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Scheduled to Death
A Maggie McDonald Mystery
By Mary Feliz
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Mary Feliz
All rights reserved.
We don't use the word hoarder in my business. It holds negative connotations, few of which are true of the chronically disorganized.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Monday, November 3, 9:00 a.m.
I couldn't be sure where the line was between a mansion and a really big house, but I knew that I was straddling it, standing on the front porch of the gracious Victorian home of Stanford Professor Lincoln "Linc" Sinclair. The future of my career here in Orchard View straddled a similar line — the one between success and failure.
I rang the doorbell a second time and glanced at my best friend, Tess Olmos. She was dressed in what I called her dominatrix outfit — red and black designer business clothes and expensive black stilettos with red soles. I wore jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved white T-shirt, over which I wore a canvas fisherman's vest filled with the tools of my trade. I'm a Certified Professional Organizer and my job today was to finish helping the professor sort through three generations of furniture and a lifetime's collection of "stuff" he was emotionally attached to.
The professor was a brilliant man on the short list for the Nobel Prize in a field I didn't understand, but his brain wasn't programmed for organization and never would be.
And that's where I came in. Organization is my superpower.
I glanced at my watch. It was 9:10 a.m. We had arrived promptly for our appointment at nine. Tess had arranged to use the house for her annual holiday showcase to thank her clients and promote her business, but she wanted to double-check our progress on clearing things out before she finalized her own schedule. All but one of the rooms was empty, but Tess had a sharp eye and might well spot something I'd missed. If she had questions about anything Linc and I had done, I wanted to be on hand to answer them immediately.
Participating in Tess's holiday event would give my fledgling business a huge boost. Endorsements from Tess Olmos and Linc Sinclair were likely to bring me as much — if not more — business than I could handle.
"We did say nine o'clock, didn't we?" I asked Tess. "I wonder if he overslept after that storm last night?" A rare electrical storm had coursed across the San Francisco Bay Area the previous evening, bringing buckets of much-needed rain. With it came winds that downed trees and power lines. Thunder shook my house to its foundation.
"What did the weather folks predict? Isolated storm cells with a chance of lightning. The morning news was showing footage of funnel clouds in Palo Alto. My dog whined all night." Tess bent to peek through one of the front windows. "Wow, you've really made a lot of progress in there," she said. "I can see clear through to the dining room."
I smiled as I stepped off the porch and onto the fieldstone path running across the grass and past the chrysanthemums and snapdragons that edged the front garden.
"Linc's been working hard," I said. "All that's left, beyond a few boxes, is his upstairs workroom with all that electronic equipment and research papers. I'm hoping to organize most of that today and take it to his freshly cleaned and cataloged storage unit. If it goes well, we'll tackle his office at Stanford."
I looked up and down the street. No professor.
"Where is he?" asked Tess, echoing the question I'd already asked myself.
"I'll take a look 'round back," I said. "He may be working in the garden or kitchen with his headphones on and can't hear the bell."
I followed the flagstone walk around to the side of the house and let out a yelp. My hand flew to my throat and my heart rate soared.
"Oh my! Sorry — I'm so sorry," I said to the woman blocking my way. I fought to regain my balance after my abrupt stop. "You startled me. Can I help you?"
"Humph!" said the woman, straightening as if to maximize her height. "I could ask you the same question. Does Professor Sinclair know you're here? He appreciates neither visitors nor interruptions." Her face was overshadowed by a gardening hat the size of a small umbrella. Green rubber boots with white polka dots swallowed her feet and lower legs, which vanished beneath a voluminous fuchsia skirt splattered with potting soil. A purple flannel shirt completed her outfit.
Tess's stilettos clicked on the path behind me. With one hand on my shoulder, she reached in front of me, holding out her hand to greet the woman.
"Tess Olmos," she said. "I'm Linc's Realtor and this is Maggie McDonald, his professional organizer. We're here for an appointment."
I scrambled in my cargo vest for a business card as the woman picked up the business end of a coiled garden hose. I had the distinct impression she was waiting for an excuse to turn the nozzle on us. I found a card, plucked it from my pocket, and handed it to her.
"I was checking the professor's house for damage after that storm last night," the woman said as she took my card and put it in her pocket without looking at it. "My nana would have called it a gully-womper. Nice to meet you ladies, but I need to get to work. For twenty years, the Sinclairs have allowed me to use their water in my community garden." She waved her arm toward an overgrown hedge at the back of the half-acre property. "In exchange, I provide them with fresh vegetables."
"Of course," Tess said as if she knew all about the arrangement. "And you are?"
"Oh, sorry." The woman wiped her grubby hands on her pink skirt before shaking Tess's outstretched hand. "I'm Claire Domingo, but I go by Boots. I'm the president of the Orchard View Plotters Garden Club. We run the community garden in back of the house."
Before any of us could say anything more, I heard the screeching of bicycle brakes. Linc careened around the corner with his legs outstretched and his jacket flapping behind him. His Irish wolfhound, Newton, loped beside him and made the turn easily.
Out of breath, the professor jumped from the bike and let it fall to the ground beside him as if he were an eight-year-old who was late for lunch.
"Sorry. Sorry. Sorry," he said, scurrying toward us. "I had an idea for a new project in the middle of the night and I rode over to the university. Time got away from me. Sorry to keep you waiting."
Newton barked in greeting and lunged toward me.
Linc unhooked the dog from the bicycle leash he'd invented ten years earlier but had never sought a patent for. Once he'd created it and proved it worked, he'd lost interest.
Newton barreled in my direction. I stepped back and knelt to give him more room to slow down before he plowed into me. Linc had trained him well, but his exuberance sometimes got the better of him. I scratched him behind the ears in a proper doggy greeting before turning my attention to Linc, who picked up the bicycle and leaned it against the fence.
"No problem, Linc," I said. "You're here now. Shall we get started?"
Linc patted the pockets of his jacket, his jeans, and his sweatshirt and looked up, chagrined. "I'm afraid I've forgotten my key again."
Tess, Boots, and I each reached into our own pockets and plucked out keys labeled with varying shades of fluorescent tags. I laughed awkwardly and headed toward the back porch, knowing that the lock on the kitchen door was less fussy than some of the other old locks on the house.
"Let's add installing new locks to the list of jobs," I told Tess.
Boots followed us. We stepped carefully around some of the boxes of discarded clothing and housewares that awaited pickup by a local charity resale shop. I unlocked the door and we trooped in.
Linc shifted from one foot to another, took off his glasses, and cleaned them with his shirttail. He looked around the room, blinking as if surprised to find he was no longer in his Stanford University lab. I flicked the light switch, but the room remained dim. Last week I'd brought over a supply of bulbs to replace several that I'd found burned out. I must have missed this one.
"Did you lose power in the storm?" I asked Linc.
He answered with a shrug. "I'm not sure. Maybe? I was at my lab working on my project."
Boots pulled open the refrigerator door and plucked a bag of lettuce from the darkness within. It had turned soggy in the bag.
"I'll take this for compost and bring you back some fresh spinach this afternoon," she said. "The kale's coming along nicely too."
"Can I get you all a cup of tea?" Linc asked. It was a delaying tactic I recognized from experience. Sorting and organizing were nearly painful for this man, who was said to have several ideas that could reverse the effects of climate change.
"Let's get started upstairs," I said. "I want to show Tess how much progress you've made."
Boots rummaged in the refrigerator. "I'll see what else needs to be tossed, Linc. Go on. I'll let myself out."
"I can't withstand pressure from all three of you." Linc shrugged and turned toward the staircase that divided the kitchen and living room. I started up the steps behind him, then stopped and called over my shoulder. "Tess, I'm going to show you Linc's workroom first. He's been working in there while I've been tackling the other rooms." I mouthed the words praise him to her. Linc hadn't, actually, made all that much progress, but he had agreed on broad-based guidelines for culling the equipment and organizing some of his papers.
Newton nudged past us to lead the way up the stairs. When I reached the hall landing, it was dark. Right, I thought. The storm. No electricity.
Newton growled, low in his throat, then whimpered. Linc moved down the hall toward his office and workroom. In the doorway, he gasped and froze. His mouth dropped open. His eyes grew wide. He stepped back, but leaned forward with his arm outstretched.
"Whatever it is, we can fix it," I said, rushing toward him, terrified I'd tossed out something of great value. "Everything we moved out of here is still in the garage."
Peering over Linc's shaking shoulders, I bit my lip, swallowed hard, and grasped his arm as he tried to move forward into the room. We couldn't fix it. Not this.
"No, don't," I said, pulling him back. "Tess, get the police. An ambulance."
Tess moved forward in the narrow hall, apparently trying to get a look at whatever had shocked Linc and me. I shook my head and whispered, "It's Sarah. Just dial. Quickly."
I hoped my voice would carry to the kitchen. "Boots, do you know where there's a fuse box or electrical panel? Can you make triple sure the power is out all through the house?"
"What's going on?" shouted Boots.
I couldn't think of an appropriate answer, but I gave it a shot. "We've got a problem up here, Boots. Can you make sure the power is off, now? Please? Right now?"
"'Kay," said Boots, though I could hear her grumbling that she wasn't our servant to command. Her voice was followed by the creak of old door hinges and the sound of her rubber boots galumphing down the basement stairs.
I forced myself to look at Linc's workroom again. Nothing had changed. Sarah Palmer, Linc's fiancée, lay sprawled on the floor in a puddle of water. Sarah, one of my dearest friends, whose caramel-colored skin normally shone with warmth and health, lay facedown with her hand outstretched, clutching a frayed electrical cord.
Worst of all, the body that had once been Sarah's looked very, very dead.CHAPTER 2
Whenever you're working with electrical appliances or systems, check at least twice to assure the power is off.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Monday morning, November 3, 9:45 a.m.
I'd always admired Sarah's smooth and beautiful skin, but today her face and arms were tinged a bluish gray that left no question the ambulance would transport her to the morgue instead of to an emergency room.
The smell of burned metal and singed flesh hinted that Sarah had been electrocuted. I yearned to rush to her side, to comfort her, but some part of me knew the wiser course was to avoid going anywhere near her.
Newton leaned against Linc's leg and nudged his master's palm with his nose, offering comfort and asking for reassurance in return.
"All clear," Boots shouted up from the kitchen. The stairs between the first floor and the second creaked as she trudged up them to join us.
"Everything okay up here?" she asked. "I'm heading back over to the garden, unless you need more help?"
"Thanks, Boots," I said, turning to speak to her as she crested the top of the stairs.
Her forehead creased as she looked from Tess to me and then to Linc. "What's wrong?"
Before anyone could answer, Boots shoved past Tess, moved toward Linc, and gasped. "Oh, no. Oh dear God, no. That's not Sarah." Her hands flew to her throat. She took a step back and leaned against the wall. "It can't be."
I reached around the doorway to the light switch inside the door of Linc's workroom. I flicked the switch. No lights came on. The power was definitely off, but I kept flicking nervously, as if that could somehow revitalize Sarah.
"Emergency is on its way," Tess said, putting her phone back in her tidy red leather business tote. She pulled it out again immediately. Touching Linc's back, she asked, "Is there someone I can call for you?"
Linc looked at Tess, then at me, and took a half step forward. "I have to go to her," he said, gulping and wiping tears from his eyes.
Both Tess and I had a little experience with the police and sudden deaths. We looked at each other and then at the distraught man who reached toward his fiancée, looking desperate to touch her.
In my heart, I felt Linc's need for comfort probably outweighed any damage he might do to the evidence. But my head said the police would need the room to remain undisturbed and I feared nothing would bring Linc comfort. Not for a long time.
"Linc," I said softly. "You can't. The police. They need to examine everything first. To find out what happened."
"What happened?" asked Linc, staring through me and speaking in a voice that sounded nothing like his own. "It's Sarah. Sarah's gone, that's what happened. I can't leave her here like this. I can't."
"You don't have to. You and Newton can stay here until the police come, but you must keep out of the room."
I put both hands on Linc's chest, pressing him gently backwards at the same time he leaned forward with an atavistic need to protect and comfort the woman he loved. His shoulders slumped. He stumbled backward and sank to the floor, leaning heavily on the wall behind him.
I left Tess upstairs with Linc and went downstairs to await the police and flag them down if they had any trouble finding the house. That's what I'd told Tess, anyway. But once outside I bent over, put my hands on my knees, and sucked in deep, cool breaths of the rain-freshened air. I shook my head. How on earth could any of us live in a world without Sarah? She was one of those people who provided the glue that held a group of friends together. The elastic that kept anyone from straying too far from the center or from feeling like an outsider, lost and alone.
I looked up and down the street, which was empty now that the kids were in school and the adults had headed off to work. Everything looked just as it had a few minutes earlier, before we knew Sarah was dead. How on earth could it look so much the same when so many things had changed?
I stood and paced back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the house, mentally listing all the things that Linc would need to do. Who would need to be notified? Did Sarah have other family? I couldn't remember, which made me feel like a terrible friend. I knelt and retied my already neatly tied sneakers, which made me feel like an idiot.
It seemed as though hours had passed, but I'd probably been waiting only a few minutes when a green Subaru pulled into the driveway. The car sported a mountain bike on the roof and I wondered if the driver, Paolo Bianchi, had been hitting the trails before work. Paolo climbed out of the driver's seat. He wore khakis with a button-down shirt and tie, and a gold detective's badge clipped to his belt. Detectives in many local police departments still wore suits and ties, but Orchard View was a small force and the old chief had mandated a more casual look to help detectives seem more approachable.
"Morning, Paolo," I called, crossing the front lawn. Paolo waved while rummaging in his overstuffed messenger bag. He triumphantly pulled out the tablet he used for taking case notes and nearly tripped as he stepped from the driveway onto the grass.
"Morning, Paolo," I tried again, reaching out my hand to shake his. He enveloped me in a hug.
Excerpted from Scheduled to Death by Mary Feliz. Copyright © 2017 Mary Feliz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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