THE PROMPT: When I got up this morning, I never expected to find a dead body on my doorstep…
When I got up this morning, I never expected to find a dead body on my doorstep…
It was especially disconcerting because I recognized the body, but I had no idea why he’d be lying face down on my doorstep, a hole the size of my fist in the center of his back.
My shrieking should have woken the whole neighborhood, even at the impossibly early hour of five AM. But no lights flashed on along my street. No curious gazes peered through windows. No curtains even twitched.
I wound down as I realized the dolphin level shrieking wasn’t doing anybody any good. The dead guy still appeared to be dead. My screaming hadn’t pulled him into wakefulness, an apology for bloodying up my sidewalk on his gray, lifeless lips. And it certainly wasn’t helping me. I had a knot in my stomach the size of the hole in the dead guy’s back.
The only thing about not screaming was that it left me with surprisingly little options for dealing with the problem.
At lease when I was screaming I felt like I was doing something.
I glanced up and down the street once more and then, took two steps back and slammed my door. But I couldn’t leave the foyer. I stood there wringing my hands, wishing there was a handbook for things like this.
Chapter One, reacting to the dead body on your porch.
Chapter Two, making the best of the incident.
Chapter Three, getting blood out of concrete.
I thought about the hole in his back. What could have caused a hole that big? I was pretty sure I could rule out a knife. Or even a hatchet, since the wound was round. Maybe a really big ice pick. A bullet? Not, it would have to be a cannonball. Did any of my neighbors have a cannon?
I fought with myself for a moment. Curiosity was winning out over horror. I needed to take another look but I was terrified to open the door. Then I realized how stupid that was. The guy was dead. Or if he wasn’t he was doing a really good job of pretending he was. He couldn’t hurt me.
But what if the person who killed him was still out there? I should just call the police. Yep. That’s what I’d do. I’d call the police.
I picked up my phone and punched in a 9. Then I punched in a 1…I stopped.
What if I just took a really quick look at that hole again. If I could figure out how he got the hole, I could help the police solve the mystery.
That made sense, right? Work with me here. I have to know how this guy died. If he didn’t want me to figure out how he ended up on my doorstep he should have dropped dead somewhere else.
I grasped the doorknob and turned, my heart pounding like the hooves of a cow stampede.
I pulled the door open and peered through the crack. The dead guy was still there. Still bleeding onto my porch. Still missing a sizeable chunk of his back. I watched him for a minute. He didn't jump up and say, “Just kidding!” or lumber to his feet like a zombie and say “Argh!” So I slowly opened the door and, after a final moment of indecision, stepped through.
I made my way carefully around him, circling him like a turkey vulture. I had no idea what I was looking for but, whatever it was I was going to find it! It’s true, I had no experience solving murders. But hey, I’ve read about a thousand murder mysteries so I was sort of qualified. Besides, the guy had landed on my doorstep so he was kind of my responsibility. Right?
After a moment I stopped, crouched down, and really gave the hole in his back a good look. It appeared to be almost perfectly round. The fabric around the cavity was torn, blood seeping out from around it in a perfect aura of blood colors. Like the rings of Saturn. Only deadlier looking. Bright red at the edges, kind of burgundy in the next ring. Almost brown on the outer ring.
He’d been bleeding for a while.
I half stood and peered straight down, seeing part of a “W” through the hole. I blinked. A clue! Was this the killer’s signature? What it part of whatever killed him? A sign maybe? Or part of a ransom note? Wait, no. He was just lying on my Welcome mat.
I scanned a look down his jeans-clad legs. They were long legs. Good legs. They filled out the jeans nicely. But they had dark spots on them. At first I thought it was blood. But after peering a little closer, I realized the spot seemed oily. And it was too black to be blood.
Really dirty car oil? Or some other kind of grease?
The plot thickened.
His sneakers were wet, the smooth tread on the bottom stained green as if he’d recently walked over a freshly mown lawn. The tops were sprinkled with something pale and crumbly-looking. Like tiny bits of sugar cookie.
My first hypothesis was emerging. He’d been killed in a bakery. Felled with a large metal funnel, and he stumbled against a table of cookies, crushing some of them beneath his feet as he stumbled around before he died. The stains on his jeans? Cooking oil.
Or maybe melted black frosting…
Eyeing the perfect round hole in his back, I thought the W underneath him could stand for “Wow”. That was the lamest hypothesis ever.
I knew what I had to do next, but I really had to work up my courage to do it. I scanned a quick look around the neighborhood, seeing a lot of dark houses and zero movement. I never realized how dead my neighborhood was in the wee hours of the morning.
Okay, maybe that was a poor choice of words.
My porch light was the only one that was on down my entire street. I knew that would change pretty quickly though. By six o’clock lights would be flashing on. Coffee pots would be started. And curious eyes would find me crouching over a dead body outside my house.
Panic flared. I needed to get moving and then call the police or I was going to quickly become the prime suspect.
Gritting my teeth, I reached toward the nicely rounded back pocket of the man’s jeans and started to slip two fingers past the top. I stopped as I realized what I’d been about to do.
Jeezopete! I could have left prints on his wallet.
After indulging in a moment of self-flagellation and head thumping, I jumped up and ran inside, digging in my medicine cabinet until I found the box of latex gloves I kept there. As I pulled out the box, I tried to remember why I had them. Nothing came to me. I drew a complete blank. Maybe they’d been on sale at the Dollar Store or something.
After all, I was the queen of impulse purchases.
I returned to the body and crouched down, staring at the pocket with the wallet-shaped bulge in it. Had I left fingerprints inside the denim? The panic that had flared earlier exploded into full-on seizures of terror. My chest went tight and I started breathing too fast.
I was going to have to put a bag over my head. No. Wait. Not my head. Unless I wanted there to be two bodies on my porch. Just my mouth. Did I have any paper bags? I’d need the lunch sized ones. Just big enough to cover my mouth and not my face. I didn’t think I had any that size. I was pretty sure I had a big one from that new boutique up the street. I loved that boutique. They had the best sweaters. So warm and soft…
Oh. I could breathe again. I’d mental-shopped my way right out of the panic attack.
But I still had the problem of potential fingerprints in the pocket. How could I get rid of them? Wet wipes? Germ-killing hand gel? Maybe I should go get a washcloth and scrub the inside of his pocket.
No, that would take too long and the police might wonder why the inside of his pocket was wet and soapy. It might send them off on the wrong path looking for the murderer. I envisioned tomorrow’s headlines, POLICE SEARCH FOR LAUNDROMAT KILLER!
That would be bad.
With a sigh, I tugged the gloves over my hands and decided to go for the most basic kind of print extermination. Grimacing, I slipped my fingers inside his pocket and rubbed the denim. It took me a moment to realize how it probably looked.
I was crouched over a dead guy with a fist-sized hole in his back, rubbing his butt through his jeans.
I was worse than a murderer. I was a necrophiliac murderer.
POLICE CAPTURE NECROPHILIAC MURDERER ON HER PORCH!
I heard a phlegmy cough and my gaze shot toward the street. Mrs. Mouskawitz from next door was standing in the middle of my yard, her little Schnauzer Penny crouched next to her orthopedic shoes, pooping on my lawn.
Penny pooped a lot. I had a feeling, given Mrs. Mouskawitz’s extremely advanced age, Penny did the pooping for both of them.
The old woman was staring at her dog, waiting patiently for her to finish her business so she could wobble back home and make her mid-day cup of tea. (Mrs. Mouskawitz had given up sleeping a few decades earlier so she tended to lose track of time.
Fortunately for me, she was half blind and had serious memory issues.
“Morning, Mrs. Mouskawitz,” I said with my hand in a dead guy’s pocket.
She slid her rheumy gaze my way and smiled. “Morning, dear. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“I’m Dee. Your neighbor.”
“Ah, yes. Dee. It’s so nice to meet you, dear. Are you getting settled in?”
“I am. All the boxes are unpacked.” And had been for five years.
“How are you? Are you feeling all right?” I asked my elderly neighbor.
“Oh, I have my good days and my bad days, dear.” Her voice wobbled to a stop and she cocked her head at me. “I’m sorry, do I know your name?”
“I'm Dee. Have a great day, Mrs. Mouskawitz,” I told her.
Penny kicked at the grass and bounced happily away from her deposit, giving me a jaunty, “Yip!” as she started off on the end of her leash with her owner.
“I hope your friend feels better soon,” Mrs. Mouskawitz called out.
I realized with a start that she was talking about the dead guy I was feeling up.
The old woman stopped. “By the way, dear. When the movers were here, they didn’t accidentally take Ralph, did they?”
“My garden gnome. He’s usually right there in the Azealias. He’s missing.”
I figured Ralph the garden gnome was probably hiding from Penny so she didn’t poop on him. “No. Sorry. But I’ll keep a look out.”
“Thank you, dear.”
I sagged back, suddenly exhausted. I’d come so close to being caught with my hand in the…erm…cookie jar? No, that was just wrong. I shook off my sudden case of the nerves and quickly slipped my fingers into the dead guy’s pocket, dragging out his wallet.
Actually, it was just one of those leather money clips. No wallet. The clip contained fifty dollars, a couple of credit cards, and a slip of yellow paper with a series of numbers jotted across it. I stared at the numbers for a second, fixing them in my mind and then pulled one of the credit cards out and looked at his name.
Maybe he knew Ralph. I was pretty sure his bottom was green too.
A door slammed down the street and I jumped, shoving the card back into the clip and the clip back into his pocket.
I was running out of time. The world was starting to come to life.
I stared down at the body on my porch.
Well, most of the world anyway.
I had one more thing to do before I called the police and I wasn’t looking forward to it. But it needed to be done. So I gritted my teeth and reached for Oscar’s arm.
“What are you doing?”
I jumped, adrenaline kicking in, and flung the arm into the air. It landed in my lap with a soft, meaty plop. Great. I’d disturbed the corpse.
But I had bigger problems, didn’t I? Like the man with the inquisitive gaze who was standing on my sidewalk, frowning at my dead body.
Well…not my dead body…but Oscar’s. Still, I felt kind of responsible for old Oscar, seeing as how he dropped dead on my porch with a hole in him.
I tried a smile. The cute guy on the sidewalk merely frowned harder. “Should I call an ambulance?”
“No. But thanks. I was a little dizzy there for a minute but I feel better now.”
He lifted tidy brown eyebrows. “I meant for him.”
“Oh. Um. No, he doesn’t need an ambulance either.” I tried widening my smile and gave him a jaunty wave, hoping that would discourage him from lingering. “Nice to see you!”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and narrowed his gaze. I could tell he was narrowing his gaze because the sun was rising steadily over the roof of my house and it had him in a spotlight. He doesn’t look so good.”
Really, Captain Understatement? I thought uncharitably.
“He’s been better. But I’ve got this. Thanks for offering to help.” Other than getting a broom out and trying to sweep him off my sidewalk, I didn’t know what else to say. The man was seriously dense when it came to social cues.
Maybe it was because of the corpse in my lap. Those kinds of things generally put a crimp in social niceties.
To my horror, Captain Understatement started up the sidewalk. “Is he sick?”
The jig was up. I was busted. The pigeon had flown the coop. My goose was cooked…
He climbed the two short steps to my porch and stood, looking down. “This man’s dead.”
Aaannnnddd, Captain Obvious rears his ugly head.
“Yes. Yes he is.”
“Why is he sprawled on your porch?”
Where was that dang manual when I needed it. Chapter 4: How to deflect questions about the corpse on your Welcome mat.
“I have no idea.”
He slid his glance to the arm lying across my legs. “What were you doing to him?”
“So many questions,” I complained, shoving Oscar’s arm off my lap and rising to my feet. I offered Captain Obvious Understatement my hand. “Hi. I’m guessing we’re neighbors. My name’s Dee.”
He stared down at the hand wrapped in latex and his frown took on a whole new level of unhappy.
After a moment, he reached into the pocket of his baggy sweats and pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll just call the police.”
“I’m sorry…what was your name?”
Captain Obvious Understatement paused with his finger hovering over the last 1 in 911. He looked at me as if I’d killed Oscar Greenbottom myself. Though, I’d have to be a pretty stupid killer to rip a fist-sized hole in my victim’s back and then proceed to assault him wearing latex gloves on my well-lit front porch.
“I’m Nick. Nick Bednick.”
My lips curved upward of their own volition. “Seriously?”
He grimaced. “Don’t judge.” He lowered the hand with the phone. “My mother was on pain meds when she named me.”
I shook my head.
“D? Is that short for something? Like DNA or DWI?”
“Denise actually.” I offered my hand and he took it. “I guess we’re neighbors?”
He skimmed Oscar a look before nodding, rather reluctantly I thought. “I live three houses down.” He sighed.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing out on the street so early?”
He looked defensive. “I could ask you the same thing.”
I shrugged. “I was heading to the kitchen for coffee and I heard a thump out here. I opened the door to see what it was.”
“And it was a dead body?” Nick’s brows lifted.
“Yeah. Just my luck.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just…this dude’s dead and you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”
That made me wince. “Point taken.”
“So why the gloves?”
I glanced down at my hands, fighting the urge to shove them into my pockets. “These? Oh. I’m…um…” I expelled air in frustration. “Okay, you caught me trying to figure out how he died. I guess my brother’s right. I am too nosy.”
Nick took a step toward the body and leaned over it. “I’d say cause of death is the giant hole in his back.”
“Har,” I said morosely. “So, you didn’t answer my question. What are you doing out on the street at five…going quickly on six…in the morning?”
He patted his firm, flat belly. “Conditioning. I have a physical coming up and I’ve put on a few pounds.”
I scanned him a look, not seeing the pounds he’d allegedly “put on”. I did a mental shrug. Maybe he’d been emaciated before. “You look fine to me.”
His smile was slow and filled with innuendo. “Why thank you.”
I snorted out a laugh. “Stop it.” There was just something so very wrong about flirting over a dead guy. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Oh yeah, because the guy was DEAD!
Nick Bednick crouched down beside Oscar and eyed the hole in his back. “Smooth edges, whatever did this was either really sharp or he hit it with maximum force.”
“You sound like you know what you’re talking about.”
He shrugged, “Just common sense and physics.”
“Yeah, just those things,” I murmured crankily.
Nick looked up. “You have any more of those gloves?”
I held up a be-gloved finger. “Hold on.” I ran inside and grabbed the box of gloves. I thought about taking out one pair and leaving the box, but the way my day was going I might need to outfit a dozen more people in latex.
I wondered how many people lived on my street…hoping I had enough gloves. Presumably, the children wouldn’t need them…
I handed Nick some gloves and he donned them like a pro.
My curiosity was aroused. “Are you in the medical field by any chance?”
Nick shook his head. Grabbing Oscar’s arm and one thigh, he hesitated and looked up. “You haven’t moved him, have you?”
“No. I was just getting ready to do that when you showed up.”
He arch a brow and I shrugged. I had no excuses to give for my behavior. It was every bit as ugly as it appeared.
Shaking his head, Nick lifted Oscar off the ground and glanced my way. “Anything underneath him?”
The overhead light glinted off something on the porch. I knelt down and reached for it, pulling out an iPhone. “Jackpot.”
Nick eased Oscar back down onto my Welcome mat.
I hit the button and got a passcode screen. “Dangit! It’s protected.”
He held out his hand for the phone and I reluctantly gave it to him. “Do you know how to get past these things?”
Nick picked up Oscar’s hand and pressed it against the screen, one finger at a time. The thumb gave us access. Oscar’s hand hit the concrete of my porch with a meaty “thwack” and I grimace.
“Looks like he received a call around 4:30 AM. He hit redial and the phone rang several times before voicemail picked up. Nick didn’t hesitate. “Hey, it’s Oscar. Call me back.”
My eyebrows shot into my hairline. “Wow. You’re hardcore.”
Nick’s smile made me squirm. “Let’s see if they call back.” He punched the Message button and started reading texts. “His mother, his pet sitter…” Nick frowned. “We need to make sure his pet’s taken care of.”
I nodded, filled with wonder. “How can we do that?”
It took him a beat to realize I’d spoken. He blinked, turning to me. “What?”
“How can we find his address so we can make sure his pet’s okay?”
“Oh. Yeah, I meant we as in…” He shook his head. “Never mind.” He slipped the phone into Oscar’s pocket.
“You certainly seem in your element here. Are you a cop?”
Nick walked along the body, carefully scanning it from head to toe. “I’m, um, neighborhood watch.”
Hm. I’d lived in that neighborhood for five years and hadn’t even known we had one of those. “Really? Can I join?”
He shrugged. “What else did you notice about the body?”
I pointed to the spots on Oscar’s jeans. “He’s got something greasy on his jeans and what looks like cookie crumbs on his shoes.”
Nick’s gaze found the clues in question and he peered long and hard at them. Finally, he nodded and straightened. “Not bad, D for Denise.”
I grinned. “Thanks. I read a lot of mysteries.”
Nick walked around my porch, and checked out the bushes along the front of my house. He stopped at my azalea bush and bent close. He cocked his head and then crouched in front of it, examining the ground in front of the bush.
He took two big steps back and walked along the line of greenery, examining the too-long grass.
I stepped down from the porch and followed him. His gaze jerked to me as I stepped off the sidewalk. “Stay three feet away from the bushes.”
He pointed at the grass. “Footprints.”
I squinted. The light was still dim there. I had an overgrown oak tree in my front yard that blocked the rising sunlight on one end of my house. But I could barely make out a shoe-shaped trail of mashed, dew-drenched grass. “Do you think those are Oscar’s?”
He nodded, pointing to a spiky branch from one of my badly misshapen bushes. The vibrant green leaves were smeared with something dark. “Is that blood?”
“I’m guessing he came around the house here…” Nick pointed at my side yard. He took off along the grass, his gaze on the grass. It was shorter in the back, scrubbier. I figured someone had once fertilized and nurtured the grass in the front of the house. It hadn’t been me. But in the back, they’d pretty much just let nature take its course. The result was a lot of weeds and a patchy effect.
I just mowed the weeds. They were green. From the distance, they looked like grass.
“Wait, these can't be Oscar's footprints. He had a fist-sized hole in his back. There's no way he was walking around my yard before he dropped dead.”
Nick gave me a look I couldn’t decipher and started walking again, gaze locked on the scrub-grass.
Nick hit the back of my property and cast a frowning gaze over the property behind mine. It was an older home, a mid-century modern monstrosity that had seen better days. The yard was in even worse shape than mine and it featured a giant dumpster. “We won’t get any footprints from that yard,” I told Nick unhelpfully.
He grunted softly and took off running. It was all I could do to keep up with him. By the time we made it to the dumpster, one of those giant ones that had a door on one end so you could walk into it, I was panting like a puppy on a blistering summer day.
Nick did a cursory examination of the mess of broken boards, porcelain and drywall inside the dumpster and then retreated. “The police will have to sift through all this.”
I frowned. “What are you looking for?”
He skimmed a glance toward the house. “Does anybody live here?”
“I don’t think so. It’s been empty for a while. But I heard someone had bought it and was flipping it.”
He nodded. “You might want to stay out here.”
He walked over and tried the sliding door, finding it locked. Shading his eyes, he pressed his face to the glass and peered inside. Then, looking around the yard, he found a piece of metal pipe about as long as my arm and, without hesitation, walked over and broke the window in the small door leading to the garage.
I jumped back in surprise. “Um, don’t you think we should wait for the police?”
Nick barely acknowledged me. He held up a hand, his gaze sliding quickly to mine as he reached carefully through the broken glass. “You stay out here.”
Yeah, like that was gonna happen.
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