Over one year later, April 10, Sedona
The house perched high above the city on pillars wedged between massive boulders, its red-tiled roof disappearing beneath a ledge of red rock that looked tentative in its moorings. Little did the casual visitor realize the rocks had been there millions of years. The shifting winds churned the valley dust and arid rock-laden landscapes like the helicopter rotor-blades that regularly powered airborne chariots about the red rock country, giving tourists a bird's eye view of the city sprawled between cliffs and ragged rock formations.
Today, no helicopters or hot air balloons hovered between the Airport Mesa and city's northern buttes. Today, storm clouds gathered between the mountains and multicolored rocks of northern Arizona. They promised more of the monsoon-like rain storms, when gullies and streams frequently became raging torrents in minutes. The monsoon season was paying them an early visit. It was only April.
Marta pulled her green Range Rover onto the Parker's driveway; then rang the doorbell of the two-story Spanish mocha-colored home, where she would be house sitting the next two weeks. She gave the neighboring house a long look, noting its front door opened from a small, manmade terrace with a short wall that topped maybe a three-hundred-foot steep slope dotted with nursery-bought mesquite and rosemary plants. There were no trees in the immediate area. Wind chimes were attached to poles, bolted to the house and terrace. The wind created a cacophony of sound with American and East Indian chimes competing with "whop" noises of a flopping awning. She thought the effect interesting; albeit, the property showed signs of neglect with the banging screen door, broken ceramic chime, and mail bulging from the box at the top of the stairs. Marta was nosy by nature, so little escaped her most perfunctory glances.
She rang the bell a second time, and a blond man, of medium height, maybe a little less than 6 feet, perhaps in his late thirties, greeted her with a breathless apology. "Sorry–I was in the middle of a conference call that should have ended long ago."
"No problem. I was checking out your view and the weather."
"Never dull–that's for sure–but it looks like we'll be getting more rain before I make my getaway to Phoenix. I have a 9:10 departure from Sky Harbor, so I should be okay–rain or not. Come in."
After a quick re-acquaintance tour of the house, exchange of phone numbers, explanations, and further additions to an already long list of instructions, Dr. Parker finally got on his way. His parting comment to Marta was, "Don't let Danny lead you around by the nose. I know I give him a loose rein–but even he needs a few rules now and then. He's ten going on thirty–or at least he seems to think so! Could you remind him to unplug the computer when the weather looks threatening? He usually forgets to do that?"
Dr. Parker backed his silver Audi out of the garage, then hurried back into the house for some forgotten item. He waved, and was on his way.
Marta moved her car into the doctor’s relinquished space, deposited her luggage in the guestroom, and poured herself a glass of Perrier. She made herself comfortable in the immense great room, where a wall of glass provided nonstop views of red rocks and swirling black clouds. The room had a massive gray fieldstone fireplace, with bookshelves taking over much of the wall space, although much of the area had already been appropriated by the wall of glass. It covered nearly the entire west side of the room.
Wall niches were filled with small Navajo vases and bronze sculptures. There were portholes with blackened glass on each side of the front door. A reading loft with small second fireplace, and a winding staircase accessed the upper areas. Marta was aware of music coming from hidden speakers. The great room contained a pull-down television screen with surround sound to dazzle one's senses. There was a state-of-the-art stereo system. Not too shabby, she thought.
She made herself comfortable on a long, black leather couch. Because she was chilled from her drink and the air-conditioned room, she wrapped herself in a heavy, maroon woolen serape that had been artfully placed on the back of a leather chair.
Marta was nervous. She had exchanged polite conversation with ten-year-old Danny Parker at one of the previous interviews, but he had seemed bored and distracted, if not unfriendly. Marta had few illusions; she and Danny were not likely to become bosom buddies. She hoped they could at least come to a meeting of minds regarding menu planning. Although she didn't consider herself a gourmet cook, she had an extensive recipe collection of successful entrees, with strong leaning toward vegetarianism and lo carbohydrate snack foods.
Earlier in the month, Marta had attended Easter morning church services, arriving late, and sitting in back because she was dressed casually. She recalled her childhood when Easter hats and new dresses had been an important part of the occasion. This day she listened to the pastor’s words and heard him say, “…for the blood of our Savior.” She thought, if Jesus died for us–maybe Rick died for me? The thought gave her peace. She recalled the words of the CIA director coming to her, as if in a dream. He’d said something about Rick being willing to give his life to protect those he loved.
Marta had been widowed almost fourteen months earlier, the result of a traffic accident outside London. Rick's driver had been taking him to a luxurious small inn outside the city. According to the police, the car was traveling too fast for conditions and went off the road, rolling several times, killing Rick instantly. The limo caught fire and burned, destroying nearly everything in the vehicle including one unidentifiable body. Rick's driver lived, after being thrown clear, but suffered partial memory loss. The police revealed a curious detail. No evidence of luggage or brief case were found in the limousine. Several inspectors suggested ghoulish thieves might have picked through the wreckage before police and ambulances arrived on the scene.
Marta's entrepreneur husband left her well-provided-for, but decidedly at "loose ends." At thirty-four, she was rich, healthy, fit, but bored. Her Sedona home was spacious and luxurious; full of memories that seemed to worsen her painful, lonely moments.
She stayed focused on the future rather than the past by meeting people, trying out new places, and being on the go. A BA in fine arts, with painting and photography her major interests, kept her grounded in beauty, such as the spectacular landscapes that surrounded her house from nearly every direction.
Going back to school for advanced studies was an option. Travel was not. It was an activity she and Rick had already enjoyed to excess. Somehow, the Parker's request for a house sitter and chaperone sparked her interest. Possibly it would provide a respite from her expansive, lonely home with its sad reminders.
Marta had brought along her well-used and cherished Hasselblad camera, more out of habit than anything else. There were days it hung around her neck like a talisman, whether she was shopping for groceries or cutting roses for the bud vases. Just the hint of a natural rose scent improved her mood as effectively as a prescription of Prozac.
For several months after Rick's death Marta was depressed and dependent on medication to control her mood swings. After several counseling appointments, she determined the psychiatrist about as helpful as a tarantula peering at her from under the cover of Arizona primroses, but without the beauty and charm of the flowers. The psychiatrist wore bifocals that kept slipping off his nose. Whenever she looked at him she forgot what she was going to ask or tell him about her dreams. He kept reminding her to write down the dreams. At first she intended sharing the personal journal she'd started on her laptop. But his bored manner soon killed that idea. The therapy sessions were abruptly ended.
She sought closure. How could she accept Rick’s death without ever seeing his body? Grief was not something one put on a shelf and simply said, time to move on. She was trying. But some days the hopelessness of it all plunged her into an abyss of despair that seemed bottomless.
A door opened from the garage. Danny entered the room, a boy small for his age, several inches under four feet, a miniature version of his father. Dressed in baggy cutoff jeans and a Diamondbacks T-shirt, his fair skin hinted at a proclivity for indoor activity. His hair was on the long side, brushing the top of his shirt, with the ends curling from perspiration. His large, gray, piercing eyes reminded her of a cat she had long ago lost to a speeding automobile.
He said, "Hello, Mrs. Meiers–how are you?"
A pint-sized gentleman, she considered. Maybe this job won't be too bad, after all. She said, "Hi, Danny–you may call me Marta–I'm just fine."
"Did Dad talk to you about what we like to eat?"
"He certainly did." She continued, "If you cook at all, maybe we can work up some treats together."
He smiled and suddenly seemed friendlier than he had during their first meeting. He said, "I can show you how to make great tofu burgers."
Danny went to the front door and directed a night scope through one of the porthole windows for several minutes without speaking. Then, he commented, “I can see out–but no one can see in.”
Marta asked, "Are you watching for someone in particular?" She wasn't sure she approved of his spying antics. His zeal seemed particularly disturbing as he screwed the glass to a tripod, pulled up a chair, and concentrated on his task at hand.
Danny replied, "We have weird neighbors… hardly ever around. The mailman says he's going to kill them one of these days if they don't pay up the thirty cents they owe him. Besides–the mailman is a drunk.You should see him wobbling up their spiral steps when he's ending his day. Oh, oh, here he comes now." He watched the postman fumble in his mail sack for a minute or two, then Danny stood up to stretch. He said, “I think I'll get myself a snack." He started toward the kitchen. Just then the phone rang. Danny went to his room, seeking a private conversation.
Ronald Jones parked the postal service jeep on the narrow incline with the emergency brake set. He reached into a small duffel bag, retrieving a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. He often sought comfort in the bottle. It had been another long day, full of tiresome detail and repeated efforts.
Determined to finally confront the homeowner, Ronald had climbed the winding stairs the previous day, with no one answering the bell. It wasn't the first instance of monies due from D. D. Reynolds, and Ronald had yet to collect a dime. He thought, I guess the notices don't mean anything to them. He'd stuffed the day's mail between the doors, leaving the screen door slightly ajar.
Three days earlier, he'd left a reminder for postage due in the oversized black box, located at the top of the spiral-like stairs. The mail was addressed to D. D. Reynolds. Along with the mail, he'd left a warning about possibly stopping mail delivery.
Tomorrow, he would have a day off and he was glad of it. Ronald took several more swallows of whiskey before starting up the stairs. His face was blotched with crimson spots, a result of angry thoughts and heavy drinking. I know--anger doesn't lower my blood pressure--neither does climbing these damn steps every day with nothing to show for it. It seemed rich folks were always trying to cheat working stiffs like himself. Maybe things would be different if they thought of something besides their pensions and golf handicaps!
At the top of the steps, Ronald paused for several much-needed breaths. He was not a young man and his thick paunch hinted strongly at distaste for exercise.
This day, the screen door swung wildly, its springs broken. One of the ceramic chimes had fallen, its broken pieces scattered about the terrace.
Ronald rang the bell repeatedly. Thunder and lightning made threatening moves in the rocks above him. He cursed the weather. He cursed D. D. Reynolds. Glancing across a one-hundred-foot wide deep gorge to the north, Ronald studied the side of another cliff-hanging house. His thoughts were venomous and unrelenting. This town is full of jerks, he considered—with more money than brains—I wonder if any of them know what work is. He thought, at least D. D. Reynolds' neighbor is a homeowner who sometimes answers his own doorbell.
It began raining, not a gentle Arizona shower, but something resembling a South Seas hurricane. Instantly, water poured from the roof onto the terrace, where it rushed to its edge.
With rain drenching his uniform, covering his face, and spilling into his mailbag, Ronald's fury rose to the boiling point, white hot and out of control. He had D. D. Reynolds mail in his fist, when he stepped to the back of the terrace. Just as he went to fling it over the wall, the tip of one of his boots caught in a cracked quarry tile.
Ronald fell forward, joining the collection of catalogues, bills, and junk mail dispersing over the rocks. At first, Ronald's body fell freely like a skydiver without a parachute; then it bounced from ledge to ledge, finally coming to rest on a talus of sloping coarse rock. Rivulets of blood punctuated the area like a giant bottle of red ink, shattered. Ronald’s body was a vessel of broken flesh and compound fractures.
An UPS envelope, dropped by the front door earlier in the afternoon and already caught in the breezes, moved erratically about the terrace. It was soon soaked from the heavy deluge of rain, and then skewered by sharp needles on a low-growing barberry shrub.
An hour later, a black Lexus sedan cautiously made its way around the postal jeep and parked in front of D. D. Reynolds garage. A gray-haired man was the driver. A tall brunette, wearing a cream-colored business suit, and carrying a briefcase, opened the passenger door. The man retrieved two pieces of matched maroon luggage from the Lexus trunk. They entered the house together through the garage, closing its door behind them with the remote control.
He reassured her, "You'll get your money, D. D., before the week is up–I'm betting–maybe, even today. It looks like everyone is making late deliveries." He gave her a proprietary pat on the behind and added, "No one would ever guess a sweet thing like you for our kind of money management. And no one would figure that kind of money to go by regular UPS—not in this town!"
Danny returned to his perch by the porthole, his phone conversation apparently ended, resuming his surveillance with one hand resting lightly on the night scope. He had seen nothing of Ronald's tragic end.
By early evening, the sky had cleared. A sunset of riotous color melded the clouds with a double rainbow that nearly reached around the city. Two dogs chased each other from the foot of the narrow-paved road to the bushes on the Reynolds property. They stopped to sniff each other until one discovered a thick envelope beneath a water-laden bush. The dogs tugged at each end of it until it split and spewed some of its contents on the driveway.
Small gusts of wind returned. The terrace puddles dissipated. The meddlesome wind distributed paper and moisture all about the precipitous acreage of red rocks. To the north, new dark and ominous clouds gathered, promising another cloudburst.
Danny made no mention of what he had seen and heard to Marta. However, he had already made up his mind to gather money after it got dark. Neither had he mentioned the listening device he frequently used, to listen to voices, behind closed doors, perhaps as much as 150 feet away. Many times he had eavesdropped on D. D. and her companions in the past, even taping several of their conversations. Danny knew some of their loss–drug money–could be his gain. Studying "Soldier of Fortune" magazines and websites with surveillance tools on sale for would-be spies had whet his appetite for expensive toys. He was a precocious boy lost in dreams manufactured by computer games, seductive web sites, and loneliness.
Low-hanging clouds filled the sky, resulting in a night of near blackness. There was no moon. No twinkle of stars to guide his path. Except for Malibu lights at the front and rear of the Parker home, there were no exterior lights. The Reynolds place was completely dark, inside and out.
Danny carried an electric torch and a small duffel bag. Keeping the illumination close to the ground, he approached the Reynolds’ terrace. When he spotted the UPS package, he turned the flashlight off and stood quietly listening for any sound. He heard animal noises, the familiar screech of owls and coyotes yelping in the distance. There was the snapping and crackling made by small animals scampering through brush.
He continued to wait several minutes before turning the flash back on. No sooner had he picked up the UPS package and dumped its contents into his duffel, than he heard a window shade snap somewhere close by. He turned off the light again. He thought, there’s probably more money out here, but I think someone is watching me.
He heard voices. Maybe it was his imagination. Perhaps Marta was playing a radio in the house? Then he thought he detected a scraping on gravel near the Reynolds garage. He was afraid to turn the light back on, yet he wasn’t sure how close the yawning gully was to where he stood. One misstep would send him into that pit that he imagined full of snakes and scorpions. He could barely make out the faint outline of the ancient cypress.
Just then a car went by on the street below giving off enough light so that he got back his sense of direction. He nearly ran to the garage side door beside his home. He fumbled for the key in his pocket. Once inside the house he became aware of his rapid breathing. It was several more minutes before his fear gradually subsided, and then he slowly climbed the stairs to his bedroom, as casually as he could manage. Although the duffel bag hung heavy on his arm, he was eager to investigate his find.