Authors: Christy Barritt
"Wow, this place reeks" He scrunched his nose up.
I fought a grin. "Yep"
"How can you stand it?"
"It's just part of my job"
We deposited the cans in the hallway. Then I instructed Riley that we needed to move the entertainment center. As we began inching it into the hallway, my fingers burning under the cabinet's weight, I found myself asking, "How was church?"
"It was great. I wish you could have come."
"And what did you learn about today?"
"Why humans need God"
We worked in silence for several minutes. I wondered if I would have gotten anything out of the sermon. I was interested in finding out why I needed God. To get to heaven? That seemed like a pretty selfish reason. Was I supposed to need God because of what he could do for me? Or was it supposed to be about what I could do for him? I didn't want to ask, not yet at least.
"So, did you and Parker make up?"
Did I really want to talk about my love life with someone who had broken my heart? No, but I found myself doing it anyway.
"Not really. I'm supposed to be thinking about it"
"And nothing. I mean, how do you know if a person's the right one for you? And if you don't think a person's the right one, should you be with them? How long does it take to figure it out?"
"I've heard that when you know, you know."
"Maybe I'm supposed to know, but I don't because my emotions are getting in the way. Or maybe I'm looking for someone perfect, and I'll never find that person because he doesn't exist. Or maybe my expectations are too high, and no one will ever be able to meet them because I'm being unrealistic"
"How many cups of coffee have you had today, Gabby?"
"A lot. A whole pot. Why? Am I talking too much?" He couldn't possibly understand how hard it was for an extrovert like myself to work alone.
He smiled. "No, you're not talking too much. Just fast."
Was that his only response? I'd poured out my heart, dug in, and asked the hard questions, and all he had to say was that I talked fast? Why did I even bother?
"I'm not a good one to ask about dating, Gabby," Riley finally said.
I don't have anything figured out. I'm just as confused as you are"
I remembered the whole Veronica fiasco and mentally agreed with him. Of course he didn't have the answers. He was just as screwed up as I was. For some reason, that made me feel better.
As we started to paint, I even found myself whistling. I loved knowing I wasn't the only imperfect one around here.
EVEN AFTER Riley helped me, I still wasn't finished with Mr. Hermit's house. I'd called the landlord, and he'd offered to pay me to pack up Mr. Hermit's belongings and take them to Goodwill. Apparently, the man had no family or friends, period. Who would attend his funeral? Would he even have a funeral? Didn't everyone deserve a funeral?
The good news was that I'd have a job for the rest of the week and a decent paycheck. I could really use a decent paycheck.
After Riley and I dropped off the contaminated items, I offered to fix him dinner. He agreed. I just had to shower and get cleaned up before he came over. It was the least I could do to thank him-the shower and the meal. Before I hopped under the spray of water, I called a nearby Chinese restaurant for delivery. When I said "fix dinner," he couldn't possibly have imagined I meant I'd cook.
After I showered, applied apple-scented lotion, and put gel in my hair, I threw on jeans and a long-sleeved "Meat is Murder" T-shirt that Sierra had given me for my birthday last year. Ironic when I'd just ordered beef and broccoli. Needless to say, I wouldn't be inviting Sierra up.
The delivery man came with my food. I'd just taken everything out of the bags and pulled down two plates when someone knocked at the door. A freshly showered Riley stood on the other side. His still-wet hair clung to his forehead. I could smell Ivory soap. He smelled so good I could just reach up and-
"Am I too early?" he asked.
I brought my thoughts under control and stepped back. "No, come in. I've been slaving away, trying to get some food ready for you"
"So you called Chang's?"
"How'd you know?"
"I can smell Chinese food. It smells like Chang's."
"You know I'm not much of a cook."
No sooner had we filled our plates and sat down at my dinette, when someone else knocked at the door. Now who?
I opened the door and saw Parker standing there, a dozen roses in his hands.
He kissed my cheek and pushed inside. "Hey, darlin'. I know I said I was going to call, but-" He stopped and stared at Riley. "What's he doing here?"
"Riley helped me out on a job today, so I offered him some dinner"
Riley stood, looking back and forth from Parker to me. Can you say "awkward"? "Why don't I just take my food back to my apartment?"
"No, stay here and eat. I insist" I placed a hand on Riley's shoulder and pushed him back down.
"Why don't you join us? Make yourself a plate while I put these roses in some water. They're beautiful" I hurried into the kitchen before Parker could object.
Call me Miss Intuition, but I had the distinct impression that those two men didn't care for each other. But that wasn't my problem. Riley didn't want me, and Parker did. End of story. What was so complicated about that?
The phone rang. I grabbed it and ducked into the kitchen.
"Is this that crime-scene cleaner?" The woman's nasal voice made me cringe. Could I even bear to listen to it for the continuation of this conversation? She was probably calling about a job, which I needed, so I'd have to grin and bear it.
I drew in a breath. "Speaking."
"It's Jamie, Darnell's wife"
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. Why was her name familiar?
"You know, Elvis ... the man you found dead under that house?"
I straightened. "Oh, Jamie. How are you?"
"Did you talk to any of those suspects I gave you yet?"
She was expecting me to? "Uh . .
"Listen, honey, I need your help. I need you to find my Darnell's killer."
Though excitement washed through me, I kept it under control. "Aren't the police working on it, Jamie?"
"Police-smeesh. I don't trust them one bit. I need you to figure this out for me. Darnell deserves some respect. I want whoever did this to be behind bars. They can fry em for all I care. I just want justice"
"You really want my help?"
"Yeah, I've even got some cash saved up. I'll hire you. You can be like a PI or something, you know?
"I'd be happy to look into it" I felt myself smile, satisfied. Finally, an excuse to get involved. I quickly erased my grin when I saw both Riley and Parker staring at me from the other room. I scooted around the corner, out of sight.
As soon as we hung up, the phone rang again. I was never going to get to eat my moo goo gai pan.
"Hey," a male said on the other line.
"Um ... hello"
The male laughed. "You don't know who this is, do you?"
What's up with people thinking I'm going to recognize their voices? "Nothing gets past you ... whoever you are"
"It's Chad. Chad Davis"
I leaned against the kitchen counter. "Oh, you. How'd you get my number?"
"The Yellow Pages. What do you know-you are the only crime-scene cleaner listed. Until I get my ad in there, at least"
I scowled at the coffee ring on my countertop, pretending it was Chad Davis's face. "Did you call just to antagonize me?"
"Of course not. I just heard on the news that that guy we found was shot"
"Yeah, I heard."
He lowered his voice. "That could have been one of us"
"I know." I shuddered and briefly wondered about the silence I heard in the other room. I could only imagine the awkward glances Riley and Parker were giving each other. The two had nothing in common but me, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't a good topic of conversation. I should be a saint and try to make them feel more comfortable. I would-after I found out what Chad Davis wanted.
"Why would someone want a clean-up guy dead?" Chad asked, as if I had the answers. Sure, I liked to refer to myself as the all-knowing one, but who actually believed it?
Besides, Chad Davis had been at that crime scene first. Maybe I should be asking him that question. "How do I know you weren't the one who shot him?"
"The police already tested my hands for trace evidence. They didn't find anything. Ask your detective friend."
I stared at my vinyl floor, making a mental note that I needed to mop it soon. I could still see splatters of tomato sauce from when I'd attempted to make spaghetti last week and dropped the whole pot. Can you blame me for ordering Chinese? "You could have been wearing gloves:"
"Did you see any when you ran into me?" His voice didn't change pitch, as it might if my insinuation bothered him. He still sounded laid-back and surferish.
"You could have hidden them, stuffed them into your pockets even"
All the teasing left his voice. "I didn't do it, Gabby."
"That's what they all say."
"`They all' being who?"
"You think I killed the man? You really think that?"
Actually, no, I didn't. But I didn't want to freely admit that. Better to keep Chad guessing. Maybe he'd move his business to West Virginia. "I heard the man had been dead for less than an hour. If you didn't kill him, you must have brushed elbows with whoever did. If you're the one behind this homicide, I'll find out"
"What do you mean `you'll find out'?"
"I mean I've been hired to investigate the death of Darnell Evans, the Elvis impersonator. Whoever killed him most likely killed the mold remediation man too"
"Hired you? You're not a private investigator, are you?"
"It doesn't matter. I've been hired"
"You want company?" he asked. "I can't get that man out of my head. It could have been me"
What if Chad Davis was the killer? It was true-I didn't see any gloves or a gun when I walked up on him at the house. Still, he could have hidden them. But what motive would he have? Of course, if he helped me with the investigation, he wouldn't have as much time to steal my crime-scene cleaning jobs. And I could keep an eye on him.
It almost seemed too good to be true.
Providing he wasn't the killer, of course.
"If any evidence points to you, I refuse to ignore it;" I finally said.
"So that's a yes?"
I wouldn't mind some help. I wouldn't get it from Parker, and I didn't dare ask Riley. And let's face it, Chad was cute. This could be a win-win situation. "I guess"
"Even if the company is competition?"
I leaned against the kitchen counter and considered his words. "Don't expect any special favors in the job market"
"Let's meet tomorrow at the Ocean View Cafe. Three oclock sound good?"
"I'll be there:"
I hung up, feeling smug about the open invitation to snoop, and saw Parker and Riley staring at me with blatant exasperation. They both knew me too well.
I tried to hide my smirk, but I realized the only way I'd be more obvious was if I had pointy ears, whiskers, and some canary feathers sticking out from my mouth.
PARKER STEPPED into the kitchen and crossed his arms over his broad chest. "What kind of trouble are you getting yourself into now, Gabby?"
I offered my innocent smile. It was a good one. I'd been perfecting it since third grade when I, being of curious mind, blew up a box of matches with a battery and a wire coat hanger. Looking back, I never should have included the lighter fluid, but the pursuit of science carries some risks, right? Ask Einstein. You think his hair got like that naturally?
I laid my hand, delicately dramatic, over my heart. "Trouble? Who said anything about trouble?"
He didn't back down. Maybe Parker and I were good together. He was one of the few men who could handle me. He flicked his hand at the phone. "What was that conversation about?"
"I was simply chatting with a colleague"
Riley stood behind Parker. They both stared at me until I sighed and dropped my fake smile. "If you both must know, there's a new crime-scene cleaner in the area. We're just exchanging trade secrets. What can I say?"