Sergeant Maxwell peered down at me, his suspicious gaze even narrower than usual. “Why is it that every time someone dies a horrible death in this neighborhood, you’re right there on the scene, Ms. Prince?”
I bit back a sigh, oh so tired of being blamed for everything that went wrong around me. Even if I was sticking my nose into all of it. I’d cop to being nosy. But I was no killer. “I think the more important question, Officer, is why people keep getting horribly murdered in my neighborhood.”
“I’m a Sergeant, Ms. Prince. I worked hard for these bars. I’d appreciate you using my correct title.”
I barely managed not to roll my eyes. “Fine. Then you can call me Proposal Manager Prince. I worked really hard for that title too, and though it doesn’t come with bars, I’ve spent many hours in a bar, trying to wash away the stink of my job. Does that count?”
I heard growling and looked around for the rabid dog. Then I realized it was coming from Maxwell.
Lifting my hands, I gave him what I hoped was a placating smile. Judging by the way he blinked, I might have missed the mark a bit. “Look, I’m not trying to be difficult…”
“Then you’re just naturally good at it?” He growled out.
“No. I mean, maybe.” I flipped my hands in the air as if to magically whisk away all the sour notes between us. “I didn’t kill Billy Mouskawitz.”
“Then what were you doing in his house?”
“I was worried about his mother. I went to check on her. And when I saw the state of the downstairs, I went upstairs to see if I could find her.”
“And why would you be worried about her?” he quite reasonably asked.
“Because of what happened to me in the wee hours of last night…this morning…whatever.”
Curiosity transformed his features. “Why would you believe your rock through the window incident would endanger her? The note on the rock seemed directed at you. It wasn’t a global threat for all your neighbors.”
“No. It wasn’t. But you might have noticed the broken window in Mrs. M’s second floor bedroom. The room where her son’s body was found.”
“It would have been hard not to notice,” he said with censure in his voice.
“Well, I’m starting to wonder if she and I aren’t being harassed by the same people.”
“Why would you believe that, Ms. Prince? There doesn’t seem to be any evidence at all that that’s the case.”
I briefly considered whether I should tell him everything I knew…about Ralph the Gnome’s being the source of the hole in Oscar Greenbottom’s torso, about the stash house, about Billy M’s involvement in all of it. But then I realized I’d be implicating myself even more. In the cop’s decidedly blinkered gaze I’d look guiltier. Then there was the whole Nick thing.
At least this time he’d warned me he was cutting out before the police came. Only after my prying a promise from him that he’d explain it when next I saw him.
So I went for a slight deflection instead. “I was right to be concerned, wasn’t I? She appears to be missing.”
The cop opened his mouth to respond, but didn’t get a chance.
“She’s fine, Ms. Prince,” a deep, slightly familiar voice said. Maxwell and I turned to find Chase Bond heading our way, looking perfectly groomed in a well-cut suit with a crisp, white button-down shirt and a perfectly tied tie. He smiled at the cop and extended his hand. “Sergeant Maxwell.”
To my amazement, Maxwell actually smiled back. “Mr. Bond, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
I was dying to know why Bond, Chase Bond was such good pals with the cranky cop, but I was more interested in hearing about Mrs. M. “How do you know she’s okay?” I asked my neighbor. “Have you heard from her?”
His toothy smile transferred to me. “Better than that. She’s at our home right now. She called us in the middle of the night, babbling something about Ralph being in danger, and my wife insisted I bring her home.”
Maxwell frowned. “Ralph?”
“Her garden gnome,” I told Maxwell. “She believes he’s real.”
“And having a fling with our concrete angel, apparently,” Bond said on a chuckle. “She’s suffering from dementia,” he explained. “My own mother has Alzheimer’s. I’m familiar with the signs. But she was genuinely upset so we thought it would be prudent to take her in and keep her safe until we could talk to her son.”
Maxwell and I shared a look. Bond noticed. “What’s wrong? Has something happened to Billy?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Maxwell told Bond. “He’s been murdered.”
Bond looked at me, shock clear in his gaze. “Murdered?”
I nodded. “I came over to see how Mrs. M was and found him. The house has been ransacked too.”
“Ms. Prince…” Maxwell growled out. Apparently he didn’t want me sharing information.
Bond seemed to understand. He lifted his hands. “You don’t need to worry about me sharing information, Sergeant. You know I’m a friend of the police.”
Maxwell’s craggy face relaxed. He nodded. “I do know that. And I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t share information on an ongoing investigation.” He swung a chastising look my way. I met his look with a blank one.
“Do you think his mother saw the murder?” Bond asked softly.
His words made my stomach twist. He was right. Her babbling about Ralph being in danger might have been her mind’s way of coping.
Of course Maxwell refused to be drawn into discussing it. “We’ll know more as the investigation progresses. But we’ll want to talk to the old lady today. Can you make sure she’s available?”
“Of course,” Bond said agreeably. “My wife will be home all day. Just come by at your convenience.”
Maxwell nodded. “If you’ll excuse me.”
We watched him amble away to speak to a man and a woman in street clothes as they climbed out of an unmarked car. Probably the detectives who’d caught the case.
“I hope you won’t think me too pushy if I re-extend the invitation to stay with us, Ms. Prince. Just until the police catch whoever’s responsible for this.”
I shook my head. “You’ve got your hands full. I can just go to a hotel.”
“It really wouldn’t be too much trouble. My wife gets bored at home alone all day. I work long hours. You’d be doing me a favor.” His smile turned apologetic.
“I really don’t want…”
“It would be no trouble at all.”
“I insist. You’ll be safe there and as soon as the police catch the killer you can go home.”
His expression was so kind I found I couldn’t resist. Besides, I’d planned to take him up on it anyway. Mrs. Mouskawitz being there was really more of a bonus than anything. I fully intended to question her carefully, picking through as much nonsense as I could to try to find a nugget of truth hidden there. If her mind had transposed her son for Ralph the concrete gnome, there might be other things it was altering. My challenge would be to translate statements that appeared cray-cray into sentiments that might reflect actual reality.
I gave Bond, Chase Bond a smile. “I’d really appreciate that. Thank you.”
He nodded. “It’s no problem at all. As I said, you’d really be doing me a favor. My wife is shy. She’ll benefit from getting to know some of our neighbors.” He glanced at his watch. “If you’re ready, I can walk you down and introduce you now.”
“Oh. I need to go pack a few things.”
“Of course.” He chuckled. “Sorry. It’s just that I have a meeting I need to get to.”
“No worries. I can find my way down there by myself.”
“I’ll call and tell her you’re coming.” He gave me a smile. “I’ll see you later, Ms. Prince.”
“Please call me Dee.”
Before I left Mrs. M’s house, I begged, harassed and nagged a pseudo promise from Sergeant Maxwell to call me if or when he caught the killer. I told him about my plan to stay with the Bonds for a couple of nights, hoping he caught the subliminal message I was throwing him. “Find the killer so I could come home!”
Looking into his crabby expression and cold gaze, I was pretty sure he’d be more likely to catch happiness if I jammed a rainbow up his butt.
I trudged home and threw some clothes into a bag. Then I went into my office and grabbed my laptop and everything I’d need to get work done for the next couple of days. I jammed everything into my computer bag and, with a final look around, grabbed my purse and headed out of the house. I locked my front door, glancing toward the dwindling police presence at Mrs. Mouskawitz’s house, and started toward my car, before realizing the police vehicles had me blocked into my driveway.
I’d have to come back later. After they’d left. Giving a long-suffering sigh, I hit the sidewalk and headed down the street toward the Bonds’ house. As I walked, I realized it was probably better to leave my car there anyway. The neighbors were used to seeing my car sit, unmoving, in my driveway for days at a time. During crunch times in my job I occasionally went days without leaving the house. It would be better if nobody knew the house was empty.
I crossed the street at the stone and cedar ranch house that I knew to be the Bonds’ house. If I’d had any doubts, the three foot high concrete angel glaring at me from their immaculate flower beds in front would have told me I was in the right place.
Ralph’s girlfriend looked like she needed a slice of Sergeant Maxwell’s butt rainbow.
I jumped as a small engine roared to life and turned to find Tony Marrow, holding a deadly looking chain saw and giving me a cold look from across the yard. When I glanced his way he lifted a hand in a wave, inclining his chin. But the glare remained fixed on his dark face.
I shivered under that look, remembering his fight with Billy M, and the way they’d looked at me through the window.
And Billy was dead.
My steps faltered as I realized I should have told the Sergeant about their fight. I glanced toward Mrs. M’s house down the street and jumped again as Tony revved the saw. When my gaze swung to his, he lifted the saw, the blades snapping threateningly and held it aloft for a beat before lowering it to a dead tree limb and making quick work of slicing it off.
Any thoughts I might have had of talking to the gardener fled my brain at the sight of that saw slicing through the four inch thick tree branch like it was made of butter.
I scurried toward the front door and knocked, keeping a side-eye on Marrow as I waited for someone to open it. After a very long couple of minutes I heard a soft footfall on the other side of the door. Something brushed against the door, as if someone were leaning against it, probably peering through the peep hole.
I tried not to fidget as I waited for her to look me over. It wasn’t easy. I pasted a smile on my face and attempted to look non-intimidating.
After a really long minute, I heard the locks being disengaged and the door opened a crack. A wide, blue eye peered out at me, set in a pale face. “Yes?”
“Hi, Mrs. Bond? I’m your neighbor down the street. My name’s Dee Prince.”
The eye didn’t blink as it continued to peer at me. The crack in the door didn’t widen. Finally, out of sheer desperation, I explained further. “Mr. Bond invited me to stay here for a couple of days. Because of the murder…” I trailed off, realizing Mrs. Mouskawitz could be within earshot. I didn’t want to upset her. I lowered my voice. “At the Mouskawitz house. I live next door to them.”
The eye slid sideways as if glancing down the street. Finally, it disappeared and the door closed. I stood there blinking. Had she dismissed me? Was I being rejected?
But a lock scraped inside and the door opened, showing me an average sized woman with white-blonde hair, pale skin, and large, terrified looking blue eyes. “Come in.”
Her voice was breathless and so soft it was almost a whisper. She stepped back into the dim lighting of the entrance and I hesitated. I felt as if I were intruding. I opened my mouth to tell her I’d make other arrangements just as the chain saw roared into action again. I jumped at the sound. It was much closer than the last time. Turning my head, I saw Tony at the corner of the house, applying the saw to some bushes there.
He nodded in my direction, his expression cold.
I all but ran through the door. I’d just stay until Tony had left and then make my excuses to Mrs. Bond. Y decision made, I stopped in the dimly lit foyer and looked around. I didn’t see Mrs. Bond. When the door slammed shut behind me my feet left the ground and I couldn’t stop the fear-filled yelp that flew from my throat.
She stood with her fingers twisting together, peering at me between the strings of her hair. She didn’t say anything.
Just stood there, peering and twisting.
I swallowed hard and tried a smile. It felt tight and insincere. “Mrs. Bond?”
She didn’t respond.
“I…I’m Dee Prince, your neighbor.”
“You said that already.” Her voice was so soft I barely heard it.
I nodded. “Is it okay that I’m here?”
She stared at me a moment longer and then pointed down the hall. “I made up your room.”
So she had known I was coming.
“Oh. Okay, thanks.” I stood there, waiting for her to show me which was my room. When she didn’t move, I finally, gave her a jerky nod and pointed down the hall. “I’ll just…”
She stared back, twisting her fingers in front of her.
“Okay then.” I walked down the hallway, peeking into each door as I passed it. The first room was clearly the Master bedroom. It was large and tidy, with a king sized bed on the wall opposite the door. Pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Bond, seemingly in happier times, adorned the long dresser nearest the door.
I moved on and came to a door that was ajar. I pushed it open and blinked. Mrs. M lay on the bed, unmoving. I walked inside and looked down at her. She lay on top of the covers, fully dressed, including her shoes, and her hands were folded over her chest.
Like a corpse.
I thought she was dead. But then I saw the slight rise and fall of her chest and relief flooded me.
I jumped as the soft voice intruded and turned a little too quickly. One of my bags slammed against the bedside table and Mrs. Bond twitched at the sound. “Your room’s down here.”
“Okay.” I threw Mrs. M one last look and then left the room, determined to check back as soon as I was alone.
Mrs. Bond opened the next door down the hall. “You’ll stay here.”
I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into the room. It was good sized and pretty. Very feminine. Where the master bedroom and Mrs. M’s room were decorated in strong, even masculine blacks and grays, the room I’d just entered was frilly, dressed in pinks and pastels. The queen sized bed was covered in a gauzy white comforter, covered in flowers.
A pretty glass vase sat on the tall dresser by the window, a bright and happy array of flowers sending a pleasant scent into the air.
I turned to tell Mrs. Bond how pretty it was and she was gone.
I dropped my bags and hurried over to the window, tugging the shades to the side and peering out. I jumped back as Tony Marrow’s head popped up outside and my heart slammed against my ribs. The sound of the hedge trimmers firing up drowned out the thundering of my pulse and I laughed at myself. I was so jumpy. Though it was no wonder with everything that was going on.
My cell phone dinged and I realized I had a work call I needed to prep for. So I moved back to the door, opened it and peered down the hallway, seeing no one, and then closed and locked it. I felt marginally better. At least nobody could sneak up on me.
With that less-than-soothing thought, I grabbed my computer bag and settled myself on the bed to begin work.
Two hours had passed by the time I looked up from my work. The sounds outside the window had gone away and, when I peered through the shades again, there was no sign of Tony Marrow. My stomach rumbled. Glancing at the digital clock on the nightstand, I realized it was well past lunch. I grabbed my purse and slipped some shoes on, intending to take a quick walk down the street to the sub store on the corner. The house was deathly quiet when I stepped into the hallway. I stood there for a moment, trying to determine Mrs. Bond’s whereabouts. After a couple of minutes, I heard the sound of dishes clashing together in a distant part of the house. Probably the kitchen. I realized I’d have to tell her where I was going. She’d either need to give me a key or let me back in.
Dreading the coming conversation, I headed down toward the front door. I’d get my bearings there and, hopefully, follow the sounds of movement to the kitchen. I saw Mrs. M’s door and noticed it was closed. Glancing quickly around, I reached out and clasped the knob to open the door.
It didn’t turn. It was locked.
“Are you hungry?”
“Ah!” I jumped, my purse flying out of my hand and hitting the textured ceiling above my head with a thump before crashing back down and glancing off my head.
My heart pounding, I rubbed my head and turned to Mrs. Bond. “You startled me. I didn’t hear you coming.”
She stood awkwardly, her ever-moving fingers twisting in front of her. “I made lunch.”
Ugh! The last thing I wanted to do was sit across from the strange woman standing in front of me and try to eat. But I realized it was a good opportunity to question her about the goings on in the neighborhood so I nodded, forcing myself to smile. “That’s nice of you. I was just heading out to grab a sandwich.”
“Oh. There’s no need. I made plenty.”
“Then I’d love to join you.” I threw Mrs. M’s door a look, inspiration striking. “I was going to ask Mrs. Mouskawitz if she wanted me to bring her something back. Do you know if she’s awake?”
The wide, blue eyes slid to the door. “I took her in some soup a while ago.”
I waited for her to answer my question but she didn’t. She’d neatly sidestepped my excuse for getting a look at the old woman though. I couldn’t help wondering if she was being shrewd or if she was just socially awkward. “Um. Okay.”
I followed her into a kitchen that was all stainless steel and white. With the sun beaming through the sliding door to the backyard, the glare was almost too much.
She pointed to a white table, where two place settings waited on round, white placemats. Small, white plates held grilled cheese sandwiches and white bowls were filled with steaming red soup. I threw her a hopeful look. “Is this tomato?”
She nodded. “I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s better than okay. Grilled cheese and tomato soup is one of my favorites.”
She gave me a tenuous smile. “I’m glad. Would you like something to drink?”
“Just water, please.”
She poured me a glass from a pitcher in the stainless steel refrigerator and carried it over, setting it down on the white placemat. She didn’t let go of the glass until she’d turned it three times.
I tried not to stare. But I was pretty sure I was looking at a massive case of OCD. “This smells delicious.”
She nodded, standing beside the table with her fingers twisting in front of her. She stared at me for a moment and I glanced up. “Is something wrong?”
“No. Please, eat.”
“Are you going to join me?”
“I will.” She motioned toward the food. “Please.”
I tasted the soup and it was delicious. Just a tiny bit sweet with a tang that burst flavor over my tongue as it went down. “Mm, delicious.”
She nodded again, still watching. I broke a chunk off my sandwich. Gooey cheese trailed from the chunk and I gathered it up, feeling uncomfortable under her watchful gaze. I couldn’t help feeling as if she was envisioning snipping the strings with a pair of boiled scissors and dumping them carefully into the spotless stainless steel trash can at the end of the counter.
I dunked the bite of sandwich into the soup and popped it into my mouth, my eyes going closed as pure buttery decadence burst over my taste buds. “Oh my gosh. So good.”
She nodded again and finally sat. “I’m glad you like it. It’s my mother’s recipe.”
I swallowed. “What is? The soup?”
“All of it.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “You made the bread too?”
“And the cheese. Yes.”
I wasn’t sure what to say about that, except. “You’re a very talented cook.”
The smile she gave me seemed more genuine, her eyes sparkling with pleasure. “You never really know what’s in things if you don’t make them yourself.”
That was true. But if you’re gastronomically challenged like me, you try not to think about that.
We ate in silence for several moments. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, noting the careful way she at her soup. Her sandwich lay untouched next to it. I assumed she was one of those people who’d only eat one thing at a time.
Definitely no dunking for her.
I took a sip of water and settled it onto the table, noting the way her gaze slid to the now-greasy glass. I spun it three times on the placemat to see her reaction and watched the corners of her lips turn up just slightly.
When the silence got to be too much for me, I decided to try to ply her for information. “So, I’m sure your husband told you about the break-ins in the neighborhood…the robberies?”
She frowned, placing her hands in her lap. “Terrible things.”
“Yes. I didn’t even know about the robberies in the neighborhood over from us. Did you?”
She gave her head a quick shake but didn’t elaborate.
“The police think Billy Mouskawitz was involved.” The police hadn’t told me that, of course, but I thought he was involved and I wondered if anyone else in the neighborhood thought so too.”
She frowned down at her food.
“Did you know him?”
Her eyes rose to meet mine. They narrowed slightly. “Billy?”
“Yes. Had you met him before?”
Okay. The interview wasn’t going well. I tried another tack.
“I was surprised to see Tony Marrow working in your yard. Did you know he’s Mrs. Mouskawitz’s gardener too?”
“I believe Tony works at several of the homes in the neighborhood.” She seemed to relax, her gaze sliding back down to her food. After a moment, she picked up half of her sandwich. “He does an excellent job.”
“I’m considering hiring him myself.”
She settled the sandwich back onto the plate, untasted. “I wouldn’t advise that.”
That surprised me. “Why not?”
“He’s very careless with his chainsaw.” The large, blue gaze found mine and held for a long moment. Then she gave an insincere laugh. “I’m sorry, that was a little joke.”
“Oh. Ha.” I picked up my napkin and dabbed my lips. “I’m worried about Mrs. Mouskawitz. It’s not healthy for her to sleep this much. Would you mind if I checked on her?”
“She took a sleeping tablet, I believe. Her son’s death hit her very hard. Would you like cookies?”
She stood up and grabbed the plates, sliding my empty one beneath her untouched sandwich.
“Um, sure.” I frowned at her back as she went to the sink and began rinsing the plates. I had a sudden thought. “What about Penny?”
She didn’t turn. “Who?”
“Mrs. M’s dog. What happened to her?”
The narrow shoulders hunched upward. “I’m not sure. I believe the police took her.”
I made a promise to myself to find out where Penney ended up. If they’d taken her to the pound I’d rescue her. She could stay with me at my house until Mrs. Mouskawitz returned.
Twenty minutes later, I went back to work, with no additional knowledge than what I’d had when I arrived. All I knew was that Mrs. Bond was a very strange bird. And I wasn’t at all sure that she wasn’t keeping Mrs. M prisoner in her tidy guest room.
Oh, I also knew that she made dang good chocolate chip cookies.
I disconnected from my fifth conference call of the day and dropped back onto the bed, closing my stinging eyes as my head sank into the pile of fancy pillows there. The tension in my back and shoulders eased against the comfortable mattress and, for a moment I considered just keeping my eyes closed and resting for a while. Maybe it would help the headache pounding between my eyes.
I soon realized it wasn’t going to work. I was used to the house creaking and groaning around me. To the grandfather clock that had been a gift from my parents gonging out the hour. I never realized how noisy my house was until I’d spent time at the Bond house.
It was deeply, unnaturally quiet.
With a sigh, I climbed out of the bed and headed into the attached bathroom, marveling at how pinkly perfect it was as I started going through the cabinets and drawers looking for some aspirin. So pink. So flowery. It made my teeth ache.
I didn’t find aspirin. In fact, there weren’t any first aid type things in the bathroom. Not too surprising given the fact that it was a guest bath. Still. I kept a supply of travel-sized medical and beauty care offerings in my guest bath for my visitors.
With a sense of dread, I realized I’d have to go ask Mrs. Bond. More importantly, I needed to get the woman to give me her name. I couldn’t keep calling her Mrs. Bond.
I headed out of my room, closing the door behind me and listening as I had before, for sounds that would tell me where she was.
Silence enfolded me like a shroud.
I tried Mrs. M’s door on the way by and it was still locked. On a whim, I reached up and slid my hand over the frame, hoping one of those weird door keys might be hidden there.
No such luck.
The door to the master bedroom was open and I could see it was empty, so I headed into the kitchen.
The room was darker than before. Beyond the window, the sun had dropped below the treeline and Mrs. Bond hadn’t turned on any lights. There was no sign of my hostess, so I searched through the cupboards looking for a glass, then filled it with water and drank deeply. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until that moment.
A door slammed behind me and I jumped, splashing water all over my hand. There was a heavy thumping sound that made me frown. It sounded like someone falling down stairs. I hurried in the direction of the sound. It took me into a mudroom off the kitchen and I came face to face with Mrs. Bond.
She made a strange little sound, her hand flying to her mouth when she saw me. “Oh!”
“Are you all right?” I asked her. “It sounded like someone fell down some stairs.”
She shook her head, fanning herself with her hand as if she were hot. “I’m fine. I was just putting my canning stuff in the closet.”
I glanced toward the closed door at the far end of the long, narrow room. “Oh. Okay.” I gave her a tentative smile. “I was wondering if you have any aspirin or anything. I have a headache.”
I prayed she wasn’t going to tell me she made her own from willow bark or something. I needed something stronger than that.
“Of course. Come back into the kitchen with me.” She held out an arm, her hand vaguely pointed toward the kitchen. I couldn’t shake the feeling she was trying to keep me from taking the two steps down into the mud room. I slid my glance one last time over the room but, like the rest of the house, it was dimly lit. A single, small table lamp illuminated the area between the garage door and the kitchen. “Sure.” I turned away, but before I let her usher me away, my gaze caught on a spot on the floor in front of the distant, closed door.
It was shiny under the soft light of the lamp, as if it were still wet.
And it appeared to be red.
It looked like blood.