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Moving Is Murder
By Sara Rosett
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Sara Rosett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLight bled across the horizon, but it was still night below the towering pines where the figure in black slipped up the driveway toward the slumbering house and slithered under the parked minivan. A small flashlight beam illuminated the engine and its hoses. The beam found the right hose and followed it until it was within reach. Metal glinted in the light. A small prick, not a slash, produced a drop of brake fluid that bubbled out and dripped to the ground. The figure twisted around and repeated the procedure on the other hoses. The person allowed a small smile as tiny puddles formed.
With a backward push, the dark form emerged from under the van, grabbed the knife, and shoved it into a deep pocket before joining the early morning joggers trotting through the still neighborhood.
* * *
Nothing had gone wrong-yet. It made me nervous. Something always went wrong when we moved. There was the time our mattress became a sponge in the mover's leaky storage unit and another time our handmade silk rug vanished from our shipment but, so far, our move to Vernon in Eastern Washington State had been uneventful.
I set down a box brimming with crumpled packing paper that threatened to spill over its edge like froth on a cappuccino and watched the moving van lumber away. Its top grazed the leaves of the maple trees that arched over Nineteenth Street, making the street into a leafy tunnel. Sweat trickled down between my shoulder blades.
My fingers itched to get back inside our new house, rip open the butterscotch-colored tape on the boxes, and bring order out of chaos, but inside the heat magnified the smells of fresh paint, floor wax, and dusty cardboard from the boxes that were stacked almost to the coved ceiling.
The heat wasn't as bad outside because there was a breeze, but it was still ninety-nine degrees. Since we didn't have air-conditioning, stepping outside was like moving from inside a heated oven to the fringe of a campfire.
I pushed my damp bangs off my face as a black pickup slowed in front of our house. The driver draped his arm over the open window and called to my husband, "Mitch Avery, is that you?" A bright shoulder patch contrasted with the olive drab of the driver's flight suit. "I didn't know you were moving into Base Housing-East," he continued.
"Steven?" Mitch trotted down the sidewalk. I followed slowly. I'd probably heard him wrong. We were miles from base housing.
Mitch's friend parked his truck on the curb beside a pile of wardrobe boxes that needed to go to the shed since our bedroom closet was roughly the size of a matchbox. Patches on our visitor's chest and upper arms identified him as Captain Steven Givens, a member of the 52nd ARS, or in real language without the acronyms, the 52nd Air Refueling Squadron, Mitch's new squadron. They did the guy equivalent of air kisses: a handshake and a half-hug with slaps on the back.
Mitch introduced Steven.
"This is my wife, Ellie," he said. "And this is my daughter, Olivia." He patted Livvy's head, barely visible in the BabyBjörn carrier I had strapped on my chest.
Steven smiled and shook my hand in a firm, eager grip. "This is great that you're moving in. We live on Twentieth." He had thick burnt almond-colored hair cut neatly to regulation above sincere hazel eyes. His smooth complexion made him look young, even though I knew he had to be older than Mitch.
I glanced at Mitch. His smile was relaxed, so apparently he didn't mind that Steven lived one block away.
"So what do you think of Base Housing-East?" Steven asked, gesturing to the empty street.
Mitch and I looked at each other blankly.
"You didn't know half the squadron lives up here?" Steven asked.
"Here? In Vernon?" I asked.
"Right here, on Black Rock Hill. Most everyone lives within a few blocks," Steven said.
So much for our flawless moving day. Mitch and I exchanged glances. This was much worse than damage to our household goods.
"Well, it won't be like living on-base. We're not next door to each other, right?" Mitch asked.
"No, but Joe, our 'C' Flight Commander, and his wife live across the street from you. The McCarters are on Twentieth with us. There're too many to count, probably ten or fifteen couples, now that you're moving in." Steven beamed like this was the best news he could give us. Why hadn't my friend Abby, who had also just moved here, mentioned this?
"At least the squadron commander is still on-base," Mitch joked.
"No, with the remodeling going on in base housing they don't have many houses open. Colonel Briman lives down your street." Mitch looked like he'd been punched in the stomach.
Steven thumped him on the shoulder. "Welcome to the neighborhood." Steven hoisted up a box, spoke around it. "Where do you want this? I can help you out for a few hours. I was coming home to meet Gwen," he glanced at me and explained, "that's my wife, for lunch. But she's tied up at work. She's the manager at Tate's and has a heck of a time getting away from there."
"So the old bachelor finally got hitched?" Mitch seemed to have recovered from Steven's bombshell. A smile tilted up the corners of his mouth as he kidded with Steven.
"Yeah. I gave in." Steven shrugged.
Mitch's smile widened as he transferred his gaze to me, but spoke to Steven. "It's great, isn't it?"
"Sure is. Now, where do you want this box?"
Mitch pointed to the shed. "Over there. Anywhere inside."
I touched Mitch's shoulder to hold him back from following Steven. I kept my voice low. "I can't believe we bought a house in the wrong neighborhood," I said. "I mean, we've moved how many times? Four?"
"In five years," Mitch confirmed. I felt a sigh bubble up inside me. I squashed it. When I married Mitch I knew we'd have to move. After all, he was a pilot in the Air Force. Moves came with the job. We'd talked about our next assignment and I'd pictured somewhere exotic and foreign, Europe or Asia, Germany or Japan. Not Washington State. And certainly not Vernon, Washington, during a heat wave. And my vision of our next assignment definitely hadn't included living next door to everyone else in the squad.
I needed chocolate. I dug into my shorts pocket and pulled out a Hershey Kiss. Chocolate makes even the worst situation look better. It was mushy from the heat, but I managed to peel the foil away and pop it in my mouth. I felt as weak as a wet paper towel.
I lifted Livvy out of the BabyBjörn and transferred her to the bouncy chair in the shade of the pines beside Mitch's makeshift table, a wardrobe box, where he'd checked off each box or piece of furniture on our inventory as the movers unloaded it.
I surveyed the quiet street and came back to what was really bothering me. "Four moves and we make a mistake like this."
We'd researched everything. At least, we thought we had. To avoid living with Mitch's coworkers twenty-four hours a day, we'd decided to live off-base. We wanted privacy and Vernon, Washington, the major city thirty miles from Mitch's new assignment, Greenly Air Force Base, seemed like the perfect place to buy our first home.
We picked an arts-and-crafts-style bungalow on Black Rock Hill, a "regeneration area," our realtor, Elsa, had called it. As the original owners retired and moved to sunnier climates, young professionals moved in and updated. Apparently, everyone else from Greenly AFB had picked Black Rock Hill, too.
"This is one of the best neighborhoods in town." Mitch wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm. "Great schools, there's a park one block down the road, and it's only thirty minutes from the base."
"I know. I know. You're right," I said. "But it's not our property values I'm worried about. Well," I amended, "I certainly don't want them to go down." My stomach flip-flopped every time I thought of the money we'd plunked down on the house. Buying a house was kind of risky for us. Unlike corporate America, there weren't any moving packages for military folks. Either we sold our house when our three years at Greenly were up or we took the financial hit.
"Buyer's remorse?" Mitch asked. "You look a little sick."
"No. It's the thought of people from the squadron dropping in at any moment or watching us."
Mitch stepped on the paper in a box to flatten it. "At least they can't make us shovel our sidewalk or mow the lawn."
"You're right." I removed the Björn carrier and pulled my sweaty T-shirt away from my back.
"Come on," Mitch said. "It won't be so bad. Everybody's so busy that most people won't even notice us."
"I don't know. Ten or fifteen couples. And the squadron commander," I said, thinking of nosy neighbors checking our driveway for Mitch's car to see if he knocked off work early. "You can park in the empty side of the garage," I offered. "But only until it starts to snow. Then I get it."
"Deal," Mitch said. "You'll have the boxes on the other side of the garage sorted out in a few weeks. How's it going inside?"
"Great, if I want to do some baking. So far I've found the placemats, cake pans, and measuring spoons and cups, but no plates or silverware. Or glasses."
I'd made sure the boxes we needed with our essential things were the last items loaded on the truck, so they'd be the first off. I hadn't counted on the movers unloading our stuff, storing it for two weeks, and then reloading it on another truck in random order.
Mitch considered the seven empty boxes stacked by the curb. "You know, it's not too late to move again. Almost everything is still in boxes."
I was tempted for a moment, but then I looked at the neighborhood and our house. Bungalows with broad porches and sturdy pillars rested in the shade of towering maple and pine trees. A few houses, like ours, had an English influence. Its steep A-line roof sloped down to honey-colored bricks, leaded-glass windows, and an arched front door. It was a gingerbread cottage out of a fairy tale and I loved it. A warm breeze stirred the trees and lifted the strands of hair off my sweaty neck. "No way. We'll just have to be mildly friendly and keep our distance."
Three hours later, I plodded along, gritty with dried sweat, mentally running down my Day One Moving Checklist while I pushed Livvy's stroller. We'd found sheets, but towels were still a no-show. No sign of plates, silverware, and glasses either.
Livvy let out a half-cry, more a squawk, then fell silent to study the dappled sunlight and shade as it flicked over her stroller canopy. She'd been content most of the day to watch the parade of movers, but half an hour ago her patience ran out. I'd fed, burped, and changed her, but she still squeezed her eyes shut and shrieked. She didn't like walking, humming, or singing either. I used to rely on a quick car ride to soothe her, but her enchantment with the car seat evaporated during our road trip from Southern California to Washington State. That meant I had to resort to the big guns, a walk.
Where else could the towels be? We definitely needed showers tonight. We'd unpacked all the boxes labeled BATHROOM. Maybe LINEN CLOSET?
"Ellie, did you hear me?"
"Sorry. I was wondering where the towels might be packed," I said to my friend Abby, the one person I didn't mind dropping in on me. She was such a good friend I put her to work as soon as she had showed up this afternoon even though her style was a shotgun approach compared with my more methodical way. She tore open the boxes and pulled everything out.
Her curly black hair, pulled back in a ponytail, bounced in time with her steady stride as she motored down the sidewalk. "I'll bring over some of our towels for you. I'm so glad you're finally moving in," she said. "You can run with me. I go every morning." Her white sleeveless shirt and jean cutoffs showed off her tanned, toned arms and legs. She claimed her figure tended toward stockiness, but with her energy and huge smile she looked great to me. I couldn't get into last summer's shorts because of pregnancy weight still hanging around, especially on my tummy and thighs.
"Yeah, right. I can't stand running, remember?" Before my pregnancy I ran a few times with Abby, but it reminded me of how much I hated it. Abby and I met two years ago in one of those prefabricated friendship opportunities that arise in military life. Mitch and Abby's husband, Jeff, were friends at the Air Force Academy. More than once, I had found myself straining to carry on a conversation with another wife over dinner while Mitch and his friend caught up. But Abby and I hit it off right away, except for her love of jogging.
"Why didn't you tell me there were so many people from the squadron in this neighborhood?" I asked.
"I didn't realize until we moved in and started unpacking." Abby bounced along beside me. "It'll be great-just like base housing, only better because these houses are newer."
Before I could argue with this overly optimistic view she pointed to a gray stucco house with black shutters. Blooms of roses, hollyhocks, and mums layered color and texture around the base of the trees and house. "That's Cass and Joe Vincent's house," Abby said. A spade and pruning shears had been tossed on the ground beside a bucket sprouting uprooted weeds and grass. "He's Jeff's flight commander, 'C' Flight. She's into gardening and ecology-the environment and all that. She writes about it." Abby's voice had an edge to it.
"You don't like her?" Abby's bubbly personality blended with most people's.
"She's all right," Abby said.
"Cass, from that gardening column in the newspaper, 'Clippings with Cass'?"
"Yes. And she writes articles for environmental Web sites and magazines. A few months ago she headed up a crusade to keep Wal-Mart from building a supercenter on Black Rock Hill. You know, the usual-local neighborhood versus big retailer. But she found some restriction and she was on that news show, 24/7, as the local environmental expert. I think it went to her head." Abby waved her hand, shuffling the subject away. "Enough about that. How about going to the spouse coffee with me tomorrow night?"
I felt Abby look at me out of the corner of her eye to gauge my reaction before she said, "I know you just got here, but please go with me tomorrow night."
"Abby." My voice had a warning tone.
"I know you don't like the coffees, but I need you to go with me. The times I've gotten together with the spouses here it's been strained, or, I don't know, tense."
Abby sighed as I maneuvered the stroller onto the bumpy walking path of the park down the block from our house. "I know you don't want to go, but I really want to make a good impression. And I want to get involved, too," she added, almost defiantly. "When I finally got to Hunter, they announced the base closing and the coffees just sort of fizzled out."
"Thank God," I muttered.
"You can sneer all you want. You've done it, but I want to give it a shot."
"Abby, they're boring. No fun." This was the most convincing argument I could think of to persuade Abby not to go. She always wanted to experience new things, but she wanted them to be fun and exciting. "It's just the wives of the higher-ranking officers and enlisted trying to outdo each other."
"Well, I don't care if it is boring. We'll make it fun. I want to support Jeff and if it can help him, I'm doing it."
"Slow down," I pleaded. She'd picked up the pace and we were nearly running around the rolling path that circled the playground and duck pond of Windemere Park. "Mitch says if his career depends on how many cookies I bake, then he doesn't want an Air Force career."
"Jeff supports me in my teaching," Abby countered. "He doesn't say a word about the extra time I put in getting ready for school. And last year I bought so many school supplies I thought I should just stay in line at WalMart, but he didn't mind. I want to support him, too."
We left the park and crossed Birch Street to head back down Nineteenth Street. "How much is the Vernon Public School District going to ask of Jeff? Monthly meetings? Two dozen cookies?"
I knew that set look on Abby's face, so I gave up trying to argue with her and looked down the street to our new house. Even from this end of the block I could see it. Warm yellow light shone from every window. Why hadn't Mitch closed the curtains in the growing dusk?
Excerpted from Moving Is Murder by Sara Rosett Copyright © 2006 by Sara Rosett. Excerpted by permission.
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