Reina had that look like she was about to say something they’d both regret later.
“So, how about that gym membership?”
Great, so she was on that track again. This could become a whole thing. Pete sighed and put down the paper. “How about it?”
“You should get one. You promised.”
Women and their bedside promises. How could he say no to her when her face was glowing and she was lying warm and soft right beside him?
Pete stood and went to her, laying his hands on her shoulders.
The neighbours’ moving van pulled out of the next driveway. It’s massive tires crunched on gravel and then disappeared down the end of Ashwood Drive.
Reina saw his expression and turned to look out the window.
“Can you say deja vu?”
Reina punched him softly on the shoulder, the gym discussion apparently forgotten at the sight of their departing neighbours.
Pete left the kitchen and fell into his leather office chair. He checked the numbers on the site. Hits were down but that was to be expected at the beginning of June. There were fewer people stuck at home alone with their computer, cellphone or tablet. It was harder to justify spending an afternoon diddling yourself to every mature, redhead video you could find when it was sunny outside.
Pete made some calls regarding the availability of certain niche films. Content was key. People would come for the niche they couldn’t find elsewhere.
Peter took lunch and smoked a joint with Reina over cups of steaming black coffee.
“Wasn’t it around this time last year?” Reina asked about the changing of neighbours.
“Sometime in the summer.” Pete recalled and then frowned. “I think it’s always been the summer.”
“There’s something about that house. Have we had a single neighbour who didn’t get rich there?”
“Maybe it’s got a leprechaun in the attic.” Pete put on a high-pitched irish voice and chased her around the room.
After they settled back into the same chairs, Reina asked how the site was doing. Pete told her about the new click-through they were considering.
“There’s this study by a quack in Mexico. The ad’s gonna say ‘Study: Porn increases the sex you have.’ The doctor counts masturbation as sex but apparently the click-through numbers are enormous on it.”
“Are you gonna run it?”
Pete shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s pretty manipulative but all the big boys are using it. What do you think?”
“Go for it. If the others are running it, they’re being exposed to it anyway.”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
The crunch of gravel next door told them their new neighbours had arrived.
“Want to go say hi?” Reina asked with a shy smile.
They slipped on sandals and went out into the hot June sun.
A family was stepping out of a black and chrome sedan. A man with bright orange hair, a turquoise bowling shirt and khaki shorts. A thin, pretty woman with a scowling face and a little girl hanging onto the bottom of her dress.
“Cute kid.” Reina said with a smile.
Pete looked at her sideways but didn’t see any unspoken accusation.
A towering beanpole of a man in a mahogany suit stepped out of the drivers seat. He caught sight of Pete and Reina, who waved. The man waved energetically back.
He strode purposely over to them with legs like blades of grass. Shiny, compact hazelnut hair shone on the top of his head, above an acne-pocked face and blue eyes with shocks of green. He extended a hand to Pete.
“Name’s Luke Fern. How do ya do?”
The family stood behind Luke. Their little girl was grinding the bottom of a velcro shoe into the sidewalk.
“What’s your name?” Reina asked, crouching down and bopping the small girls nose.
“Kyla.” The girl said nervously.
“Nice to meet you Kyla.” Reina stood up and offered a hand to the woman. “I’m Reina.”
The family (the Wallace’s) exchanged hand shakes and names with noticeable reserve. Pete was mildly repelled when he discovered that the man, whose name was Clinton, had extremely sweaty hands. His wife, who went by Grace, gave him a smouldering look as she leaned in for a hug. Clinton seemed distracted.
“Well why don’t we start making this house a home.” Exclaimed Luke, clapping his hands to a simple beat and leading a parade of personal affects into the house. Luke’s gaudy suit and his outgoing manner made it clear that he was their realtor. A very involved realtor.
Pete and Reina returned home and went about their day.
Half past two in the afternoon, the doorbell rang. “Got it.” Called Pete as he swung the door open.
Luke Fern stood in the doorway, casting a long, bladed shadow across the lawn.
“Pete.” The man smiled warmly, which caused dimples to appear among the pocks in his cheeks.
“Luke. How can I help you?”
“It’s been quite a revolving door over there hasn’t it?”
“Yeah. I think we’ve had a new family every year we’ve been here.”
“Yes. Well, that brings me to my point. I’ve spoken to some of the past home owners and they all had very disquieting things to say about the neighbourhood.”
Pete raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yes. Excuse me for this and I in no way imply you but they all shared a feeling of being unwelcome.”
Pete shook his head. “That’s too bad. I don’t know why they’d feel that way. They didn’t seem too friendly themselves.”
“Yes, it is most unfortunate for a family to feel like that.” Luke held two hands to his heart. “I’m most invested in anyone I deal with but especially a family. A realtor needs a sense of responsibility. I’m not just selling houses, I’m selling homes.”
“Well the Wallace’s have been through an awful rough patch. They defaulted on their last mortgage and have had to move awful far to be here. It’d be nice if they felt comfortable, wouldn’t you agree? Give them a leg up on a new page?”
“Yeah, sure.” Pete had no idea where the conversation was going. The man was a bizarre realtor. The skipping, boisterous attitude was one thing but it was actually more profitable for him to sell the house every year. Did he really buy the sentimental drivel he was pushing?
“I knew it.” Luke clapped Pete on the shoulder with a toothy grin. “Well, I’m hosting a little dinner party at the Wallace’s this Sunday. A welcoming meal, if you will. It’d be wonderful if you could attend.”
“I’ll have to check with Reina but-“
“C’mon now Pete.” Luke grinned knowingly. “You can make some time for new friends.”
Pete sighed. “Yeah. You’re right.” He thought that he’d get some good karma out of it, at least.
“That’s a good man. Six on Sunday. Alright, well, good day to you.” Luke swung a finger down his forehead, as if tipping an invisible hat and then strode back to the Wallace’s.
* * *
At six on Sunday, Pete and Reina locked their door and made the journey twenty feet to the Wallace’s. Pete knocked.
The door swung open almost immediately. Luke stood at the door looking boastfully resplendent in a mahogany, satin dress shirt, no tie and form-fitting black slacks. He finished the outfit with expensive black, italian leather shoes. “Welcome.”
He leaned forward and gave both of them an awkward, clutching hug. Pete noticed that the man was very warm, almost as if he were running a fever.
“Please make yourself at home.” Luke said warmly as he took their jackets and shoes. “The Wallaces are in the kitchen.”
Pete led Reina into the kitchen where the Wallaces were sitting silently around a chipped wooden table. It was groaning under the weight of numerous dishes; cheesy scalloped potatoes, a glistening beef roast, rich macaroni salad and an enormous pot of aromatic chili.
“Hey Clinton.” Pete said, offering a hand. The man took it distractedly and muttered in response.
Exchanging a look with Reina, Pete took a seat.
Luke glided into the room and beamed at the table. “There’s beer and cider in the fridge, if you so desire.”
Pete noticed that Clinton had a full, flat glass of beer.
Reina stood to go to the fridge but Luke shooed her away with his spindly hands and asked her what she wanted. He brought a beer for Pete and a pear cider for Reina.
“Shall we tuck in?” Luke didn’t wait for a response. He plopped down between Kyla and Reina and promptly piled his plate high with everything.
Pete followed suit. It was all delicious. Each dish was like the kind of home cooking that makes you miss childhood.
“This is great food Grace.” Reina said to the other woman, who was turning her salad about on her plate with a plastic fork.
“I didn’t make it.” Grace said, turning red.
Luke boomed with laughter, gravy and roast spraying the table in front of him. None landed on his clothes. He calmed down, dabbed at the table and half hid a smile. “I must confess I do enjoy a Sunday dinner and I do so love to cook. I just had to make everything myself.”
Pete smiled at the man. Despite his oddities, he was a throwback to the humble hospitality of an America long gone. “That’s awful nice of you Luke.”
“Too many people today don’t remember the need for respect in a functioning society. Without it, we’re no better than a tribe of apes in a bunch of metal boxes. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“It’s certainly important.” Reina watched Kyla’s too wide eyes as she glanced around the room in apparent unease.
“Clint.” Luke said between spoonfuls of macaroni salad. “Why don’t you tell these two about your incredible career opportunity?”
Clinton flinched away from the realtor and then calm came over his face. He turned to Pete.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It’s just-”
Pete shrugged and nodded, encouraging the story.
“Well, I’m a programmer-“
Luke interrupted by jabbing a fork into the air. “You don’t do yourself justice Clinton. This man is the Michelangelo of zeros and ones.”
Clinton shrugged uncomfortably. “I know how to program machines for practical applications. I did all the work for Sheffield Factory which was just outside Dawnsville. That’s where we used to live.”
“That must have set you up nice.” Pete said slowly.
“I did pretty well. Donated most of what I made. There was a real good church in Dawnsville; St. Anthony’s. Gave a pretty penny to them. I retired from programming for awhile and just helped for awhile. Did the lights on Sunday, some pro-bono work on the website.”
Luke sighed dramatically. “Unfortunately, men are can capable of the most appalling sins.”
“One day the pastor just up and left. Took everything.” Tears filmed Clinton’s eyes, making them shine. “Then the mortgage doubled on the house and we had to let it go.”
“My god,” Reina breathed, “did they ever catch him?”
Clinton shook his head.
“Well now, no need to let the inevitable failure of a clergyman devoted to a non-existant entity bring us down. I mean really, is there anything more obvious?” Luke barked a single laugh. “More drinks anyone?”
Clinton gulped his beer and shuddered. Pete got the impression he didn’t like the taste. “I’ll have another.” He called to Luke who winked and ducked into the fridge.
“What kind of work are you looking for now?” Pete asked, thinking about the site. If the man was good, Pete could use him.
Luke cracked Pete’s beer and poured it for him. “I have a great opportunity for him. I know someone inside the pentagon who’s looking for a drone operator. Pays very well and there’s huge opportunity for advancement.”
Pete nodded, impressed. “That’s a pretty great step up from doing a church website.”
“Well, drones kill people.”
Luke sighed and slapped a hand to his cheek. “You’re being silly Clinton. You’d be behind a screen. There’d be no blood on your hands.”
Clinton’s silence indicated that he didn’t wholly agree.
“It’s no different than a video game.” Luke said in the tone of an adult talking to a very small child.
Grace stood and wobbled, trying twice to grab the back of a chair before clutching it.
“Excuse me.” Clinton said as he left the table.
Grace made her way around the table, using the backs of chairs as a kind of handrail.
She laid drunk-heavy hands on Peter’s back and leaned forward, her brown hair brushing his cheek. “What do you do Mr. strong-man-next-door? I bet you’re a rich man.”
Peter looked askance at Reina who smiled amusedly. There was no fear of infidelity between them, but still it made him uncomfortable.
“I operate an adult entertainment website.”
Grace’s eyes widened and then narrowed as she smiled. “You’re a bad man aren’t you?”
She slipped and almost fell before Peter caught her by the shoulder. “Why don’t we just take a seat.” He guided her to Clinton’s seat, where she immediately leaned towards him, chin resting on wrist.
“You sell porn.” She giggled. Reina looked concernedly at Kyla.
“It’s not the most honourable work but it pays the bills.”
“I he-heard there’s major money in it.” Grace said as her eyes glassed over. “Once, I even would’ve…” She trailed off.
“Really?” Luke asked loudly as Clinton re-entered the room. “You make adult films Peter?”
Clinton’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“No,” Peter cut in, “I just host them on a website for mass consumption.” He laughed. “I can’t imagine filming people having sex, it would be incredibly strange.”
“Are you a religious man?” Clinton asked softly.
Grace was gone completely, using the table as a pillow.
“No.” Peter admitted. “We’re atheists but honestly we believe in doing good just as much as anyone else. We have twenty sponsor kids.”
“I was raised with a very particular set of beliefs.” Clinton started, eyes gazing into an unseen distance. “I was taught sex was sacred, that one should never harm another nor speak the Lords name in vain. God was the sole fruit of life.”
Luke sidled up to the man and wrapped a thin arm around his shoulder. “Those are very noble beliefs Clinton. Naive, some would say, even ignorant but noble all the same.”
“I wouldn’t say religion is ignorant,” Peter broke in, “there’s much that science can’t explain. It’s just that religion so often becomes a weapon of the manipulative, like your pastor.”
Clinton nodded slowly. “I never even considered manipulation. When he ran, it made me question everything. I’d never, I mean, we’d never had a drink in our lives before a year ago. Waited till marriage for sex. I’m not sure I believe it anymore. Still, it’s awful hard for me to take a job where I’m killing people, indirectly or directly.”
Peter took a big drink of beer. It was hoppy and clung to the tongue. “Well honestly, I know that what I do is slightly immoral. I mean, porn can quickly become an addiction for some people. Still, in a world where money opens doors and changes the law, it’s a necessity. The privilege money affords you can make you forget any moral conflict.”
“It’s different.” Clinton stared feverishly into Peter’s eyes. “You sell sex, but I would be killing people.”
Luke pressed a cold can of beer into Clinton’s hand. “What kind of people do you think you’ll be killing? Not innocents. It’s the bloodthirsty arabs who would laugh as America burns. I would feel wholly confident in holding the gun the President points.”
“Maybe.” Clinton said finally before sitting down. “It would be nice not to have to worry about where money’s going to come from.”
“That’s all anyone wants isn’t it?” Luke asked smiling around.
Grace began snoring, so Peter and Reina gave their apologies but they really must leave and gathered their things at the door.
Luke stood in the entrance as they prepared to leave and Clinton even approached to shake Peter’s hand with a small smile and a nod.
Clinton went back to the kitchen to take care of Grace. Luke wrapped a long-fingered hand around Peter and Reina’s shoulders and looked at them solemnly.
“You’re good people. Clinton needed that. Little Kyla will thank you when her college is paid for.”
Peter smiled warmly at the man. “If we’re good, you’re bordering on saintly.”
Luke’s eyes crinkled together as he grinned. “I’m only doing what I must.”
They said goodbye and parted ways.
* * *
Clinton took the job at the pentagon. Peter saw him some mornings, driving away in his beautiful company cadillac. They didn’t see the Wallace’s often as Clinton was almost always busy and Grace was an insufferable flirt.
There were some details that even the most solitary neighbour can’t help but notice. Strange cars at all hours. Some carrying men who Grace welcomed into the home at mid-day. Others late at night with men who delivered packages to Clinton on his back porch, took cash and left in a hurry.
The Wallace’s had almost been forgotten in Peter’s mind until a spring morning nearly sixteen months later. The New York Times arrived and the front page read: OVER 200 CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN DRONE MISFIRE. Peter read through with concern. There were no names in the article.
He stepped out of his house and walked over to the Wallace’s. The dinner echoed in Pete’s mind.
After pushing the doorbell and waiting several minutes Pete decided to go home. He turned around when he realized that Clinton’s car was in the driveway. It was Monday. He hadn’t gone to work.
Peter paused, pondering the difference between kind concern and rude intrusion. The image of Clinton breaking down in despair over a mistaken drone strike made up his mind. He tried the back door and found it unlocked.
The house smelled wrong, like copper and filth. The shades were drawn and despite the sun beating outside, the kitchen was poorly lit. “Clinton?” Peter called softly.
No response. Peter made his way cautiously past the kitchen table and into the entrance hall, unease seeping into his bones. “Clinton?” Again, no response.
Were they on vacation? No, they wouldn’t have left a door unlocked. He slowly climbed the stairs towards the hall with three bedrooms. A barrage of disturbing thoughts and ideas about what was happening flickered through Peter’s mind. Violent burglary? A disappearing act co-ordinated by secret services?
Nothing he imagined even came close.
* * *
Peter walked into the Primax Realty and up to the front desk. He’d checked every realty service in town, every web page for Luke Fern but there was no record of him. The state said he didn’t have a real estate certificate. Peter had taken to walking to every Realty Agency in town and asking about him.
The secretary looked up as Peter leaned against the counter. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for information about an agent who may or may not have worked for you.”
“His name is Luke Fern and he had the listing for 411 Ashwood Drive.”
The woman’s features melted. “Oh my god. That house with the poor, poor family. The papers said that he wrot-“
Peter cut her off with a furious nod, sharply saying “Yes. Can you check? Please.”
The woman looked abashed and went into a cabinet of files.
When Peter found the Wallace’s, he’d been sick on the floor. Little Kyla hanging from her closet door, a nail through each hand, one through the sternum and one through the head. Grace drained of blood in the master bathtub before being posed with crossed arms on the bed. Skin as pale as parchment and wearing all white. She looked like the Virgin Mary. The worst was Clinton, lying on the carpet, wrists wide open and the message he scrawled on the mirror in red; “Forgive me God, for I have sinned.”
It’d only been a week since he found them but it felt like a month. The police had lost interest in him as a suspect when it became clear that Clinton had killed his family.
Peter’s first thought was of Luke Fern. The man needed to know what happened. But then it became national news, with an emphasis on the religious aspect and the Killing of Ashwood Drive was being released by Universal Studios for Halloween. There was no way the man hadn’t heard.
“I’m sorry.” The secretary said empathetically. “There’s no record of a Luke Fern working here.”
Peter drove home, wrapped in silent thought. Had the man even been a realtor? His involvement seemed more characteristic of a high-operating CIA handler.
Peter and Reina were enjoying a mid-day toke and joe when the crunch of tires on gravel drew their attention. They shot to the window but sighed. A red truck was just doing a u-turn.
Peter gravitated back to his office and his work. It got his mind off everything else. He was doing some market research when an article on the Huffington Post brought him forcibly back to Luke Fern.
The headline read: WHITE REFUSES REHAB; LOVES COCAINE. It had a picture of Betty White, the fully grown youth star who was releasing increasingly raunchy and sexualized content. The innocence of her youth was gone in fishnets, piercings and a permanently naughty look. He felt sorry for her.
The thing that made Peter’s skin crawl was the rake-thin hand clutching her bare shoulder. Betty White in a dark club, sky high with eyes big and bright as light bulbs and holding a shot of tequila. She was laughing as a tall, thin man whispered in her ear.