SUSPICIOUS MINDS: Squeaky Clean Series, Book 2
About the Book
Reading Group Guide
My van roared to life, and I pulled out of Ghent, drove through downtown, and headed north toward Ocean View. The neighborhood rested on the Chesapeake Bay and had once been home to the famous Ocean View Amusement Park. People had traveled from miles around to experience the park’s roller coasters and rides. A few tragic accidents had closed the place down in the ’70s.
I turned away from the bay and down a residential street. Houses with crooked shutters, faded pink and turquoise paint, and sprigs of unsightly weeds cluttered the streets. Then I spotted my destination: a weathered ranch, broken front window, two rusty lawn chairs lying on their sides in the midst of knee-high grass and weeds. A new Toyota 4-Runner in the driveway stood out like a diamond in the rough. I parked behind the SUV.
No sooner had I stepped from my van than the front door opened. On one hinge. A balding man in his forties stepped out. Glasses covered almost half his face, and his T-shirt, stretched tight across his ample belly, read "Geek Inside.” Classic techie. I’d have to see where he purchased the top so I could get one myself. I had a T-shirt collection that I was considering submitting to Guinness World Records. A shirt like his would be a nice addition.
"Miss St. Claire?” The man, Bob Bowling, offered his hand as I met him on the cracked sidewalk.
"The one and only.” I gripped his soft fingers and suppressed a tiny shudder at the Pillsbury grip. Now I knew why the Doughboy didn’t want to go under the house himself. He was obviously an "inside boy.” I retrieved my hand as quickly as manners allowed.
"You don’t look as creepy as I expected.” He stared at me until I cringed.
"I know, when people hear crime-scene cleaner, they automatically think freak.” Due to good genes, I had a sweet, heart-shaped face that belied my inner oddball.
He pushed his glasses up and looked back at the shack he’d emerged from. "I appreciate you coming out. If you can’t tell, this house needs a lot of work if I’m going to sell it.” His nasal voice reminded me of the high-pitched cry of the gulls I’d heard in Ocean View, only wimpier.
No joke. "No problem.”
The Doughboy shifted, and goose bumps popped across his arms. "I wanted to hold on to the old girl. It’s where I grew up, you know? But my parents wouldn’t have liked seeing their place like this.”
My estimation of his parents rose.
"It’s time to move on.” His lips --- collagen puffy, though I’d bet they were all his --- twisted into a faint smile. "At least that’s what my wife says.”
"I understand.” The house reminded me of the home I’d lived in for a few years as a child. Let’s just say my family wasn’t rolling in the dough. We’d barely had enough for a homemade pizza, for that matter.
He pulled his gaze from the house. "Well, let me show you how to get underneath.” He plopped a big Birkenstock-and-sock-clad foot into knee-high grass. He glanced back. "Sorry. I should have cut this.”
"How long has the place been abandoned?” I followed him, thankful I’d worn long khaki pants. What’s a safari without them?
"Ten years. My parents died in an auto accident, and I haven’t wanted to touch it since then. The neighbors are starting to complain, though.”
I pictured their showcase abodes but kept my mouth shut.
"They lived here for thirty-five years, back when this was the place to live. I guess you’re too young to remember those days.”
"Yeah, but I’ve heard about them.”
He stopped by a boarded-up section of underskirting. "This is it. I pulled the boards off the other day to see what was underneath. That’s when I called you.”
I stared at the planks, which should have been marked with a Keep Out sign bearing a skull and crossbones. Did I really need the money this bad? "Where’d you hear about me again?”
I wasn’t planning vengeance on any friend or former client who had recommended me. Not really.
"I saw your ad for Trauma Care in the phone book.”
Done in by my own Yellow Pages ad. Great.
"I’d called a couple of restoration guys, but they wanted to charge thousands. I liked your ad and decided to give you a call. I don’t have tons of money to put into this place, especially since I probably won’t make much on it.”
"I pride myself in being affordable.” Note to self: up your prices.
"You said you want to go under there, then give me an estimate?”
Imaginary creepy crawlies danced across my spine. Two minutes from now, I’d be able to substitute the real things. "Yeah, let me take a look first."
"I put these boards back up so no stray animals would crawl in. I’ll start taking them off.”
I went back to the van and pulled on a disposable Tyvek suit. The white Teletubby outfit covered all my clothes so I wouldn’t get grime on my "uniform” --- khakis and a polo. I also tugged on a headlight and a respirator, then grabbed an extra flashlight and camera before joining Bob in the back yard. The foot-and-a-half opening under the house beckoned me like a visit to the gynecologist.
"I’ll be inside whenever you’re done.”
I waited until Doughboy rounded the corner before lying on my belly, facing the rectangular opening. Grass shot up all around me, sharp and poking. The damp smell of decay drifted outward, reminding me of the time I’d gone spelunking in college. It smelled like an animal had already crawled under here and died. Too little, too late, Bob.
Riley’s warning about snakes echoed like an alarm in my head. Snakes. What would I do if I came face to face with one? Blood I could deal with. Guts, brain matter, bone fragments, no problem. Snakes were a whole different story.
Suck it up, Gabby. Without money, you can’t pay your bills. If you can’t pay your bills, you get kicked out of your apartment. If you’re kicked out of your apartment, you’ll have to go live with your dad.
Dad! Finally I found a motivation that worked.
"Here goes nothing.” I pulled the respirator over my mouth and nose and began army crawling forward, elbows and knees digging into soft mush. I flipped on my headlight and stuck my head into the tight, warm, damp space. I pushed myself slowly forward, not unlike reverse childbirth. I could see only about a foot in front me at a time. The slow progress was giving me lots of time to let my imagination run amok, and never let it be said I don’t have a good one. Boa constrictors, overfed rats, puffy white maggots --- the latter reminded me of Bob, which brought me back to task. I crawled on through the puddles of water soaking the ground.
Bob had said the mold was pretty bad. The house was one thousand square feet so the crawl space wasn’t that large. I’d zip under here, figure out a quick estimate, and then hightail it out.
With my whole body under the house, shivers captured me. Claustrophobia had never been my psychosis of choice, but I was finding some latent tendency, and wasn’t this just the perfect time for that? If I raised my rates, maybe I could afford rent and therapy.
I raised my head for a better look at my surroundings.
I’d crawled through the entrance to the underworld.
Nothing on earth would look like this. Alienlike mold and mildew draped in sheets from the floor beams of the house. Cobwebs plastered every surface not covered with fungi.
I fumbled at my hip for my flashlight and held it in front of me. A snake draped over my hand.
Screaming into a gas mask isn’t all that satisfying, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. I threw the snake, and the flashlight went rolling with it, crashing against the cinderblock foundation of the house. The light arced wildly, and I saw the snake float to the ground. It was just a snakeskin.
Which means there had been snakes down here at one time. Which meant there still could be.
I scrambled toward the sunlight.
Stop, Gabby. You’re being ridiculous. Do your job like a big girl. If you want to be a forensic investigator, you’ll probably have to go places worse than this.
I took a deep breath. I had to look around the corner of the L-shaped house before I could give Bob an honest estimate. Do it, and do it quickly.
I crawled over to my flashlight like a snail on a caffeine high and tucked it back in my belt, using the headlight as I passed rusty pipes, sagging insulation, and industrial-strength mold. Note to self: never, ever venture into the realm of homeownership if this much decay could be hidden.
When I reached the other side of the house, I turned left and headed toward the second section, also known as "the mold center of the universe.”
The fit was tighter here, hardly any room overhead as I scooted forward and checked the last corners. I could give an honest estimate now. Buh-bye.
Maneuvering carefully to keep from bonking my head, I turned to leave. My light shone on something white in the distance. What was that? And should I care?
Of course I cared. Some might call it curiosity. A few would say I’m a snoop who can’t mind her own business. It’s all semantics, and defining myself wouldn’t stop me from checking on the lump. I inched closer. The floor overhead sagged until I only had an inch or two of room to maneuver.
Was the lump a dead dog? Was that the awful smell I’d gotten a whiff of before I put on my respirator?
Flat on my belly on the mucky ground, I tilted my head to shine my light down the length of the mass. Too long to be a dog. Maybe it was plastic that had been wadded in a corner. Probably. That made the most sense. But it wouldn’t explain the smell.
Closer. I saw more angles and ruled out a rumpled plastic moisture barrier. A reflection on something shiny and small caught my attention.
I was almost close enough to touch it.
That’s when I saw a button. On a shirt. A white shirt with a starched collar standing up around something dark, hairlike. A pompadour. And huge mirrored sunglasses.
I was face-to-face with Elvis. And indeed, the King was dead.
Excerpted from SUSPICIOUS MINDS: Squeaky Clean Series, Book 2 © Copyright 2017 by Christy Barritt. Reprinted with permission by Kregel Publications. All rights reserved.
Click here now to buy this book from Amazon.com.