Authors: Christy Barritt
"I thought I heard a scream"
I reached my hands forward so Mr. Happy Home Owner could help me out. As soon as the sunlight hit my face, I pulled off my mask and tried to pace my breathing.
I looked up at the man, at the concern etching his pasty face. I'd never been so happy to see anyone in my life. How would he take the news? As a great marketing pitch to sell his parents' home? Elvis Slept Here.
I rolled onto my back in the grass, loving the light and the breeze and the grass, now that I had something really disgusting to compare it with. I dropped my head onto the ground and closed my eyes, picturing the King's lifeless body.
Once I'd gathered mywits enough to speak, I looked up at the Doughboy to give him a really bad estimate of the damages. "Let's just say that Elvis has not left the building"
I perched myself on an algae-covered picnic table, elbows to my knees, and watched as police officers swarmed the house. I saw a couple of cops start through the hole under the house. I resisted the urge to grab them and save them from entering that pit. The smell of death clung to me. It didn't matter if I pulled my shirt over my nose, I couldn't get away from it.
Now that I was safely out from under the house, I started asking myself questions. How had Elvis turned up dead in a crawl space? How had he died? Why, oh why couldn't he and Priscilla have worked things out?
Though I didn't see any signs of violence, chances were pretty stinkin' good that he hadn't checked into the Heartbreak Hotel by himself.
Obviously, I knew the man wasn't really Elvis. So who was he? And why was he dressed like the King of Rock'n' Roll? Did that have something to do with his death? Did he step on someone's blue suede shoes?
"If it isn't Gabby St. Claire," a deep voice said.
I looked up to see Detective Adams, still looking like the same balding, stocky man I'd first met during a bomb threat a few months earlier.
"Detective" Just the guy to make a bad situation worse.
"For some reason, I'm not surprised you're here."
Well, that was him. Honestly, I was really surprised I'd crawled up to a dead man. "What can I say? Gabby St. Claire, crime-scene cleaner and first-class snoop extraordinaire"
He offered a tired grin. "I'm going to need you to tell me what happened"
I ran through the details.
"Mold remediation?" he questioned.
I shrugged. "Tight on money. Going back to college now, you know"
"Smart decision. College, that is" He turned away from me, his eyes on the forensic scientists disappearing under the house. "Can I contact you if I have more questions?"
"Of course. Or if you need an extra hand or if you want to give a nontraditional, or as some would say old, college student some experience" Twenty-eight, but those felt like dog years when I walked the halls of the university. I was a part of a group at the school who'd labeled themselves The Grateful Dead.
He chuckled. "You're a go-getter. I'll give you that"
I could still hear his chuckles as he walked away. I could officially go home, but now that my heart rate had dropped back to two digits, being at the scene of a crime fascinated me. One day, I'd be on the other side of this. I'd be one of those forensic scientists. I only had a few more credit hours before I could apply.
Until then, I had the market on the crime-scene cleaning jobs in the area. It was just me. Nobody else wanted the trouble I'd seen. Couldn't blame 'em. I'd experienced some pretty gruesome things in the three years since I'd been doing this. But the pay was decent. At least it would be if I didn't send almost half to my father every month. Long story.
My attention shot to a man walking into the back yard, obviously not a part of the police crew in his ratty jeans and white T-shirt. His eyes zeroed in on me, and he beelined my way. A slow, laid-back beeline.
"Excuse me. I'm looking for Bob Bowling?"
I glanced at Bob as he paced among the cops, looking like his eyes might pop out of their sockets with stress. "He appears to be a little busy right now."
The man, whom I guessed to be close to my age, followed my gaze to the flurry of activity behind him. "Looks like I missed some excitement"
"You could say that" I stared at him, trying to figure out why the man was here. The lean surfer dude obviously wasn't family or official. So why did he choose this moment to wander into the back yard? "Can I help you?"
He rubbed his chin, scruffy with the beginnings of a goatee. "Maybe. Bob asked me to come and check out his crawl space, to give him an estimate on cleaning it up"
Strange, Bob said he'd decided against restoration services. "Oh, did he? What company are you with?"
He shrugged. "My own."
"And what's that?"
"I don't have a name for the business yet" He extended his hand. "But my name's Chad Davis. I'm a crime-scene cleaner"
CRIME-SCENE CLEANER? This man was a crime-scene cleaner? Who did he think he was? I was the only crime-scene cleaner in the area. I needed all the jobs I could find in order to pay my bills. It was called s-u-r-v-i-v-a-l, buddy.
"This area doesn't need any more grim sweepers" I refused to break my gaze with the man. He had to know I meant business.
He chuckled. "Grim sweepers, huh? I like that. But I only found one other company doing it in the area. Nothing's wrong with some competition, right?"
My jaw dropped momentarily. "Do you have any experience?"
He shrugged, like he had no worries, no concerns, no heart. "I used to work in the morgue. Stuff like blood doesn't bother me. Plus, crime-scene cleaning is a great way to make some extra money."
"Extra money?" I could feel my face turning red. "Does this mean you have another job?"
He shrugged again. "Wise investing, you could say. I moved here from Kansas and plan on surfing in the summer and skiing in the winter. I'll take on jobs whenever they come up"
"You ... you.. " The words just wouldn't emerge. My future flashed before my eyes.
"Are you okay?"
"You ... you .. " Finally, I stood, unable to formulate anything remotely intelligible. I shook my head at him and stormed to my van. I had to get home.
Home, sweet home. I'd never felt so relieved to see my apartment building. I parked my van, grabbed my sparkly purse, and escaped into my sanctuary. The front door clicked shut behind me.
"Help! I've been stolen!" The little, white-haired woman stormed down the stairs of my Victorian apartment building. I had ten seconds before she rounded the last flight of stairs and spotted me.
I started to turn around and walk back out the door. Just go to the van and drive away. I had enough to handle without any drama from Mrs. Mystery, my upstairs neighbor and eccentric novelist extraordinaire. I leaned against the door, hand still on the knob. It wasn't too late to flee.
I just hoped Mrs. Mystery wasn't testing out her latest book plot on me. I drew in a breath just as I heard Riley's door opening upstairs.
"What's wrong, Mrs. Morgan?"
The frail woman was halfway down the last stairs. I'd missed my chance. She reached the bottom of the stairs. Her boney, age-spotted hands shook, and her white curls flew like they'd been charged with electricity. The wrinkles on her face vibrated as she clutched my hands. "Gabby, I've been stolen. What should I do?"
"Someone broke into your apartment?"
Her head swung back and forth vehemently, the wattles under her neck flapping until I thought I felt a slight breeze. "No, no. Stolen. Don't you see? I've ... been ... stolen" Her voice rose with each word.
Riley's feet pounded on the creaky stairs. He joined us and gave me a questioning look behind the mystery writer's back. "What's going on?"
"Mrs. Morgan has been stolen" I tried to keep any skepticism out of my voice. I pulled my fingers from her grasp and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Why don't we go upstairs and talk about this?"
"No time to talk. Someone's spending all my money. They're ruining my reputation! What can I do?"
I grabbed her elbow, saggy skin over bones on her frail body. Gently, but firmly, I urged her back up one flight to my apartment. "Let me make some tea. We'll get this all figured out"
"Oh, it's terrible. Terrible, I tell you. Why would someone do this to me?"
I didn't let go of her until we reached my door. Then I led her inside and sat her on the couch. Riley closed the door and sat across from her while I went into the kitchen to put some water on.
I shuddered as I crossed the vinyl floor to the oven, remembering the dead body and blood of the man who had been killed here. I hadn't killed him, of course, though I'd been the police's number-one suspect. The man had been my number-one suspect in a murder at a crime scene I'd cleaned. I'd found some evidence that pointed to him as the guilty party, and I'd tried-in vain-to convince the police that they were following the wrong leads.
The man's death had put a kink in my investigation, to state it lightly.
The events had unfolded a few months ago, but my first amateur investigation still remained fresh in my mind. The good news was that the case had a happy ending. The bad news was that I'd have to live with the image of a dead man in my kitchen for the rest of my life. When it happened in your home or to someone you knew, everything changed. It didn't matter that you dealt with death every day.
I heard Riley trying to calm down Mrs. Mystery in the other room. I turned the burner on and grabbed some miscellaneous mugs. One advertised a dry-cleaning service. Another was from a mini-marathon I had run last month. The final one, I purchased myself. It read: Princess. That one would be mine. Or if I felt especially devious, I'd let Riley drink from it.
I wasn't much of a housekeeper or a hostess. But I did the best with what I had. I pulled out a TV tray, put some sugar in a cereal bowl, blew the dust out of a gravy pitcher, and poured in some lowfat milk. It wasn't Martha Stewart, but then I'd never done any hard time, either, so things had a way of evening out.
I added some tea bags and spoons, poured the boiling water, and joined my neighbors just in time to hear Mrs. Mystery saying, "Next, they'll want my body. You'll see me, but it won't really be me, Margaret Morgan. It will be somebody else in my skin, living out my life"
She had quite an imagination. I had to give her that. I guess that's what made her a good writer. Not that I'd ever read-or seen, for that matterany of her mysteries.
"Tea, anyone?" Using my foot, I pushed several issues of Popular Science and Rolling Stone to the floor in order to set the tray on the coffee table. My mother had to be frowning on me from heaven. I was raised with better manners than this, but what's a girl to do? I only had two hands.
"I would have helped you with that; Riley said, half his lip curled in a grin.
"I make do with what I have. What can I say?"
And this is why I could never be with Riley. A lawyer could never be married to someone like me. I'd be an embarrassment to all of his highfalutin friends. He needed someone cultured and elegant.
"Well, I think I've figured out what's wrong with Mrs. Morgan:" Riley perched on the end of the burnt orange recliner. Okay, the awful decorating scheme wasn't all my fault. I had a very limited budget. Hand-me-downs and thrift stores had been good friends when I first moved in.