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Granted, it had been only three days since Kate brought me her dress. Some people don't come back for their clothes for weeks. They seem to think our plant is a giant closet, set up for their personal convenience. If they don't have adequate storage space at home, why not just leave their winter wardrobes at the cleaners all summer?
But Kate had been too enthusiastic about the dress to do that. Unless she'd found a rich new lover and they'd flown off to Venice together.
I stared at the hatbox with the dress nestled down inside. It was on the shelf where we kept comforters and other household items, and I grabbed it and headed for the back of the plant.
"You'd have thought Kate would have been here by now to get her dress, the way she was so thrilled about," I said to McKenzie Rivers, my cleaner/spotter.
Mack had been excited, too, when Kate went around to the back door of the plant to tell him about it. He said he'd seen only one other Fortuny in all the years he'd worked for my uncle.
"Kate probably just got too busy with all the other things she does," he reminded me.
Mack's a big black man, who knew Kate because he's involved in community theater, and when he'd staged Othello a couple of years ago, she had helped find some of the costumes for the production.
"I'm going to take it over to her shop," I said, trying to feel reassured by his words.
Mack nodded. "Tell her I think she looks like a red-haired Theda Bara in that new, short hairdo."
"And who, pray tell, is Theda Bara?"
He grinned. "She was a silent screen star known as 'The Vamp.' "
"Okay, Kate ought to like that." It was the era she coveted, after all. "If you're gone by the time I get back, I'll see you tomorrow."
I'd been wanting to play hooky from the cleaners, and I finally had an excuse to get outside. It was a beautiful day with the temperature in the mid eighties, and I didn't even bother to go in my office and get the jacket to my peach-colored linen suit. I just took off.
I climbed inside what I called my "starter" car, a used Hyundai that I'd purchased recently. Before that I'd used the company van as my personal transportation, when it wasn't in service making our deliveries. With the Dyer's Cleaners logo on the side, I'd once looked at the van as advertising on wheels. To my regret I'd discovered several months back that advertising yourself everywhere you go can be downright conspicuous sometimes, not to mention incriminating, when the van had shown up at a crime scene.
I drove past the exclusive Cherry Creek Mall, turned south on University, and eventually wound my way to a cluster of shops in South Denver with a totally different style than Cherry Creek. They were in a neighborhood shopping area that has been turned into an eclectic bunch of artsy-crafty stores with simulated gas streetlights out front on the sidewalk.
Kate's store was between a bookstore and a doll-repair shop. It was located in its own separate Victorian building and looked like a giant dollhouse itself.
Parking was always a problem on the street, but I finally found a space a few buildings north of her shop. I walked back to it, holding the Fortuny hatbox as if I were a courier with a briefcase full of money.
Maybe Kate and I weren't rich and famous yet, but things were looking up, I tried to tell myself. She'd found the Fortuny, and my business was doing better now. Even though this was June--the beginning of the dog days for dry cleaners--the volume at the plant was up from last year, thanks to my delivery route, which I'd expanded to residential customers as well as businesses. Besides, I had a fellow, which had pleased my mother immensely when she visited me a few weeks before. And I'd even thought Kate might be falling in love with her silent partner, Evan Carmody, until she'd said she should never have gotten involved with him. I hoped she'd feel like talking about it when we went to dinner Saturday night.
I hurried up the four steps to the porch of Kate's shop only to find a CLOSED sign on the door. I set down the hatbox and cupped my hands around my eyes so I could look inside the store, which had once been the parlor of the house. There were no lights inside, but there was a shaft of sunlight coming in from a window on the south side of the building. It made the place look old and dusty, but I knew Kate kept it spotlessly clean. It was just the vintage clothing that gave it that feel, plus the mannequin near the front window, who wore a forties-style pompadour.
Maybe Kate had gone to lunch, I thought, although it was already three in the afternoon. I knew she couldn't afford any help except around Halloween, when she hired some part-timers. Perhaps she'd closed early because there was an estate sale somewhere.
I wasn't about to leave the Fortuny dress on the porch or with a neighboring shopkeeper, not the way Kate felt about it, but I wouldn't give up yet. If she'd gone to lunch, chances were she was eating in her apartment, which was on the second floor, above her shop. It had a separate entrance leading up to it from around at the side of the building.
Retracing my way down the steps, I took the sidewalk that led to the wooden stairway to the apartment. A rose bush was out in full bloom by the side of the building, and I could smell its fragrance as I went by. I would have stopped to smell the blossoms except that I was beginning to feel anxious. Besides, the bees that buzzed around the bush might not like my invading their territory.
At the foot of the stairs I came across the morning edition of the Denver Tribune where my friend Nat works as a police reporter. I took a look at the dateline, which is why I knew it was today's paper. Within the next half-dozen stairs, there were two more issues of the Trib.
"Kate," I yelled, feeling an increasing sense of alarm. "Are you up there?" I took the rest of the steps two at a time. I planned to knock, and if she didn't answer, start a canvass of the neighborhood. I never had a chance. When I got to the landing, I saw that the door was ajar. Just a little, but enough so that I knew it wasn't the way it should have been.
"Kate." I pushed open the door. "Are you home? What's the matter?"
The moment I looked inside, I knew it was something bad. The neat little apartment had been turned upside down. My stomach lurched. The drawers had been rifled in her desk and in the hutch in her dining room. Sofa pillows were tossed on the floor, and a lamp was upended. I set down the hatbox by the door and went inside. What I wanted to do was turn and run.
When I went to the bedroom door, the smell almost stopped me. I wasn't sure I could force myself to go inside. I could see clothes that had been torn off their hangers and thrown on the floor. Flies rose up from beyond the bed near the window, much as the bees had swarmed around the rose bush outside. I held my nose and willed my feet to move toward them.
I saw her when I got to the foot of the bed. She was on the floor between the bed and the wall, her short auburn hair still perfectly arranged as if someone had smoothed it down. That was the only thing that reminded me of the way she'd been.
A fringed scarf from some bygone era was pulled tight around her neck, so tight I couldn't even see the part that had choked her to death. Her eyes stared up at me unseeing, but with the remains of fear and disbelief still in them. Her body was bloated from the heat and covered with the flies. I was sure she'd been there several days, maybe even since Monday, when she'd come to the cleaners.
I wanted to scream, but no sound came. I needed to call the police, but I couldn't move. All I could do was stare down at my once-beautiful friend as the bile rose in my throat. As I tried to swallow, I saw the phone near her hand. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing it, but I knew I shouldn't do that. I needed to go to a neighboring shop owner and call for help.
Run. Get out of there. Escape. The message still wasn't getting to my legs.
My eyes traveled from the phone to a crimson scarf in her hand. The color of blood. It must have been the only thing she could grab as she reached out for a Peg-Board on the wall behind her in an effort to keep from falling. The Peg-Board had crashed to the floor, scattering the long necklaces and scarves that had once been draped over it, but the scarf she'd grabbed was like a beacon, pointing to a tiny scrap of paper that was also in her hand. The piece of paper looked as if it was all that remained of a larger sheet that had been ripped from her grasp.
I couldn't leave yet. Not with the awful fear that was growing in my stomach about the remnant of paper and what it looked like.
I bent down closer to Kate's body, trying not to look at her, only at the ragged scrap of paper. I held my breath and squinted my eyes to focus on the paper. I was right.
It was a torn fragment of computer paper, and my worst fears were confirmed. It was from the top of the tickets we give to our customers to use when they pick up their clothes. I could see the letters Dy that were part of the name Dyer's Cleaners. The rest of the ticket for the Fortuny dress was missing.
From the Paperback edition.