The headline blazed “Carrie Harding, Efficiency Guru.” I glared at my picture on the cover of the defenseless magazine. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Big happy smile. Looking on top of the world. Well, yeah, once. But those days were gone.
I dropped the magazine in the bulging trash bag at my feet. In the morning, it would be incinerated with the rest of the rubbish in the basement of my Chicago condo. The penthouse, no less. Alas, by morning, it would no longer be mine.
I picked up the dogeared folder of newspaper clippings from the shiny granite counter and walked over to the gas fireplace with its hand-painted tile surround. I flipped on the flames and sat on the floor, my miniature wirehaired dachshund Penny snuggled up next to me.
I stroked her long back, enjoying the way her silky red-gold fur gleamed in the light from the fireplace, steeling myself for what was to come as I pulled the first clipping from the folder. This one read “Killer Consultant Cleared of Charges.” I had cut the item from the middle of the business section of the national paper this morning. Small print. Two sentences. Below the fold. This was the only recognition that I was as much an innocent victim as my clients.
I read it through again. A far cry from the front-page placement and big headlines full of ugly accusations in the rest of the clippings. I dropped it in the fire and went on to the next one. And the next. One by one, I read the headlines before feeding the paper to the flames. Killer Consultant. Homicidal Harding. The hated words still made me cringe, even though I had been cleared of all charges. After each piece turned to ash, I stroked Penny’s blonde top knot for comfort.
The last item in the folder included a picture of a young woman. The photo couldn’t come close to capturing her vibrancy, her lively intelligence, her wit, but my memories of her filled in those details.
“I’m sorry, Maureen,” I said before feeding her photo to the flames. “It’s all my fault for bringing him into the firm.” Don Hawes, my business partner, had killed Maureen and disappeared with a boatload of our client’s money, leaving me as the chief suspect in both crimes.
By now, Penny was nosing my ankle, looking for her dinner. “Relax, I’m getting it,” I said, getting up to go to the vast kitchen with Penny following closely. The restaurant style Viking stove, the miles of granite counters, the empty glass-fronted cabinets seemed to mock me as I pulled the last half can of gourmet dog food from the massive Sub-Zero refrigerator.
As I placed her bowl of food on the floor, the sound of the bowl clicking against the tile echoed through the empty 6,000 square foot condo. There was nothing left to absorb the sound. My furniture, rugs, art—even most of my clothes—were sold to pay legal fees and to back the losses my clients suffered. I managed to pay back every cent my partner stole.
One by one, my clients had dropped me even though I paid back all the money Don had embezzled. It didn’t help the damage to my reputation. Not only had I lost a decade’s worth of relationships with Fortune 500 executives, I couldn’t even get small company execs to return my calls.
I sat on the floor next to my dog. “Eat hearty,” I said. It’s our last night in this place.” Tomorrow morning the bank would be here to collect the key. I had no idea where we would go after that.
Penny finished her dinner, so I rose and rinsed the bowl. After drying it with my last paper towel, I placed it in the nearby carton that held all the rest of my possessions. Talk about living minimally. I was reduced to a single half empty box and a small duffle bag of clothes.
The sound of the ringing doorbell was startling in the stillness. My ancient Keds sneakers made no sound as I crossed the gleaming hardwood floor of the foyer. Just as I reached the door, I heard a familiar voice. “Miss Harding. Are you home? It’s Detective Nolan.”
His arrival still terrified me, even though I had to admit he’d always been fair. I opened the door. “Come in. I have nothing to offer you and no place for you to sit, but come on in.” I cringed at the self-pity I heard in my own voice.
Detective Nolan ignored my whining as he bent to ruffle Penny’s furry nape. She loved him, showing it with a big doggy smile and an extended warp-speed tail wag.
“I stopped by to return a few things,” he said. “Your company computer and your phone. Now that you’ve been cleared of any wrongdoing, we don’t need them anymore.” He handed me a small box.
“Thanks.” I put the box on the floor in the empty space where the antique entry table once stood. “Any luck finding Don? I hate that he’s getting away with murder.”
“Me too, Carrie. Me too. He’s still in the wind, but we won’t give up looking for him. I’ll keep you informed.” He shook my hand and left.
I took the box into the kitchen to open it. Nestled neatly inside were my phone and computer, along with their respective charging cables, both neatly coiled. After all this time, of course both were dead. I plugged in the charging cables before dropping my cheap prepaid phone into the trash. My minutes were all gone, and nobody called me any more anyway. I headed down the hall to my bedroom to pack the rest of my things.
I didn’t have much to pack. I tossed some socks and underwear in the solitary box, then carefully took my treasured Hermes scarf from the cedar shelf in the closet. It was the only item still in there. I buried my face in its soft folds.
The luxurious scarf was the first thing I bought for myself when my business took off all those years ago. It was pure silk, with an abstract pattern of blue and green swirls that reminded me of the ocean near home. When I wore it, I felt taller, stronger, more polished. Invincible. I wore it almost every day for years. It hadn’t sold it with the rest of my things because of a tiny tear in one corner, and because the oh-so-important Hermes label was missing. Still, I loved it. I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and placed it gently in the box. There. Packing was done.
I put my back to the wall and slid down to the floor as I contemplated the ruin of my life. The police were satisfied that I was innocent, but none of my former clients wanted anything to do with me. No friends. No home. No money. Tears fell as a stroked Penny’s soft fur.
Sometime later, the morning sunlight was like glass in my eyeballs, but there was nothing wrong with my hearing. That was my ringtone. I hadn’t heard it in months, not since the police confiscated my phone, but I still recognized it. I stumbled around until I traced the sound to the kitchen counter where my phone was plugged in.
Tentatively, I swiped a finger across the screen. “Hello? This is Carrie Harding.”
Interested in the rest of the chapter? Sign up.