Michael pushed open his front door and strode into the living room. He tossed the stack of mail he’d retrieved onto the coffee table. The house had that stale smell from being closed up for too long with the air conditioner running. He considered opening the windows to air the place out. The temperature outside had cooled some with the rain. But in the end fresh air seemed more effort than it was worth.
He ignored the blinking message light on his answering machine. The call almost certainly had been from his father, since his father had called the office three times earlier that day. All three times Michael had refused to answer, not wanting to hear any drunken babble. And he’d let all the calls on his cell phone go through to voice mail.
Dusk had settled but Michael didn’t bother with lights. He flipped the deadbolt to lock the front door, slightly amused that he found it necessary to lock people like himself out of his house. Then he went down the hall to his home office. He set both cell phones down and turned on the floor lamp. His computer hummed from the corner of his desk. He was alone again.
He pulled the photograph from his pocket and settled into the leather recliner by the window. For the first time, he allowed himself to look at the man in the picture. Sometimes this was the hard part. To look at a photograph and realize that he was going to kill the person looking back at him. That person often looked innocent. Average. You usually couldn’t see evil in a photograph.
This guy wasn’t much different. Small eyes, narrow, with bushy eyebrows. Maybe that made him look mean. Maybe Michael just knew that he was.
The guy was sitting by a pool, wearing denim cutoffs and holding a Budweiser bottle. A couple sat behind him to his left, each holding a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. A party of some sort. Everyone smiling. The scene unraveled in Michael’s mind. He turned the picture over, not wanting to give life to his imagination.
The guy’s name was Ray Nelson. Thirty-two years old. Suspected of five different rapes. Convicted of only one. Three of the girls, all between the ages of 16 and 18, had refused to testify. The guy had used a condom, nice guy that he was, so there wasn’t much physical evidence. The remaining girl, the one not given a choice as to whether or not she would like to testify, had been beaten into a coma during the rape. And that was how she remained.
Michael grabbed his cell phone from the desk, the disposable one, and punched in the number written on the back of the photograph. A man answered midway through the first ring, like he’d been sitting on the phone. Michael glanced at the name scrawled beneath the number. He said, “Tom Emery?”
“Is this your home number?”
“No,” Tom replied. “It’s a disposable cell phone.”
“Good,” Michael said. “Are you alone?”
“Yes. Are you the man Sean told me about? Will you be taking over?”
“I believe so.”
A slight hesitation, then Tom said, “How do I know I can trust you? That you won’t just take my money? Or that you’re not a cop trying to trap me?”
“You don’t,” Michael replied. “Any more than I know those things about you.”
“Look, this is how it works,” Michael said. Then he explained the rules. No physical contact. The money would be wired into his offshore account. Half up front, the other half upon completion of the job.
Michael flipped the photo over as he spoke. He stared into the eyes, imagined himself killing the guy. He supposed that he should have felt something then. Remorse maybe? Guilt? He felt nothing.
After having laid out his ground rules, Michael said, “Did you go to the cops after your daughter got that phone call? Or at any time since?”
“No,” Tom replied. “I have nothing against the police. They did their best before. But calling them this time would have been useless. My daughter was put through hell during his trial. Then Nelson gets out with barely a slap on the wrist. And right away he’s calling my baby… saying things…”
Tom’s voice broke. After a brief pause, he continued. “I didn’t involve the police because I knew right then that this monster had to die.”
“How old is your daughter?” Michael asked.
“She just turned 22. She was 17 when the… when it first happened.”
Michael didn’t know why he had asked or what difference the information made. Somehow the young age made the situation seem worse. He said, “And you’re sure we have the right guy?”
“Not a doubt in our minds,” Tom replied. “He rented a room from our neighbor for a few months. He even came to a pool party we had at our house. That was two weeks before…”
Tom’s voice trailed off but Michael didn’t need him to fill in the blanks. He imagined what it would feel like to invite someone to your home, only to later have that same person rape your daughter. “Okay,” he said. “Keep your daughter safe. I’ll get this done as soon as possible.”
“Thank God,” Tom said. “You don’t know… No child should have to go through what my daughter did. The rape… the beating… the testifying... only to have the bastard come back and threaten her again.”
“I’ve never dealt with offshore accounts before but even a backwoods guy like me should be able to figure it out. How much are we talking? I’m prepared to do whatever is necessary to pay you. I’ll sell my house. Borrow it somewhere. I don’t care what I have to do.”
Up until now, Michael had only dealt with people who had money. Tons of it. Not that he made that a priority. It just happened to work out that way. This guy didn’t sound like he had money. But he did have lots of heart and obviously loved his daughter enough to sacrifice everything to give her peace of mind.
He looked back down at the beady-eyed Ray Nelson. The man needed to be dead. He said, “I don’t want you to sell your home, Mr. Emery.”
“Call me Tom. Please. And the house, it’s just a house. My daughter… Well, you know.”
“I do.” Michael’s eyes roamed the room, taking in the generic paintings on the walls and the collection of software on the shelf. Just a room. Just a house. He’d give it all up in a second to protect someone he loved.
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