"'How long has the subject been dead?' This is the question most commonly asked in the field of forensic pathology." The speaker paused to survey the lecture hall before moving to his next slide. A collective gasp rose at the sight of a human skull partially obscured by profuse vegetation.
I sat forward, my attention rapt. The girl beside me muttered "Gross!" and went back to Candy Crush on her phone.
I tried not to roll my eyes at her. Well, I sorta tried. The guest speaker was only Dr. Bennett Osterman, one of the best in the field. His curriculum vitae was probably longer than any book Miss Candy Crush had ever read. I silently wondered how she'd even gotten into Stanford. Probably the offspring of alumni with deep pockets.
"It's sometimes difficult to say," Dr. Osterman went on. "As you can see in this example, postmortem vegetative growth has continued, precipitating the broken orbital bone fragments you see on this slide, which could easily mislead investigators into incorrect assumptions regarding cause of death. The appearance may mimic the results of battery, for example."
"Oh yuck," the girl said.
This time I didn't even try to hide my irritation, giving her a pointed look.
"This is where the inspection of root systems can be valuable," he added.
"I knew I should've dropped this class," the girl muttered.
"Shh," I whispered. "I want to—" My phone buzzed with an incoming text message. I glanced at the screen.
Guess who's late for work?
I checked the time readout and pulled in a sharp breath. I didn't have to guess. I'd lost track of time again. Moving fast, I gathered up my things, slipped past the girl who was paying no attention—to Dr. Osterman or anyone else—and left the room, disappointed that I had to go just when it was getting interesting. It wasn't every day that I had access to one of the most brilliant minds in the forensic sciences.
Unlike Candy Crush, I unfortunately was neither the child of an alumni nor anyone with deep pockets. Or even shallow ones. The words "college fund" hadn't exactly been in my mom's vocabulary as I was growing up, her concerns usually ranging more toward "food on table" and "roof over head." Not that I was complaining. My hard-working single mom had done the best she could. But it just meant that instead of four years of sorority rushing and mid-term cramming, I had to resort to "non-credited" class auditing—translation: crashing them—and working at the campus bookstore coffee bar. I glanced once more at my phone. A job I should have been at ten minutes ago.
I pedaled my bike furiously across the campus, my blonde hair whipping at my cheeks as I wished I'd had the chance to ask Dr. Osterman some of the questions I'd jotted down. I'd been looking forward to his presentation for weeks, and it annoyed me to have to cut it short for something as mundane as coffee. Not that it mattered all that much in the bigger picture. I had no papers to write or tests to take, because I wasn't technically a student. While that meant I could sit in on my choice of classes and avoid the evil specter of GPAs and final exams, it also meant I'd never have the holy grail of a degree either, which did put a slight crimp in my job prospects. Working as a barista wasn't my first career choice, but it paid the bills for now. Barely.
I locked up my bike and hurried into the bookstore and up the stairs to the second-floor loft coffee bar, which was bustling as usual. I took a moment to look over the sprawling bookstore below, the shelves sprouting from a garden of gleaming hardwood, the students busily picking through Stanford hats and shirts and other logo'd gear.
Then I stashed my bag and quickly tied an apron over my average five-five-on-my-tiptoes and 120-to-125-pounds-give-or-take-a-holiday-meal frame.
I was wiping down one of the tables when Pamela Lockwood tapped me on the shoulder. Pam was round and soft with pink cheeks and fine brown hair, and she'd worked at the coffee bar for the past two semesters.
While my given name was Martha Hudson, everyone had called me Marty for as long as I could remember.
"Hey," I answered back.
"I hope my text didn't interrupt something important."
I shook my head. "Thanks for sending it. I'd lost track of time."
Pam grinned. "What was it this time? Astrophysics? Linear algebra?"
Yeah, I'd heard that a lot lately.
"Dr. Bennett Osterman was speaking," I said. "He was showing this slide of a skull with—"
"Again," Pam interrupted, "yuck."
I sighed. No one appreciated the finer things in life anymore.
"Why don't you just break down and register already?" Pam asked. "If you're going to listen to this stuff, you might as well earn something for it."
"What, and give up all this?" I asked, my hands sweeping to include the sandwich wrapper and discarded paper cups at the next table.
Pam grinned. "You know, you could work here and attend classes. Some of us do."
I shook my head. Attending would mean (a) somehow getting accepted and (b) somehow paying tuition. High school was a good handful of years behind me, and I hadn't had the most stellar grades then. While I'd aced classes like biology and physics, things like PE and dissecting Shakespeare's early works to the point even he'd have no idea what we were talking about had bored me to tears. As a result, my grades had been all over the place, resulting in a GPA that was less than impressive. And then there was the whole tuition thing. Which, if I had it, I wouldn't be picking up dirty cups for a living.
No, slipping (hopefully) unnoticed into the lectures of my choice worked much better all the way around.
"I don't know how you can listen to that forensics stuff anyway," Pam said. "It'd give me nightmares for sure."
I shrugged. "It's interesting."
"I'll tell you what's interesting." Pam pointed. "See the blond guy down there with the Cardinal T-shirt on? He's interesting."
I looked and thought, Not so much. He was the typical California dude, with curly blond hair, surfer tan, and unnaturally white teeth. You couldn't walk across campus without running into a dozen just like him. He wasn't half as interesting as Dr. Bennett Osterman.
"Maybe he'll come up for coffee or something." Pam wiggled her shoulders around and patted her hair. "How do I look? Am I frizzy?"
I smiled at her. "You look fine."
"I'm going to go floss," Pam said. "You never know if he'll come up, and I don't want cinnamon bun in my teeth if he does. By the way, we need more cinnamon buns." She rushed off, scrubbing at her front teeth with a finger.
I went back behind the counter. The line of customers had momentarily thinned to just a few people, but the lull wouldn't last. Book buying and tchotchke shopping seemed to be thirsty work. In just a few minutes, the coffee bar could be swarming with co-eds in need of a caffeine or sugar fix. Pamela's Mr. Interesting might even show up. Hopefully she wouldn't be off tending to dental hygiene when he did.
Still thinking about Dr. Osterman's presentation, I filled orders and handed them over, wiped down the counter, and restocked the napkin dispensers and the bakery case. The scent of cinnamon and chocolate tantalized me, and my fingers had just closed on a coffee cake muffin when someone asked, "Got any crullers left?"
I dropped the muffin and raised my head too fast, cracking the back of my skull on the lip of the display case. Grimacing, I looked up to see my best friend, Irene Adler, frowning at me.
"Were you just going to take that muffin?" she asked.
I rubbed my head. "No. I was rearranging it."
"Sure," Irene said. "From the case into your face. I thought you were on a diet."
"I thought you were at a meeting with some Silicon Valley babies." I pulled a cruller from the case, plunked it onto a plate, and shoved it across the counter. I could have shoved a half dozen crullers across the counter, and Irene could have scarfed all of them and had no repercussions except powdered sugar on her fingers. Her size two frame never dared gain an inch. I loved her anyway.
Irene made a face. "Got canceled. One of them woke up with a runny nose." She shook her head, her diamond earrings sparkling in the light. "Kids."
I refrained from pointing out that Irene herself was only twenty-seven. A gorgeous and very accomplished twenty-seven. Irene was something of a computer prodigy and had parlayed that genius into a degree from MIT at the age of fourteen and then into millions of dollars when she'd sold her own start-up on the day she'd turned twenty-one. Of course like any good computer prodigy, she also had a checkered past, which included hacking into a government mainframe at the ripe old age of twelve, but as she'd pointed out, kids would be kids. And now "kids" were coming to her looking for venture capital to fund their own start-ups.
I'd first met Irene a few years ago when she'd come to give a lecture about social media's impact in political and economic culture. I'd peppered her with questions afterward, and between my enthusiasm for hilarious political Twitter fails and her enthusiasm for pastries, we'd bonded right away and been fast friends ever since.
"Know what would go with this cruller?" Irene asked, shifting her designer handbag higher on her shoulder. "A decaf mocha latte."
Pam and her ultra-clean teeth came back while I was blending the latte. "Has he come up here yet?"
I looked up. "Who?"
"Mr. Right," Pam said. "You know, the guy downstairs? The blond?"
"You're not talking about a muscle-y guy in a Stanford Cardinal T-shirt, are you?" Irene asked her.
Pam's eyes got wide. "You saw him too?" Her face fell, and I could practically read her mind. If Irene had seen him, and he'd seen Irene, it was all over for Pam. Irene had green eyes and auburn hair, and I was pretty sure the Mattel people had modeled Barbie's body after hers.
Irene nodded. "He left with a redhead. I think they're a couple. Your Mr. Right was even carrying her backpack."
Pam fell against the counter, her shoulders slumping. "Just my luck."
"There'll be another Mr. Right," I assured her. It wasn't an empty promise. There'd been about eighty Mr. Rights since Pam had started working there. And that was the first week.
"I hope so," Pam said. "I'm not getting any younger."
I snorted. "You're twenty."
Pam nodded. "That's what I said." She went off to take a refill to a customer.
Irene grinned at me. "Is that how we sounded at twenty?"
"I sincerely hope not," I said. I handed over the decaf mocha latte. "But it wouldn't surprise me one bit."
* * *
The rest of the afternoon managed to slip past with no more Mr. Rights for Pam and no more head injuries for me. At eight o'clock, I left the bookstore, reclaimed my bike from the rack, and headed home. Which wasn't exactly the high point of my day, since home at the moment was not much more than a rathole of an apartment with antique plumbing and a few antique neighbors who seemed to sit with one cataract pressed to their peepholes to catalog my comings and goings. The space was small, and the rent was high. Welcome to California. But that wasn't completely problematic since I hadn't paid it in a couple of months anyway. What could I say? Tips had been sparse lately. I blamed the cost of education rising almost as fast as tax rates. But consequently, rent payments had become a line item on my long-term to-do list, like dusting the ceiling fan. Sooner or later, the dust would build up and fall off the fan blades under its own weight. That was my working hypothesis anyway.
I hopped off the bike and wheeled it up the front walk into the tiny, gloomy lobby with its chipped vinyl tile floor, dirty white walls, and inadequate forty-watt lighting. A quick check of my mailbox revealed nothing but some sales circulars and a credit card bill. I tucked both into my bag and kept moving up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. The smell of cabbage, faint in the lobby, grew stronger and more noxious with each step. Wrinkling my nose, I stabbed my key at the lock, when I felt the presence of someone behind me.
I spun around to find 2B leering at me from his doorway. 2B's real name was Ed Something-or-Other. His last name was 20 letters long with no vowels. I'd never been able to pronounce it, and he'd lived across the hall for nearly a year. In that whole time, I'd never seen him wear anything but torn jeans and T-shirts featuring wash-worn photos of different classic rock bands or album covers, from back when there were classic rock bands and album covers. His face was long and thin with a scrubby patch of whiskers on the point of his chin and a Jack Nicholson arch to his eyebrows that only added to the devilish leer.
Suddenly the cabbage smell made sense.
"Hey, Marty." He leaned against the doorway, arms crossed over the Led Zeppelin album cover imprinted on his shirt, head cocked sideways to look me over. "It's about time you got home. Your phone's been ringing for the past couple of hours."
"It has?" A frisson of anxiety shivered through me. Maybe my mother had had an accident of some kind out in her condo in Phoenix. No, that couldn't be it. She'd have called my cell phone. And I'd seen Irene not too long ago. That was pretty much it as far as people willing to put in a couple of hours' effort to reach me.
"Probably telemarketers," I said, mostly to convince myself. I made a mental note to text Mom just in case. "They have a knack for calling at dinnertime."
2B nodded. "That's what I used to do, when I was one."
No surprise there.
He stepped into the hall, pulling his door shut behind him. "I'm jonesing for a Big Mac. Buy you one?"
I couldn't imagine how. As far as I knew, 2B didn't have a job. I suppressed a shudder. "No, thanks. How can you have an appetite with that smell?"
"Smell?" A flicker of confusion crossed his face and cleared. "Oh, you must be talking about the boiled cabbage. Mr. Bitterman's trying out a new recipe."
I should've known. Isaac Bitterman was an 83-year-old widower who'd been forced to discover cooking after his wife died, only he'd gone immediately to the dark side of the culinary arts. His sense of smell seemed as blunted as his eyesight; his experiment with Limburger cheese and broccoli had lingered in the hallway for a week. Unluckily for me, he lived on the other side of a very thin wall, and there were times that the stench of his food was so thick in my apartment that I could practically do a taste test for him.
2B shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. All ones, as far as I could see. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd produced a roll of pennies. "So what do you think, Marty?" he asked. "Big Mac?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, I ate at work."
"Your loss. I'm a great dinner date." He scratched his armpit, providing evidence to the contrary. "One of these days, you're gonna let me buy you a burger."
I couldn't possibly live enough days for that. I shoved my bike into the apartment ahead of me. "Sure. Bon appétit."
"Bone appetite to you, too," he told me. "I'll catch you later, Marty." He lifted a casual hand over his shoulder in a wave as he disappeared down the stairs.
Blowing out a breath, just to avoid inhaling more boiled cabbage stench, I followed my bike inside and hung it on the hook beside the door before locking both dead bolts and heading for the kitchen to scrounge up something for dinner. Despite what I'd told 2B, all I'd eaten at work was a coffee cake muffin, and my stomach was growling.
I stood in front of the open fridge, surveying a few bottles of beer, half a loaf of white bread, a two-day-old carton of sweet and sour chicken, and a Tupperware container of leftover takeout linguini. The pasta wasn't a Big Mac, but it would have to do. Hopefully the scent of marinara sauce could overtake the secondhand cabbage. I dumped the linguini onto a plate and shoved it into the microwave.
The phone rang while the timer was counting down.
"Martha Hudson, please." A male voice, deep and confident. Nice. But telemarketers could have nice voices too. That didn't mean I wanted to talk to one.
"Who's calling?" I glanced at the microwave. When had I ordered that linguini? Maybe I should have gone with the Chinese food. There was still time. I opened the fridge.
"My name is Andrew Bonamassa," he said. "I'm an attorney with the firm of Bonamassa and Hadley. Is this Miss Hudson?"
I closed the fridge. The rent. It had to be about the rent. My landlord had finally gotten fed up with chasing me down for his money. It was bound to happen. Now there would probably be interest and court costs and lawyers' fees to pay too. How was I going to manage that?
Briefly, I considered fibbing, but I wasn't very good at it. It was probably best just to get it over with. "I'm Martha Hudson," I said with a sigh. "And I'm very sorry, but things have been kind of tight for a while, and I know that's no excuse, but I really didn't intend to do it. It just sort of happened, and, well, now it's gotten out of control, I'll admit it, but I guess I can go on a payment plan of some sort, right?"
A few seconds of silence. Then: "Could you tell me your mother's maiden name, Miss Hudson?"
"Oh, for pete's sake." I rolled my eyes. "I already told you I'll go on a payment plan. There's no reason to drag my mother into this."
More silence. Then, tentatively: "How about the names of your siblings?"
I stared at the phone. What was with this guy and his intrusive personal questions? Was this how bill collectors worked? Weren't there laws about this sort of thing? Other than Always call during the dinner hour, that was?
"I'm an only child," I snapped. "Sorry. You can't extract any money there either."
Still more silence. Then, cautiously: "Maybe you can verify your address?"
He had to be kidding me. As if the landlord wouldn't have already given him that information.
"Humor me," he said when I didn't reply. "I have to make sure that I'm actually speaking to Martha Hudson."
"I told you I'm Martha Hudson," I said. "Why would anyone else accept the responsibility of paying my back rent?"
I blinked. "That's why you're calling, right? About the rent?"
"This isn't about any rent, Miss Hudson. This is about the beneficiary of the living trust and Last Will and Testament of your great-aunt, Kate Quigley. I represent her estate."
"Wait." I gripped the phone tighter. "I have a great-aunt Kate?"
"Not anymore," he said. "She's dead. I'm sorry to say."
I had a great-aunt Kate? I tried to remember meeting her, or seeing pictures of her, or even hearing my mother mention her. I couldn't. How could I not know about her?
While my mom and I had been close, she'd been about all the family I'd ever known. Dad had taken off before I was even born, and Mom had been an only child herself, her parents having passed away when she was in college. As a kid I'd actually fantasized about long-lost relatives finding us and turning our sliced turkey breast for two into a true Thanksgiving family feast like I'd seen in commercials on TV. Only in my fantasies the relatives had been alive and welcoming, not recently deceased.
"Are you sure?" I asked. The microwave dinged. I ignored it. "I mean, are you sure I'm her…"
"I'm sure," he said. "According to her, you were her nephew's daughter."
Her nephew. My father. Another family member I'd never known.
"And," he continued, "you're her sole beneficiary, Miss Hudson."
I fell back against the counter, stunned. "Her sole…"
"Beneficiary," he agreed. "Kate never married or had children, and so her entire estate has been left to you. Including, of course, her home in San Francisco."
Her home? I'd inherited a house? People like me didn't inherit houses. We inherited Corelle dishes, table lamps with seashells in their base, and Aunt Stella's costume jewelry collection.
I let out a shaky exhale. "Are you sure about this?"
"I'm sure," he said again. "I drafted the paperwork for Kate myself, Miss Hudson. I'll provide you with copies, of course."
I'd inherited a house in San Francisco. The thought made me weak. I did a slow, exacting appraisal of my apartment, even though that was something best done quickly, with the eyes closed, to minimize the cringeworthiness. I could hardly believe that finally I'd be able to move out of this place. I'd dreamed of the day I could move out of this place and away from the ragged carpet, the dingy walls, the hit-or-miss hot water. Away from Mr. Bitterman and his culinary science experiments. Especially away from 2B. My new home was probably some fantastic place nestled into Lombard Street or along the Embarcadero. Maybe I'd have a next-door neighbor who owned a suit and tie and bought his wine in something other than boxes.
Immediately on the heels of my excitement came a sharp regret that I'd never met my great-aunt Kate, had never even known about her. I wondered what she'd been like. Had she looked like me? Did I have her smile? How could I have not known she'd been living just a few miles away this whole time? I suddenly wanted to know everything I could about Kate Quigley. Because somehow Kate had known about me and had left me her house and everything in it.
Including tax and utility bills. Could I afford a house in San Francisco? Could I take care of it the way Kate had taken care of it?
"In case you'd like to take a look at your house," Andrew Bonamassa was saying, "the address is 221 Baker Street. Kate had it put in a trust a few years back, so there's no need to wait out probate on the property. You can pick up the key at my office at your convenience. I'm sure you're eager to see the place."
Eager was hardly the word. I arranged to meet Mr. Bonamassa at his office the next morning, accepted his somber condolences, and disconnected, still numb with disbelief and pretty sure that I wouldn't be able to count on sleep to get me through the long hours separating me from my new life.
As soon as I'd reheated my dinner and sat down at the table, someone knocked on my door. Probably 2B still hoping to buy himself a romantic evening with a couple of Big Macs and some fries. He was delusional, but it didn't matter. I was a homeowner now, and pretty soon I wouldn't have to see 2B ever again.
But it wasn't 2B at the door. It was Mr. Bitterman, clutching a Tupperware container in both gnarled hands. Mr. Bitterman was considered quite a catch among the widowed ladies in the building. His six hairs were always combed, he had two distinct eyebrows, and his clothes were always clean, even if they were usually mismatched. Plus rumor had it his railroad pension would allow him to live comfortably to the age of 112, a quality more prized by husband hunters than a GQ-worthy wardrobe.
He gave me a gummy smile, and his dentures shifted a little in his mouth. "Evening, Martha Hudson."
Mr. Bitterman never called me Martha or Marty. Always Martha Hudson. Maybe because he wanted to double-check that he was talking to the right person.
I eyed the Tupperware container with deep suspicion. "Hello, Mr. Bitterman. What have you got there?"
"I tried out a new recipe today, and I made a little extra." He held it out to me. "Thought I'd do the neighborly thing and share."
I took it before he dropped it all over my carpet and it ate through to the floorboards. I didn't stand a chance of seeing my security deposit returned as it was. Not that it was my fault the paint was peeling off the walls on its own accord.
"You didn't have to do that," I said. He could have done the neighborly thing and dumped it down the disposal. The smells leaking out from beneath that lid would straighten my hair faster than a flatiron.
"I need an objective opinion," he said. "You can be my tester."
I sure hoped he was talking about aftershave, because I had no intention of tasting whatever was swimming inside that Tupperware.
"Besides," he added, "an old man doesn't like to eat alone."
It occurred to me that that was what old women were for, but I didn't have the heart to say so. The truth was, I liked Mr. Bitterman, and I really didn't mind having dinner with him.
As long as it wasn't his dinner.
"I understand," I said. "I've got some sweet and sour pork in the fridge. Come on in."
I'd given it my best and gentlest shot, but Mr. Bitterman and his mystery dish would not be separated. He followed me into the kitchen and settled in at my table with a grunt of exertion. "You might want to give that a turn in the microwave," he said. "It tends to congeal as it cools."
Nothing unappetizing about that. I held my breath, spooned the contents of the Tupperware container into a bowl, and shoved it into the microwave. It didn't look like it was congealing. It looked like it was breathing.
I slammed the door shut and turned the microwave to Incinerate.
"You know," I told him, "I appreciate the gesture, but you could have had dinner with Mrs. Frist in 2E. I think she's got her eye on you."
"She's got her eye on everyone," he said. "She sits and stares out the peephole all day long. Her only exercise is when she changes eyes." He grimaced. "And Mrs. Frist doesn't know good food when she tastes it. You might want to give that a stir."
I was afraid to give it a stir. If I opened the microwave, it might jump out and attack me.
"I know the signs," he said. "They're looking for new husbands, all of them. They bring me enough casseroles and Bundt cakes to open a restaurant."
Casserole and Bundt cake didn't sound so bad to me. I cast a baleful glance at the microwave. He was sitting on real food, and I got stuck with that.
He shook his head. "None of them will let me cook dinner. Won't let me near the stove. They insist on feeding me."
Guess he couldn't take a hint.
"I know what you're thinking," he said. "And you're right. I'm candy for the ladies."
Yeah. That was what I'd been thinking.
"But I got plans," he added. "I'm writing a cookbook. It's going to be huge. I'm calling it the Bitterman Diet Plan. What do you think?"
Something popped inside the microwave, and he made a better-check-that gesture that I deliberately ignored. I wasn't opening that door. The smell would get out.
"If you want to help people lose weight," I said, "I think you've got a winner."
He seemed pleased. He moved his dentures around until they got out of the way and smiled at me. It was a lovely Hallmark moment.
Until our dinner whistled, sizzled, and exploded in the microwave.
Mr. Bitterman shrieked like a little girl and ducked his head.
I rushed to open the door, but I was too late. For the dinner and the microwave. It looked like a scene from Ghostbusters in there. There was no saving it. Even if I managed to scrape the remnants of Cabbage Surprise off the walls, I doubted I could purge that smell.
But I'd rather smell it than taste it.