Even before the silver Lexus pulled up in front of Pete Eason’s trailer, he’d known something wasn’t right.
The man climbing out of the car, looking like a newly minted hundred dollar bill, was Mike Clarke. He’d contacted a friend of Pete’s because he’d heard Pete might be interested in an odd job. That was true. Right now, Pete was interested in any job he could get. But now that he stood here looking at the man who had hired him, Pete had a funny feeling that something just wasn’t right. To start with, Pete wasn’t usually hired by guys who looked like this one, and when he was, they damn well didn’t drive out to his house in a Lexus to pick him up and take him to the site.
Pete rose from his seat on the bottom step and nodded a greeting.
The man nodded back and smiled. “Good morning.”
Clarke lounged gracefully in the space between his open door and the body of his car, his casual stance making his suit coat gape wide. He didn’t wear a tie, and his top two buttons were undone because it was a hot July Missouri morning. Pete could see Clarke's wiry, dark blond chest hair peeking out of the gap in his dress shirt. He tried not to look at them, but it wasn’t like looking at the man’s face was any better. Clarke was broad, handsome, and slightly scruffy in a way that belied his nice car and clothes and made him seem accessible in a way Pete knew damn well he wasn’t.
Clarke was still smiling, and the gesture made his pale blue eyes dance. “Well? You ready to go?”
Pete bent down, picked up his lunch pail, and headed toward the passenger side of the car. Then he frowned. “You sure you don’t want me to drive myself?”
Clarke looked puzzled. “But we’re going to the same place.”
Pete grimaced at the Lexus. “But I’m gonna get your car all dirty.”
Now Clarke was amused. “It cleans up, Peter.”
“Pete,” Pete corrected. But he opened the car door and slid carefully into the buttery leather of the seats.
The car smelled good, like money and leather and man. The smell intensified when Clarke got back into the car, and as they turned out of the trailer court and headed back to the road, the smells converged around Pete, wrapping around him like a blanket.
“So,” Clarke said as he headed south toward I-70. “How much did they tell you about the job?”
Pete shrugged and kept his eyes on the road. “Said somebody needed help clearing debris out of a house and that they paid good money.”
He saw Clarke glance at him out of the corner of his eye. “That’s it? And you just took the job?”
“Not a lot of jobs around here right now, Mr. Clarke.”
“Mike,” Clarke corrected.
Pete rubbed his hand over his mouth to hide a grimace. Shit. He hated it when the bosses wanted to pretend they were chummy. “Just here to do a job. That’s all. Don’t need to know much except where the Dumpster is.”
Clarke was nodding, and Pete suppressed a sigh because he could sense more conversation coming. This one must be one of those bleeding heart liberals trying to get in touch with the “common man.” Pete wondered what “Mike” would think if he knew how Pete would like to touch him. He got a swift, explicit mental image of the other man’s horror, and it made him smile.
Which, of course, the bastard caught. “Care to share the joke?”
“Nope.” Pete wiped his face clean and turned back to the road.
They got off the interstate and headed up into the hills. Clarke was driving them down rutted, rotten roads no Lexus was ever meant to see. Pete wondered what it was like to have so much money that you could drive a forty-thousand dollar car down a piece of shit road like this and not even break a sweat.
“That’s quite a lunchbox,” Clarke said.
Pete looked down at the beat-up black tin in his lap. “Is it?”
“It looks old. Are you into retro? Do you collect them? Lunchboxes?”
Pete gave him a long, slow look. “It was fifty cents at a garage sale. It looked like it could keep my sandwich in one piece even if I dropped a pile of rebar on it, so I got it.”
Clarke smiled. Again. Hell, maybe he hadn’t stopped. “Well, I think it’s a great lunchbox.”
Pete turned his head so he was looking out the passenger-side window.
“You from around here?” Clarke asked.
Pete kept his eyes out the window. “Lived in Blackwater all my life.”
“So maybe you know the place we’re going: Blind Pony Lake.” Clarke was hedging toward something, but Pete couldn’t figure out what.
“Never been to Saline County, no,” Pete said.
This seemed to disappoint Clarke. “But it’s practically next door!”
“Not much for lakes,” Pete said.
There was some nice silence as Clarke frowned out the windshield for a while, clearly thrown by either the fact that Pete hadn’t been to Blind Pony or that he didn’t like lakes. Pete didn’t care which it was. He just enjoyed it.
“So you’ve never been here at all,” Clarke said, after a few more miles. The road was really awful now, and he had to fight to keep the Lexus on the road. Not that this kept him from yapping.
“Nope,” Pete said.
“Maybe you know people over here, though? Relatives? Friends?”
“Nope.” Pete craned his head to look up at the trees. He wished he could roll down the window. It was pretty in here, if desolate. He bet it smelled nice and loamy.
“Friends of friends, then.”
Pete hesitated, knowing it wasn’t gonna come to anything good to egg Clarke on, but he was kinda curious now. “How come it matters to you so much that I know somebody here?”
Now Clarke was flustered. “Well—it doesn’t, obviously. I was just—you know. Making conversation. Trying to be polite.”
It did matter to him, Pete could tell, and it was weird. But Pete still didn’t care. “Polite ain’t necessary, Mr. Clarke.” He winced as they hit a particularly rough pothole and held on to the door handle to brace himself against more jostling. “And you should’ve had me drive us in my car. You’re gonna need a new tie rod after this road.”
Clarke grimaced as he swerved around another rut. “It wasn’t this rough the last time.”
“Maybe the rain wrecked the road,” Pete suggested. Except it hadn’t rained in a month.
“It’s not the rain,” Clarke said. He looked irritated. “Just defiance.”
Well, that didn’t make a lick of sense, but Pete just settled in as best he could and hoped the tie rods held out.
But it wasn’t another half a mile before Clarke turned off the road onto a lane. This road was so unused that weeds were growing up over half of it, big fuck-off nettles as high as a man’s head. Clarke drove straight over them and headed on. The road was ending ahead of them, stopping right in front of a weed-covered, dilapidated stone house with pillars. A shed or barn of some kind sat behind it, completely collapsed in on itself, but that was it. There wasn’t anything else here. Pete thought for sure they’d taken a wrong turn, but Clarke just pulled the car up to the drive, parked in the least weedy patch he could find, and killed the engine.
Now it was Pete who was frowning. “The rest of the crew coming along soon, are they?”
“No crew. Just the two of us.”
Whoa. “What?” Pete asked, turning to Clarke. “You telling me I’m the crew?”
Clarke just grinned his grin and pulled the keys out of the ignition. “Come on,” he said, climbing out of the car. “Let me give you the grand tour.”
Grand tour of what? Pete thought, but he didn’t say it, just climbed out of the car to see what else this loony employer had in store for him.
“They called it Haven,” Mike said.
Pete shifted uneasily on his feet as he scanned the weed-choked, overrun landscape. “Looks more like Hell to me,” he said at last.
Hell was probably generous at that. To Pete’s mind, Hell would be pretty dynamic, with lots of screaming and shouting and general carrying on. Torturous, that’s what hell would be. Hell was an active, aggressive place, because you needed to feel the pain of how rotten you’d been in your life to end up there. This place was just dead. Lost and empty and forgotten.
The house had clearly been grand in its day. It was on top of a small ridge, and behind it some farmer was still planting a field. Back when the house had been built, the field was probably run by slaves. This had the look of some farmer with enough money to fancy himself local gentry, so he’d put pillars on the front porch, like that was all it took to make him great, and then he went and bought him some slaves. Whoever he had been, he was dead and buried now, and all that was left of his life were the pillars.
Pete turned to Clarke with a furrowed brow. “What exactly are we clearing out?”
There was that damn smile again. Clarke nodded at the house. “I just told you. Haven.”
Pete’s eyes went wide as he turned back to the house. One whole section of it was completely caved in, and the front door wasn’t even there. “Buddy, you don’t want a day laborer. You want a bulldozer.”
“We’ll do fine, the two of us, for what I have in mind.” He took off his suit coat and tossed it over his arm. “Come on.”
Clarke took him in through the front door, or the front opening, as it were. The steps were gone, so they had to hoist themselves up onto the porch. Except this place would call it a veranda, Pete figured. Anybody putting pillars on their porch was gonna call it a veranda. It must have been nice in its day, though. He could imagine ladies sitting sipping lemonade in wicker chairs, their beaus grinning down at them as they leaned on the pillars.
Funny how he kept thinking of the place in terms of the Civil War. He tried to get a more accurate sense of period by making a study of the windows and woodwork, but since most of them were rotted and fallen out, it didn’t really matter. Probably he was just channeling a little too much Gone With the Wind. But as they came inside the foyer and Pete took in the big-ass staircase, the ornate remnants of a chandelier crashed in the center of the floor, and the shredded remains of drapery in the parlor off to the left, he started to wonder. Damn if the place didn’t feel like 1850.
Clarke was watching him intently. “You look upset.” He seemed to be expecting that, too, and weirdest of all, he seemed happy about it.
Pete couldn’t seem to stop his eyes from roaming the house, moving from floor to ceiling and back again. “Just seems weird. Place shouldn’t be in the kind of shape it’s in for as old as it is.” But as soon as he said that, he scratched his head. What kind of sense did that make? Shouldn’t it be in bad shape if it were old? Except Pete couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong here.
It shouldn’t be like this. It was never meant to be like this.
Pete shifted uncertainly on his feet and looked up at the ceiling, grounding himself on a crack wide enough to expose the beam beneath.
“And how old is it, Peter?”
Pete glared. “I told you once already. It’s Pete.”
Clarke was watching him like a hawk now. “Your name is important to you?”
“Yes, Mr. Clarke. ‘Peter’ sounds like some prissy uptight asshole. I’m Pete. I drink beer and watch wrestling and football on TV.”
“And pick up women at the bars?” Clarke suggested helpfully. Except there was a hedge here, too, for some reason. And Pete had fucking had enough.
Pete looked him dead in the eye. “As a matter of fact, I suck cock. You got a problem with that, Clarke?”
It was a goddamn good thing Clarke didn’t grin, but the twinkle in his eye was bad enough. “As a matter of fact, I don’t.”
Pete rolled his eyes and turned back to the room. God, but the place was stuffy for a joint without a single pane of glass left. He stepped around the chandelier and went into the parlor, checking the floorboards carefully each time he ventured deeper. They were in surprisingly good shape, though, and once Pete managed to get a good fifteen feet in, he decided to start trusting them. He looked up to take in more of the room than just the part that was underfoot.
And it was then that he saw the walls. They had gashes on them.
Frowning, Pete crept forward, moving with a hesitation he didn’t quite understand but couldn’t seem to stop. He felt like he was trying to keep something from waking, which made no sense, because there wasn’t anyone or anything here. He didn’t even feel spooked out. He just felt… hushed. Like he was visiting somewhere sacred that deserved his respect.
The gashes, though, were disturbing. From a distance he’d thought they were just cuts in the wallpaper, like Edward Scissorhands had wandered around in here drunk. But whatever had made these cuts had gone clean through the lath. Pete had chipped at that shit before, and it wasn’t exactly like going through butter.
Weirdest was how many cuts there were and how randomly they were placed. Maybe Pete could have written them off as a tree branch or something if they’d been just here or there, but they were all over, like a kid had been bored one day and scratched the shit out of the living room—if the kid were twenty feet tall and had the strength of six or seven men. He couldn’t make it make sense, no matter how he rolled it around in his head. And he hated to do it, but he couldn’t help himself. He turned back to Clarke and saw that, yeah, the other man was watching Pete intently. Waiting.
Pete put his hands on his hips. “All right, wise guy. What’s your game? And don’t give me shit about you need help clearing out a house. There’s nothing here to clear. There’s just a really weird old house and a lot of weeds.”
This seemed to throw Clarke. “You mean—you can’t see it?” He motioned to the room. “You don’t feel it? Nothing out of the ordinary?”
Pete gave the room another glance, just in case, but nope, it was the same old cruddy room. He shook his head. “I’d love to know about the gashes in the walls, but other than that, it looks like a pretty standard run-down house.”
Clarke’s eyes widened. “Gashes?”
Pete jerked his hand at the one he was standing beside. “Yeah. The gashes. The three-foot long cuts through wallpaper, plaster, and lath. I think I can see daylight through the one over by the south window. Those gashes.”
Clarke looked at the window and then at Pete. He shook his head. “There aren’t any gashes, Pete.”
Pete raised an eyebrow at him.
“There aren’t any gashes on the walls.” Clarke nodded at the empty space beside Pete. “There is, however, a ghost standing right beside you.”