The limo arrived on time and Jeff, vastly more alert this morning than he had been the day before, was waiting at the curb, his suitcase beside him. Malcolm had given him a hug and a thump on the back around 8:30, leaving Jeff thirty minutes to try not to fantasize too much and to steal Mal's cigarettes.
The morning was clear again, the sky blue, and it was all the more improved with the knowledge that soon Jeff would be at an exclusive property in West Seattle, one with a trail that ran down to a private beach. Most importantly, though, it was the house of the man that Jeff would have killed to meet and who he was now being paid to work for.
Jeff let the limo driver put his bag in the trunk, wondering again about tipping, which then led him to wonder what the guy got paid. When he climbed into the back, the driver closing the door behind him, he saw the box. It was white and the size of a shoebox. He immediately dropped his backpack and picked it up. It jangled when he did so, and he knew that was the keys. Sure enough, when he opened the box, there they were, a small, stubby black leather fob and two keys, one small, one big. The small one was a typical house key, but the bigger one looked crafted out of space age materials and had buttons on it. The Land Rover crest adorned one side. He pulled out an American Express card that had his name on it and reverently put it in his wallet. There were two other credit cards in there to keep it company, but one had long ago been canceled and the other was beyond maxed out. Finally, there was the cell phone, a Nextel. The battery was dead. He put the phone and the charger in his backpack.
The ride, although longer, passed as it had the day before, with Jeff ignoring the view of Seattle from Alki Drive and living in his own head. Jeff's reverie was broken when the limo pulled up behind a car that had stopped in the road so the driver could converse with a pedestrian. The limo driver leaned on the horn, and Jeff saw that his face, which had been studiously neutral, twisted in anger for just a moment. He saw the driver's lips move as he offered a curse beneath his breath.
By that time they were most of the way down Alki Beach, to the small community at the far end of it, a quaint collection of shops and restaurants running down one side of the street, opposite the water. Cyclists, dog walkers and joggers were out in good supply and Jeff wondered why none of them were working at 9 in the morning on a Thursday.
They followed the street to Alki Point, the northern tip of West Seattle, and then turned left into a rabbit warren of small streets, many of which pointed to the ocean, and most of which featured houses situated far back from the road.
Finally, after a last turn, the sea came back into view, causing Jeff to wince at the brightness of the sun's reflection. Then, the driver pulled onto the shoulder and parked.
They were, apparently, at the end of a cul de sac and Jeff could see no house. Nevertheless, the driver was pulling his suitcase out of the trunk. Jeff slung his backpack over one shoulder and got out of the limo before the driver could help him. He hoped that wasn't violating some kind of limo protocol.
“It's just there, sir,” the limo driver said, apparently undisturbed by Jeff's independence. “The driveway's too steep for the limousine.”
“Oh. It's just...”
“Right there sir,” the driver said, pointing.
What Jeff had taken for the end of the road was rather an abrupt elbow. He thanked the driver and walked to the corner, seeing that the road actually turned and dropped steeply at the same time. When he reached the corner he heard the limo pulling away and just as he was going to turn to wave, he caught a glimpse of the house and the long black car was forgotten.
The house flirted in and out of view behind a veil of bright green leaves that would be a thick, brown carpet in four months. A horseshoe of foliage surrounded the house, evergreens on two sides, blackberry brambles on a third.
Jeff began to gently descend the steep driveway, leaning back for stability, letting his bag roll ahead of him. As the driveway curved again, the house began to come into view more clearly. First was the carport at the base of the driveway, which held the Land Rover, a dark navy blue, and the key to that bad boy was in his pocket right now. Next to it was a sleek, silver car. Jeff didn't know cars well, but he could tell it was an American muscle car of an impressive vintage, certainly older than he was. It was a sexy looking car and exactly the kind of toy a rich author would have around. He wondered if Stuart owned other toys, like jet skis.
The house was revealed one step at a time as he descended the driveway, coming into view in layers, like a particularly skilled stripper. When he was finally able to take it all in, from most of the way down the drive, he realized it was smaller than he had anticipated. There was allegedly space for the writer himself, his kids, and Jeff in there somewhere. It didn't look like it, even though there was supposedly a basement.
It was yellow, which struck Jeff as improbable, especially since it was a clean, bright, sunny yellow and not the sickly tone that would shade the title of one of Stuart's books. It was altogether too damn positive looking, from the gables to the gentle slope of the shingled roof.
He left his suitcase beneath the carport and mounted the stairs beside the silver car, which he noted was a Stingray. He knocked lightly on the door. There was no welcome mat, just a single concrete step. There was as window in the door, but the blind was pulled. He tapped on the door again. No answer.
He drew his new keys out of his pocket and resisted the urge to push the lock button on the Land Rover key so it would activate the alarm with a satisfying “beep boop”. Instead, he slid the brass Schlage key into the lock and turned it.
The door opened into a kitchen which was dim and clean smelling. There were no lights on, the only light coming through the blinds, which were the old-fashioned pull-down kind, not venetians.
The kitchen led into a dining room and holy Jesus fuck there he was. Victor Stuart was sitting at the dining room table, his head on one arm, softly snoring.
Stuart's breathing was not regular, but rather a series of snorts and snuffles that made him sound like an unhappy barnyard animal. It was not an ideal way to first see one's hero in person.
Before him on the dining room table, which looked like it was made from a single, massive slab of wood, was a small white laptop, an empty bottle, a plate that had some spare remnants of food on it, and a heavy cut glass tumbler, lying on its side in a small puddle.
Jeff wanted to say something, to introduce himself, more than anything he wanted to touch the man, to reassure himself this was all real, but he did not.
Instead, quietly, he gave himself a tour of the house. The floors, which were stained, gouged hardwood, a floor that had seen a hard life, were largely creak-free, so Jeff was able to sneak about the house with impunity. The house was a bit bigger than he had realized, a split level, dropping further down the hillside. The living room was next to the dining room, both featured a simple, rustic décor, heavy wood furniture, a painting of a deer on one wall and a blanket decorating another. Large folding doors opened off the living room and the dining room, which Jeff realized would create an almost open environment in the center of the house. Off the dining room, behind the sleeping writer, Jeff could see a large porch, which would be the one he was expected to repaint. A portrait of a stern old man hung on the wall between the two rooms.
Just a few steps down, on the next level, was the master bedroom, which appeared to be outfitted for the kids, and a smaller bedroom which was clearly Stuart's. Between them was a large bathroom. The children's room was immaculate, probably still tidy from the end of last summer, and Jeff was not surprised to see that there was a sheet running down the center of the room. The children were entering their teens, after all. Stuart's room itself was a disaster, with empty beer bottles scattered about, clothes on the floor, the bed pulled away from the wall. On some strange level, this made Jeff feel more comfortable. While seeing his idol in repose had been unsettling, seeing the mess of his domain was reassuring. He was just a human, well, maybe not just, but a human nonetheless.
The living room was typical, couch, chairs, entertainment center and a long, low bookshelf. But it was the best bookshelf Jeff had seen in his entire life. Five entire shelves were covered in Stuart volumes: First editions, translations, foreign copies, it was a treasure trove to a fan like him. There were several other shelves, one of religion and occult volumes, one of military fiction, and one of paperback novels, feature names like Grafton, Block, and Rucka.
In one corner of the living room was a half bathroom and the toilet was unflushed. The smell in the air was horrendous and made Jeff's eyes water. He reached out his toe to push the handle on the toilet and then froze as the water rushed out of the tank. What if he had woken Stuart? He would meet his favorite writer after just flushing the great man's goddamn dook!
He slowly brought his foot back and then stood, not moving, listening to determine if he had disrupted the sleeping author. When he heard nothing, he exhaled, realizing he'd been holding his breath in fear. Then, he felt a shift in the air behind him, and he turned.
He was staring straight down the barrel of a handgun that looked as big as a train tunnel. It felt as if he could lean forward and fit his head inside it. The gun was a revolver, he could see the tips of the bullets in the rotating magazine, all of them aiming at him. There was a click as the hammer was pulled back and he watched the magazine turn, and he saw the tip of a bullet vanish into the the barrel.
“I'm going to blow your goddamn head off,” Victor Stuart said, in a calm, flat voice, his face looming behind the giant barrel.