The beginning of this story rattled around in my head for quite a while before I decided to sit down and write the damn thing. It’s complete in this one post. Runs about 3200 words.
Too Good to be True
It was a great day for a bike ride. Comfortable temp, low humidity. I took off around nine and pedaled up and down the residential streets, noticing birds, dogs, and people puttering in their yards. It was a Thursday, so there wasn’t much mowing going on. It was mostly weeding in flowerbeds and veggie gardens. The kids were in school. The birds didn’t care what day of the week it was.
Weekend garage sales had already started, and I’d slow and gawk at the items when I passed one. It wasn’t until I saw the sale at the house on the corner of Jones and Lavender that I slowed, tempted to stop.
I’d always loved the house. It was a tidy little cottage on a small but lavishly landscaped lot. The owners had cultivated an English garden look, and the explosion of color always got my attention. I pedaled past at turtle speed, noticing the things in the garage and on the driveway, but they looked expensive. Antiques, maybe.
I didn’t need anything, and there wasn’t much cash in my wallet, but I circled and went back anyway. It was the house really; it drew me like a magnet.
I rode my bike up the drive and parked it next to a man I guessed was in his late thirties or early forties, slouched in a lawn chair. “You’ll keep an eye on this for me?”
“Yeah, no worries.” He scooped up a Solo cup from the ground and sipped. He looked tired and sad, and even this early, he smelled of booze.
I almost regretted stopping now, feeling as if I’d somehow intruded on someone’s private grief, but I’d spoken to him. Leaving now would be rude. I’d take a quick look around and then go.
The dresser and nightstands, the desk, a fine dining table with claw legs and matching chairs—all antiques, as I’d suspected, and priced far higher than I could afford. Yup, I’d be out of here in moments. As soon as someone else showed up, I’d slip away.
“That table is early American,” the man said, still holding his cup.
He’d come up behind me when I wasn’t looking, and man, did he reek. The combination of liquor and body odor had me using the excuse of looking more closely at the table to discreetly move away from him.
“Handed down in my ex-wife’s family for generations, so she said.” His laugh was brutal.
Uh, yeah, had to get out of here.
“If it’s still here Saturday, I’ll give it to you for nothing.”
I straightened. “Are you serious?”
“Hell, I was tempted to break it up for firewood, but I thought I’d see what I could get for it first.” He pointed. “Those claw feet? Very desirable, I’m told. The tables these days with that feature just aren’t the same.” He stroked the tabletop. “Look at that patina. Only age and lots of love creates that.” For a moment, his expression softened, then abruptly, the hardness was back. He snorted and drank again, and I caught a whiff: whiskey.
I felt sorry for the guy and tried to make him feel better. “I really like your house. You’ve done a good job with it, especially the landscaping.”
He made a sour face. “That was the wife. She insisted on that cluttered look. I hate it. Looks like weeds. Give me a goddamn normal green lawn.” He glanced at the front door. “The house is okay. Want a quick tour? There’s no one around right now.”
I wasn’t about to turn that down. “Sure.”
It was all I’d imagined and more. Two stories of wonderful, and a basement finished like an old English pub, with a bar at one end, and oak tables and chairs for “customers.” A large stone fireplace on the opposite wall added atmosphere.
“Just finished it a couple days ago. That stone was a bitch.”
“Wood burning?” I asked.
“No gas for the wife. She wanted the real thing.” He’d brought his cup with him and sipped again. “I put a small fortune into this place and then….”
“This is a great house. Wish I could afford something like this.”
He spit out a rude sound. “I hate it. Gotta buck on you?”
I was having trouble following his train of thought. “Uh, yes.”
“Come with me.”
He led me back to the library. Three walls were lined with shelves that were loaded with hardcover books. Comfortable leather chairs were arranged in front of an oak desk. He sat behind it and opened a drawer. Draining his cup, he set it down and pulled out a piece of blank paper. I stood awkwardly near the door while he scrawled on it with a black pen. After a dramatic flourish, he beckoned me closer.
“Give me a buck, and it’s yours.”
“This house and everything in it.”
My stomach did a slow turn. “Huh?”
“Give me a dollar, and I’ll give you the house. I can’t make it clearer than that.”
“My reasons are my own. Want it?”
“I… don’t know.”
He lifted the paper in both hands and pretended to tear. “Make up your mind.”
“Okay! I’ll take it.” I gave him a dollar, and he handed me the paper. I looked it over. It was a crudely written bill of sale.
“What about the stuff in your garage sale?”
“Keep it, sell it and pocket the money, or burn it. I don’t give a shit.” He pointed at an uneven line drawn in ink. “Sign here.”
After I wrote my name, he pulled a stamp out of a different drawer and banged it on the paper. “I’m a lawyer and a notary, and this transaction has been duly witnessed and concluded.” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket, removed two of them, and handed me the remainder. “Keys to the house. Enjoy it in good health.”
The man, whose name was Andy Wilkins, packed a few clothes and some things from the library and left. I watched, stunned, his keys in my hand.
I was twenty-four years old. I managed a Starbuck’s. I figured I’d never be able to buy a house, and suddenly I owned one I’d long admired.
Weird. Anxiety-producing. Scary.
When he went to the door, I followed. “Hey, are you sure about this?”
He turned with his hand on the knob. His entire countenance had changed. Still a little drunk, but now smiling, happy, he looked ten years younger. “I haven’t seen my family in Seattle in years, and after that?” He laughed. “I can go anywhere. Good luck, David Brock.”
And he was gone.
I stood on polished hardwood in the small foyer and looked around. What the hell had just happened?
I took out my cell and called Eric. “You know that English cottage house on Jones and Lavender? It’s mine.”
“Isn’t it a little early to be stoned?” he said after a short pause.
“I’m totally sober in every sense of the word.” A vase of flowers on the small antique table beside the door caught my eye. The petals had begun to drop, yellow teardrops against the shining wood. A wave of fear swept over me. “Can you come over?”
Maybe he heard something in my voice, because he didn’t hesitate. “On my way.”
I went outside and took down the garage sale signs.
In case this was the biggest con in history, or totally illegal, we decided to hang on to our apartment above the dry cleaners on Maple while we consulted a lawyer. In the meantime, we moved some things into the house and took up residence.
I kept some of the pieces Wilkins had put up for sale and sold the rest on Craigslist, making almost three grand. Eric couldn’t stop babbling about my—our—good luck, but I remained nervous.
What kind of crazy person practically gave away a house worth about $400K? It had been well cared for, too. After living there a couple weeks, we discovered no leaking faucets, no faulty air conditioning, and all the windows and doors worked. There were no stains on the furniture and few scratches on any of the wood, and there was a lot of wood. The original crown molding had never been painted. The hardwood floors had been recently refinished. The cove ceiling in the master bedroom—which had a modern ensuite bathroom, for chrissakes!—was gorgeous, a feature I hadn’t expected and didn’t know the name of until Eric told me.
We loved the place. I stopped being nervous, and we considered subletting the apartment after speaking with Burnside, the lawyer. Between us, we could afford the property taxes and utility bills, and still feel comfortable.
We met with Teddy Burnside on a Friday morning, before my shift at Starbuck’s and Eric’s at the hospital. He was a nurse at County General.
Burnside studied the bill of sale at some length before looking up. “Andy Wilkins is a lawyer, did you know that?”
“I did. He told me.” I tried not to twitch.
“This would stand up in court if he changed his mind and decided he wanted his house back.” He leaned back, and fine leather creaked. “What the hell? Why would he sell that place? He loved it.” I gave him the back story, and he was shaking his head before I finished. “Doesn’t sound like him at all, but does anyone ever understand anyone else?” He handed the paper back. “The house is yours. Keep that in a safe place.”
We moved the rest of our stuff in that weekend and made plans to unload the apartment. One of Eric’s friends was looking for a rental, and we happily signed it over to her.
Sitting in the back garden after dinner Sunday evening, we held hands, feeling extraordinarily lucky. Birds chirped in the trees, bees buzzed the flowers, and a neighbor’s cat came over to say hi.
Life was good.
The next weekend, we invited friends over for brats and beer in our basement pub. We barbecued in the open garage, then took the food downstairs. We offered Coors and Bud. Eric had lobbied for Guinness, but I argued few liked drinking warm beer, which was how they served it in England.
When Sharon, one of my buddies from work, descended the stairs, she said, “Something smells weird.”
Everyone sniffed, but no one else noticed anything.
“It’s probably Lenny’s cologne,” Eric said, giving him a playful shove.
She grinned. “I hate having such a keen sense of smell. Taking the bus to work often makes me nauseous.”
There followed a long string of bad bus stories, which had us all laughing and drinking more. By the time everyone went home, Eric and I were feeling no pain and had decided to clean up the next day.
We slept in that Sunday, then lazed around in our underwear; the August temperature spiked to ninety-five by noon. We turned on the a/c but kept it set at a low eighty degrees until we saw how much it was going to cost us.
It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that we decided to deal with the mess in the pub. This time, even I picked up a strange odor, which had seemingly intensified overnight.
“What the hell is that?”
Eric followed me down the steps. “It smells like…. Nope, not gonna say it. Let’s track it down.”
We started at the end with the bar and worked across the room to the fireplace, finally narrowing it down to an area on one side of it. The wall around the fireplace had been done in rough plywood to simulate the natural dark paneling in a pub.
Eric leaned close and sniffed. “Yeah, this is the spot. I think there’s something dead back there.”
“A rat or mouse?”
“Could even be a squirrel, though how he’d get behind the plywood, I don’t know.”
He looked the wall over. “He nailed it up. It’s going to be a pain to remove, but I think we should. That stink could last for days, even weeks.”
I fetched the hammer. Eric was the handy one in the family. I tended to smash thumbs and break things.
The instant he had the paneling off, the stink hit us full force. It didn’t take long to figure out why: a body had been hidden behind it.
I was still sick to my stomach when the police showed up, accompanied by the medical examiner, a forensics team, and a homicide detective.
The latter introduced herself as Det. Djawadi and spoke to us in the living room. Eric and I sat on the couch, holding hands.
“Tell me what happened,” she said. Noise from downstairs drifted up the stairs.
I told her how I’d come to be in possession of the house, the lawyer declaring the transfer of property legal, moving in, and tracing a smell to the wall.
“That’s quite a story.” She smiled to take any possible sting out of the words.
I fought gagging. “I should have known something was wrong. Hell, I did know, but I liked the house so much, I ignored my gut.”
“Anyone would have, I suspect.” She glanced around. “It’s a beautiful place, and the landscaping is first-rate.”
The ME appeared. “Victim is a woman in her mid-thirties. Looks like she was strangled. Time of death is impossible to say at this point, but she’s been in the wall a while.”
Djawadi looked at us. “Any idea who she is?”
I remembered the expression on Wilkins’s face when he’d spoken of his wife. “It could be the wife of the guy who sold this place to me.”
She made notes in her pad. “We’ll check it out. In the meantime, you know not to leave the area, right?”
We nodded vehemently.
In due time, everyone left, taking the body of the unfortunate woman with them, but not before taping off the pub and ordering us not to use the basement.
I was okay with that. I wondered if I’d ever be able to go down there again.
That night, in the master bedroom on the top floor, I couldn’t sleep. Eric slid over and put an arm around me.
“Can’t stop thinking about it?” He pressed his lips to the back of my neck.
“I work in a hospital. I see dead people all the time.”
“That’s in a hospital, not in our house.”
“Honey, dead is dead, no matter where they are.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“Not in the least, but you have to get some perspective. You didn’t kill her. I feel sorry for her. She was obviously murdered and stuffed in the wall, poor thing.”
He had a point, but I was still squicked. “Will we ever be able to use the pub again?”
“Yes. We’ll even hang a sign over the bar with her name on it in remembrance.”
That made me smile. I turned to face him, sliding a leg between his. “I can’t believe it.”
“You made me feel better for the first time all day.”
We kissed, then we touched. Then we completely forgot about the body in the basement.
The investigation was ongoing. We were told the victim was Anne Wilkins, Andy’s wife. I was questioned multiple times about anything he’d said to me. He was their main person of interest, and they wanted to find him. They talked to the neighbors, too. In the meantime, Eric and I went to work, lived our lives, and tried not to let it bother us. I took on extra shifts at Starbucks, though, just to stay away.
Eric noticed and called me on it. “You’re never home. Is that woman’s death bothering you that much?”
“Her murder,” I clarified. “She was killed, Eric.”
“She was, and I’ll say it again: not your fault. Not mine. Shit happens, hon. Let it go, or it will poison your life.”
We were in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. A table and four chairs had been tucked into a bay window that overlooked the backyard. It was a beautiful summer day, but I’d had a problem enjoying things lately.
“I keep thinking I see her around corners,” I admitted, sliding an omelet onto my plate, then cutting it in half to share with Eric.
“Her ghost, you mean?” He put buttered toast on our plates, and we sat at the table. “You believe in ghosts?”
“I didn’t think so until this happened.”
“If there were such things, I’d be up to my ass in them at work.” He salted and peppered his omelet. “This is a great house. I want to stay.”
“So do I.”
“Look, if you need to talk to someone about this, do it. My insurance will cover it. I can get recommendations from someone at the hospital.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He touched the back of my hand. “You were so happy a month ago. I want to see you that way again.”
I smiled. “You’re right. I’m acting like an idiot. The lady is dead, and I’m sorry, but that’s that. We’ll put her name over the bar, like we discussed, but otherwise, it’s time to move on.”
The ghost of Anne Wilkins floated in a corner of the master bedroom she’d once shared with her husband. The two men in bed were fucking and having a grand time of it. They were young and pretty. She enjoyed watching them.
She missed fucking. Andy had once been pretty good at it, but the last couple years he’d ignored her. Why did that happen? Why did some husbands lose interest in their wives?
And then, well…. He was drinking, she’d pissed him off, and he’d wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed, like many times before, only this time he hadn’t stopped.
She was angry. She wanted revenge.
After the new occupants of her house had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, she floated down through the floors until she was in the basement. The pub had been one of her favorite rooms.
On a bookshelf in one corner was a stack of board games. She opened the Scrabble box and shook the letters out on the bar. Taking her time, and concentrating hard—really focusing was the only way she could do things in the physical world—she spelled out: Andys in Santa Fe with Gwen Tucker.
That oughta do it. She hoped the judge threw the book at him, but until that happened, she was hanging around. He had to pay for what he’d done to her, and then she could rest.
Feeling immensely pleased with herself, she went out to the garden, her other favorite place, sat on one of the loungers, and listened to the night sounds. The butterfly weed was just blooming, which pleased her. The monarchs would be so happy.