The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 3

The clients that Cheryl had to meet were looking at a sprawling ranch house about half a mile up the road from where Nadine lived. The man and woman, Carl and Theresa Dula, had a young daughter who would be starting in the first grade the following year, and they wanted a home close to Hibriten Elementary School. Most days, when Cheryl drove past her old school, she didn’t notice it. But after seeing that dining room table materialize from her past, Cheryl slowed down as she neared the school. This part of Hibriten had been a good place to grow up. For her first eight years of school, Cheryl had walked to school. Never alone. Knox Pritchard always joined her as soon as she crossed the corner of his front yard. For a couple of months in the sixth grade, when he wanted to be her boyfriend, he had come to her back door every morning before school. One morning, he had announced his arrival at her back door by playing reveille. Her mother had put a quick stop to that. As embarrassing as Knox’s trumpet playing usually struck Cheryl, she did recall two or three times, when he was practicing off in the far corner of his back yard, that he had managed to sound pretty. Once when they were in high school, she’d heard him playing an old Nelson Eddy Jeanette McDonald song from an old movie, “Indian Love Call.”

The song had struck a chord of longing that made Cheryl feel restless. Even when she thought about it all these years later. When she first heard Knox playing it, she had thought about wandering over to where she knew he would be, sitting in his lawn chair beside the rusted barbed wire fence. But then she realized that if she went to the trouble to give him a compliment on his music, he’d probably assume that he had charmed her. Maybe if he had been sitting on his front porch practicing his trumpet, she would have spoken to him. But to approach him way back in the trees next to Lucy’s Field made Cheryl uncomfortable. She never understood why Knox spent as much time as he did beside that scraggly stretch of land. It certainly wasn’t an attractive place. In fact, the two or three times that she and a couple of her girlfriends had gone into the field to collect broomstraw for homemade kites, they had actually gotten sort of lost each time. The best way Cheryl could describe the place was unfriendly.

Except for the field, which was easy enough to avoid, even if it meant not having a shortcut to the kids who lived on the other side of the neighborhood, the rest of Cheryl’s memories practically glowed with pleasant associations, as if Thomas Kinkade had designed the interior of her mind. Unlike in some other parts of Hibriten, Cheryl would not have to exaggerate the benefits of buying a home in her old neighborhood. She could freely assure Carl and Theresa Dula that their child would grow up safe, happy, and well-educated in west Hibriten.

When she pulled into the driveway of the Suddreth house, Cheryl saw that the Dulas were already waiting for her. Cheryl had mixed feelings about people who drove late model Volvo station wagons. Either they were in deep debt trying to keep up appearances or they had an understanding of financial affairs that would make them maddeningly circumspect when faced with making a major purchase like a house. While a Volvo driver might follow market trends if they made sense, that same driver resisted acting on impulse. And no matter what kind of logic a client might bring to buying a house, the real estate agent’s most reliable tool was the buyer’s impulsiveness. Cheryl glanced around to see if the Dulas had brought their daughter with them. If she could get the child interested in the house, sometimes the parents, regardless of their own self-control, might fall victim to their child’s impulsiveness. As soon as she determined that the Dulas hadn’t brought their daughter with them, Cheryl felt her confidence slip.

Of course, after her visit to Nadine’s house, Cheryl suspected that lack of confidence was the least of her worries. The table had changed. After being burned up nearly eighteen years ago, Knox Pritchard’s dining room table had returned to the Pritchard home.

Putting on a smile for her clients, Cheryl climbed out of her car, and tried to remember the information that the Dulas had provided about themselves. They’d moved up from Atlanta. Carl was an electronics engineer. Coming to Hibriten to work for the new telecommunications company that had recently settled into one of the old furniture factory buildings. One of Troy’s larger transactions—but not his largest. More interesting to Cheryl was Theresa’s job. She was going to be a fourth grade teacher at Hibriten Elementary School. Now Cheryl’s smile became more genuine. That was why she’d felt better than normal about this tour. Once the leaves fell off the maple trees in the front yard, Theresa would be able to see the school from her front porch. That was the kind of selling point that Cheryl wished came with every pitch.

“I hope you haven’t had to wait long.” Cheryl shook hands with Carl and Theresa. They looked tan and fit. From the way Carl bounced slightly when he walked toward her, Cheryl guessed he was a serious tennis player or maybe a runner. She could also tell from the way his eyes drifted knowingly across the semicircular driveway as he shook her hand, he had already inspected it for cracks in the concrete.

“Just long enough to admire how big the yard is.” Carl looked back at his wife and laughed.

“The back yard is even bigger.” Cheryl reached into the side pocket of her purse for the house key. “The Suddreths had five kids. This place was party central while the kids were growing up.” Before she started up the serpentine walk to the front door, Cheryl waited for Theresa to move up beside Carl. “I was friends with Betsy Suddreth. She was the middle child. We had our pre-prom parties on their back patio. It was made for social events.”

“Both of us will have to do some entertaining.” Theresa paused on the front porch and looked in the direction of the school.

“Once the leaves drop, you really will be able to see Hibriten Elementary.” Cheryl leaned against Theresa and pointed. “I’m not a teacher, but it was a lovely place to be a student.”

“You went to Hibriten?” Theresa turned to look more closely at Cheryl.

“For eight years. Way back then, the junior high was still part of the elementary school.” Cheryl stepped back to the front door but continued to look toward the elementary school. “I’m genuinely sure your daughter will love it there.” Cheryl unlocked the door.

As Theresa entered the house, she smiled at Cheryl who was holding the door open and asked, “Do your children go to Hibriten?”

“My husband and I don’t have children.” Over the years, Cheryl had practiced passing this judgment on herself and Troy. She knew that a woman like Theresa would be embarrassed over calling attention to another woman’s failure. Cheryl could tell that Theresa was the sort whose sympathy was so sincere because she did think not being able to have children was a failure.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Theresa reached out and squeezed Cheryl’s wrist.

Cheryl glanced at Carl. She needed to see if he shared his wife’s deep embarrassment. Guilt and sympathy could be useful tools, provided both clients were susceptible. Above all, Cheryl knew she had to be careful not to appear angry or bitter. Whether she chose to exploit Theresa’s carelessness or to ignore it, she had to maintain a genial dignity. In the best circumstances, Cheryl would lead them to nurture their own guilt and at the same time let them know she forgave them, making them feel even more guilty. However, she couldn’t let their guilt make them so uncomfortable that all they wanted to do was get away from her.

“It’s a problem that has brought me and my husband closer together.” Cheryl patted Theresa’s hand. “We haven’t given up.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t.” Theresa grabbed Cheryl’s hand in both of hers. “From the way you talked about your own childhood, I know you’ll be a wonderful mother.”

“On the bad days, I tell myself that we’re just taking more time to make sure we can give our child the best of everything.” When Carl nodded as sympathetically as Theresa, Cheryl knew she had struck the balance she desired. “In the meantime, you can’t imagine the fulfillment I enjoy each time I help a family into a house that they will turn into a home.”

Because she’d shown the Suddreth house several times, Cheryl had timed this part of her conversation to carry them through the den to the French doors that opened onto the back patio. An electronics engineer like Carl Dula might be skeptical about paving and plumbing, but all practical concerns faded away with the first exposure to a carefully landscaped back yard, especially when it was surrounded by mature weeping willows, glossy rhododendron, and carefully tended rose bushes whose blossoms in the shade of oaks and hickory trees still glittered with dew. After years of observing clients’ physical responses to a house, Cheryl remained silent until Carl’s and Theresa’s breathing became more regular.

Theresa was the first to speak, though still a little breathlessly. “It’s like a painting.”

“Bingo!” Cheryl clapped her hands then swung open the French doors. “If you’ve seen any Thomas Kinkade paintings, you know where Mrs. Suddreth got her inspiration for the landscaping back here.”

“He does the cottages and the nostalgia, doesn’t he?” Carl stepped out on the patio then squatted to inspect the bottom panel of the door, pressing his fingernail into the wood.

“He does lighthouses and nostalgia, too.” Cheryl wondered if she had let Carl escape his guilt too easily.

She had used nostalgia on clients often enough to know she shouldn’t trust it as a state of mind. But standing on the Suddreths’ patio where she had spent many evenings as a teenager with Betsy, talking about boys, melting candles on old wine bottles for their junior-senior prom, A Night in Paris, planning Betsy’s wedding, Cheryl felt her skin flushing with nostalgia. Despite how unsettled the appearance of that table should have made her, and it had for about an hour, what Cheryl now felt was the strongest and clearest sense of connection with herself that she had ever felt. The first twenty years of her life were as idealized as a Kinkade painting. Oh, she knew her childhood had disappointments, but nothing that she remembered. She’d had upset stomachs and skinned knees, but all she remembered about chicken pox and mumps was how well her mother and father had taken care of her. Illness had been a cozy experience when she was growing up. Idealized didn’t mean it was perfect. She needed to check on the status of her old home.

She even recalled Knox’s oddness with tenderness now. At one point in high school, Cheryl had thought about hooking him up with Nadine. Then she’d decided that Nadine wouldn’t appreciate Knox’s goofiness, although he had gotten seriously involved with student government, he still read comic books like he was ten. And when Cheryl thought about how he might want to bring his trumpet along on a date, she was surprised that she’d even considered suggesting that he give Nadine a call. Certainly, Nadine had been smart enough to date any guy in school, but Knox was even less Nadine’s type than he had been Cheryl’s type, and she’d known him since the first grade. He was the first boy she’d kissed, though.

As a rule, Cheryl liked to keep within hearing distance of her clients, but she felt disconnected from the Dulas. “Why don’t you inspect the rest of the house without me looking over your shoulders?” Cheryl sat on the stone wall that enclosed part of the patio and served as a long bench during parties. “I have such fond memories of this house that I’ll probably just distract you.”

“If it means so much to you, I’m surprised you haven’t bought it.” Theresa touched Cheryl’s shoulder as she passed by.

“It would always be Betsy Suddreth’s house no matter how long I lived in it.” Cheryl shook her head. “Besides, my husband and I built our mid-life crisis home down on the lake.”

“That sounds nice.” Theresa noticed that her husband was waiting for her just inside the den.

“It’s nice, but not as pretty as this.” Cheryl motioned toward the back yard. “And not as convenient. I can see you and your daughter on a warm spring morning walking to school together.”

For a moment, Theresa turned away from her husband to stare intently into Cheryl’s eyes. “I thought of that as soon as we pulled into the driveway.”

“It’s something she’ll remember her whole life.” Cheryl returned Theresa’s gaze. Unexpectedly, she felt her eyes filling with moisture. If she didn’t feel so mellow, she would be worried about herself. “If you’ve seen behind the school, they have a wonderful playground. Better equipped than any of the three parks around town. You and your husband can bring your daughter over in the evenings when he gets home from work.”

“Or the two of them can walk over if I’m busy.” Theresa waved at her husband and nodded. “I’d better get back to business.”

“Now he reminds me of my husband.” Cheryl gave Theresa a small push in Carl’s direction.

Actually, Carl reminded her a great deal of Troy. He wasn’t an engineer like Carl, but Troy was practical. As far as Cheryl was concerned, being practical defined maturity. She wasn’t sure when she had started looking for maturity in boys, but the search went back at least as far as when she felt profoundly disappointed in Knox when he brought home his trumpet. Luckily, several years would pass before Cheryl started feeling a serious need to find a boyfriend. In high school, she made a point out of dating only boys who had some kind of job and their own car.

She’d worked at Hibriten Realty for two years before Troy asked her out. She was twenty, and he was twenty-four. Back then, he was the only college graduate working in the office. Then he still represented domestic sales, but old man Cline had already started training him to take over their commercial property accounts. Although Troy had not been the only or even the first real estate agent to realize that the furniture industry in Hibriten was about to crash, he was largely responsible for bringing the telecommunications business to town by making easily converted industrial buildings available at irresistible prices. Troy also calculated that empty furniture factories could be cheaply converted to distribution centers. The Trucking Association of Western North Carolina had given Troy their Friend of the 18-Wheeler Award for increasing freight traffic out of Hibriten even when furniture factories were closing. Thanks to his negotiations with the Home Shopping Network, his major achievement in commercial real estate so far.

Thinking about her past made Cheryl feel better. Certainly, she had no reason to be afraid of a table from eighteen years ago, even if it was a table that contained a love note from a twelve-year-old boy. Her life had been too practical up to this point for her to come unhinged over what might be a cheap magic trick. For all Cheryl knew, one of Nadine’s sons might have found an old picture of the Pritchards’ dining room table and dug up a duplicate. But she had seen the love note. Nadine had seen the love note.

Sitting on the Suddreths’ patio with the bordering willows lazily stirring in a breeze, where she had spent days and nights drinking Cokes and eating buttered popcorn and Moonpies, Cheryl felt her world so comfortably practical that her morning at Nadine’s felt more like an irregularity than a mystery. As much as she treasured this patio where she sat, her and Troy’s patio was nothing less than magnificent. Three times larger than the Suddreths’ patio. Cheryl’s overlooked the lake—what used to be Catawba River. And if she sat facing west, she could follow the Catawba Valley up into the misty foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That was the view she would return to when she went home this evening.

Practicality and hard work had built their house. Cheryl smiled to herself. For two people, the house wasn’t all that practical. Six rooms upstairs—three gigantic bedrooms, all with walk-in closets and get-lost-in bathrooms, the parlor, the gym, the movie theater. Two emperor bedrooms downstairs, the kitchen, the dining room, Troy’s office, her office, a studio or a nursery, and the rotunda—which the people at work referred to as the lobby. When they had started designing the house, Cheryl had tried to object to the rotunda. But Troy told her if she didn’t want a rotunda, she’d have to live with a ballroom. As soon as she saw that her husband was serious about having a rotunda or a ballroom, Cheryl had grown serious.

“Where did this need for a ballroom come from?” she asked.

“When we have a daughter, I want her to have a place where she can be a princess,” Troy replied, sincere but unable to look Cheryl in the eye.

Fighting a slight catch in her throat, Cheryl then asked, “What if we have boys?”

“We’ll make it big enough so they can play Frisbee when the weather’s bad.”

Feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the shady patio, Cheryl wrapped her arms around herself and eased into the den. She didn’t want to think about those trips to the doctors as far away as Baltimore and New York. Being told in the same professional tone that she and Troy were both sterile. In a dream that occurred monthly for almost two years, she found herself asking one of the doctors, a foreigner of unearthly beauty, how a man and woman with a rotunda could be sterile. The doctor pulled a large coffee can from under his desk and poured the contents out between him and Cheryl. It was the biggest pile of Legos that she had ever seen. Without speaking, the doctor constructed a miniature version of Cheryl and Troy’s rotunda. When he finished his model, he leaned toward Cheryl, his arms stretched toward her on either side of the rotunda, his palms facing upward.

“Rotundas do contribute to fertility.” He wiggled his fingers to simulate the motility of healthy sexual chemistry. “However, if you and your husband have put all of yourselves into the Rotunda, you have nothing left over for making children.”

In Cheryl’s experience, her real life had always been better than her dream life. There was something lazy about dreaming. Even nostalgia was better than dreaming because at least a person earned her memories. Each day, you could make a conscious effort to create good memories.

If she could get Carl and Theresa to make a reasonable offer on the Suddreths’ house, that would make a good enough memory to block out Nadine’s magic table. Cheryl stroked one of the panes of glass in the French door. She heard her clients’ voices coming up the hallway toward her. Once they got to the den, they would either wait in the hallway door for her to come to them or they would enter the den and come to where she was standing. Refusing to come into the den would mean that they had no serious interest in buying this house. Coming into the den would mean that they liked the house but thought the price was unreasonable. Cheryl would have to come down to a price that they thought was a bargain. However, a third possibility would emerge depending on how the Dulas responded to the open patio door. One of them walking through the door to have one last look at the back yard would mean that they wanted the house but thought they should get a couple of thousand dollars knocked off the asking price. Both of them taking a final look at the patio meant that they’d take the house if Cheryl agreed to pay the closing costs.

Carl and Theresa waked past Cheryl, smiling, their elbows linked, and told her they wanted to take one more look at the patio.

Although Cheryl had sold more expensive homes over the years, the prospect of selling the Suddreths’ house provided her a much more complex satisfaction than those larger deals had stirred up in her business soul. First of all, a practical triumph definitely brought her back to reality as she preferred it: far from the confusion caused by spectral tables. Second, she had an emotional attachment to the house that felt kinked whenever she drove by and looked at its empty windows. In the eighth grade, she had read a poem entitled “Lonely House.” It started with “I know some lonely houses off the road/A robber’d like the look of.” Third, despite her encounter with the unaccountable earlier in the morning, Cheryl was relieved to see that she could still make contact with her customers, even the fairly well-educated types like Carl and Theresa.

In fact, Cheryl felt so vindicated by finding buyers for the Suddreths’ house, that she decided to share all the events of the morning with Troy. For all she knew, he might have run into the same sort of magic trick when he was selling domestic property. Could Nadine be laying some sort of scheme to get out of her mortgage? Cheryl didn’t like to think a friend would try to cheat her. There was a side to Nadine that Cheryl had chosen to ignore all the years they went to school together. Nadine could be a smartass. That was one reason why Cheryl had briefly considered getting Knox to date Nadine. Sometimes they could act like they had sucked the breast of royalty. Neither one, Cheryl was sure, owned a rotunda.

On her drive back to the real estate office, Cheryl went over Nadine’s behavior. Every gesture seemed sincere. Even a terribly smart person didn’t always have control over her body. On a typical day of meeting the public, Cheryl watched people closely, her scrutiny nosing along the boundary of skepticism. She and Troy shared this suspicious nature. Maybe that’s what made them sterile. Understandably, someone like Nadine couldn’t expect Hibriten Real Estate to let itself be jerked around by a nurse and her truck driver husband. Sure, the mortgage was technically the banks’s problem, but Cheryl had her reputation to protect. If she didn’t, any yahoo could sign a contract, pick up a mortgage, and not think he was really bound to honor the agreement if he should decide he wanted to hop a freight train or an eighteen-wheeler headed for California.

Lord, Cheryl thought to herself, I hope we don’t have to make an example out of Nadine and Grafton. Now, she was certain she needed to discuss with Troy her visit to Nadine’s house—not just for the sake of gossip but to strategize. How suspicious was it really that only Nadine, and Cheryl, had witnessed the old table materialize? Why would a ghost table prefer a female audience? Maybe Nadine had developed a genius for criminal activity over the years. Wasn’t medical training just a felony waiting to happen?

In the few seconds Cheryl took to park her car in front of the office, she had enough time to wonder how she could have felt so pleasantly nostalgic less than fifteen minutes before, only to find herself jumping with such bitter conviction to pretty shocking conclusions. What she needed was perspective. And nobody provided better perspective than her husband. If some odd piece of furniture started appearing in their house, Troy would be the first person to hear about it. Even if they had to screw surveillance cameras to the floor and ceiling around the spot where the furniture arrived, Cheryl would make Troy see what was going on. Something was either sad or suspicious about Nadine being so secretive with her husband. The next time Cheryl paid a visit to Nadine’s, and she was pretty sure there would be a next time, she would take Troy with her. How strongly Nadine objected to Troy’s presence would help clarify for Cheryl the depth of Nadine’s deception.

Up until three years ago, the offices of Hibriten Real Estate were in a yellow Victoria house on the east end of town. Most of the traffic on that side of Hibriten headed toward the next town twenty miles away. With the success of Troy’s furniture factory conversions, he and the other two owners of the business decided to build a set of offices more centrally located and more impressive to anyone driving by their new building. Each agent had a private office with sedate paneling and plush carpet. Most of their decorating ideas they had borrowed from law offices they had seen in movies. Troy had established the sense of proportion for the architect when he announced to his real estate partners: “Cubicles are for car salesman. As specialists in living and work space, we need to provide our clients with visible proof that we know what we’re doing.”

Not sure if Troy had told her he had a meeting during this hour, Cheryl strolled across the marble-floored lobby to ask their receptionist if Troy was with anyone. Standing in front of the receptionist’s desk was a large, dark-haired woman in a red and orange silk dress. Cheryl felt drawn to the woman. She got close enough to hear the woman’s voice, deep and musical. But Cheryl couldn’t make out what she was saying to the receptionist. Of all the property that Cheryl had sold and visited around Hibriten, she couldn’t think of any manmade building that would suit this woman. Marble floors would be too cold, wooden floors too noisy, all ceilings too confining.

“Have we helped you find what you need?” Cheryl eased up beside the woman.

“I’ve been here trying to help you.” The woman stepped away from the desk, smiling at Cheryl.

“Well, I hope you talked to my husband.” Cheryl wondered if she could ask the woman out to lunch. “He needs more help than anybody.”

“He said the same thing about you.” The woman turned toward the door, swaying her head and body as if executing a small but intricate dance step.

“How do you know I’m the one he was talking about?” Cheryl would have tried to stop anyone else in this situation, but despite the woman’s warm smile, she did not make available any part of her body for touching.

While she continued to walk toward the door, the dark-haired woman turned back to look at Cheryl and give her a chest-high wave like the arch of the moon’s passage. “You are the only one I see who looks like the princess of the rotunda.”

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