LENARD BLAKE wrestled his few remaining possessions onto the wraparound porch as he muttered invectives aimed at his wife. “Ex-wife,” he reminded himself as he expounded on various physically impossible situations he wished would befall the woman. Because of her, he’d had to move practically clear across the county. It had been a particularly nasty divorce and Deborah, his ex, had gone out of her way to make sure everyone knew it was Lenard’s fault. The fact that it was Lenard who had found his spouse in bed with another person, and not the other way around, didn’t seem to deflect any of the blame. Deborah was from a wealthy Colorado family—the Helmsleys—and no one was going to call her on the lie, even though many people seemed to know she had been cheating on Lenard for years.
Her family had strong ties in the police department where he had worked as a detective for the last four years, and as a patrol officer before that, and it had become impossible to stay in Denver. Not only that, but he couldn’t even stay in Colorado. The Helmsley family had long arms, it appeared. Every major police department across the state had been warned off him. He had had to search for small towns on the other side of the country to be sure the senior Helmsley didn’t stand in his way yet again.
He had scoured the Internet for a place of his own that he could afford… far from everyone he knew—and especially away from the influence of Deborah’s family—where he could lick his wounds. He had found this house. A beautiful old farmhouse ten miles outside a small town in Virginia. Jessup was so small, in fact, that it wasn’t even on any map he could find. No neighbors for miles. It had seemed perfect. He’d contacted the agent and paid the ridiculously low price without even thinking about it.
Now that he was here, it was obvious that the picture on the Internet had been of the house in better times. “Maybe twenty or thirty years ago,” he mumbled unkindly, as the front screen door came off in his hand. “No wonder the real estate agent seemed surprised by my interest. Probably laughing his fool head off all the way to the bank, with the last of my money.”
There was nothing he could do about it now, though. It really had been the last of his money, and he had nowhere else to go. So, he wrestled the last suitcase into the foyer. He did have to admit the house had potential. Beautifully carved molding adorned the top and bottom of every wall… well, what hadn’t fallen down and was now lying in heaps on the floor. The staircase was made of sturdy wood and had obviously been beautiful once. Hardwood floors decked the foyer, living room, and study. They could use a coat of varnish or two but otherwise were in decent shape, for the most part.
The Internet ad had mentioned that the house was furnished. That was one of the features that had decided him on this particular dwelling. He had no money to go buy a bunch of furniture and had never really cared about interior decorating, so he was sure whatever was here would be fine.
He was wrong.
What was here was a rickety sofa and chair, covered with sheets layered with literally years of dust. As he took the sheet off the sofa to inspect the ratty thing, he had to fight the tears in his eyes and the coughing fit induced by all the dust now in the air. Probably should have taken the sheet off just a little more slowly. He would have said it out loud to no one if he could have caught his breath. “At least the sheet kept most of the dust off the actual sofa.”
As ancient furniture went, he guessed the sofa and chair were passable. When he could finally bring himself to sit on them, he found they held his weight… which was really all he was asking for. He wouldn’t be in here much, he imagined—which was probably a good thing, because as he looked around, he saw no place to hook up cable or a telephone. He had a cell phone, and he wasn’t really much for TV anyway, so he figured he could deal with that.
He inspected the study and found a large desk and beautifully carved chair. Shelves adorned the walls, and when he pulled off the sheets that had been nailed up, he found a wealth of old, mostly leather-bound books.
His estimation of the previous owner just went up. Obviously, someone who lived here had loved to read… or at least to collect… all the classics. He pulled himself away and decided he’d peruse the collection later. Maybe he could sell some of them to get some necessities until he started his new job, but mostly he just looked forward to reading them.
As he went through the living room again, on his way to the staircase, he looked at the sofa and chair. The sheets were covering them again. “I thought I left those off,” he said. At least there was no dust this time. “Well, of course there wouldn’t be. I just don’t remember putting them back on like that,” he muttered. “Gettin’ old, Len.”
He had planned to go upstairs since he had to go right past the staircase in order to get to the back of the house anyway, but as he set foot on the first step, he heard a noise out back and went to investigate. The kitchen door opened to a spacious backyard with a large outbuilding. The screen door was now banging in the wind. “Funny,” he said, “I don’t see the trees moving. There doesn’t seem to be as much as a light breeze.” He shook himself out of his thoughts and secured the door as well as he could, then looked around the kitchen.
Cabinets that had once been in style looked lonely and worn out. There was an island counter with a marble top that was probably in the best shape of anything in the house. It had probably been a later addition anyway, so that stood to reason. The floor was tiled and would probably last a little while longer, though numerous tiles were coming—or had already come—loose, so he had to watch his step. “Lenard, my boy, what have you gotten yourself into?”
He made his way upstairs and was pleased that only one step gave way under his weight. There were three large bedrooms. Two were obviously children’s rooms… both boys… done in various shades of blue with twin beds and model airplanes and spaceships hanging from the ceiling. Once again, he had had to take off the sheets to see the actual furniture, but this time, he made a point of putting them back over the beds and desks since he didn’t plan on using these rooms, anyway.
He finally arrived at the master bedroom, expecting much the same, and was taken aback. It was gorgeous. There was a large walk-in closet with exquisitely crafted doors. The woodwork around the closet was intricately sculpted. Even the chair rail around the entire room was beautifully routed. What was even more striking, however, was the queen-size bed. Not only was it also beautifully crafted, it was in excellent condition. It wasn’t covered with a sheet and there didn’t seem to be a bit of dust in the whole room. “The realtor must have come and cleaned out at least this part of the house, knowing I’d need to be able to use the bed right away,” Lenard said and then put it out of his mind as he went to get the luggage he had left in the foyer.