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Authors: Lynn Hightower

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BOOK: Fortunes of the Dead
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Joel and I had been together for two years and counting, and I found that the longer we were together the happier I was. We bought this house jointly and were scheduled for official cohabitation in two days. Our loan folder was so new it was still piled in some In-box, waiting its turn to be filed. The mortgage papers had been signed, the closing, always tense, had been endured, and everyone who was anyone had taken a percentage from our fees.

It took me two years to completely commit—to Joel, or to happiness, or both. Joel, ever patient, was delighted, if you can use such an energetic word for his understated ways. I was good for him. In the months we'd been together, his face had filled out and he looked younger. The lines of fatigue in his brow had smoothed; the stress creases that ran from his nose to his lips had faded.

We began our evenings in the kitchen. Joel cooked and I watched. We talked long into the night about the things that interested us—why people kill, why men beat women, how a mother could be so drug addicted she would aid and abet a nightmare childhood for her kids. We talked forensics and DNA, and our most heated arguments involved either the death penalty, or how much garlic should go into the pasta. Joel is a “less is more” kind of cook, and I am a “more the merrier.” So we talked and argued about food and work: the merits of wheat beer over ale; Joel's job in homicide; and mine as a private detective—a woman's equalizer, specializing in cases involving women and children who fall between the cracks of the legal system.

I set the paint bucket down gently so as not to mar the floor. The heating control was a simple round dial, likely installed before I was born. Turning it on reminded me of the combination locks you use in school. There was that moment of hesitation, when you think,
Hey, does this work?
, then a rumble and a sigh as the compressor kicked in; the noise of air rushing through cramped, old-fashioned vents; and the toasty smell of burning dust.

And I was home. More at home than in Joel's austere warehouse loft; more at home than in my sister Whitney's haunted suburban ranch—recently sold to make a substantial down payment on this cottage. Joel and I had agreed that I would make the down payment and he would handle the bulk of the mortgage—a reasonable arrangement. Joel had a regular salary, generating cash flow and good credit. I was paid by economically challenged women in the midst of domestic chaos. I survived by a form of medieval barter.

It's a complex system that generates satisfaction, a million-odd privileges, but very little ready cash. There is no financial security, and none of the sort of documentation that impresses mortgage companies or any reputable bank.

On the other hand, my freezer was stocked with homemade meatballs, chicken casseroles, and Chicago steak fillets. My car insurance would be provided for the next eighteen months. I could walk into the Asian Pearl and have free martinis, which was a shame, since I didn't drink martinis. My yard maintenance would be taken care of for the next year, a bouquet of flowers arrived from Ashland Florist every two weeks, and I had gift certificates on hand to spend whenever I wanted: one from Lazarus for $175; another for Victoria's Secret for $50; and one I had just cashed in at Joseph Beth Booksellers for a Miles Davis CD. One very grateful client had signed over a 1994 Mazda Miata with 85,000 miles and a tear in the tan canvas roof. Another had a brother who kept the Miata in good repair. Clients cleaned my oven, brought over casseroles on a scheduled dinner plan, offered me the professional services of family members who moved furniture, worked in restaurants, and repaired antiques.

The arrangement has advantages for the lazy at heart. That would be me.

I thought about making coffee while I unwrapped the new CD and put it in the portable stereo. Coffee would require me to go back outside. On the other hand, it was coffee.

I went back out to the car, avoiding the lawn and the mud loosened between the drowning blades of grass. Rain had been steady for six days straight and the ground was saturated. It had been a miserable soggy month, nothing but gray skies. The scent of wood smoke was so strong that it seemed every household must be using a fireplace or wood-burning stove.

I hauled my essentials out of the car—a corkscrew, a bottle of Chilean Merlot that met my exacting qualifications (under ten dollars, eye-catching label), a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, coffeemaker, cream, my favorite New Orleans coffee mug that said American Belle on one side and Absolutely Pure Coffee on the other. I picked it up at Kroger's just last week. I was drinking Yuban coffee because it had been on sale, but it was nothing like the rich black Italian roast that is full-bodied rather than bitter—and currently out of my price range.

I shut the door on the rain and slipped out of my wet shoes—red alligator high-heeled boots I had no business wearing in this weather. I left my stuff in the foyer and headed for the kitchen. Joel had left his toolbox on the Italian marble countertop (another strong selling point), anticipating, as was his habit, exactly what we would need to have on hand for the move. In the refrigerator was bottled Dasani water, Becks, Miller Lite, and chocolate biscotti. Joel had come alone to bring these few things roughly a week ago and had not set foot in the house since. I'd wandered in almost every day.

Like his pantry, his closet, even his underwear drawer, Joel's toolbox was neat, organized, and spotless. The tools were worn, but clean, as if Joel wiped them down with a soft cloth every time he used them, which he probably did. I found a screwdriver in a plastic tray that held several screwdrivers arranged according to size. I mixed them up on purpose, grabbed one, and snapped the lid shut.

I rustled through my pile of stuff until I found the bag of potato chips, then sat cross-legged to consider the bucket of paint. Joel and I had sorted through a hundred and one color strips and settled on leaving the trim in the living room Manhattan Chalk White, and repainting the walls Lido Beige. I had been perfectly content with the Lido Beige. But standing in the paint aisle at Home Depot, the Sienna Sun Red called my name.

I had always wanted a red room, but red was something of a tricky color. Candy-apple red would be disgusting, and I would loathe any shade that looked the slightest bit orange, which let out everything with a Southwest motif. Maroon was unacceptable—a good color for a high school marching band, but not my living room.

And then I saw it—the red I had always imagined, the red that would be dramatic and elegant, the red I could live with day in and day out. The big question was did I have the right to paint the living room whatever color I liked. Living with someone meant compromise, and I had agreed without agony to the Lido Beige.

I turned up the music and opened the bag of chips. Fingers sticky with salt and vinegar, I used the screwdriver to pry open the paint.

So beautiful. I ripped the plastic off a brand-new paintbrush, and dipped the bristles into the placid and virginal surface. I made an arclike smear on the wall, followed by another swath of red, this one bigger. Drips of paint slid like oil down the side of the can and dropped to the newly buffed wood floors.

Joel says that disorder follows wherever I go. It's not intentional. But it is true that I have never decorated on my own before, and never picked out paint, or furniture, or dishes, without someone weighing in with a heated opinion. My ex-husband, Rick, had a place of his own when we moved in together, and we didn't change much after we got married. And when my sister was murdered, and Rick and I split, I moved into Whitney's little suburban ranch and changed not a thing that didn't involve cleaning or replacing the carpet and baby bed that had been soaked with blood and tears. It took me by surprise, this strong vision I had of how my house should look.

I set the paintbrush on the metal rim of the bucket, and stood back from the wall. Two coats would do it, and I'd leave the woodwork as it was.

The doorbell rang twice. This was the first time I'd heard the doorbell in the house, and I liked the way it sounded—it's the little things that make you proud.

I was not looking forward to having to explain that it was entirely possible we would never know what happened to Cheryl Dunkirk. The family never gives up. Paul and Miranda Brady still had hope. But Cheryl had likely been dead for the last eight weeks, and her passing, much like Whitney's, was not an easy one; this much I knew, and very little else. I also knew Cheryl's death would haunt her sister, Miranda, the same way Whitney's violent murder haunted me.

The bell rang again—that made three. I wiped my hands on the back of my Victoria's Secret Five Button Fly Boyfriend Jeans and went to open my arched front door.

My client was not what I expected, and it was clear from the way her mouth hung open that the reaction was mutual. She was young. If I were a bartender I would card her as a formality only before I escorted her out the door. I looked over her shoulder but did not see her father. Miranda had come alone.

She stepped forward to look at me more closely, and I could see that she was still struggling with those tricky issues of complexion. The small spray of whiteheads on her forehead were barely visible, buried beneath a generous application of cream-based foundation. She had likely selected the color during the summer when her skin was brown from the sun. The shade was too dark now, and gave her face an orange cast, though with her coloring—medium dark hair and green eyes—the orange wasn't all that bad. She was about my height, which, in terms of Internet shopping, is a sort of medium—a five-foot-three or -four, average to short.

“Excuse me, I'm looking for Lena Padget.” Her voice landed in the upper registers, which meant she didn't smoke.

“I'm Lena Padget.”

She stared and made no comment. If she hadn't been quite so young I might have found her on the wrong side of annoying.

“Maybe you could tell me who you are?” I only asked this question to get her on track. I knew very well who she was. I looked over her shoulder one more time. Still no sign of the father.

“I'm Miranda.” Her tone of voice let me know that I should have been expecting her.

“Paul Brady's daughter?”

“That's right.”

“Your father isn't with you?”

Her voice went flat, eyes downcast. “He's still home in Pittsburgh. He can't get away right now.”

I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Miranda. Please come in.”

The invitation was unnecessary, as she was already two steps through the door. I wondered if she realized that hiring a detective was not quite the same thing as interviewing a servant.

She walked through the foyer, glanced at the staircase as if deciding whether or not to take the time to go up for a look, then moved into the living room, where she spun in a slow circle to take it all in.

“I love your house.”

“Thank you. Let me get a couple of chairs.” I fetched two folding chairs in from the kitchen and set them facing each other in the middle of the room. “I spoke with your father yesterday.”

“I know.” Miranda tore herself from the view outside my living-room window. “He told me you didn't want to take this on. He told me to convince you to do it anyway.” Miranda's chin came up. “You don't have to worry about dealing just with me. I know I'm only twenty, but my father trusts me to handle things. He relies on me, he always has. And I talk to him every day. He really wants you to do this.”

“Sit down,” I told her. The first thing we were going to have to establish was what Paul and Miranda Brady defined as “this.” And dealing solely with Miranda was going to complicate matters. She was young to be taking things on alone.

“Can I get you a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water?”

Miranda shook her head and sat on the edge of the chair. Her confidence was fading. She adjusted her skirt, which was filmy and cut on the bias. She wore clogs and her legs were bare in spite of the cold. The sleeves of her blouse flared over her pudgy hands. Her hair was either naturally curly or permed, and had been generously gelled or was in need of a wash. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick, and she wore shiny metallic lip gloss over a full bottom lip. She had a backpack instead of a purse.

College student, college student, college student.

“I'm very sorry about what happened with your sister. I know how hard this can be.”

“Do you think she's dead?” Miranda looked me directly in the eyes. “I like to get things out in the open.”

I did think Cheryl was dead, and I wondered about this Paul Brady, and why he hadn't made the time to come. I wondered why he would put this responsibility on the shoulders of Cheryl's younger sister, and not take care of things himself.

“Do you think she's dead, Miranda?”

Miranda bit her bottom lip, and did not answer. But silence made her uncomfortable, and she ran a finger along the material of her skirt, avoiding eye contact.

“Just so you know, Daddy got your name from Chick Ryder. He works in Legal Aid.”

“I know.”

“He recommended you very highly. He said you guys were friends.”

“Ah ha. We are, but Chick knows lots of detectives. He give any reason why he settled on me?”

Miranda twirled a curl of hair between her short, thick fingers. She was a heavy girl, by current standards, but not unattractively so.

“Mr. Ryder says you've got a good reputation.”

I hid my cynicism behind a smile. No doubt Chick also made Paul Brady aware that I was sleeping with the cop who headed up the Cheryl Dunkirk investigation. If I were in Brady's shoes, I'd hire me, too.

Brady's instincts were sound, because I did have a wealth of inside information and I wouldn't be going into the situation cold. The disappearance of Cheryl Dunkirk had shaped into one of Joel's most frustrating cases, one that had riveted the entire state of Kentucky and even splashed periodically through the national news when they were having a slow day. We'd been on
Nightline
and CNN.

BOOK: Fortunes of the Dead
7.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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