I pulled into the rental property office parking area and arrowed toward the sign, glowing fuzzy neon orange in the night—open. The place held the prefabricated desperation of an abandoned used car lot. I turned off the wipers, lights, and ignition—clack, click, clunk. It had been a long drive from San Francisco to the Oregon coast, a displacement I needed for balance and inspiration.
Through the window, I spotted a gray woman behind a desk, shuffling papers, and stuffing folders. An easy joint to rob. Scenarios flailed like whips, cracking each time I pictured the old gal falling under a gun, a knife, or a garrote. Quick violence. My readers stand too impatient for slow deaths. Neck snaps work if you have the strength. Most don’t.
A bell chimed when I pushed through the door into the office. The woman lifted her head and eyed me, unaware of danger’s possibilities. I could be anyone. But I wasn’t. She recognized my face from the back of a glossy dust jacket. One of my books occupied a corner of her desk, flayed open upside down, spine cracked. From where it split, I could tell she wasn’t yet to gangster demons leaping out at her, where Abigail and her younger sisters reach the point of no return. The poor things. That photo is a reminder of a decade past, of innocence. My agent insists on not changing it. Fans want comfortable consistency, he’d said. I never met the old woman, but I knew her voice.
“Mister Becket, I thought about giving up on you. Almost closing time.”
“But it’s not.”
I hate almosts, might haves, and the like. Phrases to drown in. “Keys.” I meant it as a command. She took it as a question.
“Right here,” she said, handing over a manila envelope with my name. “I put directions to the cottage inside. The owners were happy to get the booking, it being past tourist season and all.”
She smiled again. I nodded, checked the contents, considered whether false teeth can identify a victim. Best to remove them. Two keys, rental paperwork, a Google map stamped with the agency’s logo, and phone number. I mumbled a soft noise. Didn’t ask her name but noticed she had a lazy eye, a small mole on her left temple, and a coffee stain on the sleeve of her gray sweatshirt. I filed that image.
As I turned to leave, she said, “If anything breaks or needs repair, don’t fix it yourself. Call us, and Randy will be right over.”
Never fear. I use screwdrivers, wrenches, and hammers for other things. I fled the mundane, sliding out the door into the wet womb of a misty Pacific Northwest night.
My car lights swept across the front of the cottage, catching on the single story windows, refracted in rivulets of water, tears streaming down their faces. I turned off the headlights. Let them cry in the dark. I stepped into shallow puddles on the packed ground. Bits of liquid jumped up to grab raindrops as they fell. A small valise from the passenger’s seat would do for the night. I scissor-fingered a key from the envelope, tapped it on the doorknob three times to warn whatever made the glass panes weep that I was coming inside. A shove, a twist, a smooth knife move into the lock.
The light switch clicked, and my eyes fixed on the kitchen I knew to be on the left. Bottles clanked when I landed my case on the counter. The obedient soldiers lined up at my command—a cocktail shaker, lemon bitters, vodka, and a jar of olives. Only cretins use gin, that perversion. Momentary panic was relieved when I found a full ice tray in the freezer, the old sort, made of aluminum with a lever to crack the cubes.
Three shakes, no more, no less, of the slushy nectar, rest for fifteen seconds, then a continuous pour through the strainer. Once begun, never stop mid-stroke. Hesitation is a killer in my books. The first went down like fast fire. One blaze to put out another.
Moving through the cottage, I sipped a second, opening drawers, checking the water pressure and the linens. The rear door was shut and bolted against whatever might climb onto the back porch. Lions, tigers, and bears. The last door led to a dark cellar. Time enough tomorrow to find the bodies. The desk in the bedroom was too confined, and the sitting room was just large enough for feet on the floor visiting. I adopted the kitchen as my workspace.
I concocted a third libation, one more than I usually take unless I lost count, but tonight I’d toast my absent muse who left San Francisco two weeks before I did. The bastard. Missing. Just like Evelyn six months earlier. I want to call her the bitch, but not enough water has gone under that bridge.
Morning pressed against my eyelids, streaming from the east-facing windows, opening to a landscape of light gray flatness from my low vantage on the couch. A loud knocking launched from the front door. An unkempt man waited in a plaid shirt, bib overalls, and dirty ball cap. I cracked the door open with my left hand, and my right held a baseball bat I’d found the night before.
“Morning. I’m Randy. Come to fix the downspout.” His thumb hooked to the right while his eyes flogged me, judging. I stood waiting, mouth as dry as potpourri. Yes, it was beyond dawn, and yes, he was stating his business. Two unacknowledged facts don’t make a conversation. I nodded. He continued. “Louise said you’re some sort of writer.” He wouldn’t let me off the hook.
So, the old lady had a name. I gave him my standard patter. “I write for the regimental disillusioned. The crap that hits below the neck, churns their guts to lay open nasty inner swamps from the comfort of an easy chair after they’ve pretended to be someone else all day.” Let him digest that.
His eyes darted left, then right, seeking an exit. “Well, yeah,” he said, scratching the underside of his rough beard. “Mostly, I like to read westerns. Louis L’Amour.”
“I’m sure you do. Downspout,” I reminded Randy, wanting to end this droll waste of an opening scene. He shuffled off. I shut the door and sock footed into the kitchen for a jigger of vodka before taking my first piss. Thoughts of greasy bacon and eggs punched through, punishing me. Hopefully, he’ll finish before I return. I studied the crumpled Google map printout. Seabridge Diner, Murdock’s general store, and Sandy’s Ocean Liquor laid out my path.
A week into my cloister, I pushed away from writing to explore the property, leaving behind an angrily pecked page. Paths are inviting to those with curiosity and occasion for adventures. I discovered mine in a back corner of the cottage lot, its entrance nearly concealed by a woven thimbleberry hedge.
The track led me to wild surf below a bluff, driftwood, and water battling rocks, then to a tangle of what had once been a proud ornamental garden. I fought my way around tall hedgerows and through weeds that had overtaken a lawn. Far to my left, variegated vegetation crawled up the pale gray sides and into the cracks of a layered monstrosity yielding to the onslaught of time. The building sprouted what suited its moody isolation, yet it begged for my intrusion, wind-curling leaves, fingers luring me closer.
From the remnant of a stately drive, granite steps led to a sheltered portico. I imagined drivers dressed in black livery attending to their employer’s long automobiles lining the edges during festivities. It would be a shame if there hadn’t been those events. Such a construction of finely tuned affluence demanded it. Without the exercise of purpose, material things are a sadness.
Not a single leaf lay on the polished stone steps, not one sprig pushed up from cracks between the slabs. It was as if the old house clung to this last vain slice of dignity. A breeze gusted past me, swinging open the tall doors. In the empty foyer, dead leaves rattled as they wind-sailed to hide in dark corners. Greeting me, a great column of light spilled in through a two-story window at the top of a curved staircase. The musty smell of rotted carpet lessened the longer I stood there, taking in the artistry of the columns, cornices, and corbels. A plaster ceiling medallion lay shattered on the floor, no sign of the chandelier that once hung from its center, high above once trivial activities.
Well into my exploration of this museum dedicated to rich exhibits of emptiness, I encountered the old man. His fish belly complexion pulled me up short, as did his deep brown, almost black irises. Reflected lamplight in his room spark-danced in his pupils.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here.”
The gent stood, gestured toward a chair. “Welcome to Litton House, Samuel. Pleasant day for a walk.” He held a leather-bound volume in his left hand, a pipe in his right. Introduced himself as Lewis Farnell.
That evening I called John. Someone needed to know, share my experience, if even tangentially, to hold my belt as I peered over the edge.
“Come back to the city. The lack of stimulation has addled your brain,” said John. He wasn’t one to let specious words interfere, always to the point, or what he saw of it. I liked his impatience. It saved time.
“The opposite,” I told him. “I can’t finish my book there. Too many—”
“Assholes and pretenders. Say it, Sam. My list is longer than yours, and yet I stay.” His electronic voice ricocheted off the shiny surfaces in the cottage’s country kitchen. “Tell me again what happened. I’ll pick it apart like Buckley did Vidal in ’68.”
“Before my time. Born a year later.”
“Still the best benchmark for dispatching the fakers.”
“It was real, John.” I insisted. “As real as my visits to your townhouse except for the disappearance.”
“Go back. See if it happens again, then call me. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll brush off your eulogy for the memorial service. Is it okay if Thompson comes? Never mind, what will you care? You’ll be dead.”
His end of the conversation was over. Mine had just begun when I heard the click, then silence. John kept an index of coded information, ready to translate truncated lives of people he tolerated. He enjoyed speaking at funerals, talking about the bastards, and thrusting a posthumous stab into every Caesar he encountered.
Eleven days later, the police called to ask if I’d known John well. Past tense. I said no. What would be the point of the truth now?
The cuff of old man Farnell’s burgundy dressing gown exposed his pallid wrist—an austere study in darkness and light. Blue-veined hands reached toward the table next to the armchair. Tink, tink, tink brought sharp focus to the moment as he tapped his pipe in the ashtray. Nothing fell from the upturned bowl of his calabash. Nothing ever did. I never saw him pack load it, never was there the air-lingering bitterness that assaults, seeping from thick walls of so closed a place.
This chamber became an intimate place for me, a place to search for certainty. A few dim lamps cast downward cones in the corners. Sometimes appearing as a gentleman’s study, a library, or a trophy room, never settling from one visit to the next. Behind his armchair, a lamp arch-hovered, watching like a vulture on the line. It was a man’s retreat of dark wood, hard surfaces, and sharp edges.
I call him the old man, a stamp of genuine respect for his broad experience, though I know his name and use it when addressing him. Mister nailed to the front end. That, or simply, sir. Farnell’s thin, gray mustache and authoritative attitude gave him the stiff bearing of a colonel, the stuffy British sort.
“What can I do for you today?” he inquired.
Indeed, what? Everything, nothing. Remain in existence as my necessary touchstone. Answer a million questions in fast stride or one at length. Give me the courage to carry your surety when I leave this place, fearful my bowl too is empty. I diverted, asked him about famous people he’d encountered in his long life and wide travels. My interest drove me to find who influenced him, who had carved those deep trenches and curves in his psyche.
“Famous. I think not,” he said with a rat trap snap on the last syllable. “Nobody is in the strictest sense of the word.” He pointed his pipe at me like the service revolver he must have carried abroad. “Bumblers whose heads rose above the din of their time,” his voice growled. “Darlings of a bored media.” I felt the topic would have brought a flush to his face if his slack vessels had managed it. “Red ants among black ones, but ants just the same. If you scratch deep enough, penetrate the veneer, a more fitting title would be notorious.”
“How so?” I could think of a few such examples.
He patted the book on his lap. “Henry Morton Stanley, the chap who found David Livingston in the wilds of Africa. Noted for it. Accolades showered down. He should have rested on his laurels right there, but he raped and enslaved the Congo at the behest of the Belgian King Leopold. A monarch I considered quite insane, by the way. Few remember that, but I do.” Farnell paused, looked down. “I helped him.”
“I suppose I’m a black ant? One of the undistinguished, the indistinguishable?”
He adjusted his ascot. “That depends.” His eyes drilled into mine. “Do you want to be notorious?”
I ignored the last question. It bordered on what might lead to defining an almost thing. The first was more interesting, less personal. “Depends on what?”
“Not what. When. Even the where is irrelevant. Time is the strongest force in the universe. You can’t buck that tide, but you can ride its currents.”
He turned away and placed the book on the table barely large enough, then faded away, as did the richly appointed room of heavy curtains and heavier furniture. Dust and decay returned to the floor. The mantle stood empty, the oak-paneling again age-streaked with mold. The change exposed the shabbiness of my chair in the muted gloom of late afternoon, invading through murky windows.
Farnell does this when I get too close to the words I need. During our third meeting, I asked if he existed after our conversations. When he said yes, I further inquired where he went. He told me it was I who disappeared, not him.
Our discussions became twice-weekly affairs. Tuesdays, we pose questions—his of the Socratic variety, mine abstract, not demanding, circling butterflies never touching down. On Thursdays, we aired out our challenges and answers.
After he left, there was no point in remaining. Opening the iron gate to the cliff-side path, I looked back at Farnell’s mausoleum. Once a display of 1920s indulgence, now overgrown and half a century vacant. Masons laid these walls to last five hundred years, yet nature invades the smallest cracks in buildings and people.
This big, blustery day, made for frontal headaches or seven-league boots, constricted under a threatening sky as it often does here in winter. Shades of gray and grayer came rolling from the western sea. Like an old man waving his cane at speeding cars, it comes to nothing. The damp wind tore at my clothing, tugging me toward the churning froth and rocks below. Another invitation. I could blame a slight misstep on the weather until I hit bottom. After that, who would care?
Night settled like a matron into her chair, as did I with a book on medical devices. As I turned the title page, the lights flickered once, then again, before remaining dead on the third.
Windblown darkness slammed against the walls of my cottage, seeping through, replacing shadows with blacker things. Outside, dozens of distant eyes glowed in the trees. Had I secured the cellar bulkhead door?
Shedding my warmer, I shuffled toward the kitchen, then traded my cocktail glass for a knife. I latched the deadbolt from inside the pantry. Someone before had faced intruders. Let them scratch the widows, rattle the doorknobs, break the furniture, but not my bones. A red glow flooded under the door, fading and brightening, searching. Sweat trickled down my neck. I covered my breathing through an old pillow that smelled of mouse droppings. After hours of saturated silence, I nodded off.
Morning fog threw up protective barricades. A weaker person, one needing comfort, would propose it had been a dream, a trick of the night, or some other nonsense. I wasn’t a weaker person. Nothing was out of place except the end table lamp in the sitting room, slightly askew, but evidence enough of intrusion. Did I leave the last page of my manuscript face down? Had the night visitors read it? Was the act of placing it upside down a rejection? I mixed a martini, chewed olives impaled on a cocktail sword, and thought of Evelyn, the whiteness of her skin, and how she floated above the vague talk at parties.
Into my second drink, I made my shopping list: battery-powered lantern, three jars of stuffed olives, fresh bread, black paint, and a propane torch to burn their fucking eyes out.
I’ve fallen into the habit of taking long walks out past civilization’s edge, replacing the hours spent in city coffee houses, watching, listening to the mannequins, hoping to catch something worthwhile for my now absent muse to digest. Had he found a new home to clatter around in? Should I hang a help wanted sign? Inquire within.
My canvas shoulder bag and walking stick stood sentry on a hat tree beside the cottage entryway, waiting for a walk. As usual, the day was overcast, though I chanced rain wouldn’t come. A hard shower is rare here. A constant mist, more often than not, like someone gently spraying your face as they would a favorite house plant, knocking off the dust to make you shine again. I swiped the porch light switch before shutting the front door. Three steps on, I stopped—don’t call it hesitated. Did I lock it? Turning back, I twisted the handle. Yes, locked. Three more paces. I wondered if I pulled it tightly shut. I had. Satisfied, I walked to the end of the drive, swinging my walking stick forward like a minesweeper, knocking down dew-strung spiderwebs.
A narrow, mile-long blacktop ribbon led to three blocks of boardwalk stores, a hotel, and the town hall. Like a metronome, the dull thump of my staff on the pavement provides the rhythm, while my thoughts wander in melody, rising in one stanza, falling the next.
At each coda, I turn to glimpse the man who had been following me for the last two weeks. He knows before I look, stepping into the tangled verge or ducking behind a tree. I’m no fool. Though I never saw him, the buzz of his anonymous presence, his snapping observations chewing on my trail, erasing my steps, came loud and obnoxious.
From behind me, a vehicle slowed, stopped. Randy. Unmistakably, unremarkably, Randy. Another almost person, like those in the city I’d fled.
“Hey there, Mr. Becket. Drove by the cottage just now. Looks like the storm turned up some shingles last night.”
Claws do that. I walked over and used the driver’s side mirror to look behind me. Damn clever, my stalker. He knew what I was doing, staying hidden. Molasses on ice, Randy droned on. Treasures rested in the back of his truck. No longer would the tormentor slap my walls, scratch at my door, or streak past the corners of my eyes.
“Can I borrow your hatchet and some baling wire?” I asked.
He craned his neck to see what I was pointing at. “Sure. I’ll leave ‘em on your porch.”
Randy turned around, drove toward the cottage. Good boy. I trod on, wondering if Misty was working the counter at Ocean Liquor, an easy acquaintance. Good for short company and other needs.
A season’s true arrival is not a sudden thing. You only notice looking back a few weeks or a month if you’ve misplaced your calendar, as I had. I woke today with the realization I’d had a house guest for nine days. Where does he sleep?
“Are you sure you’re not dead?” I asked New John. Our past talks seemed vague memories—cigarette smoke, easily dispatched.
He set his coffee on the table and peered over his glasses. “Do I smell dead?”
“I don’t know what that smells like.”
“You’d know.” His right hand circled on the stump of his wrist, fanning his face. “Horrible stench. Lingers in the nose, on the tongue, like crotch foot. Even the embalmers can’t ward it off,” he said, placing thumb and forefinger on either side of his neck, covering slits where tubes had pumped preservative. “You need to shave.”
“Gave it up. Mirrors tell lies.”
“How so?” he asked.
“I see your ugly face looking back.”
“Lucky you don’t see Donna’s.”
“That hooker I introduced you to in the city. Thought you could use a distraction. She gave you her name as Jasmine.”
That set me back. “I thought she was a free spirit, an adventurous sort.”
“A five-hundred-dollar a night free spirit. Had to give her another two grand to keep her mouth shut after you messed up her face.”
“You did.” New John smiled.
I squinted. “Why do you believe her over me?”
“She’s my sister.”
“I know you’re not real.”
John took a soundless sip. “No one has come up with a proper definition.”
The urge to poison his food sped through my thoughts, but he didn’t eat. Since his arrival, the night voyeurs have abandoned their visage and encroachments. They fear him, biblical blood smeared on doorposts, forbidding entry. Or, it may be the now blackened windows that repel them.
Today’s sky scrapes the treetops as it does every meeting day. The same wind, same slate cover, the same smells. The same lurker. Days efficiently recycled.
Settling in, Farnell asked, “What would you like to discuss?”
“I’d prefer to start with the end of our last conversation.”
He adjusted his lap blanket. “Don’t get fixated on that. When you question reality too deeply, the evidence evaporates, like continually slicing of a grain of sand.”
“Is yours, just now, the same as mine?”
The pipe took to the right side of his mouth for a clenched response. “Can we separate or count realities? If not, chaos masquerading as mirage, rules.”
I recrossed my legs, finding comfort in the green velvet armchair, but not in his answer. My mind screamed for simplification.
“Ah, well,” he continued, “to each his own. They must synchronize when awareness rears its head. Otherwise, it’s too complicated and convenient a coincidence, don’t you think?”
As I considered, he drummed his fingers on the heavy volume held on his lap. Always the same book. No title on the spine or leather cover. He’s never opened it in my presence. I’ve fought the impulse to examine it, to ask him to pass the weighty thing to me, yet I fear something might shatter if he did.
“Must I leave this one?”
“You know why, Samuel.”
Resigned, I gave him an answer to a question unasked. “I hate the sameness knocking about in my head.”
“Where would you go?”
Where to flee, so the act of my leaving won’t drag mysteries and memories in my wake.
As if knowing my mind, he says, “Not possible.”
Absent my muse, I borrowed similarities from the endings of my previous books, bringing this one to an end suitable for my publisher and the editor minions he keeps in his dungeon. I told them to make changes as they saw fit. No need to send me the galleys. Let the corpse lie in peace. Since emailing the malignant manuscript, I’ve felt buoyant. A fraction of happy, you might say. Clarity does that for me, or when clarity fails, martinis.
I side glanced at New John drinking coffee in my kitchen, wondering where he gets it. None in the cupboards. We hadn’t spoken in days. He sat there, cup never empty, sipping through his teeth, smiling, and occasionally whispering, “Almost, almost, almost.” His words wrapped around my brain stem, waking an animal. I told him to shut up or leave.
“Where would I go?” he asked.
“To hell,” I said. His grin slipped into a smile. Has he won?
Last Tuesday, Mr. Farnell promised he’d have a surprise for our next chat. Sober, I’d watched the clock all morning, fortified with granola, tea, and Tylenol, waiting to strike out for Litton House.
Kicking through soggy leaves, brushing away ferns, I was soon at the sea bluff. Over the edge, the grinding surf and driftwood engaged in a dance, a clash. It was relentless, like a detective’s dame in need of a cigarette. Water always wins. In a crevice lay the body of my stalker, artfully disguised as a drift log draped in kelp, no longer able to taunt. The old boy had gotten sloppy, missed seeing the danger. Satisfied, I pushed nature aside, uprooted the wired stakes, and tossed my trap over the side.
Litton House looked fresher, strong-shouldered, time’s slump lost. The lawns were manicured, hedges trimmed, and the twisted weeds on the driveway removed. The garden gate refused to give its normal squeal when I swung it open. I’d be annoyed if this was the surprise Farnell promised. The doors stood apart. Electric light shone from within. I walked past waist-high vases on plinths peppered about the foyer. Lush landscape paintings held the high ground. Fresh flowers lay on a credenza, the cloying fragrance almost intolerable. None of this impressed me.
Farnell’s room was as it should be, lamps lit, pools of light as stepping stones. His chair was vacant, as was mine. I looked about, expecting him to be standing by the bookshelves. No. Not there. Not anywhere. My heart beat faster, anticipating other changes. It felt like sacrilege, but I took his seat. My fingers stroked the cover of his book, the spine, the paper edges. I pulled it to my lap.
“Your martini, sir.”
Never would I have expected Farnell to be offering a silver tray in a half-bow. His formal black suit, stiff white shirt, gloves, and tie smacked of smug servitude. I hesitated, desiring eye contact not offered, then took the stemmed glass—clear liquid, three speared olives. “A woman to see you, sir,” he said. He made an invisible retreat, as butlers do.
A spectacled woman, dark hair in a severe cut, stood at the library door, water dripping from her rain jacket. Her sogginess reminds me of Evelyn. Her doe eyes drag up Donna’s naked familiarity.
I stood, knowing my lines, heard my words. “Welcome to Litton House, Priscilla. Pleasant day for a walk.”
“I didn’t think anyone lived here,” she said.
What else could she say after falling into this flytrap? I’ll learn her sins and release mine.