No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except for brief quotations included in a review of the book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
About this Story
Fourteen-year-old Raya tries to steer clear of her parent’s hectic lives. Little does she know, her mother — a forensic psychologist — is working on a grisly case that is about to hit way too close to home.
Elaine Newburg is a mass murderer and an expert identity thief, and she’s not afraid to flaunt her skills even as law enforcement seems to be closing in.
Soon, Raya’s mother will discover that she is dealing with a very personal case — one that makes her begin fighting even harder to keep her family safe and bring a treacherous criminal to justice.
“Hurry up, we’re going to be late for school,” fourteen-year-old Raya shouted to her ten-year-old brother Reese. She pulled her orange ankle-cut boots and matching Gucci coat out of the brown sliding closet and headed down the hallway to the kitchen.
“Too bad we have to walk in the rain,” Reese mumbled more to himself than to Raya. Reese grabbed his two half-eaten muffins and stuffed them in his mouth, washing it down with a cup of lukewarm orange juice.
“What did you say?” Raya asked as she walked through the kitchen and headed to the front door of their two-story mahogany colored house.
“Nothing. I said nothing,” Reese said as he swallowed his last bit of muffins. “Where is Mom? Isn’t this like her third or fourth morning gone somewhere before us?”
“I guess so; more like her sixth or seventh morning. You know how busy she is with her job. The den is filled with tons of forensic psychology cases that she is working on, and she spends hours going through all that information. I get tired just looking at that stuff.”
“Well, at least she loves her work. Only if I could love all of school half as much,” Reese frowned. “Math is the only fun part.”
“I know that, you don’t have to remind me,” Raya replied as she zipped up her book bag near the marble counter. “You may not love school, but you sure do have to go. Or else, when Mom gets home and finds out, we may hear a long-winded speech about responsibility, studying hard, getting a decent job, and all that good stuff. Get used to it; we’ll be walking to school more often than we like especially if Mrs. Wayton can’t take us,” Raya said seriously as she slammed the door to the house.
Reese moaned. “Who wants grumpy old Mrs. Wayton to take us anywhere in the first place. I’m glad she doesn’t volunteer to take us to school anymore,” he replied.
The rain had lightened to a drizzle as Raya and Reese walked down the steps of their Trenton, New Jersey house. Pulling their rolling backpacks behind them, they stepped out onto the quiet sidewalk. Raya put in her earphones and turned her purple-colored iPod up a few notches. The walk to school was mostly quiet, except for the sound of splashing water as Reese kicked up the water puddles.
The walk to Waterbrook Elementary, Reese’s school, seemed to take longer than the normal fifteen minutes. Raya unplugged her ears and Reese stopped sloshing water long enough for Raya to pat him on the head. Since he was ten years old now, he didn’t like to be hugged or kissed, so for him, Raya’s pat on the head was equivalent to a hug and a kiss.
“Be strong. Be nice. Be helpful. Study with heart. Have fun!” Raya said.
“Be strong. Be nice. Be helpful. Study with heart. Have fun!” Reese repeated. He smiled. He was glad his sister still said her own five rules for school to him almost every day. She was an average student, but always turned in her work on time, and was somewhat of a teacher’s pet, especially to Mrs. Bryant, who was her favorite teacher.
The school bell rang and Reese ran to get in line at the entrance. Raya plugged her ears again and speedily walked two more blocks to get to first period at Crimson Junior High. By the time she arrived, the drizzling had stopped, and the sun peeked out from behind a few clouds. Raya didn’t stop to notice the weather all of the time, but she did today, and on the inside, she felt it was going to be a good day.
“Hey there,” Britney yelled as she bumped into Raya. “Girl, you are a wet mess. You could have called me to get my parents to come and pick you and your brother up. Poor Reese. Even if it wasn’t raining, my mother would love to tell stories about her fun food job and such things to some other kids besides me,” Britney said so fast that Raya didn’t even get half of it.
“Rain never killed anybody. Besides Reese likes the rain,” Raya replied as they put their bags and jackets in their lockers and headed to first period. “Would have been otherwise if my parents didn’t work so much and if Mrs. Wayton, our across the street, down the lane neighbor, weren’t such a grouch.”
The two girls fell quiet as they entered English class with the rest of the students.
By mid-afternoon, the rain had stopped completely, and the sun was high in the sky.
“Alright, students, please remember that we will have a local science fair in three weeks. Each of you have been paired with a classmate and I hope you remember who he or she is,” Mrs. Anderson said.
The school’s only set of twins, John and Frederick, high-fived each other. Abigail drummed her pencil on the table and pointed at Vanessa. Nabhi pumped his fists in the air. He was considered the smartest in the class and the other students didn’t seem to mind since he was always gracious enough to help them if they ran into any trouble with their science-related assignments.
Britney tapped Raya on the shoulder. “Don’t forget me.”
“How can I?” Raya laughed.
Mrs. Anderson tapped her ruler on the desk. “Okay, settle down now. I am glad you are excited and I know that all of you will do well.”
Stepping behind her desk and pointing to the chalkboard, she continued, “But, before we get to all that fun, I need to have your two-page papers on bacteria by next Tuesday.”
The class moaned collectively — everyone except for Nabhi. Science projects were fun, but science papers? Not so much.
“I don’t want to hear that,” Mrs. Anderson said firmly as she turned around. Her Milano gold glasses perched on her nose as she peered over them. “To be good students and good citizens, you must not only be able to read, but you must be able to write, research, analyze, and formulate solutions to problems that exist in the world. You never know what good can come from your mind if you don’t use it.”
The school bell rang and the students gathered up their books and belongings. Raya and Britney followed the other students to the locker room. As she walked, Raya checked her phone. She was expecting to hear from her mother since she sometimes picked her and Reese up from school. But that had been so few and far between lately that she was getting used to walking home or catching a ride with Britney.
Scrolling through her messages, she was surprised to see a text message from her father:
Your mom called and said she is running against a deadline at work and will be unable to pick you up today. Neither can I. Try to catch a ride with a friend. Love you.
I was going to do that anyway, Raya thought.
Britney slammed her locker door, shaking Raya out of her thoughts, and slung her bookbag across her shoulder. “Come on, I know my mom is waiting,” she said. “What are you reading anyway?”
“Oh, nothing,” Raya replied.
“It is something; you’re looking at it quite seriously.”
“That was just my dad,” she said nonchalantly as she grabbed the handle of her rolling backpack and headed out the side door of the school with Britney. “He just texted me saying neither of them could pick us up and suggesting we catch a ride.”
“I gave you that suggestion this morning,” Britney laughed as they crossed the side street. Britney spotted her mother’s Nebula Gray Pearl Lexus ES parked on the opposite side of the school. “There she is; she’ll be happy to take us all with her.”
“Hi, Mom. You remember Raya, don’t you?” Britney asked as she opened the passenger door.
“Yes, I do,” Britney’s mom smiled. “How are you, Raya?”
“I’m good, Mrs. Parker. Thanks for picking us up,” Raya said cheerily. “If you don’t mind, could you please swing by Waterbrook Elementary to pick up Reese.”
“Oh, yes. Not a problem,” Mrs. Parker replied. She was always eager to entertain her children and their friends. Annalisa Parker was 5’ 3” with a small round face, deep brown eyes, and long black hair that was tucked behind her ears. Her small frame could be deceiving, but she had a big heart to serve people, and everyone around her knew it. She was a chef at Bellina Italliano which she opened up after going to culinary school. Though one couldn’t tell it by her weight, she loved to eat just as much as she loved to cook.
“Nice ride, Mrs. Parker,” Reese blurted out as he jumped into the car.
“Oh, if you think this is a nice ride, wait ‘till we get to my house and I might just give you a spin in my new Porsche Boxster GTS. It’s fast.” She glanced in the rearview mirror and spotted Reese grinning from ear to ear. Though he had only met Mrs. Parker once, he was beginning to like her a lot already.
After driving through the business district of the city, Mrs. Parker stopped at Megan’s Shakin’ Shakes, a little ice cream shake joint in front of the Westgate shopping center. “It’ll be another forty-five minutes before we get to my house, maybe longer if the traffic is deep. So, I think a little treat is in order. What would you all like?”
Britney smiled. “I’ll take the same thing I always get — Strawberry Shortcake.”
“Rocky Road for me,” Reese yelled out.
“I’ll take Peaches and Cream,” Raya said.
“Alright, I think I shall try Root Beer today,” Mrs. Parker said. “Hold tight, I’ll be back in a minute.”
Soon Mrs. Parker was back with their shakes. “A cool drink to end what has turned out to be quite a hot day,” she said.
Making a right exit onto the highway, Mrs. Parker inquired, “Raya, remind me again what your parents do. I vaguely remember that your mom was working for the courthouse.”
“Yes, she works for the courthouse and for Seitzberg, Hollister & Westman as a forensic psychologist,” Raya replied. “In fact, she is working on the Elaine Newburg case now.”
“What’s that? Besides the latest recipes, I don’t keep up with the news much,” Mrs. Parker chuckled.
“Well, it’s the one where this woman who was on the loose for years after being charged with identity theft, fraud, and a shooting on a bus, camouflaged her appearance, walked into the Sunshine Daycare Center, and started shooting people. Eight people were killed including four little children, and nine other people were injured,” Raya said.
“Oh yes, I heard of that. That’s very sad,” Mrs. Parker said quietly. “I don’t know how or why people get to the point where they want to kill others, and especially little children.”
“That’s not all though,” Raya continued. “Two of the children were her own and one of the adults killed was her sister. My mother is working to find out if she is mentally competent enough to stand trial. That’s where all the forensic work comes in.”
“Well, I hope that she makes the right decision,” Mrs. Parker said sounding tired. “I don’t know how she gets through these cases. It must be a lot of work having to decipher what people say and what they really mean or why people do what they do. Your mother is very smart and talented.”
“I believe she is too. On top of that she works really hard to do her research and make sure she has a good case before presenting it,” Reese interrupted. “Only thing is, she works a lot of loooooooooooong hours at the office and then loooooooooooong hours with more work at home,” he said.
“Speaking of home, do you want me to take you to your house? I was so busy heading to my house that I forgot –”
“Just bring them to our house. I have plenty of things we can do once we get home,” Britney interrupted, hoping they would all agree. “Besides, Raya and I are a team for the science fair in three weeks. We’re going to do a presentation on how personality type can be predicted by music preference.”
Mrs. Parker laughed. Her daughter was just like her, loved to have people over to the house, and was good at entertaining them.
“Hey, why didn’t you include me on this team? I like science fairs,” Reese whined.
“Your science project is due next week,” Raya reminded him. “I think you’re doing a skit on seaweed and space or something like that,” she said mischievously.
Reese folded his arms and gave his sister a sideways glance. “That’s not funny.”
After laughing at Reese’s antics, Raya got serious. “To answer your question, we can go to your house, Mrs. Parker. Thanks for the offer. Our parents aren’t home anyway. I’m afraid they’ll work through the weekend and we’ll just be alone at the house by ourselves, which isn’t particularly fun if you ask me,” Raya replied. “Especially since Reese likes to eat, and I don’t like to cook.”
“Good, good. I have dinner already cooking and I know you’ll love it. So, to my house we go,” Mrs. Parker agreed.
Rebecca Rayburton slammed the car door at the back entrance to Seitzberg, Hollister & Westman. She hated being late, but for the third time in a week here she was — late again by a whole hour. It was for a good cause, however, or so she thought. The case centered around Elaine Newberg was becoming more difficult each day, with twists and turns that seemed to come to the light as soon as she and her co-workers got close to what appeared to be closure. Little did she know, the closure she was seeking would not only be for others, but for herself as well.
“Good morning, Mr. Hollister,” Rebecca Rayburton said as she entered the sliding glass door leading to a large office.
“Good morning to you,” Adam Hollister replied turning from a file of folders on the back shelf. “I hope you got some sleep last night. We certainly need your great work on this case, but we don’t want you to die doing it.”
Mrs. Rayburton laughed. “Well, I don’t think I will die doing what I love to do. I will say that this case is unlike any other case I’ve worked on in the past. I don’t remember another case having as many twists.”
Adam Hollister carried the folders he was looking at back to his desk. He eyed Mrs. Rayburton with a puzzled expression on his face.
Mrs. Rayburton continued, “I discovered some new information last night that might help us get further along than what we are. We seemed to have stalled since the suspect fled the scene at Sunshine Daycare Center three weeks ago. The two people we have on the suspect list don’t match the descriptions that we have been given by witnesses. The three witnesses that were interviewed at the police station seem to think the shooter was a male, but the height and weight are telling a very different story. I am seriously beginning to think that the two suspects we have are the wrong ones, and we should begin looking at someone else.”
“How come? I thought we had them marked all along,” Mr. Hollister said glancing over his brown-rimmed glasses. His eyes squinted and his forehead furrowed at the large folders he had opened up on the desk.
“That is true,” Mrs. Rayburton said thoughtfully.
“I don’t think we should try to change the suspects in mid-stream of the investigation like this. It could be dangerous and it could get the case off track. We’d be back at square one,” Mr. Hollister said standing up. He grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and walked across the room to the door. “Besides that, what if we have the right ones now? If we let them get away, we could encounter more trouble down the road.”
“I know,” Mrs. Rayburton said firmly. Always one to stick to her guns, she went on, “There are two leads I think we should still have checked out.”
“And if these tips lead to nothing at all?” Mr. Hollister questioned.
“Well, we’ll proceed with the case as is,” Mrs. Rayburton replied. “Better to look and find nothing than to not look and everything we need is there.”
“What are the leads?” Mr. Hollister said reluctantly.
“The first lead is the abandoned brown house on the outskirts of the city, and the second lead is the stolen safe that was recovered from the get away car the suspect used,” Mrs. Rayburton said, flipping through her folder of papers on the desk.
“That could provide more clues,” Mr. Hollister agreed as he stepped outside the office door, “especially that stolen safe.”
Mrs. Rayburton returned home late as usual that Friday night. Raya and Reese were already in bed and asleep. Their homework was placed neatly on the small marble table that led into the dining room. Dishes from dinner were in the sink and the house was as in order as could be expected from two teenagers. Her husband, Ronald, was seated at the kitchen table, forehead furrowed, hovering over a pile of envelopes under a night light that was attached to the side of the island counter.
“These bills are piling up, Rebecca. I don’t know how much more we will be able to take. We may want to consider taking out another loan against the house to cover these bills.”
“Ronald, I don’t want to be greeted with that,” Rebecca said disappointedly. “There is not much more I can do. I am working and doing all that I can to help us recover. The identity theft took both of us for a loop, which we never planned for, and which I hope we don’t have to go through again.”
Mr. Rayburton sighed as he leaned back in his chair. “Of course, we never want to go through that experience again. We lost a lot. The house. The cars. The money. The appearance of being wealthy. I think we even lost ourselves and almost lost each other. There has to be another way for us to make this work.”
Rebecca Rayburton walked to the other side of the kitchen, dropping her purse, keys, briefcase, and the large number of folders she was carrying on the counter. It would be there when she awoke, if she got any sleep to begin with. I think we are losing ourselves, she thought.
“How much are our credit card bills?” Rebecca enquired, leaning against the counter. Not that she wanted to know about it at the moment. She wasn’t the accountant in the family. Her husband was, and he prided himself on keeping the books and finances in order, though it became more difficult after their identity was stolen. At some point, however, she knew she would have to deal with it and now was her opportunity to start.
“It is approximately $28,000.00,” Mr. Rayburton replied.
“I thought it was more than that. When I get a pay raise, I think I should be able to put some money down on those bills,” she said as she turned to open the refrigerator and get something to eat.
“When is that going to be?” her husband inquired.
“I don’t know. Maybe in the next month or two.”
“That won’t do us any good now,” he said rising from the table. “I will have to sleep on it and come up with something to get this taken care of. Perhaps, Martin, the new banker will be able to help in the morning.”
“Maybe he will,” Rebecca replied, though she wasn’t all that sure about that prospect. Martin Barrett was a greedy man by her estimation, but he knew how to turn any paper green. He pounced on anything that spoke of money or the prospect of money. In the back of her mind, Rebecca was certain he had something to do with her and her husband’s identity being stolen which led to their current financial struggles.
Lost in her own thoughts, she stood in the kitchen thinking about the case she was working on, the leads she had to investigate, her family’s wellbeing, and why this was all more difficult than she imagined it would be. An eerie thought, which had never occurred to her before, arose in her mind: Martin Barrett and Elaine Newberg have it out for me. But why?
Since her job as a forensic psychologist often required that she work on weekends, Mrs. Rayburton was up and ready fifteen minutes to five on Saturday. As she pulled out of their two-story mahogany colored house, her mind raced to what she might find at the abandoned brown house on the outskirts of the city. No one had lived there or even been there in what seemed like ages. But two weeks ago, a tip came in that suggested she visit the place. Unsure of what she might find, she decided to whisper a prayer.
She used to pray every day. After all, that is what she had been taught to do as a child. But circumstances beyond her control caused her to give up the faith she had, and along with it, the ability to pray. Now, she didn’t even know the words to say to God or even how to approach God. At this point in her life, she was more concerned with her work, with being successful, with making more money, and having the finer things in life. This is what she had worked for. She wanted to have it all and she was fighting to get it. She hadn’t let anything hinder her from rising to become one of the top forensic psychologists in the state. But on this one day, strangely, she felt the need to pray, for her strength was waning and the case before her seemed endless. Every other circumstance in her life had begged against everything she had believed.
“Lord, I don’t talk to you often and I am not sure how to talk to you now. But if you’re there and if you’re listening, give me strength here and now to complete this task.”
Forgetting to say ‘Amen’, she pulled into the driveway of Seitzberg, Hollister & Westman, pulled the keys out of the ignition, and proceeded to enter the building. At least this is one morning I am not late.
“Hi there, Mrs. Rayburton,” Elizabeth Cooper, the office assistant said as she entered the front door.
“I didn’t know you would be here today,” Mrs. Rayburton replied. “I thought you didn’t work weekends.”
“I don’t, but Naima had an emergency and couldn’t make it in. So here I am.”
“I see,” Mrs. Rayburton said. “When will Mr. Hollister be ready? We are supposed to do some investigation work based on a tip we received.”
“He should be off the phone in a few minutes and I’ll let him know you’re ready to go,” Elizabeth replied.
“Okay, sounds good. Thanks.”
Mrs. Rayburton waited in her own office until Mr. Hollister was off the phone and they then proceeded to the abandoned location in order to carry out further investigation.
“So what do you think we will find?” Mr. Hollister asked as they headed down the stairs. He was just not sure that anything would come of these leads, but in fifteen years of working with Mrs. Rayburton, he had never known her to be wrong. Her instincts, or smarts, or whatever it was had saved many a case, so he was willing to go with her on this one too.
“I’m not sure. But since we don’t have all of the information we want at the moment, it is best not to make any assumptions,” Mrs. Rayburton replied as they headed to her car.
After picking up a fellow detective and a police officer, they headed to the abandoned house across town.
Ronald Rayburton arrived at Martin Barrett’s bank office at nine o’clock on Monday morning. He had his misgivings about getting another loan to pay off debts, but it seemed he had no other choice. On top of that, Martin Barrett wasn’t the most straight-forward person to deal with about money or anything else, particularly if nothing was in it for him or if the risk was too great. He was the only person, however, who understood their financial situation and Ronald was getting desperate for a solution.
“Good morning, how may I help you?” the petite, brown-haired receptionist asked.
“I’m Ronald Rayburton. I have an appointment with Martin Barrett this morning,” Mr. Rayburton told her.
“Okay, I will let him know you’re here.”
After disappearing into a back office for a minute, she came back out and said, “Mr. Rayburton, Mr. Barrett will be with you in a minute. If you would like, you can take a seat and help yourself to some coffee.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Mr. Rayburton replied kindly. He went and took a seat near the window, still wondering if he was making the right decision. His wife’s concerns were not unfounded. If she knew for certain I was here, she would probably disapprove of this appointment, he thought. But, it is for a good reason.
Interrupting his thoughts, a stocky man of medium height pushed open the office door muttering something to himself. “Oh, Mr. Rayburton, come in. What can I help you with today?”
Mr. Rayburton promptly got up and entered the office, letting the door slam behind him. “Looks like you’re quite busy, so—”
“I’m always busy, what is it that you need?” he asked gruffly.
“I’ll get right to the point then. I need to know what it would take to get another loan,” Mr. Rayburton answered quickly.
“Well, it’ll take the same thing it always takes. You can borrow against your house, your car, your wife’s car, or anything of exceptional value.” Looking over his brown-rimmed glasses, Mr. Barrett continued. “The loan fee will be 9% and the interest rate will be 12% or something like that.”
“What about repayment terms?” Mr. Rayburton asked. “You know already that we are not as financially stable as we were several years ago, and we really wouldn’t want to get into something that is way over our heads. Thinking long-term, will we have to be concerned about foreclosure if we come up late one or two months?”
“No. We’re friends, right? Friends always have each others’ backs,” Mr. Barrett replied trying to sound reassuring. “Repayment will be based on your income. According to you, it isn’t as much as it used to be but I think you will be fine – just fine,” he said turning to his computer. Logging in to his loan book, he saw several red flags on the Rayburton’s account – bad credit score, previous foreclosure, job loss, a number of other bad debts – but he chose not to mention any of it.
Friends? Mr. Rayburton thought as he looked quizzically at Mr. Barrett staring at his computer screen. Friends? His mind drifted back to three years ago when they had lost their house. Mr. Barrett was supposed to be the one to help them keep from being foreclosed on, but he seemed powerless at the time to do anything about it. He had promised to help them keep their first house no matter what it took, but it always seemed as though he knew a bit too much information and was working both ends of the stick to his own advantage. Though Mr. Barrett was now second in command at the bank, Mr. Rayburton wondered if he had gotten that position by a strong positive work performance or by manipulating the system. A less than comforting feeling crossed his mind and soul. He knew he was getting into something terrible, even sinister, but didn’t know what – at least not yet.
“Need some more help making a decision?” Mr. Barrett asked returning to the conversation.
“Not really,” he replied. Standing up, he stepped to the door, and said, “Let me think about this some more. No decision is better than a bad decision, right? I’ll talk to you soon.” Giving Mr. Barrett no time to answer, he opened the door and left.
The school bell at Crimson Junior High rang at eleven thirty on Tuesday morning as second period was about to begin. Raya didn’t seem to hear the bell as she was kneeling in front of her not-so-neat locker looking for her science paper. She was sure she had set it in there at the start of first period but now it was missing.
“What are you looking for?” Britney asked as she popped the lock to her own locker.
“My science paper,” Raya said frustratingly. “I thought I put it in here. I normally put my assignments in here after I finish them.”
“Oh, really?” Britney replied quizzically as if she knew something that Raya didn’t know. “You know you aren’t the neatest person in the world.”
Raya tilted her head around the locker door and looked at Britney. “You don’t have to tell me what I already know,” she whispered.
“Here girl,” Britney said holding up the paper in front of her. “You sent your paper to me last night to print it off since your printer was broken, remember.”
“Oh, thanks, I totally forgot about that.”
“I know.” Shutting her locker and flicking her shoulder length black hair to the right, she said, “I made three edits to it. Hope you don’t mind.”
“You did what?” Raya looked surprised and almost upset. “I hope you didn’t mess up my paper because I don’t have time to go through it again. You know you aren’t the best paper writer in the world or the best editor for that matter.”
“You don’t have to tell me what I already know,” Britney whispered to her. “I assure you I have good intentions and, I promise, your paper is perfect.”
Raya shook her head in disbelief. Britney had been her friend since second grade and they had practically done everything together. Unlike herself, she was a free spirit, had a heart of gold, saw something funny in almost everything, and was always one to do things on impulse. Nonetheless, best friends they were and she always had Raya’s back no matter what.
Raya shut her locker and grabbed her paper and science textbook. “Thanks for your help.”
“Not a problem. Friends help friends perfect their papers.”
Raya shook her head. “Let’s go. Class is about to start.” They turned the corner, walked up the stairs to the second floor, and took their seats in Mrs. Anderson’s science class.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Anderson, dressed in her signature blue cardigan sweater, entered the classroom and rapped the desk twice with her ruler to bring the talkative class to order.
“I hope all of you have completed your science papers and have not forgotten to bring them in today.”
“Got it,” the class said in unison.
“I will have the student in the front of each row pick up each student’s paper from the front to the back at the end of class.” Turning to the chalkboard, Mrs. Anderson continued, “Right now, let’s turn to page 89 in our textbooks and begin studying molecular structure.”
The final bell rang and Raya and Britney headed to the school library to begin working on their personality type/music preference science project for the science fair.
“Do you know what your mom found at that old house on the outskirts of town?” Britney asked.
“No, but it sounds like she may be on to something. They are not going to say what they found until a week or two from now,” Raya replied. “She and her team have been out there three days in a row and I can’t imagine that much evidence being in a place that has been abandoned for so long.”
“Aren’t they just looking for clues?” Britney inquired further.
“It isn’t just clues or obvious evidence, they’re also looking for trace evidence,” Raya replied knowingly.
“I don’t understand the difference. Seems to me that those are the same things.”
“No, not really. Trace evidence is deeper; that’s when they begin looking for things: marks, fingerprints, weapons, gloves, or anything that can be used to aid them in reconstructing the crime scenes or even describing other people that may have been involved – some of these things aren’t so obvious on the surface. Anything that may have been moved from the original crime scene can be tell-tale marks that could help them make important connections.”
They crossed the street and headed for the busy intersection where the library was located behind a hamburger shop.
“Speaking of connections, did you all ever find your stuff that was stolen or find out who broke into your house all those years ago?”
Not really wanting to think about that time, Raya ignored the question and pretended to be getting something out of her purse.
Britney continued, “You know the time when you had to move because someone broke into your house and then someone, or the same person, used your parent’s identity and stole all your money?”
“Yeah, I remember,” Raya said sheepishly. “What about that time?”
“I was asking did that person ever get caught?”
“I don’t know. We don’t even know who the person is or if some of our information is still out there. I don’t even want to think about it though. Some people have enemies that they know and others have enemies that they don’t know. Not that I have many, but quite honestly, I prefer not to know who our enemies are. Who was it that said ‘ignorance is bliss?’”
“Sounds like you’re saying it yourself.” Britney glanced at her.
Stopping at the end of the street, watching the hands change on the post, they stood there for a moment in silence. Raya remembered that time several years ago when her family had lost everything and they had to move in with a family friend for a while. Though they had had everything and seemed to have the perfect life at one point, they lost everything seemingly overnight. She had chosen to push that time out of her mind as much as possible. Her dreams of a happy and peaceful home were not to be realized any time soon. They had to start from scratch, all over again, from the ground up. After three years, it seemed they were still at point A or perhaps point B, if she wanted to be optimistic. Her parents were bent on getting back everything they had before, and they spent every waking moment doing just that. But it was still hard financially, and she began to wonder if it was even worth it.
The street hand sign gave them permission to go, and they headed across the busy intersection.
With no regard for the red light or the impending stop sign, seemingly out of nowhere, a car rushed down the street toward them.
“Look out!!” Britney yelled.
Screech! Bam! A loud popping sound could be heard.
In the nick of time, Raya and Britney ran to reach the other side of the street and fell on the sidewalk. Behind them, the car had slammed into a pole and hit the side of a mechanic’s shop.
“What was that?” Britney asked.
Standing up from the sidewalk, Raya turned around and stared at the destruction. Several people surrounded the crashed car while two men tried to lift the pole that had jammed into the passenger window. “I don’t know. Perhaps, we should just go inside the library.”
Over the past week, Ronald Rayburton thought frequently about Martin Barrett and the suggestion he had offered at their meeting earlier in the week. He called his best friend, Ryan, to get some advice.
“Hey, Ryan. How’s it going?” Mr. Rayburton asked after getting Ryan on the phone
“So far so good this week. I got a promotion on Friday. Now I’m the chief insurance adjustor at Heilmon Insurance Company,” he said proudly.
Mr. Rayburton laughed. “That is great news. I just knew you would get that promotion one of these days. It sure came faster than what we thought. Knowing how good you are in sales and marketing, you could be president of that company one day.”
“Well, I hope to get to that point. If not with this company, I may start my own company. But I wouldn’t want to be in competition with Mr. Heilmon. So I guess I would have to move across town or to another city.”
“I guess so. You know Mr. Heilmon likes being the only one in the business around here. He prides himself on offering services folks can’t get anywhere else,” Mr. Rayburton said.
“Yeah. I’ll think about that when the time comes though. Well, enough about me. What are you up to?”
Mr. Rayburton squared his face and straightened in his chair in his home office. “Well, we have a lot going on right now as you can imagine, particularly trying to get back on our feet financially. But I was calling to seek your advice about something.”
“Okay, what is it? You know I’m always willing to help,” Ryan replied.
“It’s about Martin Barrett and our finances,” Mr. Rayburton began.
“Uh-huh,” Ryan murmured knowingly.
“You know when we had our identity stolen, he attempted to help us keep our house, but that didn’t go too well in our favor. He did help us get a loan to pay off some debts and to cover some immediate needs. That worked out fine or so I thought. Now, we are in a bit more of a constraint so I went back to him last week to see about getting another loan, and something just doesn’t seem right. He’s grown cold and seems to know something that I don’t know. It’s just an uneasy feeling,” Mr. Rayburton said.
“If I recall correctly, Martin Barrett isn’t the most honest banker in the world. In fact, he is the same one who was involved in a ponzi scheme about a decade ago,” Ryan said. “If my recollection isn’t failing, he got a really good lawyer to get him off and he didn’t spend one day in jail. Some other folks did go to jail, a few of them for many years.”
“I heard about that,” Mr. Rayburton said thoughtfully. “But I had no idea he was that involved with it.” His voice trailed off.
Ryan continued emphatically, “My advice in this situation is a loud and clear NO. Just stop that train before it even gets going good.”
“Alright, I guess there is no choice in this matter,” Mr. Rayburton said.
“You don’t want to get tied down with Barrett and his scheming ways. As they say, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Mr. Rayburton chuckled, “Yeah, that’s true.”
“Besides, have you prayed about this whole thing?” Ryan asked quizzically. “I mean God has better ideas than I could give you any day and could help you if you just ask.”
“I hear you,” Mr. Rayburton replied as he hung up the phone. I’m not so sure He wants to hear from me now.
Ronald Rayburton thought long and hard about his conversation with Ryan. Though Martin Barrett was greedy when it came to money, in a million years, Ronald would have never imagined him being involved in something so egregious. How he got away with it was more a result of his scheming shenanigans than a mere lawyer’s efforts to get him off. Whatever it was, Ronald Rayburton didn’t want to know. He had other concerns now and his gut feeling and assumptions of two weeks prior were confirmed.
What am I going to do now? he thought to himself as he drove slowly along. After a long day of looking for work, he was supposed to be headed home, but wasn’t particularly making an effort to get there. His mind was filled with so many thoughts: What are we going to do? I am just about out of options. In fact, I am out of options and it will only be a matter of time before we are in the tank again.
He pulled over into a gas station, wrapped in his own thoughts, and just sat there. He knew he would take Ryan’s advice and move away from Martin Barrett as quickly as possible, but he wasn’t all too sure about Ryan’s second suggestion. God had been out of his life for the past twenty years, or better said, he had refused to let God into his life. He sat in the car, staring out into the nearly dark sky, reflecting on when he left God.
As a child, his family was poor. There was never enough money to pay all the bills, buy food or clothes, and have nice things like other kids his age had. As he grew older, he was determined to be successful, to get a good job, make a lot of money, and have all the things he never was able to have. For the most part, he did just that. He studied hard, made good grades, and went on to college at seventeen. He majored in law and criminal justice, graduated in the top five percent of his class, and two days after graduating landed a job with a top law firm. Within three months, he bought his own house and was promoted to senior counsel. Money was good, times were good, and he was able to bask in his success that afforded him the opportunity to have the finer things in life. Then their identity had been stolen and he had been laid off.
Every Sunday and once during the week, his mother and father had taken him and his three siblings to church. At church, he heard about Jesus, the miracles He worked, and learned how to pray. His faith was strong, at least that is what he thought and what his parents aimed to encourage in his life.
He got what he didn’t have, but he forgot what he did have.
Ronald Rayburton sighed and got out the car. He didn’t need the gas but he got it anyway. He listlessly filled up the tank and stood there staring at the gas meter. His world was falling apart again right before his eyes. And he didn’t know how to fix it.
Back in his neighborhood, he rounded the corner on to a lighted street to get to his house. Nothing at all seemed normal or right anymore.
“Hey, Dad,” Reese greeted him, with his back turned and his eyes glued to the video game screen in front of him.
“You should be in bed by now, shouldn’t you?” Mr. Rayburton inquired.
“I guess so but I was just finishing up this game,” Reese said.
Mr. Rayburton said nothing and walked up the stairs to the room he shared with his wife. Without thinking, he kneeled down by the bed and put his head down in position to pray.
Lord, I don’t know how to approach You or tell You anything about my life and our situation. My mother always said You already know everything even before it happens and that you’re never surprised or shocked by anything. I don’t know how true that is. It seems to me that if you know everything already, you would have done something for me, for us. You would have not allowed us to get into this position in the first place. Maybe You could have stopped all of this from happening.
He paused for a moment wondering if it was right for him to blame God. We are in deep financial trouble, Lord, and I don’t know what to do about it. I thought I had the solution, but I don’t. So I am asking You, if You can hear me, and if you can help me, please do so. Show us the way out. Bless my wife and my children. Please don’t let them suffer any more.
I know I haven’t always done what’s right. I didn’t talk to You when things were going good. In fact, I turned my back on You. I am sorry for this. If You can find the power to do so, please bless me again.
Without saying Amen, Mr. Rayburton got up and sat on the bed. A sense of peace and a renewed hope came over him. He didn’t know what would come next or even if God would do anything for him. But strangely, he didn’t worry about that. For the first time in a long time, he felt everything would be alright.
Mrs. Rayburton pushed open the side door to the old abandoned house. Mr. Hollister followed close behind with Mr. Cason, the detective, and Harold Brown, a police officer.
Not knowing what they would find, they kept their eyes and ears open to their surroundings.
Drug paraphernalia was scattered on a long brown table underneath a window. Duct tape lay beneath some papers on the floor. A couch was turned over and the three small rooms in the house, reeked of dusty air, filth, and mosquitoes.
“We should start sifting through these papers,” Mrs. Rayburton said pointing at a stack of papers on the floor. “Mr. Cason, you can start working in this room here.” She motioned toward a windowless room covered in black wallpaper.
“Will do. Should we mark what we find or box it up? I brought some boxes, tape, and marking materials along. If we find something that requires more time, we could just take it back with us,” Mr. Cason replied.
“We won’t be able to stay long so if you do find something, anything at all, let’s take it back. Harold will stand guard at the door.”
“Nothing seems too obvious,” Mr. Hollister said. “However, we may have to confiscate some of these items for forensics.” Stepping back from the table, Mr. Hollister opened a closet door and pulled out a large box which was the only thing inside.
Looking at the box warily, Mr. Hollister spoke up, “We should take this back to the office.”
Just then, they heard a noise coming from the back door. Without pausing, Mrs. Rayburton picked up the box and motioned for everyone to get out the front door. They got in their cars, drove to the end of the street, and waited.
Ronald Rayburton readied for work the next morning. On his way out the door, the phone rang. He circled back inside the house and looked at the caller ID.
“Martin Barrett,” he said aloud to himself. “You picked a fine time to talk.”
Ignoring the rings, he picked up his briefcase and shut the door to the house. Past experiences had taught him not to deal with people who lived in falsehood. He knew what he had to do and he was determined to do it.
On his commute to work, he decided to talk to God again. It was only the second time in a very long time. Normally, his morning commute was filled with listening to the news on the radio, mentally checking his daily schedule, or catching up on messages, emails, and texts. But this time was different…different for many reasons…different for him.
“Lord, it’s me again. I think you heard me several nights ago. But just to be sure, I’m asking for Your guidance and wisdom. Please, if You hear, answer me. I’m short on solutions, but I hope I’m not running short on grace and patience. Amen.”
Mr. Rayburton pulled into the parking spot designated for him at the hospital. Martin Barrett was still on his mind. But he couldn’t think about him much now. He had to get busy working for his patients and keeping his ears and heart open to God. Maybe, just maybe, He was speaking and Mr. Rayburton wanted to be sure he heard whatever it was He had to say.
Mrs. Rayburton and her team sat silently in their parked car watching two figures go in and out of the house. Mr. Hollister took pictures while Mr. Cason scribbled a detailed description of the two people on a yellow legal pad.
Who are these people? Do they live in this abandoned house? Is it their house to begin with? Do they have anything to do with the case? If so, what? All these questions flooded Mrs. Rayburton’s mind. She hated to be so uncertain about many things. She cracked the mental psyche behind cases for a living and considered herself to be quite sharp.
Mr. Hollister broke her train of thought. “We want to keep watching them over several days. Perhaps, at some point we will take them into custody. I assure you, what’s hiding in that house is just what we need to complete this case.” Mr. Hollister sounded so confident about this that Mrs. Rayburton was surprised.
“Sounds like a plan. Only thing is, we don’t want to make it seem like another drug bust. This time around we need to be certain before making any announcements,” Mrs. Rayburton said.
“Too cautious,” Mr. Cason piped in. “Pretty soon, they will notice something missing and know someone is on their trail. If they aren’t aiding the criminal, they’ll play victim. If they are, then they’ll be hesitant to talk to us in the first place.”
“Instead of waiting for several days, it would be better to lure them somewhere public where they’re used to going anyway. Like the joint on Eastside. These two look like they would be familiar with that place,” Mr. Hollister said.
“I agree,” Mrs. Rayburton said. “A message left inside the door or on the table with specific instructions and the familiar location as bait should do the job. At that point, our searching won’t be necessary. We’ll send another team to raid the house and take what is needed. The suspects will be in custody, and we can go through every item to see what we find.”
Another man in a black toboggan, jeans, and an orange shirt walked up to the house and let himself in. A few seconds later, he ran back out toward the car parked at the side of the street. Mr. Brown quickly put the car in reverse and sped off.
Ronald Rayburton walked into the local coffee shop early Tuesday morning. He had a 10:00 appointment with Martin Barrett which was less than two hours away. He wanted to have a clear head and a clear heart. Not that he was excited about meeting with the miserly man again, but this time, he knew what he would say. God had told him and he was no longer uncertain, but at peace about the results.
That spirit of peace energized his steps as he entered the coffee shop. The results were, well, far from his mind. He had learned to trust God just as his mother and grandmother had taught him when he was a child.
“Good morning,” the cheery barista behind the counter said. “How may I serve you today?”
Ronald Rayburton returned the “Good morning” and ordered a large white chocolate mocha. He stood near the far end of the counter, away from the entrance line, and waited for his order.
Pulling out his phone, he read the last message he had received from Martin Barrett two weeks earlier:
Ronald, stop by my office in two weeks. I will have a plan worked up for you by then. However, you should be aware that I can’t do anything else pro bono for reasons that may or may not be necessary for you to know. Bye. – Martin
Ronald wasn’t very interested in Martin’s plan now. His last few meetings with God was all he needed. “Why am I trying to work with a crook anyway? I know better – better enough not to get tricked again,” he said to himself.
Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice the barista approaching him with his mocha.
“Here you go, sir. Have a great day!” she said.
“Oh, thanks,” Ronald Rayburton replied. He put his phone back in his pocket, picked up his iPad off the counter, and headed out the door.
A half hour later, Ronald Rayburton arrived at Martin Barrett’s bank office. He was fifteen minutes early and would have to wait, but he didn’t mind.
“Good morning,” the secretary said.
“Good morning, I’m here to see Mr. Barrett,” Ronald Rayburton said.
“Okay, do you have an appointment?”
“Yes, an informal one. It may not be on your books, but I am a friend…was a friend, of his,” Ronald Rayburton said shifting his briefcase in his hand. “He sent me a text message two weeks ago and asked me to meet him this week about an issue we were working on.”
The petite, brown-haired secretary narrowed her eyes and furrowed her eyebrows as if questioning his answer.
After an awkward pause, she said, “Well, I will let him know you’re here. It may take a minute as he has been in and out of other board meetings this morning, so feel free to take a seat.”
“Thank you,” Ronald Rayburton said. He turned to take a seat in the waiting area. He began to wonder if she was keeping something from him, or worse yet, hiding something for Mr. Barrett. Before, there had never been so many nonverbal questions and knowing looks. An uneasy feeling settled over him but he quickly pushed it away. His conscience told him not to be sucked in any further into Martin Barrett’s plots and schemes.
Fifteen minutes later, the secretary opened the door and said, “You may come back now. Mr. Barrett is available.”
Ronald Rayburton walked through the door into Mr. Barrett’s office. He hoped that as fast as he went in was as fast as he came out.
“Ronald, glad you could make it,” Martin Barrett said looking over his brown-rimmed glasses.
“Looks like you’re quite busy as always,” Ronald Rayburton said.
Ignoring his response, Martin Barrett hit a few keys on his keyboard, pulled up a document and started reading.
“Here’s what we can do. I can get you another mortgage loan on your house. The loan will be for $280,000. The discount points are nine percent of the loan amount. The interest rate is twelve percent. And—”
“You can stop there,” Ronald Rayburton said.
“—And that does not include property taxes and property insurance,” Martin Barrett rambled on. “The loan is for fifteen years. If you pay off early, there is an extra fee. Your monthly cost will be approximately $3360.00. We can get you settled in this without much paperwork involved. I can’t give more of a break than that.”
“Are you kidding?” Ronald Rayburton said not really surprised.
Lowering his voice, he leaned forward in his seat and said, “Look here, Martin, you really need to consider your ways. You come across as a person who wants to help people, but under the surface you’re scamming them. Few people in this town know it, the majority don’t. I’m one of the few people who know it. You need to cease this unethical practice before it catches up with you far more than it already has.”
Martin Barrett was stunned. Ronald Rayburton had heard something that was meant to be kept secret, but the covers were slowly coming off.
“As bad as things are for my family, I won’t be needing your help,” Ronald Rayburton said picking up his briefcase and heading to the door. “But one day, you might be needing mine.”
Rebekah Rayburton and her team were back at the office early Monday morning. It had taken several days including the weekend to go through the things they found at the old abandoned house. They would find out what was in the box, what was on the papers, and what significance the other items they confiscated held. But that would be in another day or two.
Mr. Cason, the chief detective and his team discovered several items of interest. Many of them involved their colleague, Rebekah Rayburton. Whether to tell her now or later was a different matter as they didn’t want to create a conflict of interest just yet.
Credit card statements, bank statements, photo IDs, two credit reports, duct tape, cleaning supplies, leather gloves, syringes, several bags of a white powdery substance, an unloaded gun, and several scribbled notepads were all set aside for further investigation.
Mr. Cason pulled out the photo ID. He put it under a microscope for a better look. Underneath the light, he could see a faint picture of his colleague alongside all her vital information.
Turning to his partner, Walter Meinik, Mr. Cason said, “I think this might be a case of identity theft.”
“I thought it was more of a criminal case. How did you come to that conclusion?” Walter Meinik asked.
“Take a look at this,” Mr. Cason said holding out the photo ID.
Mr. Meinik put the photo under his microscope, “Rebekah Rayburton? I can’t believe this. All along, we were looking for evidence to point in another direction but she was the target. I don’t understand why?”
“She didn’t become the target until she gave that strong statement promising to bring the person to justice who shot up that day care center,” Mr. Cason said. “Even with that, having all your information out there is dangerous considering the circumstances. Now, we may know the source of their financial problems a couple of years back.”
“I guess so,” Mr. Meinik said. “About those other items are they related to Rebekah Rayburton’s personal identity?”
“They probably are. We’ll have to go through each one more carefully. Things could be more dangerous than what we originally thought since our suspect and her partners are still on the loose. There is no telling if they are still using this information.”
“So there were people at the house?”
“Yes, it’s not as abandoned as we thought,” Mr. Cason replied turning to the side table near his microscope. “I’m going to head home now. Before you go, make sure this stuff – all of it – is locked away for further investigation. We may find more than what we originally bargained for.”
“Will do,” Mr. Meinik said. “Good night.”
On the following Saturday morning, Raya and Britney arrived at the library fifteen minutes after it opened. The weather was sunny and breezy. The library was already filling up with students working on various projects.
As they walked up the sidewalk to the entrance, Raya asked, “Do you want to check out some books or just start working here?”
“We don’t have much else to do but work on this project, so I was thinking that we stay here a couple of hours and then go down the block and get some burgers and fries.”
“Alright, fine with me.”
The girls entered the library. The desk reference manager greeted them. Her name was Anna and the girls both knew her from previous visits. She had deep set brown eyes and jet black hair that hung straight down around her face with a streak of red on the left side.
“Hi there, girls. Need some help today?”
“Yes,” Raya and Britney said in unison. “We actually might need a lot of help.”
“Okay,” Anna said. “Well, what’s the project?”
“I’m not that good at research, but I’m good at writing,” Raya said.
“I can tell that’s true,” Anna replied. “After winning that state essay competition in third grade I knew you would be good at this stuff.”
“I’m good at something too,” Britney kidded in a whining voice. “Like swimming, dancing, talking, hairdressing, art, math, swinging, ice sledding –”
Raya looked at her strangely. “Like being crazy, talking loud in a library, embarrassing me –”
“Of course, you both are good at many things,” Anna replied. “But let’s get to down to business. Tell me about the subject of your project and I’ll help you get the resources. Almost anything you need to know about any subject can be found in a library.”
“That’s right. We need to get to work,” Britney said seriously.
Raya began, “We are doing a presentation on how personality type can be predicted by music preference. A good psychology, music, or personality book or a book containing all of these subjects should work well for what we want to do.”
“That sounds like a wonderful topic,” Anna replied. Moving from behind her desk she motioned for the girls to follow her up the stairs to several aisles marked “social sciences.”
“I’ll show you some books first. If you think you won’t have enough time to find what you need in a thick book like this,” she said as she pulled a heavy book off the third shelf, “I will show you some journals that might be easier for you to digest.”
“That’ll be great. I don’t like reading textbooks anyway,” Britney said begrudgingly.
“The Social and Applied Psychology of Music is a good book to begin with,” Anna said as she pulled it off the bottom shelf. “Another book is Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. They aren’t too technical. Wanna start with these?”
“We’ll look at them. The one with the brown cover looks interesting. But first show us the journals, please,” Britney said.
“Right this way,” Anna said. They turned the corner and entered another room. It was filled with an array of magazines. Anna led them to a far table and picked up one.
“This is the latest edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology. It will have some good articles that might be useful. But…” she said turning to the adjacent table. “This here is the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and exactly what you might need is on page 31 — “How Personality Can Predict Music Preference.”
“Bingo!” Raya said. “Thanks.”
“Not a problem at all. You can stay here if you like. It’s a bit quieter. If you want to check out just let me know before six o’ clock.”
Raya and Britney set their books on the table, pulled out their laptops and got to work on their project.
Ronald Rayburton felt like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders following his last meeting with Martin Barrett. He couldn’t remember feeling so relieved about anything. That relationship, if it could be called a relationship at all, was over for good.
He unlocked the back door to their house and headed straight for the den. Dropping his suitcase on the loveseat, he plopped in his easy chair. Although he was not too interested in the news or anything else in particular, he turned on the TV anyway. Maybe something will catch my attention and keep me occupied for a few minutes before the rest of the family gets home, he thought.
Flipping through the channels, he caught a quick glimpse of a familiar face. Turning back he tuned in to the local station KYFF-TV.
Ronald Rayburton leaned forward in his seat and turned up the volume.
A local news reporter was delivering a report outside of Martin Barrett’s bank.
“A warrant has been issued by local police for the arrest of Martin Barrett. Martin Barrett is a well-known banker in the state of New Jersey who, by most people’s estimation, has been known to do a lot of good and help a lot of people. Or so it seems. Police are looking to take him into custody on several counts of bank and mortgage fraud as well as identity theft. Sources tell us that Martin Barrett is currently out of the country. His secretary stated that he should be back within the week, but did not go into any further detail. We will keep you updated on this developing story. Back to you, Brian.”
Ronald Rayburton leaned back in his chair. He wasn’t really surprised or shocked. His gut feelings had been correct.
One thought lay at the forefront of his mind: Is Martin Barrett behind our identity being stolen and all our finances and assets suddenly disappearing?
He tried to push the thought aside. Martin Barrett had been his friend all throughout college. They had played basketball together, studied together, and even went into business together once. But something had changed Martin Barrett — or Martin Barrett had changed himself — from the smart, outgoing, awarded college student and businessman to a secretive, sinister criminal who was so hungry for money that he didn’t care who got sucked into his web while he was in pursuit of it — even if they were his friends.
Ronald Rayburton leaned his head back on the chair rest, closed his eyes, and wondered about the truth — his truth, their truth, and if any truth existed at all.
Raya’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Dad, we’re home.”
Rebekah Rayburton stood at the head of the island counter in their kitchen. Her husband and children were seated, enjoying their breakfast and chatting with each other. She was delighted to see her family all together. It had been a long time — too long in fact — since they had been together for a meal or anything else. A smile crossed her face, and she silently hoped it would be this way forever.
Setting her glass of orange juice on the counter, she turned to her family and said, “It’s been a really long time since we’ve gone to church.”
“I can see where this is headed already,” Reese said loudly. “And I don’t want it to go there. Neither do I want to go there.”
Everyone laughed. Reese never could sit still through an entire sermon much less a whole service. When he was a young boy, his parents had decided that he could discover God in his own way, so they let him off into Sunday School.
“On a serious note though, I think we should go back to church tomorrow,” Rebekah said.
“It will also be one of the few days you don’t have to report to work,” Ronald Rayburton said.
“That’s true,” Rebekah said as if she didn’t need to be reminded.
“What church do you have in mind?” Ronald asked. “Church life has become so foreign I’ve forgotten how to navigate those troubled waters.”
“The Living Church. It’s right off the main highway.”
Ronald Rayburton interrupted her, “Is that the church that has a small chapel across the street from it?”
“I think so,” Rebekah Rayburton replied. “Why?”
“I went to that chapel late one night to pray, you know, to clear my head, and try to sort some things out,” Ronald Rayburton said. “Even though it’s located near the highway, it was quiet inside, solemn lights, small stained glass windows. Reminds me of my grandmother’s church.”
“We are talking about the same place,” Rebekah Rayburton said furrowing her brow in an attempt to remember. “The whole atmosphere around that building calls me back to my faith that I once had and that I hope I still have, at least a little bit of it.”
Looking at her parents, Raya thought they were trying to reminiscence about something in the past that she didn’t know about. Maybe they were trying to find themselves in the midst of all the trouble they had endured. “I think we ought to do it,” Raya said after a moment of silence.
“Do what, honey?” Ronald asked.
“Do what Mom said. Go to church. Church would be a change for all of us, maybe bring us closer together.”
Reese looked at Raya knowingly. “Reese may learn to find a new love for church too,” Raya said smiling at him.
“Alright then,” Ronald Rayburton said pushing back from the table, “Tomorrow, bright and early, we’ll head to church for the first time in a long time, together.”
Rebekah Rayburton turned to put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. She silently prayed, Lord, thank you for this moment, this family, and this opportunity to get it right.
Raya was up, bright and early, the next morning which happened to be Sunday. The excitement she felt in her soul was overwhelming. For the first time in a very long time, her family was doing something together. She didn’t mind her autonomy as a teenager, but it was nice to still know her family was as together as it could possibly be during this time.
Reese who had never cared much for church had to be awakened. Knocking on his door, Raya pushed it open and saw him crashed between his sloppily covered sheets and disheveled blankets.
“Reese,” she called, “It’s time to wake up. We need to get ready for church.”
“Are we still trying to go to church this morning?” Reese said sleepily.
“Yes,” Raya replied. “And you need to be ready and not hold us up,” she said sternly.
Reese was now sitting up. “We haven’t been to church all year. You just messed up my video gaming afternoon with Piper.”
“That is beside the point,” Raya said. “True, we haven’t been to church all year. Don’t you think God would like to see our shining faces, especially yours, one day out of the year in His house? Like it or not, we’re going, so get yourself ready. Mom is already ready.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Mom is always ready — ready for a tornado even though there is not one in sight,” Reese moaned as he began throwing his sheets, pillows, blankets, and sleeping buddies on the floor beside the bed.
After walking out the door and shutting it behind her, she turned around and stuck her head back through Reese’s bedroom door. “Your video games will be here when we get back.”
In a pouting fit, he threw his pillow at the door, attempting to hit her in the face with it but missing as Raya quickly shut the door behind her.
Back in her room, Raya got dressed in a purple lace dress with a matching sweater, black flats, and her handbag.
“Reese! Raya! Breakfast is ready,” her mother called.
Raya checked herself twice in the mirror before hurrying down the stairs. She hadn’t dressed up for anything in a long time and thought church would be the perfect occasion to do so.
As the family gathered around the table for breakfast, the sun was shining brightly through the kitchen window. Mrs. Rayburton opened the curtains and lifted the blinds to let it shine in a little more.
She silently prayed. It is so wonderful to see everyone together and happy on this morning, Lord. After so many years of putting You on the back burner, thank You for keeping us safe and in the palm of Your hand, and not giving up on us. I don’t know if we’ll do this next week, or the week after that, or any time in the future. But, today, thank You for making life beautiful.
Mr. Rayburton poured his orange juice, set it on the table, and asked, “Would anyone like to say grace?”
Reese volunteered to do it. Raya who was sitting across from him cut him a side eye and more of a smirk than a smile.
“Okay, go ahead Reese,” Mr. Rayburton said.
“Lord, thank You that the biscuits aren’t burnt; that the eggs are scrambled and not fried; that hashbrowns have been left out because I don’t like them; that the orange juice has sugar; that the pancakes are round; that the sausage is just perfect; and that the cinnamon rolls were not forgotten. We say thank You also for lunch which we hope will come soon, and for dinner and for dessert that we hope will be fast approaching. Amen.”
“Amen,” everyone said jovially.
A few seconds later, the phone rang. Mr. Rayburton got up to answer it but received no response from the other end. He returned to his seat at the table. No sooner had he sat down than the phone rang again. He went to answer it but again heard nothing from the person on the other end.
“Who was it?” Mrs. Rayburton asked when he returned to the table the second time.
“I don’t know. The person on the other end just holds the phone and doesn’t say anything.”
“That’s weird. Don’t know anyone who could be calling on Sunday morning.” Mrs. Rayburton said.
“Yeah. I don’t either,” Mr. Rayburton said slowly, although he had a slight idea that Martin Barrett was trying to play a trick on them.
The phone rang for the third time. “Maybe you should answer it this time,” Mr. Rayburton suggested.
“Alright.” Mrs. Rayburton answered the phone.
“You better be careful,” an eery female voice said on the other end. “You are being watched very closely. Your family is being watched. I know who you are and what you are doing. And you will pay for what you are doing to destroy my life and take away my freedom.”
Mrs. Rayburton held the phone for a minute longer and slowly hung it up before returning to her place at the table.
“Who was it?” Mr. Rayburton asked.
Mrs. Rayburton furrowed her brow and said, “It was a woman. She didn’t leave her name or anything but left a weird message.”
“And the weird message was?” Mr. Rayburton asked slowly.
“You better be careful. You are being watched very closely. Your family is being watched. I know who you are and what you are doing. And you will pay for what you are doing to destroy my life and take away my freedom,” Mrs. Rayburton said repeating the message.
“That is probably Martin Barrett up to his scheming ways again,” Mr. Rayburton said. “Whatever it is, we needn’t let it or her hinder us from going to church. I’ll call the attorney in the morning.”
The Rayburtons arrived at the church ten minutes before the main service was to begin. A plump woman of about fifty greeted them cheerily at the door and led them to their seats in the middle aisle of the church. A soft melody played from the organ as others quickly filed into the pews.
“Good morning,” an elderly gray-haired couple said in unison as they sat behind them. “Is this your first time worshipping with us?” the lady who introduced herself as April Anderson asked.
“Well, no,” Mrs. Rayburton replied. “We’ve actually been here before but it was several years ago. We weren’t going to come this morning until we made the decision to come together yesterday.”
“That is lovely,” April Anderson replied. “We’ve been going here for nearly fifty years and we love to see younger families visit us, and we love it even more when they join. It is always a blessing to see children being raised under the influence of the Word.”
“Yes, indeed it is. I’m afraid we’ve gotten too far from that,” Mrs. Rayburton said, not really wanting to get into any further conversation.
The choir members filed into the choir box and the music director took his place facing them as the musicians started to play “How Great Thou Art”.
April Anderson leaned up and said in a low voice, “If you need anything — anything at all — just let us know. We are more than willing to help.”
Mrs. Rayburton said, “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
They all stood as the music director led them in singing “How Great Thou Art” as well as several other selections. After a word of prayer from another minister and the reading of the announcements, the music director came back to the podium and led the congregation in singing “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus.” How those words have proven to be true over the past couple of years, Mr. Rayburton thought to himself. True friends are really hard to come by.
When the congregation finished singing, the pastor, Harrison Carter, took his place at the pulpit.
“Our text today is going to come from Isaiah 41:10. Please open your Bibles and stand with me as we read this verse together: ‘Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.’”
As the congregation sat back down, Pastor Carter said, “Today, I want to help you answer the question: Where is God when life hurts? Where is God in the midst of our pain and problems? Where is God when friends betray us and situations seem uncertain and unsure? Where is God when fear overwhelms us? When life does not make sense can we turn to God to make sense out of it all?
“These are questions that almost every person asks when they are faced with adversity. People come up with different answers to these questions based upon their stage in life and their belief system. Maybe God does not exist. Maybe God is silent. Maybe God is sleeping. Maybe God has given up on the world. None of these answers are correct.
“God is in the same place He always has been and that is with us. When fear seeks to overtake us and overwhelm us, God is with us. There is no reason to worry or to be sad because God is with us. He gives us strength. He helps us. He holds us up in the palm of His hand.”
Pastor Carter repeated the verse, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
“When we face problems that are too much to bear, God does not want us to fear, or to run away, or to hide, He wants us to know that He is right there with us. In our darkest hour, He is right there providing His light. At our lowest point, He is right there picking us up. In our sadness and our grief, He is comforting us. When God gives us strength and help, we have strength and help indeed.”
Ronald Rayburton thought back to Martin Barrett and the fears he faced when attempting to separate the truth from lies. This was what he needed to hear at this time. The next few days would prove to be no less difficult than the past ones.
To Rebekah Rayburton, nothing had been sweeter in a long time than the family’s few hours at church that Sunday. For that period of time, her seemingly increasing problems were over. The daily battles she had to fight to protect her family and keep her own name and career from being dragged through the mud by others seemed like it wasn’t a battle at all. For the moment at least, she was her old self — carefree, friendly, ambitious, and always willing to serve. This one church service had given her a new perspective on life, one that she had had before but had somehow lost over the years. In trying to get ahead, she had offered God a backseat and attempted to navigate life on her own. But she’d found that God had a way of giving her priorities a backseat and showing her just how difficult things could get when she forgot the path of faith.
“When we face problems that are too much to bear, God does not want us to fear, or to run away, or to hide. He wants us to know that He is right there with us. In our darkest hour, He is right there providing His light.” Mrs. Rayburton thought about the pastor’s words as she and her family drove home.
The drive home was quiet and peaceful. Everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts. For over half an hour, the only noise the Rayburtons’ could hear was the noise from their own car engine and the sound of other cars beeping their horns and rushing by in an attempt to get somewhere as well. Even Reese who normally was the first to talk on any given day was silent. So silent, Mrs. Rayburton looked through the mirror to see if he was sleeping. But he wasn’t. Looking out the window, he was lost in his own thoughts too.
Breaking into the silence of the afternoon, Ronald asked his wife, “What did you think about the service today?”
“It reminded me of many years ago.”
“Years ago,” Rebekah said, “We all used to go to church, remember, every Sunday morning and even on some Wednesdays. It was a good feeling to be back in the church pew and to pray prayers that meant something and sing hymns that were uplifting and hear a word from the Lord that was inspiring and encouraging.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Ronald Rayburton said. After a bit of a pause he continued, “I think the pastor spoke directly to us today. The whole idea that God is with us at all times, in all places, even in our darkest moments — that really meant something to me. When we lost almost everything a couple years ago, I thought God had moved away, like He wasn’t present anymore or listening to us. Everything really seemed hopeless and even now, as early as last week, I thought God was off somewhere else not really hearing me or helping us.”
“And now you don’t think that anymore, right?” Mrs. Rayburton asked.
“No, I don’t think that any more for sure. The message today confirmed that. But I do think God is answering, leading, and guiding us in His own way and in His own time. Maybe He is speaking in that ‘still small voice’ and we just have to be quiet enough and trust Him enough to listen.”
“That’s true,” Rebekah said as they pulled into a local restaurant four blocks away from their house. “Maybe He’s been trying to give us the answer we need all along and was just waiting for us to listen.”
“Take-out or dine in?” Ronald Rayburton asked Rebekah as he went inside to place the order.
“I don’t like dining in, so please do take-out.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. I remember now,” Mr. Rayburton said.
As Mr. Rayburton went inside to place their order, Mrs. Rayburton turned to her daughter, “What do you think about church today, Raya?”
“I think it was great. The first verse I ever memorized at our old church for that Bible drill tournament was the one the pastor read over and over again today — Isaiah 41:10.”
“Really? Can you still say it from memory?” Mrs. Rayburton asked.
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness,” Raya said without hesitation.
“I should probably get back to memorizing Bible verses now but I haven’t forgotten that one,” Raya said. “It just reminds me that God is with us and we don’t have to be afraid of any experience or of anyone that we face in life. Sometimes, situations can be intimidating and people can act as though they have some kind of power over us, but that is really not the case when God is in control of our lives.”
“That’s true,” Mrs. Rayburton said. She was amazed at how much her daughter had grown and even at how she interpreted the message. “I am glad that we are promised strength and assistance to handle anything we face in life. And yes, do get back to memorizing Bible verses. They will be good for you when you need to bring them to mind and don’t have a Bible ready.”
“I will,” Raya said. “By the way, what was the first verse you memorized?”
“I think it was John —.”
“Besides John 3:16, please, Momma, everybody in the world memorizes that verse,” Raya said.
“Well, not everybody,” Mrs. Rayburton laughed. “Okay, well the second verse I memorized was not too far away from yours. It was Isaiah 40:31: ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ That’s the second verse I memorized when I was about eight or nine years old and my grandmother was the Sunday school teacher.”
Raya smiled. “I think I will memorize that verse next,” she said.
“Me too,” Reese finally spoke up.
“That’s good, Reese. What did you like best about church today?” Mrs. Rayburton asked.
“I liked the singing best,” Reese said, “especially the tall, red-haired lady who sang ‘How Great Thou Art’. I think she sang sweetly like the birds do. The song even says so, ‘And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees’.”
“I’m not sure she was red-headed or a bird or singing in the trees,” Raya said looking at him.
“We get what you mean Reese. I think the sun through the stained-glass windows caused her hair to look red from our seats in the building, but she did sing beautifully,” Mrs. Rayburton agreed.
“Maybe that was it,” Reese said. “But I think it is important that we and all people remember that God really is great. And I think He is greater than we give Him credit for being.”
“He sure is,” Mrs. Rayburton said as Mr. Rayburton returned to the car with the food.
“That took long enough,” Mrs. Rayburton said with a quizzical look on her face.
“I know. A lot of people were in line. I didn’t think it would take that long,” Mr. Rayburton said. “After church on Sunday is probably the worst time to order take-out food because they are busy serving all the dine-in people first.”
“I guess so. Never thought about it that way,” Mrs. Rayburton said as she navigated out of the parking lot and drove the rest of the way home.
After they entered the house, everyone went up to their own rooms to change clothes. Mrs. Rayburton noticed the message light beeping on the phone in the living room. Instead of checking the messages first as she normally did upon entering the house, she decided to say a prayer and let it be. The message she had heard earlier that morning stuck with her. The Bible verses on not fearing and trusting God rang in her ears as she headed to the bedroom to change clothes.
Back in the kitchen, Mr. Rayburton served out plates and Raya who was first to come downstairs helped pass them out as the rest of the family gathered in the living room. He called to Reese to check the mail which hadn’t been checked in three days.
Reese did as asked. “Here is all the mail from, like, the past three weeks,” he said as he came in with an armful of envelopes.
“Thanks. This is what you get though for not checking the mail each day like I told you,” Mr. Rayburton replied.
“I know, sorry, Dad. I’ll do better tomorrow,” Reese said.
He sounded like he meant it this time so much that Mr. Rayburton said nothing else. “Take your plate with you to the living room.”
Mr. Rayburton stood at the kitchen counter thumbing through the letters. Bills. Credit card statements. Bills. Credit card offers. Bills. Bank overdraft notices. Bills. Loan offers. This just never ends, he thought. He looked at the rest of the envelopes and noticed a handwritten one with no return address. It was postmarked nearly two months ago. Why am I just receiving this now? He proceeded to open it but stopped midway. He remembered the sermon earlier that day and instead of reading what he already assumed was negative information, he said a prayer, picked up his plate, and headed to the living room.
Touched By an Angel had just started playing on the television.
“What were the messages about?” Mr. Rayburton asked his wife.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“You don’t know?” Mr. Rayburton replied assuming she had checked them as she always did.
“No, I don’t know. I didn’t check them,” she said. “I was about to though. What was in the mail?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You don’t know?” Mrs. Rayburton asked. “I thought you were in the kitchen reading them.”
“No, I wasn’t. I didn’t open them,” he said. “I was about to though.”
Mr. Rayburton sat down beside his wife on the wrap-around leather coach. The peace that passed between them was reflective of the peace that had entered their hearts and the collective peace they hoped would keep their family in the coming weeks.
Rebekah Rayburton woke up at three o’ clock the next morning as she always did. The serenity of Sunday was still on her mind, but her thoughts quickly changed to the day ahead. The strange phone call she received early Sunday morning lingered. The unopened mail was still sitting in the kitchen waiting for her to give it attention.
After readying herself for work, she poured herself a cup of coffee. With only a few minutes before her work commute started, she sat down at the island counter in the kitchen to go through the mail from the past few days. Bills, credit card statements, and letters of thanks from charity organizations were the bulk of what had come in.
Then a handwritten envelope with no return address caught her attention. She opened it and began to scan its pages. Although a little faded, she recognized several pages detailing the terms of a loan for their previous home which they had lost. She also noticed credit reports pulled on her husband and herself. She turned the envelope upside down and two Mastercards and an American Express card fell out on the table.
This is quite strange, she thought. I am sure I threw all these documents away years ago because we didn’t have a need for them after a while. In fact, I shredded these old loan papers, and I’m certain we closed down these credit card accounts. Why would someone have these papers on us in the first place? Why would someone send it to us? Why would someone keep our mail and personal information from so long ago?
As these thoughts ran through her mind, she folded up the contents of the letter and put it in her briefcase with other files for her day’s work. Before unlocking the door leading to the garage, she peeked out the window into the black early morning sky. All around was quiet and peaceful. No one was leaving their homes, no cars were passing by.
She slung her purse over her shoulder, picked up her briefcase and headed out to her car in the garage. After pulling out, she circled around her neighborhood twice just to give herself a bit of reassurance that everything as far as she could tell was alright. Raya and Reese would be headed to school in a few hours. Her husband would be leaving for his job soon as well. She didn’t see anyone, so she headed to her office.
Rebekah Rayburton arrived at work and was greeted by Carter Cason, the chief detective for the city.
“Good morning, Mrs. Rayburton, we have some documents and other items that I think you need to take a look at today.”
“What kind of documents?” she asked as she put down her briefcase on the mahogany desk in her office and turned on her computer. “Why is it important that I see them?”
“Well, we were investigating the box that you and your team found in the abandoned house a couple of weeks ago —”
“Yes, what about it? I didn’t think anything of significance would be found there. In fact, we were going to try to go back to that abandoned house today because there may be more evidence. What we really wanted to get into is the double-bolted closet in the far back room. We weren’t able to get to that because there were some people using the house as a hide-out, probably for selling drugs.”
“Those people would be significant,” Mr. Cason interjected. “They may need to be brought in for questioning. We believe we’ve identified at least two of them by fingerprints that were on the items.”
Mrs. Rayburton continued, “We could possibly get them in for questioning later this week. But back to that box — it was the only thing we could pick up of substance in the short timeframe before someone attempted to get in the house through one of the side doors. We had to get out without being seen, but I think that one of those men may have seen us drive off because he attempted to run toward our vehicle.”
“You told me that. The stuff in that one box may be all the evidence that you need,” Mr. Cason said. “Mr. Meinik and I were going through it Friday night and there is a great deal of personal information contained in it.”
“Personal information?” Mrs. Rayburton questioned.
“Yes. Personal information on you, your husband, your finances, your credit, your house, and so forth.”
Mrs. Rayburton put her hand to her forehead as if she had just felt a sudden rush of hot air.
Mr. Cason continued, “Even though it was faded, it looked strangely familiar. After showing it to Mr. Meinik, he was certain that it was information on you. The photo ID, albeit several years old, was yours.”
Just then the phone rang. The secretary, Nicole, pushed the door open and stuck her head in. “It’s for you, Rebekah.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Rayburton said.
“I’ll have to get back with you on this later,” Mr. Cason said. “It would be better if you took a look at it instead of my trying to explain it.”
Mrs. Rayburton nodded as she picked up the phone to take the call.
Raya and Britney walked to their locker rooms after the last class of the day.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” Britney asked.
“I’m going to go straight home and finish up my report for the science fair. I’ve only got a page or two left,” Raya said.
“You mean OUR report….”
“Right, right. OUR report,” Raya said with emphasis.
“Well, I guess I’ll come with you. I only wrote about a page which is all the two cents I have to offer. The interesting part about it is that I found what personalities correspond with each music genre like fans of jazz music have high self-esteem while fans of hip-hop are outgoing. ”
“That is interesting. Music preference not only can be a determinant of personality, but also of one’s mood. For example, Blues music can put you in a slow, sad mood while pop music can put you in a courageous, free-spirited mood.”
“This is going to be fun,” Britney said as she opened her locker.
“By the way, you don’t have to worry much about writing. You’re doing the talking part of the presentation, remember?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
The girls grabbed their stuff out of their lockers and headed out the main entrance to the school where they crossed the street to walk to Raya’s house which was five blocks away.
“Let’s get a snack and then we can go over our presentation,” Raya said as she dropped her backpack and phone on the bed in her room.
“Sounds good to me,” Britney said. “Where is your computer at anyway?”
“It’s on the desk by the purple lampstand. I didn’t shut it down last night so if you open it, it’ll go right to the presentation,” Raya replied. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Oh, by the way, I brought my camera so you can videotape me,” Britney said. “It’ll do us well to practice hand movements, connecting with our audience, and managing the screen while speaking before we actually do it.”
“I don’t think it takes all that, but whatever, we need to get to work,” Raya said.
Carter Cason, the chief detective, sat at his desk with his eyes glued to the screen. Sifting through loads of possible tips made his eyes red and watery especially since he had only gotten three hours of sleep the night before. Just when he was about to make another run by the coffee table, his assistant, Rebekah Rayburton, walked in.
“Good morning, Carter. Were you able to find anything?” Rebekah asked as she handed him a cup of coffee.
“I’ve been through dozens of tips and I don’t have squat,” he replied. “But at least you got the coffee this morning.”
“Because it is always hot.”
Rebekah sat down at her desk and pulled up her computer screen. “You may not have anything much over there but I have a video that is worth taking a look at.”
Carter walked over to her desk and was joined by the other assistant detective from the neighboring precinct. All three watched as the video from a local convenience store’s security camera rolled.
“Zoom in on that,” Carter said. “Back up just a little…okay, right there. Play it slowly.” The video rolled at a slower pace until Carter could see a short stocky woman emerge out of the convenience store with a tall man following behind her.
“That woman mirrors the woman we have on our profile as Elaine Newberg,” Carter said.
“Exactly,” Rebekah said, “and do you see that box she is carrying? That is the box that had all of my family’s personal identification information and valuables in it that was retrieved from the seemingly abandoned house.”
“We talked with the convenience store owner two weeks ago and he said he had never seen her in person, just heard news reports about the case,” Kyle, the third detective, piped in.
“We already know she is involved,” Carter replied. “But it isn’t so much her we are looking for now as it is the man who was following her. Let’s get out a description of him. Then, we’ll go pay that store owner a visit.”
“So if the store owner leads us to him, then what?” Rebekah asked as they returned to their desks. “There is a good chance that the man who followed her out the store has no connection to her at all or to this case. At the very least, he is just a person of interest.”
“Person of interest, all the more reason we should check it out.” After a brief pause, he continued, “If the store owner recently had a beef with this man–Ben Berlin–” he said scrolling through data on his computer. “Then, he might be willing to give up information that he wasn’t willing to give previously.”
“There’s not another gas station around here?” Carter said half to himself and half to his detective partner as they pulled around the corner to get into the parking lot of Ralph’s convenience store at the intersection of tenth and twelfth streets just after noon.
“I guess not,” Rebekah said. “It must be the time of day. Or it could be that he has something to hide. Secrets are often covered with lots of activity.”
After a few more minutes, they turned into a parking space. The smell of smoke and thick fumes from the factory two blocks down could be felt outside. The ground surrounding the building was cracked and rugged.
Carter and Rebekah showed their badges after entering the door. “Is Ben Berlin around anywhere?” Carter asked.
“Yeah, he’s in the back,” a man of average height said from behind the counter. “And your names are?”
“We’re detectives, Carter Cason, and this is my partner, Rebekah Rayburton.”
The man looked them up and down as if he had seen them from somewhere. “Benny,” he hollered to the back of the building. “Some detectives are here to see you. What have you done now?”
A tall but lanky man, a close resemblance of the description Carter had pulled from his database hours earlier emerged from the back, stuck his head out the door, and then ran in the other direction.
“Hold up, man, we just want to talk to you for a minute,” Carter shouted running after him. “Stop right there.”
Carter ran out the door behind him and caught up with him on the driver’s side of the truck. “Stop right there,” he said again. “Didn’t someone ever tell you that running makes you look guilty?”
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do it, man. I’m telling you I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said between heavy breaths.
“You didn’t have anything to do with what?” Rebekah said after they pinned him up against the truck. “You seem to already know what we’re looking for. Where were you Thursday night?” Rebekah asked.
“I went out with some friends and then I came here to help my old man clean up the store, unload the supplies and lock up, stuff like that.”
“Uh huh, did you happen to see this woman?” Carter asked taking out a picture of Elaine Newberg.
“She came by the store right when we were closing up. She said she had to pick up a box of something that she left a few days ago. I don’t know what was in the box. I just helped her carry it out.”
“Oh really, she seems to be a friend of yours or your old man,” Carter said peering out from under his glasses. “You sure you didn’t open the box and she didn’t tell you what was in it or why she left it?”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Well, can you tell us where she lives or where we can find her?” Rebekah continued.
“She lives with a friend on Levon Avenue. It’s a dead end down there, when the house stops the street does too. It’s about four blocks away from here. The house is light blue with white frames around the front windows.”
“We’ll go check this out,” Carter said.
“Right under our noses,” Rebekah said. “To think she was so close all this time.”
Carter and Rebekah arrived back at their desks late in the afternoon. They had a little more work to do before they could make an arrest of their suspect.
“What did you find out?” Kyle asked with a look of curiosity.
“Well, we found out a couple of things,” Rebekah said. “First is that Ben Berlin was the man carrying the box out of the convenience store on Thursday night.”
“Although he claimed he doesn’t know what was in the box which is still questionable to me,” Carter interrupted.
“Right, that doesn’t actually fit,” Rebekah replied. Turning to Kyle, she continued, “Second, we found out that his old man is a friend of Elaine Newberg and they did some business together apparently. And the illusive Elaine Newberg is living right under our noses.”
“Take a look.” She pulled up a map of Levon Avenue in connection with the convenience store and the abandoned house that was uncovered months earlier. Drawing her fingers across the screen to make the connections. “You see how close this is to where our initial searches turned up dead. We were getting closer with the abandoned house but we lost her when she went in the opposite direction here,” pulling her finger back from the abandoned house to the house on Levon Avenue.
“Such a small world,” Kyle said taking a closer look.
“She is basically already caught. We just need to rein her in,” Carter said. “And to do that we’re probably going to need SWAT teams to surround the place first before we make a move,” he said a little bit louder so others in the large office could hear.
Henry Joseph, the detectives unit supervisor stood at the door of his office and listened. When Carter looked his way, he nodded his head in agreement. “Anything you need, we’ll be right there,” he said. “We’ve been on this one for too long to let it slip away from us now.”
“Our best shot will be to move swiftly, but cautiously,” he continued. “Two in the afternoon would be our best bet to start rolling. A call center will be set up close to the end of the street and Patrick Kelley will be responsible for manning the calls into and out of the house. When we get a sign that she is either coming out or that she is held up inside of her own will, SWAT will move in at a vigilant but swift pace to overwhelm the occupants and bring the suspect out. Use of force is a last resort,” Carter said wrapping up his orders.
“All clear on that,” Henry Joseph said, before releasing them back to their duties for the day. He was almost relieved that his team had come this close to closing another case. Just a few more hours, he thought, and this will all be over.
The sun beamed brightly outside the fifth floor window of Rebekah Rayburton’s office the Friday morning after the SWAT raid. She was at her desk working on cases, even though she didn’t have to since Fridays were usually her day off.
“Rebekah, your detective is on the line,” her assistant Becka Baker said from the open doorway. “I asked him what it was about and if I could help, but he said he needed to speak to you.”
“Which one?” Rebekah asked.
“Carter Cason, the one you were working with on the Elaine Newberg case,” Becka replied. “I can tell him to call back after lunch or after your briefing meeting at two if you’re too busy now.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine Becka. I’ll take it in here. Thank you,” she said as she picked up the phone.
“I assume you’re not calling about the Elaine case,” she asked without a hello. “I heard this morning that she is going to do time for her crimes and that’s all I really wanted.”
“I wasn’t exactly calling to say anything about that, but while you’re on it, yes, she’s set to do significant time. It never surprises me the lengths to which people go to do devious activities,” Carter replied. “But I was really calling to congratulate your office. You and your team did a fine job searching out all the clues and carrying through until we got something solid. That hard work is to be commended.”
“The sentiments are mutual. We should be the ones giving the thanks because we couldn’t have done it without you. Now my family at least can have some peace after such a long ordeal.” After a brief pause, she continued, “Thanks also for praying for me. I think that helped more than anything.”
“Maybe you will, I certainly hope so,” Carter said. “By the way, isn’t today your day off?” he inquired.
“Yeah, it is; I’m just getting caught up on some stuff before we head out on the long Thanksgiving holiday. Two cases went to trial yesterday and I’m hoping the judge will clear that twelve-year-old kid. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people and I’m not about to let him take the fall for that robbery. Anyway, I’ve got to go. I’m about to be late for my last briefing before the holidays. I’m really glad you called. It’s always good to work together and experience victories no matter how they come about.”
“Not a problem. On another note, the state district attorney is about to step down after fifteen years,” Carter said. “I was just thinking you would be the best candidate to take over his position. He asked my opinion the other day when he passed through my office. I honestly can’t think of another person who would serve with integrity and honesty more than you. It’ll be a lot of work. You’ll have to clean up the mess he’s left which you know all about, but no one could do a better job than you. You should really think about.”
“I’m honored you think so,” Rebekah said laughing. “But I’m pretty sure there are other candidates for this position who are more experienced and credentialed than me who can take his place.”
“Well, I’m going to put your name up anyway and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Thanks. Goodbye now.”
“Now that the holidays are here, does it mean we’re going to take that trip to Lake Tahoe we’ve been planning for six years now?” Ronald asked his wife before she even set her purse and briefcase down on the kitchen counter. He’d gotten home earlier than usual after picking up Raya from the library and Reece from football practice.
“Why not? We’ve all been waiting for it for six years as you say, and now is our opportunity to take it,” she replied. “Tomorrow we’ll go to church first and then fly out on Monday morning. You know we’ve got to express our thanks for what the Lord has done for us.”
After a brief pause, Ronald spoke. “I’ve never really paid a lot of attention to God, you know. Even when you weren’t so busy as a prosecutor and you asked me to attend church with you and the kids I always opted for sitting at home and watching the game or playing pool with my friend. It was work, family, and recreation for me. Since my parents struggled a lot growing up, I didn’t want to travel the same path they did in some areas, especially careers and money. I just wanted to have a safe and secure life without all the struggles. The past couple of months have really got me thinking about what life is all about. It never occurred to me that God was all that important or powerful like the preacher said, especially after we lost everything and couldn’t find the culprit who took it all. I’m not going to say that I fully trust God yet, but I will admit that I do believe in God more than I ever have. When stuff started pushing me against the wall and all the things I’ve done or been able to accumulate over the years didn’t seem to be able to save me, I wondered how I would make it then. Now I see that when we reach the end of our rope of self-sufficiency, there is God. Waiting patiently like He expected to see me or something.”
“I know,” Rebekah spoke softly. She had poured herself a cup of coffee and taken a seat at the table where her husband was already sitting. This was the longest they had ever talked to each other in recent years. “You know I never stopped going to church or believing in God, but sometimes he does feel so far away from our present lives. But the more I’ve learned to trust him, which has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever had to learn, the more I’ve found strength to face whatever comes our way. I went to church every week with the kids, but sometimes I sat there and couldn’t tell you what songs were sung or what scripture the preacher spoke from. Just going through the motions. But it seems God never goes through the motions with us.”
After a brief pause, Ronald grabbed his wife’s hand. “We have a lot to be thankful for. We’ve been given one more chance to get it right.”
“Reece, you need to turn that music off and get on down here for breakfast. Don’t make us late for church,” Rebekah shouted from the kitchen downstairs to her son who was still locked away in his room. As of late, he’d become a big fan of rock music and thought it pure pleasure to play it throughout the house to the chagrin of the rest of his family.
“Yeah, you made us late last week and I didn’t get to help usher because of that,” Raya trailed her mother in shouting to her brother from downstairs. “He listens to no one as usual,” Raya half said to herself and half to her mother.
After clearing the table, they all headed off to church together. Ronald, who usually came on his own or not at all, felt compelled to go and gladly drove the vehicle. As they sat through the singing and announcements, Rebekah looked at the program. “A Return to God” was the preacher’s sermon. Rebekah smiled to herself knowing God was trying to get a message across to her. You have been successful at doing that Lord, she thought.
After the final selection, the preacher rose to his place at the pulpit. “There are times in all of our lives when we fail badly and need deep forgiveness,” he began. “God in his mercy still uses those who return to him. Like Jonah, we all need a second chance. For some of us, it’s a third, fourth, or even fifth chance. God isn’t like people. He waits patiently and longs for us to return to him. As humans we require second chances and God is willing to oblige.
“Adam sinned in the garden, but God extended his grace to him,” the preacher continued. “Moses killed a man, but God still chose him to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. David committed adultery, killed a man, and lied for nine months, but God still used him in a mighty way. Elijah gave up, complained, and wallowed in self-pity about what was going on around him, but God restored him. Paul killed Christians and didn’t want to have anything to do with God but God saw fit to make him one of the greatest Christian witnesses.
“God sees fit to give us one more chance because it often takes several chances for us to get the message. God doesn’t easily give up. We are undeserving of God’s saving grace but he gives it to us anyway. If it looks like your situation is bleak right now, at every turn there is an obstacle, every day there is someone who doesn’t understand you, everything is crumbling around you and you are powerless to save it. That’s not when you run from God, that’s when you run to him. When you completely blow it and fail, you can trust God to give you another chance to get it right.
“You must know something,” the preacher continued. “Nothing happens until we learn to trust God and obey God. It’s that simple. You can push your way through all you want. You can fight for the earthly material things that ultimately don’t matter. You can spend all your time and energy trying to get ahead. It will take you a thousand years to do what God can do in one week if you just obey what he told you to do and trust Him to do what only He can do. Whatever it is that you’re going through, trust God to give you a second chance to get it right.”
Rebekah squeezed Ronald’s hand as the preacher took his seat. Thank you Lord for giving us one more chance.
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