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As Crystal Ward turned into her client’s driveway, she noticed the signs were missing. Last week there had been two identical political ads proclaiming Scott Danforth for U.S. House of Representatives planted in the grass. The double dose of smiling headshots of Danforth against backgrounds of the red, white, and blue of the American flag would have been hard to miss, even with her mind still focused on the argument she’d had with her husband this morning.
Who had removed the signs? The original one had been stolen, and her client, Farrah Compton, had doubled down, replacing it with two signs. Now the question was whether Farrah would respond with three or increase the signage exponentially to four.
The mental picture of Scott Danforth’s smiling face multiplying across the yard made Crys grin as she parked in the driveway. Sometimes having an eye for detail was a curse, but today she welcomed the distraction from what she could have said—should have said?—to Rick to convince him that her work as a professional organizer was important to her and potentially life-changing for their family. Not that anything she said would have done any good. Rick just wasn’t ready to listen. She wasn’t giving up, though.
She steered her thoughts to the task at hand: helping Farrah Compton reorganize her home office. Farrah’s suburban American Dream residence with its unfenced expanse of manicured green lawn (currently uncluttered with signs) represented everything Crys dreamed about in a house. Not that she didn’t appreciate her own Craftsman bungalow in a much less affluent Chicago suburb, but imagine having more green space than concrete and mature oak trees already changing into their fall colors. Even better, imagine not having to worry about money or the mowing and fertilizing, pruning and raking of this little slice of paradise. And then there was the spacious interior…
Enough house envy. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, as her mother would say. Literally, in this case.
Crys unclipped her seat belt. By some miracle, she had arrived a few minutes early for their ten o’clock appointment. Traffic in Chicago, even in the northern suburbs, was as unpredictable as the autumn weather. Today the road gods had smiled and the weather had cooperated, although a cold front was expected to blow through around midday. That was why at the last minute before leaving the house, she had decided to add a linen blazer to her outfit. Locating and pressing it to look more professional for this meeting had cost her an extra fifteen minutes, but she was willing to take the risk to make a good impression. Farrah, a stylish professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, favored suits, silk blouses, and scarves tied in an endless variety of styles. Crys glanced down, hoping the blazer hadn’t wrinkled too badly during the drive.
She shouldn’t have looked. In the sunlight, the black fabric appeared faded to a dark gray. The wrinkles, like the sign thief, had returned. It’s my linen look, she decided. She would wear the wrinkles and crinkles, natural to this fabric, with dignity and hold her head high. She could remove the jacket as soon as she was inside.
She grabbed her handbag and binder and stepped out. As she locked her van, a travel-worn black Jeep Cherokee pulled up next to her and shuddered to a stop.
The man in the black leather jacket who emerged gave her a wide smile and a “hiya.”
“Are you one of my sister’s students?” he asked, his focus shifting to the notebook she carried. “I’m Randy, Farrah’s brother.” His friendly smile broadened, and he stuck out a hand.
She took it and gave him a firm squeeze. Other than his coloring and the shape of his eyes, he didn’t resemble his sister. Instead, he looked like a hipster slipping into middle age, with a double chin under his unshaven jaw and a slight paunch lounging on top of his jeans. A scar by his left eye made his lid droop into a skeptical slant, but his smile challenged that impression.
“Crystal Ward. I’m helping Farrah organize her office.”
“Geez, really? She’s the neatest person I know. No offense. You wouldn’t want to see my place.”
He was trying hard to be charming, so Crys smiled. “I’m helping her to improve it.” She glanced at her watch and saw it was ten. “As a matter of fact, she’s expecting me now.”
He walked a step behind her toward the front door. “I just have to ask her something quick. She’s a busy lady these days. Guess that’s why she wants to clean things up.”
“Organize. It’s not the same as cleaning.”
“Got it. Straighten things up. Does that work?”
“Close enough.” She often had to educate people about her profession. Ten years ago, she’d had no clue that people actually earned money helping others arrange their spaces, using techniques she had learned by necessity as a wife and mother. Not that Rick appreciated that she had marketable skills.
She stepped onto the small concrete porch. Black electrician’s tape covered half of the doorbell, a model with a video camera above the ring button.
“Huh.” Randy stopped behind her, close enough to be breathing down her neck. He smelled like the inside of a fast-food hamburger joint, a mixture of grease and ground beef. “Look at that—someone’s taped over the camera. I hope she hasn’t been burgled.”
He knocked on the teal front door, a rare concession to color for Farrah, who preferred whites and shades of cream and beige. They glanced at each other and then away as they listened for footsteps. Randy tried the doorknob, but it was locked. Crys pulled out her phone and scrolled to Farrah’s number.
“You calling her?”
“She’s gotta be here. Maybe she’s in the john.”
The phone began to ring in Crys’s ear. From inside, she heard the faint musical notes of a common ringtone. It sounded about five times and then switched to voicemail.
Crys hung up without leaving a message. Odd—Farrah hadn’t seemed like someone who would forget an appointment. Maybe Randy’s guess was correct: she was in another part of the house, away from her cell.
“I know the code,” Randy said, reaching around her to punch in four digits: 9-8-2-1. With a beep, the door unlocked. Crys stepped back as he pushed it open.
“Hey, Farrah,” he called as he led the way in. “You here, sis? It’s me.”
His announcement was greeted with a deep silence.
“Maybe she’s out back,” Randy suggested. “I’ll check.”
That worked for her. She would wait while he had his chat with Farrah, which he’d promised would be quick.
The wide entry faced the staircase to the second floor. Her client’s office was to her left, and Crys couldn’t resist the invitation of the open door to see what had changed since her last visit. The room was vacant—no Farrah and not much of anything else. They had cleared the built-in cabinets and bookcases on her last visit. The middle of the room held half a dozen boxes containing the items from the shelves. There was a vacant space where Farrah’s desk had been. She must have found a charity to take it. Soon the new one would arrive, and then—
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
She found Randy in the living room. The shock on his pale face alarmed her even more than his exclamation. She followed his gaze to the fireplace. A man lay on the floor in front of the white marble hearth. The blood coating the side of his face had formed a red pool on the white carpet.
Crys’s hand flew to her mouth. She turned her gaze away, and another splash of color on the carpet caught her eye. The teal-and-navy geometric pattern on a silky fabric looked like a scarf. She stepped closer, her heart rate accelerating.
Farrah lay sprawled on her side in front of the white sofa. Ignoring Randy, who was still calling for divine help, Crys rushed to her client.
“Farrah?” She noticed blood droplets in a spray pattern on her white shirt. Splatter, not an injury. One end of the scarf puddled like its own stain beside her neck. Her eyes were open but fixed in an unblinking stare. Her skin tone was pale, but a tiny twitch of her fingers indicated that she was alive.
“Farrah? It’s me, Crys. Are you hurt?”
There was no response. Crys hesitated to touch her, knowing that this was most likely a crime scene. She extended a shaky hand under Farrah’s nose and thought she felt a wisp of breath.
“Uhh—” Randy moaned behind her. She jerked around. As a mother she recognized that sound. Sure enough, he raised his hand over his mouth and began to gag.
“Not in here you don’t.” Crys seized his arm and spun him around. There was probably a half bath on the ground floor, but she didn’t know where it was. She hustled him into the kitchen and shoved him into one of the chairs at the island. “Put your head down and take some deep breaths.”
He obeyed her and gulped in air like a trout in the bottom of a rowboat.
“That’s it. Breathe in—breathe out.”
She opened cupboards and searched until she found a mixing bowl to place beside him in case deep breathing didn’t work. Keeping an eye on Randy, she pulled out her phone and dialed 911.
“I never thought she’d kill him,” Randy moaned, rolling his forehead on his folded arms. “Geez. What am I gonna do now?”
“Who?” she asked as the 911 operator answered the phone, but Randy only moaned.
Crys provided Farrah’s address and asked for ambulance and police. She hesitated when the operator asked again for the nature of the emergency. She pictured the man’s bloodied face. Head injuries could bleed profusely, as she knew from seeing her brothers’ and son’s sports injuries. What she’d seen in that one quick glance had been more than blood. She’d seen bone and gray matter. She had also seen a bloodied sculpture of a woman on the carpet near Farrah’s outstretched hand.
“There’s been a murder,” she said, bile rising in her throat. “A man’s been killed.”
Randy had stopped moaning but still looked pale with a faint hint of green around his lips. Crys suspected her own color was a close match. She tried not to think of the dead man in the next room as she filled a glass of water with one hand while pressing the phone to her ear with the other. They should have left the house immediately and not disturbed the crime scene, but it was too late now. Randy’s hand shook as he drank the water. If his legs were that unsteady, he’d never make it outside.
The 911 operator had insisted on remaining on the line with her. Crys had already explained how she and Randy had discovered the victims and described the scene in the living room. Crys knew she could hang up, but the woman’s voice was as reassuring as a hug.
“Is there anyone else in the house with you?”
Crys drew in a sharp breath. She glanced over her shoulder and listened. There was a hum from the refrigerator, the sound of Randy’s ragged breathing, and the pounding of her heart, but she heard no other noises. They seemed to be alone with Farrah and the dead man.
“I don’t think so, but we haven’t checked it out.” She realized she’d lowered her voice. No point in broadcasting their presence if they did have company.
“You just stay where you are, Crystal,” the operator advised. “The police are almost there. They’ll make sure no one else is around.”
After that, she had no desire to leave the kitchen. Randy had been accurate in describing his sister as neat. The room was spotlessly clean with no signs of disturbance or recent occupancy. Farrah didn’t leave dishes in the sink or even a washed cup in a drainer. For that matter, she didn’t leave a dish drainer in the sink or on the countertop. Even the tea towel looked as if it were displayed more for show than use. Crys touched it. White pressed linen with tan lines in a modern, large checkered pattern. There wasn’t a wrinkle to be seen. Had Farrah starched it? She glanced down at her black jacket again and shook her head. Linen look. Not that it mattered now.
Still holding the phone to her ear, she slid into the chair at the island next to Randy. The operator told her the police were three minutes away. Randy’s breathing was quieter, although he moaned again that he didn’t know what he was going to do.
He didn’t seem concerned about his sister. She wanted to check on Farrah, but from what she’d seen, there didn’t appear to be any need for first aid. As she’d told the operator, the patient wasn’t bleeding, her breathing was unobstructed, she didn’t appear to have any fractures, and she wasn’t in immediate danger. Unless the killer was still in the house.
Crys glanced over her shoulder again. It was a big house. Plenty of places to hide. She wanted to phone Rick, to hear his voice reassure her, but she would have to disconnect the 911 call to do that.
“You should be hearing the sirens soon,” the operator assured her.
Crys rubbed her palm across the cool surface of the white quartzite countertop. She wasn’t a fan of all-white kitchens, but she became calmer as her gaze rested on the white cabinetry and walls. So many negative spaces, like the white expanses in this kitchen or the green lawn minus the campaign signs. Beautiful in their own right, they were restful places for the eyes. Maybe this feeling of clean tranquility was why Farrah liked white.
A knock at the front door startled her. Randy raised his head and glanced around.
“They should be there now,” the 911 operator said. Crys thanked the woman and hung up.
The four uniformed officers at the door told her to remain in the kitchen with Randy after she led them into the living room. From her seat at the end of the island, she watched as paramedics and firemen entered with a stretcher. The knot of their bodies blocked her view, but they seemed to be talking to Farrah. She thought she heard a moan, but she couldn’t be sure. Randy held his head in his hands with his elbows propped on the island. He had stopped muttering fears of his impending doom.
Everyone dealt with shock and grief differently.
Crys had to do something, so she refilled his glass. When she returned to her seat and peered into the living room, she noticed that two more officers—a man and a woman in plain clothes—had joined the gathering. The man glanced in her direction, and their eyes met. He said something to his partner, who turned to look at her.
The knot in Crys’s stomach tightened. Growing up with three brothers, she had learned a choice collection of words never to be uttered in their mother’s presence. All of them came to mind as she watched Mitch Burdine approach.
End of Excerpt