Chapter 1

I looked down at my clipboard and reviewed the information one last time. I looked up at the young couple in front of me.  The blonde wife clutched her husband’s hand. The husband grimaced, whether in anticipation of my coming report or because his wife’s grip on his hand was cutting off circulation to his fingers, I couldn’t tell. The wife had pretty well developed biceps. She looked like she spent a lot of time with her personal trainer.

“Mr. and Mrs. Guilfoyle,” I said. “I have completed my appraisal of your property. By my estimate, your house is worth six-fifty.”

“Oh,” Mr. Guilfoyle said, “That’s not too bad. Six hundred and fifty thousand is a lot of money. I mean we’re still underwater but…”

I shook my head. “No. I’m afraid you don’t understand. When I said six-fifty I meant six dollars and fifty cents.”

Mr. Guilfoyle’s shoulders sagged. His wife tightened her grip on his hand and started to cry. I thought I heard a finger snap, but it was hard to tell with all the sobbing. Mr. Guilfoyle looked like he might pass out.

“Six dollars…” he stammered. “But we paid eight hundred and fifty thousand…”

I shrugged. “What can I say? The market has tanked. If it’s any consolation, a lot of people are in your position.”

“How?” Mrs. Guilfoyle wailed. “How is it possible that our house is worth less than a McDonald’s value meal?”

“Well,” I replied. “The house is made of tongue depressors held together with Elmer’s glue. The walls are construction paper. And the stucco on the exterior? That’s paper mâchè. This place was put together with materials available to your average fourth grader. This sort of cost cutting happens every time there’s a real estate boom. Your case is pretty extreme, though.”

“God dammit Linda,” Mr. Guilfolye said, pulling his hand free from his wife’s grasp with a great deal of difficulty. “I told you. I told you the builder looked awfully young, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“I thought he was a little person,” Linda said through her tears. “I didn’t want to be rude.”

“Children are little people!” Mr. Guilfoyle screamed.

“You know what I mean, you insensitive jerk! I just didn’t want you to make another racist comment about dwarves, like you did at the Christmas party. “

“Dwarves aren’t a race!” Mr. Guilfoyle said. “I swear to God, Linda I regret getting you that World of Warcraft subscription almost as much as I regret letting you talk me in to buying this house.”

I cleared my throat. “Mr. and Mrs. Guilfoyle, I can see you’re having a private moment here, so if you could just pay me my fee, I’ll get out of your hair.”

They both turned and looked at me with murder in their eyes.

Mr. Guilfoyle said, “How exactly are we supposed to pay you? We have nothing! Our equity is gone and we’re in debt up to our eyeballs!”

“That’s a nice Beamer you’ve got in the driveway,” I said. “Perhaps you could take out a title loan?”

With an ear-piercing shriek, Linda Guilfoyle launched herself across the room, her face a hideous mask of pain and rage. I stumbled backwards, tripping over my own untied shoelace. Mrs. Guilfoyle passed right over me, crashing though a plate glass window. Well, she crashed through what would have been a plate glass window in a house that hadn’t been built by greedy kids out to make a quick buck during a real estate boom. Instead, she crashed through a wall of Saran wrap, spun around a few times, and collapsed on the deck, thrashing and wailing. I quickly ducked outside and made my escape while her husband knelt over her, trying to claw a hole in the plastic wrap so his wife could breathe.

As I made my way to my beat up Toyota Corolla, I kicked myself for not having my phone ready so I could have recorded Mrs. Guilfoyle’s little misadventure. That sort of thing was YouTube gold, and my YouTube channel could have used the traffic. Embedded ads were pretty much my only steady source of income these days. Now that no one was buying real estate, real estate appraisers weren’t much in demand, and the jobs I did get usually ended with someone’s face contorting into a hideous mask of pain and rage, just like this one had. People rarely paid their bills once you told them that they didn’t have any of the money they thought they did. People are funny like that.

I jumped into the car and headed back to my office. While my office wasn’t in a great part of town or even a semi-decent part of town, it did have its charms. It was cheap, and it was in a building that had been built back when buildings were built by adults who used proper materials. When you jumped through a window in my office you didn’t end up suffocating in plastic wrap. You got cut to ribbons by glass. You also fell three stories onto the street because my office was on the third floor of a four-story walkup. I shared the third floor with two other tenants. Alexandra Blavatsky was a psychic and occultist. At least that’s what it said on her door.  Rex Hardman was a private investigator. At least that’s what it said on his door. If you asked me, Alexandra was a con artist and Rex was an alcoholic, but they probably would have gotten even less business than they did now if they started being honest. And I wasn’t in a position to judge. It wasn’t like I was planning on changing my door to read “community college dropout” anytime soon.

I threw open my office door and walked in, careful not to trip on the loose floorboard I’d been trying to get the landlord to fix since I’d signed the lease. I flipped the light switch, and the ancient sixty-watt bulb mounted in the ceiling fan sputtered to life. The fan began to rotate slowly, stirring the stale air.

Kitty looked up from her desk and then went back to what she had been doing, which was killing a mouse. Kitty is a cat; a tabby, and the star of my YouTube channel. She is not to be confused with Kitty, my secretary. Kitty, my secretary, who I had taken to calling Kitty 2, was nowhere to be seen. I could hear her though. The walls were paper thin. She was over in Rex’s office. She had a thing for Rex.

I pounded on the wall. “Kitty 2,” I said. “Your secretarial skills are needed.”

“Keep your pants on,” she yelled.

“Try saying that to Rex sometime,” I replied.

“I’m right here, you know,” Rex said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know. How’s it going Rex?”

“Not too great,” Rex replied. “If a hot dame doesn’t come through my door soon, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

“What am I, chopped liver?” I heard Kitty 2 ask.

“A hot dame with a case, doll,” Rex replied. “You know what I meant. Now scoot on outta here.  I’m two drinks behind where I usually am by this time on a Tuesday morning.”

I thrust my hands in my pockets and whistled a tune while I waited for Kitty 2 to come down the hall. After a couple of minutes she walked in, still smoothing out her skirt. She went around behind the desk and stared in horror at the eviscerated mouse Kitty had left for her.

“I swear to God, that cat…”

“It’s a gift. Kitty likes you.”

“Well I don’t like Kitty, and I don’t see why you can’t just rename her instead of calling me Kitty 2. It’s not like she comes when you call her.”

“She was Kitty first, so it’s only fair that she gets to keep the name.”

“That’s only true if she was born before 1982,” Kitty 2 replied.

“You know what I mean,” I said. “She was the first Kitty in this office. And besides, Kitty is a very good name for a cat.  Why don’t you change your name? How about Diane? Denise maybe? Something with a D.”

Kitty 2 stomped her foot. “Kitty’s not a good name for a cat. It’s just a description. Naming a cat Kitty is like naming a baby Baby. Kitty’s what it says on my birth certificate, and that’s the name I’m going to use. I swear to God, if the economy wasn’t so bad right now…”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know how you feel.”

Kitty 2 used a file folder to push the dead mouse off her desk onto the floor and sat at her desk.

“Make sure you get rid of that mouse corpse before it starts to smell in here again,” I said.

“The stench of death beats the smell of that cheap perfume our last client left, any day,” Kitty 2 replied.

“That might be true, but I still want the mouse gone,” I said.

“How’d the job go?” she asked.

“About like usual.”

“Someone’s face contorted into a hideous mask of pain and rage and you didn’t get paid?”

“Yup.”

Kitty 2’s shoulders slumped. “We better hope this message you got is legit.”

“Oh well, I guess I’ll go follow Kitty around with my phone…” I stopped mid-sentence. “Did you say I have a message?”

Kitty 2 nodded.

“It’s not from my mom, is it?”

Kitty 2 shook her head.

“Bill collector?”

Kitty 2 shook her head again.

“Ex-girlfriend?”

“You had a girlfriend at some point?” Kitty 2 asked.

“Just give me the message Kitty 2,” I said.

Kitty 2 picked up a scrap of paper and started to read. “A Mr. Barnabas Ephraim Waite called. He said he represented a consortium of investors who specialize in very distressed properties and they’re looking for someone to appraise a potential purchase for them.”

“A consortium?” I said. “That’s promising. A consortium sounds more likely to pay their bills than a group or a bunch, don’t you think?”

Kitty 2 shrugged. “I can’t even spell consortium.”

“Did this guy leave a number?”

“No,” Kitty 2 said. “He left an address, though, and he said you should come as soon as you can.”

I snatched the scrap of paper from Kitty 2’s hand and headed for the door.

“You stay here and keep an eye on Kitty,” I said. “If you think she’s going to do something amusing, for God’s sake get it on camera.”

“Whatever you say, boss,” Kitty 2 said.

I was in such a hurry going down the steps that I didn’t see the beautiful woman walking up them until I had bumped into her. I stepped back and looked her over. She had a set of breasts on her chest, and red hair growing from her scalp. And her legs. Well, her legs went all the way up to her waist, where they stopped.

“Are you looking for Rex Hardman?” I asked.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Lucky guess,” I said.

“Am I in the right place?”

“Yeah. Third floor. Second door on your left.”

“Thanks,” she said, and started to walk away.

“Hey,” I said. “Can you do me a favor?”

“What is it?”

“When you get to the top of the stairs you’ll see a door marked ‘Real Estate Appraiser.’ Just walk in and ask for Rex.”

“Why?” the woman asked.

“It’s my office. My secretary has a thing for Rex, though. So she’ll be really jealous if she knows a beautiful woman like you is in there with him.”

The woman smirked. It was a very impressive smirk. “You’re a wicked man. You know that?”

“Lady,” I said. “I appraise real estate.”

The woman continued up the stairs. I pulled out my phone and called Hardman’s office.

“Rex Hardman.”

“Hey Rex, it’s me,” I said. “There’s a redhead headed your way. I have no idea who’s been murdered, but she did it.”

Rex laughed. “Thanks for the head’s up.”

I hung up, bounded down the stairs and jumped in my Corolla. I had an appointment. And hopefully a paying job.