still well into the eighties, once she was standing on Herb’s front porch a shiver passed through her. She wished she had let the telephone ring, or skipped dinner. She had hoped to do this as the sun set, so she had enough light to guide her but not enough that her activities would be easily noted by her tenants. She was not insensitive, at least not completely. There was something crass about dragging the old guy’s mattress out to the road. It would probably look as if she couldn’t wait to clear out his house and rent it again. Find the body, carry the man’s stuff to the curb, dust off your capitalist hands and call in a classified.
Now she didn’t have to worry. Nobody would see her struggling with the mattress, because not only had the sun gone down, the last light had faded. No moon shone over the key, and an uncharacteristic silence had descended. She wasn’t easily spooked, but unlocking the door of a dead man and blithely walking in seemed like the sort of thing the victim in a slasher movie might do. A bad idea. But not as bad as waiting for next week’s trash pickup.
Inside, the light Janya had left burning in Herb’s bedroom was only a soft glow under the closed door and little help. She felt for and flipped a switch by the door, but nothing happened. Terrific. Herb probably had a lamp connected to it, but he had turned it off at the source. Shewaited for her eyes to adjust. There were a couple of streetlamps at the front of the property where the rental office for the beach cottages had once stood. But the oyster-shell roads themselves had no illumination except front porch lights. She could make out the shapes of furniture, but not well enough to cross the room.
As she waited, she listened. The silence was like the thick, oozing chill of a San Francisco fog. Now and then it was punctuated by swamp noises, which were no consolation. The moment she judged she could see well enough, she felt her way across the room and found the nearest lamp. She fumbled for the switch—and why didn’t manufacturers agree on where to put the darn things?—and had just started to flip it when she heard something clang in the kitchen. She straightened with a jerk, nearly knocking the lampshade to the floor.
Mentally she gauged the distance between the end table and the front door. She told herself that she had imagined the clang. She told herself that the deputy had been sure Herb Krause wasn’t murdered in his bed but had died a quick, natural death.
Of course, mistakes could be made….
Her struggle lasted only seconds. She owned this house, such as it was, and it was her job to take care of the property. If somebody was in the kitchen going through Herb’s things, then it was up to her to stop them. She doubted anybody was going to kill her for a spatula and a cutting board. She had noted a vintage kitchen timer shaped like a chicken on the windowsill, but even that, campy as it was, provided no motive for murder.
By now she could almost see. A pocket door separated the kitchen from the living room, and now it was closed. She was almost certain the door hadn’t been closed when she was here earlier.
She tiptoed toward the kitchen and heard what sounded like the squeak of hinges, the creak of a door opening. She wasn’t imagining this. Somebody was inside going through cabinets. For what? And why? Poor Herb wasn’t even cold in his grave. Okay, cold, but not yet in the ground.
She felt along the edge of the door until she found the indented handle; then, with one smooth motion, she slid it open and jumped into the kitchen.
A low-wattage bulb lit the stove top from the hood above. Someone was bending over at the other end of the room, going through the lower cabinets. At the noise of the door, the figure straightened and whirled.
“What are you doing here?” Tracy demanded before she could see the intruder’s face. “This is breaking and entering.”
“Oh, don’t get your panties in a twist.”