, you really know how to find ’em,” Rufus said, slapping his impossibly thin thighs, sending up a puff of dust.

“You gonna run away like you did when you found that rat?” Stella teased the big man.

“Wait, let me get your skirt and frilly apron,” Rufus tossed out.

“You can’t make me be a wench,” Charlie almost squeaked out.

“Charlie, nobody’s going to make you dress up like a wench for the restaurant opening. And hush, you guys. Leave him alone.” Mia wanted to glare at the pair of hecklers, but all she could do was stare at the skull, a bit horrified herself.

Slowly Mia closed the distance between her and the column of stone and crouched for a better view.

Rufus, named well because of all his red hair, hunkered down beside her. “Hey, boss, not much of a treasure, heh?”

“There’s a body in the wall of my new restaurant.”

“Seems appropriate for a place that’s gonna be called Pirate’s Roost. Nice and creepy,” Stella added.

Creepy was right. Mia shrugged off the feeling.

“You suppose anyone wondered where he went when he didn’t come home?” Rufus asked with a chuckle that sounded more like bravado than anything else.

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