Authors: Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon
To Linda, of course.
She’d always known she would end up owning it someday.
Yeah, okay, a recurring dream wasn’t the same as holding a deed, but still. Most of Arnesdale knew that as soon as she had the money, Ames would buy the little farmhouse at the edge of town and move in. Since high school, before that, really, she’d been determined to see it restored to its former eccentric glory.
A couple of years back, before Dad had gotten sick, just after her mother died and Elliot vanished, Ames had considered dragging all her things into the abandoned farmhouse. Granted that was more a matter of desperation than possession. She’d craved getting away from the overly protective busybodies of Arnesdale and, if she couldn’t flee to a big city, then a house in the middle of nowhere would do. But then Dad needed her, and she gave up the plan, temporarily.
Now someone else had moved into the Old Place and, as far as she could tell—which wasn’t far at all—that person had a legit claim.
She poured a cup of coffee for herself and Marty, the other waitress at the Back Porch Diner. Ames slid one cup down the counter, and Marty caught it expertly as she settled on a swivel stool.
Ames leaned a hip against the edge of the counter. If she sat, she’d never get up again. “Of course it’s an outsider. If someone around here had bought it, we’d know who within hours.” The information loop in Arnesdale operated faster than the Internet.
“We’ll have to wait until the name shows up in the
,” Marty grumbled.
Ames drank a mouthful of lukewarm coffee, dreadful slop. “I called Advance Realtors, but Jenny’s in Chicago. I could go look it up at the town hall.”
“Yeah? The clerk will give you that long-suffering look.” Marty sipped, pursed her dark red lips and daintily lowered the mug. She glanced around even though they were alone. “Missy Holmes said that when she went to give the new neighbor her usual ‘welcome to the area’ cake, a car was in the driveway, but no one answered the door.” She snickered. “That long road up to the house—he must have seen her coming. Coward upped and ran away to hide.”
Ames absently tapped the sugar packets back into place. “I didn’t even know the house was for sale. Jenny promised to tell me when the estate finally got around to selling it.”
“Mm.” Marty looked her up and down, and Ames avoided her eagle gaze behind the cat-eye glasses. Any mention of the past and Marty went into full alert. Ames didn’t talk about the past, tried to leave it where it belonged, but everyone in town wanted to know how she coped. Mother dead, father dead, brother vanished without a trace, all gone in two years.
People treated her as if she was an ailing patient and tried to take her temperature, which meant asking a lot of questions to see if she had any symptoms. She hadn’t told anyone to shove that curiosity where the sun don’t shine—only because she knew Dad would have called their response concern and told her to appreciate the fact people gave a darn.
But really, how did she “feel” with her entire family gone? How did people think she’d answer? She felt like a plant that had been uprooted and left to shrivel in the sun. She felt like a woman who’d woken in an alternate universe in some sci-fi movie, wandering around, knocking on doors and not finding her loved ones anywhere no matter how familiar the town looked. Stupid damn question. She wished no one would ever mention her “feelings” again.
Ames sighed and shoved herself away from the counter. “I suppose I wish the new guy luck avoiding Arnesdale’s army of spies.”
“Don’t get all high and mighty. You’re just as curious as the rest of us. We all want to know who tall, dark and handsome is.”
She hadn’t heard any description of the new guy before and lied. “I thought he was an elderly widower?”
“Who told you that? Missy went out to the farmstead because she’d seen him drive through town and as she put it,
Ames laughed. “Seriously? Hubba-hubba? Which century is she from?”
“More like which universe.” Marty carefully rubbed a finger along the edge of her cup, erasing the red splotches of her lipstick.
“Anything more than tall, dark and handsome? Our Missy can do better than that.”
“She said he’s got crappy taste in cars. It was some kind of Volvo or something with New York tags.”
“New York!” She wished she hadn’t said it so loudly. But apparently Marty hadn’t noticed her overreaction.
“It’s a state back east.” Marty picked up her cup and put her lips in exactly the same spot.
Ames bit her thumb at her, Shakespeare-style. They’d had to work out a system that didn’t include flipping each other the finger. Gopher, the diner’s owner, didn’t tolerate profanity of any sort, even the finger-wiggling kind. “So what else did Missy say?”
Marty lowered the cup, wiped the lipstick from it. “Hair too long. Dark sunglasses. He didn’t wave back, but people from New York never would. He’ll have to come into town. He’ll end up here eventually.”
“Everyone does,” Ames agreed. “The Back Porch Diner and that café in Paris. Eventually everyone in the world passes by those spots. Although passes by has two different meanings.”
“Honey, you’re young. You can do something about the ants in your pants or stay put.”
“I don’t have ants anywhere,” she said, and Marty just rolled her eyes. Ames’s lack of forward momentum was one of their usual topics of conversation. A lack of courage, Marty called it. Ames didn’t argue.
“But what about this guy with the New York car. I wonder if it has something to do with Elliot.”
Marty gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Missy knows Elliot. It’s not him.”
“No, I know. I just wonder.” She shrugged.
It couldn’t be Ames’s brother. Just a coincidence. She ignored the creeping feeling at the back of her neck. She felt it far too often when she thought of her lost brother.
Marty patted her pockets and sighed wistfully. Time for the standard eight p.m. ritual.
“Go on.” Ames made a shooing motion.
“I’ll quit tomorrow.” Marty pulled the pack from her apron and ambled out the door to smoke that very last cigarette ever—just as she did every night. Nothing like ritual to either be reassuring or make you feel as if your life was ticking slowly away.
Ames added their coffee mugs to the last bin of dishes and lugged the Rubbermaid container to the kitchen. The dishwasher ran as she did the checklist in her head. The ketchup and sugars were full. The pies covered. Counters wiped. Coffeepots washed. Who was it who measured life by coffee spoons?
Marty would mop the floor and lock up.
She wiped off her hands and picked up Gopher’s new price lists. Tonight she’d update the Back Porch’s web page and maybe finish her design for Logan’s Lumber. She did the sites for most of the businesses in town. They usually paid her with services or goods, which meant that she sometimes had bushels of fresh vegetables overflowing from boxes in her kitchen. Now that Logan’s had signed up with her, she’d soon have a lot of floorboards waiting for her. Not that she needed them anymore. The New York stranger had stolen the floors she’d intended to refurbish along with the rest of
, she thought as she picked up her cardigan. Later, if she could bear all the dead ends, she’d search for Elliot online. Every night Marty smoked one last cigarette, and Ames searched for traces of her missing brother.
The bucket in the front hall had a collection of dead bugs floating in the water. The railing going up the stairs must have fallen off years before. The whole house smelled like a dank old cellar and mold. It was perfect.
No one who knew Nick would ever believe he’d end up in a place like this. Small town? No way. A wreck of a farmhouse? Never.
The last half year of high school and the summer after, he’d lived out of a car, but even people who knew him back then hadn’t figured that one out.
His old, useless humiliation about his family’s sudden drop into poverty had vanished long ago, but he still felt proud he’d managed to cover up his desperation.
Nick had already looked around downstairs. Time to expand the search. If he could get the money and whatever else had been stolen, then he could take it easy and figure out his next step in peace.
He’d memorized the text that bastard Elliot had sent.
Should’ve listened when you told me to keep clear of the Espositos. Somebody may come to your apartment looking for something, but it’s safe in a place they’ll never find. Sorry I suck as a friend.
When Nick had tried to send a return message asking what the hell Elliot was talking about, the text bounced. A disposable phone, no doubt, and Elliot long gone to wherever.
Nick bet no one in New York knew Elliot was from a little village in Wisconsin. He’d only admitted that to Nick when they got drunk one night in college. He seemed ashamed of the place and told everyone he was from Chicago—as if coming from a big city made you a better player. Arnesdale, Wisconsin, seemed like the most logical place Elliot would’ve gone to ground, or stashed stuff he’d taken from criminals.
Elliot had called his special hangout the Old Place. And his description matched this farmhouse perfectly. Hell, turned out everyone else in town called it the Old Place too.
Nick climbed the stairs two at a time. The house had personality; Nick had to give it that. He walked through a couple of oddly shaped bedrooms and two strange little tower rooms composed mostly of windows—which weren’t broken. No graffiti either. This definitely wasn’t the city.
He tapped on walls, knelt by floorboards, peered into closets and thumped on their walls, a penlight between his teeth. Nothing.
Sighing, he switched off the penlight and made his cautious way back downstairs. He had a sleeping bag and other camping gear. He was far better prepared this time for a break from his regular life, he thought grimly as he hauled a can of fruit from the cupboard.
A cake sat on the counter. A lady had left it on his doorstep, along with a note welcoming him to the neighborhood. She’d signed the note “Missy” with a smiley face dotting the i.
He’d watched her from upstairs. She’d had hair piled on her head, an okay figure under an ugly, tight, flower dress, high heels and painted nails. Not exactly the overalls and freckle-faced farm-girl look he’d expected to find in the country. She’d seemed nervous as she’d waited and had hung around way too long before giving up and driving off.
What had that meant?
Nick studied the cake for a minute, then dumped it into a garbage sack. He wouldn’t take any chances. His father’s example had taught him that.
The sight of the cake made his stomach rumble. Right. He’d stored maybe a week’s worth of food in the cupboard. And then what?
His reserves, the money he’d saved up for years, was gone. Some of it had gone into his new identity; most of it had gone into getting this place. Land contract had been the only way he could get his hands on the house—and that meant a hefty deposit. Not that he had any intention of sticking around after he got what he needed. Even if this wasn’t the place Elliot had referenced in his text, at least Nick was safe enough here. And his new license said “Sam Allen”. Not the best alias ever, but better than “Sam Adams”. The idiot who’d sold him the ID had wanted to give him that name—inspired by a beer bottle, not the founding father.
Nick opened the peaches and ate from the can, standing at the sink, which he still hadn’t managed to unclog. The pipes had rumbled ominously the first time he’d tried the taps. A farm had well water, of course. No city supply out here in Nowheresville.
He drank the aluminum-flavored peach syrup and flipped the can into the garbage. Dinner was over.
Someone knocked on the door. He slid to the wall and drew the pistol he’d taken off the guy who’d shown up at Elliot’s place at three a.m. two weeks ago. That was the night it started, the night he’d gone to find out what was going on. The night Elliot vanished as if he’d never existed.
Through the small window in the front door, Nick could see a shadow moving and heard two voices. Two women, talking together about the weather. More neighbors?
What the hell? This house was at least four miles from the closest town, Arnesdale. Didn’t people move to areas like this, past Podunk, beyond the outback of nowhere, because they hated being near neighbors? He thought of the movies set in the country—god-awful horror movies he and Elliot had watched in college. Usually some lunatic farmer slaughtered people and made them into pies, carrying on for years before anyone noticed. That was when Elliot had described this house. The country was isolated, not Grand Central Station.