Authors: Stephen King
Billy ends the call and makes another. To Richter, the real estate guy who is serving as rental agent for 658 Pearson.
“I understand it's furnished. Would that include WiFi?”
“Just a second,” Mr. Richter says, but it's more like a minute. Billy hears paper rustling. At last Richter says, “Yes. Put in two years ago. But no television, you'd have to supply that.”
“All right,” Billy says. “I want it. How about I drop by your office?”
“I could meet you there, show you the place.”
“That won't be necessary. I just want it as a base of operations while I'm in this part of the country. Could be a year, could be two. I travel quite a bit. The important thing is the neighborhood looks quiet.”
Richter laughs. “Since they demolished the train station, you bet it is. But the people out there might trade a little more noise for a little more commerce.”
They set a time to meet the following Monday and Billy returns to Level 4 of the parking garage, where his Toyota is parked in a dead spot neither of the security cameras can see. If they can see at all; they look mighty tired to Billy. He removes the wig, the mustache, the glasses, and the fake pregnancy belly. After stowing them in the trunk, he takes the short walk back to Gerard Tower.
He's there in time to get a burrito from the Mexican wagon. He eats it with Jim Albright and John Colton, the lawyers from five. He sees Colin White, the dandy who works for Business Solutions. Today he's looking mighty cute in a sailor suit.
“That guy,” Jim says, laughing. “He's quite the bandbox, isn't he?”
“Yes,” Billy agrees, and thinks, A bandbox who's just about my height.
It rains all weekend. On Saturday morning Billy goes to Walmart where he buys a couple of cheap suitcases and a lot of cheap clothes that will fit his overweight Dalton Smith persona. He pays cash. Cash has amnesia.
That afternoon he sits out on the porch of the yellow house, watching the grass in his front yard. Watching it rather than merely looking at it, because he can almost see it perking up. This is not his house, not his town or state, he'll leave without a look back or single regret, but he still feels a certain proprietorial pride in his handiwork. It won't be worth mowing for a couple of weeks, maybe not even until August, but he can wait. And when he's out there, zinc ointment on his nose, mowing in gym shorts and a sleeveless tee (maybe even a wifebeater), he'll be one step closer to belonging. To blending in with the scenery.
He looks next door. The two kids, Derek and Shanice Ackerman, are standing on
porch, looking at him through the rain. It's the boy who's spoken. “My ma just made sugar cookies. She ast me to ast you if you want half a dozen.”
“That sounds good,” Billy says. He gets up and runs through the rain. Shanice, the eight-year-old, takes his hand with a complete lack of self-consciousness and leads him inside, where the smell of fresh-baked cookies makes Billy's stomach rumble.
It's a neat little house, tight and shipshape. There are about a hundred framed photos in the living room, including a dozen on the piano that holds pride of place. In the kitchen, Corinne Ackerman is just removing a baking sheet from the oven. “Hi, neighbor. Do you want a towel for your hair?”
“I'm fine, thanks. Ran between the raindrops.”
She laughs. “Then have a cookie. The kids are having milk with
theirs. Would you like a glass? There's also coffee, if you'd prefer that.”
“Milk would be fine. Just a little.”
“Double shot?” She's smiling.
“Sounds about right.” Smiling back.
“Then sit down.”
He sits with the kids. Corinne puts a plate of cookies on the table. “Be careful, they're still hot. Your take-homes will be in the next batch, David.”
The kids grab. Billy takes one. It's sweet and delicious. “Terrific, Corinne. Thank you. Just the thing on a rainy day.”
She gives her kids big glasses of milk, Billy a small one. She pours her own small glass and joins them. The rain drums on the roof. A car goes hissing by.
“I know your book is top secret,” Derek says, “butâ”
“Don't talk with your mouth full,” Corinne admonishes. “You're spraying crumbs everywhere.”
not,” Shanice says.
“No, you're doing good,” Corinne says. Then, with a sideways glance at Billy: “Doing well.”
Derek has no interest in grammar. “But tell me one thing. Is there blood in it?”
Billy thinks of Bob Raines, flying backward. He thinks of his sister with all her ribs brokenâyes, every fucking oneâand her chest stomped in. “Nope, no blood.” He takes a bite of his cookie.
Shanice reaches for another. “You can have that one,” her mother says, “and one more. You too, D. The rest are for Mr. Lockridge and for later. You know your dad likes these.” To Billy she says, “Jamal works six days a week and overtime when he can get it. The Fazios are good about keeping track of these two while we're both at work. This is not a bad neighborhood, but we've got our eye on something better.”
“Movin on up,” Billy says.
Corinne laughs and nods.
“I don't ever want to move,” Shanice says, then adds with a child's charming dignity: “I have
“So do I,” Derek says. “Hey, Mr. Lockridge, do you know how to play Monopoly? Me'n Shan are going to play, but it's stupid with just two and Mom won't.”
“Mom won't is right,” Corinne says. “Most boring game in the world. Get your father to play with you tonight. He will, if he's not too tired.”
away,” Derek says. “I'm bored right now.”
“Me too,” Shanice says. “If I had a phone, I could play Crossy Road.”
“Next year,” Corinne says, and rolls her eyes in a way that makes Billy think the girl has been phone-campaigning for quite a while. Maybe since the age of five.
you play?” Derek asks, although without much hope.
“I do,” Billy says, then leans across the table, pinning Derek Ackerman with his eyes. “But I have to warn you that I'm good. And I play to win.”
“So do I!” Derek is smiling below a milk mustache.
!” Shanice says.
“I wouldn't hold back just because you're kids and I'm a grownup,” Billy says. “I'd wound you with my rental properties, then kill you with my hotels. If we're going to play, you have to know that up front.”
“Okay!” Derek says, jumping up and almost spilling the rest of his milk.
“Okay!” Shanice cries, also jumping up.
“Are you kids going to cry when I win?”
“Okay. As long as we have that straight.”
“Are you sure?” Corinne asks him. “That game, I swear it can go on all day.”
“Not with me rolling the dice,” Billy says.
“We play downstairs,” Shanice says, and once more takes his hand.
The room down there is the same size as the one in Billy's house, but it's only half a man-cave. In that part, Jamal has set up a work space with tools pegged to the wall. There's also a bandsaw, and Billy notes with approval that there's a padlocked cover over the on/off switch. The kids' half of the room is littered with toys and coloring books. There's a small TV hooked up to a cheap game console that uses cassettes. To Billy it looks like a yardsale purchase. Board games are stacked against one wall. Derek takes the Monopoly box and puts the board on a child-sized table.
“Mr. Lockridge is too big for our chairs,” Shanice says, sounding dismayed.
“I'll sit on the floor.” Billy removes one of the chairs and does so. There's just room for his crossed legs under the table.
“Which piece you want?” Derek asks. “I usually take the racing car when it's just me 'n Shan, but you can have it if you want.”
“That's okay. Which one do you like, Shan?”
“The thimble,” she says. Then adds, rather grudgingly, “Unless you want it.”
Billy takes the top hat. The game begins. Forty minutes later, when Derek's turn comes around again, he calls for his mother. “
I need advice!”
Corinne comes down the stairs and stands with her hands on her hips, surveying the board and the distribution of Monopoly money. “I don't want to say you kids are in trouble, but you kids are in trouble.”
“I warned them,” Billy says.
“What do you want to ask me, D? Keep in mind your mother barely passed Home Economics back in the day.”
“Well, here's my problem,” Derek says. “He's got two of the green ones, Pacific and Pennsylvania, but I got North Carolina. Mr. Lockridge says he'll give me nine hundred dollars for it. That's three times what I paid, butâ¦”
“But?” Corinne says.
“But?” Billy says.
“But then he can put houses on the green ones. And he already has
on Park Place and Boardwalk!”
“So?” Corinne says.
“So?” Billy says. He's grinning.
“I gotta go to the bathroom and I'm almost broke anyway,” Shanice says, and gets up.
“Honey, you don't need to announce your bathroom calls. You just need to say excuse me.”
Shanice says, with that same winning dignity, “I'm going to
powder my nose
Billy bursts out laughing. Corinne joins him. Derek pays no attention. He studies the board, then looks up at his mother. “Sell or not? I'm almost out of money!”
“It's a Hobson's choice,” Billy says. “That means you have to decide between taking a chance or standing pat. Between you and me, D, I think you're kinda sunk either way.”
“Think he's right, hon,” Corinne says.
“He's really lucky,” Derek says to his mother. “He landed on Free Parking and got all the money in there and it was a
“Also I'm really good,” Billy says. “Admit it.”
Derek tries to scowl, but can't manage it for a long time. He holds up the deed with the green stripe. “Twelve hundred.”
“Done!” Billy cries, and hands over the cash.
Twenty minutes later the children are bankrupt and the game is over. When Billy stands up, his knees crack and the kids laugh. “You guys lost, so you have to put the game away, right?”
“That's the way Daddy plays, too,” Shanice says. “But sometimes
lets us win.”
Billy leans down, smiling. “I don't do that.”
“Big bully,” she says, and giggles with her hands over her mouth.
Danny Fazio comes jingling down the stairs in a yellow rain
slicker and unbuckled galoshes that gape like funnels. “Can I play?”
“Next time,” Billy says. “I make it a policy to only beat up on kids once a weekend.”
It's just more joking around, what these kids might call throwing shade, but suddenly he sees burned cookies littering the floor in front of the stove in their trailer and the cast on Bob Raines's arm thudding against the side of Cathy's face and it isn't funny anymore. The three kids laugh because to them it is. None of them have watched their sister being stepped on by a drunken ogre with a fading mermaid on his arm.
Upstairs, Corinne gives him a bag of cookies and says, “Thank you for making a rainy day so much fun for them.”
“I had fun, too.”
He did. Right up until the end. When he gets home he throws the cookies into the trash. Corinne Ackerman is a good little baker, but he can't think of eating cookies now. He can't even bear to look at them.
On Monday he goes to see the rental agent, who does business in the sad little strip mall three blocks from 658. Merton Richter's office is a hole-in-the-wall two-roomer between a tanning salon and the Jolly Roger Tattoo Parlor. Parked in front is a blue SUV, pretty old, with a stick-on sign on one side (RICHTER REAL ESTATE) and a long scratch on the other. The guy gives Dalton Smith's painstakingly crafted references a cursory glance, then hands them back along with a rental agreement. The places where Billy is supposed to sign have been highlighted in yellow.
“You could tell me it's a little over-market,” Richter says, as if Billy had protested, “and you might be right, but only a little, con
sidering the furnishings and the WiFi. And with no street parking until six PM, the driveway is a real convenience. You'll be sharing it with the Jensens, of courseâ”
“I'm planning to keep my car in a municipal garage for the most part. I can use the exercise.” He pats his fake belly. “The rent does seem a little high, but I want the place.”
“Sight unseen,” Richter marvels.
“Mrs. Jensen spoke well of it.”
“Ah, I see. In any case, if we're in agreementâ¦?”
Billy signs the form and writes his debut check as Dalton Smith: first month, last month, and a damage deposit that's fucking outrageous unless the cookware is All-Clad, the china Limoges, and the lamps come with Tiffany shades.
“IT guy, huh?” Richter says, stashing the check away in his desk drawer. He pushes an envelope marked KEYS across the desk, then whacks his old PC like you'd whack a dog you don't have much use for but keeps hanging around. “I could sure use some help with this balky bitch.”
“I'm off the clock,” Billy says, “but I can give you some advice.”
“Replace it before you lose everything. Do you hook me up with heat, electric, water, and cable?”
Richter smiles as if giving Billy a prize. “Nope, that's all you, brother.” And offers his hand.
Billy could ask Richter what he actually does for his commission, the agreement is pretty obviously a form printed off the Internet with the local details dropped in, but does he care? Not at all.