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Guilt (Alex Delaware Novels)by Jonathan Kellerman
The house, the life growing inside her.
Holly finished her fifth circuit of the back room that looked out to the yard. She paused for breath. The baby—Aimee—had started pushing against her diaphragm.
Since escrow had closed, Holly had done a hundred circuits, imagining. Loving every inch of the place despite the odors embedded in ninety-year-old plaster: cat pee, mildew, overripe vegetable soup. Old person.
In a few days the painting would begin and the aroma of fresh latex would bury all that, and cheerful colors would mask the discouraging gray-beige of Holly’s ten-room dream. Not counting bathrooms.
The house was a brick-faced Tudor on a quarter-acre lot at the southern edge of Cheviot Hills, built when construction was meant to last and adorned by moldings, wainscoting, arched mahogany doors, quarter-sawn oak floors. Parquet in the cute little study that would be Matt’s home office when he needed to bring work home.
Holly could close the door and not have to hear Matt’s grumbling about moron clients incapable of keeping decent records. Meanwhile she’d be on a comfy couch, snuggling with Aimee.
She’d learned the sex of the baby at the four-month anatomical ultrasound, decided on the name right then and there. Matt didn’t know yet. He was still adjusting to the whole fatherhood thing.
Sometimes she wondered if Matt dreamed in numbers.
Resting her hands on a mahogany sill, Holly squinted to blank out the weeds and dead grass, struggling to conjure a green, flower-laden Eden.
Hard to visualize, with a mountain of tree trunk taking up all that space.
The five-story sycamore had been one of the house’s selling points, with its trunk as thick as an oil drum and dense foliage that created a moody, almost spooky ambience. Holly’s creative powers had immediately kicked into gear, visualizing a swing attached to that swooping lower branch.
Aimee giggling as she swooped up and shouted that Holly was the best mommy.
Two weeks into escrow, during a massive, unseasonal rainstorm, the sycamore’s roots had given way. Thank God the monster had teetered but hadn’t fallen. The trajectory would’ve landed it right on the house.
An agreement was drawn up: The sellers—the old woman’s son and daughter—would pay to have the monstrous thing chopped down and hauled away, the stumps ground to dust, the soil leveled. Instead, they’d cheaped out, paying a tree company only to cut down the sycamore, leaving behind a massive horror of deadwood that took up the entire rear half of the yard.
Matt had gone bananas, threatened to kill the deal.
Abrogate. What an ugly word.
Holly had cooled him off by promising to handle the situation, she’d make sure they got duly compensated, he wouldn’t have to deal with it.
Fine. As long as you actually do it.
Now Holly stared at the mountain of wood, feeling discouraged and a bit helpless. Some of the sycamore, she supposed, could be reduced to firewood. Fragments and leaves and loose pieces of bark she could rake up herself, maybe create a compost pile. But those massive columns . . .
Whatever; she’d figure it out. Meanwhile, there was cat-pee/overripe-soup/mildew/old-lady stink to deal with.
Mrs. Hannah had lived in the house for fifty-two years. Still, how did a person’s smell permeate lath and plaster? Not that Holly had anything against old people. Though she didn’t know too many.
There had to be something you could do to freshen yourself—a special deodorant—when you reached a certain age.
One way or the other, Matt would settle down. He’d come around, he always did.
Like with the house, itself. He’d never expressed any interest in design, all of a sudden he was into contemporary. Holly had toured a ton of boring white boxes, knowing Matt would always find a reason to say no because that was Matt’s thing.
By the time Holly’s dream house materialized, he didn’t care about style, just a good price.
The deal had been one of those warp-speed magical things, like when the stars are all aligned and your karma’s perfectly positioned: Old lady dies, greedy kids want quick cash and contact Coldwell and randomly get hooked up with Vanessa, and Vanessa calls Holly before the house goes on the market because she owes Holly big-time, all those nights talking Vanessa down from bad highs, listening to Vanessa’s nonstop litany of personal issues.
Toss in the biggest real estate slump in decades and the fact that Holly had been a little Ms. Scroogette working twelve-hour days as a P.R. drone since graduating college nine years ago and Matt was even tighter plus he’d gotten that raise plus that IPO they got to invest in from one of Matt’s tech buddies had paid off, and they had just enough for the down payment and to qualify for financing.
Including the tree.
Holly struggled with a balky old brass handle—original hardware!—shoved a warped French door open, and stepped out into the yard. Making her way through the obstacle course of felled branches, death-browned leaves, and ragged pieces of bark, she reached the fence that separated her property from the neighbors.
This was her first serious look at the mess, and it was even worse than she’d thought: The tree company had sawed away with abandon, allowing the chunks to fall on unprotected ground. The result was a whole bunch of holes—craters, a real disaster.
Maybe she could use that to threaten a big-time lawsuit unless they carted everything away and cleaned up properly.
She’d need a lawyer. One who’d take it on contingency . . . God, those holes were ugly, sprouting thick, wormy masses of roots and a nasty-looking giant splinter.
She kneeled at the rim of the grossest crater, tugged at the roots. No give. Moving to a smaller pit, she dislodged only dust.
At the third hole, as she managed to tug loose a thatch of smaller roots, her fingers brushed against something cold. Metallic.
Buried treasure, aye aye, pirate booty! Wouldn’t that be justice!
Laughing, Holly brushed away soil and rocks, revealed a patch of pale blue. Then a red cross. A few more strokes and the entire top of the metal thing came into view.
A box, like a safe-deposit box but larger. Blue except for the red cross at the center.
Something medical? Or just kids burying who-knew-what in an abandoned receptacle?
Holly tried to budge the box. It shimmied but held fast. She rocked it back and forth, made some progress but was unable to free the darn thing.
Then she remembered and went to the garage and retrieved the ancient spade from the stack of rusty tools left behind by the sellers. Another broken promise, they’d pledged to clean up completely, gave the excuse that the tools were still usable, they were just trying to be nice.
Like Matt would ever use hedge clippers or a rake or a hand edger.
Returning to the hole, she wedged the spade’s flat mouth between metal and dirt and put a little weight into the pry. A creak sounded but the box only budged a tiny bit, stubborn devil. Maybe she could pop the lid to see what was inside . . . nope, the clasp was held tight by soil. She worked the spade some more, same lack of progress.
Back in the old days she would’ve borne down hard. Back when she did Zumba twice a week and yoga once a week and ran 10Ks and didn’t have to avoid sushi or carpaccio or latte or Chardonnay.
All for you, Aimee.
Now every week brought increasing fatigue, everything she’d taken for granted was an ordeal. She stood there, catching her breath. Okay, time for an alternative plan: Inserting the spade along every inch of the box’s edges, she let loose a series of tiny, sharp tugs, working methodically, careful not to strain.
After two go-rounds, she began again, had barely pushed down on the spade when the box’s left side popped up and it flew out of the hole and Holly staggered back, caught off-balance.
The spade fell from her hands as she used both arms to fight for stability.
She felt herself going down, willed herself not to, managed to stay on her feet.
Close call. She was wheezing like an asthmatic couch potato. Finally, she recovered enough to drag the blue box onto the dirt.
No lock on the latch, just a hasp and loop, rusted through. But the rest of the box had turned green from oxidation, and a patch worn through the blue paint explained that: bronze. From the weight, solid. That had to be worth something by itself.
Sucking in a lungful of air, Holly jiggled with the hasp until she freed it.
“Presto-gizmo,” she said, lifting the lid.
The bottom and sides of the box were lined with browned newspaper. Resting in the nest of clippings was something wrapped in fuzzy cloth—a satin-edged blanket, once blue, now faded mostly to tan and pale green. Purplish splotches on the satin borders.
Something worth wrapping. Burying. Excited, Holly lifted the blanket out of the box.
Feeling disappointed immediately because whatever was inside had no serious weight to it, scratch doubloons or gold bars or rose-cut diamonds.
Laying the blanket on the ground, Holly took hold of a seam and unfurled.
The thing that had been inside the blanket grinned up at her.
Then it shape-shifted, oh God, and she cried out and it fell apart in front of her eyes because all that had held it together was the tension of the blanket-wrap.
Tiny skeleton, now a scatter of loose bones.
The skull had landed right in front of her. Smiling. Black eyeholes insanely piercing.
Two minuscule tooth-thingies on the bottom jaw looked ready to bite.
Holly sat there, unable to move or breathe or think.
A bird peeped.
Silence bore down on Holly.
A leg bone rolled to one side as if by its own power and she let out a wordless retch of fear and revulsion.
That did nothing to discourage the skull. It kept staring. Like it knew something.
Holly mustered all of her strength and screamed.
The woman was blond, pretty, white-faced, pregnant.
Her name was Holly Ruche and she sat hunched atop a tree stump, one of a dozen or so massive, chain-sawed segments taking up a good portion of the run-down backyard. Breathing hard and clutching her belly, she clenched her eyes shut. One of Milo’s cards rested between her right thumb and forefinger, crumpled beyond recognition. For the second time since I’d arrived, she waved off help from the paramedics.
They hung around anyway, paying scant attention to the uniforms and the coroner’s crew. Everyone standing around looking superfluous; it would take an anthropologist to make sense of this.
Milo had phoned the EMTs first. “Priorities. It’s not like there’s any emergency to the rest of it.”
The rest of it was an assortment of brown bones that had once been a baby’s skeleton, scattered on an old blanket. Not a random toss, the general shape was of a tiny, disarticulated human body.
Open sutures in the skull and a couple of dental eruptions in the mandible made my guess four to six months, but my Ph.D.’s in the wrong science for that kind of prophecy. The smallest bones—fingers, toes—weren’t much thicker than toothpicks.
Looking at the poor little thing made my eyes hurt. I shifted my attention to details.
Beneath the blanket was a wad of newspaper clippings from 1951 lining a blue metal box around two feet long. The paper was the L.A. Daily News, defunct since 1954. A sticker on the side of the box read Property Swedish Benevolent Hospital and Infirmary, 232 Central Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca.—an institution just confirmed by Milo to have shut down in ’52.
The homely, squat Tudor house fronting the yard looked to be older than that, probably from the twenties when so much of L.A. had taken shape.
Holly Ruche began crying.
A paramedic approached again. “Ma’am?”
“I’m fine . . .” Swollen-eyed, hair cut in an off-kilter bob mussed by nervous hands, she focused on Milo, as if for the first time, shifted to me, shook her head, stood.
Folding her arms across her occupied abdomen, she said, “When can I have my house back, Detective?”
“Soon as we finish processing, Ms. Ruche.”
She regarded me again.
Milo said, “This is Dr. Delaware, our consulting psychologist—”
“Psychologist? Is someone worried about my mental health?”
“No, ma’am. We sometimes call Dr. Delaware in when—”
“Thanks but I’m fine.” Shuddering, she glanced back to where she’d found the bones. “So horrible.”
Milo said, “How deeply was the box buried?”
“I don’t know—not deep, I was able to pull it up, wasn’t I? You don’t really think this is a real crime, do you? I mean a new one. It’s historical, not for the police, right? The house was constructed in 1927 but it could’ve even been there way before, the land used to be bean fields and grapevines, if you dug up the neighborhood—any neighborhood—who knows what you’d find.”
She placed a hand on her chest. Seemed to be fighting for oxygen.
Milo said, “Maybe you should sit down, ma’am.”
“Don’t worry, I promise I’m okay.”
“How about we let the paramedics take a look at you—”
“I’ve already been looked at,” she said. “By a real doctor, yesterday, my ob-gyn, everything’s perfect.”
“How far along are you?”
“Five months.” Her smile was frigid. “What could possibly not be okay? I own a gorgeous house. Even though you’re processing it.” She hmmphed. “It’s their fault, all I wanted to do was have them get rid of the tree, if they hadn’t done it sloppy, this would never have happened.”
“The previous owners?”
“The Hannahs, Mark and Brenda, it was their mother’s, she died, they couldn’t wait to cash out . . . hey, here’s something for you, Detective . . . I’m sorry, what’d you say your name was?”
“Here’s something, Lieutenant Sturgis: The old woman was ninety-three when she died, she lived here for a long time, the house still smells of her. So she could easily have . . . done that.”
“We’ll look into it, Ms. Ruche.”
“What exactly does processing mean?”
“Depends on what else we find.”
She reached into a jean pocket and drew out a phone that she jabbed angrily. “C’mon, answer already—oh, I got you. Finally. Listen, I need you to come over . . . to the house. You won’t believe what happened . . . what? No, I can’t—okay, soon as the meeting’s finished . . . no, don’t call, just come over.”
She hung up.
Milo said, “Your husband?”
“He’s an accountant.” As if that explained it. “So what’s processing?”
“Our first step will be bringing some dogs in to sniff around, depending upon what they come up with, maybe a below-ground sonar to see if anything else is buried down there.”
“Else?” said Holly Ruche. “Why would there be anything else?”
“No reason, but we need to be thorough.”
“You’re saying my home is a graveyard? That’s disgusting. All you’ve got is some old bones, there’s no reason to think there’s more.”
“I’m sure you’re right—”
“Of course I’m right, I own this place. The house and the land.”
A hand fluttered to her abdomen. She massaged. “My baby’s developing perfectly.”
“That’s great, Ms. Ruche.”
She stared at Milo, gave out a tiny squeak. Her eyes rolled back, her mouth went slack, she pitched backward.
Milo and I both caught her. Her skin was dank, clammy. As she went limp, the paramedics rushed over, looking oddly satisfied.
I-told-you-so nods. One of them said, “It’s always the stubborn ones. We’ll take it from here, Lieutenant.”
Milo said, “You sure as hell will,” and went to call the anthropologist.
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