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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 5

During supper on the patio outside their rotunda, Cheryl had told Troy about her visit to Nadine’s and about the appearance of the Pritchards’ table. Although Cheryl wasn’t fond of eating outside even when an evening breeze kept the mosquitoes and gnats from becoming too annoying, she thought the panorama of the lake and the mountains would keep the day’s odd events in perspective. From the way that Troy divided his attention between her account of the table and his grilled trout, Cheryl knew he was skeptical. Only when he went over the details of the Polynesian woman’s visit to his office did he put down his fork and dig his fingernails into the tablecloth.

“Somehow, that woman has to be putting Nadine and Grafton up to it.” Troy bounced the fingertips of his right hand on the table.

It was a gesture that Cheryl equated with a cat twitching its tail, a mixture of irritation and slight perplexity. “First of all, I’m pretty certain Grafton doesn’t know about the appearing and disappearing tables.”

“That’s what Nadine says.”

“Yes, that’s what Nadine says, but Grafton is the kind of person who would have called you and me both if he thought we had sold him a haunted house.” Cheryl glanced toward the stonework of the rotunda. She and Troy had put a great deal of their time, energy, and money into this house. For a second or two, she wondered if on some level they had put more of themselves than they could afford into their place.

“Did she say anything about . . . Knox? . . . when you were at her house, raising furniture from the dead?” Troy relaxed his shoulders slightly and slid his hand toward his fork.

“Understandably, she asked about the house’s history, but she doesn’t know Knox and didn’t insist . . . “

“Don’t be so sure.” Troy turned his attention back to his trout.

Ordinarily, Cheryl found definite comfort in Troy’s suspicious nature. In the real estate business, she had learned that she could get caught up in her own enthusiasm. She knew she had a gift for presenting properties in the best possible light to potential buyers because she could get excited. Early in her career, Troy had told her that her clients saw her excitement as sincerity. But he had warned her that while she wanted to keep that sincerity shining for her customers, she couldn’t forget the agent’s responsibilities to her agency. Those responsibilities required her to consider the entire sales situation. Which meant telling clients only what they wanted to know. Honesty, Troy clarified, is the best policy as long as you’re not excessively honest. In sales, no agent has the right to be brutally honest.

This sales philosophy carried over into Troy’s social relationships. However, when he found himself being forced to deal with someone else’s excessive honesty, he had a tendency to lose his confidence. For the most part, he succeeded in avoiding having to sort through other people’s divulgences, but Cheryl suspected that her husband must feel trapped between the Polynesian woman’s visit and Nadine’s disappearing table. Still, Cheryl wished he wouldn’t treat her as if she was part of the conspiracy. She’d hoped they had gotten beyond this sort of mistrust after all they’d been through with the fertility doctors.

“And the Polynesian woman didn’t come right out and make you an offer on Nadine and Grafton’s house?” Cheryl had to agree with her husband’s suspicion about someone coming to him about buying a home. All of their advertisements, print and electronic, clearly identified Troy as the commercial properties agent. Even the sign on his office door announced that he was in charge of commercial properties. The receptionist insisted that she told the woman that Troy Moretz was not the man to see regarding residential property.

“No. What she asked was when would it be available, like she already knew something.”

“Nadine didn’t say anything about selling the house this morning.” Cheryl wondered if she had been so distracted by the table that she might have missed her friend’s serious intentions to get rid of the Pritchard house. “But it is theirs to sell.”

Troy leaned over his plate and picked at his trout. Then he rested his jaw on the palm of his hand and studied Cheryl’s face. “Of course it is. So why go to all this trouble to drag us back into their affairs?”

“But I can’t believe the table was just a magic trick.” Cheryl picked up the remote intercom, not really intending to call their cook/housekeeper from the kitchen but more to let Troy know that she was too agitated to sit at the table any longer. “It was authentic in every way.” She had decided not to mention the love note scratched under the top. If Troy was determined to doubt the materialization of a large piece of furniture, he would most likely find the love note more of a distraction than a piece of further evidence.

“But you’re also sure the table burned when the Pritchard house caught on fire.” Troy pushed his plate to the side.

Clearly aware that Troy wasn’t asking a question but pointing out the obvious problem with her story, Cheryl wondered if she had been so disappointed by her infertility that she was beginning to hallucinate. For a while, she had felt bitter. And she knew that Troy had felt the same way. Perhaps if only one of them had been sterile, the other might have felt some sympathy. But when both of them failed, all they had room for at first was disappointment. On good days, they could share affection, show fondness and desire, but they had gotten married fully intending to have a family—once they’d prepared for every contingency. Except for not being able to have children.

Leaning back in her chair, Cheryl decided she was too tired to argue with Troy or worry about Nadine’s table. If Nadine asked her to list her house with Blue Ridge Real Estate, she would tell her that she was too disturbed by the table trick to represent such a property. That way, if the table really was some sort of supernatural apparition then Nadine should understand. On the other hand, if Nadine was trying to pull some sort of hoax, then she would assume that Cheryl had figured out the scam.

“What do you have planned for the evening?” Cheryl realized that Troy hadn’t said anything about what business he had to attend to after supper. She had checked her calendar three different times during the day to make sure that she had nothing scheduled. If Troy had to go back to the office or drop by someone else’s office, she could work on a bottle of wine and her nails.

Troy pulled his Palm Pilot out of his jacket and studied the screen, his brow beginning to pulse. “I had a zoning board meeting tonight, but it got cancelled. I got the message just before that Polynesian woman dropped in. A blank space in my calendar. An evening at home.”

“Want to take the boat out?” Cheryl didn’t care for late evening boat rides, but by the time they strolled down to the dock and got the boat ready, it would probably be close to eight o’clock. They could ride around for an hour, a little longer if the sunset on the lake made them feel romantic. By the time they got the boat secured and strolled back home, it could be ten-thirty. A hot shower. Two or three glasses of wine would just about slide her into bed, unconscious by midnight.

Before Cheryl could fully convince herself about wanting to go for a boat ride, her cell phone rang. As soon as she saw that the call was from Nadine, she turned on the speaker phone. Although Cheryl had sensed the stress in Nadine’s voice during her earlier visit, she didn’t expect the pure alarm throbbing into the evening air as soon as Nadine began speaking.

“Well, Cheryl, I don’t have to worry about how to tell Grafton about that dining room table. It decided to change while all of us were eating supper.”

“How’d he react?” Cheryl could hear male voices in the background on Nadine’s end.

“They thought it was funny at first, but then our plates started changing into somebody else’s and then our meatloaf turned into pork chops and my boys’ Gatorade turned into iced tea.”

“You didn’t let them eat any of the ghost food, did you?” Cheryl tried to see how Troy was responding to the call.

“As soon as it hit them that the food was changing, they about knocked each other down getting away from the table.” Nadine laughed, but without merriment.

More shouting covered Nadine’s voice. Cheryl couldn’t make out their words, but the urgency was clear in all three of the male voices. Several seconds passed with only the muffled shouts coming across the line. Even as Cheryl shouted back at Nadine, she could tell that too much was going on at Nadine’s house for any transmitted shout to be heard over her husband and sons.

Finally, after several thumps that caused the crickets around Cheryl and Troy’s patio to go silent, Nadine came back on the phone. “It’s happening all over the house now . . .”

“What’s happening, Nadine?” Cheryl leaned closer to the phone even though Nadine’s voice echoed off the side of their rotunda. Troy scooted his chair next to Cheryl’s.

All our furniture is changing! In every room!” Nadine’s voice lost intensity as she apparently turned her head away from her phone to shout at one of her sons. “Just pack like you’re going to Grandma’s!”

“Are you leaving?” Cheryl dropped down on her forearms to shout into her phone.

“Soon as we can get some clothes loaded in the truck . . .”

For a moment, Cheryl thought Nadine had shut off her phone. “Nadine! Don’t hang up yet!”

Leaning over so he could speak directly into Cheryl’s ear, Troy said, “Ask her if we can come over and see.”

Slightly startled, Cheryl frowned at Troy. “You can hear how they’re stampeding around at her house.”

Troy nodded once and tapped Cheryl’s phone. “But she called you.”

“Just about her table—what’s happening now is something new. And this is the first time her family has seen the change.” Cheryl could see in Troy’s face that he wanted to take advantage of Nadine’s crisis. If it was a crisis. “You want to go see?”

“Whatever there is to see.” Troy pushed his chair from the table and stood up. He motioned toward Cheryl’s phone. “Tell her we can be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Nadine!” Cheryl picked up her phone but left it on speaker. “Nadine, we want to come over!”

“Sorry, Cheryl, what did you say?” Nadine sounded as if she had been running. “I had to come up to the boys’ rooms. All the furniture up here has changed.” Two boys’ voices obscured what Cheryl said next.

“Nadine, we want to come over and see!” Cheryl noticed Troy turning toward their house. “Stay here!” she slapped the arm of his chair.

“I’m going to get my car keys.” Troy continued talking to Cheryl, moving backwards. “We’re going to drop in on them even if they don’t invite us.” He tapped his temple with his thumb. “Especially if they don’t invite us.”

A few seconds passed before Nadine responded and she still didn’t sound as if she meant to talk to Cheryl. “I know those aren’t your jeans, Stewart. Not any of those shirts. I’ve never seen that underwear either.” Once again, Nadine’s voice tumbled beyond Cheryl’s understanding then abruptly thundered into her ear. “I’m sorry Cheryl, but our clothes have changed! Nothing is ours!”

“Troy and I are on our way, Nadine. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes!” Cheryl smacked her phone shut and ran to the house. She suspected that as chaotic as it sounded over the phone, Nadine and her family wouldn’t be able to get themselves out of the house before she and Troy could get over there.

Used as she was to Troy’s speeding, tonight Cheryl braced herself deeply into the leather seat of her husband’s Mercedes and gripped the armrest with both hands. Hibriten had a long history of automobile tragedies, but as far back as Cheryl could remember, the most famous wrecks always involved Fords and Chevrolets—not Mercedes. Despite her discomfort, Cheryl was glad that Troy appeared to be taking Nadine’s call so seriously.

“Try to get us there in one piece.” Cheryl kept her eyes on the road buzzing underneath them. The worst wrecks, especially the ones she remembered from her childhood and teenage years always happened in the summer. It was as if the warm weather made people more vulnerable to accidents. “I bet they’ll wait for us.”

“Did she say they’d wait?” Troy speeded up slightly. He shifted his gaze briefly to Cheryl then turned his attention back to the road.

“No. I’m not even sure if she heard me tell her we were coming.”

“We should work on the assumption that she knows more than she’s letting on.” Troy relaxed his grip on the steering wheel and slid his hands further apart until his thumbs rested on the cross brace.

“I’m more inclined to work on the assumption that she was about to lose her mind.” Cheryl let go of the armrest and wiped her palms on her thighs.

When Troy pulled into Nadine’s driveway, the sun had just sunk behind Lucy’s Field. Although the sky still glowed, every light in Nadine’s house was turned on. Parked in the middle of the driveway at the side of the house in front of the garage was Grafton’s Mack, the truck without the trailer, but as Troy pulled up next to the truck, Cheryl saw that Nadine’s two boys were tossing duffle bags into the sleeping compartment. Even in the twilight, Cheryl could tell that both boys were jocks, already muscular and sturdy, but she could also clearly see that both boys were in a hurry to get away from the house.

The older boy, who looked about twelve, gave a perceptible jump when Troy put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and asked, “Is there something strange in your neighborhood?”

Cheryl hurried to where her husband and the boy stood. She knew that Troy was trying to surprise the truth out of Nadine’s son. She wondered if he felt some resentment toward this boy. Resentment definitely buzzed between Troy and Nadine’s son despite how strongly Cheryl wished she couldn’t sense it. What really concerned her was that Troy might let his resentment distort his whole attitude toward Nadine and her family.

“We’re friends of your mother and father.” Cheryl lifted Troy’s hand off the boy’s shoulder. “I’m Cheryl Moretz and this is my husband Troy. We wanted to come over and see if we can help.”

The younger boy came from the other side of the truck and leaned against the fender. “Unless you’re Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, I don’t think you can do much to help.”

The older boy moved next to his brother. “About all you can do is move your car over to the side of the driveway so we can haul ass to my Grandma’s.”

Troy nodded. As he returned to his car, he flicked his arm toward the house. “While I’m moving the car, Cheryl, why don’t you get the boys to take you to their parents inside?”

Cheryl glanced at the brothers. Without a word, they trotted through the garage door then paused to give her a chance to join them. No doubt, Troy planned to inspect the truck more closely as soon as the boys disappeared into the house. He’d also have a chance to check the outside of the house, though Cheryl didn’t know what he thought he’d find. She was certain he’d be much more entertained by what they were going to witness inside the house.

From the basement garage, the two brothers led Cheryl up wooden steps and opened the door at the top upon a short hallway that Cheryl recognized as the one leading from the dining room into the two back rooms of the house, a den and the master bedroom. At first, Cheryl was slightly disappointed because she had expected a scene out of a Mad Max movie or from one of those old British vampire movies with fog drifting over moss-covered ruins. Instead, the house seemed to be as orderly as it had been earlier in the day. Nadine and Grafton stood in the corner of the dining room next to the swinging door that led into the kitchen. No supernatural vapors leaked up from the floor. No mysterious stains glistened on the walls. Everything looked perfectly normal. Even the heart of pine table that had seemed so out of place this morning looked right at home now.

Once again, Cheryl glanced back at Nadine and Grafton, this time raising her eyebrows and almost hunching her shoulders. But the look of disbelief that swept across Nadine’s face compelled Cheryl to survey the room once more. Absolutely normal. Absolutely familiar. She’d come through that door from the living room into the dining room more times that she could count . . . but then she realized what was wrong. That was the door, the rectangular door she’d come through for all those years—first grade through twelfth. However, this morning, that door had been different. Nadine and Grafton had redone the doors, the living room door and the kitchen door. To make them look more Spanish, they’d made them into arched doorways. To create a more spacious effect between the two rooms, the doors had been arched and widened.

The floors had been tiled. Now they were back to the old hardwood that had burned up in the fire. Cheryl crossed the dining room and looked into the living room. There was the red velvet love seat that Knox had tried to get her to sit on with him when he had his crush on her. He’d tried to convince her that it was the worst kind of luck to sit on a love seat with someone and not kiss him. Cheryl had told him to call his mother into the living room and confirm his statement. She claimed if Mrs. Pritchard agreed with what he said, then he’d get his kiss. In the unlikely event that Knox was telling the truth, Cheryl planned on getting Knox’s mother to kiss him. Next to the love seat stood a four shelf bookcase. Displayed on the shelves was Mrs. Pritchard’s salt and pepper collection. Across from the love seat stood two Queen Anne chairs. Between them was a coffee table supporting a lamp that Mrs. Pritchard had ordered from Nashville. When she was growing up, Cheryl had known several families who had the same kind of lamp, but she hadn’t seen one for over twenty years. The base was a slickly glazed ceramic black panther about two feet long. The shade was square but shaped like a pyramid out of red slats like venetian blinds. This certainly wasn’t the furniture that Nadine owned earlier in the day.

Turning back to face Nadine and Grafton, Cheryl had to steady herself, resting one hand on the door frame. “Is every room like this?”

“Yes and no.” At first, Nadine didn’t look at Cheryl. She kept staring at the dining room table. Then she threw a quick glance at Cheryl but immediately returned her attention to the table. “It flickers back and forth.”

Cheryl stepped next to the table so she’d at least be in the vicinity of where Nadine wanted to keep her focus. “Flickers?”

Taking a few steps into the middle of the room so he stood between Nadine and Cheryl, Grafton pointed toward the door into the living room. “If you watch long enough, our furniture and improvements come back for a split second or two. But you got to watch. Not blink at all.”

“What about all our stuff?” The older boy already sounded like he’d taken too long a trip.

“Is any of your stuff left?” Grafton rested a hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Not that I could see.”

The younger brother slipped beside his father. “He was afraid to look in the closet.”

“The light switch was gone!” The older boy glared at his brother then grabbed his father’s arm.

“Do you want me to go help you look?” Grafton guided both brothers toward the kitchen where, Cheryl knew, the door leading upstairs was located.

Crossing the room to where Nadine still stood beside the kitchen door, Cheryl kept glancing over her shoulder at the door into the living room. “Has it flickered any since I got here?”

“Not that I’ve seen.” Nadine wiped her hand across her eyes. “When it first started, we thought one of the boys had sneaked a strobe light down into the den, but when they freaked out worse than me and Grafton, I figured it was time to tell the family about how the house has behaved when they were gone.”

“Were they at all skeptical?” Cheryl heard Troy coming up the stairs. She saw that Nadine seemed mildly alarmed by what had to sound like a stranger coming up the stairs. The basement entrance must have been used primarily by family. “That’s probably my husband.”

Troy was knocking on the basement door.

After a pause while Nadine studied Cheryl’s face and sifted through the idea that Cheryl had brought her husband, she called toward the door, “Come on in.”

Slightly worried that Troy might air his suspicions too obviously, Cheryl pulled him rather roughly next to Nadine. “This is my husband, Troy.” She squeezed his arm until Troy slid his fingers between hers and pried them from his arm. “Troy, you’ve heard me talk about Nadine.”

“I met your boys outside when we first got here.” Troy nodded in Nadine’s direction. “I gathered from your sons that your husband is home too.”

“He went upstairs.” Nadine jabbed her finger between Troy and Cheryl. “Look, the table is changing back!”

By the time Troy threw a surprised glance at Cheryl then turned in the direction Nadine pointed, the table had returned to its rectangular shape and tile top. From the way Troy pretended to study the table then turn back to appraise Nadine, Cheryl knew he hadn’t seen the change that Nadine was talking about. Unless he was able to witness the house returning to its normal décor, he wouldn’t understand how powerfully unsettling the wrong furniture, floors, and doors could be. All he’d see was Nadine and her family acting suspiciously, like they were up to something.

“What’d you ask me just before your husband knocked on the door?” Now that her own dining room table was back, Nadine regained enough confidence to pull out a chair and sit down. She waved Cheryl and Troy to take a seat.

“Did your husband and sons have any trouble believing what you told them?” Cheryl kept her eyes on Nadine. She was afraid if she looked at Troy, he’d assume that she wanted him to join in the questioning. Most likely, to him, this house looked like any other residential property that needed some renovation.

“When the floor is shifting from tile to wood right under your feet, and your Sony 42-inch flat screen scrunches up into a 24-inch Magnavox floor console with a record player/radio included, Mama’s announcement about the dining room table being the twenty-five-year-old property of the previous home owners doesn’t come as a great surprise.” Nadine folded her arms on the table and dropped her head.

“While the changing was going on, did you feel any sensations—like vibrations or pulses . . . ?” Troy tipped his head back slightly and sniffed. He eyed a pork chop on the table as it trembled into a serving of meatloaf.

“No, we were just sitting in the den, watching television. I stood up to go make some popcorn. That’s when the television just kind of unfolded itself then stretched out like a ribbon with the picture still moving. Then it pulled back in and crisscrossed on itself and compressed to the Magnavox.” Nadine brought her gaze up to Troy’s face. She jumped up and as she rushed to the den, she called to Troy and Cheryl, “Let’s see if the furniture in the den has started changing back.”

Although the floor in the den was still wood instead of tile, the Sony had returned, and all the furniture looked contemporary. Nadine stood in the middle of the room, slowly rotating, her hands pressed against her cheeks. “All of it’s returned.” Then she glanced down at the floor. “Except my tile.” She picked up the remote and turned on the television. A group of desperate people rode a dilapidated boat down the Amazon. “That’s the movie we were watching.” Crossing to the far wall of the den, Nadine swung open a closet door and pulled out a woman’s London Fog overcoat. “This is mine. A few minutes ago, a clear plastic raincoat was here instead of my overcoat.”

“So if everything’s back to normal—except for the return of your tile--do you think you and Grafton’ll change your minds about escaping from the paranormal activity tonight?” Troy leaned against the end of a brown plaid couch and pretended to be interested in the television program, a giant snake attacking the desperate travelers on the boat. But when the flat screen sagged all the way down to the floor and grew short legs as a console television began to take shape, Troy gave a small jump.

“My vote will be to get out while we can still claim we’re packing our own belongings.” Nadine glanced around the room cautiously then scuffed her foot across the wood floor. “As long as our tile doesn’t come back, I couldn’t trust this place.” She let her eyes stray to the television. “Did you ever see Poltergeist? I’d be too afraid the boys would get sucked into the great beyond.”

“Can we help you haul what you’re taking with you?” Cheryl wondered why Nadine didn’t turn off the television. “Troy’s Mercedes has a big trunk.”

“No. We’ve got Grafton’s truck, and I’ll drive his pickup once we get it loaded.”

From behind Nadine, Grafton squeezed into the den, pushing his sons with his palms curved across the backs of their heads. “You need to hear what these two boys told me upstairs.” He gave them a final shove that propelled them halfway into the room between him and his wife and Cheryl and Troy. “Tell your mama what you confessed upstairs.”

The older boy took a couple of steps away from his brother, gazed at Cheryl then Troy for a few seconds, and turned toward his mother. “You know how we found them plans for building a rabbit trap. So we nailed together the box . . .”

“With a door at one end,” the younger boy added. “And we had to drill a hole, a pretty big hole, at the other end, through the top for the bait stick to fit down inside the trap . . .”

“Just tell everybody about what you did after you built the rabbit trap.” Grafton patted the air in front of him.

“We thought before we took it off into the woods, we’d give it a test run in the field over there next to the back corner of our yard . . .”

“Lucy’s Field?” The question came out before Cheryl knew she was going to ask it. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, she saw Nadine turn pale.

“Yeah, like the crippled woman that lives over on the other side of the field,” replied the older boy.

“Forget about that until you finish your story.” Grafton crossed his arms over his chest and nodded at his sons.

“Well, we don’t like trying to climb over that old barbed wire fence because it’s rusty and slippery and that pervert got his balls cut off by the fence . . .”

“What?” Troy twisted the top half of his body as he cocked his ear toward the older boy.

“I remember hearing something about that,” Cheryl touched her forehead with her fingertips. “But how long ago? It’s been quite a while.”

“Three years.” Nadine rested her hand on Grafton’s shoulder.

“Did he really get trimmed like that?” Troy glanced at the two boys as if he thought they might have played a role in the accident.

“From what I heard—and there was a lot to hear because they brought him to Hibriten Memorial where I was working—he was straddling over the top strand when he slipped, and he just happened to be positioned right over a barb, so when he dropped down, that barb sliced right through the seam of his scrotum neat as a $10,000 incision. His momentum was strong enough to eject both his gonads . . .”

“And they never found them,” the younger boy announced with a theatrical resonance that suggested he had practiced the phrase often.

“So when we decided to test our rabbit trap in the field, we took some wire cutters because we didn’t want to climb the fence, and you can’t slip between the strands because of the weeds and briars.”

“Didn’t you worry about getting into trouble cutting somebody’s fence?” Troy stroked his chin.

“It’s way back in the corner where we cut it,” replied the younger boy.

“But it didn’t make any difference that we did cut it,” added his brother.

“I don’t know, boys.” Troy smiled in Nadine and Grafton’s direction then turned his attention back to their sons. “A cut fence is a cut fence even if it is old and rusty. Somebody has to go out and fix it.”

“But it did get fixed!” The older boy flapped his arms and glared at Troy. “We cut the top strand, jumped over, and set up our rabbit trap about twenty yards from the fence so we could check it without having to jump over the fence.”

During the boy’s account, Cheryl had been watching Nadine. Her friend seemed to wilt with each detail her son provided. However, Nadine’s reaction appeared to be fed from a deeper disturbance than the one her son described. Cheryl wondered if part of Nadine’s mind was stuck back on the man who got mutilated by the fence. The younger boy had called him a pervert. Usually around Hibriten, that sort of accusation implied child molester. Cheryl knew that Nadine must have asked herself what such a man was doing on a fence so close to her property, her two children.

“Go on to the end,” Grafton urged.

“It probably took us three or four minutes to set up the trap. You know you have to put the trap down on the ground then get on your stomach so you can slide the carrot back there where it’ll be behind the bait stick after you stick it down in the hole you bored in the top of the box . . .”

“Get on to where you go back to the fence,” Grafton grew agitated. He dropped his chin to his chest then flipped his head back as if he were butting his son’s delay.

“When we got back to the fence, it wasn’t cut no more . . .”

The younger brother made the same butting motion as his father and bumped his fists together in front of him. “Like it healed itself!”

“How’d you get out?” Cheryl took a step toward the boys. For a moment, she thought about looking at Nadine, but she decided she didn’t want to see the expression on her friend’s face.

“Shoot, we cut it again . . .” began the older boy.

“And jumped about twice as high.” The younger boy arched his arm over his head.

“When we went back the next day, that blamed fence had fixed itself again.”

“You couldn’t tell a bit where we had cut it.”

“It didn’t have a scratch on it, not anywhere on the rust.”

For a second or two, nobody spoke. Then Troy strolled over beside Cheryl. “Did you catch anything in your rabbit trap?”

“Nope.” The older boy exchanged a long look with his brother. “It was gone.”

“Just like that pervert’s balls,” the younger boy added.

The older boy approached his mother. “Do you think when we cut that fence we started the house going all spastic?”

Nadine curled her arm around her son’s shoulders. “No, Honey, I think something else started this craziness.” Nadine glanced down at the floor, still wood, and lifted her eyes to Cheryl. “When you were here this morning, didn’t I tell you I was doing work with Hospice now?”

“Yes, I remember you said something about that.” Cheryl had suspected that all the time she had been with Nadine this evening, her friend was pulling together pieces of information.

“Lots of times, I have to go out to people’s houses in the middle of the night or in the middle of the afternoon before the boys get home from school. And with Grafton being on the road as much as he is, the boys are here by themselves at all kinds of odd hours.”

For a moment, Cheryl had to piece together Nadine’s direction of thought because her friend had stopped talking to watch the television pull itself back up from the floor and coalesce into its flat screen form. “My lord, and they might have been here by themselves when that awful man tried to climb over the fence into your back yard . . .”

“And you can imagine how I feel about myself when I think the boys could have been home alone when the house started going through these changes.” Nadine put her hand to her throat as if it hurt to swallow.

On the other side of the field, Cheryl realized was another potential victim—Lucy Loomis. And her parents, as old as they probably were, had to be vulnerable as children themselves. Like everyone else in this corner of Hibriten, Cheryl knew about Lucy Loomis, but she had never actually seen her. The only person who had actually seen Lucy, as far as Cheryl could remember, was Knox. They had gone into the Loomis house back when she and Knox were members of the Children’s Choir. Knox had walked right up to Lucy’s iron lung and spoken to her. He hadn’t spoken about what he had seen, and none of the other kids in the choir wanted to talk about it either.

Cheryl was depressed to realize how completely she had forgotten about her neighbors after moving to Cedar Run. Of course, she had never been friends with the Loomis family, but part of Lucy’s Field did adjoin the back section of her childhood home, a plot of land that her father used to grow sugar cane.

“Just the three of them in that old house.” Nadine rested her hands on her younger son’s shoulders. “Not too long after that man got rectified by their barbed wire fence, the Swansons—the people who’d bought your old house next door—moved out. The Blair woman who’s the Swansons’ real estate agent told me that she couldn’t get anybody interested in the place. I just wonder if your old home might be haunted too.” Nadine pulled her son tighter against her. “I didn’t think much about what she’d said until we started getting these visitations.”

Cheryl exchanged a long glance with Troy. “I guess you’re talking about Patricia Blair.”

Nadine pulled herself to the edge of her couch, dropping a glance at Troy but then looking directly at Cheryl. “I thought you’d be interested in knowing. Even with the housing market being like it is, Mrs. Blair said she didn’t know what to do. As cute as the place is and as well as the Swansons kept the place up, it should have sold long before now.”

“You mean right next door?” Cheryl felt her jaw drop.

“Then I take it you didn’t know that the Swansons moved out ?”

“I stopped representing that property a long time ago.” Cheryl stood up and paced toward the door. She noticed mild alarm in the two boys’ faces as they watched the hardwood floor disappear under a wave of terracotta tiles.

Before she could explain to Nadine why she had to stop being responsible for selling her childhood home, Troy’s phone rang.

For a few seconds, Troy listened to the caller. Cheryl knew something was wrong because all the expression hardened out of her husband’s face. His mouth shrank into a gray line and his eyes went dull. When he shut his phone, Cheryl saw that his hand trembled enough for him to keep it buried in his pocket.

“That was our neighbor Nancy Muir.” Troy took Cheryl’s arm and pulled her toward the door. “She said our house is burning down.”

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