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Declan Bancroft stood at the bottom of the stairs, listening hard. His eighty-plus-year-old ears played tricks on him sometimes, but those creaking boards upstairs had been plaguing him for days now. He wanted to see what was making the noise himself, but it was difficult for him to navigate those confounded steps. Seven up to a landing, then seven more to the top floor of his seaside home.
“Ach,” he muttered, annoyed with his tired old bones.
He’d called Hale, his grandson, who’d promised to stop by. But the boy was a man now, with a wife and a child and another on the way, and though Declan and Hale were in business together, they spent less and less time after hours in each other’s company. Hale was too busy and Declan was too old.
It hadn’t always been that way. Declan had a moment of fondness and rueful musings over the tyrannical woman who ran that cult in Deception Bay. Oh, she didn’t like him calling it a cult. “Would a women’s prison be more accurate?” he’d asked her once, which had really twisted her tail into a knot. But he loved her. . . loved her still . . . even though she acted like they’d never been together, never created a beautiful child between them who’d grown into an even more beautiful adult.
No, his days with Catherine Rutledge were long over. Distant memories. But sometimes they seemed so close, closer than the wonderful afternoons he sometimes spent with his great-grandson, Declan, named for him. Five years old and full of vinegar that boy was. Everyone had taken to calling him Declan right away, and that meant they called his old, tottering great-grandfather Declan Sr., just to keep them both straight. Declan wasn’t really a senior. He had no son, just two daughters, but there’d been a time he’d been kind of confused about the whole thing; he could admit that now. Still, the old noggin was pretty damn sharp. Even Hale commented on it, which had made him act like it made no difference to him, when in reality it tickled Declan pink. He still had it. And if Catherine would deign to drop her knickers just one more time . . .
He chuckled a bit, realized he sounded like a dirty old man and stifled his amusement, although that darned smile wouldn’t quite leave his lips. If he —
There it was again. Footsteps . . . he was almost sure of it. Should he call Hale? Would he just hear excuses again? His wife was pregnant and about ready to drop. Not an especially good time to bother his grandson, but who else was there? Neither of his daughters lived in the area.
His cell phone was in his pocket. He fished it out and poked in Hale’s number but didn’t hit send. Thought about it a moment, then put the phone back in his pocket. How hard was it to make it up the stairs and check for himself? He used to run up those blasted steps.
Determined, he placed a hand on the newel post. His cell phone was with him, should he find himself in trouble. Carefully, frustrated that it required so much effort, Declan moved up the first step and placed his hand on the banister. Just six more to the landing. He kept his eyes on the steps, watching his feet, carefully placing one foot then the other on the next step. He was almost jubilant when he reached the landing.
He looked up and there was a young man standing at the top of the steps. His heart galumphed. “Who are you?” he demanded, but his voice quavered a little.
“Who do you think?” the man responded, grinning like a devil.
Declan’s mind was a blank. “What are you doing in my house?”
“Should be my house.”
Arrogant S.O.B.! “Go away! Get out!”
Fear had hold of him as he shuffled himself around to go back down the steps to the first floor. He tried to shake it off. This . . . thief . . . didn’t scare him. His house? He was delusional, probably insane. Declan slipped a hand in his pocket for the phone and suddenly the bastard was right there! Spinning him back around so that they were facing each other. Declan started to tip but the invader grabbed him by his arms.
“It’s me, Dad. Your loving son.”
“I don’t have any sons . . .”
The man slowly circled him around so his back was to the downward steps. Afraid, Declan gripped the sleeves of the man’s jean jacket. He was scruffy. Long hair. All in denim. Grinning. Chuckling! Declan’s heels were over the edge of the top step. He teetered precariously.
“Stop,” he moaned.
“You don’t know me?” the man accused.
Declan looked into his eyes. Blue as the sky and . . . crazy. He suddenly knew he was going to die. No, he didn’t know him. But whoever he was, whatever he was, he knew this man was going to kill him.
As if reading his mind, the man said, “You die and I inherit.”
“You’re – you’re mistaken. I have two daughters!”
“I was here before, Dad. Five years ago. You remember? I kept telling you I was your son. I kept coming to the house.”
Declan blinked. Yes. He remembered. “I was just confused,” he denied. Then, as realization flooded through him in a hot wave, “You’re Charlie! You’re not my son. There is no Declan Jr., no matter what you were named. You’re Charlie!”
The man’s face tightened and the blue eyes grew bluer if that was possible, pinning him with an unholy light. “I am your son,” he insisted through his rictus smile.
“No, no . . . DNA will prove you’re not . . !”
Charlie slowly peeled Declan’s hands from his sleeves and stood back. Declan flailed wildly, trying to hold onto his balance, grappling for the rail.
Touching a finger to Declan’s nose, Charlie gently pushed.
It was all the momentum needed. Declan went over backward, flying over the first few steps, crashing down the last. His head hit the stone floor and he saw stars.
Immediately Charlie was beside him, bending down, staring into his eyes. Declan squeezed his eyelids shut tight.
A wild howl filled his ears and he felt Charlie trying to forcefully open his lids.
Then he saw a glowing light . . . the pearly gates?
With a soft exhalation of breath, Declan Bancroft died, his ears closing one final time, muffling Charlie’s screams of frustration that he couldn’t steal the soul of the man he mistakenly assumed was his father.
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