by Dave Clapper
He stood just inside the doorway to the house, slowly scanning its interior as the carefully coifed real estate agent shifted from foot to foot on the porch. The door itself was battered even beyond what any antique dealer could cheerfully label "fatigued." Stray splinters protruded from both its top and bottom, as well as from various indentations in its face. Weather had warped the door so that it didn't quite shut properly, and the iron doorknob wobbled and had spots of corrosion freckling it.
The porch was, if anything, worse. Scattered spots sank visibly and groaned audibly when stepped on. Moving up the paint-peeled wooden steps to the porch and taking in the expanse between the top step and the door, one was reminded of a bog.
The man stood in the doorway for long minutes, occasionally nodding slightly, sometimes sucking breath in through his teeth and quietly saying, "Mm hmm." As a client, he was new to the agent. He'd been a walk-in to the office where she rented a desk and all the other agents had been occupied or at lunch.
At first, she'd been pleased by her good fortune. The man was well-dressed in a moderately expensive suit. It wasn't Armani, but it was a good imitation. He'd been pleasant enough when she'd greeted him, and she'd initially assessed his price range as being somewhere between three and four hundred thousand dollars. If she could sell him a house, she'd net around five thousand dollars. If she could manage to sell him one of her own listings, she'd double that. Or so she'd thought.
Her surprise had been great when he'd suggested that he was looking for a little parcel of land off the beaten path, preferably with a small property on it. He said he didn't mind if it was a "fixer-upper." When he'd said that, she'd made a mental note that either he'd sold real estate before or had been close to someone who had. It wasn't so much the phrase itself as the way he said it, as if he'd used it euphemistically to describe a less than desirable property himself.
She did her best to hide her disappointment and had first taken him to a house listed at $150,000. He hadn't even exited the car. It was in one of the outlying suburbs, but its subdivision was active.
"I'm really looking for someplace to get away from it all," he'd said. "You know, if I want to play loud music at three o'clock in the morning, I wouldn't have to worry about waking the neighbors."
She'd nodded and downgraded her expectations again. She took him further out of town to lots with little or no development on them. In the first case that looked like a potential sale, the only structure on the lot was a sagging trailer. He'd actually seemed on the verge of making an offer when a car drove by. His face had darkened slightly and he'd uttered a terse, "Anything else?"
Finally, they'd arrived at the house with the boggy porch and splintered door. The agent was starting to feel the effects of several cups of coffee on her bladder and was hoping against hope that the house had usable, reasonably sanitary plumbing. She wasn't holding her breath, though.
"Shall we go in?" she asked in a voice a little too high-pitched, scaling notes above her usual perfect saleswoman alto.
The man looked surprised. "Sure," he said. "Why not?" He pushed the door further open and walked into the house. She followed a respectable distance behind him.
"If you'll excuse me," she said, "I'm going to try to find the powder room." He nodded slightly, like a man saying, "Yes, dear," to a nagging wife.
She zipped out of the front room and checked various doors as he wandered slowly around the house. She was surprised to find that that the bathroom seemed to have resisted the elements better than the rest of the house. Except for the brackishness of the water in the toilet, the room was in reasonably good shape.
In the rest of the house, floors of cracked linoleum and walls of peeling wallpaper pervaded. Outside the bathroom door, she heard his footsteps moving around the house. With her hose around her ankles and her dress lifted up, she had a moment of panic that he might come into the room, that he'd violate her out in the middle of nowhere. She was sure nobody would hear her scream.
She was relieved to finish her toilet without his footsteps ever getting close to the door. She turned the handles on the faucet and hoped for the water to clear from a murky brown. As she waited through the groans and clanks of the plumbing coming back to life, she thought she heard the sound of footsteps above her head.
"Strange," she thought. "I was sure this was a one-story house."
The water finally cleared and she washed her hands quickly. No towels were in sight and she was forced to dry her hands on balls of wadded Kleenex from her purse.
When she opened the door and went to find her client, he was nowhere in sight. She searched every room of the house with no luck. Finally, she returned to the porch and carefully descended the stairs back to the overgrown yard.
From above her head, she heard him call out. "How much are they asking?"
Startled, she turned around and looked for the source of the voice. He was shinnying down a trellis from the roof. When he alit, he carefully wiped his hands and then his suit. He'd gotten surprisingly little grime on him.
"I'll check," she said, and returned to the car. As she grabbed the M.A.P. listings guide, she saw her cell phone sitting on the seat beside it. Again, a moment of panic washed over her, this time without warning. Leafing through the book, she hatched a plan. "I can't seem to find it," she called out. "Let me call the office and see if they can't pull it up."
The man nodded to her again and started walking a circle around the house, surveying the rest of the property. Once he was out of her sight, she picked up the cell phone and punched the speed dial number for her husband. No service. She tried again. Still no service. She tried another number, already knowing it wouldn't work. Again, no service.
She banged the phone against the dashboard just as his face appeared in the passenger side window. "No luck?" he asked. She screamed.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
She took several seconds to recompose herself before answering.
"Are you okay?" he asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.
"Yes," she attempted to say, but found herself hoarse. She cleared her throat. "Yes, I'm fine. You just surprised me."
"Sorry," he said again. They both paused. "Should we go back to the office?" he asked. "I think I'd like to make an offer."
"Yes," she replied. "Yes, that would be fine."
He opened the passenger side door, eased himself in, and buckled his seat belt. He looked across the seat at her as she attempted to fit her key into the ignition.
"Are you sure you're all right?" he asked. "You're as white as a sheet."
She laughed nervously. "Really. I'm fine."
"Okay," he said, and settled back into his seat. She finally got the car started and they began the long drive back to the office. As they reached the highway, she grew visibly more comfortable, even singing softly along with songs on the soft rock station.
"So I assume this property won't be serving as your primary residence," she said.
He laughed. "No."
"May I ask--"
"Of course. I can think of only two types of people who would specifically seek out a house in a location like that," he said. "The first type," he paused ever so slightly, "is a serial killer."
Her eyes went wide and her knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel tighter.
"The second type--" He let the sentence dangle.
"Yes?" she managed to ask.
"Also needs seclusion for his work, a haven where he knows he won't be interrupted. The second type is a writer."
"Ah," she said. There was a brief silence. She attempted a joke. "Well, I hope you're a writer."
"So do I," he replied. "So do I."
About the author:
Dave Clapper lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two sons. He is a founding member of Criminals From the Neck Up and is the Publisher of SmokeLong Quarterly. Upcoming publications include 3AM Magazine, LitPot, Tryst, and Dead Mule.