by Mary Feliz
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Pub Date: 7/18/2017
As a professional organizer, Maggie McDonald brings order to messy situations. But when a good friend becomes a murder suspect, surviving the chaos is one tall task . . .
Despite a looming deadline, Maggie thinks she has what it takes to help friends Jason and Stephen unclutter their large Victorian in time for its scheduled renovation. But before she can fill a single bin with unused junk, Jason leaves for Texas on an emergency business trip, Stephen’s injured mastiff limps home—and Stephen himself lands in jail for murder. Someone killed the owner of a local Chinese restaurant and stuffed him in the freezer. Stephen, caught at the crime scene covered in blood, is the number one suspect. Now Maggie must devise a strategy to sort through secrets and set him free—before she’s tossed into permanent storage next . . .
Thursday, February 16, Morning
M talked to him. “I know you insist on working with both halves
of a couple—”
“But I’m also a problem solver. What’s up?”
“That spate of tornadoes and flooding in Texas, that’s what. I’ve been deployed. I can’t back out or delay our departure. Those people are hurting, and it’s the first test of my new auxiliary law-enforcement team. A group of TV journalists is reporting on our project for some newsmagazine. Our funding and the future of programs like this de- pend on our success.” Jason rattled off the sentences breathlessly, without giving me a chance to comment or interrupt.
I understood his predicament. He’d been working on establishing a rapid-response law enforcement team for as long as I’d known him. The short version of the saga was that the team, with all its supplies, could swoop into a disaster area and support law enforcement efforts under local authority. The idea was to prevent looting, keep people safe, provide skilled guidance to volunteers, and eliminate many of the problems experienced by civilians, volunteers, and first respon- ders following Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. Jason’s team and others like it hoped to plug gaps between what FEMA and the National Guard could provide and what community resources were designed to accomplish.
“No problem,” I said. “We’ll start after you get back.” “Stephen’s ready to start, like, yesterday, and the demolition is
only two weeks away.”
“Ah . . .” I began, stalling for time. “To be successful, any system we develop will have to include you. If it’s going to work long term—”
“Look, Maggie, I’ve got to go. They’re loading our containers on the cargo plane. Stephen and I talked about priorities and goals last night. We made a list. I gave him parameters for tossing my stuff, and I promised not to divorce him if he gives away my favorite baseball glove. If that works for you, great. If not, take it up with Stephen. Arrange something—”
The phone cut off. I was left with the decision of whether to begin or postpone. I spotted several potential problems with Jason’s plan. Among the stumbling blocks was the fact that they might waste time and money creating a system that would work for Stephen, but not for Jason. When I’d spoken to Stephen, afterward, he considered my advice but ultimately decided to go ahead.
“No matter what Jason says, he’s going to have trouble making time for this project, even once he’s home again,” Stephen said. “Damn the torpedoes . . .”
That was two days ago. I’d decided Stephen was right. With Jason’s full-time job as a police detective he was never in full control of his own hours. Stephen was a retired US Marine who worked unpredictable hours volunteering with veterans and their canine counterparts, creat- ing civilian partnerships. If we were going to have their house ready to start a major remodel, there was no time to waste.
Today, Stephen and I were meeting to start purging their belongings, deciding what to save, and fine-tuning our organizational strategy.
I knocked on the front door of their sprawling Victorian near the Palo Alto border. There was no answer to the bell. No resonant woof from Stephen’s huge mastiff, Munchkin. I peered through the front window, leaving the print of my nose on the glass. Only dust motes moved inside.
I sat on the front step and texted Stephen
My calendar says we’re meeting at 8:30 today. Do I have that right?
Stephen was an early riser, so I’d agreed to meet him as soon as I dropped my teen boys at the middle school and high school. He’d promised me coffee and bagels. At the thought of food, my stomach rumbled and my mouth filled with saliva. I was starving and caffeine deprived. My golden retriever, Belle, thumped her tail, whined, and leaned into me, looking up with yearning. Normally, I didn’t bring Belle to work with me, but Stephen was a friend of mine, a dog per- son, and Munchkin was Belle’s BFF.
“They’ll be back soon,” I told her, referring to both Stephen and his seldom-absent canine partner. “I’m sure everything is fine. How often are they ever late?”
Belle made a polite sound in response. “Right,” I said. “Never . . . Well, nearly never.”
Extreme and unrelenting punctuality was a fault of Stephen’s, an artifact of his time in the military. Some of his friends found it an- noying, but I shared the trait and appreciated his timely arrival when- ever we got together. I bit my lip, sighed, and squinted into the sun to scan the neighborhood. There was no car in the drive. He must have had a last-minute errand that went longer than he had planned. Unex- pected traffic tie-ups were a recurring Silicon Valley problem. With the high-tech economy, growing population, and high-density build- ing projects booming, the area was home to a record number of peo- ple. More people meant more cars. A trip to the dentist that took fifteen minutes a month or two earlier could easily take thirty min- utes or longer today, even without a rush-hour fender bender creating gridlock. The problem grew worse daily and there was no easy solu- tion.
I looked at my watch. Any minute, I expected to see Stephen and Munchkin loping up the street from one direction or the other. At six- foot-four inches, accompanied by a dog that weighed almost as much as he did, Stephen was hard to miss.
I paced in front of the house. This situation reminded me too much of a client session I’d begun four months earlier, standing on a front porch a few blocks away when my client was late. That morn- ing had culminated in the death of a dear friend. I shivered, drew my fleece coat closer to me, peered at my phone, and dialed Stephen’s number.
The phone rang before I could finish punching the buttons. “Hello?” I said. The phone responded with crackles and pops. “. . . police station . . . jail . . .”
“Hello? Who is this? I’m not going to fall for that trick. My kids are safe in school.” I disconnected the call. Our entire town had been plagued with phishing phone calls from crooks pretending to be our children or grandchildren. The calls all followed the same pattern: a distraught young voice claiming to be kin begged for money to be wired immediately. Most people, like me, recognized it for what it was and hung up the phone. But older people, those in the beginning stages of dementia or vulnerable in other ways, grew distraught. A friend of my mom called her daughter nearly every day to be reas- sured that the children and grandchildren were safe. The scams were criminal, disruptive, and downright cruel.
I shook off my righteous indignation and dialed Stephen again. In the process, I noted that the crooks, whoever they were, were getting crafty. My phone reported that the phishing call originated from the police station in Mountain View, the town that abutted Orchard View’s southern border. I made a mental note to tell Jason about the call the next time we spoke. When he wasn’t helping flood-ravaged towns in Texas, Jason was an Orchard View detective. He’d know who to no- tify about calls from people impersonating the police.
My call went to voice mail.
Mary Feliz has lived in five states and two countries but calls Silicon Valley home. Traveling to other areas of the United States, she’s frequently reminded that what seems normal in the high-tech heartland can seem decidedly odd to the rest of the country. A big fan of irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence tempered with gentle humor, Mary strives to bring these elements into her writing, although her characters tend to take these elements to a whole new level. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and National Association of Professional Organizers. Mary is a Smith College graduate with a degree in Sociology. She lives in Northern California with her husband, near the homes of their two adult offspring.
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