Jeff whirled and saw Stuart was standing in the doorway. He looked like he did most of the time, like he had just rolled out of bed, with greasy cowlicks, days of stubble, wrinkled jeans and a stained t-shirt.
“I woke up and you weren't around,” he said mildly.
Jeff's heart was pumping like a straining locomotive. He felt like it might burst out of his chest. “What? No, I just...uh...”
“What's up with you?” Stuart asked, an amused tone in his voice, tilting his head a little.
Oh, God, he knows, Jeff thought, he knows, this is it. Because of course what had been galloping through the back of his mind the moment he had coupled Mac's mad journal entries with the smell down here and Stuart pulling the gun on him it had all made sense. Mac hadn't quit and run away. Mac had been sacrificed to whatever mad process Stuart followed when he was out here. And now it was Jeff's turn. The lawyers were probably in on it, too, feeding him a young college student or two a summer for whatever sick shit—
“Are you okay?” Stuart said, taking a step toward him, false concern on his face. “You look like you took a shit and found your spleen in the bowl.”
Jeff stumbled out of his chair and it fell over as he retreated to the wall. The solidness of it behind him made him feel better, although his animal instincts realized that he was trapped down here.
“Don't you touch me. Don't fucking come any closer.”
“Hey, man, calm down, what the—“
“What did you do to him?”
Stuart looked as though he couldn't decide whether to laugh or call for help. “Do to...who, kid?”
“Don't fucking call me that! Mac. Tell me what you did!” He couldn't bring himself to actually voice his accusation.
“What's going on? What are you talking about?”
Stuart crossed his arms over his chest, and Jeff was struck again, even now, at how thin the man really was. Victor began to nod, very faintly at first, then larger, keeping his eyes locked on Jeff.
“All right. How did you find out?” he asked, and Jeff's legs almost gave way. Part of him had hoped it would not be true.
Jeff pointed at the desk. “He left his thumb drive. It's got all his writing on it, like, all of it, and he never would have left that behind.”
“No, you're right, even a shitty writer like him would not have left something like that behind.”
“So you tell me what you did to him.”
“Okay.” Stuart did that building nod again. Then he sighed. “Okay,” he said again, then sat down on the bed. Jeff twitched as he moved and Stuart gave him a strange look when he did.
“I don't even know what day it was, but I came down here one morning because he wasn't up yet. It was like two in the afternoon and he was always up long before I was. I didn't pay much attention because I didn't care because we didn't like each other. Tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about coming down just now here because of it.
“So I come down here, and it smells weird, not like it always smells weird but like vomit. And sure enough, I come in here and there he is, sprawled on the bed, puddle on the floor, puddle on the bed, shit all over his face, and he was dead. Pills and vodka.”
“So I called some people and the coroner came and I packed up his shit and sent it to his parents. I guess I missed the drive, you know?”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Well, we can call the lawyers or the poor bastard's parents, I guess.”
The truth was seeping into Jeff slowly. “But then...what about the smell?”
“What about it?” Then realization dawned slowly across the writer's face, like a special effect and he began to laugh, the whinnying pony laugh, up in his nose. He clapped his hand over his mouth to stifle the cries, and Jeff, frightened, pressed harder into the wall.
“Oh...shit! The smell! You thought that...and shit, why wouldn't you? I'm the crazy fucking writer!” He kept laughing, sliding off the bed, onto his knees, laughing until he wept. Then he panted, his eyes wild and his face wet.
“Oh, Jesus, you poor bastard. You really thought you were living with a guy who killed his summer workers? What am I saying, of course you did. A: You're a writer. You probably had this ridiculous back story all cooked up. And B: I pulled a gun on you the moment I met you. There's a creepy smell down here because a raccoon died under the house or something, I swear to you. I'll call an exterminator and we'll have it taken care of if you want, okay, but I didn't kill Mac,” Stuart had a snorting giggling fit again, as he wiped his tears away, “And I certainly didn't bury him under the fucking house, alright?”
Part of Jeff still doubted, but the relief was enough to make his body sag. He righted the chair and sat on it. He wanted to put his head between his knees, but he didn't trust the author again that much. Not yet. He would again later, in the manner of a puppy who doesn't get that some people really can be cruel, but now he was still paranoid.
“The lawyers didn't tell you because I needed someone out here and who would come out here after the last guy fucking died? His parents didn't put out a notice in the papers because they were ashamed of the poor guy. So you didn't hear about it through your school grapevine because no one knows. He didn't leave a note, unless there was one on that drive you found. Was there?”
Jeff thought of the rambling journal file. “No,” he said.
“Just a bunch of shitty writing?” Stuart asked, smiling.
Jeff had to laugh then. “Yeah.” Then the rest of it flowed out of him, the panic, the adrenaline, and he howled in laughter and panic and fear and cried a little, and when Stuart scooted along the bed to pat his knee, he allowed it.
“I'm sorry, kid,” Stuart said. “All this shit must be pretty tough on your ticker, huh?”
Jeff shook his head. “I guess I'm getting used to it,” he said.
“Well get your shit together in your own time and come upstairs when you're ready. We'll go out to lunch, yeah? It's a beautiful day and there's a good Mexican joint on the beach. I have some more chapters that you can read, too.”
Jeff realized that the man was trying to make up for what he had been through, but he was willing to accept it.
“Sure,” he said, “I think I'll take a shower first, but I'll be up in a bit.”
Stuart clapped him on the knee again and then went upstairs.
Jeff sat on his chair for quite some time, processing what had happened, shaking his head, smiling, grimacing, letting out soft chuffs of laughter. “Jesus,” he finally said, exhaling heavily, and then went to clean up.
In the bathroom, he put the shampoo bottle marked MAC in the trash and tied up the bag. He would take it upstairs with him and put it outside in the garbage. The USB drive would go upstairs into an envelope and it would go back to the law firm. With the receipts, Jeff realized, that would make everything very convenient.
As he began to lather in the shower, luxuriating in the hot water, his thoughts remained on Mac. What had driven him to it? What kind of pills had he used and where had he gotten them? What kind of experience must it have been for Stuart to go through? Would he write about it? He probably would. Had he been through something like that before?
The smell of the Irish Spring body wash and Pert Plus (shampoo and conditioner in one!) was strong enough on Jeff's person that he didn't notice the musty, rotting smell in the basement at all when he got dressed. Even though it was what had been behind his murder conspiracy, he didn't notice it at all, anymore, really.