Keith Raffel - The Official Website

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Dot Dead, at these online retailers:

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Dot Dead


Chapter 1

I didn't see who knocked me out. Two steps into the foyer and a blow to the head brought me to my knees. A kick in the face finished me off. He must have been waiting behind the front door. Now, groggy and queasy, I grabbed the closet doorknob to hoist myself up. After the throbbing subsided, I teetered over to the bathroom and looked into the medicine cabinet mirror. My lips and chin were covered in the thickening blood that still seeped from my right nostril. I held a wad of Kleenex up against my nose and winced as the fingers of my other hand explored the bump on top of my head.

After a few minutes, I had stanched the blood and washed it off my face. Then I rechecked my reflection in the mirror to determine if the two blows had done lasting damage. My nose was now veering to the left a little. I shrugged. Women hadn't been lining up to date the owner of the old face anyway.

Moving over to my bed, I sat down and dialed 911. Though born and raised in Palo Alto, I had never called the police before.

"911 operator."

"Hello, someone just hit me over the head and knocked me out." Not bad, I thought - my voice sounded pretty steady.

"Oh, my. Are you at 807 Lincoln?" Her tone of concern reminded me of Miss Winston, my old elementary school nurse.

The 911 system had pinpointed my location. "Yes. I'm Ian Michaels, and it's my house."

"Do you need an ambulance?"

"Not necessary. I'm okay."

"Is the person who hit you still there?"

"No. He's gone," I said, and then wondered how I knew. Maybe I hadn't been completely unconscious when he'd left.

"You hold on, dear. I'll get someone right over."

The dispatcher's sympathetic voice rose in alarm at such goings-on in our fair city. It was just bad luck that had me home early on a Wednesday afternoon. During lunch, I had looked down at my feet and noticed my left foot clad in a navy sock while my right wore brown. Each looked fine with my glen plaid suit, but together the effect was not pleasing. Since I had a meeting at four to close a big sale - that's why I had on the dressy clothes instead of my usual khakis - I raced home during lunch to rectify my fashion faux pas.

I checked my watch - 1:20 - and figured I'd been out of it for just two or three minutes. A shudder of fear coursed through me. Despite my confident answer to the dispatcher, could I have been wrong? Could the guy who conked me still be here?

I began a quick but cautious tour, peeking around corners. The DVD player, TV, and stereo stared at me from the wall unit in the second bedroom, which I used as a den. The Macintosh still sat on my desk, and the screen saver's aboriginal figures still pranced across the screen, shaking their spears. My brief inspection showed the house the same as I had left it. The uninvited guest hadn't left much evidence of his stay, except on my head.

Fear abated; anger and indignation began to build. Attacked in my own house. In Palo Alto?

What the hell?

What had my unknown assailant wanted anyway?

The sounds of sirens, faint at first and soon earsplitting, interrupted my thoughts. I hustled out to the front porch. No sense having Palo Alto's finest burst in with guns drawn. Two squad cars careened up. One of them aimed for my driveway, but squealed to a halt with two tires resting on the front lawn. The other parked more politely across the street. After a lifetime in the city, I saw a Palo Alto police officer with a gun drawn for the first time.

His weapon pointing only at earthworms and moles, the policeman came toward me, asked to see my driver's license, and introduced himself. Officer John Mikulski, who looked like an over-aged surfer boy, took charge of what little investigation there was to be. The second officer, a sturdily-built woman in her twenties, remained mum after introducing herself as Fletcher.

Notebook in hand, Mikulski apologized for the inconvenience. I liked that. He was taking personal responsibility for what had happened to me. We stood in the front yard under the shade of the pepper tree. No, I hadn't seen who hit me. No, I hadn't noticed anything missing. Yes, I was happy to have them look around. I showed them where and how I had been bushwhacked.

"Did you leave the door unlocked?" asked Mikulski.

"No, I unlocked it and opened it just before I was hit."

"Now we could dust the place for fingerprints, but...." started Mikulski.

"Yes, please."

"I was going to say that we would leave a mess. There probably aren't any of his, and even if there are, it's probably just a teenage kid."

"I don't mind the mess. I have a maid. If there are fingerprints, we should get them. Otherwise, we'll never know, if you catch the guy breaking in somewhere else, that he was the one who did this to me." I pointed to my head.

"Okay, sir." Mikulski nodded his longish blond hair. In Palo Alto's stratospheric real estate market even my little bungalow would bring well over a million bucks. That meant I fit the profile of solid citizen and taxpayer, so Mikulski humored me. Pounding head or not, I studied Fletcher brushing dust over a window frame. No sign of prints. None on the window handle either.

"No indication the door was forced. Who has a key, besides you?" Mikulski asked.

I explained how I had hired a maid named Gwendolyn Goldberg through a housecleaning service about six months before. She came on Wednesdays and used the key I'd sent the service. I had never met her.

"We communicate by notes."

"Today's Wednesday."

"Said she'd be here Thursday this week. I still have her note if you want to see it."

I walked to the kitchen without swaying too much, peeled the Post-It off the refrigerator door, and held it out for inspection. The note was written in a delicate, spidery hand:

Ian, next week I'll be in on Thursday if that's okay with you. I've left some oatmeal raisin cookies on the table. Good luck with your presentation.

Again Mikulski's eyebrows lifted.

"She's like my mother. She cleans, she looks after me."

"How'd you find her?" Mikulski asked.

"She's from Mindy's Maids. I got a service so I wouldn't have to worry about social security taxes and stuff like that."

I'd always kept my place neat, but keeping it clean was another matter. Since Gwendolyn had been coming, an immaculate house greeted me every Wednesday evening. Soon after she started, she began leaving little notes asking where I wanted this or that put. Now we had almost a full-fledged correspondence.

As we became better acquainted that way, the cookies began to show up. The name, the handwriting, the maternal tone of her notes, and her meticulousness had me imagining a woman in her fifties or sixties, a Jewish Shirley Booth.

"We'll need her prints, too," Mikulski said.

The taciturn Fletcher opened an inkpad and turned to me. Time to be fingerprinted. She grasped each finger, rolled it in ink, and rolled the ink off onto a card. The prints belonging to me could be eliminated from further consideration.

Mikulski promised that he or Fletcher would call the next day after interviewing neighbors, and I gave him my work and home numbers. Fletcher nodded her adieu, and the two of them were out the front door and speeding off in their white cruisers.

Knowing Gwendolyn would be coming the next morning, I did not spend much time cleaning up the black fingerprint powder Fletcher had left behind. I showered, gritting my teeth during the hairwashing. While rinsing off, I rejected the idea of seeing a doctor. Yes, my nose was probably broken. But I'd broken it as a kid, playing basketball. The doctor had just wiggled it from side to side, pronounced, "You broke it," and informed me he could do nothing about it. Why go through a long wait at the doctor's office for that? Anyway, I needed to get back to work. I had that customer meeting this afternoon plus a presentation to get done for the board meeting next week. On top of that, I was scheduled for jury duty tomorrow.

* * *

A clerk called out my name first as fifty or so of us milled around the waiting room. A sheriff's deputy escorted me into the courtroom. Palo Alto Police Department yesterday, Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office today. I wondered if the presiding judge would be Stanley Cohen, a family friend, but once seated in the jury box, I spotted a placard reading "Judge Franklin Carollo."

I had left my pile of industry magazines at home. How many more articles did I need to read bemoaning tapped-out tech firms, see-through buildings, and dissolved law partnerships? So as the jury box filled up, I was scanning The Economist, not E-Week or Infoworld. The Economist weighed little, but its small print and flimsy pages packed enough news and analysis to keep me occupied for a couple of hours. Anyway, I preferred reading about Christian-Muslim acrimony in Nigeria to contemplating my swollen skull or the upcoming board meeting.

Twenty minutes later, a collection of prosperous looking men and women had filled the box. At thirty-five, I was the youngest sitting in the jury box by about three decades - my peers apparently had a leg up on me in avoiding their civic duty. A black-robed judge swirled into the court and stepped up to his perch. Looming over us, he asked, "Would you each tell the court your name, occupation, and the occupation of your spouse?"

"Ian Michaels," I said when my turn came. "I'm a manager at a networking company. I'm not married."

A round robin of recitations from the other prospective jurors ensued. Then the prosecutor, a Ms. Ishiyama, began questioning us. Around my age, she was slender and petite with an intelligent face and long, straight black hair. Her double strand of pearls clicked as she leaned forward. Her voice quivering with earnestness, she asked, "Do you believe it's your job as the jury to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty?" She pointed her index finger at the hulking man sitting next to the opposing lawyer.

As she repeated the question for each of the other eleven in the jury box, all intoned a reverential affirmative. When my turn came, the prosecutor hesitated. I could tell she didn't want to ask me and take a chance on me breaking the spell she had cast. But she did, and I did. "Don't I have an individual duty to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty? I'll listen to what everyone says, but in the end I figure it's a personal decision." I'd never been on a jury, but I had seen Twelve Angry Men.

"Just what this court needs - a jurisprudence lesson from a high tech manager," said the judge in a voice laden with sarcasm.

After a few more minutes of questioning other prospective jurors, the prosecutor turned to the judge. "Your honor, I'd like to exclude Mr. Michaels from the jury." She could excuse up to six jurors without explanation. Ah well. First in, first out.

"Mr. Michaels, you're dismissed." The judge winked at me. No hard feelings.

Outside the courtroom, I blinked in the spring sunshine and checked my watch. Just after noon. I'd pick up some lunch on the way to the office. Wait. Rather than eating take-out, I could stop at home and eat leftovers from Tuesday night. I hadn't felt much like eating last night, and half a delicious Tony and Alba's mushroom pizza called to me.

Ten minutes later I pulled up in front of the house. A Toyota Corolla I had never seen before sat in my driveway. With a start, I realized I'd be meeting Gwendolyn face to face for the first time.

After a light knock on the front door, I put my key in the door and swung it open. The aroma of freshly baked cookies wafted out to me. My upright vacuum stood before me. "Gwendolyn? It's Ian," I called out several times. No response.

My first thought was that I had indelicately walked in when she was in the bathroom, but three steps later I saw the open bathroom door. I turned right and walked into my bedroom. The blinds were closed. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the gloom and then for my brain to adjust to what it saw. On my bed, face down, sprawled a woman with her hands reaching up toward the pillows over her head. Her long, lean body was clad in a short jean skirt and a green polo shirt. I shook her shoulder.

No response. More shaking. I turned her over. On her chest, through a gash in her shirt, spread a reddish brown stain. I put my hand on her neck, searching for a pulse. Nothing. I pushed the hair off her face. Her high cheekbones, dark brows, and wide mouth made an impression, but my gaze locked onto her vacant blue eyes. I staggered back and stumbled over my best German carving knife. Then I reached for the bedside phone - it rang before my hand touched the receiver.

"Hello." My voice sounded hollow to me.

"Mr. Michaels, this is Officer Fletcher. I'm glad I reached you. I couldn't tell from John's note which was your daytime number."

"Maid... dead," I rasped into the phone.

Dot Dead by Keith Raffel © 2006. Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., 2143 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125-2989. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved