Authors: Stephen King
“Mr. Dean has been very helpful,” Giorgio says.
“It's his job!” Hoff exclaims cheerfully. “Isn't it, Irv?”
“You say hi to your wife, tell her I hope she feels better. Those copper bracelets are supposed to help. The ones they advertise on TV?”
“Might give them a try,” Dean says, but he looks dubious, and good for him.
When they pass the security stand, Billy sees that Mr. Polk Security has a copy of the
swimsuit issue in his lap. There's a bodacious babe on the cover, and Billy makes a mental note to pick one up. The
likes sports, and he likes babes.
They take the elevator up to five and step out in a deserted corridor. “There's an accounting office down there,” Hoff says, pointing. “Two connecting suites. Also some lawyers. There's a dentist on this side. I think. Unless he moved out. I guess he did, because the plaque on the door is gone. I'll have to ask the rental agent. Rest of the floor is unoccupied.”
Oh, this guy is in real trouble, Billy thinks again. He risks a glance at Giorgio, but Giorgioâ
âis gazing at the door behind which there is now no dentist. As if there was something there to see.
Near the end of the hall, Hoff reaches into his suitcoat pocket and produces a little cloth keycard wallet with GT stamped on the front in gold. “This is yours. Also two spares.”
Billy touches one of the keycards to the reader and steps into what would be a small reception area if this were a going business. It's stuffy. Stale.
“Jesus, someone forgot to turn on the air conditioning! Just a second, wait one.” Hoff punches a couple of buttons on the wall controller and has an anxious moment when nothing happens. Then cool air begins to whoosh from an overhead vent. Billy reads Hoff's relief in the slump of his shoulders.
The next room is a big office that could double as a small conference room. There's no desk, just a table long enough for maybe six people, if they crammed in shoulder to shoulder. On it is a stack of Staples notebooks, a box of pens, a landline telephone. This roomâhis writing studio, Billy supposesâis even hotter than the antechamber because of the morning sun flooding in. No one has bothered to lower the blinds, either. Giorgio flaps the collar of his shirt against his neck. “Whew!”
“It'll cool quick, real quick,” Hoff says. He sounds a bit frantic. “This is a great HVAC system, state of the art. It's starting already, feel it?”
Billy doesn't care about room temperature, at least for the time being. He steps to the right side of the big window facing the street and looks down that diagonal to the courthouse steps. Then he traces another diagonal to the small door further on. The one courthouse employees use. He imagines the scene: a police car pulling up, or maybe a van with SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT or CITY POLICE on the side. Law enforcement gets out. Two at least, maybe three. Four? Probably not. They will open the door on the curb side if it's a car. The back doors if it's a van. He'll watch Joel Allen clear the vehicle. There will be no problem picking him out, he'll be the one bracketed by cops and wearing handcuffs.
When the time comesâif it comesâthere will be nothing to this shot.
“Billy!” Hoff's voice makes him jerk, as if waking him from a dream.
The developer is standing in the doorway of a much smaller room. It's the kitchenette. When Hoff sees he has Billy's attention, he gestures around palm up, pointing out the mod cons like a model on
The Price Is Right
“Dave,” Billy says. “I'm Dave.”
“Right. Sorry. My bad. You got your little two-burner stove, no oven but you got your microwave for popcorn, Hot Pockets, TV din
ners, whatever. Plates and cookware in the cupboards. You got your little sink to wash up your dishes. Mini-fridge. No private bathroom, unfortunately, the men's and women's are at the end of the hall, but at least they're at your end. Short walk. And then there's this.”
He takes a key from his pocket and reaches up to the rectangular wooden panel above the door between the office/conference room and the kitchenette. He turns the key, pushes the panel, and it swings up. The space inside looks to be eighteen inches high, four feet long, two feet deep. It's empty.
“Storage,” Hoff says, and actually mimes shooting an invisible rifle. “The key's so you can lock it on Fridays, when the cleaning staffâ”
Billy almost says it, but Giorgio beats him to it, and that's good because he's supposed to be the thinker, not Billy Summers. “No cleaning in here. Not on Fridays, not on any other day. Top secret writing project, remember? Dave can keep the place neatened up himself. He's a neat guy, right, Dave?”
Billy nods. He's a neat guy.
“Tell Dean, tell the other security guyâLogan, yeah?âand tell Broder.” To Billy he says, “Steven Broder. The building super.”
Billy nods and files the name away.
Giorgio hoists the laptop bag onto the table, pushing aside the tools for writing by hand (a gesture Billy finds both sad and somehow symbolic), and unzips it. “MacBook Pro. Best money can buy, state of the art. My present to you. You can use your own if you want to, but this babyâ¦ all the bells and whistles. Can you get it going okay? There's probably an instruction book, or somethingâ¦”
“I'll figure it out.”
No problem there, but something else might be. If Nick Majarian hasn't rigged this beautiful black torpedo so he can use it as a kind of magic mirror into what Billy writes in this room, he has missed a trick. And Nick doesn't miss many.
“Oh sugarpie, that reminds me,” Hoff says, and hands Billy another of his engraved cards along with the key to the cubby over the door to the kitchenette. “WiFi password. Totally safe. Secure as a bank vault.”
Bullshit, Billy thinks as he puts the card in his pocket.
“Well,” Giorgio says, “I guess that's about it. We'll leave you to your creative endeavors. Come on, Ken.”
Hoff seems reluctant to leave, as if he feels there should be more to show. “You call me if you need anything, Biâ¦ Dave. Anything at all. Entertainment, maybe? A TV? Maybe a radio?”
Billy shakes his head. He has a considerable musical library on his phone, mostly country and western. He has many things to do in the days ahead, but at some point he'll find time to rip his tunes to this fine new laptop. If Nick decides to listen in, he can catch up on Reba and Willie and all Hank Junior's rowdy friends. And maybe he'll write that book after all. On his own laptop, which he trusts. He will also take security measures on both lappiesâthe new one and his personal, which is an old pal.
Giorgio finally gets Hoff out and Billy is on his own. He goes back to the window and stands there tracing both diagonals: the one leading to the wide stone steps and the one leading to the employees' door. Again he imagines what will happen, seeing it vividly. Real-world events are never quite the same as the ones you see in your head, but this work always begins with the seeing. It's like poetry that way. The things that change, the unexpected variables, the revisions: that stuff has to be dealt with when it comes up, but it starts with the seeing.
His phone dings with a text.
GRusso: Sorry about H. I know he's a bit of an asshole.
Billy S: Do I need to see him again?
GRusso: Don't know.
Billy would prefer something more definitive, but this will do for now. It will have to.
When he gets back to what he supposes is now home, his new David Lockridge building ID is in his pocket. Tomorrow he'll be driving his new used car to work. On the porch, leaning against the door, is a bag of Miracle-Gro lawn food with a note taped to it:
Thought you could use this! Jamal A
Billy gives the house next door a wave, although he's not sure there's anyone there to see; it's still half an hour shy of noon. Probably both Ackermans work. He takes the lawn food inside, props it in the hall, then drives to Walmart, where he buys two burner phones (an heir and a spare) and a couple of flash drives, although he'll probably need just the one; he could put the complete works of Ãmile Zola on a single thumbie and barely fill a corner of the space available.
He also impulse buys a cheap AllTech laptop, which he puts in his bedroom closet, still in the carton. He pays cash for the phones and the flash drives. He uses his David Lockridge Visa for the laptop. He has no immediate plans for the burners, may never even use them. It all depends on his exit strategy, which at this point is only a shadow.
He stops at Burger King on the way back, and when he gets to the yellow house, a couple of kids on bikes are in front of it. A boy and a girl, one white and one black. He guesses the girl must belong to Jamal and Corinne Ackerman.
“Are you our new neighbor?” the boy asks.
“I am,” Billy says, and thinks he'll have to get used to being one. It might even be fun. “I'm Dave Lockridge. Who are you?”
“Danny Fazio. This is my bud Shanice. I'm nine. She's eight.”
Billy shakes hands with Danny, then with the girl, who looks at him shyly as her brown hand disappears into his white one. “Nice to meet you both. Enjoying your summer vacation?”
“Summer reading program's okay,” Danny says. “They give out stickers for each book you read. I've got four. Shanice got five, but I'll catch up. We're going over my house. After lunch, a bunch of us gonna play Monopoly down the park.” He points. “Shan brings the board. I'm always the racecar.”
Kids on their own in the twenty-first century, Billy marvels, how about that. Only then he notices the fat guy two houses downâwifebeater, Bermudas, grass-stained sneakersâkeeping an eye on him. And on how he behaves with these kids.
“Well, seeya later, alligator,” Danny says, mounting his bike.
“After awhile, crocodile,” Billy responds, and both kids laugh.
That afternoon, after taking a napâhe supposes that he's allowed an afternoon nap, now that he's a writerâhe takes the sixpack of Bud from the fridge. He leaves it on the Ackermans' porch with a note that says
Thanks for the lawn fertilizerâDave
Off to a good start here. And downtown? He thinks so. He hopes so.
Except maybe for Hoff. Hoff bugs him.
That evening, while Billy's putting down lawn food, Jamal Ackerman comes over with two of the beers that were in Billy's fridge. Jamal is wearing a green coverall with his name in gold thread on one breast and EXCELLENT TIRE on the other. With him, holding a can of Pepsi, is a young boy.
“Hey there, Mr. Lockridge,” Jamal says. “This little man is my son, Derek. Shanice says you met her already.”
“Yes, with a little man named Danny.”
“Thanks for the beers. Hey, what is that you're using? Looks like my wife's flour sifter.”
“Exactly what it is. I thought about buying a lawn spreader at
Walmart, but for this so-called lawnâ¦” He looks at the small bald patch and shrugs. “Too much expense for too little return.”
“Looks like it works fine. Might even give it a try myself. But what about in back? That's a lot bigger.”
“It needs to be mown short first, and I don't have a mower. Yet.”
“You can borrow ours, can't he, Dad?” Derek says.
Jamal ruffles the kid's hair. “Any time.”
“No, that's too much,” Billy says. “I'll buy one. Always supposing I get traction on the book I'm trying to write and stick around.”
They go over to the porch and sit on the steps. Billy opens the beer and drinks. It hits the spot and he says so.
“What's your book about?” Derek asks. He's sitting between them.
“Top secret.” Smiling as he says it.
“Yeah, but is it make-believe or true?”
“A little of both.”
“That's enough,” Jamal says. “It's not polite to pry.”
A woman is approaching from one of the houses at the far end of the street. Mid-fifties, graying hair, bright lipstick. She's holding a highball glass and walking not quite straight.
“That's Mrs. Kellogg,” Jamal says, keeping his voice low. “Widow lady. Lost her husband last year. Had a stroke.” He gazes thoughtfully at Billy's excuse for a lawn. “While mowing the grass, actually.”
“Is this a party, and can I crash it?” Mrs. Kellogg asks. Even though she's still on the walk and there's no breeze, Billy can smell the gin on her breath.
“As long as you don't mind sitting on the steps.” Billy gets up and offers his hand. “Dave Lockridge.”
And now here comes the guy who was keeping an eye on Billy's interaction with Shanice and Danny. He's swapped his wifebeater and Bermudas for a pair of jeans and a Masters of the Universe T-shirt. With him is a tall, scrawny blond in a housedress and sneakers. From next doorâbearing what looks like a plate of
browniesâcomes Jamal's wife and daughter. Billy invites them all inside, where they can sit in actual chairs.
Welcome to the neighborhood, he thinks.
The Masters of the Universe guy and his skinny blond wife are the Raglands. The Fazios also show upâalthough without their sonâand the Petersons from the far end of the block, with a bottle of red wine. The living room fills up. It's a nice little impromptu party. Billy enjoys himself, partly because he doesn't have to work at projecting the
, partly because he likes these people, even Jane Kellogg, who is pretty tight and has to keep visiting the bathroom. Which she calls the biffy. And by the time they all drift awayâearly, because tomorrow is a working dayâBilly knows he will fit in here. He will be of interest because he's writing a book and that makes him something of an exotic, but that will pass. By midsummer, always supposing Joel Allen doesn't show up early for his date with a bullet, he'll be just another guy on the street. Another neighbor.