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The house was a killer listing for her, a slam-dunk seller.
It was a three-bedroom split-level, white with green trim shutters, in the Ballard neighborhood, only minutes north of the Seattle city center. Fenced backyard for kids, close to an elementary school, natural family home appeal. Practically wrote its own earnest money offer.
Melinda Chaffey parked her minivan in the driveway late Saturday afternoon. The street was placid, with ordinary weekend activity, when she got out of the van door. A power lawnmower buzzed somewhere. A circle of kids rode small bikes down the block in the premature spring-like weather. Ideal conditions to bring out early season home shoppers. Please let the sunshine hang on for her open house tomorrow. With fickle Seattle weather, you never knew for sure.
Melinda hustled up the steps to the front porch. She was rushing a little to get the house touch-up work done for the open, then get home to her own family for eat-out spaghetti dinner and movie night. Told her husband she would be there by five, latest. That was cutting it close.
The front door had a lockbox attached to the handle. Melinda entered her agent code into the box, opened it, and got out the entry key. She unlocked the door, which swung open into the dead quiet of the vacant house.
The house sat empty and thickly silent around her. It was the one moment in realty work when Melinda was always uncomfortable. Alone for the first time inside a large, strange house. As a woman by herself, she could never quite dismiss that vague, prickly sensation that insisted on crawling around inside her stomach. That feeling was back again with extra juice this time, or maybe she was just more acutely aware of it now. Especially now.
Like every other woman in the local realty business, she knew about the recent series of sexual assaults on female agents. It was a hot button crime story all over the TV news reports. Three victims so far, all of them attacked while alone in vacant listed houses. Just like she was right now.
Melinda was conscious of the potential risk. But surely she was safe enough locked up tight inside this house in a good family neighborhood. Nothing like that was going to happen to her there, so why get herself worked up even worrying about it? But after this one time, she resolved, no more unaccompanied visits to vacant home listings. It was just too creepy. At the open tomorrow, her husband would sit in with her, so no problem there.
She returned to the van and dragged up the vacuum cleaner and the card table set in repeated trips. She wasn't an athletic woman, with a top-heavy, short-legged build that always annoyed her. At 34 years-old and a mother of two, not in the best shape either, as she huffed up and down to the van. The narrow frame black glasses she wore kept sliding down her nose as she worked.
A carry bag of cleaning supplies came up on the last trip. Once she had everything inside the house, she closed the front door and locked it securely.
She began to move briskly through the house, turning on light switches room by room. The house creaked and echoed softly with her movements. Spooky, but normal enough. Empty houses always sounded like that, she knew. Don't be a baby.
She started first in the kitchen. Checked to see that the countertops and sink were clean. Owners sometimes left a mess in the hassle to get moved out. She opened the fridge door. No smelly old food left behind there. All good.
From there, she did an inspection of both bathrooms. The mirror in the master bath was smeary. She used the Windex to make it shine. Back in the living room again, she ran the vacuum cleaner a few laps around the pile carpet and the door entry area. That done, she had only the card table left to set up. She chose a spot near the brass-screened fireplace. She placed a stack of listing flyers on the table corner. On Sunday, she would have coffee cups and a cookie plate there for visitors. She tilted her head at the table, thought it still needed something extra. Vase of flowers, maybe? Something springy, like yellow tulips. That would make for a nice, welcoming presentation.
That was all she had on her list to get done. Melinda checked her watch. She just had time to use the bathroom for a minute herself before starting the drive home.
She crossed the beige carpet in the master bedroom and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. Sitting on the toilet, she wondered why she even bothered to shut the door. Nobody there to watch her. Just habit to do it, that's all. Privacy reflex. Still seemed prissy and silly.
She stood, hiked up her slacks, and tucked in. As the toilet flushed, she heard a thumping noise someplace in the house. Plumbing, probably. She hoped it wasn't a sign of a repair problem that would show up later on the buyer inspection.
Melinda ran her hands under the faucet to wash. She remembered she had left the paper towel roll in the kitchen. She wrung water off, opened the door and headed wet-handed down the half-flight of stairs to the main house level. Entering the kitchen, she saw the darned towel roll sitting right there on the counter next to her purse and car keys. She reached her damp hands toward it.
Something slammed hard into her back and knocked her down face-first onto the vinyl tile floor. Her left cheekbone crumpled inward in a jagged flash of pain when she hit and her glasses were bent sideways off her face. Hands grasped roughly at her shoulders to twist her over onto her back.
Then his weight was straddling her chest, pressing down her rib cage so that she could barely breathe. He wore a nylon jacket. As he pushed her arms down, her hands brushed the shiny, cold slickness of the fabric. Her glasses gone, the only thing she could see of his hooded face above her was a black-knitted blur.