Whistling a tune from Fiddler on the Roof, I used my tweezers to work a piece of Gloria Cunningham’s skull out of the sky blue wall.
With a couple of tugs, the fragment broke loose. Holding it to the light, I studied the sliver that was once a part of a living and breathing woman. It wasn’t much bigger than a splinter, and to the average person would look like a piece of chipped tile.
One thing was for sure: being rich definitely hadn’t done this family any favors.
“Sorry, Tevye, but you were wrong on that one,” I mumbled.
As I worked the rest of the wall, I tried to come up with jingles for my company:
“If your home is bloody
Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum.”
Stumped for something that rhymed with bloody, I hummed “If I Were a Rich Man” and played with my options:
“If your carpet’s gory
Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum.”
It was my new business strategy—to save enough money to buy advertising on the radio. Ever since I came up with the idea, I’d been playing with different tunes, trying to develop the perfect one. It was amazing how many people didn’t know about my services as a crime-scene cleaner.
Yeah, that’s me. A crime-scene cleaner. Bonded and insured. Proud owner of my own business. A fascinating anomaly to those I meet around town.
People waiting in line behind me who strike up conversations always regret it.
“So, what do you do for a living?” the innocent bystander asks, desperate to pass time until it’s her turn to be rung up.
“I mop up blood at crime scenes.”
The color suddenly drains from her face. I might as well say I’m a vampire. Is there something that strange about a girl who cleans up blood for a living? I think not.
I glanced back at the wall. Fractures of bone jutted from the plaster in a spray. It looked like a mosaic gone terribly wrong.
I shook my head and continued to work. Drowning in my blue biohazard suit, a face mask, and gloves that were duct-taped to my sleeves, I looked like a space man at best, a Teletubby at worst. Whoever designed the suits obviously thought nothing about the importance of flattering a woman’s figure. I guess they were too busy worrying about keeping people safe from diseases like AIDS and hepatitis, which could live in blood for up to a week.
I straightened as inspiration hit me. I pulled imaginary pom-poms to my waist and took a cheering stance:
“When blood is there,
I don’t care.
You can call
I used my best Valley Girl voice and bounced like a cheerleader—something I had never desired to be. I was always the scientist in high school, which didn’t help me win any popularity contests. I might as well have joined the chess club.
It also didn’t help that as a child, while all my friends dressed up their dolls, I dissected mine. I wanted to know how the human body worked. Later in life, I developed a fascination with chemicals, a fact that Company 12 of the Norfolk, Virginia, Fire Department can attest to.
Even then it wasn’t my fault. Yes, the fumes that resulted from the chemicals I mixed were deadly. Yes, the teacher meant well when he tackled me to save my life. Still, the spill and the resulting fire were all his fault. Keep your head in a crisis; that’s what I say.
So much for impressing my lab partner, Bartholomew Einstein.
Yes, that was his real name. I’ve never particularly had good taste in guys. I’d moved between nerds and jerks so seamlessly that they should create a twelve-step program just to save me. As of late, there hadn’t been anyone. It might have had something to do with the scent of blood that tends to saturate me after cleaning.
“Is that a new perfume you’re wearing?” the debonair gentleman asks, raising my wrist to his nose.
I raise my head eloquently, pursing my lips in imitation of movie stars of late. “Why no, it’s not. I don’t wear perfume.”
The handsome stranger forces his eyebrows together. “Then what is that smell exuding from you?”
I bat my eyelashes and level with him, “That, my dear, is blood. You think it smells bad? You should be around a human body that’s been decaying for two weeks.”
You had to have a sense of humor to do a job like this. A lot of coffee and chocolate also helped—as did having a personal counselor, aka my neighbor and best friend, Sierra. Boy, she had no idea what she was getting into when she invited me over for coffee the first time. But since I live on the floor above her, she’s stuck with me.
Abandoning my workstation, I crossed the room to the built-in bookcase of the master bedroom. Against protocol, I picked up a picture displaying a happy couple smiling on a white sand beach with the sunset smeared behind them. The woman was blond and beautiful; the man, stocky and masculine.
They both looked so young, only a few years older than my twenty-seven years. They still had so much of life to share together. The husband, Michael Cunningham, was even running for a U.S. Senate seat, hoping to represent this wonderful state of Virginia. I wondered what he would do about his campaign without his trophy wife.
A gloved hand snatched the picture. I gasped and whirled around.
Harold, my assistant.
He pulled his mask up and revealed his aged, round face. “What are you doing?” His deep voice resonated in the room. He reminded me of the man who sang “Old Man River” in Showboat.
“Old Man River”? Hmm . . there could be a jingle in that.
One glance at Harold’s disapproving glare and I knew not to argue.
“It’s your rule, Gabby. Don’t get emotionally attached.”
“I know. I just needed a break from cleaning.” I pulled up my mask, and a red curl bounced down over my eye. I let it droop rather than touch it with my gloved hands. “How are things going on the stairway?”
Harold didn’t know about the hours of research I poured into my job, trying to learn background details of the case. I wanted to know the victims. I wanted to theorize who could be the killer. Basically, I wanted to be a crime-scene investigator. But without a degree, I was forced to do everything in an unofficial capacity.
“I pulled up the carpet. The owner will have to replace it. There’s just no way to get all of that blood up. It went into the padding and subfloor.”
I glanced around the bedroom. “Whoever did this was a monster.”
“And my mom always told me they didn’t exist.”
“Well, they do, and this one left us a heap of a mess to clean up. This is more than a one-day job.”
I leaned closer to Harold. Moisture covered his face. “You need a break?”
“Don’t push yourself too hard. I understand how tough this is.”
Yeah, like Harold would let a girl young enough to be his granddaughter outlast him on a job. The man did have pride. His gaze darted across the room. “What happened in here?” I drew in a deep breath.
“Gloria Cunningham was about to testify against a suspect in an armed-robbery trial. The perp—er, suspect—threatened her, saying if she went to court, he’d kill her. Two days before the trial, he broke into her home while she was sleeping.” I spread my arm to show the room. It told the story better than words.
The crime scene had remained active for a week. I had heard about the case on the news and slipped over to the house to leave a business card. As soon as the police okayed it, Michael Cunningham’s mother had called me to see if I could clean things up before her son was released from the hospital. He’d been shot in the leg while trying to save his wife.
A lot of people thought I worked for the police department, but I didn’t. I was an independent contractor. The police weren’t allowed to recommend services to anyone—not for anything from towing to cleaning. So I spend a lot of my days getting to know embalmers and body snatchers, my nickname for those who take the dead bodies to the morgue.
To get business, I watched the news. I followed leads by placing my card at crime scenes. As the only crime-scene cleaner in the area, I had almost 100 percent success. But drumming up jobs took a lot of time, which is why I’d been daydreaming about a radio spot that advertised my business. It would save me a lot of legwork.
I could hear Harry Connick Jr. singing it now . . . no, better yet, Julie Andrews. I closed my eyes as a melody that sounded vaguely reminiscent of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” came to mind:
“If you’ve been shot,
If you’ve been stabbed,
If blood on your walls says, ‘Someone’s been bad.’
Trauma Care is the-e-ere for you.”
“Gabby?” I quit writing advertising jingles and noticed Harold staring at me like I needed to go to the psych ward. “Well, it’s back to work for us.” Sincerely hoping I hadn’t been humming a Christmas carol out loud, I turned back to my modern-art brain splatters.
It took me four hours to clean up the walls of the bedroom. What a bullet did to a human brain just didn’t bear thinking about.
Harold finished the stairway and then cleaned the broken glass downstairs where the intruder had entered the house. With that done, he came to help me in the bedroom.
The blood-splattered coverlet had to be thrown away, as well as the sheets. We shoved them into special hazmat containers that I’d take to the hospital to be disposed of properly. Most of the carpet would have to be taken up in the bedroom, also.
I’d call Michael Cunningham’s mother and see if she wanted us to subcontract the work out and have it replaced before her son returned home. Most people didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened in their once-safe homes. In fact, most people ended up selling their houses after a crime because the memories were too vivid.
At 7:30, Harold tapped my shoulder and pointed to his watch. “Grandson? Baseball game? Okay if I get going?”
Had we really been here ten hours? “Sure. I can finish. Come back in the morning. Eight o’clock.”
“I’ll be here.” He started out of the bedroom and paused. “You sure you’ll be okay here by yourself? I can stay. . .”
“No, no. I’ll be fine. I just need to sand down this wall, and then I’ll call it a night.”
He didn’t move. His brow furrowed as he stood in the doorway.
I flashed him a smile. I loved Harold. I’d only hired him a month ago, but he already worried about me like I was his daughter. Then I thought of my real father and mentally apologized to Harold for the insult.
“Really. The suspect is behind bars. It’s ugly, but it’s not dangerous. Besides, I’ll be out of here in fifteen minutes.”
“If you say so. You’re the boss.”
As soon as Harold left, I wished he hadn’t. Blessed—or cursed, depending on your outlook—with a vivid imagination, I felt chills run up my spine as I pictured the events unfolding.
Too clearly, I could see the couple sleeping in bed. The husband hears glass breaking downstairs. Grabbing a baseball bat, he goes down to check it out, only the intruder is hiding, waiting for just the right moment to sneak upstairs and kill the sole witness to his crime.
The killer plans to escape by the ladder he left perched at the window, but the husband is too quick. As soon as the gunshot goes off, the husband is back upstairs in the bedroom. He sees the intruder climbing out the window. As he runs toward the man, the intruder takes another shot and hits Michael’s knee, shattering it.
Shaking my head, I opened the closet door and sagged against it. Rows of expensive, elegant dresses hung limply. Taking my glove off, I fingered the silky material of one, pulling it to my nose. It smelled of subtle flowers.
The wife should still be wearing her beautiful dresses and spritzing her expensive perfumes. The woman’s smile should still light up a room.
The dress slipped out of my hands.
“At least they have your murderer behind bars,” I mumbled, stepping back.
My fingers closed over the door handle, and I started to push it shut. A spot of red on the carpet made me falter. I squinted, staring at the stain. How did that get in the closet? Blood wasn’t anywhere else on this side of the room.
I slipped my gloves back on and pushed a couple of shoeboxes to the side. Mindful of carpet tacks, I tugged at the berber shag. It came up with surprising ease.
I dragged the piece of carpet into the middle of the bedroom and went back to pull up the padding. I checked the subfloor to see if the stain had soaked through. It looked okay.
Just as I was about to stand, an abnormality in the wood caught my eye. In the back corner of the closet, the subfloor was different from the rest. A small square had been cut out and replaced.
Could it just have been a leaky pipe replacement?
I moved toward the spot.
My breath caught.
A speck of blood stained the wood.
The carpet in that same area hadn’t had any blood. I was sure of it.
Taking a knife from the belt at my waist, I pried under the wood. The board lifted.
With shaky hands, I pulled it back. Tucked between the floorboards, I saw a metal box.
I pulled out the container as if it were a priceless, fragile piece of art. Its contents clanged in the silence.
It was heavy. Too heavy for jewelry and trinkets.
Leaning down until my face was even with it, I clicked the latch. With a squeak, the box opened.