The air reeked with greed and ambition. The Avenger, as he liked to call himself, walked in front of those houses, carrying his load in a backpack, thinking maybe he should double back just to blow up some of the BMWs parked in the driveways. Wouldn't it be a thrill to watch from somewhere on the street as businessmen came out of those houses, briefcases in hand, and slipped into their cars? If they all went up at the same time ... mushroom clouds of fire whooshing over each house in choreographed order ...
But that was a fantasy for another day. Today only one car would go up like that.
The Avenger strode around the corner to a street where smaller houses lined the road. Though they weren't as expensive and extravagant as those on the Boulevard, they were still out of his mother's reach. Destined to live in a rotting rat hole, she papered her moldy bathroom with pictures from Southern Living. These weren't mansions, but they were big and new. He was sure no mold grew on the attic walls. No cracks ripped the sheetrock in the living rooms. No paint peeled. No sounds of rats scratching through the walls. The people who lived here probably weren't business owners. They were the goons who worked for them, but they were still snotty and superior.
Steam fogged in front of the Avenger's face with every breath as he approached the Covington house. One lamp shone in a room on the side. Out of sight, he'd followed twenty-year-old Emily home a while ago. Now she probably lay tucked in her bed with some feather comforter that cost a mint, smug about her sobriety. Oblivious.
Like always, she hadn't pulled her car into the garage where her mother's car sat. Hers was on the driveway.
The Avenger set his package down beside her car.
Right here, under the wheel well ... that was the best place. He took the jar half-filled with gasoline and the roll of duct tape from his backpack and ripped off enough to tape the bottle under the car, careful not to cover the lamp cord coming from the hole he'd punched in the jar's lid. The gloves on his hands made it difficult work, but he didn't give up. When he'd gotten the bottle in place, he checked to make sure it wasn't leaking. The small amount of gasoline seemed stable. The bottle was angled so it wouldn't leak.
Now if he could just find the right place to connect the other end. He pulled the lamp cord out from under the front of the car, then quietly opened the hood. It made a clicking sound. He froze, looking from left to right. No one stirred at this hour. He shone his flashlight to the place where he needed to connect the cord.
He held the small flashlight in his teeth as he found the spot in the wiring that would ignite his bomb.
The Avenger chuckled to himself as he closed the hood as quietly as possible, pressing down until it engaged. He checked to make sure the cord coming from under the car into the motor wasn't noticeable. If someone knew to look for it, it might be. But he doubted Emily would see it walking out to her car.
If this worked the way it was supposed to, the bomb would explode when Emily started the car. She would probably escape, but hopefully, she'd be wounded or burned. And she and her family would be terrorized. He'd make them homeless by making them fear their home, and that would just be the beginning.
He chuckled as he gathered his equipment. Then he dropped his gloves into his bag and walked slowly back up the street to where he'd left his car. He reveled in the sense of power his actions had given him. He would never be powerless again.
Too bad he hadn't had an audience tonight. That would have made it so much sweeter. But manipulating victims like chess pieces was almost as good.
It was cold, but the thrill of victory warmed him. He thought about the stash he'd left in his glove compartment, his reward for carrying out his plan. He'd wait until he got home, to the privacy of his basement, and when he was high, he'd go back and carry out the rest of his plan. And what a genius plan it was.
Headlights turned onto the street, illuminating him like a stage star. He pulled up his hood and looked down at the sidewalk as the car slowly passed. As soon as darkness enveloped him again, he broke into a trot back to his car.
There was still so much to do. He had to go take care of Devon, put a gun to her head, watch her bleed. He'd planned it for weeks, waited for the right mixture of courage and cockiness. He'd found it tonight. Freedom had been birthed inside him with one act of will. Now he could set everything right. He'd continue exacting revenge on all those who'd messed with him. So much fallout. So many consequences.
He was the great Avenger.
Now she had to cram for her test before she could go to bed. Why had she waited until the last minute?
"Emily? You're home?"
She turned to see her mother standing in her bedroom doorway, her hair tangled and disheveled from bed. "Hey. I didn't want to wake you up."
"Did you just come in?"
"A little while ago. Sorry I didn't call. I went to the choir concert at school, and afterward some of us went to a movie. Then we hung out for a while in Ree's dorm room."
"Emily, it's three o'clock, and you have class tomorrow."
"I know. It'll be fine."
"Don't you have a test?"
"Yeah, but it's okay. Just go back to sleep."
Her mother just stood there for a moment. "Okay. Come give me a kiss."
Emily grinned. It was her mother's way of smelling her breath and her hair, to see if she'd been drinking or smoking dope. Emily went to her mom, kissed her cheek, and gave her a hug. "Get a good whiff," she said. "All you'll smell is popcorn and coffee."
Her mother let her go and stared into her eyes, as if checking her pupils for normalcy. "All right, but you're going to put me in an early grave with these long nights."
"Mom, if I lived on campus, you wouldn't even know when I came in."
"Well, you don't live on campus. You live here, and I worry. Go to bed soon, okay?"
"Okay." Emily went back to her bed where her books lay spread out, wishing she hadn't made her mother lose sleep, tonight of all nights. Her mom had a big presentation tomorrow at work, and she wanted her to do well. Her mother had been elated to have this job in Atlanta after they'd struggled so much in Jefferson City. Emily hoped her actions tonight hadn't messed her up.
She resolved to do better next time. The least she could do was call to let her mom know not to worry. But after all she'd put her family through, worry had become a way of life. Staying out so late only exacerbated old memories — and old fears.
But one day Emily would prove to her family that her life of addiction was behind her. Then maybe her mom could sleep better at night.
She heard the knock again. Looking lower, she saw the top of a tiny blonde head.
Milly threw the door open. Her next-door neighbor's four-year-old stood in front of her, barefoot and wearing a long gown. There was blood on her sleeves, and the little girl was pale as porcelain.
Milly dropped to her knees. "Allie, honey, what's wrong?"
"Mommy won't wake up."
Milly took the girl's hands. "What's this on your hands?"
The child looked down at her hands blankly, as if she hadn't noticed it before.
"Allie, what happened?"
"Mommy hurt herself in her bed. I shaked her but she wouldn't come awake."
"In her crib, crying. Mommy won't come."
Something thudded in the pit of Milly's stomach. She picked the child up and ran through the yard, her slippers soaking in the cold morning dew. She carried the girl through the carport and into the house, and heard the eighteen-month-old's angry wailing. She put Allie down in front of the couch. "Wait here, honey. I'm going to see about Mommy."
She left Allie in the living room and hurried past the kids' room, to the small bedroom at the end of the short hall. She saw Devon in bed, under the covers, her eyes closed as if she still slept. Milly turned on the light and stepped toward the bed.
The pillow was soaked in blood. Milly gasped and stumbled back. Her neighbor's face was a pale gray, her lips white. Milly forced herself to move closer, touch her arm. Devon's skin was cold.
Milly's mind went blank, and she stood frozen for a moment, unable to move. Carrie's screams penetrated her paralysis.
She had to do something.
She grabbed the phone next to the bed, dialed 911, and choked out the words. "My neighbor is dead in her bed. Please send someone."
He hoped Barbara liked the ring.
The fact that she'd moved to Atlanta to be near him nine months ago had changed everything. He felt full of life and hope, with nothing but brightness on the horizon. He wouldn't have believed he could feel young again. He'd tried to take it slow for the sake of Barbara and her kids, allowing them time to get settled here before talking more about marriage. But things seemed to be going pretty well. He couldn't wait much longer.
His cell phone rang, and he slowed and checked the readout. It was the dispatcher at the police department. He and his partner, Andy, were up in the homicide rotation, so he had to take it. He slowed to a walk and clicked on the phone. "Kent Harlan."
"Kent, we've got a homicide at 342 East Bailey Road. Female victim, shot in bed, apparently during a burglary."
"Okay," he said, still breathing hard. "Did you call Andy?"
"I'm calling him next."
"All right. I'll get right over there. Do me a favor and text me that address — I don't have anything to write with."
He clicked the phone off and dropped it back into his pocket. He picked up his step again and jogged the rest of the way home. He supposed he should be happy that he'd gotten a whole night's sleep. When he and his partner were next in line to get a case, he was usually disturbed during the night.
He showered, got dressed, and made himself a cup of coffee to take with him. There was no hurry. The first responder was supposed to secure the area, and the body would still be there when he arrived. But he didn't like for much time to pass between the 911 call and his seeing the scene. The more time that passed, and the more investigators who arrived, the more the evidence would be disturbed.
He got his wallet, his pocket change, his car keys. Then he opened the ring box and smiled at the diamond. It was whiter than white, a beautiful flawless stone he'd shopped for weeks for. He took the ring out and put it in his pocket. Just the feel of it made him smile.
It took him twenty minutes to drive across town to the crime scene, in a high-crime residential area where minimum- wage workers lived paycheck to paycheck. He saw the police cars parked in front of the house, and a few neighbors standing in their yards, as if waiting to learn what had happened.
He pulled as close to the house as he could get. Andy must not have gotten here yet; he didn't see his car. Kent got out and trudged across the dewy grass to the side door in the carport, where a uniformed officer stood with a log book.
"What've we got?" Kent asked.
"Woman named Devon Lawrence, thirty years old, shot at point-blank range in her bed. Her four-year-old found her this morning."
The murder suddenly went from routine to tragic in Kent's mind. "A four-year-old? Did the child witness the killing?"
"Doesn't look like it. She says she got up when her baby sister started crying, and went to wake up her mother. She couldn't wake her up, so she went and got the next-door neighbor, Milly Prentiss. Ms. Prentiss is the one who called it in."
"Where are the children now?"
"Next door, still with the neighbor."
"And the father?"
"At work. Miss Prentiss says he works nights at a convenience store. He hasn't been notified yet, but we ought to tell him soon, before one of the neighbors calls him."
Kent stepped into the house and looked around. Tiny kitchen and living room combo, worn, dirty blue carpet, a couch and one chair squeezed in. "Have you figured out the point of entry?"
"Ms. Prentiss said the back door was unlocked, but she thinks that's because the child went out that way. She went in this carport door. She said it was unlocked, too."
Kent saw scratches around the strike plate that suggested someone had picked the lock. He stepped inside, looked around. A purse was lying on the floor, spilled out. No wallet. He scanned the other items in the room. Toys, a diaper bag, a dirty high chair, a flat-screen TV.
"Why would a burglar leave that TV?" he wondered aloud.
"Yeah. Looked odd to me, too."
Kent tried to make that add up. Could be somebody who didn't have a way to carry the TV away. Just wanted fast cash. But why here? What would make him think anyone in this neighborhood had wads of cash lying around?
He looked around for anything else. There was little of value here. The house was in bad shape, with peeling paint and brown leaks on the ceiling. The floor was warped.
He glanced up the hall, saw one of the other officers standing at a bedroom doorway. He headed that way.
In the bed, a young woman lay on her back as if sleeping peacefully, blood soaked into the pillow under her head. There was an entry wound at the center of her forehead. Her eyes were closed. She'd probably been asleep when she was shot. She'd never known what hit her.
At least it had been quick, and the perpetrator hadn't harmed the kids.
He pulled his camera out and snapped some pictures. The CSIs would take the real crime scene photos, but Kent liked to photograph crime scenes with his own camera, just to make sure nothing had been moved during the investigations.
He heard Andy's voice questioning the cop at the carport door. Kent glanced at the cop near him, still standing back, looking a little shaken. "What do we know about the husband?"
"The neighbor says he has drug problems. Has been in rehab. They have a history of domestic violence, but the police have never been called about it. He's on probation for a drug charge."
So the husband had the history and the mental capacity to do this.
Andy came to the doorway and looked inside. "Morning, guys."
Kent nodded at him, then turned back to the cop. "Did the neighbor hear the gunshot?"
"No. She says she didn't hear anything until the kid knocked on her door."
Excerpted from Downfall by Terri Blackstock Copyright © 2012 by Terri Blackstock . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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