When Chester lost his wife to cancer, their three-bedroom, two-story home seemed way too big, far too lonely. Everything he looked at reminded him of Alice, so he emptied every room—sold or gave away ever piece of furniture, the pictures on the walls, every bedspread and towel—and started over. She’d liked cozy, so when he bought new, he bought sleek and bold. A blazing red sofa, two black chairs, a glass coffee table. He needed a fresh start, a different feel, but the house was still too quiet. He went to the pet shelter and adopted a cat—a gray one, like the cat he’d had when he was a boy. He enjoyed its company, but he drew the line at having conversations with it in the evening. After four months, Chester and Whiskers found an easy rhythm, but weekends still stretched too long. Chester had checked off every project on his “to do” list and repainted every room of the house when his friend, Geoff, called. “Chess? My wife threw me out of our apartment. I need a place to stay, at least, until I can get on my feet. Can I spend the night at your place?” “Move in with me. I have an empty bedroom. I’ll be happy for the company.” Geoff, he found, was a bit of a slob, and a little on the lazy side. His wife was meticulous. Chess could see why she filed for divorce, but Chess wasn’t meticulous, so they got along fine. Geoff loved to tinker. Between the two of them, they bought a muscle car to work on in the garage. Chess didn’t know a carburetor from a radiator, but he enjoyed getting his hands dirty, tinkering under a hood. He was learning as he went. Eventually, Geoff’s friend, Mike, started hanging out with them on weekends, and Chess grilled for them. They ate steaks or ribs and drank beer while they checked spark plugs and brake fluids. Mike started dropping in more often, and when Chess asked him if his wife minded, Mike shrugged. “She likes it when I’m out of the house, gets tired of having me underfoot.” Alice had never felt that way. She loved spending time with Chess, and vice versa. If he could choose between watching a chick movie with her, or drinking with his friends, Chess chose her. But he knew every marriage was different. What worked for him and Alice wouldn’t fly for someone else. They began to joke that every time Chess made nachos for supper, Mike showed up. “Those are my favorite,” Mike told him. “Janey never makes them. She’s into grains and roasted vegetables, lots of salads. She says we need to eat healthier.” “We feel for you,” Geoff told him. Then Mike started showing up when Chess made spaghetti suppers, too. “Does Janey mind eating alone?” Chess asked. “Alice used to hate that.” “If she wants me around, she should cook something I like,” Mike told him. Chess couldn’t argue with that. He did begin to wonder if Mike and Janey had a happy marriage, though. They spent as little time together as possible. After a few months, Mike called to say that Janey had fallen down the stairs at home and died. Chess’s first reaction was sympathy—horror that he’d lost his wife in such a sad way. But when Mike showed up for supper the next night, ready to eat and tinker on Geoff’s car, Chess wondered. The police report ruled Janey’s death an accident. They’d know, right? So, after a short time, when Mike asked if he could move into Chess’s house and take the third bedroom for his own, Chess said yes. How could Chess turn him down? The man had just lost his wife. Chess understood how lonely a house felt when the person who made it a home was gone. So within a month, Mike moved in, and Chess’s house was full. “I’m gonna sell my place,” Mike told them. “I don’t want to rent it out, and I don’t want to take care of it. I won’t make any money on it. We only lived there seven years, but I’d like to break even.” Mike decided to sell it at cost, and that’s how Jazzi Zanders and her cousin, Jerod, ended up buying it. They bought houses, fixed them up, then flipped them. They thought they could make a profit on Mike’s old house. “It won’t take much work,” Jerod told Jazzi. “The clapboard siding’s in good shape. The roof’s new. If we paint the trim, put up some shutters, maybe some flower boxes, and spruce up the front porch, it will have plenty of curb appeal, especially if we landscape a little.” Jazzi nodded. She could picture azaleas on each side of the front steps, maybe forsythias and rose of Sharons, too. Hostas would flourish on the shady side of the foundation. They went inside to discuss what to do to the interior. “The carpet’s worn and dirty. Let’s rip it up.” Jazzi bent to pull back a corner of the faded plush and smiled when she saw red oak planks. “The old wooden floor looks great. All we have to do is refinish it.” Mike’s house was the kind of project that benefitted from a lot of elbow grease. Fresh paint and fixtures and new countertops in the kitchen would make a big difference. They started on the outside. After a week of solid work, the old Craftsman-style place looked warm and inviting. They moved their attention to the inside. While Jerod worked in the kitchen, Jazzi ripped up the carpets and started sanding the floors. Once she stained them, they looked so good that the treads of the staircase leading to the bedrooms looked shabby. She started work on those, too. She used an electric sander on the treads, but grabbed sandpaper to clean up the staircase spindles. She’d made it almost to the top of the steps when two of the spindles split from their base when she worked on them. She frowned. “Hey, Jerod, come look at this!” Her tall, rangy cousin tromped up the stairs and bent to study the breaks. He frowned. “Didn’t a woman die in this house? Didn’t she fall down the stairs?” Jazzi used her fingernail to scrape at glue that someone had used to fix the damaged wood. She leveled a stare at Jerod. “Every other spindle is in good shape. Something broke these two, and someone glued them so that no one would notice.” Jerod let out a slow breath. “If someone rigged a trip wire across the steps, tied it to the spindles so that the wire wouldn’t give . . .” Jazzi blinked and nodded. “If someone was coming downstairs in the evening, the wire would be almost invisible. If her foot caught on it, and she fell . . .” “. . . the spindles might not have been able to hold her weight, and they’d snap.” “Shit.” Jazzi wiped her hands on her jeans. Sanding was messy business. “Should we call Detective Gaff?” “I’ll call him, but I’m not sure how much help this will be.” When Gaff arrived, he suspected the same thing they did. Building a case on it, though, was another matter. “I’ll look over the files again,” he told them. “See if there’s something we can use to build a case, but there were no marks near her ankles, nothing to show she’d hit a wire. He probably used something soft, like fabric.” The worry of proof, however, became a moot point. Early the next morning, Mike woke up, hungry, and decided to sneak down to the kitchen for a quick snack. He heard Chess moving in his bedroom, getting ready for work, and meant to beat him to the kitchen. The cereal was almost gone, and Mike wanted the last bowl. Chess’s door was open, so he’d already taken his shower. His gray cat, Whiskers, came to see what Mike was doing and blocked the steps. “Get out of here!” Mike hissed. Chess walked into the hallway just in time to see Mike kick at the cat. The cat jumped, but Mike lost his balance and crashed down the stairs. By the time Chess reached him, he was already gone, his neck at an odd angle. When Detective Gaff came to tell Jerod and Jazzi the news, Jazzi shook her head. “Karma?” Gaff grinned and gave a slow nod.