Andre had called three times that morning demanding his $1,600 by Friday or he’d tell her broker about all the inspections he’d fudged for her the past few years, the asbestos tiles and cracked foundations and missing circuit breakers he’d turned a blind eye to, and when Sheila said he’d get paid when she got paid, same as always, he’d pointed out that she still owed him for her previous two deals-- which was true on its face, but the root of the issue was that like most people Andre couldn’t accept that his prosperity was contingent on someone else’s, though like most people’s, it was. Meantime, the bursar from Laura’s school had sent a certified letter stating that if fall tuition ($17,500) wasn’t paid immediately Laura’s enrollment would be rescinded, which would erase the past year’s credits from her record, meaning Laura’d start a grade back at her next school. Unfortunately Sheila had no money for any of these people, less than none, her cards all maxed out, disconnection notices littering the floorboards of the leased Cayenne she parked a mile from home to avoid the repo men, her fillers half-dissolved and lumpen under her skin so that in a certain light she looked like a boxer the day after a fight, and when she’d gone to the dentist a couple months back for a rotten molar she’d had to forego the ceramic implant ($1,600) and tell him to just pull it, it’s in the back so no one will see, but because she only slept three hours a night and subsisted on coffee and Adderall she cadged from Laura’s backpack, she’d developed an awful case of dry socket and now her mouth gave off the odor of a rat dead and burst behind the drywall. She had to keep fresh gum going at all times just to keep clients from recoiling when she spoke, and she hadn’t been on the apps, hadn’t felt even the casual touch of a man in almost five months, an unprecedented dry spell that was all the more tragic because she was, at 37, still in the tail end of her prime …
But everything would be fine, sort of, if she could close this deal, which she was just on the verge of doing, the buyers coming today for a final walkthrough before putting in an offer. If she got them to go in for one-three, she’d pocket twenty thousand, give or take, just enough to put out the most urgent fires. She parked and went up the front walk, past the flowerbeds freshly woodchipped by the landscaper the previous day ($300 she didn’t have), retrieved the key from the electronic lockbox (7-7-7-7), let herself in. She hung her bag from the newel and went from room to room spraying the chocolate chip cookie-scented aerosol, roll your eyes if you want but it works, putting out in each room a few of the chrysanthemums she’d picked up on the way over ($65 she didn’t have), cramming sticks of gum in her mouth as she went through the house with a faint leer of disgust curling her lip at the tackiness of the place, a demented carpenter’s gothic of a McMansion, expensive rosette plaster crown mouldings crookedly installed with splits at every corner, cheap plastic architraves on the windows, snap-in faux-hardwood flooring in psychedelic mauve, doors in the half-baths that scraped against the toilet when swung closed, waterfall quartzite counters atop pressed-wood cabinets that’d melt back to pulp if you got them wet.
In the kitchen the sliding door to the deck was open a few inches; she must’ve left it ajar after the last showing. She slid the door closed, thinking she needed more gum, the roadkill odor of her rotting socket had already filled the room, and as she rounded the corner she saw a pair of booted feet protruding from behind the kitchen island.
Hello, she called out. You have to go, the police are on the w--
Sheila moved closer and saw that it was a woman and a child, lying in a nest of blankets. From their caved and pale faces it was clear they’d been dead for a while. They each wore several layers of clothes and the woman held a knife in her stiff clawed fingers, her arm thrown protectively over the child. Both their throats had been cut. The purplish-black substance pooled on the floor, Sheila realized, was their congealed blood. She stood looking down at the two bodies thinking that this would have to go on the disclosure forms, that it would tank the price, that the involvement of police would delay the sale weeks if not months.
In her hip pocket her phone vibrated; a text from the buyer, we’re out front. She bolted around the island, the quartzite corner thudding her on the hip, right on the bone, and she sidled out the sliding doors with one hand furiously rubbing her side, out onto the unvarnished wooden deck already going soft after just one winter, down the stairs into the yard and around the side of the house, limping through the dewy grass, her realtor smile already on, only slightly deranged, her capped teeth slimed pink from the bubblegum, tonguing the wad into her cheek so she could speak.
I’m so sorry, she said. A junior agent was helping me stage the place and took the key back to the brokerage. I’ll go grab it, then I have to stop at the bank to take care of a pressing matter. Meet back here in two hours?
The buyers looked at each other. He was a tech dipshit who’d gotten rich running an online gambling site, your standard vampire of capitalism (but then what, Sheila thought, was she?), the missus a trophy wife who had some kind of no-show foundation job so she could pretend she wasn’t a kept woman, a thought Sheila immediately regretted, if only because she’d have traded places with her in an instant. The man cleared his throat.
So listen. A friend of ours is an agent, and he says the market’s tanking, we could pay one-point-three today or wait six months and get it for eight-fifty.
This house could burn to the ground and the lot would sell for more than eight-fifty. What brokerage is your friend at?
Sales in this zip code have gone down by half in the past year, the man said. I looked it up.
Sales are down because no one’s selling. They know they’re sitting on a jackpot. So when you’ve got a chance like this--
What if we offered eight-fifty as a starting point—
The truth was, the sellers lived in Florida, had inherited the house, and might sell for eight-fifty just to get out from under the property taxes. How about this, she said. Look at it today, think it over, and let’s see where we stand after the open house this weekend.
There’s another showing? The wife asked. I thought—
The brokerage has been running digital ads, so the owners want to reassess the level of interest, said Sheila. Meet back here in two hours?
As soon as they were gone, Sheila left in the Cayenne, speeding down frontage roads and coasting through red lights where cross traffic allowed. She knew a couple of actors, the bartender at her neighborhood bar and his partner, who she’d paid before to pose as interested buyers, to bid up a slow listing. Derek is a VP at Deloitte and Tim heads an NGO that removes land mines from former conflict zones; they’re paying cash and they love this school district. With them as her front, she’d been able to goose the price on a crackerbox rowhome with radon in the basement and raccoon piss all down the siding from seven-ten up to one-point-one. By Sunday night she’d have this tech dipshit begging to pay two-mil cash …
At the store she grabbed contractor bags and Clorox wipes, dialing Darin repeatedly until he picked up.
Where are you?
The penthouse at the Lex. The sellers had it painted flat white and now it looks like the state hospital for the criminally insane, so I’m—
Meet me at the listing on Willow Court in five minutes.
I can’t right n—
You have to. Please believe me. You must. You owe me. Please. Now.
The man in front of her in the checkout line glanced back, alerted by some rare note of desperation in her voice. She glared at him, her jaw muscles pulsing as she worked the exhausted gum.
Fine, Darin said after a pause.
She wasn’t at all convinced he’d actually show, but he was waiting out front of the house when she drove up, wearing a too-tight burgundy suit, matching shirt and socks, looking like the host of a Christian gameshow. Young, mildly handsome, but mostly just young. She’d put him on at the brokerage as a favor to her ex-husband Tom-- Darin was his sister’s kid, had been fired from every job he’d ever had, but to everyone’s great surprise he’d immediately become one of the top earners in the city. Last she checked, he’d closed over $23 mil of property just this quarter.
As she parallel parked, she watched him in the rearview mirror watching her, and she wondered how many of her present difficulties were due to him snapping up every new listing between downtown and the river.
You going to leave it parked like that?
She stopped and looked back at the Cayenne, the wipes and bags in her arms. It’s fine, she said. Come on, come in.
They walked through the empty house. Whoever built this place, he said after a while, should be put in prison. What’s the list price?
He snorted. You have one on the hook at one-three?
Well, the price is just the price, the price isn’t important. Think of it’s an investment, market’s going up up up, think of it as Apple stock in 1998. That’s what I tell them, isn’t that what you tell yours?
My clients are constantly bombarded with pitches. You try to sell them something, they tune you out.
So how do you—but she stopped herself. He’d probably say, I don’t know, I just do it, some answer that would lay her low. Well, she knew one thing guaranteed to crease that unworried brow. As they drew near the kitchen, the ghastly smell already apparent, she gave him a coquettish smile over her shoulder, a little flutter of eyelash.
You have a strong stomach? Sheila asked.
I don’t know what you mean.
Are you bothered by needles, blood?
Why are you asking?
They’d come around the incisor-shaped counter and were standing by the sliding doors. Sheila extended one arm towards the bodies and Darin, leaning on the island, stood on tiptoe and craned his neck to see what there was on the other side, a posture that reminded her he was still just a kid—twenty-two or -three at most …
Oh God, he said.
I know, she said. She shook out one of the contractor bags. Help me move the bodies, she said, and I’ll pay you a thousand dollars.
Darin backed up, hands raised. You need to call the police, he said.
We’re not going to bury them. We’re just going to move them out to those woods.
Are you out of your mind?
I’ll call the police myself, soon as closing’s over. There’s been no crime, you see it doesn’t matter--
I’m calling them now, Darin said, phone in hand.
She’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but they had maybe ninety minutes to move the bodies, bleach the place down, air it out. She knelt on the tile floor in front of Darin and folded her hands together at her breast. I need this commission, she said. My kid’s getting kicked out of private school, they’re going to repo my car, I’m three months behind on rent, I need a dental implant, my mouth is rotting. Please, I need this sale. God. Just do me this one favor, she said.
Half, he said.
Your take-home on this dump.
I need this money so badly--
Darin sucked air in through his teeth, started to look over at the dead woman and child but stopped himself just shy. Three-quarters, he said.
Okay, half. Okay.
But then his expression softened as he looked out the sliding doors, off towards the treeline, and as she waited on her knees, her hands still clasped like a supplicant, she thought he’d had a change of heart, until she heard, just faintly, feet tromping through the dead winter sprudge out back.
Out beyond the wooden deck were two men, gaunt and unshaven and wearing many layers of clothing, carrying an army duffel bag between them, each holding one end. They were heading straight for the house. She and Darin watched, unmoving, until they heard heavy-footed steps on the deck’s lower stairs. Sheila shot to her feet, grabbed the contractor bags and wipes, and pushed Darin toward the corner of the kitchen; there was no time to go around the counter and down the hall. She flung open the folding door of the hot water closet, pushed him in, and stepped in after him, carefully working her nails between the slats of the door to pull it closed an instant before the sliding door slid open.
The men came in, set down the bag with a heavy clank. One of them snorted, spit, and in a baleful tone said, Fucking shit.
She was chest to chest with Darin, their faces perhaps two inches apart, immobilized by the dogleg of the hot water tank’s pipework pressing her in the back and his leg wedged between her own. In the enclosed space she realized her gum had lost all its flavor. Darin didn’t seem to notice. His face was rigid, his eyes crazed; she’d never seen anyone in the grip of such terror. She placed one palm against his chest and felt his heart going at hummingbird speed.
Turning her head, she could see, sort of, between the slats of the door, could make out the two men’s jeans stained dark, one round-heeled sneaker with the sole kept on with rubber bands. They were standing over the bodies.
You could’ve covered them with a sheet or something, one of them said.
If I had a sheet, I’d sleep on it. Wouldn’t do them any good.
There was a long silence punctuated with very faint sniffling noises that Sheila realized was the sound of one of the men crying.
She didn’t have to do that.
I guess she felt like she did.
They weren’t gonna take her kid away. That was just talk.
Should we bury them?
We should’ve gone to Florida for the winter.
There’s no such thing as Florida, man. Forget about that.
We can’t just leave them here.
How about this. After we do our work, we give them a Viking funeral.
We burn the place down with them in it.
The other man sniffled, blew a snot rocket onto the chef’s range. Alright, he said.
Between the slats, Sheila watched one of the men open the duffel bag and pull out two 5lb. sledgehammers, one of which he passed to the other man. It’s real simple, he said. Just beat in the walls and whatever looks like copper, tear it out. Wires, pipes, switches, whatever. Don’t worry about damaging it, they just melt it down anyway.
She watched the other man heft the sledge in one hand and absentmindedly rap off a corner of the quartzite counter. Where do we start? He said.
In here’s good. Kitchen’s got plenty of wiring.
Very shortly their hiding place was buffeted by the blows of the sledgehammers along the adjoining walls. Darin’s eyes suggested his mind had gone away, flown the coop, that if she’d slapped him in the face she’d have gotten no response. Sheila stood there in the dark feeling a sensation of utter failure which, to her surprise, wasn’t clearly distinguishable from relief. So what if Laura had to go to public school; it’d toughen her up, and toughness was what counted, as Darin was presently demonstrating, not luck or youth or talent. As the hammer blows fell into a natural counterpoint, Sheila realized that a curious though not unpleasant sensation was pulsing through her body with each concussion of the walls, a sensation that emanated from her pubic mound, which rested directly against Darin’s thigh, and that she could intensify this sensation with a small deft motion of her hips, which she did now with steadily increasing speed, thinking all her problems would be solved if she could just make some goddamn money, which despite it all she still believed she could do, go on a hot streak and close three, four deals in a week, get out from under, gull some rubes, it’s not the price of the house it’s the price of admission, best casino on earth because you can’t lose, oh god oh yes, Darin now looking down at her through the haze of drywall dust filtering in through the slats, come back just in time for the big finish, his mouth a grimace of rage and warning, his nostrils flaring at her foul quickened breath, which only served to push her closer to the edge, and she just hoped that she would be able to keep from crying out when, in a scant few seconds, she came.