Johanna knelt on the floor and opened her duffel bag. One hand passed over the hood and the respirator. No need for them today. She pulled out a protective suit and gloves for working with blood products in the age of AIDS--even the blood of children, nuns and other virgins. Her employer had given her the basic vocabulary of the job: fluids and solids and hazardous waste, though she had never seen the common debris of brains and shattered bone, feces and urine as anything but human remains. She had also been encouraged to remove photographs of the victim before she began, and this was another trick to dehumanize the task. But Johanna never disturbed the wedding portrait on the wall, and the bride with downcast eyes continued to shyly smile at the chalk outline of her own corpse.
Johanna sponged the stains on the cream-white wall and charted a thief's progress around this room, going from drawer to pulled-out drawer. She knew where he had been standing when a policeman had barreled through the door with a drawn gun. The bullet had been pried out of the wall, but the hole remained. The thief must have had the knife in his hand, and the officer must have been very young, untried and nervous.
She filled the hole with a ready-mix plaster. A small brush and a few deft strokes of tint made it blend into the paint. Below this patch were red drops of hazardous waste from a murderer. He was wiped away with one wet rag, and, though no one would ever know, she placed it in a separate bag so the blood of the innocent woman would not mingle with his. Next, she replaced the contents spilled from the drawers, then went on to the problem of a torn lampshade and resolved it with a bit of mending tape. Last, she pulled out a hair dryer and moved it across the wet areas where she had spot-cleaned the rug, the couch and the drapes. Some of her services went beyond the job description, but she wanted the widower to find no trace of murder, no damp ghost of a stain that he might commit to memory.
No more than an hour had passed, as promised, and now the client inspected her work. She watched his fearful eyes search the wall for the bullet hole, but there was no sign of it anymore. And, by his wandering gaze, she could tell that he had forgotten the exact location of that scar in the plaster and his wife's chalk silhouette on the floor. The room seemed so normal, as though no violence had ever taken place here--and his wife had never died--so said his brief smile as he wrote out a check.
Four months ago in another city, her first crime scene had required less work, and she had been her own client on that unpaid job. The armchair had absorbed most of the FBI agent's blood, and so it had been a simple matter of furniture disposal after mopping up the puddle on the floor and the red drops spattered on the wall. In that room, death had been a drawn-out affair, for Timothy Kidd had not struggled enough to spend all his blood at once, and there had been ample time for him to be afraid.
However, that event had occurred in a previous life lived by another version of herself, though the dead man did remain with her as a constant presence, a haunt. And so it was neither odd nor coincidental to be thinking of Timothy when she emerged from the building to find an unpleasant reminder of his death.
Marvin Argus was waiting for her on the sidewalk. His trench coat flapped open in the wind, exposing a dark gray suit with a slept-in look. She guessed that he had taken the red-eye flight from Chicago to New York, and there had been no time for a change of clothes after landing, that or his fastidious grooming habits were deteriorating. Perhaps there had been some urgency in tracking her down today.
No, that was not it.
Argus had found time to carefully style his sparse brown hair so that no strand could escape the gelled fringe of bangs covering his receding hairline. The effect was juvenile and so at odds with his forty-year-old face.
From Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell, copyright © 2003 Carol O'Connell, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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