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Lay Death At Her Door
by Elizabeth Buhmann
Twenty years ago, Kate Cranbrook’s eyewitness testimony sent the wrong man to prison for rape and murder. When new evidence exonerates him, Kate says that in the darkness and confusion, she must have mistaken her attacker’s identity.
She is lying.
Kate would like nothing better than to turn her back on the past, but she is trapped in a stand-off* with the real killer. When a body turns up on her doorstep, she resorts to desperate measures to free herself once and for all from a secret that is ruining her life.
Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where her first novel is set, and like her main character, she lived several years abroad while growing up. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh.
For twenty years, she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues.
Elizabeth now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, dog, and two chickens. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and has a black sash in Tai Chi.
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Lately, I’m reliving the crime. It wakes me in the small hours of the morning. My arm is yanked, and my head bangs against the car door before I’m thrown halfway across the road. Stones bite my knees and elbows, and before I can cry out, my mouth is smacked shut. Pow! My ears ring.
I sit up in bed so fast I lose my breath. My heart pounds, and my temples throb. Another memory, more recent, reeks of gun powder from a Ruger—and of blood. These crimes, the murders and the perjury, have rotted out the center of my life. They’ve also, in a more practical sense, ruined me. In the course of one summer, the fundamental fraud of my life has been exposed.
It is the end of August, and although the days are still hot, the early mornings have the chill of an advancing season. I’m wrapped in a warm shawl, sitting at my desk in the attic of this lovely old house deep in the country, ten miles outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. The window in front of me looks out to the mountains, but sunrise is another hour away, so all I see is my face reflected in the lamplight. The only sound is the faint ticking of the keys of my laptop.
The one way I can see to mitigate disaster is to offer up the whole story, told as only I can tell it. I’m sick of other people spinning it and getting it all wrong. I made terrible mistakes when I was very young, hardly more than a child. How could I have imagined consequences that would reach across decades of my life? We can’t think that way when we’re young and light-hearted. We are reckless, think we are invulnerable. We think we can leave mistakes behind us, start over, move on with impunity. We don’t know!
Then I lied about what I’d done, and that was another misjudgment. I lied for so long that the lie became truth to me.
I hate to bare myself; it violates my every instinct. I’ve spent half my life guarding against a slip of the tongue, and reticence is second nature to me. Are there people who can tell their deepest secrets and remain standing? I suppose there must be. I cannot fathom it.
Two months ago, on a Friday afternoon in June, two men from the sheriff’s office came to tell me that Jefferson was going to be released from prison. I had just gotten home from Richmond, where I had an apartment and a fledgling landscape design business. It had been storming all day, and it was still raining so hard I got drenched just running from the car to the house. I came in the back and let the screen door bang shut behind me. Pop had already made dinner. That’s what I called him. It had come to sound stupid to me. I’m forty-two years old.
He’d made beef bourguignon, one of his many specialties. He was quite the chef, Pop. Everything was perfect, just so, as usual: new potatoes browning on the stove, a crusty loaf on the cutting board. I paused to dry my face with a dish towel, then tore off a piece of bread and wolfed it. I was feeling good, full of energy and hope. I had a new project, and I had a new man in my life for the first time in a long time.
A salad made of greens from the garden was chilling in the fridge, dressed with vinegar and olive oil, and I ate some with my fingers, catching the sharp taste of fresh oregano. I found an open bottle of my favorite French Chablis, poured a glass, drank it down, and poured another. I knew Pop would be in the study on the far side of the house, but I didn’t go to greet him. The two of us had lived together in this house for twenty-five years, and we had our routines.
I went out and sat in the big wicker chair on the screened-in porch in the front corner of the house. Cold, damp air was blowing in, but I liked to sit out there for a while before dinner and read. I wrapped up in an old blue afghan and sat there thinking—about Tony, of course. He was never far from my thoughts. I’d called him on the way home, and his voice, the way he said my name, echoed in my mind.
Then I heard a car on the gravel driveway, followed by car doors slamming. Footsteps. The doorbell. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d want to see. I thought, Let him get it. I heard Pop opening the door.
“Mr. Cranbrook?” A man’s voice.
I craned my neck, but shrubbery obscured my view.
“Miles Cranbrook. Yes.”
“Is your daughter here, sir?”
I leaned forward, but I couldn’t make out the rest of the exchange.
From where I was sitting, I could see into the living room and hall, and somehow I was not surprised to see two men in county sheriff uniforms. One was tall, beefy, middle-aged, the other too short, too slight, too young to be a sheriff’s deputy. They followed Pop through the living room, gawking at the polished furniture and oriental rugs. I stood up when they reached the porch.
Pop said, “Kate, these two officers say they have some information for you.”
The tall cop, who seemed to be the leader, introduced himself and his partner. I paid no attention to their names.
But I remember everything he said.
He asked if we had ever heard of the Justice Project. Pop hadn’t. I thought I’d heard of it, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Pop still held the newspaper he’d been reading, and he tapped it impatiently against his leg.
The cop explained that the Justice Project was a non-profit founded by a well-known defense attorney. “They exonerate criminals who they think have been wrongfully convicted.”
That struck me as faintly comical, very much a cop’s point of view: exonerating criminals. I said, “I know the one you mean. They’ve gotten some innocent people out of jail, haven’t they? Using DNA.”
I was looking at him like, So what? But an alarm rang in the back of my head.
The deputies glanced first at each other, then at Pop, before facing me. Pop had rolled up the newspaper, and he was turning it in his hands.
The tall cop said, “That’s right. They specialize in old cases that might be weak, where there’s evidence to test. When they find a case where a DNA profile might show the guy is innocent, they file an appeal.”
I doubled over slightly, swallowed hard, and found my mouth had gone dry.
Pop’s voice was muffled in my ears. “What does this have to do with us?” He thrust himself between me and the two men, his shrunken frame drawn up to full height. For a flash, I had a glimpse of the strong, broad-shouldered man he used to be.
The sheriff’s man remained expressionless. “Jules Jefferson.” He said other words, but I heard only the name.
I was breathing hard, my mind scrambling. I tried to say something, failed, and they all looked at me. I tried again. “They have evidence to test?”
“Yes, ma’am. We preserved all the evidence.”
The rape kit. My clothes and shoes—they had never returned them, not that I ever wanted to see them again. And the bullet they dug out of Elliott’s dead body.
I folded my arms over my chest. “But it’s been more than twenty years.”
“It can’t be any good, can it?”
“They say it is. I’m not sure I believe it, but they say so.” He cast his eyes around the room,
The shorter cop piped up for the first time. “Courts accept it. DNA profiling is pretty incredible these days.”
Pop made a dry, spitting noise. “That’s ridiculous.”
The tall cop rocked a couple of times on his feet. “There’s nothing we can do about it. As far as we’re concerned, the case was closed when the jury found him guilty and put him away.”
I couldn’t help myself. “You’re calling me a liar. You do realize that, don’t you?”
Pop touched my arm. “No, Kate....”
But I shook him off. Both deputies looked down, embarrassed.
I said, “It was my testimony that convicted him.” Did that mean I’d lied? Couldn’t I have been mistaken? I forced myself to slow down and think it through. Of course I could have been mistaken. No one could say I lied. I could say it must have been someone else. But no. I should offer nothing. Hear what they have to say. Find out what they know, what they think.
I said, “So they tested it. The evidence.” The word was foul in my mouth. We were referring to the semen they had found on me.
The tall one wagged his big head apologetically. “Yes, ma’am. It’s not a match. They say.”
Pop scoffed at that. “So now they’re saying Jefferson is innocent? They’re overturning his conviction?”
“We don’t know that yet. It’s in the court of appeals. It’s a possibility they’ll let him out.”
I said, “It was him at the Tavern earlier that night. I know that.”
During a moment of silence, the sound of rain intensified. I sputtered, “But everyone was so sure.”
“So I understand, ma’am.” But then he cleared his throat and added, “If they set aside the rape, they’ll set aside the case for murder, too.”
Pop smacked the newspaper in his left hand and made us all jump. “Testing twenty-year-old evidence. Preposterous. If they’ve got some scientist to say he’s innocent, get another one. He’ll say the opposite.”
The big man rocked on his feet, his expression neutral. “Yes, sir. It’s not up to us. You could call the state attorney general. That’s who handles it on our side. You could hire an attorney and fight it yourself. I can’t say I’d blame you.”
It occurred to me that both men were strangers.
Pop must have had the same thought, because he said, “I don’t remember you from back then.”
The older one said, “I wasn’t part of the investigation, but I remember the case.”
The short one, who was much too young to know anything, added cheerfully, “Everybody does.”
I felt their undisguised curiosity then. Men look at me, I’m used to that, I like it, but their scrutiny was different. It felt like rubber-necking at the scene of a car crash.
Pop growled, “What exactly do you want from us?”
The tall cop cleared his throat. “Nowadays, we tell crime victims they have a right to be informed when their offender is released. You wouldn’t have been told about that back then. I thought you might want to know you can be notified if he gets out. You can request that from the DOC. The Department of Corrections.”
He took a card from his breast pocket and held it out to me. When I didn’t take it, he dropped it on the table and pointed at it. “You can call that number or go to that website there.”
Brazen, I thought. He just wanted to see me up close for himself, the crazy local spinster who was raped and didn’t leave home for the next twenty years. He wanted to see how I reacted when I heard the news.
Pop was looking bullish, so I cut him off. “Is anyone who was involved in the investigation still around?”
But then he said, “Lieutenant Gabriel still lives in town. She retired last year. She keeps in touch. Matter of fact, she’s the one who thought you might want to know.”
Elsa Gabriel. The one cop who never did believe my story back then. I turned my back on all of them, because I couldn’t trust my own face.
They told us the AG’s victim advocate would call, and having nothing more to offer, they showed themselves out. The car crunched away in a fresh downpour.
When they were gone, I slowly sank back into the wicker chair and pulled the afghan up to my chin. My wineglass was empty. Pop hovered nearby, staring out at the soaking trees that hovered over the side of the house, and I glanced at him, weighing his mood. He had a scar where his left eyebrow should have been. You couldn’t help looking at it. He had a way of seeming mild and inattentive with his left eye, but it was a lazy-eye, nearly blind. Then you’d realize he was watching sharp with the right. It was unnerving.
“They can’t blame you,” he assured me. “It was dark. You were confused.”
I once thought Pop was handsome. Some might have called him handsome for an old man, dapper, I suppose, in his old herringbone jacket, fit and trim for his age. But to me, he was just old, dried up, and scrawny. I was sick of him. I wanted him to go away and leave me alone to think.
“You never said you absolutely knew it was him. You said you knew it was him at the Tavern.”
I considered that. Pop had heard every word of testimony, mine and everyone else’s.
I hugged myself and paced. “You know who Gabriel is.”
“Lieutenant.” He made a grunting noise. “She wasn’t a lieutenant back then.”
“He said she’s retired.” A flame of old anger licked back into life. “I wish she were dead.”
Another grunting noise.
In the end, Pop absorbed the news with his usual sang-froid and went back to his magazines in the study. I sat and stared, seeing nothing.
Jefferson had threatened Elliott and me at the Tavern, no doubt about that. If I said I was confused later on, misidentified my attacker, it would be believable enough. It was dark, true. God knows I was terrified. But was I confused? No, not at all. Of course not. I knew who murdered Elliott Davis… and why. I lied to protect myself. No use wondering if I could have made a different choice. It’s what I did. It’s what I live with.
I shivered. I heard Pop working in the kitchen, serving dinner as if it were any other night of our lives. I felt a prickling of little hairs on my neck and arms when I thought about a name I had not so much as breathed in all the long years.
I tried it out, speaking very softly. “Carl. Carl Brewer.”
I hadn’t used the name, even in my thoughts, for so long that it sounded strange and scary to my ears. That thought almost made me laugh.
From where I sit today, writing in the first light of dawn at my desk in the attic, I can see that I could have weathered Jefferson’s exoneration if I’d only stayed home and left well enough alone. Instead, I am now cornered. I never should have hired Max or tried to make a go of it with Tony. I want to reach back in time and warn myself, but of course this is impossible, and anyway, it’s hindsight. There is no point in this line of thinking.
What I did, being who I am, was plunge forward, just like Pop, pretending I could go my merry way. And I set in motion all the same forces that were my undoing in the first place. What can I say? For everything I did, I had my reasons.