IN MY life I have been kidnapped twice, shot at, hit, chased down in a car, and yanked off the street. It sort of numbs you to surreal experiences. Because of all that, my brother Dane is certain that my gauge that senses weirdness is way out of whack. It’s possible. Things that other people, normal people, think are insane or horrifying don’t really faze me, so from time-to-time I have a hard time differentiating run-of-the-mill crazy from severe psychosis. I also need to check occasionally to make sure that something that I’ve said was okay, really is. I tend to be too accepting of situations and circumstances. Like if a good friend of mine asked me to keep a gun for them, I would probably do it simply because it’s my friend; why would I question it?
This capacity for trust drives my partner, my husband—we got married in Canada and we wear rings—Sam Kage, absolutely nuts. But lately, because he was away, I didn’t have to worry about explaining myself or my actions. I wanted to, though; I wanted to be interrogated because that way I’d know I was loved. Sam cared enough to grill me, and I missed it.
The man in question had been gone for three months, moving quickly to four, participating in a federal task force. I craved his presence, his touch, his smell on the sheets, his empty coffee cup in the sink, and the towels he left on the floor in the bathroom. I missed being in bed with him, and my body ached and throbbed with his absence. I had been working off my sexual energy at the gym, and I had been running like a man training for the marathon. I even beat my brother at racquetball, which the stars had to be aligned for me to be able to do. When Dane looked at me with wonder all over his face, I told him I needed Sam to come home so I could get laid. As always, when I over-shared, I got the look of disgust that he could do better than anybody.
I needed to keep busy, so working on the weekend had seemed like a good idea. That was why I had volunteered for a Saturday with Michelle Cooper instead of lying comatose around my loft for two days. Normally, when Sam was home, Saturdays were for sleeping in, hours of sex, and a late breakfast/early lunch. Sam in the morning with his gravel-filled voice, soft eyes, tousled hair, and stubbly beard could stop my heart. His smile when he first opened his smoky-blue eyes, the way they crinkled in half, the curve of his mouth… I couldn’t help it. I suddenly had to shift where I was standing on the train because my jeans were tight across the front. I needed to stop thinking about my man.
Fiddling with the platinum band on the ring finger of my left hand, I got off at the Oak Park platform and descended the stairs to the street. I loved it there, even used to live there, and was crazy about the little shops, the great restaurants, and the jewelry store that sold the Baltic Sea amber that my best friend, Dylan Greer, collected. It had stopped pouring, but it was dark and overcast, the street squishy and wet with puddles, the air still smelling like rain. Passing a restaurant, the aroma of syrup hit me, and I had a sudden craving for French toast. I made a mental note to stop for brunch at a restaurant I liked after my walk-through/meeting/consultation.
Three years ago, Aubrey Jenner, then Aubrey Flanagan, Dylan Greer, and I had our own business. But Harvest Design folded in the withering economy, and we were forced to sell and find new jobs. I could not find a job in my field and refused to go back to working for my brother, so I ended up at Synergy.
What I had thought would be an okay job at the time, when I needed something, anything, and I was desperate, I now realized was slowly rotting away my soul.
“Dramatic much?” Dylan had asked me over the phone.
She was still not enjoying her job as an entry-level graphic designer at Tateman Limited, either, but at least she was using her skill set.
“Oh, Jory, you are so using the gifts God gave you,” she snapped at me. “You talk to people better than anyone I know.”
“Then quit bitching about it and find a new goddamn job!”
And I needed to, but I could admit to being lazy because the job was effortless and I got paid pretty well.
“Call me later. I wanna go to that store that sells those weird spices, but that guy—”
“Yeah, Peter. He hates me, so you hafta talk to him.”
“He likes you, don’t be stupid.”
“He likes you, Jory,” she assured me. “He wants to put his hands all over you. I can see it in that predatory way he looks at you.”
“Whatever,” I said, patronizing her.
“He does, you just don’t see it. You never see it until it’s too late.”
Whatever that meant. “Fine, I’ll call you later.”
“Good, go to work.”
So I did, and when I called her when I was done, we had gone shopping together. The spice store had been our third stop in Chinatown, and Peter had been his normal, helpful self. I was pretty sure that Dylan was delusional. She always saw more interest in the men around me than I caught myself. I suspected that she was stroking my ego.
But I really did need a new job because working at Synergy, being an assistant to a counselor who assisted a matchmaker, was so not my idea of fun.
At Synergy we did life makeovers; see the propaganda posing as collateral material. We came in, gutted your house, cleaned you up, and found you a partner. It was like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets The Millionaire Matchmaker, except there were no cameras and it took about a month from start to finish and had what they called check-ins or follow-ups, afterward.
I went first with a counselor and met the client, documented the horror of his or her life, and reported back to our matchmaker. There were five teams at Synergy, each headed up by a matchmaker. I worked for Michelle Cooper, one of six counselors who reported to Becker Rowe, our matchmaker, and finally to Blake Somersby, our managing director.
Reaching the house after eleven, I looked toward the front door and immediately saw Michelle and the rest of the team. Even if I had not been looking for her, there was no way to miss her. She was a knockout with her short-cropped blonde curls and green eyes looking at me like I was the Second Coming. She was crisp and polished in her Stella McCartney suit and gave the impression of cool poise even as she crooked her finger at me. My grin was huge as I walked toward her, my courier bag bumping against my hip as I moved fast to reach her.
“I could pass out right now with you being on time and all,” she said, laughing at me as I closed in on her.
“For you, I’ll be on time,” I said, returning her smile. “For Keith, I dunno.”
She nodded. “He does not like to work with you.”
“He’s a nozzle,” I told her, looking around at the others. “Am I right?”
“He’s right,” Lily Chow agreed with me loudly, while others grunted their agreement.
“Jory!” She tried not to laugh. “He’s a peer of mine.”
“Like I care. He doesn’t want to work with me anymore anyway.”
“Yes, I know, only Gina and I like you.”
I opened my mouth to tell her that I didn’t give a crap, again, but she silenced me with her hand. “Fine,” I said, “but how come your husband’s lettin’ you work on the weekend? I thought you guys had a rule or something?”
“He has a big case.” She made a face. “He can’t even take a break today and have dinner with me, so I was flying solo anyway.”
“Oh good, then you can eat with me after,” I said, joining her and the others on the porch.
“I would love to do that, Mr. Harcourt.” She smiled at me.
“Good, it’s a date,” I said, reaching out to fix her crumpled collar, smoothing it back into place before smiling at the other four members of her team.
I looked back at her.
“Nothing,” I lied.
She took hold of my arm and led me a couple feet away. “You hate this.”
“I don’t hate it,” I said as I fiddled with the silver chain around my neck. Sam had given me a Saint Jude medallion a couple years ago, and since he was the patron saint of policemen, I wore it to make sure he, the saint, knew I was paying attention. I wanted him looking after my man.
“Yeah, you do.”
“It’s fine, I promise.”
“J, event-coordinating is not my favorite part of the gig, either, but it’s a job, right? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I need the money.”
But she didn’t, not really. Her husband was a software engineer at a very high-profile firm downtown. I was the one who needed the job.
“Okay,” I assured her. “Now, c’mon, let’s go in and see the travesty that the man and the house is.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, awe infusing her voice, “I can’t wait to get in there.”
“Jory, are you kidding? Look at this house. It must be amazing inside.”
I thought the outside looked a little rundown and crappy.
“Look at the stained glass and all the natural woodwork and—”
But she had to stop when the door opened and we were faced with a blond-haired, blue-eyed man looking at us quizzically, if not downright annoyed.
He was taller than me, but most men were. At five-nine, I was nowhere near big. But the stranger at the door was lean and muscular—not big muscular like Sam was, but few men were. The stranger’s frame was carved and strong, obvious since the T-shirt he was wearing was hugging his toned chest and torso like a second skin. It occurred to me that he looked like he belonged on skis in the Alps, wearing a parka, his first name Siegfried. I had the urge to yodel, but stifled it, instead turning my head to Michelle, as always deferring to the salesperson, as well as the woman, in our midst.
“Good afternoon.” Michelle smiled huge, giving the man the benefit of gleaming eyes, rows of perfect white, even teeth, and lips that curved in the corner into a gorgeous smile. She was adorable.
“Good morning.” He smiled back, taking hold of the hand she offered him.
“I’m Michelle Cooper from Synergy, and this is Jory Harcourt.”
“Pleasure to meet you both,” he said, smiling at me as well, grasping my hand tight.
“And you,” I assured him. “Are you ready to have us take over your life?”
“If I say sort of, will you hold it against me?”
I forced a smile before he looked back over at Michelle. After she introduced the rest of her team, he invited everyone in, moving out of the way so we could enter.
Inside, Michelle immediately started talking about the positives Mr. Fisher would experience from his partnership with us. We could assure him that… blah-blah-blah…. I ducked around the corner before I fell asleep on my feet. The sales spiels killed me, as did our boss Blake Somersby’s morning kick-off meetings, which was why I made sure to miss them on a daily basis. I sent others in my place instead, and Blake had told me on a number of occasions, when he found me in the halls later, that I was missed. I had asked him if he wanted me snoring in front of everyone. He had glowered at me, but as of yet had not insisted on my presence.
Inside the house, I was astounded at the complete and utter waste of space that it was. Mr. Fisher could do anything with his home and had instead chosen to do absolutely nothing. It could be a refuge, a palace, a sanctuary, and instead it was a frat house. It was so much more horrible than I could have ever imagined, down to the choice of music that was playing. Thankful that I had my iPod, I put in my earbuds and got out my digital camera to record the horror that was the man’s home. I was singing silently along with Eric Clapton, sunglasses up on top of my head, where I had shoved them when we walked in the house, when Michelle and our client joined me a half an hour later.
Hayes Fisher was smiling wide.
“What?” I asked, removing the left earbud.
“You’ve got a rock ’n’ roll heart?”
I grinned big. “Yep, how’dya know?”
He nodded. “I love Eric Clapton. Why don’t I have that album?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. As far as I can tell, you don’t have any good music.”
“I’m sorry?” Mr. Fisher’s face fell as he scowled at me.
That fast I had annoyed him. It really was a gift. I glanced over at Michelle. “I don’t normally talk to clients for this very reason.”
She chuckled as I left the room to take more pictures.
I wasn’t charming, I tended to be blunt, and I had always felt that clients needed to know the truth about things. I had learned it when I worked for my brother Dane years ago. Dane just spoke his mind, and so I did too. It was a bad habit, though, as I was not the architectural god that he was. Dylan always told me that there were ways to tell people things. Honesty was sometimes not the best policy. I needed to learn finesse. I told her that if I didn’t already have it, that it probably wasn’t going to happen. I was thirty, for crissakes.
I looked over my shoulder at the sound of my name.
“Are you listening to me?”
Of course not.
“Could you just… could you take those out of your ears so I can talk to you?”
I conceded to one earbud. I left the right one in. “Yeah?”
“Yeah?” He repeated the word irritably.
“Oh, yes?” Dane hated “yeah” too. My brother said that “yeah” was a plague on mankind, sloppy and overused. And he didn’t think he was uptight.
“What can I do for you?” Now I was annoyed.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m detailing the horror,” I said like it was obvious, adding some snark to my voice for good measure.
I gestured around.
“Do you have something to—”
Michelle tried to break into the conversation. “Mr. Fisher, I think—”
“Mr. Harcourt, you—”
“I’m busy,” I said, jiggling my digital camera so he could see it. “I’m just taking pictures so the design team can know what they’re up against.”
“In what way?”
I gestured around so he’d realize I meant everything.
“You have a problem with my home?”
Michelle chuckled hollowly. “No, he—”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I have a problem. It looks like a frat house in here except it’s clean. No empty beer bottles in sight.”
“It’s incredible what you haven’t done.”
“What?” I was confused. I was speaking English, I was just sure of it.
Dark scowl, brows furrowing as he looked at me.
“Take that, for instance,” I said, pointing.
“It’s a beanbag chair,” he said defensively, rubbing the top of his head. “My friend’s kids love it.”
“Well, good. Can you give it to them?”
“Jory,” Michelle began, “perhaps Mr. Fisher would like us to create a rec room for the—”
“Just tell us where to send it. I’ll have a courier over here to pick it up today.”
“Mr. Harcourt, you—”
“Christ.” I was in awe, surveying the nightmare. “It’s a mess in here.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
Caught off guard, he gulped air and just nodded.
“Do you bring dates here?”
“I, what? Yes.” His voice dropped off as he cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“You will or you won’t? You don’t sound too certain.”
“What? Yes, of course.”
“Okay.” I smirked at him, widening my eyes, making sure he knew I thought he was nuts. “As long as you’re sure.”
He turned to face Michelle. “Mrs. Cooper, your partner—”
“Mr. Fisher, I—”
I turned my iPod back up so I missed whatever they said to each other as I took in the details: the cinder block and plywood bookshelves, the milk crates holding his movie collection, the plastic lamp hanging in the living room, the gilded chain that hung from it, down back over the shade, falling to the middle of the floor, where it was then plugged into an orange utility extension cord that was in turn plugged into the far wall. It was beyond hideous. And then there was the spider plant in the corner.
The only other place I had seen a macramé plant hanger before was in pictures of Sam’s parents’ house from the seventies. I think there was a shot of his mother sitting beside one in the living room. I pulled out my phone and took a picture of just the hanger and then one of me and the plant hanger together; I was doing my best Vanna White impression, and I e-mailed it to the project manager, Wade Fujihara. I got a quick text back and chuckled when I saw it. He was very confused about where I was or more precisely, in what time I was. I had taken the way-back machine to work, he was just certain.
Realizing that she had been yelling, I took out my earbuds and looked at Michelle. She was right behind me, apparently had been for several minutes, and Hayes Fisher was standing next to her. “Yes?”
“Mr. Harcourt,” Mr. Fisher began sharply. “I—”
“You just moved back here right?”
“I read that in the profile. You used to live in New York, but you’re originally from here, from Chicago, and you moved back after a horrible divorce ’cause your family’s here, right?”
“So most of the crap in here is from the previous owner.”
“You didn’t make them clean up, you just moved in, right?”
“No, this is all my—”
“Oh,” I said, drawing out the word. “Wow, so much for the benefit of the doubt, huh?”
“Is this about the house or are we just chit-chatting?”
“Sorry, you obviously have something to add,” I sighed, even as my mind drifted. It was why I had stopped going to church when I got old enough to decide for myself. I had informed my grandmother that I always felt bad because I would be thinking about chocolate chip cookies or something when I was supposed to be thinking about God.
“Do you have any idea how obnox—”
“You know what the coolest thing about driving is?” I asked, giving up for the moment on keeping myself on task.
“What? No, I do—”
“Do you want to know?”
He took a breath, threw up his hands, and gestured for me to go ahead.
“Okay, so the coolest thing about driving is that if you make an ass of yourself at one light—stall out, roll too far into the intersection, miss the turn light until somebody honks at you—whatever, I mean it doesn’t matter ’cause by the time you get to the next light you’re with a whole new group of drivers that don’t know you from Adam. You’re new. You’re just another asshole in a car that’s drivin’ along just like them. I love that. It’s like a do-over at each red light.”
He was just staring at me.
“Cool, right?” I waggled my eyebrows at him.
His eyes, which were really a lovely shade of sky blue, were fixed on mine.
“So let’s have a do-over. I’m sorry for insulting your complete lack of interest in your own home, and you will forgive my blunt analysis of your colossal failure. How’d that be?”
His mouth was open, but nothing came out.
I looked over at Michelle. “I tried.”
She was just staring at me.
Gina Bailey, the only other counselor in the group I was in, knew better than to let me talk to clients. Michelle, apparently, had not gotten the memo. And I had tried to make myself scarce. It wasn’t my fault that the man was following me around.
I had to try and fix it. “Lemme ask you a serious question,” I said, rounding on Hayes Fisher. “Do you or do you not want somebody special in your life?”
“Isn’t the point of all this for you to show off to everyone that you’re a catch?”
“The point of this is to—”
“It’s to find someone to marry, right? I mean, instead of going out and dating and doing the hard work yourself, you’re going through us, through a service, and we’re gonna throw a huge party where you’ll have a chance to show off your new digs and your money and where there will be several available women who are ready to settle down and become wives and mothers. Am I right?”
He was at a loss, that much was obvious.
“So suck up your pride about me telling you that this place looks like crap, which it does, by the way, and let us do our jobs without the hassle of listening to you moan and groan about how the crack den here ain’t so bad.”
I let my voice drop low. “Oh, you should be.”
I shrugged. “It’s gross.”
“Are we all gonna get along? Yes or no ’cause I don’t wanna send Wade out here if you’re gonna give him crap. He’s sensitive.”
“And a pompous ass, but that will work to your benefit because all he’ll want is what’s best for you.”
He stood there, staring at me.
“So,” I asked him, “are you in or are you out?”
“I… Mr. Har—”
“Jory,” I corrected him, reaching out to give him a hard pat on the arm. “It’s just Jory.”
“In or out?” I asked again, pressing for an answer.
He stared at me for several minutes before he finally said, “In.”
“Great,” I said, gesturing behind him to Michelle, who was beaming at me.
He looked over his shoulder at her, and I went to move, but before I could, he was barring my path, sliding in front of me.
“It’s just a bachelor pad. They all look the same.”
“No,” I assured him, stepping around him.
He was back in front of me fast, so fast, in fact, that I had to freeze mid-step or walk into him.
“What bachelors do you know?”
“Ones with better decorators,” I said, smiling at him.
“Yeah,” I said, glancing around, “this is a travesty.”
“Jory,” I corrected again, walking away from him, which cut him off. I was surprised when he followed me again.
“Can you stop walking?”
“I’m working, Mr. Fisher,” I informed him, smiling at Michelle, who looked pained again. “I don’t get paid to just chit-chat all day.”
“What are you—”
“Huh,” I grunted as my eyes flew all over the room.
“Can you quit with that?”
“Sure,” I said distractedly, looking at all the empty walls, the space. “Jesus.”
He looked at me, scowling. “What would you do differently?”
“There’s just so much you could do.”
“Like everything that Wade and his team suggest,” I assured him. “Just be open to it.”
He was speechless as I turned away, squinting at the walls.
I looked back at him.
“Hold that thought.” I smiled quickly, leaving his bedroom, wrinkling my nose like something smelled.
“Amazing,” I said absently, taking in for the second time now the giant spool being used as a coffee table. I’d thought maybe the first time I was just seeing things. But it was there, big as life, smack dab in the middle of his living room. “Who knew you could still even get one of those.”
“I need a picture,” I said, snapping the photo, framing it so Wade could see all the wasted space in the room. “Wade’s gonna pull something from laughing.”
“Jory,” I reminded him for what felt like the tenth time, leaving him alone so I could check one of the four unused bedrooms. It was full of sports equipment and athletic shoes. It smelled like wet dog.
The second bedroom was the one for guests. If you were a parolee, you would feel right at home. Stark was an understatement. The third bedroom was being used as an office, and in his room there were mirrors on the closet doors that didn’t fit and were cut in sort of squiggle shapes. I could not articulate my disgust. I took a picture for Wade, and the word “travesty” was texted back. I grunted my agreement.
I went to the kitchen, pulled out my laptop, and started uploading all the pictures I had taken. I sent them all to Wade and got a call back in five minutes. It was a new record.
“Hello, devil,” he greeted me, “I didn’t know they had reception in hell.”
I chuckled at the cool, cultured voice giving me sarcasm. “Oh, but they do.”
“Seriously,” he said, coughing, “I thought you were screwing with me with the plant hanger, trying to get me to laugh because I’m stuck here working on Saturday instead of antique shopping with my man, but now I gotta ask… am I actually looking at a beanbag chair?”
“You’re fulla shit. Antique shopping, my ass. Whaddya really shop for?”
Beats of silence went by.
“So I’m in the market for a motorcycle, so what?”
“Don’t tell anyone. All I’ll hear about is a fuckin’ midlife crisis that I’m not having.”
“Okay,” I assured him. “Not a word.”
He grunted. “Now, seriously… is that really a beanbag chair?”
“His friends’ kids like it,” I said cheerfully.
“Super, let’s get something cool for them like a trampoline with netting for the backyard. The kids will love it, and it won’t be an eyesore in the man’s house. God, it’s lime green too.”
“It’s the least of his problems.”
“Oh, amen,” he agreed wholeheartedly.
“Me and Michelle should be there around one.”
“I’ll have a martini waiting.”
I was laughing when I hung up, turning off my camera.
“You don’t have to plug it in?”
I turned to look at my client, who I hadn’t realized was there. “I’m sorry?”
“No, it’s Bluetooth,” I told him, “and I’ve got wireless, so the horror has been documented and sent on to frighten colleagues of mine.”
“You know,” I said, looking at him as I stuffed my laptop and camera back in my courier bag, giving him an indulgent smile, “it’s so much worse than I ever imagined possible, Mr. Fisher. Really, it’s like a bad porno set in here.”
“I will give you that it’s a little bare, but—”
My groan cut him off. “This place so needs a makeover. It’s a wonder you’re not suicidal.”
He swore under his breath.
“And it’s lucky you don’t have kids yet ’cause all the open space would be creepy at night.”
“What are you—”
“It must be scary as hell in here in the dark. When I was little, we just had a trailer, but even then when I woke up in the night, I used to pretend I was Frankenstein, ya know? I’d walk to the bathroom moaning, making the growling sort of noise he makes, doing his walk with my arms out ’cause I figured if the other monsters thought I was a monster, then they wouldn’t try and get me.”
He was staring at me, openmouthed.
“You just… you….”
I smiled wide. “Back to the house, Mr. Fisher, I promise when we’re done, with the budget you’ve given us and the free rein over design, it will be stunning, okay?”
He was still looking at me weird.
“Is it really so horrible now?” he asked, flopping down onto one of his kitchen chairs. It creaked under his weight.
I looked at him and pointed. “That’ll hafta go too.”
“Christ,” he muttered.
I had to laugh.
His scowl deepened. “So what are you gonna do?” he asked me, his voice pained.
“Not me. Like I told you, the interior design team. That’s a whole separate entity.”
He looked up at me, and I wasn’t sure what I saw there.
“Mr. Fisher, I swear to God you don’t have to see me again until your big night.”
“Mr. Harcourt, you—”
“Okay,” I announced, “well, I gotta go because I’m starving, but another team will be in touch to go over timelines