Authors: Wyborn Senna
“I get it,” he said, leaving the stall, closing the gate behind him.
P.J. dreamt of the Tucson murder that night, at home in her California King bed.
She had arrived in Hailey’s neighborhood in a rented green Sebring delivered to her at the hotel by Enterprise twenty minutes before Hailey’s parents left their sloped driveway. The Raphaels had a double garage with an inside door leading into their opulent abode. The exterior garage entrance on the left-hand side was down a narrow walkway. Wearing dark clothing and thin leather gloves, P.J. moved carefully over the pale gravel and tried the knob. It was unlocked.
Once inside, it took a moment for her eyes to focus. The door leading into the hallway from the garage was half-open, and a light in the laundry room was on. She found a workbench near the half-open door that offered a surfeit of tools, and the best of the lot was incontrovertibly a menacing-looking tack hammer. P.J. picked it up and valuated its weight and ease of use, judging it perfect for the job at hand. She dropped it into her empty duffel and glanced toward the half-open door leading into the hallway that led to the laundry room.
Clothes were neatly folded atop the dryer, which rumbled quietly while it dried its current load. Using the running dryer as cover, P.J moved swiftly into the laundry room and found a wide-based, lidded hamper behind the door. Testing it to see if it would hold her weight, she stood on it and saw that, with the high doors and ceilings, she was obscured at full height behind the door, which opened inward. Taking some spare change out of her jacket pocket, she leaned around the back of the door and began pinging it at the top of the washer, which was open but empty. As each coin hit, it clinked against the top, fell into the washer, and brattled on the bottom. After pitching the tenth coin, P.J. heard a sharp slam and footsteps in a room beyond.
P.J. had seen photos of Hailey, thanks to the Best Barbie Board. They revealed a young woman who looked as fresh-faced as sweet young Laura Ingalls from
Little House on the Prairie
. In one photo, she held a sandy-haired Midge doll close to her face. In another, she was dressed in lavender, one of three bridesmaids at an outdoor wedding. In a third, she was lying beside a pool in a chaste one-piece swimsuit. The fact that she taught second grade only added to her rep as a darling. But knowing what kind of virulent messages she could and did leave on the boards suggested to P.J. that Hailey was anything but seraphic and nothing like her best friend Beth, a woman who never let a single post go by without a comment, but whose messages were always sweet and kind.
When Hailey pushed ever so slightly on the half-closed laundry room door, P.J. jumped forward, grabbed her, and struck her skull with the pointed end of the tack hammer.
A single utterance escaped Hailey lips that sounded like “bahhh.” Disoriented, Hailey stumbled around in an effort to leave, but it was too late. Her long, light brown hair was already becoming matted with blood from the first strike when P.J. landed a second wide-arced blow behind Hailey’s left ear, showering a spray of blood all the way up to the ceiling.
Hailey stared at P.J. blankly as she fell down on the laundry room floor, trying to place her attacker. Once down, P.J. kicked her repeatedly in the upper torso and head.
Soon Hailey was little more than a rag doll. The room had been renovated from white to dark red. P.J. pried the tack hammer out of Hailey’s final, deep head wound. She put the bloodied hammer in a plastic bag and selected two plush towels from the folded stack atop the dryer to wrap the bag before sliding two jumbo rubber bands around the bundle.
She stepped over the glassy-eyed woman at her feet and took her shoes off at the entrance to the laundry room before proceeding through the house to find where Hailey kept her dolls.
The Raphael home was uncluttered and neat. Whatever wasn’t beige ranged from dark brown to red to burnt orange in an autumnal palette that suggested the hand of an interior decorator. As P.J. passed through the living room, kitchen, and foyer, she noticed a painting of a cowboy surrounded by a cluster of cattle. She stared at it, wondering how the man managed to keep the cows clustered around him. If she were one of those mooing McBurgers, she would surely find a way to hightail it to greener pastures.
She struck gold when she entered the first room off the hallway on the right. An assault of calico drapery and bedding reinforced the image P.J. had of Hailey being born for prudish prairie life. A personal computer sat on the desk, along with student papers exhibiting youngsters’ evolving penmanship as they practiced writing the alphabet.
A curtained window in the room faced the backyard, where there was a large kidney-shaped pool and lounge chairs. It was the same pool seen in the photo Hailey shared online with friends. With hands still gloved, P.J. opened the window and a light breeze blew in, slamming the bedroom door with a loud bang—
* * *
Whaa whaa whaa whaa whaa whaa whaa whaa…
P.J. jolted awake and put her hand against her racing heart. The alarm clock beside the bed was flashing “8:00,” which looked like BOO, BOO, BOO, BOO in the darkened room.
She was home.
She had slept through the night.
The door had never slammed at the Raphael house in Tucson. The light breeze, instead, had been refreshing as P.J., who had been sweating copiously, started to calm down and assess Hailey’s collection.
Midge and bubble-cut Barbies, most of them dressed in 900-series outfits, lined plywood shelves along two walls. There were plenty of unparalleled Midge dolls, including an assortment without freckles, some with side-glance eyes, some with teeth, and some high-color. There were at least a dozen bendable leg Midge dolls with bobbed hairdos. There were five NRFB Wigs Wardrobe Midge ensembles. There were three straight-leg Midge dolls that wore two-piece swimsuits appropriate for their differing hair colors.
“Midge Hadley, you’re coming with me,” P.J. said, sweeping the shelves of all the Midge dolls, leaving the bubble-cuts behind.
“What about Barbie?” Midge cried out in a high-pitched, silly voice.
“Believe me, I’ll have plenty of them by the time I’m done, and I’ve got to leave some dolls behind, or it will be obvious someone was here for you.”
“But she’s our best friend,” Midge wailed, sounding like she’d inhaled helium.
P.J. threw loudmouthed Midge in the duffel, zipping it when it was packed full.
Six Midge dolls were left behind, but they were in duplicate 900-series dresses and inferior to the ones she’d culled.
She blended the shelves so the dolls were evenly and meticulously spread out, with a Midge in the middle of each lineup on the upper three shelves on both four-shelved walls.
Less than fifteen minutes later, she was back in the rented Sebring, flying down dusty North Sabino Canyon Road, on her way back to the hotel to pack for home.
The last Thursday in January, Caresse noticed a change in mood as soon as she logged on to the Best Barbie Board on her home computer. Collectors were buzzing, but not about Gayle Grace, who was yesterday’s news. Surprisingly, Gayle had been one-upped by a MMS—Murder More Sensational. Hailey Raphael, a collector from Tucson who virtually lived on the BBB, had been found dead Sunday night by her parents, who had just returned home from their weekly game of bridge with friends.
This time, no car explosions were involved. Hailey’s skull had been bashed in with a tack hammer, according to Hailey’s friend Beth, who lived in Phoenix.
Beth’s postage stamp-sized avatar was of a saguaro cactus instead of her face, so most BBB members didn’t know what she looked like. What they did know, however, was that she was generally helpful and kind.
DESERTLIFE: Hi, everyone. As you know by now, we’ve lost my dear friend Hailey Raphael. News reports that she was found bludgeoned to death are accurate. Or, to put it more graphically, her head was bashed in with a tack hammer taken from her parents’ garage. That’s all I know at this point. I’ve read a lot of gossip here about Hailey’s “many” boyfriends. The insinuations that she was skillful at playing them off each other–well, you can just drive that truck in a different direction. Those of you who are so quick to jump to the conclusion she was killed by an unsavory suitor who couldn’t handle her game-playing anymore didn’t know her very well. No offense, but I know who she was dating, who she was no longer dating, and everything was fine in that department. Yes, we wrote to each other every day, so I know what I’m talking about. Now on to what you all really want to know. Gayle’s sister Megan was first to introduce the doll theft angle, and that hasn’t been ruled out as a motive in Hailey’s case. Investigators want to see Hailey’s room to determine if any dolls are missing. This is all happening tomorrow morning, super early, so I’ll let you know what’s up as soon as I’m back online. Ciao for now, and quit your gossip! Hailey was awesome, and I’m going to miss her more than I can say
As far as Caresse remembered, Hailey’s collection focused on Midge rather than American Girls, the dolls of choice in the first homicide/theft. Maybe this
a crime of passion, as the violent MO suggested. She would just have to wait and see what Beth had to share after she met with detectives in Tucson.
With the beginnings of a headache, Caresse turned her thoughts to her next assignment for
magazine—an interview with collector Nancy Roth. After that, she needed to go on her next date for the Valentine’s feature.
Her date’s name was Bill, and they’d arranged to meet at Brubeck’s downtown at seven-thirty. Bill and Brubeck’s, two Bs, easy to remember. No need to change out of her jeans. She was set to go.
Nancy had left a message earlier in the day that she would be able to email pictures of her vinyl goodies, sufficiently nixing the extra hundred Caresse would have made if Nancy had shipped her some stuff and Caresse had gotten photo credit.
She sat on her couch with her back toward her window and glanced over at the PC facing the mirrored wall, across from the ledge beneath the window with her wilting plants and narrow wicker basket, stuffed to the brim with unpaid bills.
Her old-school radio was blaring loud music. She turned down the volume and slid the window shut. The tree-lined street below was devoid of traffic, with most people home preparing and eating dinner. She wondered what her son Chaz would be having that night and hoped her ex, Brian, would serve some green vegetables or a salad with the inevitable frozen dinner or fried chicken.
She dialed Nancy’s number in Walnut Creek, in San Francisco’s East Bay. Her home phone had a small black suction cup fitted to the top of the phone receiver, with a cord that jacked into her small micro-cassette recorder. Instead of pacing while she did interviews, she pressed the suction cup against the receiver until the tip of her finger was white, allowing it to become the focal point of her stress. She’d once made the mistake early on of not doing this, and the cup popped off during her interview with a company that made Barbie party and paper goods. She’d missed recording more than half the interview, and it showed in the results. Yes, it was an outdated system, but Caresse hated phones and couldn’t bring herself to get a cell or even update her outdated landline.
“How do you like this for an opening?” she asked, once she had Nancy on the line.
“Let’s hear it,” Nancy said. Her voice was husky. Caresse concluded she was either a muscle-bound bodybuilder or had a bad cold.
“Collector Nancy Roth owns so many Barbie cases, trunks, travel pals, and hat boxes, her initials should be changed to SPP, one of the manufacturers of Barbie’s vinyl products.”
Nancy laughed hard and coughed. She rustled around and then blew her nose.
“Sorry,” she said.
“The worst. Probably caught it at work. My boss is really sick right now.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a paralegal. I have to lug home five hundred pounds of paperwork each weekend.”
“Even more sorry.”
Nancy laughed. “It pays for the vinyl.”
“So let’s get on with it. How does your husband deal with your collecting obsession?”
“Oh, Ward? Ward is great.”
“Ward? As in Cleaver?”
“That’s about as far as the connection goes. My Ward is short, fat, Jewish, and sells used cars.”
“Okay.” She could feel Nancy warming up to the idea of chatting and she knew how it would go. Talk about the thicker vinyl Barbie cases that latched on the side and opened to reveal two deep-sided compartments—often called trunks—and she’d start to hear a lilt in Nancy’s voice. Go a step further and bring up trunk artwork, and she’d hit Nancy’s sweet spot dead center.
After Michael the TV writer had left the parking garage that day, P.J. was rattled. Nevertheless, she stayed to inspect the rest of her American Girls and put away her new Midge dolls. When Darby still hadn’t arrived via scooter by the time she was done, she went into his apartment and grabbed an old blue sheet she found near his bed.
She left a note perfectly centered on his computer screen, saying she’d be back on Thursday and then went outside to tack up the sheet on the inside of the gate to the storage stall.
As promised, she returned that Thursday with two Starbucks coffees and a new set of twin bed sheets from a local department store. She explained what had happened with Michael and that she had hung the sheet to impede looky-loos and avoid future chats with nosy neighbors.
That morning, P.J. had emailed Darby a picture from home that she wanted him to see. It was another Christmas photo card, this one from Time Taylor, who lived up in Oak Harbor, Washington. Time was online at least ten hours a day and posted responses to newbies’ queries on the Best Barbie Board as if she was the world’s top doll expert. Her BBB avatar showed a grossly overweight woman with stringy, blond hair dressed in baggy clothes. Her one close BBB pal, Sally, was the only one to back Time up in any online argument, and many on the boards assumed they were more than friends.