The first thing that met us when we entered the garage was the sour stench of old oil and gasoline. I cast my gaze around the space, noting that the two bays were empty. Thank goodness. The built-in cabinets along the front and sides appeared to be empty, the doors hanging open to show mostly bare shelves. And the worktable in the center was scarred and stained but mostly clear of tools. Only a couple of screwdrivers and one wrench lay on its plywood surface.
I thought it was strange those things were there, but, having moved a few times, I realized stuff got left behind.
“It looks like whoever lived here moved out,” I murmured.
Nick motioned for me to be quiet and stepped up to a door which I presumed led to the house. I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned nervously as he stood to one side and tried the knob.
It opened with a soft groan.
Nothing moved inside the house. There was no sound at all.
I opened my mouth to speak but he gave his head a violent shake and pointed toward the door through which we’d entered.
I shook my head. There was no way I was going to stand outside and let him explore our first clue alone. I’d started the Oscar investigation and I was going to see it through. I didn’t care if Nick was Double O flippin’ Seven himself.
Shaking his head at me, Nick put a finger to his lips and slipped through the door. I moved as silently as I could in his direction, my heart pounding so hard I had to look down to see if my tee shirt was rising and falling with the beats—cartoon style.
Unfortunately, when I looked down I lost focus and missed the slight rise of the threshold. The toe of my flip flop caught on the raised wood and I stumbled forward, slamming my feet down hard a couple of times to keep from doing a face-plant.
I leaned against a round, wood table and gave a quick sigh of relief that I hadn’t fallen. Then lifted my head and looked into Nick’s astonished gaze.
Giving an embarrassed laugh, I shrugged, mouthing, “Sorry.”
“Now you’re worried about being quiet,” he murmured, looking completely disgusted.
What could I say? I shrugged again. I gave the space a quick perusal. It was a kitchen and, as far as I could see it was mostly empty. There were a small, round table and four chairs in the center and a trash can pushed up against one wall.
Nick opened the trash can and looked inside, his nostrils pinching as a sour smell wafted out of it. “Somebody’s been here fairly recently,” he told me in a harsh whisper.
I nodded, pointing to a pile of paper plates and plastic cups stacked on the counter. “Looks like they’ve made themselves at home.”
I followed Nick down a short hall that held a fifties style bathroom which had seen better days and through a cased opening into a long, narrow living area. In the center of the space was a mound of what appeared to be furniture, covered in plastic. “Why would they leave the furniture here?” I asked Nick.
He shook his head, but his gaze was already on the stairs to the second floor.
We made quick work of searching the rest of the lower level, finding a master bedroom suite, furniture intact and the bed showing signs of having been recently slept in. The master had a small, outdated bathroom in need of a lot of work.
Nick eyed the toothbrush lying on the laminate countertop. He scanned a look toward the floor and narrowed his gaze on the purple shag carpeting.
“What is it?” I asked, half expecting him to ignore my question as he’d been doing.
But he lifted his gaze to mine. “I was wondering if that was a cleaning toothbrush or a personal one.
I caught his meaning after a confused beat and moved toward the cabinet, pulling open a drawer. I pulled out a tube of toothpaste but saw no toothbrush in the drawer. “Personal?”
His smile made my stomach flutter. “Nice work D for Denise.”
“Why thank you Nick Bednick. Have I mentioned I read a lot of mysteries.”
We chuckled together and then Nick turned away. “Let’s go upstairs.”
I was a bit surprised he didn’t take the toothbrush. “Should we grab this? It might have DNA on it.”
“We leave everything intact,” he told me as he headed for the stairs. He all but screeched to a stop when he reached the steps, his hand in mid-air over the wooden banister.
“What is it?” I asked, stopping behind him.
He pointed toward the railing. “Blood.”
We climbed the steps, taking care to stay close to the wall where we were certain to avoid the smears of blood that seemed to mostly show up on the banister and directly beneath it. My mind spun with questions. How could Oscar have made it down the stairs with the injury he’d sustained, let alone all the way over to my house?
The blood drops were more numerous at the top of the stairs and we followed them across the light-colored carpeting to a closed door.
Nick grasped the knob with his still-gloved hand and pushed it open. A rank, rotting meat stench wafted out to us. I cringed back, covering my mouth and nose. “Ugh! What’s that smell?”
Nick’s handsome face was grim. “Death.” He stepped through the door and stood looking around for a long moment before moving further into the small room. I stayed in the hall, telling myself it was because there wasn’t room for both of us. But I knew better. Deep down in my cowardly guts I was fighting the urge to turn around and run as fast as I could back to my house.
“It’s all over the sink and countertop.”
I leaned closer to the door without moving my feet. “Was somebody…” I swallowed hard. “Killed here?”
Nick shook his head, his nostrils twitching. “Looks like somebody tried to dress a wound.”
My head started shaking before my brain wrapped around his words. “No way Oscar tried to fill that hole in his back.”
Nick threw me a look. “I agree, that’s unlikely. But still…” His nostrils twitched again. “This smell is coming from somewhere else.” He spun on his heel and reached for a narrow closet door, pulling it open. He reared back as an eye-watering stench wafted out. “Blood-soaked towels,” he told me.
I was glad he was giving me the verbal rundown so I didn’t need to look at it myself.
Nick disappeared for a moment behind the door and then straightened back into view. He was holding something in his hands. Something big enough to require a double-handed grip. Something…
I grimaced as he showed it to me.
“So much blood,” I murmured, still hiding my nasal orifices behind my hand.
“Yeah. And I’m guessing we found the source of Oscar’s unnecessary body opening.”
We’d also found Ralph. Somehow I didn’t think Mrs. Mouskawitz was going to want her gnome back. “That thing’s big for a garden gnome.”
Nick nodded, setting it back on the floor in the closet and throwing the bloody towels back over it. “Heavy too. I’d say it’s close to thirty pounds. Resin. And that hat is pointed enough to create a hole in a man’s back if he hit it with enough force.”
“How much force would it take to drive through a man’s torso?” I was skeptical another person could shove a gnome through someone.
“Too much for another person to achieve, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Then how?” My phone rang and I jumped, my heart surging into fainting territory. I held up a finger for Nick to give me a minute. “Hello!” There was a long silence in response to my overly exuberant, adrenaline-fueled greeting, then an unfamiliar male voice said, “Ms. Prince?”
I blinked. “Um. Yeah, that’s me. Who is this?”
“This is Officer Maxwell. Can you tell me where you are right now, please?”
I felt my eyes go wide and I turned a panicked gaze to Nick.
Who is it? he mouthed.
I shook my head, my eyes in real danger of popping out of my head. “I’m a, taking a walk. Why?”
“Ms. Prince, when you left home, was there…um…someone here?”
A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. “Here? Where?”
“At your home, Ms. Prince. We were called to your house by a neighbor. I think you should get back here right away. Where are you? I’ll send a squad car to pick you up.”
Another long pause.
“I’m sorry. I’m just very upset.” I forced myself to swallow and breathe past the panic. “Why would one of my neighbors call you? Has something happened to my house?” I let a long beat fill the phone line and then, “Is it on fire?” My panicked shrieking tone ripped right through the line and probably had Officer Maxwell reaching for his gun.
“No, ma’am. There’s no fire. But I really have to insist that you come home. Just tell me where you are.”
“I’ll come home, Officer. I’ll see you in a few minutes.” I hung up before he could insist again on picking me up.
“What’s wrong?” Nick asked.
I grabbed his arm, my fingers tightening on the muscular flesh like pale, fleshy garrotes. “The police are at my house. What am I going to do?”
Nick frowned. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Dee.”
I blinked a few times. He was right. I hadn’t. Technically. Although I had molested their corpse. “Should I admit to examining the body?”
He rolled his eyes. “Don’t be daft, Dee.”
“Okay, you’re right.” I paced away from him, shoving hair out off my face. I suddenly realized what I must look like. I’d rolled out of bed that morning and hadn’t had time to do anything but pee before the thump against my front door distracted me from my zombie-like strut toward the coffee machine.
I ran a hand through my short, dark gold hair. The strands stuck straight up in the air, drawing Nick’s eye. I cleared my throat to pull his amused gaze away from my “finger in the socket” hairstyle. “What about this house?”
“What about it?” Nick asked, frowning.
“Should I tell them about Ralph…the blood on the banister?”
Nick glanced toward the blood-covered gnome. “No. They’re not stupid. I have a feeling they’ll follow the same trail we did and show up here. Which means we need to skedaddle.”
I nodded and we started down the stairs, keeping close to the wall again.
“Gloves,” Nick said and I heard him snap his off.
“Oh, yeah.” I pulled mine off and shoved them into his extended hand. “I’ll take these with me. We don’t want them getting the wrong idea.”
I was in the garage, heading for the door with the broken window before I realized what he’d said. “Wait, aren’t you coming with…?”
“Police! Put your hands up and don’t move.”
I went very still, my heart leaping in my chest. It wasn’t the deadly muzzle of the gun pointed in my direction that panicked me. Or the slightly shaky aspect of the hand holding it. The uniformed officer behind the gun was young. Really young. And his large brown eyes bulged with fear as he trained his weapon on me. His forehead shone in the sunlight streaming through the door behind him, glistening with sweat.
I realized with a start that he thought I was a killer. He thought he was facing off with a murderer.
I swallowed hard.
Still, as I lifted my hands slowly into the air and prepared to reassure the jumpy cop that I was harmless, it was something different that made my pulse pound so hard I was seeing stars and feeling faint.
It was the fact that I stood alone against the cop.
Nick Bednick was gone.
Officer Maxwell wasn’t happy when I was delivered to him. He settled a fierce gray gaze on me and rested one hand on his gun as if not sure whether I was dangerous.
I tried to look harmless, but I wasn’t sure I pulled it off. “I can explain…” I started, but he cut me off by lifting one hand.
He turned to the young officer who’d dragged me from the neighbor’s house. “This is the break-in suspect from the next street?”
“Yes, Sarge.” The young cop nodded enthusiastically. “She was the only one inside the house.”
I bit my lip against the desire to rat on Nick. I figured there was really only room for one rat in the current mess. And he was a giant-sized rat with a capital R-A-T. After all, he’d deserted the ship like one and left me holding the proverbial bag.
Maxwell stared me down for a moment. Then he nodded to the young cop. “Help Sanders with the interviews.”
I watched the nervous young cop skitter away to pester my neighbors. If I didn’t get sent up the river without a paddle for breaking, entering, and being within spitting distance of a blood-covered gnome, I was going to have some ’splainin’ to do with my neighbors.
But as I stood there, weathering the angry Police Sargent’s glare, I realized they hadn’t found Ralph or his gory towel coverings. It was only a matter of time. “I can explain.”
He lifted both eyebrows. They were shaggy things, sticking straight out from his face and curving upward as if he’d shaped them with an eyelash curler. I longed to grab a pair of scissors and snip them off. “Which crime can you explain? The apparent murder victim on your porch? Or the breaking and entering on the next block?”
“I didn’t break the window in that house.”
One ridiculous eyebrow deflated. “Then who did?”
I shrugged, my gaze swimming guiltily away. I mentally flailed myself for not being a better liar. “I found Oscar on my porch. I didn’t kill him.”
The deflated brow flew back up. “Oscar?”
I performed another internal flailing. Sighing, I pointed to the body, which, I was happy to see, was finally hidden inside a body bag and resting on a stretcher. Oscar and his inordinately large hole were finally on their way to an ambulance at the hands of two very capable-looking EMTs.
“You knew the victim?” Maxwell accused.
“What? No. We just met.” Sweat broke out on my upper lip. I was making a mess of my explanation. I swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried again. “What I meant to say was, we never actually met. In fact, I’ve never seen him before he landed on my Welcome mat.”
“But you know his name. How is that possible?”
Oh, oh. “I um…might have checked his wallet.” I shuffled my feet and chewed the inside of my lip, my gaze skimming away to watch the ambulance pull away from the curb. I’d once read an interesting article on body language and I was pretty sure my non-verbal cues were shrieking, “murderer!” “thief!” “person who doesn’t want anybody to know about that long hair she plucked off her chin this morning…!” Okay, maybe not that last thing.
The Sargent’s gaze tightened. “You disturbed the body?
“I might have. Just a teensy bit.”
“Did you look through the wallet?”
His jaw flexed and I was pretty sure I heard him growl a little.
“I um…” The numbers I’d seen flashed through my mind. “Not really.”
“What does that mean? Either you looked through it or you didn’t.”
“I just wanted to find out his name. I didn’t take anything…” Except for trapping the numbers on the slip of paper in my agile brain.
“I find it interesting you feel the need to deny taking anything.”
I wiped sweaty palms on my pants. “You’re making me nervous.”
I frowned but didn’t answer. “Can I go now? I need to go get ready for work.”
I didn’t tell him I worked from my house. Getting coffee and running my fingers through my hair so I didn’t look like a zombie on my morning team video call was pretty much the extent of my getting ready.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Maxwell instructed me. “I’ll have more questions for you once I look into this some more. Plan to come to the station tomorrow morning.” He handed me a card with his name, title and a phone number on it. The address of the station where he worked was on the bottom.
“You’re not going to arrest me?” I hated to ask in case it gave him the impression I was open to the idea. But it seemed important to know what was coming next.
“Not right now. But consider yourself under house arrest. I’ll be placing a 24-hour watch on you until we get prints back on the house you broke into…”
“I didn’t break into it. The glass was already broken when I went inside.” Not strictly a lie. Nick had already broken it.
“And you went inside why?”
My mind raced for a reasonable explanation. “I…um…I was walking past and decided to peek in the windows. Somebody’s been working on the house. Flipping it. I was curious.”
Maxwell didn’t seem to totally disbelieve me so I relaxed fractionally.
“You didn’t see anyone else in the house?” he asked.
Yikes! How was I going to get out of that one? I decided a partial answer would serve me best. Shrugging, I shoved my hands into my pockets. “I just peeked into the kitchen. There were signs somebody was living there.”
He inclined his head. “There’s been a rash of break-ins in this area lately. We think there’s a crew of thieves working these neighborhoods.”
My eyes went wide. “Do you think Oscar was one of them?”
“Or maybe he lived in that house and the thieves surprised him.”
All the color left my face. I needed new deadbolts on all my doors. “Have there been any other murders?”
“Not even an aggressive scratch. If Mr. Greenbottom was killed by this thievery ring, he’s the first victim we’re aware of.”
Escalation. And I seemed to be right in the middle of it. “Why would they drop the body here?”
Maxwell scoured me with an intense gaze. “It doesn’t make any sense. Unless you know the guys in the ring? Or saw something you shouldn’t have.”
His meaning was clear. He thought Oscar was a message for me. I shook my head. “I’m just as perplexed as you. None of this has anything to do with me. I’m just a lowly proposal manager. I work an average of seventy hours a week from my home and rarely leave. I didn’t even know there was a string of robberies in the area.”
Maxwell’s gaze stayed locked on mine for another thirty seconds and then slid away. He nodded. “That will be easy enough to check.”
I bristled at his insinuation. He really believed I was involved. Although, even as I embraced the comforting heat of outrage, I realized I couldn’t blame him. The bad guys had dumped a body on my porch. There had to be a good reason for that. “Can I go?”
“Yes. But we’ll be talking again soon.”
I nodded and all but ran toward my front door. I stepped over the blood on my Welcome mat and closed the door, locking it before leaning against it, my heart racing.
Panic flared, making me feel as if I might pass out. What had I gotten myself into? A ring of thieves? What if Maxwell was right and Oscar had been dropped on my doorstep as some kind of message? Had I seen something I didn’t realize I’d seen, which put me in the killer’s crosshairs? Nick’s strange behavior…the bloody gnome in the closet of the house behind me…
Nothing made any sense.
I was only sure about a couple of things. Neither of which put me in my happy place. For whatever reason, I was smack in the middle of the whole mess. And after Nick’s cowardly disappearance, it seemed I was all alone in the hot seat.