Authors: Christy Barritt
“I’m a crime-scene cleaner.”
“It’s a thriving business.”
He nodded toward my arm. “So, it doesn’t
exactly sound dangerous. What happened to your arm, if you don’t mind me
I glanced at the bandage. “I was
cleaning up after a homicide when someone set the house on fire.”
“A homicide? Sounds grim.”
I closed my eyes and saw bits of Gloria
Cunningham’s skull. “You have no idea.”
Before he could ask more questions,
Sierra bounced into the room, waving a book in her hands. Hand her some
pom-poms and she could join the cheering squad. “I found it.” She handed it to
Riley. “All you need to know about taking care of a bird.”
He frowned. “And why am I doing this?”
“Because, otherwise, what’s going to
happen to that poor little birdie? They weren’t bred to survive out in the
wild. That bird has only known a pet shop and domestic living for all of its
A cartoonish-sounding cuckoo clock
peeped from a distant room. I counted the chirps, but came up short. It
couldn’t possibly be two
Groaning, I stood from the couch and
brushed cat hairs from my jeans. “I’m dead on my feet.” I shuddered as I
realized how close that had come to being the truth. “I have to get some
Riley stood behind me. “I have to go,
too. I still have to unpack.” He glanced at the bird and frowned. “Among other
Sierra handed the birdcage to him and
added in a sing-song voice, “Thanks for making humanity a little more likable.”
I fought a smile at the less-than-thrilled
expression on his face.
We started up the stairs side by side.
Gabby, talk. Now is as good a time as ever to work on your people skills.
sighed inwardly. Give me a microscope any day.
“So, have you met Mrs. Mystery upstairs
in the attic apartment yet?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s not her real name. She
writes crime novels, though. Rarely ever leaves her apartment, a real recluse.
She’s quite a character.”
“It sounds like I’m going to have to
learn the ropes of this place from you. So far you’re the only sane one I’ve
“And I’m covered in ash, smell like
smoke, and clean up after murders.”
“My standards of sane are really low.”
We stopped at our landing. I took a
quick glance at my new neighbor’s longish face and decided I could get used to
seeing that mug every day. I smiled. “Well, it’s been nice to meet you, Riley
Thomas. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
He smiled back. It lit up his entire
face. It lit something up in me, too.
“I look forward to it,” he said.
The bird squawked.
“And you too,
Mister . . . ?” I looked from the bird to Riley. “What are
you going to name him? You just can’t refer to him as ‘it.’”
“I think I’ll call him Lucky. Because if
it wasn’t for Sierra, this bird wouldn’t be living a pampered life inside my
I laughed again. “You two have fun now.
I’ll see you later.”
Warmth spread through me as he said my
name. Yes, I was going to like having Riley Thomas as a neighbor.
Nightmares of fire
chasing me through a dark, never-ending hallway jerked me awake each time I
nodded off throughout the night. I tossed and turned underneath my daisy-print
comforter as I relived the flames that nearly claimed my life.
At 6:00, I gave up on sleep. I forced my
legs over the side of the bed, pulled on a fuzzy blue bathrobe, and shuffled
into my kitchen. I grabbed a cup of coffee, started each morning at 5:45 thanks
to a timed coffeemaker, sank into my sand-colored couch, and turned on the
I took a sip of coffee. I would need at
least three cups to get my mind going this morning. At the most I’d gotten two
hours of sleep. I needed eight to function.
A perky news anchor chatted about
football and the latest musical to come to Norfolk.
“Come on, get on with the good stories,”
I mumbled, pulling my legs underneath me. I mean, really. Who wanted to see
singing cats? Even I, a musical lover, had my standards.
I hoped there would be an update on the
fire. Closing my eyes, I pictured the husband on camera, being taken into
custody for the murder of his wife.
Of course, I would get no credit, but I
would always know I’d been the one to break the case.
I smiled, fulfilled just to know I’d
“Now we turn to our reporter, Jay
Larson, who’s at the scene of a late night fire. Jay, what can you tell us
about what happened?”
I turned the volume up. This was more
exciting than opening presents on Christmas morning. Of course, Christmas at my
house had consisted of fruit and underwear, but nonetheless.
“I’m at the home of Michael and the late
Gloria Cunningham. You’ll remember a week ago, Gloria was found dead in their
home, and husband Michael had a gunshot wound to his knee.”
“Yes, yes, we know all this,” I mumbled,
taking another sip of my black coffee.
“Last night a neighbor called the
police, reporting flames shooting out of the Cunningham’s million dollar Virginia Beach home. The
fire looks like the work of an arsonist.”
The camera panned back to the grim-faced
news anchor. “Jay, do we know if this has anything to do with the murder
“I talked to the detective on the case
last night, and he assured me that the right person was behind bars, that this
was a separate incident.”
I sat up straight, nearly spilling my
“That’s two devastating blows for the
senatorial candidate Michael Cunningham this week.” The news anchor slowly
shook his head. “Keep us updated on the case, Jay.”
There had to be a mistake. What about
the gun? That had to prove something.
I had to talk to the detective.
I scrambled from the couch and threw on
some jeans and a T-shirt. I’d slept on my hair wet and it was hopeless, so I
pulled my red locks into a ponytail and rushed out the door.
I stepped into the parking lot and
skidded to a stop. Squinting against the already bright sunlight, I looked for
something I knew wasn’t there. My van. What was I going to drive?
I hurried back inside and knocked on
Sierra’s door. After waiting a few minutes, I knocked again. Finally, a
sleepy-eyed Sierra poked her head between the door and strands of clicking
“I guess you forgot that you kept me
awake until 2
. this morning?”
She muttered, rubbing her eyes and scowling.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes, now how can I help you?”
“I need to use your car.”
“I thought you couldn’t work because all
of your equipment was destroyed.”
“I can’t, but I have something I need to
do.” I bit my lip, thinking of another tactic. “Look, I’ll help you stuff
envelopes for one of your campaigns the next time you need help.”
“Let me get my keys.”
Twenty minutes later, as I sat in
rush-hour traffic on the interstate, I realized I hadn’t called Harold about
work today. He would be headed out to the Cunningham’s house expecting a
continuation from yesterday. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed his number. His
“He’s on his way to work now, Gabby.”
I bit my lip. “Did he bring his cell
phone with him?”
“No, I have it with me today. Everything
“Our crime scene burned down last night.
I hate for him to drive all the way out there for nothing.” I glanced at the
clock and saw it was 7:30. I would have to stop by to talk to the detective
later. “I’m on my way there now. Thanks, Mildred.”
I hit end on my cell phone and tossed it
in the seat beside me. I mulled over all the new information I learned, trying
to decipher the good from the bad.
Maybe there was a good reason for the
news report this morning, I thought. It could be a ruse. Maybe they had to
examine the gun first. Maybe they didn’t want to rouse suspicion yet. The
evidence seemed pretty cut and dried to me, though.
I didn’t want to be a know-it-all. I
really didn’t. My best friend in college had been one, which drove me crazy,
especially considering I knew more than she did. Some people were just so
clueless. But know-it-all or not, I wasn’t going to back down on this one.
Finally, my exit appeared and I veered
off the road. The rest of the ride was mostly back roads into a residential
area where the city’s most wealthy lived. Early morning sunlight filtered through
oak and pine trees in the wooded neighborhood, casting dancing shadows on the
As I pulled up to the driveway, I
spotted Harold standing in front of the black skeleton of a house. In the
daylight it reminded me even more of the dinosaur exhibits I’d seen at the
Smithsonian as an elementary school student years ago.
Harold stared at it the same way I had
stared at those prehistoric bones—with shock, curiosity, and mourning. He shook
his head. The sight would be sure to surprise anyone coming into the situation.
The beautiful mansion had been reduced to bare bones and ashes.
Wasting no more time, I hopped out of
the car. The ground was still damp from the efforts to extinguish the flames
last night, and my flip flop feet sloshed as I hurried to my assistant.
I laid a hand on his thick arm, but
Harold didn’t look at me. The house seemed to entrance him.
“I’m sorry I forgot to call,” I said.
He shook his head again. “When did this
“Were you still here?”
I shrugged, swatting at a bee buzzing in
my ear. “Yeah, but I’m fine. I got out okay.”
“You could have been killed, Gabby,” he
said with the sternness of a father.
I offered Harold a reassuring smile.
“But I wasn’t. I’m fine, except for a little burn on my hand and arm.”
His gaze darted to my bandage. “I should
have never left.”
“No one could have known.”
He continued staring at the shell of my
van. “All of your equipment is gone?”
I nodded and wiped my brow with the back
of my hand. The sun was already sweltering and it wasn’t even noon yet. Between
the heat and the bee, I had the feeling it was going to be one miserable day.
September in Virginia
wasn’t supposed to be like this.
“It’s such a shame,” Harold muttered.
“Especially considering all that poor man has already been through.”
Yeah, murdering your wife must be really
stressful, I thought. And he’s probably the one who set the house on fire. I
kept my mouth closed. There was no need to stir up trouble.
“I’m going to go look at the backside of
the house. Need to pay my respects.” Harold excused himself and crept toward
the backyard. He kept his chin high, but I knew time was taking its toll on
him. My heart pounded with sadness. Was this all there was? You live, you get
old, you die. Science called it the cycle of life. I called it depressing.
I let him have his time alone to process
what had happened. We’d poured a lot of work into this house and the damage was
devastating. I’d also been counting on this paycheck to knock out some bills,
not to mention to pay Harold. Now I’d have to dig into my meager savings.
“I can’t believe someone burned the
house down,” someone with a high-pitched voice said. “It’s such a shame.”
I turned and spotted a middle-aged woman
wearing black shorts, high heels, and a hot pink top that emphasized her
abnormally large chest walking up the driveway. As she got closer, I saw her
eyes looked red and puffy.
“It is a shame,” I agreed. A quick
glance behind me showed no other cars parked in the area. This woman had to be
“Are you with the police department?”
The woman swept a platinum blond hair out of her eye and glanced at me.
“No.” A deep sigh heaved my chest.
“It was such a beautiful house. Just
like Gloria. She was so beautiful. It’s hard to believe she’s gone.” The neighbor
shook her head and stared into the distance.
“This must be very hard on you.”
“You just never think it will happen to
someone you know. It should be someone else.” The woman waved her hand in the
air. Finally the bee had taken notice of the woman’s overbearing perfume and
bothered her now. She ducked, trying to avoid the kamikaze insect. I zoned in
on her swollen lips. Had a bee already stung her? By all appearances, yes. But
my acute deductions told me it was more likely collagen injections. “At least Michael
is finally out of the hospital.”
I nodded, still watching the woman’s
impromptu dance with amusement. “Right.”
I froze in mid-nod. What did she just
I jerked my head toward the woman. If
Michael was out of the hospital, then he could have set the house on fire. He
could be the arsonist. And he had motive, too. He could have been trying to
destroy the evidence that would frame him.
Careful, Gabby. Stay calm, don’t scare
Relaxing my shoulders, I asked, “He is?
Already? I just assumed he’d be in the hospital for longer.”
The woman nodded. “I did, too, but I saw
him over here last night, just a few minutes before the fire started. I assumed
he stopped by to pick up a few things before going to stay at his mother’s.
It’s a good thing he left when he did.”
“Isn’t it, though?” I shifted my weight
and restrategized. “So, you’re sure you saw Michael?”
“Positive. He was even on crutches, the
poor guy. I almost said something to him, but figured he didn’t want to be
bothered. The press won’t leave him alone. They keep asking what he’ll do about
his campaign. Can’t they give the man a break?”