The walls screamed at her.
"Oh, damn," Zoe Luce whispered. She halted in the doorway of the empty bedroom and stared at the white walls. Not now. Not today. Not this time. I really need this job.
The walls sobbed. Terror pulsed through layers of Sheetrock and the fresh coat of stark white paint that covered it.
The silent shrieks ricocheted off the floor and ceiling.
She put her fingers to her temples in a purely instinctive, utterly useless gesture. She squeezed her eyes shut, bracing herself against the ragged bolts of icy lightning that were shooting through her and pooling into a glacial pond somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach.
Davis Mason had followed her so closely down the hall that he was only a pace behind her when she came to a sudden stop. He bumped awkwardly against her.
"Oops, sorry." He caught his balance. "I wasn't paying attention."
"My fault." With what she hoped was an unobtrusive movement, she eased out of the doorway back into the hall. Things were much better out here. She could cope. She gave Davis what she hoped was a bright, assured smile. It wasn't easy, what with the muffled cries still leaking out of the bedroom.
She wanted out of this house. Fast. Whatever had happened in the bedroom had been bad.
"Hey." Davis touched her shoulder lightly. "Are you all right, Zoe?"
She gave him another shaky smile. It was relatively easy to smile at Davis. He had elegant lines and cleaning styling with just the right touch of roguish flair. If he'd been a car, he would have been a sleek, European roadster. Judging by the spacious home, the hand-tailored shirt and trousers, and the onyx and diamond ring he wore, he was also wealthy. In short, she thought sadly, until that moment, she had considered him the ideal client.
Everything had changed now, of course.
"Yes, I'm fine." She did a little on-the-spot deep breathing, using the techniques she had learned in her self- defense class. Summoning up her teacher's instructions, she sought the calm, stable center that was supposed to be somewhere deep inside her. Unfortunately, she had not yet mastered that part of the program. All she could feel was a bad case of the jitters coming on.
"What's wrong?" Davis was looking seriously concerned now.
"Just the start of a headache," Zoe said. "I often get one when I forget to eat breakfast."
The lies came so easily these days. But, then, she'd had a lot of practice. Too bad she wasn't yet clever enough to convince herself, she thought. A little self-delusion would be very welcome right now.
Davis watched her intently for a few seconds, and then he relaxed. "Missed your morning shot of caffeine?"
"And food. It's a blood sugar thing. I should know better." Feeling an urgent need to change the topic of conversation, she looked back into the bedroom and blurted out the first thing that came into her mind. "What happened to the bed?"
They both looked at the large, empty stretch of uncovered hardwood flooring between two massive, mission-style bedside tables.
Zoe swallowed uneasily. "The rest of the residence is fully furnished," she said. "I couldn't help but notice that there's no bed in here."
"She took it," Davis said grimly.
He sighed. "She loved that damned bed. Spent months shopping for it. I swear, it meant more to her than I did. When she left, it was about the only thing she insisted on taking with her in addition to her personal stuff."
"You know how it is in a divorce. Sometimes the biggest fights are over the smallest, dumbest things."
Whatever else it had been, Zoe thought, the missing bed had not been small.
Davis searched her face. "Headache getting worse?"
"It'll be all right once I've had lunch and a cup of coffee," she assured him.
"Tell you what. You've seen the rest of the house. I'm sure you've got the general picture. Why don't we take a break and get something to eat at the club? It will give us a chance to talk over your initial impressions."
The thought of eating made her stomach churn. She knew from experience that she would not be able to keep any food down until the chills stopped. That could take a while. This had been a really bad experience, and it had caught her totally off guard.
It was her own fault. She knew better than to enter a room so recklessly. But she had been caught up in her plans for the interiors, completely focused, and the rest of the spacious residence had seemed so new, so clean. She simply had not been expecting trouble, and, as often happened, she had paid the price.
"I'd love to join you for lunch, but I'm afraid I'll have to take a raincheck." She made a show of glancing at her watch. "I've got another appointment this afternoon, and I need to prepare for it."
Davis looked hesitant. "If you're sure-"
"I'm afraid so." She tried to inject a note of apology into her tone. "I really do have to run and you're right, I've seen all I need to see for now." And sensed far more than I ever wanted to know, thank you very much. "I've got the floor plan you gave me earlier. I'll make some copies and do some sketches that will you give you an idea of what I have in mind."
"I'd appreciate the drawings." Davis glanced into the bedroom and shook his head somewhat ruefully. "I'll admit I'm not what you'd call a visual person. It's easier for me to grasp the concept when I can see a picture."
"It's always easier when you can look at a drawing. Hang on while I check my calendar."
She reached into her voluminous tote, one of six similar bags in different colors that she owned. Each functioned as a combination briefcase and purse. She had chosen the chartreuse green one today because she liked the way it contrasted with her deep violet pantsuit.
Groping in the vast depths, she pushed aside the small camera, a sketchbook, measuring tape, a clear plastic box containing an array of colored pens and felt markers, a folder of fabric samples and the large, antique brass doorknob attached to the ring that held the keys to her apartment.
The appointment calendar was at the bottom. She hauled it up to the surface and flipped it open.
"I'll get some ideas down on paper," she said briskly, "and I'll try to have some preliminary layouts ready for you by the end of the week. What do you say we meet in my office Friday afternoon?"
"Friday?" Davis was clearly disappointed. "That's a week off. Do we have to wait that long? I'd like to get started as soon as possible. The truth is this house has been damn depressing since my wife walked out."
Yeah, I'll bet it has, she thought.
"I understand," she said aloud, trying to sound sympathetic. It wasn't easy, given the fact that the fine hairs on the nape of her neck were still tingling and there were goose bumps on her arms beneath the sleeves of her lightweight jacket.
"I'm trying hard not to be bitter," Davis said. "But the divorce is costing me a bundle. Got a feeling I'll be getting bills from the lawyers for a long time."
All the available evidence indicated that Davis Mason had come out of the divorce in excellent shape, financially. From what she could see, he possessed a very expensive residence, the interiors of which he was prepared to pay her handsomely to have redesigned, and a membership in a pricey country club. But she did not raise those points aloud.
She was rapidly learning to be diplomatic with the newly divorced, having discovered that they constituted a hot market niche for interior designers such as herself. People emerging from shattered marriages frequently yearned to redo their living spaces as a form of therapy to help them get past the negative emotional fallout caused by the breakup.
She flipped through the pages of her calendar, pretending to study her schedule. Abruptly she snapped the leather- bound volume closed with a decisive air. "I'm afraid I'm booked solid. Friday is the only day I can give you the time this project deserves. Will two o'clock work for you?"
"Looks like I don't have much choice." Davis was not pleased. He was used to getting what he wanted. "Friday it is. Didn't mean to sound so impatient. It's just that I'm very anxious to get moving on the project."
"Of course. Once you've made the decision to redesign a personal living space, there's a natural urge to rush into the job." She spoke quickly, trying to inject a professional, businesslike quality into her voice. "But redoing an entire residence is a major undertaking and mistakes at this stage can be extremely costly."
"Yeah, I found that out the hard way." He took one more look at the bedroom. "I got as far as repainting this room and realized I needed expert help. I didn't think I could go wrong just putting a coat of white paint on the walls, but as soon as I finished I realized it didn't look right. I wanted to make it seem light and airy in here and instead- " He shrugged and let the sentence trail off with a who knew expression.
And instead the bedroom had all the cozy ambience of an autopsy room or an embalming chamber, Zoe concluded silently. No amount of the bright Arizona sunlight dancing on the surface of the sapphire pool outside could counteract that effect. Some of the unpleasant sensation was attributable to the stark white paint, but she knew that the real problem had been created by whatever it was that had happened in this bedroom. Some things could not be covered with a coat of paint.
She also knew that Mr. Ideal Client was not consciously aware of the emotions trapped in the walls. To her everlasting regret, she had never encountered anyone else who picked up on that kind of stuff the way she did-as pure, raw energy. But she had seen enough instances of others reacting in subtle, unconscious ways to the atmosphere of a particular room to be convinced that a lot of people responded to a space on some deep, psychic level.
She had also learned the hard way to keep her inner knowledge to herself.
"You chose a stark bright white." She took another step back, putting more distance between herself and the bedroom doorway. "I know it seems like pure white should be simple and straightforward, but it is actually very difficult to work with because it reflects so much glare, especially here in the desert. It also tends to create very cold shadows when you add furnishings. Ultimately that makes for a lack of harmony and tranquility. You were right to stop painting after you finished this room."
"Knew it wasn't the right direction." Davis made a casual gesture that invited her to go ahead of him down the hall. "I have to tell you, Zoe, when I decided I needed a professional designer, I didn't really put much stock in this feng shui thing that you do."
"A lot of people have doubts about it until they experience the result."
"I knew it was trendy and all. The women at the country club are really into it. When Helen Weymouth gave me your name, she went on and on about how you had completely transformed her home after she got her divorce. She'd been on the brink of putting it up for sale because of all the bad memories, she said. She credits you with changing the whole atmosphere of the place."
"The Weymouth project was an interesting one." Not much farther to the front door. A couple more minutes, and she would be out of here. "Mrs. Weymouth gave me a free hand."
"She advised me to do the same thing. A few months ago, after Jennifer left, I would have said that all this business of arranging the furniture to regulate the flow of negative and positive energy was way too far out for me. But the longer I live here alone with everything just the way it was when she was here, the more I'm convinced that there may be something to your design theories."
"I don't practice one particular school of feng shui." To her horror she realized she was talking much too fast. Act normal. You know how to do this. "I use elements of several different approaches combined with organizational principles from other classic design traditions such as Vastu."
"An ancient Hindu science that sets out principals for architecture and design. I also incorporate what I consider the most useful elements from contemporary theories of harmony and proportion. My style is really quite eclectic."
Actually, I pretty much make it up as I go along, she added silently. But clients did not like to hear that.
She walked swiftly toward the front of the house, desperate to escape into the fresh air. Now that she had been sensitized by the experience in the bedroom, she was picking up wispy tendrils of dark, unwholesome emotions from other walls in the residence. She had to get out of this place fast.
She reached the terra-cotta foyer at last. Davis was right behind her. He opened the front door, and she escaped into the reassuring warmth of the early October day.
"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to drive back to your office?" Davis asked.
"I've got an energy bar in the car." Another lie. Was she getting good at this or what?
"All right. Well, take care. And I'll see you on Friday."
She gave him what she hoped was a bright, professional- looking smile, tightened her grip on the chartreuse tote, and went briskly toward her car. She tried not to appear as if she was rushing away from the screaming house.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the vehicle. Yanking open the door, she tossed the tote onto the passenger seat, slid behind the wheel, put her dark glasses on, and fired up the engine, all in what felt like a single motion.
Her hands were still trembling. Aftershocks from the surge of adrenaline, she surmised. This wasn't the first time. She could handle it.
But she had to grip the wheel very tightly in order to steer her way out of the exclusive community. To her left was the long stretch of impossibly green fairway that served as the approach to the sixteenth hole of the Desert View Country Club. Elegant homes similar to the Mason residence were scattered artfully around the golf course.
Beyond the vivid green links stretched the rugged expanse of the Sonoran Desert and low, rolling mountain foothills. The golf club community and the adjoining town of Whispering Springs were a little more than an hour's drive from Phoenix, close enough to catch some of the spillover from the tourist trade but far enough out to avoid the traffic and congestion of the city.
The harsh, dry landscape had seemed a strange and alien place to her when she had moved here a year ago, but somewhere along the line her new environment had begun to feel familiar, even comfortable. She had discovered an unexpected beauty in the desert, with its spectacular sunrises and sunsets and the astounding depths of light and shadow. She had always been drawn to contrasts, and there was nothing subtle about this place.
The decision to move to Whispering Springs had been a good one, she mused, but maybe she should reconsider the career move she had made at the same time. Interior design had seemed like a natural, logical way to go. After all, she had a background in the fine arts and a good, trained eye, and she certainly knew how to get the feel of a living space. Best of all, she hadn't needed any additional degrees or qualifications in order to set herself up in business legally. But today's encounter was enough to give her some second thoughts.
A uniformed guard came out of a small building located at the gated entrance. The emblem on his snappy khaki jacket declared him to be an employee of Radnor Security Systems. He greeted her politely, wished her a good day, and went back inside his air-conditioned sanctuary to make a note on his log.
Security was tight here in this carefully planned enclave of wealth and status, but someone in the Mason residence had not benefited from it.
She waited until she was clear of the gates and on her way back toward the downtown section of Whispering Springs before she picked up her phone. She punched in the only number that she had coded into her speed dial.
Arcadia Ames answered on the third ring, giving the name of her gift shop in her low, throaty voice. "Gallery Euphoria."
Arcadia sold unique, expensive gifts to an upscale clientele, but Zoe was pretty sure her friend could have sold sand here in the desert with that voice.
Arcadia was her best friend, make that her only friend. She had once had other friends, Zoe thought. But that was a long time ago, back when she had had a real life and had not been living in the shadows.
"It's me," Zoe said.
"What's wrong? Something happen with Mr. Ideal Client?"
"You could say that."
"He decided not to hire you after all? That idiot. But don't worry, there will be other good clients like him. The divorce rate doesn't seem to be going down very much."
"Unfortunately, Mason didn't change his mind," Zoe said evenly. "I wish he had."
"Did the creep make a pass at you?"
"He was a perfect gentleman."
"He must be rich because everybody who lives in Desert View is, by definition, a high roller," Arcadia said patiently. "So what went wrong?"
"I think Mr. Ideal Client may have murdered his wife."