Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Two

"Maybe he got the address wrong," Irene said.

We were standing on the sidewalk outside 221 Baker Street, staring up at a crumbling Victorian. There were empty gaps where gingerbread trim had once hung. Gutters were missing. The paint was a washed-out blue that might have been pretty forty years ago, when it had been applied, but now resembled acid-washed jeans.

I bit my lip. "I'm positive he said 221." I checked the paperwork that Andrew Bonamassa had handed over along with the key. He'd said 221. I sighed and shoved the papers into my bag. So much for my chic new home. My inheritance was going to need a complete overhaul just to make it habitable. And that was just on the outside. I couldn't imagine what it looked like on the inside. Did it even have walls? This wasn't exactly the hoped-for step up from my apartment. More like a head-long plunge down a set of stairs.

And it probably didn't even have a microwave.

I narrowed my eyes, trying to see the house without the neglect and decay. It must have been something years ago. I could almost imagine colorful shutters, cheerful flowers springing from a well-tended garden, a plump calico cat curled up in the front window, basking in the sun.

Irene brushed at the grime coating the mailbox. The box teetered over and crashed to the ground.

She looked at me. "Maybe your great-aunt Kate didn't like you."

"It's not that bad," I said, squinting up at the roofline. Who was I kidding? It was worse. My imagination wasn't that good; there were no shutters or flowers or fat, contented cats. And I was no roofing expert, but I was pretty sure that it shouldn't look like a mildewed newspaper up there.

Irene cupped her ear. "Do you hear that?"

I blinked. "What?"

"That white elephant." Irene dropped her arm. "This place is a money pit. What else did she leave you?"

"I'm not ready to give up on it that fast," I said. "You might be able to buy any house you want, but I'm not that lucky. I think we should go inside."

Irene shrugged. "I can take it if you can."

I wasn't convinced that I could, but I hauled in a deep breath and led the way up the walk. It took both of us to shoulder the door open, and when we had, we stepped into a cool, dark foyer. When I found a light switch, the weak, sickly glow of a single Tiffany knock-off table lamp revealed a horror show.

Irene's jaw dropped. "Wow. They were wrong all these years. I think Jimmy Hoffa could be buried here."

"That's not funny," I told her. How could my great-aunt Kate have lived here? Orange shag carpet, dark brown paneling, dated furniture. Heavy insulated drapes, so old they were shedding their linings on the carpet like a dusting of snowflakes, shrouded a pair of ancient, probably drafty windows. Any one of those things would have been bad enough, without the stacks of old newspapers, books, and magazines piled on every flat surface or the unsealed boxes scattered across the floor, bulging with who knew what, the paper bags full of canned goods and boxes of cereal, the plastic tubs filled to the brim with what looked like towels and linens and probably a few moths. Dust powdered every surface, and a musty smell hung over everything like a fog.

I felt a stab of sympathy. "My aunt was a hoarder."

"You think?" Gingerly, Irene lifted a yellowed magazine from the nearest pile. "Life. They stopped publishing this years ago." She poked through a box of magazines at her feet. "Look at this stuff. The Beatles coming to America. The assassination of JFK. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon." She glanced up. "She hadn't thrown away a magazine since the '60s."

"She was a history buff." I touched the cover of the Life magazine almost reverentially, as if it might link me to the woman to whom it had once belonged.

On a small table beside the door sat a collection of dusty framed photos. I picked one up and found myself staring into the face of a woman who had my eyes. The photo must have been taken several years ago, as she looked to be in her 40s or 50s, slim, blonde hair, giving the camera a wry smile as if she had been caught unaware or unwilling to pose. I felt a lump form in my throat as I set the photo of my great-aunt Kate back on the table.

Irene nudged a box with the toe of her sleek pumps. "You can call a service to haul this junk out of here. I've seen them on TV. You know, on those shows about hoarders."

"I don't want it hauled out," I said. "Not yet anyway. I want to go through all of it first."

"Why?" Irene asked. "It's old moth-eaten stuff. It's no good to anyone."

I fingered a crocheted blanket slung over the corner of a high-backed wing chair. "It was Kate's. I know it sounds funny, but it's all I have of her. I'd like to get to know her a little somehow."

Irene's expression softened. "It doesn't sound funny at all, Mar. I'm sorry. I'm not being fair. Where do you want to start?" She gingerly lifted her heels over a line of cardboard boxes.

"I think we should do a walk-through," I said. "Maybe all of this stuff is here because she was getting rid of it." I glanced toward the staircase and saw nothing but shadows on the upstairs landing. I shivered. The second floor could wait. "Let's start with the living room."

"I think the Victorians called it a parlor," Irene said. "Maybe a sitting room. Didn't Victorian women go to their sitting rooms to recover from the vapors?"

"The vapors?" I grinned at her.

She shrugged. "I'm thinking they're like a hangover. If I'd lived in Victorian times, I'd have been drinking all the time." Irene shuddered. "Imagine having to wear a corset every day."

I didn't want to imagine it. I didn't even want to imagine wearing Spanx every day. Some days were just made for elastic waistbands.

"I wonder what this property's worth," Irene mused as she picked her way through, past, and over Kate's things. "You could probably fix this place up and make some nice cash."

Something caught my eye. "Right, like I could afford to fix it up." I paused to pick up a music box with a single ballerina in a pink tutu poised en pointe on a little white pedestal. I twisted a lever on the bottom, and the ballerina began to twirl as the first bars of Für Elise wafted through the room like a haunting perfume.

"Well, there must be some value in the land itself." Irene's hands went to her hips. "You could sell it as is and probably buy a turnkey condo with the proceeds." She paused, looking around. "Or at least afford a down payment on one."

I set the music box down carefully on an end table. "If I sell it for the land value, someone will tear it down."

Irene nodded. "If they're smart."

"But this house has something."

"Sure it does," Irene said. "It has drafty windows and slanted floors and a leaky roof."

"Look at the trim," I said. "It could be gorgeous." I pointed. "And underneath all the dust, those are real crystals on that chandelier."

"You're right. This place is a flipper's dream. Fix it up, and sell it, Mar. Quickly. Before anything else falls apart."

"It's not that bad," I argued. "The insulated drapes will help with the drafty windows. The floors aren't that uneven. And we don't know that the roof leaks."

"Right," Irene said. "I'm sure that hole up there repels the rain. I hope she didn't store too many things in the attic." She took another glance around. "What am I saying? The attic is down here."

I noticed a stack of ancient TV Guides teetering on the end table next to the music box and resisted the urge to sigh.

"So your options are: keep it and drown in ongoing repairs, sell it and level it, or flip it." She paused. "I still say you'd make a nice profit if it were in the right condition."

I glanced around. "Okay, I'll bite. What do you think it would cost to put it in the 'right' condition?"

Irene shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe two or three."

"Thousand dollars?" I asked, wondering where I could possibly find that much.

She snorted. "Try hundred thousand."

This time there was no resisting the sigh that escaped me.

"You know, I could loan you the money—" Irene started.

"No!" I shook my head emphatically. We'd been down this road before. While Irene was generous to offer, there was no way I wanted her bailing me out of every situation that my barista income stuck me in. She was my best friend—I refused to look at her like a bank. Besides, despite Irene's idealism, I knew flipping houses was risky business. A house this old could easily eat away profits with one faulty pipe or hungry termite family. I wasn't willing to risk Irene's money like that, let alone our friendship. "Thank you, but you know I can't accept that."

She shrugged again. "Suit yourself. But this place looks one stiff breeze away from being condemned."

I wished she wasn't right so often.

The front door creaked open, and someone called out "Hello?"

"In the living room," I called back.

"Sitting room," Irene yelled.

Seconds later, a chubby Asian woman with a short, blunt haircut and pale pink cat-eye glasses hustled in flapping an envelope at us. She hardly seemed to notice the mess as she stopped in front of Irene and peered at her through thick lenses. "My name's Lucy Chu. I live next door to this…" She rolled her gaze around the room. "…house. The mailman misdelivered the mail again." She waved the envelope in front of Irene's nose. "I swear that man can't read. Look: 2-2-1. It's as clear as day. Here. Take it."

Irene pointed to me. "You want to give that to her. That's Kate's great-niece, Marty Hudson."

"Oh?" Lucy Chu swung around to peer at me. "You're a girl. What kind of name is that for a girl?"

I felt my smile waver. "It's short for—"

"I didn't know Kate had any family," she cut in. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"I didn't know I had her for family either," I said, taking the envelope. "Thanks for bringing this by. I hope it didn't inconvenience you."

"If it did," Lucy said, "it's not the first time. At least once a week, the mailman misdelivers the mail. I swear that man can't read. Look, it says 2-2-1. It's as clear—"

"Thanks again," Irene said. "It was good to meet you, but we're a little busy here."

"I can help," Lucy said. "I offered to help Kate before. I'm happy to help. Last month I helped 215 box up old coats for charity. You have old coats?"

I stared at her. "I don't—probably?"

"Everybody has old coats," Lucy told me. "They're like old magazines. They multiply." She glanced around. "But you already know about that. Anyway, you want my help, I'm happy to help. I have boxes."

Irene grinned at me over Lucy's shoulder. "She has boxes, Mar."

"Thank you for the offer," I said. "I'll keep it in mind. But I'd like to take my time going through the house before I start throwing out anything."

"Sure, sure," Lucy said. "You'll be seeing more of me either way. The mailman always misdelivers the mail."

Irene rolled her eyes.

"Did you know my great-aunt Kate well?" I asked.

Lucy shook her head. "Not really, no. She mostly kept to herself. I can't say that anyone in the neighborhood knew her well. She didn't have many visitors, and I rarely saw her go out. She just seemed to stay at home." Another glance around, accompanied by a wrinkling of her nose. "With all this."

A sudden thought struck me. "Do you happen to know how she died?"

"I really don't," Lucy said. "I haven't even heard a whisper about it. And that's odd, in this day and age, if you ask me, when everything shows up on the internet whether you want to see it or not. You might ask the police that question. They're the ones who found her body. Got a call about a smell from the neighbor on the other side."

Irene shot me a look. "Another point in the house's favor," she muttered.

I pursed my lips, suddenly sad at the thought of my aunt dying alone, her body being found by strangers and not someone who knew and loved her.

"Well." Lucy backed toward the foyer. "My offer stands. Call me if you need me. Lucy Chu." And she backed out of sight.

Irene burst into laughter.

"Don't," I said. "She was only trying to be helpful."

"She was trying to be nosy," Irene said. "What'd she bring you there?"

I glanced at the envelope. It was an advertisement for a home repair contractor. Considering the condition of the house, Kate had probably gotten a few of those a week.

Irene took a look. "You might want to hold on to that."

I dropped it on the pile of TV Guides. "Maybe I should visit the police. You know, as next of kin. See if she had personal effects to collect?"

"That's a good idea," Irene said. "I could use some fresh air. And so could this house."

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, we were staring at a blue-jawed, slit-eyed chunk of granite standing under a crew cut and wearing a badge that read G. Mulroy.

"You want to know what, now?" he asked for the second time.

"Good thing he's pretty," Irene muttered. "Because he's not too bright."

Ignoring her, I craned my neck to look up at G. Mulroy. "I've inherited the house at 221 Baker Street from my great-aunt, Kate Quigley. I'd like to speak to the detective in charge of her case."

"A house," he repeated.

I nodded.

"Baker Street," he repeated. "221, you say?"

Irene blew out an impatient sigh. "Big Victorian where junk goes to die."

The slitted eyes slid over to assess Irene for a moment before shifting back to me. "You want to talk to Detective Lestrade."

"Great. Good." Irene nodded. "Now we're making progress. Is he here?"

Again the eyes, slow moving and flat but watchful, moved between us. "Take a seat." He tipped his head toward a low-slung bench against the far wall. "I'll call him."

We sat facing a bulletin board plastered with Wanted flyers of hard-looking fugitives glaring insolently into the camera. Lots of tattooed necks and crooked noses to go along with all the bad attitude. It left a lot to be desired as décor, but there wasn't much else to look at. The wall itself was an ugly mix of half off-white, half battleship gray. No art. No magazines. No potted plants. The entrance door across the lobby to the right. A door leading to the inner sanctum to the left. The place was designed strictly for function.

The door on the left swung open, and a thin man wearing navy trousers, a white dress shirt, and red tie stepped into the lobby. His hair was threaded with silvery white, his eyes were black, his nose was thin and slightly hooked, and his Adam's apple was prominent.

"Miss Hudson?"

I stood. "I'm Miss Hudson."

He shook my hand crisply and dropped it as if it burned him. "Detective Lestrade. I understand you're related to Kate Quigley."

I nodded. "That's right. I recently found out I'm her sole beneficiary, and I—"

"All of her personal effects have been forwarded to her lawyer, the city put a new lock on the door to replace the one we had to force open, and any other damages to the place need to be submitted in writing via the clerk upstairs."

I blinked at him. "Uh, okay."

He gave me a curt nod and moved to turn away.

"Excuse me," I said. "Is that it?"

He paused. "You wanted more?"

"Well…I thought maybe you could tell me something about her."

He looked like he'd already spent more time than he'd budgeted on this case. "Like what?"

Good question. "Well, um, for starters, how did she die?"

"How?" he repeated.

I nodded again. "Yes. I didn't know I had a great-aunt Kate, so this has all been kind of a shock."

"I can imagine." His tone suggested he couldn't imagine at all. "I'm afraid I can't tell you much beyond that her manner of death has been officially listed as natural."

"What does that mean?" Irene asked.

Lestrade did the same shifty-eye thing as the desk sergeant to stare at Irene for a moment with no expression. Funny how all cops seemed to do that. "It means," he said, "she died of natural causes, ma'am."

An angry flush spread upward from Irene's neck. Hard to know whether it was because of the sarcasm or the "ma'am." In Irene's youth-centric world, "ma'am" was a dirty word.

I put a hand on her arm before she could say anything to drive Lestrade back into the unreachable back office. "Can't you tell us anything more than that?" I asked. "I mean, she was family to me."

Lestrade's expression remained stolid. "Sorry, ma'am, that's all I can tell you. If you want more information, you'll have to talk to the ME." He glanced at his watch. "Only John's elbow deep in an autopsy right now, so you'll have to come back later this afternoon."

"What a poet," Irene muttered.

I had to admit, the phrasing brought up some gross imagery.

"You mean you can't even tell us if the poor lady fell down the stairs or had cancer or what?" Irene pressed.

"Talk to the ME, ma'am," he repeated. "This afternoon."

"Fine," I snapped. "I'll talk to the ME. You've been very helpful, Detective."

"To protect and to serve, ma'am," he said. He turned on his heel and slithered back through the inner-sanctum door.

Irene stared after him. "Is that guy for real?"

I shrugged. "I'm sure he's got rules and regulations to follow. We'll just come back later when the medical examiner is free." I glanced at the time on my phone. "I have to get to the coffee bar anyway."

"Yeah." Irene nodded. "I have a meeting with some guys looking for a VC."

VC was short for venture capitalist, which was what most of Irene's money did for her these days—fund the latest dot-com sensation in exchange for insane returns that kept her in designer handbags and Louboutins.

"What's this one?" I asked as we made our way outside.

"It's called the Boyfriend Babysitter."

I raised a questioning eyebrow her way.

"It's an app that tracks how many times your boyfriend's heart rate spikes when he's around other women."

I barely covered a snort. "Sounds like a winner."

Irene shrugged. "We'll see. All depends on their cost to get the beta ready for market. Anyway, I'll come by the bookshop afterwards, and we can go see if John's elbows have come up for air yet."

Even coming from her, it was still gross.

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