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"I don't like it at all," said Trish. "Your father he warned us there might be something wrong with the house and obviously whatever made the Heslops drop the price so low is behind that wall and we really should have known before we bought the place and they shouldn't have closed it off just to forget about the problem, which is probably a leaky pipe, a pipe that has been leaking ever since..."
Alan raised his hand and extended his first finger to quiet her. "I'll be back," he said.
Trish called after him as he descended the stairs: "Alan, where are you going?"
He didn't respond but she could hear him clunking down the stairs to the basement and then after another minute he returned. In his right hand was a sledgehammer, the kind with the thick red metal grip. He wielded it like Mjolnir.
"Now, are you sure you want to make a mess?" asked Henry.
"Jesus, Alan," said Sara.
But Alan had known them all long enough to understand a few things. Firstly, if he didn't do this, if he didn't find out what was in there and why it should never be opened, it would be all they talked about for the rest of the night. The conversation would never end. It would be another one of Sara's pointless and banal debates. Also he knew his wife. Eventually her curiosity would get the better of her. She would convince herself that something, some leak or fire hazard or mold, was slowly destroying the house from inside that little room beyond and they would have to do this anyway.
"Excuse me, Henry," he said. And the facile mortgage broker backed away as he brought the hammer around in an arc, like a little league slugger chasing a ball that was too low.
Linda Collier, insurance agent for Hilow Realty, pulled the pictures up on her computer. Two story Tudor. Original windows. Nice back yard. Plus, it was right smack in the middle of Merriman Hills, probably the best place to raise a family within Akron city limits. She could sell this house. Great Recession be damned. One by one she uploaded the photographs she'd taken on her digital camera to HilowRealty.com.
It was another one of Randy Richter's flips. Half her homes were Richter properties. Ten years ago Richter had been a history teacher at John Kennedy High School in Franklin Mills. Now he snatched up cheap homes he could rehab quickly and turn for profit. This was his best find so far. Richter said he'd picked the Tudor up at auction for $68,000. He was probably exaggerating a bit. Linda figured she could sell this house for around $145,000, as long as he wasn't in a hurry. He hadn't even put that much sweat equity into fixing it up for sale. Just patched a hole in one of the bedrooms.
Then again, the story about the previous homeowners was a bit... well, it was strange. And it didn't take much to scare aware prospective buyers, Linda had learned. She once had to sell a home in Kenmore where a murder/suicide had gone down. Guy shot up his ex and then put the Colt 45 to his temple. Lots of work, there. The history of the house slashed the price by fifty percent. This one, though. It wasn't that bad. Not much of a story actually. So the previous homeowners, the Murphys, had disappeared. So what? Walking away wasn't a crime. People did all sorts of crazy things in this economy. Still, it was just creepy enough to frighten off some of the more superstitious clients.
The neighborhood made up for its odd history. Merriman Hills was nestled into a crook of the Ohio Valley foothills and commanded a stunning view of the Cuyahoga River in the Fall, after the leaves turned. Richter claimed the area was once the center of civilization for the Shawnee Indians who believed the valley was a "thin" spot between this world and the next, a good place to communicate with God. She had asked him not to broadcast that bit of trivia.
As she reviewed the pictures one more time before publishing the listing, Linda paused at one in particular. This photograph showed the house from the street, head-on. Strange. She hadn't noticed the window above the front door before. Obviously, it must be there but, in her mind, she could only recall smooth siding there.
A second later, she saw the faces.
A red flush came over her. She looked around the office. General Hilow was sitting back there in his office, watching a rerun of the Hills. Other than that, she was alone.
She had gone all through the house, using the key in the combination catch Richter had left hooked to the doorknob. Every room, just to make sure it was ready to sell. Of course, there'd been nobody in there. Linda used the mouse to zoom in a bit.
Five faces were scrunched around the oblong window, looking out. Two men. Two women. And a young girl in a red jumper.
Some weird camera glitch, she told herself. Some digital bleed-through from some long-deleted photograph.
Quickly, Linda used the paint tool to smooth the siding pixels over the window. In a moment, it was gone, along with the pale faces behind the glass, the pale faces that seemed to be calling out to her as if they had watched her standing in the yard taking the pictures.
Once it was gone, she found it easier to believe it had been a hiccup in the digital code, some random transposition of old frames. Without allowing herself time to hesitate, Linda clicked on the 'publish' icon and the listing appeared on the realty website.
Tomorrow she would send the link to her contact list. Someone would want this house. After all, at $145,000, it was quite a steal.
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