Excerpt: Scrapping Scarlett

 

Chapter 1: A Good First Impression

 

“JANE! HI!”

The sound of my name brought my head around. I saw Amy Collingwood striding toward me across the courtyard of the Americana apartment building. I wasn’t surprised to run into her there. I knew several people who called the Americana home, and this young conservation scientist was one of them.

The building itself was a stodgy redbrick box, consisting of sixty-five rental units in four stories. I’d just parked in one of the guest spots and was headed for the entrance when she waylaid me. The sun had set minutes earlier, and the autumn afternoon light was rapidly fading.

I glanced at my wristwatch. Yes, I still occasionally wore one of those, particularly when promptness was important. It was 5:54 p.m.

Amy and I exchanged greetings, and she gave a little love to Sexy Beast, who occupied his usual luxurious conveyance, a straw bucket tote hanging from my shoulder. Sexy Beast (SB for short) was an apricot toy poodle and my most cherished companion—well, if you didn’t count a certain yummy bartender who’d recently moved into my house.

Okay, you got me. It wasn’t actually my house, at least not yet. Sexy Beast had inherited the McMansion a year and a half earlier from his original owner, Irene McAuliffe. Yeah, you read that right. I lived in the fanciest doghouse on the planet. It would belong to me someday, but since that someday would be one that didn’t include my beloved SB, I had no problem with my role as the landless guardian of a seven-pound good boy, thank you very much.

My name is Jane Delaney and I am a small business owner. What kind of business? you ask. Let me put it this way. There are certain necessary chores that most of us would rather not face. Many of these chores are emotionally taxing. Some might even be considered distasteful or—let’s be honest here—downright disgusting.

And when I say most of us, I mean most of you. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest to arrange for a human body to be composted. Or to force a funeral director to dress a body in a garish clown costume and grinning white-face makeup for the viewing, in accordance with the deceased’s last wishes. Or to swipe, I mean liberate, a valuable mermaid brooch from the corpse during a wake.

Okay, that last one didn’t quite go as planned, but you get the idea. People hire me to get things done. Things that involve dead folks. As you might guess, some of the assignments I’m offered are blatantly illegal. I have no problem turning those down. (What’s that? You have one in mind that’s not so blatant? Let’s talk.)

But as for all those death-related tasks that are unspeakably gory or gooey? Hey, that’s my bread and butter. And yeah, I know that’s a nauseating metaphor and I don’t care. ’Cause I’m the one and only Death Diva.

Yep, that’s what they call me around these here parts—which happens to be Crystal Harbor, an affluent town on the North Shore of Long Island, New York, so I don’t know where that these here parts came from.

But I digress. I was about to tell you about the thing that happened at the Americana on Tuesday, November 4, at precisely 5:58 p.m.

A young couple entering the building held the door open for an older man with a cane who was leaving. I snuck a peek at my watch while Amy gave SB a few more scritches. It was 5:55.

The crisp breeze lifted strands of Amy’s long, brown hair. She tucked her hands into her jacket pockets to warm them. “So who are you visiting here?”

“Oh, it’s just a meeting with a prospective client,” I said, hoping she didn’t ask which of her neighbors was thinking of hiring me. I believe in protecting the privacy of those who find themselves in need of deathy services. If, on the other hand, a client chooses to tell all his friends about the spectacular job the Death Diva did in having Uncle Ed’s ashes mixed into a beautiful stained-glass window, I’m not about to squawk. I mean, who turns down free publicity, right?

I asked, “Did you just get home from work?”

She nodded. “Figured I’d run out and pick up some Thai.”

As we chatted, I noticed a person on the building’s roof. And was that smoke? I squinted at the purpling sky. A figure in a baggy jacket was leaning with his back against the black metal railing up there, puffing on a cigar and blowing smoke rings.

Sexy Beast started acting restless. He uttered a short, polite bark. It didn’t take someone fluent in Poodle to figure this one out.

“All right, all right.” I set the tote on the grass, clipped the leash onto his harness, and let him hop out to take care of business. Better now than when I was in the middle of my meeting. And yes, the prospective client had granted permission to bring him along. Oh, I love dogs. They’re so much more trustworthy than people. I’m planning to get one from the animal shelter.

Amy strolled with me as I followed my pet and his high-powered nose around the lawn abutting the concrete walkway. “Did you hear the latest?” she asked, with a scowl.

“No. What’s going on?”

She flung her arm toward the building. “The Americana’s being sold. Can you believe it? The new owner’s planning to demolish it and put up one of those big, ugly mansions.”

In place of the big, ugly apartment building. I kept that one to myself.

“So it’s a done deal?” I asked.

“I don’t think it’s done done,” she said, “but close enough. No idea when it’s going to become official.”

I watched SB investigate a crepe myrtle before finally deciding it was worthy of his attention. He lifted his leg. “What will happen to all the people living here?”

“Precisely!” she said. “Some of them have been here for decades. Martha Eklund in One-D has lived here since the place was built fifty-one years ago. She barely squeaks by on Social Security. She has no family to take her in. Where will she go?”

“It’s not like there are any other rental apartments in Crystal Harbor,” I said.

“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” Amy said. “The Town Council would just love to see this place torn down. Those rich so-and-sos think anyone who has to rent an apartment is someone they don’t want in their precious community. Let me amend that. They don’t want them living in their precious community. They’re perfectly happy to have the riffraff commute an hour and a half from someplace else to mow their lawns and scrub their toilets.”

I happened to know that Sophie Halperin, Crystal Harbor’s mayor and my best friend, didn’t share those snobbish views, but I wasn’t prepared to get into it just then. I had to hurry things along if I didn’t want to be late for my six-o’clock meeting. Isn’t there some saying about having one chance to make a good first impression?

The cigar smoker was still on the roof. Probably didn’t want to stink up his own apartment, or was under his spouse’s strict orders not to. But then why not come downstairs and step outside onto the grass? There were even a couple of benches. He could chat with his neighbors going into and out of the building. That had to be more pleasant than a solitary smoke on the roof of an aging four-story apartment house.

I checked my watch: 5:57. Time to get a move on.

I returned Sexy Beast to his tote, hefted it onto my shoulder, and was about to excuse myself, but Amy was on a roll. “And it’s the same for so many of the folks here, particularly the older ones. I mean, I’ll do okay. I’ve saved enough for a down payment on a nice condo, and my credit is good. But most of the others, well, they’ll be in trouble. I assume they’ll receive some sort of relocation allowance, but how far will that go?” Her expressive features told me how worried she was for them.

I started to move toward the entrance to the building. “I’ll see what I can find out from Mayor Sophie. She always seems to know everything that’s going on in town.”

Her face lit up. “Oh, that’s right. You two are close. Maybe you can exert a little influence.” She offered a crooked smile. “Or a lot.”

“Believe me, I’ll try. I’d hate to see—”

A shrill scream interrupted my words. The three of us (yes, I’m including Sexy Beast in that count) turned toward the sound and watched in horror as the cigar smoker plummeted off the roof, along with a section of the railing.

Amy and I screamed, too, and averted our eyes as the poor fellow landed on the building’s concrete frontage with a sickening thud.

No, not a fellow, I belatedly realized. That scream had been decidedly feminine.

That didn’t just happen. It couldn’t have happened.

Amy was groaning, “No, no, no…God, no…”

Sexy Beast was whining and barking in turns, climbing out of the tote to cling to me. He didn’t need to comprehend the specifics to know his alpha female was in distress. Protecting me was job one.

A few residents drifted out of the building in response to the screams, only to recoil as they took in the tragic scene.

Amy was shaking so hard, she could barely tap 911 on her phone. As she spoke with the dispatcher, I secured SB in a firm football hold and forced myself to approach the motionless body lying faceup on the concrete. A four-foot length of the roof’s metal railing lay nearby. So did the still-smoldering cigar.

Four stories was a long way to fall, but I’d heard of people surviving falls from similar heights. Even before I knelt to feel for a pulse, however, it was clear she hadn’t been one of the lucky ones.

The poor thing was so young. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five or so. I rose and rejoined Amy.

“They’re on the way,” she said, her voice quavering. Shaking her head in disbelief, she turned away from the sight of her neighbor’s broken body. “Poor Scarlett.”

My gaze snapped to her face. “Scarlett Proctor?”

“Yes. Did you know her?”

“No, we only spoke on the phone,” I said. “She’s the one I was supposed to meet with.”


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