The next morning was foggy, drizzly, windy, and made for staying in bed. That was just what I would have done if I hadn't had a house to clean out. I ate a hurried breakfast, took a quick shower, slipped out of the apartment quietly to avoid 2B and whatever horror Mr. Bitterman might be whipping up for breakfast, and was on the road to Baker Street before nine.
For better or worse, the house was still there, sagging dispiritedly beneath the shroud of fog. I put my weight against the front door until it surrendered, and once inside went through the chilly first floor flipping every light switch and turning on every table lamp I could find. Which did nothing to make the place cheerier, but it did make it less eerie. I paused in the kitchen, taking in the Formica, linoleum, and ancient gold appliances. And yesterday, I'd thought clutter was the only problem. The kitchen had less in the way of clutter, more in the way of ugly. The layout was wrong, the fridge was small, and the counter space was inadequate. I had a vague idea how expensive a new kitchen could be and also the certainty that I couldn't afford one.
But I wasn't going to learn about my great-aunt from going through the pots and pans and dishes. I'd be better off starting upstairs, in the bedroom, where I could get a sense of Kate's favorite colors, her personal tastes, her preferred styles.
I grimaced as I passed through the living room. Maybe I already knew Kate's style. Clearly Kate had subscribed to the more is more philosophy of home décor. All of the stuff made me feel a little claustrophobic. I could only hope the second floor would be different.
There were three bedrooms up there, all of modest size, each with dentil molding, solid oak doors, with multifaceted glass doorknobs. The colors were bland, the furniture was dark, and the hardwood floors were dull and scarred. Like the rooms downstairs, the bedrooms bulged with too many things—clothes and blankets and shoes and belts and purses. The contents of each room seemed to ooze into the next like water over a bulkhead.
The bathroom was on the small side, with garish pink tile and outdated fixtures, and there was a small linen closet in the hall just outside the bathroom door that also seemed to serve as a makeshift medicine chest. The top shelf was loaded with soaps, pain-relieving ointments, a heating pad, a bottle of aspirin, a box of blonde hair color, a blow dryer, a set of hot rollers, bottles of witch hazel, hydrogen peroxide, and rubbing alcohol, a half dozen scented jar candles, and two flashlights, both with dead batteries.
No grand master bedroom, no luxurious en suite. I hadn't really expected to find either in a house of this age.
There was also no 2B. That went a long way in compensating for the home's deficiencies.
Despite its shortcomings, and beneath the layers and piles of stuff, the house did have a strangely homey feel to it—the feel of a place that had been lived in, if not cared for, well. Some soap and water and furniture polish, a broom and a dustpan, some new drapes, and it would be positively…
Adequate. As long as you didn't notice the water stains in the corner of the ceiling or the fact that planks of wood flooring were gouged or missing altogether or that the windows were only filtering the wind, not blocking it, as evidenced by the gentle stirring of the drapes.
Hard to get excited about being a homeowner when the only working feature of the home seemed to be electricity. And who knew how old the wiring was.
The bedroom nearest the stairs must have been Kate's, since the bed wasn't buried under piles of clothes. It might have been wholly a figment of my imagination, but I thought I detected a lingering trace of lavender. Or maybe it was dust.
A handbag was sitting on a chair in the corner, under yet more piles of folded laundry. It was unzipped and gaping open. Tissues, keys, compact, a small change purse, some pens, a few Bank of San Francisco deposit slips, and a wallet containing a few credit cards, a driver's license, a couple of shopper's cards from the grocery store and pharmacy, and $67 in small bills.
I lingered over the driver's license a moment. It was a typically unflattering DMV photo, but Kate was smiling, her eyes crinkling at the corners. I wondered if she'd done that often. Her hair was a brassy blonde, styled in a poof around her face that was a tad on the wild side—instantly reminding me of my own hair on a humid summer day. Height was listed as 5'5". Same as mine. I wondered if she'd had to stand on tiptoes like I did to stretch to that. Weight 145. Was that accurate…or had she, like most women, shaved a few pounds off her official record? Regret hit me that I'd never really know the answers to any of those questions.
I put the license back and zipped the bag, leaving it where it was before moving on.
The top of the dresser looked like the tops of dressers looked: a jewelry box, some cosmetics and perfume bottles—nothing high end—a pair of pale blue-framed glasses with the arms extended, a box of tissues. Nothing unusual there. The jewelry box held a mix of jumbled gold chains, a few wristwatches, stud earrings that looked like cubic zirconia rather than the real thing. It also held a strand of pearls too lustrous to be costume, and a diamond cocktail ring too brilliant to be CZ. I admired them, but I didn't slip them on. Instead, I tucked the real items carefully beneath some tarnished chains and slid the entire jewelry box into a drawer. It would be safer there than in my apartment, where the door would provide about as much barrier to a determined thief's entrance as a shower curtain.
That was when I noticed the prescription bottles buried at the back of the drawer, beneath a jumble of socks and pantyhose. Three of them, with labels intact. It felt like an invasion of privacy, but I dug them out anyway. Synthroid. Fioricet. Actonel with calcium. All three looked like they'd been recently refilled.
I set them on the dresser. A niggling of something touched the back of my mind. I knew Synthroid was synthetic thyroid hormone—fairly commonly prescribed for those with low thyroid production. Not a huge surprise to find, considering many women of Kate's age could have hypothyroid issues. Fioricet was used for migraines, and my mom took Actonel to prevent bone loss. Kate had been on medication for her thyroid, for migraines, and for osteoporosis.
I felt a frown pulling at the corners of my mouth. None of these prescriptions spoke to cardiac problems. Nothing for high blood pressure. No blood thinners.
Of course, not everyone who had a heart attack had warning signs. Still…
I sat on the end of the bed, a forensic pathology class I'd attended a couple of semesters ago immediately leaping to the forefront of my thoughts. A guest lecturer had presented and discussed autopsy findings in various cases that had been initially and erroneously ruled natural death. Scary, but it happened more often than one would like to think.
I took another look at the prescription bottles. Dr. Watson's conclusion had been sudden cardiac death. If these were the only meds Kate took, then her sudden cardiac death had been sudden indeed. She hadn't had any of the classic risk factors.
I nibbled on my lip, thinking. Maybe there were more bottles somewhere. I dug around some more—through the drawers, through the tiny medicine chest, through the hall closet. There were none. Nothing in the vanity under the sink. Nothing in the kitchen. From all appearances, Kate had been fairly healthy for a woman in her seventies.
And now she was dead.
A strange tingle ran up my spine. I was probably being paranoid. I'd probably attended one too many forensics lectures. I mean, Kate wasn't that young. And things like heart attacks didn't always come with warning signs. Still, I found myself slowly walking around the bedroom, studying the floor, lifting the blankets, checking the sheets. It was impossible to know what might be out of its normal order when everything was out of order. I didn't know just where Kate's body had been found; I was only assuming it had been her bedroom. It just seemed reasonable that if the authorities had immediately assumed natural death, and the medical examiner had corroborated that assumption, no one would have had reason to do a deeper dive into the rest of the house, and it was clear that they hadn't.
I hurried through the house, turning off lights and closing drapes. While I was 90% sure I was just being paranoid, that lingering 10% pushed me to visit Dr. Watson again. Just to be sure.
A half hour later, I sat staring at the same bland white wall in the same bland waiting room, waiting on the decidedly un-bland Dr. Watson to make an appearance. Which he did a few minutes later, looking harried and impatient and none too pleased to see me.
"Miss Hudson." His handshake was brisk. "I'm told you were desperate to see me. I only have a few minutes."
"Uh, right." I self-consciously smoothed my hair with one hand and wiped sweaty palms on the thigh of my jeans with the other. What was it about the doctor that inspired a sudden lack of confidence in me? Maybe his intense eyes. His strong jaw. His broad shoulders. Idly, I wondered if he ever took off the lab coat in the office. I'd pay to see him take off the lab coat. If I had any money.
I really needed to focus.
"I need to speak to you about the conclusion in your report on my aunt."
"I sent the report over to Mr. Holmes yesterday."
I nodded. "I know. I'm worried your report could be wrong."
His jaw slackened a little, and I felt a little zing of satisfaction. Dr. By-the-Book wasn't used to being challenged.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked.
"Not the whole report," I told him. "Just the conclusion."
"Oh. Good to know." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Care to enlighten me, Dr. Hudson?"
I ignored that. "What are the risk factors for sudden cardiac death?"
"There are a few," he said evenly.
"Starting with coronary artery disease, right?"
He tipped his head in silent agreement.
I ticked off on my fingers. "Kate didn't have high blood pressure, she didn't smoke, and I didn't see any sign that she'd been on any sort of medication to indicate previous heart conditions." I looked at him. "And of course, women are two to three times less likely than men to experience sudden cardiac death."
"Of course." His eyebrows had lifted with surprise. "You've done some research on this."
"I took a class," I said. "Sort of." Took might be a strong word, but I'd been in the classroom at the time others had taken it. "The point is, Kate had no risk factors that I can see. She was only under treatment for her thyroid, migraines, and osteoporosis. That's all."
"And you know this how?" he asked.
"I found prescription bottles at her house," I said. "Synthroid, Fioricet, Actonel."
"So you consulted your PDR," he said.
I didn't reply. I got that he was bristling from my challenge. I might react the same way if the roles were reversed.
But Watson wasn't done. "And then you decided that she wasn't under treatment for any other issues, when she might have had unfilled scripts or undiagnosed conditions."
"Did you find signs of undiagnosed conditions in your autopsy?" I asked.
He didn't answer.
"I looked for other prescriptions," I said. Through her handbag, which would be the likely place to keep them, and also through heaps and piles of pretty much anything a house could hold. Also, if Kate had kept those bottles hidden in her dresser, why would she separate others? I was pretty confident that I'd found the entirety of her prescription regimen, and that brought me right back to my reason for being there.
Although maybe it was time for a different approach.
"Is it possible," I said, very gently, "that I'm right? That something might have induced a heart attack?"
Long pause. Finally he said, "Anything's possible."
Okay, this wasn't going anywhere unless and until Dr. Watson stopped looking down his gorgeously straight nose at me.
I tried to remember details from the pathology class. "Did you find atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease?"
Watson looked at me with open surprise. "Not inconsistent with a woman in her mid-70s."
"But not severe either?" I asked.
He ran a hand over his jaw. "Miss Hudson, I'm certain your aunt died of cardiac arrest."
"But are you certain what caused it?" I paused, almost feeling foolish even saying the words out loud, but I'd come this far…" Certain it was natural causes?"
Watson opened his mouth to answer then reconsidered and shut it again.
"You've made your point, Miss Hudson. I'll take another look at the file."
He gave a small smile. It fit him surprisingly well. "Though, I doubt I'll find anything new. I think your profession might be clouding your suspicions."
It took me a second to realize he didn't mean barista. I was supposed to work for a detective. Well, no point in correcting that little misunderstanding when it had gotten me this far.
I watched Dr. Watson walk away, not sure how I felt about the fact that he didn't think my ideas were completely out of left field. If my aunt's heart attack hadn't been spontaneous, that begged the ugly question…how had she died? I'd never heard of suicide by heart attack. Which left just one possibility. Someone else had killed her.
Which meant it might be time to revisit Detective Lestrade.
* * *
Lestrade didn't seem very happy to see me again either. That was starting to be a trend with men in official positions. I tried not to take it personally.
I sat across a cluttered metal desk, staring at the top of Lestrade's head while he scribbled notes, rearranged papers, and opened and closed files, actively ignoring me. I took a choke hold on my purse while I waited him out. He couldn't pretend to work forever. If he was as industrious as he pretended to be, his desk wouldn't look as bad as it did.
Meantime, I took in the office. A photo of a woman—his wife?—sat on the desk, the frame cheap and out of square. She was a cute redhead with a nice smile—she deserved better than that frame. Being married to Lestrade, I couldn't imagine what she had to smile about. A civic award from some organization or other hung framed on the wall behind him. It was from four years ago. Guess he hadn't been very civic minded since then. There was a package of yellow Post-it notes next to the phone—still wrapped in cellophane—a pair of metal-rimmed reading glasses on a stack of files, and a San Francisco Chronicle to his right. Beyond that, his desk was an explosion of reports, letters, pink telephone message slips, business cards, and takeout menus.
My gaze shifted from the desk to Lestrade himself. He was wearing a plain gold wedding band and one of those watches that told the time all across the globe. I never could understand why anyone would need a watch that did that. Maybe it had been a gift. A tiny bald spot blossomed on the crown of Lestrade's head. He had a whitish scar on his forearm about two inches long. I stared at it, wondering about its origin.
Finally, when it became apparent I wasn't going anywhere, he slapped his prop file closed and sat back with a sigh, straightening his tie and lacing his hands together on his stomach.
He looked at me with those beady little bird eyes. "So how can I help you, Miss…?"
"Hudson," I reminded him. "Martha Hudson. Marty. I inherited the house at 221 Baker Street from my great-aunt Kate. You must remember me. We just met a few days ago."
Nothing. Either he had no short-term memory at all, or he didn't plan to make this easy.
Well, neither did I.
I squared my shoulders. "I'd like to know more about your investigation into her death."
His eyes narrowed. He looked as if he was going to peck me. "Beg your pardon?"
"Your investigation. I'm curious about the scene of her death, the circumstances, the witnesses."
Lestrade raised one eyebrow at me. "Witnesses?"
I nodded. "Surely you took statements from witnesses?"
"Miss Hudson, your aunt died of a heart attack. Natural causes. There are no witnesses. No 'investigation' into her death."
I blinked at him. "You're telling me you didn't even consider the fact that she might not have died naturally?"
Lestrade smiled, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Miss Hudson, I realize you're upset, but your aunt was in poor health—"
"That's just it. She wasn't."
"She was in her seventies."
I threw my arms up. "So that automatically means she's at death's door? Geez, what century are you living in?"
His eyes narrowed at me. Yeah, maybe not the right approach. I cleared my throat and tried to soften my tone.
"What if—and I'm just saying 'if'—she didn't die of natural causes. What if she was…killed."
"Whoa." He held up his hands. "That's a pretty big leap, Miss Hudson. To start with, the ME has definitively ruled this a death by natural causes."
"Well, not exactly 'definitively.'"
Those eyes went narrow again. "Excuse me?"
I bit my lip. "Dr. Watson agrees that cardiac arrest may have been induced." Which wasn't maybe exactly the truth but close enough. He was revisiting the file, after all, and that meant he had some doubt about his findings.
Lestrade muttered something under his breath that may or may not have been a swear word. "You've talked to Dr. Watson about this?"
I leaned forward. "I found Kate's medications. She wasn't under treatment for any conditions that might have led to sudden cardiac death. She had no risk factors."
"And you know this how?" he asked.
"I just told you," I said. "I found her prescription meds."
"Did you find a medical degree too?"
My jaw tightened. "She had no cardiac issues. No high blood pressure. No risk factors of any kind. Yet she died suddenly."
"People die," Lestrade said. He was back to moving papers around. To no effect, as far as I could see. The man was a slob. "The ME has already ruled her death as—"
"The ME is revisiting his file." I paused, pulling bravado out from God knew where. "And I think you should too."
"Oh, you do?" He made a gesture encompassing the entirety of his office. It was a small gesture. "I'm sure you noticed we're a little busy around here. Too busy to open non-cases on a whim."
I stiffened. "A whim? It seems to me it would be negligence on your part not to investigate."
"Come again?" The little bird eyes went cold.
I clamped my lips shut before I said something stupid. Like: "Doesn't the police department care about women being murdered in their homes, Detective?"
It was impressive how fast he sprang to his feet.
"I'm sorry about your aunt, Miss Hudson," he said. His voice was frosty. The sort of voice he'd use with well-intentioned baristas whom he was hauling off to jail in handcuffs. "Since you work for a private detective, I suggest you have your boss look into the matter."
I could only hope that the shock that he knew about our ruse didn't show in my expression. And the embarrassment. And the fear of imminent arrest. I was pretty sure Irene and I had broken some kind of law with the Sherlock Holmes thing—I just hadn't expected Lestrade to have heard about it. Of course, it was no mystery how he had. Watson, the medical examiner. So Dr. By-the-Book moonlighted as Dr. Blabbermouth. Thanks to him, I could end up in jail.
Unless Lestrade was kidding. Sure, that was a possibility. The hard slash of mouth, the dead cop eyes, the funereal expression, it all screamed "just joking."
Wait. He actually seemed to believe that I worked for a PI.
Why would he believe that? Wouldn't he be familiar with the local private detectives? Or had all those television shows been wrong?
"Unless the ME revises his report," he said, "my file is closed."
Like your mind, I thought, but I kept that to myself. I didn't want to push my luck. Good enough that I was walking out without any police jewelry on my wrists. Maybe that was Lestrade's version of professional courtesy.
"Thanks for your time, Detective," I said instead, because it probably wasn't smart to alienate the police force any more than I already had. I straightened my spine and marched out of the precinct, past the granite-faced G. Mulroy, still standing sentinel in the outer office. I squinted as I stepped out into the sunlight again, still thinking dirty words directed at the detective. Have your boss look into it. Ha! Right. What could the nonexistent Sherlock Holmes do?
I bit my lip, that question ringing in my head. What would a private investigator do with a case like this? Lestrade had said they hadn't talked to any witnesses. If someone had helped Kate to that big hoarder's paradise in the sky, the killer must have done it in her home. That would make it the scene of the crime. She had neighbors on either side. Those old walls were thin. What were the chances someone had heard something?
* * *
"Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me," I told Lucy Chu as she handed me tea in a small, round cup decorated with pale pink cranes.
"Happy to," she said, sitting in the armchair opposite me in her living room. The home was similar to Kate's in style and age, giving me an optimistic view of what Kate's house could someday be. With a whole lot of Pledge, Windex, and elbow grease. And maybe a blowtorch. Where Kate's living room was a hodgepodge of everything thrown in a pile, Lucy's had a comfortable and lived-in air—with just the right amount of knickknacks to make it homey without feeling cluttered. The floors were covered in intricately woven rugs, the windows rimmed in delicate sheers that let a soft sheen of light in, and the mantel above the original plaster fireplace held a variety of small sculptures of lotus flowers, dragons, and tiny figures in traditional Chinese robes. My eyes settled on one in particular that depicted a pair of intertwined dragons resting under a willow tree.
"This is lovely," I said, rising to get a better look.
Lucy beamed. "Thank you. My husband sells lots of little statues like that to the shops in Chinatown. The tourists love them. He imports them by the truckload."
"I'll have to visit Chinatown sometime soon," I said politely, knowing full well my paycheck wouldn't allow for artwork like this. "Is this real ivory?"
Lucy laughed. "Oh, heavens, no. Those are plastic replicas. Good, no?"
They were. The luster of the smooth surface and slightly yellowed patina made it look like a true antique. Not to mention the level of detail. I thought back to a lecture on Asian Arts I'd snuck into last spring. "Ming dynasty style?"
Lucy nodded, her dark hair bobbing up and down at her shoulders. "You know Chinese art?"
"Some," I admitted, sitting back on the sofa. "I'm clearly no expert."
"You should talk to my husband. He'll give a good deal."
"Thanks. Maybe I will," I lied, knowing even a good deal was outside my paycheck.
"You said you want to talk about Kate?" Lucy prompted, clearly looking forward to a little neighborhood gossip as she took a dainty sip of her tea.
I nodded. "I know you said she mostly kept to herself, but I was wondering if you happened to see any visitors come to her home. Maybe shortly before her death?"
Lucy pulled her eyebrows together, making the wrinkles on her forehead dance. "I dunno. I mean, it's not like I spend the day peeking out my curtains, you know."
I had a feeling she spent at least half of it doing just that. But instead I said, "You mentioned that the neighbor on the other side discovered…the body."
Lucy nodded. "Yeah, Mr. Steinman. He said he thought he smelled a gas leak, so he called the utility company. They came out and realized it wasn't so much the house leaking gas as Kate." She scrunched up her nose.
I felt the small sip of tea I'd taken rolling in my stomach.
"Anyway—" She waved off the moment. "—the guy from the utility company called the police, and they came and took her away."
I thought back to the date on the autopsy report. Kate had been found on the 21st. Watson had put time of death at between 10 and 12 hours before she'd been found, likely the evening of the 20th.
"Did you hear anything from Kate's house the night before?" I asked.
"Like what?" Lucy asked, sipping again.
Honestly? I had no idea. "Any visitors, any loud noises, arguing?" I was totally fishing.
But Lucy shook her head. "Sorry. Like I said, Kate kept to herself."
I nodded and smiled, even though I couldn't help but feel a sinking disappointment on the inside. My aunt hadn't had any friends, no one had visited, and no one had even known she'd died.
"You know," Lucy said, eyeing me over the rim of her cup, "now that you mention it, I did see something odd that night."
I froze. "Odd?"
She nodded. "Yes, I was looking out the front window—you know, just to check the weather. It was raining that night."
"Did you see something? Someone at Kate's?"
She shook her head. "No, but I did see a car across the street. It was one of those old VW Bugs. Not the cute kind—the beat-up kind."
Honestly, not a completely uncommon occurrence in San Francisco.
She shrugged. "That's it."
I felt my shoulders slump. It was hardly the type of smoking gun I'd been hoping for.
"But I know it doesn't belong to anyone on this street," she added. "I make it my business to know who belongs here—what they drive, what they look like. You can't be too careful in this city, you know."
I nodded. "Did you see who was driving it?"
Lucy sighed. "Unfortunately, no. I had a pot of soup on the stove I had to tend to. And when I came back later, it was gone." She paused. "Why do you ask?" She eyed me suspiciously, her gossip radar clearly on high alert.
I shrugged. "No reason, really," I hedged. "I guess I'm just trying to get to know my aunt a little. Know if she had any friends." Or enemies.
"You get through all of her stuff already?" Lucy asked.
A snort escaped me before I could contain it. "Hardly. She was quite the…collector," I finally settled on.
Lucy nodded. "I hear ya. I seen lots of stuff go into that house and not much come out." She paused. "I'm free any day if you want a hand. I could help you bag up trash and sort things for donation."
I smiled at Lucy. Even if her offer was half fueled by morbid curiosity, it was still nice of her to make it. "Thanks. I'll let you know if I need any help." I rose, setting my teacup down on the glass-topped coffee table.
I might not have made any headway into figuring out just how my aunt had died, but at least I had a clean-up volunteer.