Guest rooms were always hiding things. No one starts out wanting a guest room. It’s usually an office first, but then you got fired and can’t look at it anymore, so you throw a bed in it that you’ll never sleep in. Sometimes it’s a kid’s room, but they’ve moved out into a college dorm room. It used to be storage but then the divorce happened leaving it depressingly empty. A studio for recording music but the bass player was in a car accident, and the band broke up.
Guest rooms are rarely ever intentional. It’s more of a ritual. Something society has deemed necessary. The presumption that someone wants to stay with you and your new husband. The poor friend grits their teeth trying to pretend they can’t hear you having sex, trying to make the stiff pillows into something they actually want to lay on, trying to breathe through the Yankee Candle Vanilla Wafer air freshener that’s plugged into the wall. The window sticks after an inch and they can’t get it up all the way. They unplug it after everyone is asleep, but the smell has been cloistered in the room for so long that it will never smell like anything else. They put the pillow on top of their face and try to sleep.
I stood in the doorway to this guest room without entering it. Untouched rooms give you answers. They offer secrets. This one had last been occupied by a dead girl, lying face down in a pool of blood.
I found out about the case through the police.
That never happened.
We didn’t get along.
“Yeah?” I barked into phone, a landline I had installed myself. Cell phones bothered me.
“Is this Alma?” It was Detective Herbert Ross. He knew it was me.
“What’d’ya want?” I said, trapping the phone between my ear and shoulder as I took a kettle of hot water off the stove and poured it in my favorite chipped mug with my favorite raspberry tea. If this was about the parking tickets I’d never paid, I still wasn’t going to pay them. If this was to call me in about the robbery I solved before them, I wasn’t going to tell them how I did it.
“A girl’s dead.”
I set the kettle down a little too hard. Hot water sloshed around inside. I stared at the swirling steam coming up from the cup. I wouldn’t be able to drink it now and I frowned. The cops never called for my help. I usually embarrassed them by figuring their cases out for them. As a PI, it was rare to get a call like this.
“You need me?”
“Yeah. Can you come?”
I hesitated for only a moment.
“Yeah. What’s the address?”
“325 111th Ave, Blaine.”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.” I hung up and reached for the tea, hoping I could snag one sip, burnt tongue be damned.
The tea bag had broken.
Blaine was a little forgotten neighborhood thirty minutes from Minneapolis where I lived. The town used to be nice and neighborly where kids biked until dark and people shoveled driveways for the elderly. Now it was dirty. Every house had this gray dinginess to it, like everyone had collectively decided one year to stop taking care of things. Lawns were overgrown, cars were rusting away, big lilac bushes and weeping willows were being taken out or cut down.
It was like an anti-Homeowners Association. Uglifying until everything was up to code.
I showed up to the house where only one police car remained. There was yellow tape in front of the door. A crowd of people stood a few feet away, muttering. I looked the crowd over quickly, but no one stood out.
I lifted the tape and went into the house. Herbert was standing right inside, apparently waiting for me.
“Body has already been taken.” He grunted.
“That’s fine.” I didn’t get much from dead bodies. I knew Herbert would tell me anything I needed to know because he had called me. Still, this was awkward. We both were uncomfortable, and it was obvious by how we refused to make eye contact, our hands shoved in our pockets.
“Husband found her face-down in the guest room. Stabbed multiple times. Said the doors were all locked, no sign of forced entry.”
“You ask the neighbors if anyone was skulking around?”
Herbert nodded. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Seems like everyone keeps to themselves.”
“What did she do?”
“The victim. What did she do for work?”
“Oh. Her names Noelle Sharp.”
“The writer?” I asked, bewildered. She was known for gritty romance novels-turned deadly. Not my thing, but I knew her name.
“I didn’t know she lived here.”
He nodded again. “They moved here a few years ago.”
Herbert shrugged. “Husband – names Magnus -- works for a painting company. She seems to make more dough.”
“Where is he?”
“Already down at the station. Guy’s pretty numb. Won’t say much.”
“Yeah, well. His wife was murdered.”
I wondered if Magnus had convinced Noelle to move here. If he had done that thing that men do when they feel like their wife – or any woman really – was doing better than them, so he tried to put her in a box, make her talents and abilities small and manageable. Easy to swallow. How many shouting matches had they been through before Noelle had conceded to move into this shitbox in the middle of shitsville.
“Can I have a few minutes?” I asked.
I surveyed the entrance area. Stairs right in front of us leading down into a dark, wet-smelling basement; a tiny hall leading into a kitchen. Living room to the left, dining room to the right. I gave the first floor a once over. Dirty dishes in the sink, magazines on the coffee table. The trash was empty. No bag. I went up the stairs and found the main bedroom, bathroom, and the guest room.
In the middle of the guest room was a huge blood stain. It was flecked around the room, on the walls, on the bed. The stain was dark against the gray of the carpet. I surveyed the room. One bed, one desk with a small lamp and wooden chair, one plush armchair near the window, overhead light fixture/fan. There was a closet, and a nearly empty bookcase, short and pudgy – maybe something that one of them had been dragging around for years, couldn’t bear to get rid of. Some furniture held onto you. I walked in and thought about the room. The carpet was gray, the walls were white, but it was an off-white. It was like the white had been darkened by something. I sat down in the armchair and looked around, pretended I was staying there. I went over and turned the light on. The fan spun slowly above me. I sat back down in the armchair and looked some more.
I realized; it had been blue. The walls had been blue, but they had been poorly painted over, once, in a hurry. I got up from the chair and went over to the closet.
Inside there was a plastic bin full of wrapping paper. There was a broken vacuum, a box of empty bags to be used for gifts, and a stack of towels and blankets. For guests. I reached out and touched the unused things, linens that had never been unfolded.
So, no guests.
Or maybe guests slept on the couch and this room, like many guest rooms, was useless.
I leant down at the carpet in the closet. I took a small pair of scissors I kept on me and cut off some of the carpet threads, slipping them in my pocket.
I sat on the bed and it dipped, like it was trying to swallow me. The room smelt of dust and the duvet was covered in butterflies.
I lay down and stared up at the ceiling. What was missing in this room?
And then I bolted upright and stared at the blank walls and realized, there was less dust in a few places, sections where things had been removed. Pictures. There were no pictures.
Herbert was standing outside, trying to get the crowd to leave.
I stormed out. “Are you sure this wasn’t a robbery?” I asked.
Hebert looked over his shoulder, annoyance on his face at my outburst. It made the dispersing crowd turn, new interest compelling them to stay.
“Nothing has been taken.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“You don’t think – just maybe – he’s a little fragile at the moment?”
Herbert shrugged. “I’ll have him do another walkthrough.”
I told him I was going to need to come back to the house again. I needed to think. He told me to call him first before he did. We both knew I wouldn’t.
I looked up Noelle Sharp on the internet. I found relatives and close friends and I called and talked to them. Everyone had lovely things to say. I asked about her writing and her hobbies. When I brought up the husband, people also had nothing but good things to say. The mother was the only one who sputtered on and on about how that low life tricked my daughter into marrying him, worthless career, no family money, she could’ve married a Rockefeller.
I didn’t tell her Rockefellers didn’t spend time in Minnesota.
I found their bank information, social media accounts, insurance. He had taken her name. Previously had been Magnus Brown. He had a brother named Leonard.
I called and talked to some more people and asked if they ever had parties. Who were the best friends? Who stayed in that guest room?
No one had much to say. There had been a housewarming party but never another party after that. I called Leonard and asked him about Magnus and Noelle. Leonard was still shocked about Noelle’s murder, kept going on and on about how Magnus adored her.
“Noelle was such a sweet girl. She was so kind to everyone, great cook. I never read her books, but I knew she was good. Magnus just loved her.”
I told him to call me if he thought of anything else.
I could see from their joint bank account that there was money trouble. There always was.
I carefully read through credit card statements, but nothing interesting sprung out. Not even a transaction from a dirty website.
I sat by the window in my apartment smoking until daylight.
I waited a few days before going back to the crime scene. I called Herbert on the way to the house and he told me basic things that I could’ve guessed. “Death due to blood loss, internal injuries, no fingerprints on the knife or around the house. Doors locked, nothing broken. Husband staying with a friend.”
“Husband’s alibi checks out?”
“Yeah, he was painting a town over, I have the address.”
“I’ll take it.” I said.
I could hear the frown over the phone. “I already cleared it with the homeowner.”
“You called me.” I said with a shrug that I knew he could hear.
He rattled off the address and I wrote it on a Walgreens receipt.
I stopped at a Home Depot and stood in front of the paint chip wall. I stared at the colors, the Veri Berri purple and Derbyshire green. I took out the carpet clippings and held them up over the grays.
The carpet color was Rock Candy.
I was at a shabby, buttercup-yellow, run-down house that had not been painted in a long time.
An old man in an old red sweater answered the door. He was hard of hearing and his eyes were swallowed up so far into his face that I figured he couldn’t see well either. I told who I was, Alma Savage, Private Investigator, and asked if he had made an appointment to have his house painted. He talked about how this nice fellow had painted his house, how they had drunk beer and talked about baseball. I was confused for only a moment before a young woman with a pixie face and curly hair interrupted us.
“My father has Alzheimer’s.” She explained. “The house was painted a long time ago.”
I asked her if either of them had talked to the police. She looked confused. The old man had been the one on the phone with Herbert.
I parked in front of the Sharp house and called people again and asked them to tell me things they remembered about Noelle and Magnus. Memories were precious and often wrong, but sometimes they were the only clues one had to go on.
Cathy Green was Noelle’s best friend. She hadn’t been able to talk to me the first time I called. Now she was somber, and her voice wobbled, but she talked to me.
“I had dinner with them every month. Magnus cooked the best meals.”
“Magnus.” I repeated. “What about Noelle?”
“Nope. Noelle didn’t like cooking. Whenever we were alone, we always ate out.”
Cathy kept talking, clearly happy to have someone to talk to. “They wanted kids so bad, but Noelle had a miscarriage and they never tried again. Magnus couldn’t bear it. Had a vasectomy.”
I asked her when this happened. She said four or five years ago. I hung up and went back into the house, walking into the guest room and staring at it, realizing it was perfect size for a nursery.
The Schooner Blue walls that had been painted over with Acadia White.
The missing pictures.
Rock Candy carpet.
I lay on the couch in the living room and determined it was too uncomfortable for someone to sleep on overnight. No one stayed with the Sharps.
I called Herbert, still lying on the lumpy couch. “I need you to check something for me.”
“Yes. I need you to tell me if she was pregnant.”
“I’ll call you back.”
I went into the main bedroom and looked over the dresser, where receipts and change and dollar bills and earrings lay. I looked in their closet at all of Noelle’s comfortable writing clothes and Magnus’ paint-covered clothes.
I found photo albums and thumbed through them. Nothing but happy smiles. I looked for medication in the bathroom – nothing.
I dug into drawers and looked through cabinets.
Finally, in the garage, I found boxes – unlabeled. I knew it was what I was looking for.
I opened them. There were seven boxes, none matching, all different sizes. Each one had bright pink or bright blue toys, blankets, onesies, pacifiers. Each one contained a cross-stitched rectangle, homemade.
Maisey, Cooper, Rachel, Kevin.
There were photos of the finished rooms. Walls different each time. Pinks named Azalea Flower, Teaberry; blues named Gentle Aquamarine and Breathtaking.
I looked down at the boxes, at all the attempts. All the miscarriages. Cathy Green didn’t know about this. Her best friend status was weak, watered down because Noelle was too broken, or embarrassed, or just didn’t think it was anyone’s business. No one slept on the couch. No one slept in the guest room.
I surveyed the rest of the garage, and saw some large framed photos shoved in the corner, behind a lawnmower that was covered with a tarp. I went over and pushed the lawnmower away. They were prints of Noelle’s book covers. The missing pictures. And there was a bloody thumbprint on the edge of one, her third book, Dangerous Illusion.
My phone rang. I answered it, hands shaking. “Was she?” I asked, throat dry.
“She was pregnant.”
“Fuck.” I muttered.
“Magnus had a vasectomy a few years ago.”
“We’ll confirm that on our end.”
“And if you do?” I asked.
We both knew the answer. If he’d had the operation, it meant Noelle had cheated.
It was motive.
I found Leonard’s apartment the next day. When he opened the door, he was in a wrinkled t-shirt and boxers. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. His eyes were red, and his hair was unkempt.
I told him who I was, and he let me in. He gave me a beer. It was warm. I chugged half of it in one gulp.
When I swallowed, I asked, “So how long were you sleeping with her?”
Leonard pretended to look confused. I waited. Then, after four and half minutes of silence, he put his face in his hands and started crying.
“I loved her. So much. Magnus was always complaining and I – she would come over and vent, and we’d drink, and – we never meant to – ”
“Noelle was pregnant.” I told him.
His teary eyes grew smaller, beadier.
“Noelle had found out, that day.” I pushed on. “She left the pregnancy test in the trash and Magnus found it. You know he had a vasectomy – ” I didn’t wait for him to confirm. “ – Noelle was in the guest room, looking at the nursery she never got, hoping it would work this time. It could be you. And Magnus found her, killed her, and took down the photos of her books, couldn’t bear to see them, all her accomplishments. She had money, her name meant something, and now his own brother was fucking his wife.”
“How did you know that…that we – ”
“Magnus isn’t staying with you; he’s staying with a friend. He hates you.”
“No.” He choked out, shaking his head like that would shake the words out.
“She only cooked for you. When she came over here to vent and drink and fuck, she’d cook for you. She never did that with him.”
“What do I do?” He asked, drowning in how much he hated himself.
I looked around the drab apartment before turning my eyes back to him, shrugging. “Ever thought about painting the place?”