“Enzo,” I said. “Don’t I want to do business with rich folks?”
Enzo grinned around his stogie, evening sunlight throwing chiaroscuro shadows across the canyons of his face.
“Business, sure. But going to a rich man’s house? A big old mansion with a dozen rooms and God knows what else? Never in your life, kid. You know why?”
“Why?” I asked, young and stupid. Enzo took a long pull on his cigar, a modern-day Socrates blessing his Plato.
“It’s simple, Rahul, my boy. Because rich folks are fucking crazy.”
“I can’t thank you enough for coming all the way out here, Mister Bhatt.”
Denise Toussaint smiled down from the threshold. I looked up at her, only halfway up the porch when she’d opened the door. She must have been waiting; I figured she was nervous.
Missus Toussaint was a delicate-looking lady, all porcelain skin and flaxen hair in a dress so plain it had to be expensive. She reminded me a bit of the dress-up dolls my sister had when we were kids, back before they made dolls that looked like us, back when she had to make do with an endless parade of blondes and brunettes.
“Of course, Missus Toussaint.” I smiled as gently as I could, trying to put her at ease. “You have a lovely home,” I added as she ushered me inside.
The Toussaint house was a three-story colonial mansion. It sat on the very edge of the greater metropolitan area, past where the suburbs gave way to wetlands and civilization threw up its hands and turned to greener pastures. It was huge and creepy and old, but I’d just driven two hours to get there, so it was beautiful.
Denise shut the door behind me as I craned my neck to take in the foyer. It had one of those crystal chandeliers that you only see in movies. I counted half a dozen burnt-out bulbs.
“I hope you didn’t have a hard time finding the place, Mister Bhatt,” said Missus Toussaint, sidling up beside me.
“Well, it was either the house or the lake,” I said, “So I figured my chances were solid.” She laughed heartily at that, putting a hand on my arm and squeezing. Maybe she wasn’t as nervous as I’d thought.
Upstairs, something thumped. I jumped, head whipping toward the noise. The second-floor landing was empty.
“Mister Bhatt?” Denise’s voice was honeyed with concern. I turned back to her.
“I think your dog knocked something over up there,” I said. She tilted her head.
“Dog, Mister Bhatt?” she asked. “I don’t have a dog.”
“Your cat, then?”
Denise looked back at me blankly, then smiled wide. “Oh, you mean the house settling? Don’t worry about that, Mister Bhatt. It’s an old place, after all. It’s got a life all its own.” The chandelier tinkled as she spoke, gently swaying like an enormous uvula.
I should have left then. I should have turned around, gotten in my truck, and driven the two hours back into town. I should have run back to Tommy, begged his forgiveness for getting caught up in Raj’s schemes.
I should have done a lot of things.
Instead, I remembered the invoice sheet that Missus Toussaint had signed, the extra zeros she’d added when I’d mentioned that I didn’t do house calls. I remembered the credit check that she’d blown out of the water.
And so, I said, “Of course. So, what’s been giving you trouble?”
As it turned out, there were quite a few things that required my attention. The back door’s lock over-rotated. The bathroom didn’t latch half the time. Her liquor cabinet had gotten stuck shut. It was easy work, any handyman could have done it. I didn’t mind. It was the first paycheck I’d drawn for a while, and I was happy to let the hours pile up at the rate she’d offered. Denise stayed on my heels the entire time, smiling that enigmatic smile and watching me work.
When we hit the second floor, I glanced down the hall. It was pitch black. Like staring down a yawning chasm. And deep in my heart, I could feel something staring back. A shiver slithered up my spine.
In the darkness, something laughed. I jerked back, heart hammering. My heel missed the drop behind me, and I careened into space. The stairs rushed up to claim me.
Denise’s hand flashed out. Immaculately manicured fingers clamped around my wrist like a vice. I stared at the slender woman in shock as she yanked me to my feet without the slightest bit of struggle. She smiled at me. Her teeth were too perfect, too white.
“Honestly, Mister Bhatt,” she said, admonishing me like I was a child. “I wasn’t expecting such a scaredy-cat.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “The house settling?”
She chuckled, stepping up onto the next flight. “Come now, Mister Bhatt. There’s just one more problem left.”
The stairs creaked under my boots. I thought of the money, of the red numbers on my last bank statement. I told myself I believed her.
I ignored the laughter when it came again.
Apparently, Denise’s husband had lost his office key before leaving for a work trip abroad, and she wanted to surprise him with a new one when he got back. The door in question was well-fortified. Her husband had sprung for a model that had been in a few locksmith magazines some years back—spool pins, hardened steel core, anti-drill plates behind the face. It was more than enough to stymie any amateur pickers, but I was no amateur. After a morning of dull handiwork, I was looking forward to the challenge.
Denise hovered over me as I knelt before the door and unzipped my tool bag. I could feel her eyes on my back, but I did my best to ignore her. Proper picking needs proper concentration.
“You don’t usually do house calls,” she said.
I looked askance at her. She smiled down at me like the Cheshire Cat. I nodded.
“So, why did you take this one?”
“The pay’s good,” I said simply, deciding between two thicknesses of tension rod. “Things have been tight for me recently.”
“Because of the money-laundering scandal?” she asked.
I stared silently at a wave rake I knew I wasn’t going to use. I didn’t respond until I knew my voice would be steady. “You do your research,” I said. I settled on a standard pick and got to work, slotting in my tension rod at the bottom of the key well and probing at the pins.
Denise chuckled, musical and sharp.
There’s an old urban legend about frogs and hot water. Have you heard it?
It goes like this: if you try to throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump out immediately. It can tell that it’s in danger and acts to save itself. However, if you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and slowly raise the temperature to a boil, the frog just sits there like an idiot. Like it doesn’t know it’s going to die.
In retrospect, I can empathize with the frog. I think I know how he feels.
It’s not that he doesn’t realize the danger. He sees the pot, the burner, the bastard at the dial. But he also knows they caught him once already.
What other option does he have?
Something thumped again downstairs. I ignored it. I found the tension on pin four, set it above the shear line, kept probing. Just three pins left.
“Honestly, Mister Bhatt,” said Denise. “I was lucky to find you. It’s so hard to find good help these days.”
I squared my shoulders and kept my mouth shut.
The laughter below returned, deep and rumbling. I told myself it was the house settling, no matter how nonsensical that was.
Another thump. This one shook the floor. Denise didn’t seem to notice.
Pin one got stuck in a false set. The counter-rotation ended up knocking the others loose again. I started over. Denise rattled on.
“An old house like this,” she said, “Well, all sorts of things stop working eventually. Last year it was the heater, the year before that, the lights. This is the first time it’s been the locks.”
It was then I finally noticed the smell—or maybe it’s more that I let myself notice it. Something halfway between copper and burnt hair. Denise reeked of it. The whole house did.
Pin one clicked into place. Number two followed like a dream.
“I was worried at first,” Denise crooned, crouching down next to me.
She looked wrong in my periphery. Like the warping at the edges of an old TV, or a Barbie melting on a red-hot stove. “Locksmiths are so in-demand, after all. It’s nearly impossible to find one that won’t be missed.”
I wanted to stop. I knew what was on the other side of that door. But it didn’t matter.
My fingers were moving by themselves.
Denise’s hot breath tickled my cheek, an inch from my ear. The laughter rose to roar between my ears. Her voice cut through it like a knife. “I wish more men were as desperate as you,” she whispered, running a finger down my cheek. “It makes this so much easier.”
The last pin clicked into place.
Like it had been waiting.
Copyright © 2023 Zachary Olson