Killed by Clutter (Dell Mystery, A Domestic Bliss Mystery)

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9780440335986: Killed by Clutter (Dell Mystery, A Domestic Bliss Mystery)

At first glance, decorator Erin Gilbert fell in love with the charming little bungalow on a quiet street in Crestview, Colorado. Until she stepped inside. There, eccentric widow Helen Walker has created a maze of bric-a-brac, papers, and just plain junk that she won’t throw out. Even worse: two bizarre deaths have convinced Helen she is being stalked by a serial killer–and that any one of her nosy friends and neighbors might be to blame.

Erin has been hired to bring the home back to life–and she’s not going to back down, even when her insufferable, irresistible competitor, Steve Sullivan, barges in. But it doesn’t take long for Erin to realize that there is a method to her client’s madness. A murderer does haunt this makeover. And somewhere in the clutter is at least one thing to die for.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Leslie Caine was once taken hostage at gunpoint and finds that writing about crimes is infinitely more enjoyable than taking part in them. Leslie is a certified interior decorator and lives in Colorado with her husband, two teenage children, and a cocker spaniel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Helen Walker scowled at me from her perch on the mottled pink polyester love seat. While fidgeting with the messy bun of powder white hair that sat lopsided atop her head like a shredded pillow, she declared, "You never should have come here, Miss Gilbert. You are not wanted. I am perfectly comfortable living out here in my garage!"

"Even so, now that I'm here, why don't we just take a quick look at–"

"Come off it, Aunt Helen!" Stephanie Miller interrupted. She stood with her sturdy arms akimbo. "Be reasonable, for once!"

Helen narrowed her eyes at her niece, then smiled lovingly at the calico cat that hopped onto the cushion beside her. A second cat, a beautiful smoky gray longhair, let out a rumbling protest from its hiding spot under the car. "I am always reasonable," Helen replied. "I am simply unwilling to roll over and play dead on your behalf, Stephanie."

I hid my smile as Stephanie clicked her tongue and glared at her brother, lurking behind us. "Say something, Peter!"

Just last Friday, the two attractive and well-dressed forty-something siblings had strolled into my interior-design office and hired me on Helen Walker's behalf. At the time, they'd said nothing about their "eccentric and willful aunt" (Peter's description) having moved into her attached two-car garage, only that "the woman is the worst pack rat you'd ever want to meet. Assuming anyone would actually want to meet a hideous pack rat in the first place." (Stephanie's words.)

The deep scowl returned to Helen's delicate features as she shifted her focus to her nephew. "You're kowtowing to your sister about my house, Peter?"

"Aunt Helen," Peter began with a sigh and a hangdog demeanor, "we're only trying to do our best to watch out for your interests." He peered over his sister's shoulder, allowing Stephanie to be human Scotchgard against whatever vitriol his diminutive seventy-five-year-old aunt might hurl his way. "Miss Gilbert here has come highly recommended, and is an excellent decorator, who trained in Manhattan at–"

"I do not need help with my decorations! Christmas is three months away!"

"Peter misspoke." Stephanie sniffed. "Erin's not here to deck the halls and hang mistletoe, Aunt Helen. Erin Gilbert is an interior designer. She's going to resolve your clutter catastrophe. Furthermore, Peter and I have already hired her. So there's no need to discuss whether you think you need her or not. You do, and here she is."

"What clutter?" Helen spread her arms to indicate this carless half of her two-port garage. "As you can see for yourself, there isn't a speck of clutter here."

That was true and quite curious for the World's Biggest Pack Rat, as her niece had dubbed her. I had yet to judge the situation for myself; when we'd arrived, fifteen minutes earlier, Helen had responded to the doorbell by opening the garage door, gesturing for us to come hither, and then had used a remote control to shut the door behind us as though we had driven–and parked–an invisible Buick. Although a few garagelike items lined the unfinished, tar-papered wall behind Helen's white four-door sedan, this second carport was spotless. It held just the love seat, a large electric blue suitcase, a beige two-feet-by-three-feet space heater, and a brass floor lamp, circa 1970 Montgomery Ward. These last two items were plugged into an extension cord that snaked across the concrete floor.

"Given time, the clutter will follow you out here, too," Peter told her meekly. "Or rather, it would, if you were to refuse to accept Miss Gilbert's services."

The older woman's face lit up. "I can do that? I can refuse to let her in?"

"No." Stephanie bristled, firing another glare at her brother. "You can't. It's a done deal. She's been prepaid. Like one of those phone cards at the supermarket. Which you're always buying and then losing in your messy house."

"Oh, I'm not all that disorganized," Helen replied.

"Yes, you are. Ever since Mother died, you've been living in your own little world."

All warmth instantly drained from Helen's expression. She stopped stroking her cat and began to wring her pale hands. At our introductory meeting, Peter had explained to me that Lois Miller–his and Stephanie's mother–had moved into her sister's house two years ago after the death of their father. Lois herself had died just three months ago.

Stephanie grimaced as she scanned the surroundings and added under her breath, "Your own little world encompassing the garage, as it turns out."

Peter dared to step forward far enough to touch an arm of the pink love seat. "Didn't this couch used to be in the living room? How did you move it out here?"

"Teddy helped me. Earlier this morning."

"Teddy?" Stephanie shrieked. "My God! Now that Mother died, is he hitting on you?"

Helen narrowed her eyes, but replied evenly, "I get to choose my own friends, Stephanie. Even if I apparently don't get to choose my own living quarters."

"Ms. Walker," I interposed, "my hunch is that your nephew and niece are unhappy at the notion of having their beloved aunt living in a garage. They're worried you're not comfortable out here."

"Precisely," Stephanie agreed stiffly. "So, let's go inside now, Aunt Helen, and show Erin just what she's dealing with." Her singsong tone was so patronizing that, even though she was acting as my advocate, my teeth were instantly on edge.

With surprising quickness, Helen rose and blocked our path to the door. "No, Stephanie. I'm not staying out here while you lead a full battalion through my home!"

Unable to suppress a smile at the notion of being termed "a full battalion," I cheerfully suggested, "How about just you and I go take a quick look, in that case?"

Helen pursed her lips and sized me up from head to foot. At five nine, I was considerably taller than she was. Despite Colorado's typical warm, dry September weather, this morning I'd chosen to wear a conservative and sophisticated baby blue skirt suit and pearls; my guess was that, otherwise, she might mistakenly assume that, at twenty-eight, I was too young to understand the sentimental value she placed on a lifetime's accumulation of personal possessions.

Though she didn't as much as smile, she finally nodded. "Peter, Stephanie, you two can wait out here." She gestured at the sofa, where the calico cat was now sprawled and licking a front paw. "Make yourselves at home."

"In a garage?" her niece huffed.

"Unless you'd rather wait on the driveway," Helen shot back in saccharine tones. She opened the door a crack, and the gray cat emerged from beneath the car and dashed ahead of us, emitting a rr-r-rr the entire time, not unlike a child squealing as he tries to avoid being touched in a game of tag.

Stephanie harrumphed again and looked at Peter, who let his hands flop to his sides in spineless surrender. With their matching dark hair and eyes and patrician features, it was obvious that the two were siblings, but that was where all similarities ended. Strange to think that this retiring, diffident man was a lawyer. His sister, a real estate developer, had confidence to spare.

Helen ushered me past the heavy door and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as it shut behind us. For my part, although I'd certainly been forewarned, I had to stifle a gasp.

This room made the Crestview County dump look like a city park.

Judging from what was visible of the hexagonal brown linoleum flooring, we now stood in Helen's kitchen. Helen sidled ahead of me through a narrow aisle that cut through towering heaps of junk. Her tiny, elderly body was dwarfed by the precarious stacks that surrounded her. She had hoarded paper products of every imaginable ilk–towels, napkins, crumpled wrapping paper, newspapers, magazines, and flattened bags. Like the cherry atop a potentially lethal sundae, Helen had weighed down the paper piles with heavy objects–mostly clay flower pots–which were now just waiting to topple over and conk her on the head.

Other piles were built from discarded clothing, books, and myriad colored containers. Various items poked out from bulging cardboard boxes–the fuzzy turquoise leg of a stuffed toy, a stiff-with-dirt gardening glove with holes in its fingertips, an orange foam football, a bicycle tire pump.

A stack of used tires served as a gigantic vase for an arrangement of long-handled gardening tools, and I bit my lip as I watched Helen duck below the pointy metal tines of a rake. She must have recently emptied out the garage, only to stash its contents here. That could explain why she'd been so adamant about not allowing her relatives through the door. Now she turned to face me at what could only be termed a "clearing" in the chaos. "Welcome to my home, Erin."

With a forced smile, I said, "Thank you," and followed her. I paused to relocate the rake safely between two relatively sturdy stacks of newspapers, with my mother's words, "This could poke out someone's eye," emerging unbidden from my lips.

Judging from the glimpse of a window and sink afforded by a path to my left, we were roughly in the center of her kitchen. Ahead of me were the refrigerator and pantry. Heaven only knows what she stored in there. To our right was an entranceway to the rest of the house. Thankfully, I don't suffer from claustrophobia, or I'd have been racing in that direction.

Instead, my attention was drawn to...

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