Room for Rent

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James Leary

Allen pilots his snowmobile up the embankment, careful not to lose contact with the ground. The last thing he needs is an accident his health insurance won’t cover. He parks and takes off his helmet. The bag strapped to the passenger seat, where Marie used to sit, comes loose and falls to the ground. Papers flutter in the afternoon breeze. Cursing, Allen chases them.

Lienforte vs. Lienforte. It is no longer a fight. The female Lienforte won. Full custody of Emily, although Allen is “fit to visit at any mutually agreed upon date”. Yes. He has to send a calendar invite to Marie any time he wants to see his own daughter. Who, judging by the way she favored her iPhone to actual conversation with the father, will not be thrilled to see him.

Allen stuffs the papers back into his satchel and marches to the house. It better look like a hotel cleaning crew just got done with it. He opens the front door (always unlocked, business as usual in these parts) and steps in cautiously.

Everything is wrong. The record player, which no sane person would drag up from the basement and put in full view of humanity, is sitting on the coffee table. It probably already stained the hand-woven runner underneath it. The record spins lazily, stuck in a dead end groove.

Flipping the off switch, Allen moves on to the kitchen. Not that he is in for a surprise. The smell tells him everything he needs to know. The kitchen looks the same as when he left. Well, almost the same. A frying pan has joined the dirty dishes club in the sink. Strands of uncooked pasta are scattered all over the counter and pieces of what looks like chicken. Allen pictures salmonella bacteria mounting an attack in case he is ever going to touch the counter again and recoils. Underneath all the usual stench, there’s another foul odor; like decomposing meat, only sweeter.

The house is silent. Allen walks out of the kitchen, using the second door, the one that leads to the narrow hallways and the basement. He jerks back, just short of stepping in the olive oil puddle.

What in the name of God? His eyes follow the flow of the olive oil. It turns from a dark yellowish-green color to an impossibly dark red.

Greg Shaw lies halfway down the basement steps as if thrown there by a furious giant. His left leg protrudes at an angle nature never intended. His head is titled far back and his vacant eyes stare accusingly at Allen.

You didn’t fix the stairs. You didn’t fix the stairs and this is what happened. You killed me.

“Bullshit,” Allen says out loud. “This is all your fault. The steps were just the nail in the coffin. Whatever you did, you did it to yourself!”

He sinks down on the kitchen chair, too hysterical to do anything but sob. He takes a nip from Greg’s bottle of Jose Cuervo. Welcomes the shudder and the wince. What is he supposed to do now? He has to call the cops and tell them the truth. He rented the basement of his house that was never zoned as a live-in basement to a drifter who just happened to take a spill down the stairs when he, the homeowner and illegal landlord, was out tending to his divorce.

What if Greg has relatives? Would they slap him with a wrongful death suit? The steps were dangerous. The fact that Greg was zonked out of his mind on drugs is a separate issue. The first thing he needs to determine is if Greg has relatives. Someone to notify after he calls the cops. A sort of pre-emptive strike.

He walks down the steps, carefully stepping over Greg’s body. He has watched enough crime shows to know he’s not supposed to touch the body but he can’t help closing his eyes. Those vacant, glassy eyes staring at him are too much. He touches his arm and the stiffness tells him he needn’t bother with checking his pulse.

Greg’s wallet lies next to the closed laptop. Whatever Greg was in real life, he was no writer. The calfskin wallet contains two thousand dollars in cash and a driver license. The picture is of Greg Shaw, but the name says Lyle Voss. Resident of Buffalo, NY.

Allen puts the wallet next to the cash and searches the lone cabinet in the room. It’s empty, save for an old cigar box. He puts it on the coffee table. A driver license in the name of Samuel Baldwin, Albany address. A credit card in the same name. Another driver license. James Leary of Herkimer. A platinum visa in Leary’s name. Four different passports, the names matching the ones on the driver licenses.

The documents have one thing in common. They all have Lyle Voss’s picture. If they are forgeries, Allen cannot tell. Not that he’s an expert in these matters. He pulls out Greg’s suitcase from under the bed. It’s been transformed into a mobile pharmacy. Generic, yellow vials of medications, at least a few hundred, fill the suitcase. Instead of the label a legitimate pharmacy would print on them, they have white sticky labels, the name of the drug printed in simple black ink.

Everything from Zoloft to Viagra.

Greg was a drug dealer of the pharmaceutical variety. Allen has read stories in the Utica Sun-Times about criminals stealing pills from Canadian pharmacies and bringing them over the border and selling them at a 500 percent markup which is still cheaper than what American drug companies were charging. He always assumed it was left-wing propaganda aimed at smearing corporate America.

Underneath the pills, he finds almost $50,000 in cash, tightly rubber-banded. Allen is aware that his hand is trembling. He has never held this much money in his life. He is about to close the suitcase, when he notices a long, white envelope mixed in with the vials.

He pulls out a deposit slip from a local bank, made out by James Leary. For $250,000. Allen clears his eyes, stares at the four zeroes. The junkie living in his basement has a quarter million dollars stashed away twenty miles away, at the Bank of Utica.

In a daze, Allen walks up the steps, this time avoiding looking at Greg. Or Lyle. Or whoever he was. He crosses the living room, unaware that he is starting to walk with a limp. The window throws his reflection back at him. He’s the same height as the man lying dead on the stairs. Same color hair, save for the sprinkle of white Allen has on the sides. They are both skinny, Greg frighteningly so, Allen merely lean.

He could get away with it. It would be an interesting challenge, the actor in him cries out. He sits down on the sofa and pulls the phone close to him. He presses 9, then 1.

His eyes fall on the framed photograph on the end table. Allen, Marie and Emily posing in the backyard of their White Plains house. Emily is only four. The sky and their marriage is cloudless.

Do the right thing and lose everything. Take a one-day acting role and collect $250,000. Checking the number on the deposit slip, Allen calls the Bank of Utica. A chipper voice answers.

“Hi. My name is James Leary. I made a rather large deposit into my checking account about a month ago. I need to withdraw all of it as soon as possible.”

“Let me check on that for you. I will need your date of birth, social security number and checking account number.”

Allen feels beads of sweat on his forehead. He reads the date and the social security number off Leary’s license.

“Very good. May I have the checking account number?”

The checking account number is not printed on deposit slip, undoubtedly for security reasons.

“Can I just read you my debit card number? I can never remember numbers beyond four digits.”

“I understand. The debit card will be fine, as long as it’s tied to the account.”

With a voice that quivers with excitement, Allen reads back the numbers printed on Leary’s debit card. An eternal ten seconds pass.

“All right, Mr. Leary. We can certainly set up the withdrawal. However, for an amount this large, the bank manager, Mr. Lippincott will have to sign off on it.”

“No problem. Put him on the line.”

“I’m afraid it has to be done in person.”

Acting challenge? The performance of the century.

“I’ll be in early tomorrow, if that works.”

“Of course. We open at nine.”

Allen hangs up and switches to problem-solving mode. Opportunities like this come along only once. It’s only fair, after the string of bad luck he’s had. God, the Universe, or the Fates have finally thrown him a bone. It would be impolite to throw it back in their face.

Donning an old sweat suit and a frayed apron, Allen gets to work. He takes out the garbage and scrubs the kitchen clean. Before he can move the body, he has to soak up the olive oil. It takes five rolls of paper towels, then generous squirts of bleach. He will have to rip up the carpet on the stairs. It’s the only way to completely get rid of the oil. It’s not the oil he is worried about, but the blood which has inevitably mixed in with it. One molecule is all it takes to extract a DNA sample. He is pretty sure of that.

Using a heavy-duty box cutter, he cuts up the carpet in Greg’s bedroom and uses it to wrap the body. He drags the body outside and lays it next to the fire pit. He wrestles the mattress upstairs and throws it next to the body. He moves the bed frame to the woodshed. Scrubs clean the shelves and every inch of the basement until his fingernails are nearly bleeding.

Before building the bonfire, he takes a nip of Jose Cuervo for strength. Selecting the longest pieces of woods, he builds a tepee over the firepit. It’s a windless day and it doesn’t take long to get it going. He waits until the flames are as high as they will go, then puts the rolled up body in the middle of the fire. Needing a little encouragement, he pours a little gasoline on it, hoping no one will snowmobile by and smell it. The flames double in size and he throws in the mattress, then all of Greg’s clothes. He hesitates in throwing in the pills. He wishes he could make some use of them, but they can potentially be used to trace Greg Shaw to him. The air becomes thick with the smell of burning plastic.

The last item from the Era of Greg Shaw to go in the fire is the record player. Watching it burn gives Allen a special pleasure. Finally, he strips out of his clothes and throws them into the flames. He stands naked, watching the sunset behind the fire. Only his backside is cold. He waits a few seconds, enjoying the sight, then steps into his snow pants and reaches his hand toward the fire to light a cigarette.

All in all, not a bad end. A Viking funeral is preferable to a run-of-the mill burial any day of the week, he chuckles and takes another swig of tequila.

The next morning, Allen is up bright and early. After taking a shower, he digs out an old package of “Just For Men” and combs away the gray hairs on his temple. He parts his hair on the left, and puts on Greg’s horn-rimmed glasses. It’s a weak prescription, so he’ll get by without a headache.

He takes out a sheet of paper and using the Leary license as a sample, practices Greg’s signature. Not much too it, the J and the L have a flair, the rest could have come from anyone. He reaches for his pack of Marlboros, then opts for a Kool instead. It’s the little things that make a performance plausible.

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