+quot;FOR SALE+quot; by KaRylin Jennifer opened her eyes and looked at the clock on her be

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"FOR SALE" by KaRylin Jennifer opened her eyes and looked at the clock on her bedside table. Ten o'clock! She hadn't meant to sleep in so late. She put on her housecoat and went downstairs. From a bag on the counter, she took a scoop of coffee beans, which she dumped into an electric grinder. She turned on the machine and it began to make the rumbling noise that was a familiar part of her mornings. She pulled the glass pot from underneath the percolator to be sure it was clean, noticing in the process that it seemed a little heavy. When she looked inside, she discovered the reason: stuffed into her coffee-pot was what appeared, on closer examination, to be an exsanguinated groundhog. "I'll be goddamned," she muttered. She was more surprised than angry, but this changed as she mulled the situation over. What had she done to offend Roger this time? He had been in such good mood lately. She might have known it wouldn't last. . . . Shortly after sunset, Roger sauntered into the living room, where it was Jennifer's custom to sit for awhile and have either a glass of lemonade or a nightcap before retiring for the evening. "Good morning," Roger said cheerfully. Jennifer gave him a dark look, but he did not seem to notice. He sat down, propped his feet up on the arm of the couch, and began staring off into space with a vaguely pleased expression on his face. He appeared to be looking out the window, which to Jennifer was only a rectangle of blackness in which she could see the faint reflections of herself and of the living room furnishings, such as they were. Jennifer knew from experience that Roger could sit like that for hours. At length, she commented, "When I get up in the morning, I enjoy a nice cup of coffee." "I never touch the stuff myself," Roger replied virtuously. "When I got up this morning, however, there was something in my coffee-pot." "Oh?" Jennifer clenched her fists, trying to maintain her temper. "Yes, a dead animal of some sort. A groundhog, unless I am mistaken." "Oh, that's right!" "Well, WHY?" "It's groundhog day." He gave her a puzzled look, as if he were wondering why she hadn't figured this out for herself. "It's September," said Jennifer with nearly infinite patience. Nearly. "Oh?" "Damn it, I've asked you to stop leaving your dead animals all over the place! Bury them or something. Or at least put them in the garbage." "I just thought I would bring you a present," Roger said in a hurt tone. "I might as well have a cat," Jennifer muttered, more to herself than to Roger. "Even though you would never think of getting me anything." "What about all those rabbits I buy you?" "Only when you want something from me." Roger smiled fetchingly, his usual strategy for obtaining what HE wanted. "Come on, Jennifer. be a good sport. Don't you have any sense of humor at all?" "All right, I'll get you something the next time I'm in town." Roger smiled expectantly. "How about some garlic. You like garlic, don't you?" Roger gave her a wounded look. "I've never tried that," Jennifer mused aloud. "Would it work, I wonder?" "Happy groundhog day," Roger said coldly, and left the room. At two o'clock the following afternoon, Jennifer had put all thoughts of possible uses for garlic out of her mind. She seldom thought about Roger, or anything connected with him, during the day. She was concentrating intently on her work, which at the moment consisted of welding together railroad spikes so the they would resemble giant, paired strands of dexyribonucleic acid. The idea had been her own; she knew little about dexyribonucleic acid, but when a small but prestigious genetic research center had called for bids for a sculpture for their front lawn, she had gotten a book out of the library to find out what genetic research was, and there on the front cover had been her idea. She had read enough of the book to sound as if she had some idea of what she was talking about, and submitted not only a written description and sketches, but also a scale model of the proposed sculpture that she'd made by welding together a box of nails. Class, she thought smugly. That was what had gotten her the job. She was also, in the back of her mind, thinking about lunch. It had been a long time since breakfast, and her stomach grumbled discontentedly, but she was absorbed in her work to a degree that enabled her to ignore this. When she heard the unmistakable sound of a car pulling into her driveway, over the steady hiss of her welding torch, she shut the torch off and pushed her safety mask up onto her forehead. It was not the type of car she was used to seeing, in that rural area; it looked expensive and freshly washed, and so new that it might have been driven there directly from the showroom, except for the absence of an invoice taped to the window. Perhaps they were lost. If they were going anywhere in particular, Jennifer thought, they were far out of their way. A short, balding man got out of the car. As might be expected, he was wearing a very nice suit. He smiled broadly at Jennifer, and although there was no physical resemblance, she was reminded of Roger. What does HE want, she asked herself silently. She was willing to bet he wanted something. She stood calmly with the torch in one hand, amused by the knowledge that she was an unusually imposing figure. "How are you today, ma'am?" At least he hadn't mistaken her for a man, as many people might have done if they first saw her in her heavy working clothes. Of course it might just mean that he knew that the house was rented by a woman living alone (alone, at least, in the eyes of the outside world). "Fine. Are you lost?" Maybe he could take a hint. "Oh, no, ma'am. I've come to take a look at the property." Frowning, Jennifer took off her mask and apron. They grew uncomfortably warm, even now that the weather was getting cooler; but she didn't feel comfortable welding without all of her protective gear. If she didn't wear it, every once in awhile a spark would fly out and catch on her clothing, which hurt like hell as well as being hard on her wardrobe. "Are you from the government?" "Oh, no, didn't Mr. Thibodeau tell you to expect me? I'm Bob Mitchell from Verdant Acres Realty." He stuck out his hand. "You can call me Bob." Jennifer shook his hand reluctantly. She had no particular desire to call him Bob. "Verdant Acres?" It sounded more like a cemetery, she thought, than a real estate agency. "Yes, ma'am. We sell real estate." He spoke as if he were addressing a young child. Jennifer was an intelligent woman, although her formal education had ended with high school, but because she was big and slow-looking and liked to be certain of her facts, people tended to assume that she was none too bright. There was no faster way to get on her bad side. "Do you now. Well, I don't believe the place is for sale." "You weren't informed? Oh, my. How embarrassing. I had assumed. . . Mr. Thibodeau didn't tell you?" "No," Jennifer said patiently. She was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. "Oh, dear. Well. Mr. Thibodeau did decide to place the property up for sale. I don't know why he didn't inform you. Do you mind if I take a look around?" Jennifer did, but said, "Help yourself." "Would you mind showing me through the house?" Jennifer shucked off her leg-guards and led the way toward the front door. "I don't believe I caught your name, miss, ah--" "Jennifer Meyers." "Okay, Jenny. Do you mind Jenny?" "Yes." Mr. Mitchell looked taken aback. "Sorry, Jennifer." Jennifer opened the door and led him into the front room, what had originally been the living room, but which Jennifer used as a storage area for all the tools and stray materials that had migrated up from her basement workroom during the warm months, when she had developed the habit of working out-of-doors. "Oh, my." Mr. Mitchell's voice was quiet and full of distress. "The kitchen's here. The living room--I think it was originally intended as a dining room, but I don't entertain much. The bedroom. There are three more upstairs, but I don't go up there much. There's half-bath off the kitchen with a stall shower. I think it used to be the pantry." The kitchen and adjoining bathroom seemed to pass inspection but Mr. Mitchell looked at the ratty couch and ancient recliner in the living room with a pinched expression. "Well, of course we'll be showing people through the house, so we'll want it to look as nice as possible, won't we? I'll tell you what--" He turned to Jennifer conspiratorily. "I'd be willing to bet we could get the owner to pay for some rental furniture. You wouldn't believe the difference that would make for this place. A coffee table, a nice sectional. . . you could move all of this stuff into the basement for the time being." "That wouldn't be convenient," Jennifer said, although she'd been planning to carry her tools downstairs when the weather got a little colder. Maybe now she'd put that off. "Well, I'll speak to the owner and see what can be worked out " He gave her an apologetic, I-only-work-here smile, "I'm really sorry you hadn't been informed. I really feel badly about it. But a place like this is really too big for a single person living alone, don't you think? It must be very difficult to keep clean. Have you ever thought about buying a place of your own? I have some very nice, smaller homes listed, at very reasonable prices, and quite a few of them are newer and in better--" "I have a lot of work to do," Jennifer broke in unsubly. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry to take your time. Perhaps I could come back when it's more convenient?" "What for?" "Well, I'd like to see the upstairs, the attic and the basement, spend some time familiarizing myself with the property." "Look, why don't you just look around, do whatever you need to? That way I can get my work done, and you can do yours. You don't look like the type to steal the silverware." Mitchell looked gratified at this expression of trust, and Jennifer thought, steal the silverware, no. Looks more like white-collar crime to me. Guy should have been a mortician; I'm sorry, ma'am, that your loved one seems to have passed away. But we can make him look very lifelike. Better than new, even. Look, we can slice off this wart. He won't feel a thing. These thoughts reminded her about Roger. How would he feel about all of this? Perhaps he could put his talent for obnoxiousness to good use, for once. That evening, when informed of the impending sale, Roger stalked off silently into the night. Whether he intended to do anything about the situation he did not say; when Jennifer went to bed that night, he had not yet returned. The next day, Bob Mitchell returned to put a For Sale sign on the front lawn, yellow and green and emblazoned with the name of Verdant Acres Realty; the following morning, however, it was gone. Jennifer assumed that Roger was responsible. If this was the best he could do, she might have to ask Bob Mitchell if he carried anything in the way of rental listings. Later that same day, the green and yellow sign was returned, carried between two grim-faced policemen. They asked to come in, and Jennifer admitted them. "Have you ever seen this sign before, Ma'am?" The younger one asked. "It was on my lawn yesterday. The owner is selling the place. This morning it was gone." "How do you feel about the place being up for sale? I mean, seeing as how you're living here, and all." It was the older man who spoke this time. Jennifer, although she felt as if she were stepping into a trap, answered truthfully: "Mr. Thibodeau didn't inform me about it until the day before yesterday. Actually, I was told by the real estate man, a Mr. Bob Mitchell. . . . Tell me, where did you find the sign?" "It was heaved through the picture window of Mr. Thibodeau's home in Wixton at about three this morning," the older officer replied. "Would you please examine the sign and tell me if its condition is the same as the last time you saw it?" He turned the sign so that it faced Jennifer, and she saw that the words, "KEEP AWAY OR YOU'LL GET HURT" had been written across the Verdant Acres logo with one of her red china markers. The thing that shocked her into momentary immobility was that the writing was a very good imitation of her own. "I see," she said slowly. "Well, I understand why you might think I had something to do with it, but--" She shrugged helplessly. What was she going to tell them? Well, you see, officers, there's this vampire who lives in my attic. . . . The police had a number of other questions to ask her, and neither of them looked particularly happy with her answers. Finally, they left. At least they hadn't arrested her, although the younger one had kept fingering his handcuffs. Jennifer was livid; Roger was in for it now. Promptly at sunset, Jennifer went up and sat on the attic stairs to wait for Roger. But, after a time, she began to suspect that he had left by some other method. How very frustrating. Surely, he didn't think he could avoid her indefinitely. "Roger, are you home?" she called loudly, and knocked on a step. The door beneath the staircase opened, and Roger peered out, wearing a solicitous expression which Jennifer could see by the light from the hall. "Roger, I am very upset with you. The police think that I threw a sign through Mr. Thibodeau's window, and I know perfectly well that it was you who threw it, but I would have had a hard time explaining that to them. You almost got me arrested." Roger looked apologetic. Jennifer knew from experience that this did not necessarily foreshadow a change in his behavior. "I'm sorry, Jennifer. But surely you agree that we have to do something. This is a serious situation. If he sells the house, you will have to leave." "I don't think there's much that can be done, Roger. It's his property. But I'll tell you what, I will find a nice house to rent, and you can move in with me. . . if," she could not help adding, "you promise to behave yourself." Roger looked horrified. Jennifer was not sure if it was the prospect of moving that offended him, or that of amending his behavior. Maybe both. "Jennifer, you can't be serious! I have lived here for over a century," he added with as much aplomb as could be mustered from the underside of a staircase, "and I am not going anywhere. Nor am I going to permit this young thug to run off someone that I have decided, at least for the time being, to allow to remain." "If you continue trying to intimidate Mr. Thibodeau, you will get me thrown in jail. I'm not sure you have any business calling the landlord a thug when it's you who are acting like one." "I am merely protecting what is mine." "Well, legally, its not." Roger did not deign to answer this. Jennifer saw him grow translucent, then he moved through the attic stairs like a ghost and she felt a cold wind pass over her. She clutched her arms, which were damp and covered with goose-bumps. "I wish you wouldn't do that." Roger was standing, now, in the doorway leading to the hall. "Stay out of my way, then." Jennifer followed him to the head of the main staircase. "Where are you going?" "Out." The next day, the police were back, and they were less polite than they'd been before. They asked Jennifer to get in the back of their car and drove her into Wixton, where she was ushered into Wixton's police station, a low-slung modern building that reminded her of a dentist's office. There, she was fingerprinted and questioned, and in the process, she learned what had happened; the Thibodeau dog had been found, torn to bits, scattered throughout the lower story of the Thibodeau home. She was sickened by this, as she had always been fond of dogs, but also relieved; she hadn't been sure just how far Roger would go. In the back of the clean, unpretentious modern station was a small, not particularly clean concrete cell. Jennifer was detained there and advised to get a lawyer. That night, as she lay awake on her hard cot, she saw someone moving in the corridor. If it was one of the police officers, why didn't he turn on the light? Afraid, she stood up and straightened her blouse. Roger's face appeared out of the gloom. "You!" Jennifer said in a hoarse whisper. "What makes you think I am even speaking to you? look what you have done." "I could get you out of there now, if that's what you want, but I have a better idea. They can't blame you for anything that happens while you're locked up, Jen. If something happens tonight at the Thibodeau house, they will have to let you go." Jennifer had to admit that it was a sound plan. "All right, but you have to tell me what you're going to--" Roger was gone, and she was speaking to the empty air. She sat alone in the dark, wondering just what it was that he planned to do. After awhile she decided she was better off not knowing, and that it was something she had no control over in any event. She lay back down on the cot. It looked as though her criminal career was over before it had begun, and that come morning, the police would no longer regard her as a psychotic dog killer. When morning came, she was released, but not before additional questions were asked of her: Did she have any idea who would object so strongly to the sale of the house? Had she seen anything out of the ordinary, anything at all, since moving there? She told them that she had no idea, and that she had seen nothing. She asked them what had happened during the night, and was told that the Thibodeau house had burned to the ground. "And, just to be sure we got the message, there was another one of those signs out front. 'YOU WERE WARNED', was what they'd written on it this time. You're sure you can't think of anyone who. . . ?" "No, I'm sorry. Was anybody hurt?" It seemed to take him forever to get around to answering. "No, they got out all right, but the place was a total loss." The older policeman was acting friendly toward her again, and even seemed a little apologetic, but the younger one stared at her though slitted eyes and didn't say a word, once the official interrogation was over. Evidently, he still felt that she'd had complicity in everything that had happened to Thibodeau, and wanted to be sure that she knew it. Later that day, she was paid a visit by Mr. Thibodeau himself, who she had only met on one or two occaslons. He looked harried and sleepless and wanted to know if she could tell him anything at all that would help to track down the culprit. He said he was sorry she'd been held overnight in jail, with such a guilty expression on his face that Jennifer began to suspect that he had probably demanded that the police arrest her. Not that she could blame him, under the circumstances. When he mentioned the dog, he looked so sad that it brought back melancholy thoughts of the death of Beaulah, the dachshund she'd had as a child. She felt sick with unearned guilt, and completely disgusted with Roger. Rabbits and squirrels were one thing, but a dog--how could he? She did not see Roger that night, or the next, which was a little unusual; they had grown accustomed to sitting in the living room shortly after sunset, meeting one another's need for conversation and companionship. Nearly a week later, when Jennifer came into the kitchen and saw Roger standing in front of the counter, she was glad enough to see him that she momentarily forgot her anger. "Well, there you are. I was beginning to think you had decided to move out, after all." He smiled fetchingly. "Surely if I were going to do that, I would have taken you with me. But there is no need. I have fixed everything, and I don't think this Thibodeau fellow will bother us any more. Most likely, he will have to leave town altogether." He lifted up a glass, one of Jennifer's wine glasses, which he had filled with blood. "Here, help me celebrate." It took Jennifer a few moments to realize that he was offering it to her. When she did, she recoiled. "I don't want that!" "You've never tried it; you might like it." He took a small sip, leaving one side of the glass rimmed with red. "Ew, that's disgusting." Roger gave her a patient look. "You've never tried it, have you? It's very good." "What is it, dog blood?" Another patient look. "What did you do this time?" she asked with some trepidation. Roger smiled mysteriously and took another sip of blood. Jennifer often used a large radio to keep her company while she worked, although she'd had to cultivate a taste for country music. Usually, the local news broadcasts were extremely bland--agricultural fairs, birth announcements, local elections--but the next day, the airwaves were buzzing with the spectacle provided by prominent local businessman Henry Thibodeau, who'd been found wandering in the early hours, stark naked and clutching a strangled duck in front of himself in an attempt to observe public decency. The story was not played for laughs, at least not intentionally; Mr. Thibodeau, the announcer intoned gravely, was suffering from a mild concussion and was being hospitalized overnight for observation. He was not able to describe his attackers, nor remember what had happened, nor explain where he had acquired the duck. The announcer strove to keep his tone suitably serious, and almost succeeded. "You have gone far enough with this, Roger. I want you to promise that even if Mr. Thibodeau does not move away, you will leave the poor man alone. What do you want from him, anyway?" "I want him not to sell my house." "He hasn't sold it. He hasn't even replaced the for sale sign." "I want him to admit to me that this house is mine." "He doesn't even know you exist! Promise me you will leave him alone, or I will move out, whether he sells the place or not." Roger made no promises, but neither were there any further incidents. Months passed; at Jennifer's suggestion, the sign had not been replaced on the front lawn of the house, but two couples and an older, single man were shown through the house. Jennifer did not tell Roger of these visits. The house was old and rather large, and not very close to any sizeable town, so she hoped that Thibodeau would seek a buyer in vain. Snow covered the countryside, and there were no more prospective customers shown through the house. Jennifer's young niece, Paulie, came to visit for the first two weeks in January. To Jennifer's relief, Paulie left her unruly son Timmy at home in the care of his father, and the visit passed pleasantly for all concerned. The snow receded, and in late May, the inevitable happened. A family with numerous small children made an offer on the house, and Jennifer was given a month's notice to vacate the place. Jennifer sat for a long time in the kitchen, unable to bring herself to go outside and work. She had come to love this house. . . and what about Roger? Visions of shredded tots besieged her, and in desperation, she wondered if she ought not to put an end to Roger for once and for all. But she knew that she would never be able to bring herself to do it. When she told him, Roger accepted the news calmly enough. He wanted to know details; the family's name, for example, and their present whereabouts. Jennifer refused to tell him what little she knew. "I can find out," Roger said sulkily, and left the house. Bob Mitchell called her the next day to tell her that it was a false alarm, and the deal would not be closed, but since the house was bound to sell sooner or later, had she considered. . . ? He did not mention what had made the buyers change their mind, but Jennifer told herself that surely, had anyone been killed, he would have mentioned it. Soon after that, a strange thing happened. Rather than one or two families per month, Bob Mitchell began showing potential buyers through the place several times each week. Jennifer thought that she ought to be paid a salary for putting up with it all, or at least a reduction in her rent. She asked Mitchell where he had managed to find all of those customers: "Mr. Thibodeau decided to lower the asking price considerably," he said, and named a sum. He seemed philosophical about it; he had a much greater chance of collecting his commission now, but it would be smaller, and in the meantime he had a lot of work on his hands. Jennifer, who stood to collect no commission, felt no sympathy for him. Roger began remarking that the place smelled like a zoo from all the people who'd been through. Jennifer couldn't smell anything amiss, but told him what had been going on. He swore colorfully, which for all his bad habits she had never heard him do before. The next day, she found herself watching nervously as a well-groomed family of five was herded into the house by Mr. Mitchell, and it proved that her fears were well-founded. Jennifer was working outside in the yard. She still had a lease, and she still had a living to make. She looked up when she heard a scream, and saw all five members of the well-groomed family run out of the house in such a panic that the woman tripped on the steps and one of the children (fortunately, the smallest) stepped on her. The man went back to help her up, grabbed her with one hand and the child with the other, and encouraged them to keep running toward their car, where the two older children were headed. Jennifer, who was directly in their path, caught the eldest of the three children by the arm as she tried to get past. "What happened?" She was watching the front door of the house, but Mr. Mitchell had not yet come out. "His head, his head is all bashed in!" The girl shouted into Jennifer's face. "Let her go," the father demanded, still dragging his wife with one hand and his youngest child with the other. He was approaching fast and had a dangerous gleam in his eye, and rather than arguing, Jennifer released the girl and stepped out of the way. As they passed, the woman called out, "We're getting the hell out of here, and we're not coming back!" Roger would be so pleased, Jennifer thought dourly. She trudged slowly toward the house. Poor Mr. Mitchell. Roger had gone much too far, this time. Perhaps she, Jennifer, could simply leave the country. The front door had been left open and she stepped inside. "Roger?" He came around the corner, grinning, and Jennifer gasped. Her next reaction was relief; the side of Roger's face was caked with blood-- knowing him, she was certain it was real, although she doubted it had come from him. He did indeed look very much as though the side of his head had been caved in with some blunt instrument. Jennifer shook her head in mock sadness. "You were always a messy eater, but this is getting ridiculous. Where is Mr. Mitchell, anyway?" He gestured toward the kitchen, a smug expression on his blood- smeared face. Jennifer went into the kitchen, where she discovered the unfortunate realtor, who had fainted. She splashed some water on his face until he came around. His eyes fluttered open, and then he screamed hoarsely and passed out again. This seemed odd to Jennifer, and she looked around the kitchen, disbelieving that she had been the cause of this reaction. Roger was standing behind her and looking over her shoulder at Mitchell, half of his face still crusted with dried blood. Jennifer tsked impatiently. "Why don't you go wash. You are frightening the poor man into convulsions." "Isn't that a pity," Roger said, but he left the room. This time it took longer to rouse Mitchell. She loosened his tie and considered removing his suit jacket, but it would be difficult to do by herself, and she did not want to call Roger back in, even if he had cleaned himself up. She splashed more water on Mitchell, but he showed no sign of stirring. She began to consider summoning an ambulance, although the man's pulse was steady. Finally, he let out a low groan and opened his eyes. "Please lie still, you passed out. I think it was the heat." Actually, it was only moderately hot, but she felt she had to make some effort to cover for Roger. "Yes, must have been. Seeing things. Christ." Mitchell tried to sit up, but Jennifer prevented him by placing a hand on his chest. "I think you'd better lie still for awhile. Do you have any kind of heart condition?" "No, heart's fine. Just the heat. You have anything to drink around here?" "I think water would be appropriate." She started to get up but Mitchell clung to her hand with both of his. "Don't go just yet." "The sink is right over there." She gently tried to free her hand "I know it was just a hallucination. . . I mean, it was, wasn't it? I never really believed the place was haunted. Did you see it?" "No, but those customers of yours sure did. I think you've seen the last of them." "Oh, damn." Mitchell's face pinched with disappointment. "Never should have let them bring their own car, but they wouldn't all fit in the Caddy." "Yes. Now if you'll let go of my hand, I will get you some water." "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize--I mean, I guess I'm still in shock and--" Jennifer let him babble on as she got him a glass of water. When she handed it to him he sat up and took the glass with both hands, caressing her fingers as she withdrew her hand. "Heat can make people do strange things," Jennifer commented. "You should be careful to get plenty of fluids, especially if you are going to wear all those clothes." Immediately, she regretted this turn of phrase, but Mitchell sipped his water and did not seize the conversational opening. When Jennifer finally got Bob Mitchell out the door, she looked around for Roger, but he had vanished. Gone back to bed, probably. Jennifer returned to her work, thinking to herself crossly that she was days behind schedule because of this whole ridiculous business. That evening, as she was fixing dinner, she heard a car pull into the driveway. She looked out the window and recognized Bob Mitchell's pale yellow Cadillac. What did he want now? Perhaps he had left something behind in the confusion, although Jennifer hadn't noticed anything. When she answered the doorbell, she was surprised to see that he was holding a bottle of wine, which he extended toward her. "I thought it was a pity that a fine woman like you didn't have anything in the house to drink besides water." Of course there was nothing for it but to invite him in. It was scarcely true that she had nothing in the house but water to drink, but she didn't mention this. "I was just fixing dinner. Would you like some?" "Mm, that would be great. I haven't tasted a woman's cooking in months." Jennifer took a moment to reflect on the willingness of men to cheerfully admit incompetence at tasks they found disagreeable. "Well, it's only spaghetti, but you're welcome to stay." "I love spaghetti." Fortunately, she'd been fixing a large batch with the intention of reheating what she didn't eat, for Bob Mitchell proved to be a hearty eater. She found his company surprisingly enjoyable (not once did he suggest that she might like to see a cozy two-bedroom cottage the other side of Wixton), and the wine, although it was an unpretentious package-store label, washed the spaghetti down smoothly and left a warm glow in her stomach. When they had eaten, Mitchell offered to do the dishes, which raised her opinion of him by an order of magnitude. When he was done, he joined her in the living room, where she was polishing off the last of the wine and watching a rather magnificent sunset through the window, with an air that hovered between resignation and apprehension. "I'm surprised you're not afraid to stay here, Jennifer, after what all those people saw." "I don't really believe in Ghosts--Bob." She was still not sure she wanted to be on a first-name basis with him, but she wasn't going to call him Mr. Mitchell when he used her first name. "Well, I don't either, of course." He laughed self-consciously. "But I swear, I never saw anything like it in my--well, of course I didn't actually see anything, did I." "I don't see how you could have." Mitchell looked around the living room (which she'd tried to make more presentable, out of vanity more than a desire to accommodate Mr. Thibodeau's desire to sell the place), anxious for a change of subject. "You do pretty well for yourself here. I admire a woman who can look out for herself. A sculptor, too, or would it be sculptress? I have to admit I don't know a whole lot about art. I like things I can understand, paintings of people for instance. I have a painting of my great-granddad at home that's been in the family forever. If I brought it over, would you mind taking a look at it and telling me if it's worth anything?" "I doubt it. And I really wouldn't be able to tell you, even if I saw it." "Well, I guess I couldn't sell it anyway, it would break my mother's heart--well, she's dead and all, but still. . . . You know, I can't help believing in them just a little--ghosts, I mean--after what happened today. I talked to the Cartwrights, the family I was showing through the place, and they all saw pretty much the same thing as I did If you're afraid to be by youself tonight, I'd be happy to stay." Jennifer stared at him, wondering if he were making her an exceptionally blunt proposition or if he were offering to sleep on her short, lumpy couch. In either case, she was not interested. "No, thank you. I will be quite all right." "Well, like I said, I don't believe in ghosts, but there could be some kind of lunatic hanging around here. You might not be safe. Hey, a guy in stage makeup, like in the movies. That's what it could have been. There was that rash of vandalism when the place was first put up for sale. They never did find out who was responsible." Nor, Jennifer was fairly certain, were they ever likely to. She pleaded exhaustion and showed Mitchell to the door, thanked him for the wine and accepted his thanks for dinner, and once more refused his offer to spend the night. Finally, with a silent sigh of relief, she closed the door behind him. "Aid and comfort to the enemy?" inquired a cold voice behind her. "If you are involved in a war, Roger, I am not volunteering to be one of your soldiers." "I'm sure you would be just as happy to see the house sold out from under us. Then you would be rid of me, as I suspect you have wanted all along." "Don't be silly. If I wanted to get rid of you, all I would have to do is move." "Maybe I'd follow you." "Before, you said you would refuse to move under any circumstances." Jennifer strove to keep her temper under control. "If you thought it would annoy me, though, I suppose that might be different." "Forgive me, Jennifer. I did not mean to be so abrupt. I become short-tempered when I have to stay up so late in the day, and I did not mean to take it out on you." He smiled engagingly, and Jennifer knew that he was trying to manipulate her, but she saw no harm in letting him. She relaxed, and smiled back. "I'm tired too. And I'm going to bed. Goodnight, Roger." "You won't invite that person in here again, will you?" "If I do, I'll try to see that he's out of here by the time you wake up." "You have to admit, it was pretty funny." He favored her with his patented, boyish grin. "Would you have any idea what day of the week we can expect the next batch of rubes?" "No, I don't, and I wouldn't tell you if I did. Now goodnight." Over the next two weeks, three families came to inspect the property, but there was no diurnal activity from Roger. Perhaps he hadn't been able to stay awake. Bob Mitchell also showed up unexpectedly with a picnic lunch, and since she hadn't eaten recently, Jennifer put aside her tools and accepted his invitation. They drove to a nearby lake, where Mitchell talked interminably about fishing. Jennifer tuned him out, allowing his voice to recede to a low, pleasant droning like the sound made by a dragonfly, as she gazed out over the water. When they had eaten the sandwiches and potato salad, which was quite good even if it had unmistakably come from the deli counter at the supermarket, they went for a walk. Jennifer half-listened to Mitchell's conversation, which he seemed quite capable of carrying on independently, as they followed a narrow path though the trees. She realized suddenly how little time she had actually spent in the woods since moving from Chicago, and that the reason for this was that they frightened her a little, although she had loved them as a child. She found this realization annoying and inexplicable. The path crossed a dry streambed, and at one time there had been a bridge, but the only sign of it that remained was the limestone-block wall on either bank that had once supported it. There was moss growing between the cracks that separated the rough, irregular blocks, and Jennifer made a mental note to return sometime with her sketch pad. Bob scrambled down the incline and stood in the streambed, and stood with his arms out as if to catch Jennifer. This did not strike her as a suitable arrangement, so she descended on the other side of the ruined bridge. Her shoes squelched into the mud; the stream was not quite dry after all. "Are you okay?" Bob hurried to her side. "Yes, I'm sure I'm fine. My shoes are just a little wet." "Do you want to go back?" "No, lets go on." "I'd offer to carry you over the muddy part, but I'm not as young as I once was." Also, I weigh more than you do, Jennifer thought sardonically. She stepped over the worst of the mud and examined the blocks of limestone on the other side of the streambed. "Kinda pitcheresque, isn't it?" Picturesque wasn't one of Jennifer's favorite words, even when it was pronounced correctly, but she nodded. Bob climbed the bank of the stream and offered Jennifer his hand; she took it, and managed to get up the steep bank and back onto the path with most of her dignity still intact. As they walked, Bob reminisced about his childhood, and Jennifer looked around at all the quiet, sunlit beauty, remembering her own childhood adventures. After awhile, they got to a field of dried grass, where Bob suggested a rest. Jennifer was not averse; she was mildly horrified to find that she was tired. I ought to get more exercise, she told herself, knowing that she would not do anything about it. They sat in the tall grass, and Bob talked. Once, he looked as if he were about to move closer, but Jennifer gave him a look which, while not exactly hostile, made him reconsider. After awhile they got up and went back to the car, and Bob drove Jennifer home. "That was really nice. We'll have to do that again sometime. I see you've made progress on the sculpture, is it almost finished? Very impressive, I like it." Jennifer thought the compliments he'd offered her on the spaghetti the other night had been a lot more convincing, but she didn't really mind. Gently, she mentioned that she had to get back to work, and Bob drove off. Later in the week, while a young couple were up in the attic looking for signs of water damage, Bob took her aside and asked if she'd let him take her out to dinner that night, and she agreed. When she got back to the house late that evening, Roger looked at her indignantly. "Where have you been?" He glanced at his watch. Jennifer laughed. "Are you trying out for the role of my father? I'm fourty-seven years old, Roger." "I have been waiting for quite some time to talk to you. I hope you weren't with that real estate person." "Oh?" Jennifer was delighted to have the opportunity to use one of Roger's own tricks against him. "Yes, OH," Roger said bitingly (if the phrase may be excused). "I might have known you would desert me. I suppose that now, you will marry this churlish fellow so that you can share in the profits from the sale of my house." The idea was so ridiculous that Jennifer smiled. Roger left, slamming the door behind him, before she could offer any other reply. Jennifer had trouble getting to sleep that night, because she was worried about the nature of Roger's errand. The next day, she was actually glad to see Bob Mitchell arrive with a carload of prospective buyers. While they were looking through the house, Bob confided to her in low voice, "I barely slept a wink last night." Jennifer looked at him suspiciously. "And why is that?" "I don't know how the damn thing got in, but when I got home from our date last night, there was a dog in the house." "A live one?" Bob gave her a strange look. "Yeah. Kinda malnourished, though. I'm taking him to the vet tomorrow for a thorough check-up." "A stray, do you think? And you're taking him to the vet--are you planning to keep him?" Jennifer was not sure what to think--maybe Roger was responsible, but then, maybe Bob had left his back door open. "Yeah, I thought I might. Affectionate little feller. I'm going to call him Bertie. You can come and see him later on--right now, he's not much to look at, I'm afraid. 'Fraid he's got the trots, if you know what I mean. I spent the whole morning cleaning the stuff out of my carpets. Right now I've got him in the back yard." In Jennifer's mind at least, that settled the question. What had Roger done, fed the animal Ex-Lax? She insisted that she had seen dog shit before, and that she would be delighted to come over and see Bertie right away. Bob promised that after he had shown the young couple two or three more houses in the area, he'd come back and get Jennifer and show her his house and his dog. Jennifer found the house to be stark and antiseptic in design (although not, alas, in smell). The dog was very appealing, in a cringing sort of way. He was scrawny and coltish, and he had huge eyes that he rolled up at Jennifer and Bob apprehensively as they gave him a badly needed bath. By the time Jennifer left, a warmth had begun to grow inside her, something very much like love, although it was focused on Bertie rather than his new master. That night, she warned Roger in a steely tone that nothing whatsoever had better happen to Bob Mitchell's dog Bertie. "What dog? Don't tell me you're referring to that mangy--" He broke off, reconsidering the wisdom of the admission. "Yes, it's the same dog you left in his living room. And if he knew it was you then he'd thank you. Bertie is a sweet little pooch." "I can't believe he's planning to keep that mutt. It's probably rabid." "He's certainly not--Bob had him checked out by the vet. It wasn't Bertie who bit my niece when she came to visit." Roger gave her a patient, faintly pitying look, then decided to go on the offensive. "You seem more concerned with your sweetheart's dog than with whether my house is sold out from under me." "He isn't my sweetheart, but--" "The hell he isn't. Not that I care one way or the other, although I fail to understand what you see in him. The man in an imbecile." Jennifer did not think this was very kind, but she did not want to be in the position of taking Bob's side against Roger. "Just leave the dog alone." "Fine. I will leave Bertie alone. What a ridiculous name for a dog." Roger closed the door softly this time, rather than slamming it. Jennifer was afraid that she had hurt his feelings, but she couldn't be sure, because Roger was completely capable of pretending his feelings were hurt as a stratagem. Then she began to regret that she had only extracted a promise from him that he would not hurt Bertie; perhaps she should have added that he ought not to hurt Bob, either. The next day Bertie came home from the vet's. He had been de-wormed, de-flead, and inoculated. "I'll have to get him de-something else, too, but maybe I'll wait until he trusts me a little more." Bob ruffled the dog's ears. Bertie, who had no idea what was being discussed, wagged his tall energetically. "He'll never trust you again." Jennifer knew that steps had to be taken to control the animal population, but the idea of neutering them made her a little queasy. Bertie had also aquired a license and a collar, which he didn't seem to mind, but he did keep forgetting he was on a leash as Bob and Jennifer took him for a short walk. Then Jennifer parted company with the dog and man, with genuine regret, but she had been neglecting her latest project (a large and somewhat abstract stork commissioned by an artificial insemination clinic), and she was getting close to her deadline. That night she saw no sign of Roger. She was a little worried that she really had insulted him, but she could not have borne having anything happen to Bertie. The next day, Bob and the dog showed up in her yard, on foot, as she was working. She took a break and got some lunch started, while Bob threw a stick for Bertie. She put some soup she'd made earlier in the week on the stove, and made lemonade, which she carried outside along with two tall glasses. Bob asked a number of rather fumbling questions about her work, and it was obvious that he was motivated not by any genuine interest in modern sculpture, but by a desire to get to know Jennifer better. Jennifer was touched, and answered in simplified terms. After awhile, she decided that it was her duty to inquire about the real estate business, and Bob was happy to expound on the subject. As he talked, Jennifer took a moment to ponder the relationship that was developing between them. She was beginning to feel a certain fondness for Bob, although she still thought Roger had been jumping the gun when he had referred to the realtor as her sweetheart. She watched Bob as he talked; he wasn't too bad-looking, even if he was going a little bald on top--and she had ample opportunity to observe this, since he was several inches shorter than she was. Still, he was kind of cute. He was also polite and agreeable, and although he certainly talked a lot, he didn't seem to mind if she didn't always listen. Granted that he was no mental giant, but he was willing to learn and to keep an open mind, which counted for something. It had been a long time since she had seriously contemplated a romantic relationship, and she wasn't really sure how seriously she was contemplating it as of yet. She idly scratched Bertie on the head as Bob talked. Lulled by his monologue, she was startled to look at her watch and find that twenty minutes had passed. "The soup! I'd better get inside." "I'll give you a hand." Bertie tried to follow them in, but Bob gently shooed him away. The soup had boiled away a bit but hadn't burned. Jennifer took it off the burner and began making some sandwiches. "Anything I can do?" "Get the mayonnaise, will you? It's in the fridge." "All right, but don't put any on mine. I--" Bob broke off with a strangled noise, and Jennifer turned to look. There was a third person in the room, a woman dressed in the fashion of the previous century, and something about the way she looked make the hair stand up on the back of Jennifer's neck. She was standing in front of the sink, and she did not appear to notice Jennifer or Bob. She had a paring knife in ene hand, and as they watched, she drew a sink full of water and proceeded to slit her wrists. She stood, head lowered, holding her hands beneath the water. Jennifer felt her stomach lurch. Bob reached out and passed his hand through the woman's shoulder. Jennifer, who would not have done this, was surprised at his bravery. The woman faded away and disappeared. "Well, I guess the place is haunted after all," Jennifer said. "Baloney, it's got to be done with mirrors, cameras, something like that." He closely examined the wall, then climbed up on the kitchen table to get a better look at the ceiling. Jennifer looked at his shod feet with disapproval. "I don't know how they're doing it, whoever the hell it is, but I'm going to find out." Bob might have been planning to say something else, but at that moment, the temperature in the kitchen dropped about ten degrees. Jennifer felt a sense of darkness come over the room, although no less light was coming in through the windows. It seemed a warning, and as it built like an electrical charge, Jennifer was filled with the certainty that something awful was about to happen. The pause deepened, while Jennifer's nerves stretched tight. What finally happened was not dramatic; blood began to drip slowly from the ceiling. Or at any rate it looked like blood. Bob, whose face had gone bone-white, nearly fell off the table in his haste to get down before any of it dripped on him. It began to form a small pool, and it did look very much like blood, not like the rusty or leaf-steeped water that Jennifer understood was the rational explanation for ceilings and walls that "bled". "Let's get out of here," she suggested to Bob, who looked as if he might faint again. The suggestion was all he needed; he ran for the door, and Jennifer followed close behind him. As Bob escaped onto the porch, a powerful hand grabbed Jennifer by the upper arm and pulled her back into the house. The door slammed shut, leaving the hallway in darkness. Jennifer screamed. "Shut up, will you?" It was Roger, of course. His face looked pale and strained in the faint sunlight that filtered through the drapes in the living room and found its way into the hall. "Oh, Roger, you scared me. What's going on? Who is that woman?" "My mother, if it matters." Bob was pounding on the door, shouting Jennifer's name. Roger's eyes were wild. "You let him in here and I will kill him." "Let me go, then." Jennifer jerked her arm free and pushed open the door. She had to push Bob out of her way to get out, and he clung to her, babbling solicitously. He could not believe his ears when Jennifer suggested that he sit out on the lawn with Bertie while she went back in to get the soup and sandwiches. "You can't go back in there! Are you crazy? I don't know what that was we saw in there, but. . . ." Bob shook his head, for once at a loss for words. "Ghosts are really quite harmless, Bob," Jennifer said authoritatively. "To most people. I think you must be some kind of psychic catalyst." She had no idea where she had come up with this term; perhaps she had made it up. "I'm not psychic," Bob said suspiciously. "No, a psychic catalyst. That means that without intending to, you are actually making these things happen." Which, in a sense, was true. "These things have only happened when you've been over here, Bob. Think about it." Bob looked unconvinced. "Go sit down with Bertie." "Where is he, anyway?" It took them a few minutes to find the dog, who was happily exploring the woods nearby. Jennifer finally succeeded in convincing Bob to sit on the lawn with Bertie while she got their lunch. Roger had disappeared, and although Jennifer called his name a couple of times, he did not reappear. Jennifer put some sandwiches together and wiped the blood off the kitchen table. She sniffed the red, viscous substance; it was blood, all right. She had to follow Bob's bad example of standing on the kitchen table to clean it off the ceiling, and she still couldn't get it all off. Roger, she decided, was damn well going to paint over the stain. After Bob and his dog had left, she went back into the kitchen and spent some time staring up at the bloodstained ceiling, thinking about the look in Roger's eyes when he'd threatened to kill Bob. She wasn't at all sure that he'd been bluffing. She made a couple of long-distance phone calls, and then sat down to make a list of the things she would need to do. Two days later, she had a new claim on respectability. It had not been easy for a single woman, whose only income was from her work as a freelance sculptor, to secure a mortgage; but she had convinced a very old and dear friend, a physician who owned a small clinic, to co-sign for her. The mortgage had not yet been formally approved, but she'd been told that there shouldn't be any problem. Since she'd been able to take advantage of Mr. Thibodeau's drastic lowering of the price, her payments would not even be that much more than the rent she'd been paying. Bob insisted on taking her out to dinner again, since he would receive a fair-sized commission as a result of her purchasing the house. They enjoyed a bottle of wine with dinner and then headed back to Jennifer's house. "Well, I won't come in and get your ghosts all stirred up. Who'd ever have thought I was psychic? I never would have believed it," he said with a touch of pride, and then he took her by the shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. Shyly, he added, "Goodnight." I'll be damned, Jennifer thought. Where was he raised, a monastery? She concluded that when he'd offered to stay the night after Roger's debut theatrical performance, it had been an entirely innocent suggestion. She leaned over and kissed his cheek in return. "Goodnight, Bob." When she walked to the door, the porch light came on. Bob waved and drove away--apparently, it did not occur to him to wonder how she had turned it on from outside. She turned the doorknob, but the door was still locked. She knocked impatiently, and Roger finally opened the door. "Don't you have your key?" "Well, I figured that since you were right there, you might as well let me in." She came in and closed the door. "I don't see why I should. Why do you have to be so friendly with that real estate person?" "We were celebrating." "How nice." "Yes, I bought a house." Roger gave her a betrayed look and flung open the front door. "This one!" She called after him. He turned around, his face breaking into a beautiful smile. "Oh, Jennifer, thank you!" He rushed back into the house, seized her hand, and began kissing it. She began to laugh helplessly, flustered by this unprecedented display of affection. Enthusiastically, but with no hint of seduction in his manner, Roger began kissing her wrist. A little alarmed, she pulled her hand away. "Enough already! I'm not your dinner." "How could you even think such a thing. Oh, Jennifer, you have made me so happy!" "Well, I'm glad." Jennifer was not quite sure how to behave toward Roger when he was being so nice. They had always enjoyed a relationship based on verbal sparring and largely feigned mutual antagonism. "How did you. . . ? Never mind." She would probably never know how he'd produced those special effects in the kitchen the other day; Roger was not inclined to explain such matters. She turned to go into the living room, and Roger put his arms around her shoulders from behind. He'd moved so quietly that she hadn't heard him, and she was so startled that she thrust back with her elbow, catching him in the solar plexus. "Roger, I'm sorry! Are you all right?" She turned around and saw him leaning against the wall, clutching his stomach. "I think I will survive." She looked at him suspiciously; she had hit him fairly hard, and he was just a skinny little thing, but she had also seen him ignore it when she'd shot him twice in the chest with her automatic. "Yes?" "Really, I am fine." He caught ahold of her hand again, kissed it just once more, and began stroking the inside of her elbow. "Roger, let go of my arm." He looked at her beseechingly. "Please, Jennifer." She hesitated. She was not sure how he was doing it, but Roger's fingers were sending waves of pleasurable sensation up her arm, and she could feel the temperature of her body rising. For the first time, she understood why her niece Paulie had permitted Roger to bite her. But unlike Paulie, Jennifer was not in the habit of allowing herself to go along with whatever happened to feel good at the moment. The sight of Roger's extended fang teeth broke her hesitation. "Roger, if you do not let go of my arm, I am going to knock your sharp little teeth right across the room." With a horrified expression, Roger released her. "Jennifer, I'm sorry." The fangs had disappeared, and he looked repentant. "I don't know what came over me. I swear I don't." "Well," said Jennifer, "I'm sure I don't either. I am going to bed now. Goodnight." Once in the safety of her bedroom, Jennifer dismissed Roger's behavior as a momentary aberration. She looked around the room, feeling a new appreciation for the faded wallpaper and the ornate molding. Her house, or it would be soon. She changed into her nightgown, turned out the light, and lay down to sleep. Pleased in spite of herself, she muttered softly into her pillow, "I can't remember the last time so many people wanted to kiss me." -KXR-


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank