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Murder Thy Neighbor
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Murder Thy Neighbor: Ann Hoover is a nice woman but she's come to hate her neighbor. Roy Kirk moved in next door with plans to renovate. But as the weeks go by, his DIY construction turns to shambles. When Ann takes him to court, Kirk's retaliation will be shockingly gruesome (with Andrew Bourelle).
Murder IRL: Jenelle Potter has always been better at connecting with people through social media. With overprotective parents, she hasn't had very many options to meet people, until she links up with Billy. But her feelings for Billy are unreciprocated, causing Jenelle to start a virtual war—a war that enters the real world (with Max DiLallo).
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March 25, 1997
At a quarter to nine in the morning, Judge Stacy Moreno sits in her chambers at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, reviewing the file of the case she is about to hear.
Moreno's office is austere, with no file out of place, no disorganized stack of papers to be seen. The shelves are lined with law books. The judge's robe hangs from a hook on the back of the door.
The case she is reviewing is an appeal of an earlier ruling.
Both the city's building and health departments have levied fine after fine against a homeowner named Roy Kirk, who bought one half of a row house in an up-and-coming neighborhood known as North Hills Estates, in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Apparently, the long-abandoned house needed a lot of work, but the work never got done. In fact, according to complaints from the neighbors, the house is in a greater state of disrepair now than when Kirk bought it.
A woman named Ann Hoover, who owns the adjoining house, has pushed again and again for the city to do something about the problem. She is scheduled to appear in court to testify against Kirk.
Hoover's property and Kirk's share a yard, a porch, and a roof. She is the most affected, but there are other neighbors involved, many claiming that Kirk's property is an eyesore that is bringing down the home values of the whole neighborhood. Judging from the photographs in the file, the judge can see why everyone is upset.
The place is a dump.
The siding is in desperate need of a paint job. Some of the windows are broken and boarded up. The roof is missing so many shingles that bare patches of plywood are clearly visible. And the lawn is not only overgrown with weeds, it's also full of garbage bags, as if Kirk has been using it as his own personal trash heap.
Kirk's appeal today claims that he is making a good-faith effort to restore the property, and that fines will only hinder his ability to get the work done.
Judge Moreno checks her watch and sees that it's 8:59. She rises from her cushioned chair and fastens her judge's robe around her. At nine o'clock on the dot, she steps through the door at the back of her chambers, which takes her directly to the raised bench overlooking the courtroom.
"All rise!" the bailiff announces. "The Honorable Judge Stacy Moreno now presiding."
Everyone in the courtroom rises.
"Thank you," Moreno says. "Please be seated."
From her elevated position, she can see everything in the courtroom clearly: the court reporter seated close to the bench, ready to take notes; the jury box, empty for the purposes of this hearing; the bailiff's dais, off to one side. The gallery is unusually full of spectators—presumably neighbors, all interested in the outcome of the hearing.
And front and center, of course, the tables where the plaintiffs and defendants—and their lawyers—are meant to sit.
A lawyer from the solicitor's office represents the city. But the lawyer for Roy Kirk sits alone. There's no sign of his client.
Kirk's lawyer rises, looking embarrassed, and asks if they can have a short recess as he tries to get in touch with his client.
"Your Honor," the assistant city solicitor interjects, "I support the motion for a short recess. Mr. Kirk's neighbor, Ann Hoover, is also not here. She is a key witness for the city."
Judge Moreno purses her lips, thinking. It's highly unusual for neither the defendant nor the key witness to show up.
"Aren't these two next-door neighbors?" she says.
A woman in the second row of the gallery stands up and catches the judge's attention.
"Your Honor, if I may," the woman says. "I live in the neighborhood. We went by Ann's home on the way to the courthouse this morning. We'd made arrangements to all come together."
She gestures to a man seated next to her—another neighbor, apparently—who nods his head in agreement. Both the man and the woman look concerned.
"There was no answer at her door," the woman continues. "I'm worried about her. I think something might have happened."
Judge Moreno thanks her and asks her to be seated. All eyes in the courtroom stare back at her.
"Bailiff," she says, turning to her longtime court official, "contact the Pittsburgh police and ask them to send someone to check on the whereabouts of Ann Hoover and Roy Kirk."
"Yes, Your Honor."
Judge Moreno turns back to the courtroom.
"Let's get to the bottom of this," she says. "Attorneys, please contact me in my chambers if you hear from either Mr. Kirk or Ms. Hoover. We'll be in recess until we hear something."
With that, she smacks her gavel down on its block, and the bailiff once again says, "All rise!"
Judge Moreno walks back to her chambers with a sinking feeling. She can't explain it, but she feels certain the courtroom will not be called back to order today.
Ten months earlier
As Ann Hoover's fingers dance over the keys of her Steinway piano, the notes of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 float through her home. The hardwood floors and decorative brick walls make for good acoustics, one of the many things she loves about her house, where she's lived for the past decade.
She takes a break from playing, plucking her half-full wineglass off the smooth surface of the piano, and walks down the hall to the front of the house, then steps out on the porch to enjoy the sunset. The humidity of the day seems to be breaking, and the temperature isn't quite as suffocating as it's been. The warm glow of dusk fills the neighborhood.
Ann watches a teenage girl walking a dog, a man pedaling by on a bicycle, and a couple taking a stroll together, sharing an ice cream cone they bought down the street.
Ann loves this neighborhood.
The houses are affordable because most of them need some work. That was the case with hers. After she bought it, she had to put some serious effort into repairing it. As a capable single woman in her midthirties at the time, she did a little bit of the work herself—patching drywall, painting, even installing tile in the bathroom—but mainly she relied on friends or hired contractors to do the work. She learned a lot about what it takes to restore and maintain a house like this. It wasn't easy, but she loves the results.
The house is two stories tall, with additional space in the basement, and she's renovated and decorated it to be exactly the way she wants it.
There's only one thing she doesn't like about the house.
It's also the only thing she doesn't like about the neighborhood.
The house next door.
Ann's home is a row house, meaning it's half of a single building. When she purchased her property, it didn't look much different from the one next door. But there haven't been any buyers interested in the other side, which has continued to fall into disrepair. The FOR SALE sign sitting out front is hardly visible from all the weeds growing in front of it.
The house itself looks unappealing. Paint is flaking off all the exterior siding. The roof is full of bald spots where shingles have blown off in windstorms. The wooden supports holding the porch are rotten. Bricks have come loose from the foundation.
Just standing next to the place is spoiling her mood.
She takes her glass and heads back inside. She debates whether to crack open a new bottle and decides to indulge herself. She heads to the basement, where she keeps a small wine cabinet.
The wooden steps creak underfoot as she descends, and the temperature drops ten degrees, like she's walking into a cave. The basement is dark, with cobwebs hiding in the exposed floor joists above her. She hurries across the concrete floor to the cabinet, which abuts the brick foundation wall her home shares with the neighboring property. She plucks out a bottle of cabernet and heads back upstairs.
At the top of the stairs, she glances at a series of signatures written in permanent magic marker adorning the basement door. These were all the friends who helped her renovate the house after she bought it—she'd asked them to sign the door when she'd hosted a housewarming party after the work was finally finished.
After she pours herself a new glass, Ann walks back to the piano and sits down, her fingers poised over the keys. She takes a deep breath.
But as she's about to play the first notes, she stops herself. She cocks her head. Did she hear something?
She rises from her seat and heads back to the front door. She peeks out the sidelight and sees that a truck has pulled up in front of the neighboring property. A young man, probably in his midtwenties, is unloading tools from the truck bed.
She can't believe it.
She steps out onto the front porch as the man comes up the walk, holding a circular power saw in one hand and an extension cord in the other.
"Excuse me," she says. "Are you from the realtor's office?"
She's been trying to get them to repair the roof. The house needs work all over, but the roof is her main worry. She's afraid it might start leaking onto her side of the property, causing damage inside the walls.
"Nope," says the man, grinning broadly. "I own the place. I just bought it."
Ann can't help but smile.
"Oh, wonderful," she says. "I'm your new neighbor."
The man tucks the extension cord under his arm, freeing up his hand to offer it to Ann.
"Pleased to meet you," he says. "I'm Roy Kirk."
I love your place," Roy says to Ann, looking admiringly at her side of the row house. "I'm sure you're tired of living next to this eyesore," he adds, hooking his thumb to his own property.
"It just needs a little work," she says, downplaying it.
"Hopefully it won't be long before it looks as good as yours," Roy says.
They talk for a few minutes. Ann likes Roy right away. He's outgoing and energetic. Though he does seem a bit young to be tackling such a large renovation project, and she wonders if he really knows what he's getting himself into. Will he be so enthusiastic a month or two from now?
But Roy's big, innocent smile wins her over. She doesn't expect them to be best friends. After all, her forty-fourth birthday is just around the corner and she doubts he's even thirty yet. But Ann thinks they'll get along just fine, which is a relief to her. She's heard horror stories about bad neighbors in row houses.
Roy asks her what she does, and Ann explains that she works in marketing and gives piano lessons on the side.
"Music is my passion," she says. "I raise money for the Pittsburgh Symphony. You better be careful—I might hit you up for a donation."
Ann says it as a joke, and Roy laughs and pats his hand against the brick front of his home.
"Sorry," he says. "All my money is going into this baby."
"Of course," Ann says, smiling. "I definitely don't want to interfere with your renovations."
Ann asks what Roy does for a living, and he tells her that he has a home-repair business, which helps calm her fears about his being up to the renovation project.
"I used to deliver pizzas, but now I've got my contractor's license," he says, nodding toward his property. "The city's trying to get rid of its tax-delinquent houses. You can get places like this for dirt cheap."
Roy explains that he lives just down the street, and that he hasn't decided whether he'll move in here or sell this house after his renovations are complete. Ann can't help but feel a little disappointed. She's just met Roy, but he seems like he'd be a good neighbor. She hopes he doesn't end up selling the place to someone she won't like.
"This is a great neighborhood," Roy says. "So much potential."
"I couldn't have said it better myself," Ann says.
She tells him about the neighborhood association she's a part of, which has formed to help improve the area. So far they've held some community cleanups and a neighborhood yard sale, but there's been talk of trying to do more. The members want to organize community events, such as holiday parades, and find a way to build a promenade along the nearby Monongahela River. A community garden has been discussed. There are a few empty lots in the area that would make perfect locations for a public park, where they could hold picnics or other events.
Ann, who has a lot of experience with fund-raising through her work with the symphony, knows what a long shot it is to hope for some of the items on the group's wish list, but she's heartened by Roy's enthusiastic reaction.
"I bet in five years this neighborhood is going to be something special," Roy says.
He looks out at the twilight and says he better get to work. He wants to unload his equipment tonight before it gets dark. The house doesn't have any electricity.
"It was nice meeting you, Ann," he says, extending his hand again.
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Roy," Ann says, shaking it again. "Please let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
Ann walks back into her house. As she's sipping her wine, she feels happy. Roy seems like a friendly young man, and discussing the future of the neighborhood has left her excited. Her new neighbor's enthusiasm is infectious. She can't help but think of all the possibilities for the community around her—as well as for next door. It will be so nice to have that run-down place finally renovated. It's sat empty for so long that it hasn't always been easy for Ann to stay optimistic.
She sits back down to her piano and begins to play. But Ann's so excited, she can't concentrate. She heads back to the front door to tell Roy something that's occurred to her. Night is falling, and it's becoming too dark for him to work, but she catches him just as he's climbing into the cab of his truck. She shouts his name to stop him before he leaves, then hurries down the sidewalk. He rolls down his window and throws an elbow out.
"The neighborhood association is meeting next week," she tells him. "Would you like to come with me? I think it would be great if you could meet everyone else."
Roy smiles broadly.
"I'd like that a lot," he says.
Everyone," Ann says to the dozen homeowners crammed into the small conference room, "I'd like you to meet my new neighbor, Roy Kirk."
Roy, seated next to her, rises and gives everyone a friendly wave. The attendees, a sampling of people living in North Hills Estates, all welcome Roy enthusiastically.
The neighborhood group is a mix of people, ranging from young homeowners to retirees, day laborers to lawyers. They have one thing in common—they love their neighborhood and want to see it thrive. Everyone present is on the board of trustees, but the meetings are rather informal conversations. The group currently has no president, no secretary, no treasurer. All the board members want to help improve the community, but no one can put in the time commitment needed to take the group to the next level.
"Roy," says Marjorie Wilson, whose property is just a few houses down from Ann and Roy's, "tell us a little about what you've got in mind for your house."
"Total renovation," he says. "There's a lot of rotten wood inside. Some mold. I'm stripping everything down. The place is going to look like new."
As Roy talks, Ann can tell that the other members of the association are thrilled with what he has to say. They've all shared Ann's displeasure with the building standing vacant for so long.
"I actually have two houses in the neighborhood," Roy says. "Both on Lawn Street. I'm living in the other one right now, trying to fix them both up."
The conversation moves to a discussion about the neighborhood cleanup planned in a few weeks. As the hour-long meeting wraps up, everyone seems satisfied that they've accomplished a lot in their discussion.
"I only wish we could do more," Marjorie comments as an aside.
"Why don't we?" Roy asks.
Every head turns to Roy, who'd been silent during the earlier conversation.
"What do you have in mind?" asks Ted Fontana, a high school teacher who lives a few blocks away.
Roy leans forward, like someone who's been waiting for the right time to speak.
"Ann and I were talking," he says, "and it seems like there's so much more this association could do. I'm talking about community events that will bring everyone together. Easter egg hunt. Fourth of July barbecue. A trick-or-treat night on Halloween. At Christmastime, we could do an event with Santa. Families can come down, get some hot chocolate, get a picture taken with Santa and his elves."
"Come down where?" Ted asks. "That's the problem. We don't have anywhere to host these kinds of events."
"What we really need is a park," Ann says.
"Yes," Roy says, smacking his hand down on the table. "Why don't we work on getting a park?"
In the past, when the association discussed the idea, it had always been with a sense of defeat. It's too bad we don't have a park. But Roy's enthusiasm makes the others excited. Even Ann, who has always felt a park is a long shot, finds herself caught up in the zeal.
Ann offers to help find a property owner who might donate a plot of land for a community park. Soon the conversation has taken a new direction, how they need to recruit more members to the association so they can use the dues to build up a savings account.
"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves," Ted says. "We don't even have a president. I think that's the first step."
Ted's words have the effect of throwing cold water on a fire. Everyone is brought back down to earth, realizing that talking about all their lofty ambitions isn't the same as trying to put them into effect.
"I'll be the president," Roy says, smiling at the group.
"That would be fantastic," Marjorie says.
"Are you sure you know what you're getting into?" Ann asks Roy.
"Absolutely," he says. "I've got the time. I can do it."
Ann says she'd be happy to work with him to discuss fund-raising.
"I move that we make Roy Kirk president of the neighborhood association," Marjorie says.
"I second the motion," Ted says.
"All in favor?"
Everyone in the room raises their hand and says, "Aye!"
A few weeks later, Ann comes home from a morning walk to find Roy hard at work. His front door is hanging open, and the young man wrestles out a broken, water-stained sheet of drywall. He drags it down the porch steps and lays it on a growing stack, flattening the weeds. Before he turns to walk back into the house, Roy spots Ann approaching and offers her a bright smile.
"Making progress," he says.
His short hair is damp and beads of sweat stand out on his forehead.
Ann smiles at him and tells him to let her know if he needs anything.
"Maybe a glass of water," he says. "I forgot my water is shut off."
Ann is happy to do it. She walks into her house and takes a Tupperware cup out of her cupboard. As she's reaching into her ice tray, she can hear loud noises from next door—the sound of Roy ripping out more drywall. The sound stops for a moment and then, as she's turning from the freezer to the sink, a thunderous banging vibrates the room. The noise is so clear through the shared wall that it startles Ann, and she almost drops the water cup. As the banging continues, she collects herself and runs the tap until the water turns cold.
What on earth is Roy doing next door?
After filling the cup, she lets herself into Roy's house. The front hall is filled with tools and equipment: hammers, saws, boxes of nails. The only light comes from the windows. As she steps deeper into the hallway, it becomes harder to see. What light is available is so bright, it makes the shadows even darker. She stubs her toe on a broken piece of two-by-four lying on the floor.
The noise, she realizes, is coming from upstairs. She climbs the dark corridor, her feet crunching dirt and debris. When she makes it to what she assumes is the bedroom—the house's layout mirrors her own—she finds Roy bathed in sunlight. He swings a sledgehammer against the studs in a wall already stripped of its Sheetrock. The board breaks free of its nails and dangles from the ceiling. He repositions the hammer and takes a wild swing, knocking the two-by-four free. It clatters against the floor, joining a handful of others. Nails jut out of each end of the board, like some kind of medieval weapon.
"Oh, thanks," Roy says, noticing Ann standing a safe distance from the doorway.
"Are you sure that's not a load-bearing wall?" Ann says, pointing to the wall he is currently disassembling.
"I'm sure," he says, taking a drink.
The room is in disarray, with hunks of drywall piled in the corner on top of a mound of pink insulation, which looks wet and spotted with black stains. The state of the house is worse than she realized—much worse than her house when she first moved in. The walls are water‑damaged, the boards rotting, the plaster falling off in clumps. The room feels dank, and even though the window is open, there's a strong smell, like socks that have been left in a gym bag for too long.
"I know," Roy says, without Ann needing to say anything. "I've got my work cut out for me, don't I?"
Ann offers him a sympathetic smile.
"I know good contractors," she says. "Want me to give you some numbers?"
"Nah," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "I'm going to do everything myself. It will take longer, but I'll save money."
"You know how to do all this?" she says, gesturing to the mess around him.
"What I don't, I'll figure out," he says. "Can't be that hard, right?"
Ann doesn't answer. When it came to renovating her home, there was so much she didn't know.
Does Roy realize what he's gotten himself into?
Roy thanks Ann for the glass of water. Before she leaves, she hesitates. She's been wanting to talk to him about something, but she isn't sure if now is the right time. She takes a deep breath.
If not now, when?
"Let me ask you something," she says. "Can you come out onto the porch with me?"
He follows, taking a drink as he walks. Out on the porch, Ann points to the wooden railing that runs around the perimeter—half on her property, half on his. The paint has long since flaked off and the handrail and the balusters are rotting. A few have come loose from the railing and lean at uneven angles.
- On Sale
- Sep 15, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing