Authors: Christy Barritt
I turned the handle to my apartment door and twisted several times for effect.
Nope, still nothing.
I finally sighed and pushed into my apartment. Maybe being alone would be good for me. After all, if I were really desperate for company, I could have invited Parker up. He was my boyfriend, and he'd seemed interested. But I'd feigned a headache instead.
What was wrong with me? Here I had a gorgeous man interested in me, yet every time I was with him, I thought about Riley.
I needed to have my head examined.
I mean, Parker looked like Brad Pitt. He drove a Viper. He was a dashing detective, making the city a safer place at the expense of his own physical safety. What more could I want? Would there ever be a man that I didn't compare to Riley, a man who had broken my heart when his fiancee had shown up unexpectedly? What was so Prince Charming about that?
Still, Riley had a gentleness about him, yet he was masculine. His eyes perceived things in me that no one else did. I felt safe in his presence.
But I would never be with someone who'd broken my heart. Men had one chance with me. I wouldn't be anyone's fool. No man would play me more than once.
I hit the blinking light on my answering machine, and dear old dad's voice rang through the small speaker. Slurred, like he'd been spending time with Jack Daniels again. Surprise, surprise.
"Hey, Gabby. When are you going to come over and see your old man? What's it been? Two, three months? Give your papa a call sometime"
I hit delete and hurried into the bedroom, where I changed out of the fancy little black dress and into some sweats and a T-shirt that read "Grumpy." It seemed fitting.
I plopped on my couch and reviewed my conversation with Jamie. She had some definite ideas about who had killed her husband. Impulsively, I grabbed my purse and retrieved the list she'd given me. Names and phone numbers. Does it get any easier than this?
I stared at the list and tapped my finger against my chin. Detective Adams had insisted the police department didn't need my help anymore. But Jamie did. She needed to know what had happened to her husband, and she didn't trust the police to find the answers. What had she said? No one in her circle trusts the Five-O's.
But they might trust me.
I sighed, and my gaze wandered to the textbook on the end table. I pushed my head into the fluffy cushions of the couch. I couldn't wait until I could give up the crime-scene cleaning business in favor of becoming an actual forensic specialist. Then there wouldn't be any guilt when I snooped. It would actually be my job to snoop. Parker couldn't lecture me. Riley wouldn't have to give me warnings about safety. Detective Adams would ask me to get involved because it was my job.
Soon enough. I only had one more semester's worth of classes. At the rate I was going, however, that one semester might take me three years.
I couldn't afford to take too many credit hours at once. If I did, then I'd have to turn down too many jobs, which would mean I wouldn't have money to pay my bills, or my father's bills.
Really, more than even helping Jamie out, the case intrigued me. Why would Darnell's body be left under the house? What had happened to the man? Had someone given Elvis a fatal taste of peanut?
"I SMELL dead people" I said it with that same rakish whisper of the boy from The Sixth Sense.
Even better, I was alone, so I said it to myself.
Nothing smells worse than a body that's been decomposing for two weeks in a closed space. Take my word for it.
I pulled on my respirator and wondered why I'd decided to do this job. I hated crime scenes that weren't really crime scenes. This was a fortynine-year-old hermit of a man who'd died of a heart attack. Since he was a hermit, no one had thought to check on him. Finally, his landlord had reported a foul order escaping from the house. The police found the man dead in his recliner. After a while, the body just begins gelling and ... well, I won't get into too much detail. Let's just say it's really gross.
As I mopped up the glop into hazmat bags, sweating beneath my safety suit, I realized just how much I missed Harold. Harold had been my assistant for a short time until he'd been accused of a crime he didn't commit. After he was cleared, he decided to retire and spend time with his family.
I really wanted to hire another assistant. Jobs like this took a long time, and having someone else there to chat with while you worked really made the time go by so much more quickly.
Looking at the room before me, I wondered if I'd get everything done in a day. This was a big job. It would require fumigation. I'd have to tear out the carpet, haul away the recliner. I'd possibly have to find someone to replace the subfloor. And the landlord wanted the walls painted. Normally, I'd subcontract that job out, but with money being tight, I decided to do it myself.
The chair was soaked with body fluids that had oozed from the skin. Just seeing it almost made me gag, and I see pieces of people's brains all the time, if that tells you how bad it was.
I made a mental note to never take a job like this again. Some things a person just couldn't handle.
Besides, now people could also call Chad Davis.
I frowned as I thought of the other crime-scene cleaner.
I couldn't afford for someone else to take all my business. I needed the money. Riley might be kind and ask me to do some filing, but I knew he really didn't have the money. I could work at the Grounds, but getting paid minimum wage would stink. Still, if it paid the bills ...
I'd have to start thinking of ways to cut back. Starting with, I'd have to cut out my morning coffee at the Grounds. I used to be really good about setting the timer on my coffeemaker and sipping some java at home. I would hold off on buying any new flip-flops or T-shirts.
I could stop sending Dad money.
I know it sounds weird-that I'm paying my father's bills. Let's just say it's my way of paying off guilt. Ever since Mom died, Dad had gone downhill even further. Sure, it would help if he stopped drinking. But I didn't want my father to be homeless. After all, he was my father, my one family member left in the world. Ever since my brother was kidnapped under my watch when I was ten years old, I'd felt the need to make it up to people, that if I somehow earned their forgiveness, maybe I could forgive myself.
I spent five hours shoveling glop into hazmat bags. My bones ached, my back throbbed, my gag reflex wanted to purge.
For other jobs, I would stay late, trying to get them done quickly, but today I had to call it quits. I'd come back in the morning.
I waited until I was outside on the porch before stripping off my hazmat suit. I couldn't risk smelling like body rot. No way. I stuffed the disposable suit into a hazmat bag. I had to drop these by the hospital before calling it a day. Otherwise, I'd be fined for improper disposal. An hour later, I was ready to head home.
But somehow, autopilot kicked in, and I headed toward Ocean View. I wanted to see Elvis's shoddy, crawl-space grave once more. I don't know what I thought I might see, but his death was on my mind. I couldn't distract myself from the case, no matter how hard I worked.
I drove past rundown hotels and weatherworn beach houses and watched as peeks of the ocean slipped in between the buildings. I felt like mourning every time I came into this area of town. It was kind of like the Beatles breaking up-why do good things have to come to an end?
I was surprised to see a vehicle in the driveway when I pulled up to the crime scene. It wasn't the owner's car. It was a vintage VW van. An orange, boxy, hippie van. I parked behind the vehicle, climbed out of my van, and stuffed my keys into the pocket of my boot-cut jeans.
I rounded the corner of the house just as Chad Davis knelt in front of the crawl space, apparently about to open it up. He obviously didn't hear me coming. Where were my stealthlike movements when it counted? Like when I wanted to sneak up on someone?
I cleared my throat, and his head shot up. He stood, shaking the dirt from his baggy jeans. A sheepish smile pulled at his lips, and he took a couple steps my way. I stopped and waited for him to reach me, plastering my arms across my chest to show disapproval.
"I don't mean to intrude on your family's property."
My head jerked to the side, like it always did when I tried to hide my confusion. "My family's property?"
"I just thought the crawl space may still need to be cleaned up after this whole Elvis fiasco passes. I wanted to let you know I was still available to do the work."
He stood in front of me now, the same beach-bum good looks kissing his tanned face. The goatee was gone now in favor of a small patch of hair in the center of his chin, a soul patch, I think they're called. And this little surfer boy thought I owned the place.
Should I correct him? My conscience said yes.
"I'm a crime-scene cleaner, also," I blurted, as bluntly as possible. I wanted him to know that I didn't appreciate him stepping into my territory. Just call me a Doberman. Now all I needed were some pointy teeth and growling lessons.
His face morphed from blank, to processing, to a wide, welcoming grin. "A colleague. Cool"
I scowled. "Unlike you, crime-scene cleaning pays all of my bills. This isn't fun. It isn't a hobby. It doesn't earn me any extra income. It's ... my ... livelihood!"
The grin slipped from his face, but reemerged a moment later as a smirk. "I see"
I continued to scowl, just to make sure he got the point. "So, what are you really doing here?"
He crossed his arms, the smirk still present. "I came to secure the job for myself by following up. Of course"-he threw me a pointed look-"if this is your livelihood, I'm surprised you weren't here fighting for it earlier."
"I shouldn't have to fight for it! I've been establishing my reputation in this area for the past three years. That has to count for something!" The decibel of my voice rose steadily.
His chuckle told me I'd given him just the reaction he wanted. I mentally scolded myself for letting him win.
Suddenly, he waved his hand in front of his nose. "Speaking of crime scenes, you must have just come from one. What's that awful stench?"
Why did people always say that to me? Just because the smell of death infiltrated my every pore and even attached itself to my nose hair was no reason to be rude. A woman's got to make a living. So the job did nothing for me in the pheromones department. A girl couldn't have everything.
"This job will be mine," I announced, stomping my foot into the ragged, needlelike grass that crawled up my jeans.
"You'll have to fight me for it"
"The estimate I originally gave the homeowner just went down about two hundred dollars" I forced a little-too-bright smile.
"He likes me more"
My hands went to my hips. "Says who?"
"How do you know?"
He stepped closer. "I have a sense about things"
"That's still a crime scene. Why were you about to go under there?"
"It's no longer a crime scene, thank you very much, and it's none of your business"
"That's my crime scene, so yes it is!"
He stepped back. "Your crime scene?"
I rolled my eyes. "I discovered it, didn't I?"
"I could ask you the same question. What are you doing back here?"
Oh yeah, maybe I shouldn't have brought the subject up. I shrugged. "Nothing."
His jaw cocked to one side, and he nodded, like he had me pegged. "You were totally snooping"
"Why would I do that?"
"Because it's, like, your crime scene"
"You're being ridiculous" Right on the nose, but ridiculous. "And presumptuous"
"You said it"
"The truth is I think I left something under there when I was crawling around." I chomped down, hating myself for lying. Riley would never lie.
Except about having a fiancee. Okay, he didn't really lie. I mean, they had broken off their engagement when his ex-fiancee swept in on my territory and somehow they became engaged again. Good old honorable Riley just had to give their relationship one more chance before calling it quits for good.
Chad swept his hand toward the entrance with enough flourish that I wanted to tell him that he should try out show business. "Well, why don't you look for it?"
I squirmed. No way did I want to go under that creepy house again.
Unless I got the job, and right now the foremost reason for me wanting the job was just so Chad wouldn't get it. I wanted him to keep his grimy hands away from my crime scene ... and my business, for that matter.
I threw my shoulders back. "I think I will."
Why did I have to say that?
Chad watched me with expectant eyes, so I couldn't turn back now. And it was no longer a crime scene-at least that's what Chad had said, so I wouldn't be disturbing an investigation. Yikes, would Parker be all over me if I did.
I squirmed as I thought of Parker. He would not be happy if he knew I'd come here. I could hear his lecture now.
I cast those thoughts aside and marched over to the entrance of the netherworld. With steady hands, I pulled the boards off, then got on my knees and peered inside the space. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. When the black finally became normal, I squinted. I had to at least pretend to search for something.