Despite a looming deadline, Maggie thinks she has what it takes to help friends Jason and Stephen unclutter their large Victorian in time for its scheduled renovation. But before she can fill a single bin with unused junk, Jason leaves for Texas on an emergency business trip, Stephen's injured mastiff limps home-and Stephen himself lands in jail for murder. Someone killed the owner of a local Chinese restaurant and stuffed him in the freezer. Stephen, caught at the crime scene covered in blood, is the number one suspect. Now Maggie must devise a strategy to sort through secrets and set him free-before she's tossed into permanent storage next . . .
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According to popular wisdom, there are few things more dangerous than mixing friendship with one's professional life. But organizing is a personal business and I tend to make friends with all my clients.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Thursday, February 16, Morning
"Maggie, we've got a crisis," Jason had said the last time I'd talked to him. "I know you insist on working with both halves of a couple —"
"But I'm also a problem solver. What's up?"
"That spate of tornadoes and flooding in Texas, that's what. I've been deployed. I can't back out or delay our departure. Those people are hurting, and it's the first test of my new auxiliary law-enforcement team. A group of TV journalists is reporting on our project for some newsmagazine. Our funding and the future of programs like this depend on our success." Jason rattled off the sentences breathlessly, without giving me a chance to comment or interrupt.
I understood his predicament. He'd been working on establishing a rapid-response law enforcement team for as long as I'd known him. The short version of the saga was that the team, with all its supplies, could swoop into a disaster area and support law enforcement efforts under local authority. The idea was to prevent looting, keep people safe, provide skilled guidance to volunteers, and eliminate many of the problems experienced by civilians, volunteers, and first responders following Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. Jason's team and others like it hoped to plug gaps between what FEMA and the National Guard could provide and what community resources were designed to accomplish.
"No problem," I said. "We'll start after you get back."
"Stephen's ready to start, like, yesterday, and the demolition is only two weeks away."
"Ah ..." I began, stalling for time. "To be successful, any system we develop will have to include you. If it's going to work long term —"
"Look, Maggie, I've got to go. They're loading our containers on the cargo plane. Stephen and I talked about priorities and goals last night. We made a list. I gave him parameters for tossing my stuff, and I promised not to divorce him if he gives away my favorite baseball glove. If that works for you, great. If not, take it up with Stephen. Arrange something —"
The phone cut off. I was left with the decision of whether to begin or postpone. I spotted several potential problems with Jason's plan. Among the stumbling blocks was the fact that they might waste time and money creating a system that would work for Stephen, but not for Jason. When I'd spoken to Stephen, afterward, he considered my advice but ultimately decided to go ahead.
"No matter what Jason says, he's going to have trouble making time for this project, even once he's home again," Stephen said. "Damn the torpedoes ..."
That was two days ago. I'd decided Stephen was right. With Jason's full-time job as a police detective he was never in full control of his own hours. Stephen was a retired US Marine who worked unpredictable hours volunteering with veterans and their canine counterparts, creating civilian partnerships. If we were going to have their house ready to start a major remodel, there was no time to waste.
Today, Stephen and I were meeting to start purging their belongings, deciding what to save, and fine-tuning our organizational strategy.
I knocked on the front door of their sprawling Victorian near the Palo Alto border. There was no answer to the bell. No resonant woof from Stephen's huge mastiff, Munchkin. I peered through the front window, leaving the print of my nose on the glass. Only dust motes moved inside.
I sat on the front step and texted Stephen:
My calendar says we're meeting at 8:30 today. Do I have that right?
Stephen was an early riser, so I'd agreed to meet him as soon as I dropped my teen boys at the middle school and high school. He'd promised me coffee and bagels. At the thought of food, my stomach rumbled and my mouth filled with saliva. I was starving and caffeine deprived. My golden retriever, Belle, thumped her tail, whined, and leaned into me, looking up with yearning. Normally, I didn't bring Belle to work with me, but Stephen was a friend of mine, a dog person, and Munchkin was Belle's BFF.
"They'll be back soon," I told her, referring to both Stephen and his seldom-absent canine partner. "I'm sure everything is fine. How often are they ever late?"
Belle made a polite sound in response.
"Right," I said. "Never ... Well, nearly never."
Extreme and unrelenting punctuality was a fault of Stephen's, an artifact of his time in the military. Some of his friends found it annoying, but I shared the trait and appreciated his timely arrival whenever we got together. I bit my lip, sighed, and squinted into the sun to scan the neighborhood. There was no car in the drive. He must have had a last-minute errand that went longer than he had planned. Unexpected traffic tie-ups were a recurring Silicon Valley problem. With the high-tech economy, growing population, and high-density building projects booming, the area was home to a record number of people. More people meant more cars. A trip to the dentist that took fifteen minutes a month or two earlier could easily take thirty minutes or longer today, even without a rush-hour fender bender creating gridlock. The problem grew worse daily and there was no easy solution.
I looked at my watch. Any minute, I expected to see Stephen and Munchkin loping up the street from one direction or the other. At six-foot-four inches, accompanied by a dog that weighed almost as much as he did, Stephen was hard to miss.
I paced in front of the house. This situation reminded me too much of a client session I'd begun four months earlier, standing on a front porch a few blocks away when my client was late. That morning had culminated in the death of a dear friend. I shivered, drew my fleece coat closer to me, peered at my phone, and dialed Stephen's number.
The phone rang before I could finish punching the buttons.
"Hello?" I said. The phone responded with crackles and pops.
"... police station ... jail ..."
"Hello? Who is this? I'm not going to fall for that trick. My kids are safe in school." I disconnected the call. Our entire town had been plagued with phishing phone calls from crooks pretending to be our children or grandchildren. The calls all followed the same pattern: a distraught young voice claiming to be kin begged for money to be wired immediately. Most people, like me, recognized it for what it was and hung up the phone. But older people, those in the beginning stages of dementia or vulnerable in other ways, grew distraught. A friend of my mom called her daughter nearly every day to be reassured that the children and grandchildren were safe. The scams were criminal, disruptive, and downright cruel.
I shook off my righteous indignation and dialed Stephen again. In the process, I noted that the crooks, whoever they were, were getting crafty. My phone reported that the phishing call originated from the police station in Mountain View, the town that abutted Orchard View's southern border. I made a mental note to tell Jason about the call the next time we spoke. When he wasn't helping flood-ravaged towns in Texas, Jason was an Orchard View detective. He'd know who to notify about calls from people impersonating the police.
My call went to voice mail.
"Stephen?" I said. "I'm here at your house for our meeting and to get started on the front room. I can begin without you, but I'm a little worried. Can you please call and let me know what's up and when you'll get here? If you're in a bind and want to reschedule, that's fine. Just let me know you're okay."
I heard the tension in my voice. I was worried. But the best cure for fear was action, so I let Belle into the backyard through a side gate and started unpacking the tools of my trade from my trunk.
I unfolded a collapsible wagon and filled it with portable garment racks for sorting clothing. I added a dozen flattened cardboard boxes for storing anything we decided to keep and move. On top of the pile I added my newest find: a stack of flat-bottomed paper bags generally used in towns that required them for yard clippings. I'd marked them with an assortment of color-coded stick-on labels: garbage, recycling, and donations. The flat bottoms made it easy to set the bags up anywhere and their double-walled sides were stiff enough that the bags stayed open, making loading easy. Anything we wanted to keep would be put on a garment rack or in a box. I asked my clients to touch everything they needed to make decisions about, but to handle each item as few times as possible.
It would be a bit tricky to make decisions about Jason's belongings in his absence, particularly since his team had been asked to avoid making phone calls from the disaster area. When a widespread disaster occurs, communications networks quickly become overwhelmed by public safety officials making emergency calls, and hundreds of thousands of people checking on loved ones. Jason's emergency team was intended to help the situation rather than compound the problem. Hence, they were allowed to send and receive texts, but Jason had asked us to avoid calling and told us not to be concerned if we didn't hear from him. He was going to be very busy, working long, hard days to help the people of Texas restore their lives.
We'd agreed to temporarily store Jason's belongings in the garage for him to sort through after he returned. Part of my job was to organize those items in a way that would streamline the decision-making process.
I rattled the wagon up the front walk and unloaded it so I could get everything up the steep porch steps. If Stephen were here, he could have carried the wagon for me. I glanced up and down the street again, searching for man, dog, or car. Where were they?
I'd arranged my supplies neatly on the porch when I stopped again to glance at my phone for messages. Stephen was now more than half an hour late. Momentum was important to clients who were doing the hard work of sorting through years of belongings. Every time they hit a snag, they were tempted to stop, which made starting again twice as difficult. That was part of my job as a professional organizer: keeping things moving forward and smoothing out the inevitable frustrations.
Belle barked from the backyard. It wasn't a bark I recognized but she sounded alarmed. She scratched at the gate and barked again, louder this time. Something was wrong.
"What's the matter, girl?" I bustled down the steps and around the corner of the porch to the back gate. "Are you lonely? I've got the key, but I'm not sure I want to go inside without Stephen and Jason here. It's not an emergency, after all."
Belle barked again with a sharp tone that sounded remarkably like Is too!
I sighed. I'd call Stephen one more time before giving up and going home to tackle some dreaded paperwork. But then I heard something and looked up. I squinted. "Munchkin?" Belle barked again and I took a few steps toward the distant shape slowly approaching on the sidewalk. It moved somewhat, but not quite, like the big mastiff. But it couldn't be him, could it? If it was, where was Stephen? I could count on one hand the number of times I'd seen one of them without the other.
I broke into a run as soon as my brain sorted out the clues. It was Munchkin, but he was limping badly, walking stiffly, and his head drooped. I winced, empathizing with his pain.
I sank to my knees as I reached him, tempted to scoop up the dog in my arms to comfort both of us.
He growled quietly to warn me off, then whimpered, looking up with an expression of pain and a brow that wrinkled more than usual. He whimpered again as he sat, leaning heavily to the right to take weight off his left leg and hip.
"I'm no veterinarian, but something is very wrong with that leg, Munchkin. You poor thing." His fur was dirty and matted with mud, leaves, and an alarming amount of blood. Close up, I could see a deep laceration on his bad leg. Several clumps of hair seeped with the bright crimson of an actively bleeding wound. A dotted line of blood marked the sidewalk behind him.
I looked at the neighbors' houses and listened for sounds that might tell me someone was home ... a car starting up, a lawnmower, a dryer thumping with damp tennis shoes or clanking as a zipper went round and round. It was dead quiet.
I sat back on my heels. "Okay, boy. Do you think you can make it back to the house? You're going to need some cleaning up, and maybe a veterinarian for some stitches. Yup, that's a certainty, I'm afraid. He can check you over and make sure there's no damage we can't see." My knees creaked as I stood, reminding me that I hadn't been paying enough attention to my stretching and strength-training regimen.
Munchkin groaned as he lumbered to his feet. I patted his shoulder in what I hoped he'd understand was encouragement.
Belle helped, barking from beyond the gate.
Munchkin was a mess and smelled terrible, as if he'd been raiding dumpsters or playing with the undead.
"Where have you been, old boy? And where is Stephen?"
Belle threw herself at Munchkin as we came through the gate. He growled and bared his teeth, warning her to back off, even as he wagged his tail to let her know they were still friends. Belle jumped back, but then whined and crept forward slowly. I pushed her gently back with my foot. "Give him a moment, Belle. He's hurting, but we'll get him sorted out."
Belle responded to the tone of my voice, looking up at my face for reassurance. "Heel!" I said and she gratefully glued her head to my left pant leg, keeping her eyes focused on mine for more instructions.
"Bath first." Stephen had an old washtub he often filled with water for the dogs to drink from and play with. I wasn't sure whether the injured Munchkin could climb into the tub, and cold water from the hose didn't seem like the right thing to inflict on an injured animal. If I were home, I'd use old rags we marked as "dog towels" and kept in the barn and by the back door.
I pulled out my key to the garage and told both dogs to sit, lie down, and stay. Munchkin settled slowly with an enormous sigh. Belle sat, but then squirmed sideways to lean against her friend, looking from me to him for reassurance. They both sank their heads on their front paws and sighed again. I hoped I could live up to their confidence in my ability to salvage the situation.
The garage was unlocked, but dim. I flicked on the light and took in my surroundings. Typical of this part of California, a washer, dryer, and laundry tub were aligned on the wall next to steps going into the kitchen. Above the appliances, rough shelving supported by utilitarian brackets held soap powder, bleach, stain remover, and the odds and ends that tend to accumulate on the flat surfaces of garages and laundry rooms. At the end of one shelf was a teetering tower of mismatched towels that I hoped could be called dog towels. If I was wrong, I'd apologize, but this was an emergency and I doubted Stephen would begrudge even his best linens if Munchkin needed them.
As I passed the laundry tub, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. If I screwed the end of the garden hose to the laundry tub faucet, I could bathe Munchkin with warm water, which might be more comfortable and soothing for both of us.
As I got everything set up, Belle licked gently at Munchkin's ear, whining.
I filled the galvanized wash tub with warm soapy water, wet one of the towels, and dabbed gently at the worst and smelliest patches of debris on Munchkin's coat. "Were you confined somewhere?" I asked him. "Did you escape? Was there an accident?"
I looked more closely at the injuries I could see, most of which were deep lacerations rather than the pervasive road rash he might have if he'd fallen or jumped from a moving car or truck.
I turned my head as I washed a particularly foul-smelling wad of fur, and then sat back on my heels. "That's not your blood, is it?" I dabbed again. While this particular patch of Munchkin's coat was soaked in blood, I could find no abrasion or cut. Could it be Stephen's? Or belong to someone Munchkin had attacked to defend himself or Stephen? I couldn't know. Not without testing.
I slapped my hands on my thighs. "I don't want to destroy any evidence here, guys. I think we're off to see Dr. Davidson."
I gathered up all the smelly wet towels I'd used, along with the dry ones, hoping that there was some way to prevent Munchkin from transferring too much of his blood, filth, and smell to me, Belle, or my car.
Excerpted from "Dead Storage"
Copyright © 2017 Mary Feliz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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