Professional organizer Maggie McDonald manages to balance a fastidious career with friends, family, and a spunky Golden Retriever. But add a fiery murder mystery to the mix, and Maggie wonders if she’s finally found a mess even she can’t tidy up . . .
With a devastating wildfire spreading to Silicon Valley, Maggie preps her family for a rapid evacuation. The heat rises when firefighters discover the body of her best friend Tess Olmos’s athletic husband—whose untimely death was anything but accidental. And as Tess agonizes over the whereabouts of her spouse’s drop-dead gorgeous running mate, she becomes the prime suspect in what’s shaping up to become a double murder case. Determined to set the record straight, Maggie sorts through clues in an investigation more dangerous than the flames approaching her home. But when her own loved ones are threatened, can she catch the meticulous killer before everything falls apart?
Praise for the Maggie McDonald Mysteries
“Abundant with friendly canine companions, from-the-hearth cooking, and banter between long-time friends, this novel serves up a chilling mystery warmed by likable characters and enviable setting.” —KRL News & Reviews
“Bay Area residents will enjoy the heavy local angle.” —San Jose Mercury News
“The setting is delightful . . . Maggie herself, in my opinion, is a major selling point for this new series, aside from the added value of her organizational advice.” —MiddleSisterReviews.com
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A crisis is a terrible time to develop an emergency plan. Be prepared.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Sunday, August 6, 8:00 a.m.
I told the kids it was a drill. I told myself it was a drill. But I wasn't fooling anyone, especially not the cats.
Late summer in California is fire season, and the potential consequences had never been more apparent, nor closer to home. Air gray and thick with smoke and unburned particulates was so dry it hurt to breathe. My compulsive refreshing of the Cal Fire website throughout the night revealed that the cause was an illegal campfire abandoned on the coastal side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Thirty-six hours later, it now encompassed miles of state- and county-owned hiking areas and threatened to jump the ridge and barrel down on the South Bay, Orchard View, and our family home.
This morning, a dry wind originating in the Central Valley had driven the firestorm back across land it had already transformed to charred desert. Firefighters hoped it would burn itself out due to lack of fuel, but I knew anything could happen at any time, and I needed my family to be ready.
Like everyone else in flammable California, we work year-round to keep vegetation from growing too close to our house. Wide stone and concrete verandas surround our hundred-year-old Craftsman house on three sides, while our paved driveway and parking area protect the east-facing walls. A plowed firebreak separates our barn and field from the summer-dry creek that borders our land.
"Do you want these in the car, Mom?" Brian, now thirteen, would one day tower over me. For now, I pretended that perfecting my posture and straightening my spine would maximize my five-foot six-inches and preserve my position as the taller one. Brian held an empty cat carrier in each hand.
"Leave them here in the kitchen for now. Leave the crate doors open."
"David," I called to my fifteen-year-old, who was now unquestionably the tallest in the family. To the chagrin of my husband, Max, David had recently gained the few inches he required to realize that Max's luxuriant walnut-colored curls were thinning. "Make sure to leave room on the back seat for the animals and two passengers."
"Two?" David entered the kitchen from the top of the basement stairs.
"Ideally, we'll take both cars. But I want to be prepared for anything." I tilted my head toward the view outside the kitchen windows. A plume of smoke filled the sky on the far side of the ridge to the west. "If that blaze shifts direction and marches this way, we'll need to clear out fast, no matter what. If one of the cars breaks down, I want us all to be able to jump into the other one."
"We could strap Brian to the roof." David's eyes twinkled as he nudged his younger brother.
I rolled my eyes, but a smile escaped when I saw that both of my thrill-seeking boys were intrigued by the idea. I turned my attention back to packing up snacks, water, and our perishable food. Our initial plan, should we be forced to evacuate, was to camp out in the living room of my dearest friend, Tess Olmos, whose son, Teddy, was fourteen and a buddy of both Brian and David.
Tess's house was a great Plan A, but I'm a belt-and-suspenders kind of gal and I needed a backup strategy. We packed as though we might resort to Plan B and end up in a shelter for a day or two. As a professional organizer, it's part of my job to help people anticipate emergencies. It's my superpower and my business. I sighed and pushed my wavy light-brown hair back from my forehead. Using my skills to streamline the lives of friends and strangers was a snap compared to getting my own family in line.
I heard a scuffle on the kitchen tiles, looked up, and burst out laughing. All three of our animals, Belle, our boisterous golden retriever, and Holmes and Watson, our marmalade-colored cats, assisted Max as he loaded their food, travel dishes, water, and kitty litter into a plastic bin. Watson's head was buried in a bag of cat kibble, while Belle nudged Max's arm with her snout. She knocked Max's steady hands out of alignment as he poured dog chow from a ten-pound bag into a one-gallon screw-top container. Dried nuggets skittered across the floor. Belle scrambled to help by gobbling up each morsel as quickly as possible. Holmes, Watson's more reserved brother, batted at a tidbit that had bounced to a stop at his feet.
"When you're done with that, hon, can you help the boys gather up the electronics? It's too soon to put them in the cars, but I'd like them all down here charging up and ready to go."
"Yes, ma'am," Max said, saluting without looking up from his task.
"Too many orders? Too bossy?" Under stress, I tended to bark out instructions without thinking about how they might be received by the folks around me — even the people I loved the most.
My phone rang, saving Max from responding. I pulled it from my pocket and glanced at the screen as I answered. "Hey, Tess," I said. "We're nearly there. Did Patrick show up?"
The day before, Tess had told me that Patrick hadn't responded to her phone calls. She'd wanted to let him know we might be camping out at their house for a few days to get out of the path of the potential firestorm. She'd speculated that he'd gone on an extended run or become caught up in a project at work. A devoted engineer, he often vanished into the thicket of a thorny technical problem and lost track of time, especially on weekends. But Patrick had been out of touch longer than usual, and I knew Tess was worried.
"That's just it." Tess's voice caught, and I could hear her take a deep breath.
"What's wrong? What's happened? Do you want us to make alternative plans? If it's not convenient —"
"No. No. No. It's not that. It's ..."
"It's what? You're scaring me. Spill."
"It's Patrick. The police think they've found him."
"The police?" The words I was using and the strained tone of my voice must have worried Max. He looked up and furrowed his brow.
"Does she need help?" he asked. "Take off if you need to. The boys and I can finish up and meet you in half an hour."
I flapped my hand at Max, urging him to stop talking so I could hear Tess, who was, uncharacteristically, having trouble completing a sentence. She sighed.
"Oh, Maggie. The sheriff's office just called. Around dawn this morning, they found a man up off the old Pacific Gas and Electric maintenance road. It looks like he fell. Patrick runs there all the time. They ... they think it's Patrick."
"Is he hurt? Where is he now? Do you need a ride to the hospital? Is he conscious? Why don't they just ask him who he is?"
"He's dead." Tess's voice broke with a sob. "I mean, the guy they found is dead. It's not Patrick, but they think it's him."
I couldn't think of a thing to say, and Tess didn't give me time.
"Can you get down here, Maggie? Can Max and the boys stay with Teddy? They want me to identify the body, and ..." Tess coughed and soldiered on. "I mean, they want me to confirm that it's not my Patrick so they can figure out who he really is, poor guy." Tess struggled to get her voice, tears, and breathing under control. In her grief, she sounded as if she'd just finished a marathon. Breathless and exhausted.
"Of course. Whatever you need. We'll be right —"
Tess didn't let me finish. "I don't think I can drive safely, Maggie. It's in Santa Clara. The medical examiner's office." She sniffed. "This is so stupid. I keep bursting into tears. But it's ridiculous. Of course it's not Patrick. He's at work. Only he's not answering his phone. The battery is dead, I'm sure. You know how he is."
I did know Patrick. Keeping his phone charged wasn't high on his priority list. But my skin rippled with goose bumps and I shivered. Whatever we discovered at the medical examiner's office, I suspected the lives of Tess and her son, Teddy, would never be the same again.CHAPTER 2
Emergency plans should include provisions for your pets and for anyone in the family such as infants, small children, the elderly or those with special needs who might need extra help or individualized supplies.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Sunday, August 6, Morning
I'd driven as quickly as I could to Tess's house, a typical Northern California ranch-style tract home built in the early 1960s, down the street from the local middle school. I parked in the driveway and took a moment to collect myself. I'd dashed out of the house so fast that I hadn't taken the time to consider my outfit. Were the jeans, T-shirt, and clog sneakers I'd thrown on at dawn appropriate for meeting with a county official? Looking in the rearview mirror, I finger-combed my hair and plucked a cobweb from my shoulder. It would have to do.
I walked through the side gate and into the backyard, where a well-appointed covered deck served as an outdoor entertainment area in all but the worst winter storms. Tess's kitchen door was always open to friends of the Olmos family. I opened the door without knocking, entered the kitchen, and smiled at Teddy, who sat cross-legged on the checkerboard-patterned tile floor, hugging Mozart, a German shepherd with a perpetually puzzled expression.
Mozart looked up and wagged his tail, but stuck close to Teddy. I wasn't sure what to say to a fourteen-year-old who was waiting to learn if his father had perished. I didn't know what Tess had already told him.
"Hey, Teddy," I said.
Tess, with high heels clicking, burst into the room, saving me from finding words appropriate to the situation.
"Is this stupid? This is stupid. No one gets dressed up to visit the medical examiner." She tugged on her black suit jacket and straightened her already perfectly aligned skirt. I had a hunch she'd chosen her outfit to boost her confidence. Her fashion sense had two modes. At home, she was schlumpy Tess in sweats and Uggs. At work, in the rocket-fast, megabucks world of Silicon Valley real estate, she was a fashionista in designer shoes and suits, with her velvet-black hair confined in a neatly pinned French twist.
In her kick-back clothing, Tess was my best pal. Dressed up, she was scary, and I referred to her not-so-secretly as "the dominatrix." The Tess who stood before me now was terrified and had donned the suit as armor to help her face today's horrifying news. I pulled her into a reassuring hug. Whether the gesture was for her comfort or my own, I wasn't certain.
"Don't you dare say anything nice," Tess said. She returned my embrace, then gently pushed me away. "If you do, I'll fall apart." Teddy cleared his throat and spoke in a voice an octave lower than his normal boyish alto. "I want to go with you." I turned from Tess to Teddy. Teddy still had his arm wrapped around Mozart, who nudged the chin of his boy with his snout. The young teen's eyes filled with tears. I couldn't say whether his wish to accompany Tess was that of a nearly grown man desperate to protect a loved one, or that of a young boy looking for comfort from his mother. I suspected Teddy wasn't sure either.
Tess shook her head, took a deep breath, and knelt by Teddy's side. Instead of the hug I'd expected, she leaned into him, mirroring the posture of the German shepherd on her son's right. It was a portrait of love, made irresistible by the befuddled look on Mozart's face created by the combination of his tilted head and one-up, one-down ears. Nobody spoke. At least not in words.
I heard car doors slamming in front of the house, and assumed that my chaos-inducing family was about to dramatically alter the atmosphere in the Olmos kitchen.
"Teddy —" I began, but stopped as soon as I realized Tess was speaking softly to her son while patting his arm.
"It would be a waste of time," she told him. "You know it's not Dad. He wouldn't have been running up there in the smoke. Not with the fire approaching. Not on the ridge. There were actual flames up there late last night. He's smarter than that. Much smarter." Mother and son looked into each other's eyes, with a big, unspoken "but what if ..." suspended between them.
I interrupted. "Teddy," I began. "Your mom is right. You need to stay here to answer the phone in case your dad calls. Or so you can text your mom to let her know if he turns up here."
What sounded like an entire cleat-shod football team of young men clomped across the redwood deck. It was Brian and David, along with Max and Paolo, a friend of the family and the youngest officer in the Orchard View Police Department.
Brian and David burst through the door as usual, but then stopped quickly and took a step back. Both boys glanced from Teddy to their dad, as if terrified that losing a father was contagious. Max, thankfully, seemed sensitive to all the emotions in the room. He patted each of his boys on the back, then rubbed his hands together, stepped forward, and tossed his keys to Teddy. With an athlete's instincts, Teddy deftly palmed the keys.
"We need your help to unload the car, Teddy," Max said. "Up and at 'em. You wouldn't believe what's packed in there. I've been tasked with taking you all to In-N-Out for lunch. Unless we start shifting the boxes, I'll have no room for an extra passenger."
"Or unless we put Brian on the roof," David added.
Teddy grinned, looking reassured by Max's action-filled agenda. He dangled the keys at the other two boys and said, "Where should we go? Is there a concert at Shoreline?" His teasing words clashed with the heavy dose of anguish in his voice, but my boys played along.
"If we're stealing a car, we're heading to the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz," David said. "Roller coaster here we come."
But Brian was impatient. "Hurry up," he called over his shoulder as he headed out to the deck. "Where do you want the cats? Holmes and Watson will be super ticked off after the car ride. We got to get 'em out of there first."
The rest of the conversation trailed off as the boys moved toward the cars.
Max gave Tess a quick hug, and Paolo held up his keys. "Stephen and Jason will stop by later, but they asked me to drive you to Santa Clara, using full lights and siren if needed. They're thinking that with a police officer in tow, you'll cut through any bureaucratic red tape as quickly as possible. We'll go in, get it done, and get out in a flash. Let's go."
Paolo turned, looking over his shoulder as if he expected us to troop behind him as ordered. His demeanor seemed rushed, impersonal, and not at all like Paolo. But then I realized ... He was doing it on purpose — helping Tess by keeping her moving and preventing her from thinking too much. He'd apparently been thoroughly briefed by Jason Mueller, the current chief of the Orchard View Police Department and Paolo's first partner on the force. A marine veteran with years of law enforcement under his duty belt, Jason knew how to care for the worried and bereaved. Stephen, Jason's husband, had been injured in Afghanistan and now worked with human and canine survivors of America's wars at the Veteran's Administration in Palo Alto.
But Tess looked hesitant to leave her home, where undoubtedly she still felt confident Patrick might walk through the door, apologizing for worrying everyone.
"Come on, Tess." I held her arm and pulled gently. "There won't be room for us in here in a moment anyway. Stephen and Jason will bring Munchkin. With Mozart and Belle here, it'll be like doggy day care. If we get a move on, we'll beat the Sunday traffic as beachgoers get ready for work tomorrow."
Max followed us, blocking Tess from any means of retreat. "We've got our plan. First the car. Then a run for the dogs. And the boys. Then food. I'll keep 'em moving 'til they drop. Your Teddy is in good hands."
Tess lifted her chin without responding, squared her shoulders, and stepped toward the door. I guessed it was the hardest move she'd ever had to make. I stayed glued to her side as we walked to the car.CHAPTER 3
Become familiar with the emergencies most likely to threaten your area, especially if you're new to the region. Annually, prior to the danger season, refresh your plans and your emergency supplies.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Sunday, August 6, Morning
Our journey south on Interstate 280 to the Santa Clara County medical examiner/coroner's office went smoothly. In my efforts to focus on anything other than the matter at hand, I noted the windborne scent of burning vegetation and blinked my stinging eyes. Looking out the car's rear window, I could still see billows of carbon-colored smoke, but I spotted no flames rising from beyond the ridge. I tore my gaze from the scene, forcing myself to concentrate on Tess. I could help her, but the fire was beyond my control.
Tess sat in the front seat of Paolo's Subaru with her hands clenching and unclenching on her thighs. I suspected she'd be bruised tomorrow, with no idea how those bruises had formed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Disorderly Conduct"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Feliz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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