Chapter One

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The Princess was dead. Though I'd imagined her getting killed in a variety of ways—most with my thumbs jammed against her skinny windpipe—nothing I dreamed up involved so much blood. I'm judgmental, not homicidal.

But seeing the real deal lying under my desk, I was inclined to think that even the Princess didn't deserve to ooze out her life's blood on my dirty carpet. I worked in a musty basement next to the bathrooms, but I didn't plan to die there. The Princess wasn't so lucky.

But Officer Hansen didn't care about that. We sat in his patrol car in the parking lot behind the brokerage firm where the Princess and I worked. I took up most of the back seat, which probably listed to the side, my side. Hansen wanted to know what happened, from beginning to end.

"She was dead, you see," I told him. "The scissors poked straight between the middle of her shoulder blades, and the blood, her blood soaked the carpet."

His eyes the color of cornflowers and his stiff manner put me in mind of my stepfather, the Swede. Not that I smiled. I don't like the Swede.

Hansen wanted to interview me in my boss' cushy leather office, but I couldn't bear to go back into the building. I tried, but my voice became incoherent each time the tears started running down my cheeks.

The police cruiser faced away from the building toward the mounds of early April snow. When I'd climbed into the car, Hansen had been standing outside talking to another officer, so he didn't hear the springs squeak.

Thank goodness I hadn't caught the cruiser's door on the curb, as I sometimes did when I got into my own car. That was humiliating enough when I was alone. I didn't need Officer Blue Eyes to notice and feel sorry for me. Bad enough that I took up so much of the back seat.

Hansen used the other passenger door to get in next to me. I assumed he'd simply lean across the front seat to talk to me, but the wire mesh between front and back didn't make that practical.

His clipboard in one hand, Hansen took a pen out of his top right pocket. Clearly, I was supposed to say something. The only fact that came to mind was that the shocks on my side of the cruiser were getting a workout.

After getting no response from me, Hansen flipped the pen back and forth in his right hand and asked me to tell him everything that happened that morning.

I started with my name. On purpose, I stared at my sensible black pumps and prayed that he wasn't an old movie buff. I'm named for a movie star. Not Sharon Stone or Uma Thurman. An old movie star. Hell, a movie goddess. I'm self-conscious telling people my name because I look nothing like a movie star. The movie star's schlumpy cook, maybe, or her whip-smart secretary, but not the goddess herself.

"I'm Paulette Goddard," I said.

No reaction. Good. On the really bad days, they ask me if I'm related to the movie star. As if the apple would fall that far from the goddess tree.

Since I'd caught a break, I owed Hansen some answers.

"I start work at eight o'clock," I said. "Everyone else wanders in around nine or so. That's why they gave me a key. First, I open the back door." I twisted in the seat and waved my hand toward the building.

The one-story red brick building where I worked as a temp appeared the same as always—a typical ranch house. The back door even had a white metal screen door like my mother's house. The only difference was that our ranch house—er, brokerage firm—had a paved lot behind it and parking for twelve cars.

Officer Hansen wrote on the clipboard. I waited until he glanced up to continue.

"Then I turn on all the lights and make coffee. Everybody here drinks coffee."

Hansen nodded and gestured toward the extra-large safety mug propped up next to him. Norwegians sure like their coffee.

But Hansen's people must have lost their way once the boat left Norway because Rockford, Illinois, my hometown, is predominantly Swedish with tiny Italian and Irish enclaves.

I made the pot of coffee, and I went downstairs to my desk. Word-processing, I told him. I left out the part about the database, sales letters, and placing the odd market order.

"That's when I found her," I said. "I got to the bottom of the stairs before I saw the brown stain on the carpet."

Without warning, the tears started again. I hoped the storm would blow over quickly, but soon I sobbed as if I'd discovered my best friend lying at the bottom of the stairs instead of the Princess. Deborah Alston was a lot of things, including dead, but she was never my friend.

Hansen handed me a white cotton handkerchief from his pocket. They taught Norski boys right—my stepfather always had one in his pocket, too, which my mother ironed.

Though I tried to stop crying, soon Hansen's handkerchief was wringing wet. Crying like a baby at the sight of dried blood didn't mesh with my tough-chick persona. What if one of my co-workers saw me? One peek at my pudgy, tear-streaked face and the tough girl act was over.

In a quieter voice, Hansen asked again about the position of the body, and if I'd touched anything. I told him everything I could remember, but it didn't seem like a memory at all. A memory is of something that happened to you. This was a nightmare that happened to somebody else.

After I discovered the body, everything went blank until I stood stammering at the Wendy's counter next door and told them to call the police.

The counter girl remembered the time exactly, she said, because the latest Paul Harvey-clone had just finished on the radio located beside the time clock, and she'd arrived late to punch in. The manager said it couldn't have been later than 8:45.

Officer Hansen told me this, after he'd okayed the information with his sergeant because they wanted me to verify when I'd arrived. I said that I thought it was five after eight or so when I unlocked the back door. I chuckled to cover my embarrassment. Since there wasn't a time clock at the brokerage firm and nobody else came in until 9 a.m., I never worried about sliding in five or ten minutes late. Besides, I made up any lost time at the end of the day. The brokers didn't care, and my boss at the temp agency never had to know.

Today's tardiness was different. It took ten minutes, fifteen at most, to make the coffee and hang up my coat. So what was I doing between 8:20 and 8:45? Hansen was nice, but I'd been through a murder investigation once before in my twenty-seven years, and I knew that he wanted to know if I'd had time to kill the Princess.

I told him what I remembered, and Hansen wrote everything down. From my back seat in the black and white, I rotated my head to see all the crime scene techs arrive in a van and then the coroner in her dark sedan. The few police who had first arrived on scene multiplied while I talked to Hansen.

Dozens of Rockford's finest wandered the parking lot and met each of my co-workers as they pulled in. The officers sat on the passenger side, interviewed each person, and then sent them away.

Officer Hansen tried to pull my attention away from the coroner's van when it appeared, but I couldn't follow what he said. All I could see was the covered body on the stretcher being taken to the morgue. Death kindly stopped in my vicinity again. And on a Wednesday yet.

Soon after answering all of Blue Eye's questions and taking a bathroom break at Wendy's, I asked to go home. Hansen couldn't release me, he said, until I'd talked with the sergeant. The sergeant said that maybe I could go after lunch. For lunch, Hansen brought me some biggie fries for my biggie self, but I ate only two or three. At 3:30, Hansen suggested that I try and catch some z's in the back seat until the sergeant got back. At 5 p.m., the sergeant told me he was waiting for the lieutenant. The lieutenant, it seemed, wanted to talk to me himself before they let me go.

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