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By Julie Golden
Abbott PressCopyright © 2012 Julie Golden
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLate Morning – Friday – October 29, 2010
There are many fine points to planning a murder. In her rush, she probably missed a few details. Rayanne Byers doesn't believe in beginner's luck. Pacing in her Boulder condo, alone and anxious for some indication of her success or failure, she worries.
Thirty-nine hours and seven minutes ago – she's counting – she snuck into her neighbor's condo and left a parting gift, of sorts, for him. An hour later, she heard him arrive home as expected, after his weekly prayer meeting. Other than one flush of his toilet early this morning, she hasn't heard anything from next door. It's densely quiet.
Is he dead? She's got to know. It's too early for her to make a move. She doesn't have an excuse to go and look. At least not for another hour and twenty-three minutes, when she is scheduled to show up to work for him. She paces. She waits.
With each step, she picks at raw memories. Of him, and other sexual abuse that exploited her childhood innocence and deformed her life. I'm warped enough to try murder, she tells herself – more defiant than sad. I stopped him in his tracks. I saved the other girls. I've done the right thing. Haven't I? She wonders.
At the corner of her living room, Rayanne reverses the direction of her steps again. She glances at the clock, recalculates and keeps moving. She whispers his name with each pacing footfall. Her breath catches when she hears muffled sounds of crashing and smashing from the other side of the interior condo wall that they share. She has her answer, It's not over yet!
She knows his floor plan and traces his location from the noise. She imagines he careens, from one wall to the other, down his stairway. When he reaches the first floor, he thuds into the coat closet door and does something that sounds as if his glass-topped table is now damaged. There's more clanking, followed by a silence that is broken when a car passes outside on the neighborhood street. Rayanne stands still, holding her breath until she hears another thunk and a groan. She expects he is moving toward his front door.
She rushes upstairs to her second-floor bay window and looks over their common exterior wall into his patio courtyard. She looks down and sees the man she secretly renamed Uncle Ernie stumble from his doorway. He collapses face down onto his concrete patio.
She stands transfixed at her window, looking into his yard beyond the six-foot-high red brick wall that divides her front patio from his. On his side, three vibrantly colored leaves disengage from a young maple tree and flutter around his prone body. Caught by a breeze, they move off to a corner and continue their dance with dying brothers.
Encouraged to see that he is not even trying to get up, Rayanne watches and waits for a clear ending. She knows that she contributed to this grim scene, but doesn't allow herself to worry about being caught. That's not the important part now. Not yet. Not ever.
Her plan is simple. He will die, and she will return to her peaceful and private life.
She watches a spasm force his chest to rise from the ground. His forehead becomes a pivot point on the rough surface of the patio. He slumps, then raises his head enough to turn his face to one side. His chin tilts upward a few more inches then falls as if a support has been jerked away – adding certain insult to his cheek. His twitches become fainter – she imagines an electrical current flowing, but decreasing as it moves from one of his hands, to his hips, a foot, then to another hand. His mouth opens and shuts, but his lips do not form a call for help. His eyelids slide closed. Blood seeps from abrasions on his face and spurts from his nose. He convulses and folds in upon himself. His face is again hidden from Rayanne. Proof of her work appears on the back of his baggy chinos – traces of blood and feces expanding into larger shapes on the fabric. Instead of celebrating, Rayanne shakes her head, dreading what she sees as a cleanup task. Then she smiles, because it is a job she can now refuse.
In response to a moving shadow above her, on her left, Rayanne snaps her head up. Nothing is there except for golden leaves, waving on a weak and misplaced-in-the-city aspen tree. A car drives by and she becomes aware of how exposed she is standing in the window. Framed by her white lace Kmart curtains, she confirms from this high point that no one is around and looking in her direction. She takes comfort in knowing that even if someone walks by, they cannot see Uncle Ernie behind his section of the tall brick patio wall.
He isn't making any noise that she can hear through the double panes of glass. She unlocks and cranks her window open a crack. If he's moaning, she can't hear him above the sound of echoing traffic on the main street a block over.
Why did he have to come outside? Now, her plan depends on none of the other condo occupants noticing him before the poison has overpowered his system. She considers. Her neighbors are routinely away at work by this time of day. They rarely come to their front yards. Instead, they exit through back doors to their attached garages and common driveway. Should be OK.
Maybe not. Rayanne again sees herself in the window, exposed to all the world. She drops to her knees and peeks over the dust-free windowsill, watching Uncle Ernie's motions decrease. She tries to catch his last breath and twitch. Maybe that was it, she notes. It's been awhile.
She considers the semantics of the situation – he is not really her victim. Am I still his? He isn't really her uncle – he is not even an Ernie. The man's name is Edward Blake, or so he says. As a child, she forgot his real name but was inspired when she first heard the rock opera Tommy. She put a label on her memories of him with the haunting words, "I'm your wicked Uncle Ernie ... You won't shout as I fiddle about, fiddle about, fiddle about!"
A flash of light crosses her consciousness. Rayanne struggles to focus her attention back to an older Uncle Ernie dying in his courtyard below her window. Her vision is blurry. There was no other answer, she tells herself. I had to kill him to save all the girls. A shot of sickness rushes up her throat. She sprints to the bathroom and grabs the toilet bowl. As her retching subsides, she needs to swing around and plop down on the toilet seat in response to another urge to release. She hangs her head and floats disconnected in the dizzy waves that bring insulating peace.
Her doorbell sharply intrudes. Surprised by another glitch, she wipes herself quicker than she would like. She takes a scan of her body, pats her short mousy brown hair, and tugs her clothes into position before running down the stairs. Through the window of her front door, she sees two smiling faces.
What a stupid time to be selling something, she silently chides the strangers as she crosses the room toward them. Then she realizes that it is unlikely they know what has just happened on the other side of the brick wall. She opens the door to a woman bracing a young boy in front of her, with her hands on his shoulders.
The smiling faces are missionaries – people who claim to know what is best for everyone. She remembers how it felt to be a believer. Today she wants to feel that good. She wants to be saved.
For a moment, she wonders if God sent them. If they are making their way door-to-door down the street, then it may be more than luck that they stopped at her door before Uncle Ernie's.
Rayanne recalls her own missionary experience and the zealous projects of her church youth group. On Sunday afternoons, they would pile into a couple of cars, laughing and joking as they crossed names off a list provided by the preacher. Their assignment was to make surprise visits to parishioners who had not attended church that morning. Most people opened their door to the familiar teenagers, who then offered prayers for problems, and just happened to bring along a fresh tithing envelope. Rayanne's scorn for religious irrationality creeps in and corrects her memories. She hated going on these intrusive visits. She usually hung back from the group and let others knock on the doors of their weekly targets. The attraction for her was being with her church friends – the only friends her mother allowed.
Opening her door, she sees the young boy in front of her as another innocent child being misused. Her greeting smile drops from her face. Not even trying to hide her disdain, she holds her palm up to refuse their message, then steps back and closes her door.
She glares through a window at the woman picking up her bag and turning to leave. At least our Sunday visits weren't cold-calling. This is worse, Rayanne concludes as she pulls her door open again, steps forward, and says to the woman, "Excuse me, but I wish you wouldn't involve the children in your missionary work."
The woman turns back and faces Rayanne. The look in her eyes seems to be a dare. It reminds Rayanne that religion is a complicated issue, and no one will win this fight.
A new smile spreads on the woman's face. She pivots away, then grips the boy by his hand. They leave Rayanne's yard and turn toward Uncle Ernie's condo. She knows what they will find, if they stop next door. Well, someone has to do it. She gently closes her door.
Rayanne reflects on how this seemingly normal day will scar the rest of their lives. Might the woman want to find another way to serve a call to evangelism, instead of a door-to-door mission? Might the boy be thrilled by their discovery, and spend the rest of his life hoping the next door he approaches offers such a surge of excitement?
Her imaginings are punctured by a choking scream from the other side of the wall. Found him, she assumes. Although she knew it might happen, she now thinks, too soon. She brings her fists quickly toward each other and downward, in a motion of vexation. Way too soon. He may not be dead yet.
Rayanne stands in the shadows of her living room. Rapid short screams from beyond her windows send a rush of heat to her head. She waits and watches when the woman drags her boy back past Rayanne's patio gate, and pounds her fist on the door. "911! I've got to use the phone," she chokes out the words. "Oh, my God, oh my God, oh my God! Call 911!"
After pressing 911, Rayanne walks out to her patio and passes the phone to the shaking missionary. Rayanne stands by listening to the woman who holds the phone to her ear with one hand. The boy is anchored in position with her other hand firmly on his head.
Separating herself from them, she walks to her kitchen, and pours the ingredients for a margarita into a glass with fresh ice. She takes a long slow drink, while she considers at what point she might know if her plan has worked.
Within minutes after the dispatcher does her job, the street is blocked with several police vehicles, an ambulance, a massive fire truck, and various officials. Rayanne watches an officer, and a volunteer from the Victim Assistance Program, escort the missionaries across the street. Rayanne stays on her patio as instructed by that officer. She waits, pulling tiny weeds from her fragrant marigolds, until someone arrives to question her.
Rayanne honestly answers the two police officers who both tower over her thin five foot frame. One intensely questions her in a rapid search for facts. "What time did that happen? Who else resides at the address? When did you see this? What did she say? Where is ...?"
The other officer doesn't speak. She watches his eyes scan her patio and the exterior of the building. When she meets his eyes, he doesn't turn away. She does. She wraps her arms around her stomach, then she drops them back into a passive position.
As she had rehearsed, she tells them Edward Blake moved in a month ago, on the first day of October. Rayanne says she inherited him as a housecleaning client from the prior owner of the condo who had employed Rayanne for several years before selling the property. She is scheduled to clean Blake's home every Friday at noon, and she says that she had expected to do so again today. Bitterness creeps into her voice when she tells them that Blake does not require any of the higher level organizational or shopping expertise she commonly provides for her exclusive clients.
Still on script, she tells them that she doesn't know his family or any of his friends. The last couple of weeks she has seen two young girls arrive on Saturday mornings.
Dropping more crumbs for them to follow, she tells them that she happened to see a man visit her neighbor on the last two Saturdays. Yes, while the girls were there. She claims to have not seen his face because of a hat. She says that he moves like a man older than Blake.
She watches the officer make brief notes. Rayanne explains that on each Friday Blake is away when she arrives. He leaves cash on the dining room table to pay for her work. Except, for last Friday, when he was in bed ill. She did not see him but only talked briefly through a closed door. No, she tells the officer, she hasn't heard or seen anything unexpected today from his condo. She describes the place where Blake hides a key to his condo for her to use. Rayanne stands still and quiet while the questioning officer reviews his notes.
There are some things she plans never to tell the police, or anyone else.
Truthfully, Blake had been a quiet neighbor, but not a clean one. She was disgusted by how he created such a mess every week. She didn't like him.
Last Friday, before she could give him notice that she was no longer available, she found Blake's files of kiddie porn. A latent recognition of his scent seeped to the surface of her memory, along with the festering jumble of images from her childhood. She knew this man, not by his face, but by his presence.
The interviewing officer interrupts her thoughts. He thanks Rayanne, gives her a card and asks her to call if she remembers anything that might be helpful. Cold day in hell, Rayanne notices the phone number on the card doesn't include his direct extension. I'm just one of the crowd – glad he doesn't have a reason to treat me special.
She follows the officers through her patio gate, trailing them at an acceptable distance. The ambulance is still parked in the street. She sees a taut yellow crime scene tape across Blake's gate. She is comforted by this symbolic confirmation that every death in Boulder is considered a possible crime until cleared by facts. She relies on this policy. It should make the police take a close look at the scene – a look that will lead to his files and help for the girls.
Channel-5 has sent a reporter. He is interviewing a woman in a suit, who seems to be experienced and talks to the camera. Rayanne can't hear her words, but she doesn't want to step any closer to the action. She wonders why other obvious members of the news media have not yet arrived. When the interview is over, Rayanne stops staring at the woman and turns away from the scene. She smiles to herself about the young reporter wearing a coat and tie. His wrinkled shirttail hangs over his cargo shorts, which she assumes will be positioned below camera level. He appears to be twenty-something, and she doubts he has enough clout to be still assigned the story when the big news breaks about Blake's hidden lifestyle.
Rayanne wishes to know what the police are finding inside his condo. She saw someone pass by his office window upstairs, so she is hopeful they will make the same discovery she did.
Another media truck arrives. A staffer jumps out from the back door and moves through the crowd. He talks to an officer who points in Rayanne's direction. She acts as if she doesn't hear his calls for her attention, as she ducks her head and walks away from him. When she reaches the edge of the crowd, she no longer hears his voice. She looks back and is glad to see he is talking with someone else.
She studies the area in search of any of her other neighbors. As she had expected, they're not here. There are about fifty gawkers who have stopped to see about the excitement. She knows it is only the beginning of the grief-tourists who will find their way to the neighborhood, so they can say they saw the place where the pedophile died.
Excerpted from Vagilantes by Julie Golden Copyright © 2012 by Julie Golden. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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