Fixing to Die - Chapter 1

Elaine Viets: A mystery for every mood


Chapter 1

“Wait till you see the living room,” the real estate agent said. “It’s amazing.”

So far, Josie Marcus thought, the only amazing thing about this house was the paint color: gray. Not a soft, sophisticated gray. Damp basement gray. Concrete gray.

Sally Redding Rutherford, the real estate agent, called the grim gray entrance hall “cozy.” Josie had looked at enough homes to translate real estate lingo. “Cozy” meant coffin-sized. There was barely room for her and Sally in the entrance. Josie felt like she was stuck in an upright burial vault.

Sally struggled to turn this dismal introduction into a sales plus. “Gray is chic again.”

“It’s like being trapped in a permanent rainy day,” Josie said. 

“Don’t let that color fool you,” Sally said. “The right paint and a nice mirror will transform this entrance into a real showcase.”

Sally was small, blond, and muscular with a perpetually perky smile. Josie thought she must have been a cheerleader for a hopeless high school team, the way she relentlessly cheered one loser after another. Sally had shown her so many dogs, Josie felt like she was at the Humane Society. 

The agent’s footsteps echoed in the empty house. “Now here’s the living room.” Josie heard the flourish in Sally’s voice.

That room was gray, too – from the floor to the fog-colored ceiling.

“Well?” Sally asked.

“Uh, the floor’s gray concrete,” Josie said.

“That’s right,” Sally said proudly. “Concrete flooring is stylish, smart and tough. You’ll only have to wax it every six to nine months, depending on the level of traffic.”

“It’s just my husband, my twelve-year-old daughter, a Lab, and two cats,” Josie said.

“Excellent. Pet claws won’t scratch the surface,” Sally said. “And look at that fireplace!”

It was gray slate with steel fireplace tools – a shovel, a brush and a poker.

“You won’t find a feature like that in a —”

If Sally says “starter house” one more time, I’m going to brain her with that poker, Josie thought.  She’s said it six times since we parked in the driveway.

“– starter house,” Sally finished.

Josie’s fingers twitched. The poker was in reach. A jury of house hunters would never convict her.

Instead, she got a grip on herself.  What’s wrong with you? she asked herself. Sally is a hardworking divorcee. You were single long enough to know it’s a tough world.

“The dining room is taupe,” Sally said.

More gray, Josie thought. But she saw bright spots of red in the chandelier, the only color so far in the house, except for Sally’s pink pantsuit.

“The owner wants to take the chandelier,” Sally said. “It’s Southwest style and he had it custom-made.”

Josie fought back a giggle. The spiky wrought-iron chandelier was trimmed with polished cow horns and long red plastic peppers. She wished Ted was there to see the chandelier. Or her best friend, Alyce.

“It’s amazing,” Josie said, truthfully. “But I don’t think this is the house for us.”

“But the seller is motivated,” Sally said.

That means “desperate,” Josie thought.

“And it’s in Maplewood. You said you wanted a starter house in Maplewood.”

That was the eighth time she said “starter house.”

“Sally, you’re doing a good job,” Josie said. “But I’ve seen six houses so far today and I don’t love any of them. I’ve been scouting houses every day for three weeks and I haven’t seen one I thought Ted would want to see, much less live in.”

“Josie, honey, you’ve given me so many restrictions,” Sally said. “You don’t want to buy a foreclosure.”

“This is our first house,” Josie said. “I don’t want someone else’s misery.”

“You insist that the house be either in Maplewood or nearby Rock Road Village,” Sally said. “St. Louis County is huge – more than five hundred square miles, Josie. That leaves out so many good locations. There are darling, affordable houses in Manchester, Ballwin and Crestwood. Your daughter, Amelia, goes to a private school, so you don’t have to worry about finding a house in a good school district.”

“Ted spends long hours at his veterinary clinic in Rock Road Village,” Josie said. “I don’t want to add a commute to his already long day. When he’s on call for after-hours emergencies, he has to be at the clinic in minutes.”

“I understand,” Sally said. “You’re doing what any good wife would do, trying to find the perfect home for your family. Are you sure you don’t want to see the kitchen? Or the master bath? It has a sunken tub.” She said this as if she was offering Josie a tempting treat.

“No, let’s call it a day,” Josie said, and managed a lopsided smile. “Take me back to my car, please.”

“I will,” Sally said. “But promise me you’ll think about some of those properties I showed you. What about that cute fixer-upper? It’s convenient to transportation, like you wanted.”

“It needed a gut rehab,” Josie said, “and was located between a highway ramp and the railroad tracks.”

“Trains sound so romantic,” Sally said.

“Not coming through the living room,” Josie said. “When that freight train roared by, the plates rattled in the kitchen.”

Sally locked the charcoal front door and put the key back in the lockbox.  The late afternoon was pleasantly warm for early January. Sally unlocked her silver Chevy Impala and Josie sank gratefully into the passenger seat.

Why do I feel so exhausted? she wondered.  All I did was look at houses.

The real estate agent started her car and revved up her sales pitch. “What about that sweet split-level with the country kitchen?” she asked. “The one we saw yesterday?”

“Ten minutes in that kitchen and I had nightmares that I was pursued by ducks with yellow ribbons around their necks,” Josie said.

“It’s just wallpaper. You can make those ducks go away,” Sally said, flapping her fingers.

“Not from my mind,” Josie said.

“You said the executive home near Brentwood Boulevard was gorgeous,” Sally said.

“It was,” Josie said. “It was also too big and too expensive.” 

“What was wrong with the charming rambler with the green shutters?” Sally asked. “It had a big sunny lot.”

“Sunny! So’s the Sahara,” Josie said. “Nothing grew in that yard, not even grass.”

“You’re overlooking the –” Sally said.

Potential, Josie thought, bracing herself. Sally’s going to say “potential.” I hate that term even more than “starter house.”

“– potential,” Sally finished, predictably. “Josie, honey, you look worn out.”

“You’ve got that right,” Josie said.

“Why don’t you take off a day or two? Talk over what you’ve seen with that hunky new husband of yours. Take him on a few virtual house tours online. Then kick back and spend some quality time with him. How long have you been married?”

 “Forty-four days,” Josie said.

“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Sally said. “You’re still counting the days. Think about what we’ve seen, Josie, then discuss it with Dr. Ted and Amelia. Buying a house is a family decision. You’ve been working too hard. You need some distance.”

“That’s for sure,” Josie said.

Sally sailed smoothly onto Manchester Road toward her real estate office in Rock Road Village. Rush hour traffic clogged the lanes and lines of cars were backed up at the lights.

“Meanwhile, I’ll try to come up with more fresh listings for you,” she said.

“Good idea,” Josie said. “You’re right. I need a break.”

Sally pulled into the parking lot at her office, a white clapboard building with green awnings and topiary trees beside the red door.

“House hunting is hard work,” Sally said. “People don’t understand how difficult it can be. Or how tiring.”

“I don’t know why I’m so tired,” Josie said. “You did all the driving.”

“Looking for a house is a very emotional experience,” Sally said. “That alone will tire you out. But don’t you worry. I’ll find you the perfect house.” She parked her Chevy next to Josie’s car.

“Thanks for your time, Sally,” Josie said. “I’ll think about what you said.”

“You do that,” she said and smiled. It was 5:10, and the sky was the same color as the home they’d just toured. Sally got out, shook Josie’s hand, then headed toward her office.

Josie saw the agent’s blond hair and trimly tailored suit swallowed by the red door and waved good-bye.

Josie didn’t realize this was the last time she’d ever see Sally Rutherford.