Jeff was elbow deep in a sudsy sink, washing dishes, when the thumping came. After the fact, he realized that it was knocking, but the sound was so much larger that that, he didn't realize it at the time.
He quickly walked into the living room, wiping the soap from his hands with a towel, and he could see a silhouette knocking on the door to the deck. Ordinarily the doors would be open overnight to let the house breathe and let out the hot air, but last night there had been a breeze that was too cool to be comfortable and Jeff had locked up before going to bed. Later he wondered if the girl would have just walked right in if the doors had not been closed and locked.
“Help,” he heard a woman's voice call over the pounding.
“What the fuck is going on?” Stuart said, emerging from his bedroom, rubbing his eyes.
Jeff threw the bolt and pulled the door open. A young woman took a step back, apparently startled at the response. Her eyes were staring, haunted for a moment, and then she pushed her way in.
“You have to help me,” she said, screeching, grabbing at Jeff. “I think he's dead!”
“Who?” both men said together.
“Henry! He wasn't breathing, we need to call someone!”
So instead of asking all the questions that were on their minds, and there were lots, Jeff called 911 on the landline and Stuart got the girl some water.
“Just a second,” Jeff said, in response to a question from the emergency operator. “Um...” he looked at the girl, unsure what to call her. “Henry is Henry Thorsen, right?”
She looked up and nodded urgently.
“They're on their way,” Jeff said, hanging up a moment later.
“We have to go and help him,” the girl said, and the men looked at each other. Morbidly, they both wanted to go to the next door house, so they let her lead the way.
“He said...he said he was gonna do it last night,” she stammered, as she led them through the line of trees. “But I didn't believe him.”
“What?” Stuart asked.
“That he was gonna, you know, do it.”
Stuart rolled his eyes at Jeff. She sounded like a sixth grader talking about sex. Jeff changed the subject.
“So how do you know Henry?” he asked, intentionally using the same name for him that she had used.
“Oh, I'm his girlfriend,” she said, without hesitation.
Stuart threw Jeff another glance. Jeff would have guessed young relative, niece or daughter, certainly not lover. But now that he took a second look at her, it made sense. She was wearing a wife beater and boxer shorts, clearly what she slept in. Her hair was wound together in gentle dreads at the back of her head, there were spacers in her ears, and she had henna markings on her hands. She would dig a counter culture icon like him. Although Jeff could not imagine sleeping with anyone that much older than himself, no matter how cool they were.
“Okay,” Jeff said, just to keep her talking. “How long have you been out here?”
“We just got back from a publishing conference. They gave him an award.”
“Oh, yeah,”Stuart said, “I forgot that was this weekend. Chicago Publisher's Convention,” he told Jeff.
“So that was this huge deal, and then we got back here and he was all down and said that even though they gave him an award, no one actually wanted to publish his fucking books anymore.”
Stuart reached forward and grabbed her arm. She was pliable now, talking about Thorsen as if he were a concept instead of a person. Her face was slack and empty of expression.
“And he threated to hurt himself?”
“And he's inside?”
She nodded again.
They were in the yard of the Victorian now, so Stuart led the girl over to the truck, which was unlocked, and put her in it. He left the door open and returned to Jeff.
“You follow all that?”
“Yeah. You really think...” Stuart started nodding, so Jeff didn't bother to finish. “I guess I figured he just had a heart attack or something, you know?” he said instead.
“Yeah, me too. 'Specially with Miss My Legs Up To My Chin, over there.”
“So, now what?”
Stuart grinned, his teeth flashing with a carnivore's glee. “I dunno about you, kid, but there's no way I'm passing this up.”
“But if he really topped himself, this place is gonna be a fucking crime scene in ten minutes!”
“Suicide isn't illegal in Washington State,” Stuart shot back. “I'm never gonna have another chance like this. I've sat in on autopsies before and shit, but it was never real. As far as the cops were concerned, we thought there might be a chance he wasn't dead, okay? It's not like we really got much info out of her, is it? She's hysterical or in shock or something.”
Jeff shook his head. “You're nuts.”
“I'm just making the case for what we both wanna do. Imagine the shit this'll give you for your book!”
That, of course, was what did it. It was what pushed Jeff's reason off the cliff and propelled him to follow Victor Stuart as they entered Thorsen's house.
The door was ajar, and Victor pushed it open with the tip of his shoe. He looked back at Jeff and the two of them entered.
They did a quick circuit of the ground floor, which was set up as a huge square around the giant staircase that divided the house. In one corner was a small bedroom, filled with the remnants of Thorsen's career, awards, posters, trophies, a stuffed lion's head, and a wall covered in rack-mounted guns.
“I could spend a fucking day exploring just this room,” Stuart said quietly, as if he were in church or a library.
Jeff put his hand on Stuart's shoulder. “We don't have time, dude, c'mon!”
The rest of the downstairs held nothing interesting, except that, on some level, it was all interesting. If Thorsen were really dead, then this entire house was practically a museum of his life. What magazines did he read in this living room, what food did he eat in this kitchen, did he shoot the colossal buffalo whose head was mounted over the dining room table?
Jeff found a door in the kitchen that led into a cellar. It was not finished, like his basement, it still had dirt walls and it was filled with swollen, oozing boxes of documents, magazines, manuscripts, catalogs, newspapers. As soon as he saw the contents of the room, Jeff was tugging on Stuart's arm again, anxious that if they were going to see the body, they should do so ASAP.
“Yeah, yeah,” Stuart said, almost to himself, looking over his shoulder as they went back up the basement stairs.
They split up at the top of the stairs to the second floor, Jeff going left, Stuart going right.
Jeff found what seemed to be a guest bedroom, devoid of any particular personality. There was a larger room next to it, which might have been a study 100 years ago, but which was now an entertainment room, with a digital project and small rows of theater seats.
“Found him!” he heard Stuart cry, and he ran out into the hall.