Harvey looked out his front window, saw the real-estate lady pull into the driveway of the house across the street and get out of her car. She walked to the For Sale sign with Sale Pending pasted diagonally on it.
Another victim is moving in, he thought.
He watched the woman try to remove the sign. He left his house and crossed the street. “Need help?”
The real-estate agent smiled. “Yes. Can you pull up this sign? It’s stuck.”
“I’ll try.” Harvey pushed the wood post back and forth, dislodging the soil around it. When the post looked like it was loose, Harvey bent his knees, hugged the post to his chest and grunted as he stood up. The post came out of the ground. “Where do you want it?”
“In the trunk.” She punched her key fob. The trunk lid popped open. Harvey put the sign in the trunk and closed it.
Harvey brushed his hands. “Looks like I’m going to have new neighbors.”
“Yes. It closes tomorrow.”
“Do the buyers know the history of this house?” Harvey watched her face for a tic, a flinch, any sign of lying.
The woman frowned. “Of course. The law requires that disclosure. Not to disclose would be a serious violation.”
“Who bought the house?”
“I think the buyer is moving in later this week.” She opened her car door and got in. “Thank you for helping me.” She closed the door, started the engine and drove away. Harvey stood on the sidewalk and watched the car disappear down the street.
Her refusal to answer his question annoyed him. It was a simple question. He didn’t know why she put him off and left in a hurry.
Harvey went home and stared out the window at the house across the street. He was drawn to it by the brutality of what had happened to its three previous owners; they had died ugly, violent deaths in the night, inside the house.
Harvey Peller knew this new owner was going to die in that house. It was just a matter of time.
The first owner to die was thirty-three year old Brice Watson. He rode a chromed-out Harley hog with ape-hanger bars and pipes so loud Harvey’s windows rattled when Brice roared down the street. Otherwise, Brice was a good neighbor and left Harvey alone. When several police cars with flashing red lights showed up at the house cross the street one morning Harvey knew something was wrong but he didn’t cross the street to find out.
Several days later a brief write-up in the local newspaper informed Harvey that Brice Watson was murdered execution-style, on his knees in the kitchen. The news release suggested the murder was likely the result of a drug deal gone sour.
Brice’s death distressed Harvey a great deal, not because he had any affection for Brice but because he felt Brice’s murder put a serious hit on the property value of his own home; the murder had to be a blight on the neighborhood. Still, the implied danger of a murder happening right across the street thrilled Harvey despite the presumed financial hit on his house.
Janice Coulson, the second owner, a young woman in her late twenties, maybe early thirties – Harvey didn’t really know her age – had way too many male visitors at night for Harvey’s liking. He thought he knew what she did for a living but never asked. He was secretly pleased when Janice Coulson was discovered naked and dead on a bedroom floor, a pillow case stuffed down her throat.
Harvey took a hit of scotch and lamented another presumed devastating hit on his home’s market value.
The last to die was a scruffy older man whose name no one knew. He kept to himself and never said anything to anyone in the neighborhood. When people passed him on the sidewalk and said hello the man never responded.
One morning Harvey looked at the house across the street. The garage door was open. Harvey saw the man hanging by a black electrical cord from a ceiling joist, legs and arms jutting out like scarecrow appendages, a kicked-over chair on the floor.
More than once, following the three deaths, Harvey had thought about crossing the street in the night and torching that damned house, but he lacked the courage. He feared getting caught by the police, prosecuted, and sent to prison where he would live out his life locked in a small cage with a cellmate named The Animal.
Now there was a new owner and Harvey trembled with anticipation. Of course he knew it was going to happen. That house killed its owners. He wondered how this owner was going to die; murdered in a home invasion; electrocuted by a faulty kitchen appliance; asphyxiated in the night when the gas line sprung a leak; killed by a drug overdose; bludgeoned to death by an insanely jealous lover; dismembered by a crazed meth addict.
Not knowing how this new owner was going to die created an anxiety in Harvey so intense it nearly unhinged him. He could scarcely wait for the death to happen.
With a glass of scotch in hand and a pair of binoculars on the small table next to his chair, Harvey sat facing the window, eager for the new owner to appear. On the fifth day of his vigil a car stopped at the curb and a woman got out. Harvey focused the binoculars on the woman, but she turned away and he was unable to see her face. She went up the walk and opened the door to the house. A large moving van backed into the drive. Two men got out and walked to the woman. She spoke to them then went into the house.
The first item the men removed was a large cage with a white bird in it. Harvey focused on the bird and recognized it as a cockatiel. When only one bicycle was wheeled out, Harvey felt relief. One bicycle meant one occupant, hopefully no significant other and no kids, unless they were too small to ride bicycles. Kids usually meant a dog, too. When Harvey didn’t see a dog, he felt sure the new owner was a single woman with no kids who had a pet cockatiel.
Harvey hoped to see the woman, but she never came outside. After the van drove away, he debated introducing himself then decided she was too busy moving in. He would wait another day, maybe two.
After a two-day wait, Harvey crossed the street with a summer bouquet he had bought at the local supermarket, thinking flowers were a nice welcome to the neighborhood.
Harvey frowned when he saw the caged bird through the window as he came up the walk. He punched the doorbell and tried to put a smile on his face.
The door opened. “Yes?” A middle-aged woman with startlingly green eyes peered at Harvey through the heavy mesh of the metal security door.
“I’m Harvey Peller in the house across the street.” He held out the flowers. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“I’ve seen you. I think you’ve been watching me,” the woman said. “I’m Nedra Cowan.” She opened the security door. “How thoughtful.” She took the flowers and smiled at Harvey. “Thank you.”
Harvey put his hand on the security door, held it open. “Did the real-estate agent tell you what happened to the previous three owners?”
“Yes. They died. She told me as part of the disclosure requirement.”
“They didn’t die, they were murdered, except for the doofus who hanged himself in the garage.” Harvey smirked. “Two murders and a suicide are difficult to ignore. You’re probably going to be this house’s fourth victim. Doesn’t that make you afraid?”
Nedra Cowan laughed. “No.”
“This house is a killer.” Harvey leaned toward her. “I think you’re going to die in this house.” Excitement surged in him.
“What an extraordinary thing to say.”
“I’m glad I don’t live here.” He held tight to the security door.
“I’m sure you needn’t be afraid, Mr. Peller. As you said, you don’t live here, so you have nothing to fear.” A sly grin curled her lips, and her green eyes sparked with humor. “But if you did live here, then you might have reason to fear this house. Is there some deep, dark secret this house knows about you, Mr. Peller?”
Her comment startled him. “Of course not.”
“Then please don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine.”
Harvey inclined his head toward the window. “I see you’ve got a bird. A cockatiel.”
“I do. They are delightful pets. They can be taught to talk, you know.”
“How long have you had it?” Harvey tightened his grip on the security door.
The smile disappeared from Nedra Cowan’s face. She waited a few moments before saying, “Twelve years.”
“That’s a long time to live in a cage. That’s what we do to people who break the law. We cage them, sometimes for life.
Nedra Cowan frowned.
“What crime did your cockatiel commit?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You keep an animal in a cage, That’s wrong. What crime did your bird commit? Or maybe it’s you committing the crime. Is that it?”
“My cockatiel is none of your business. Thank you for the flowers. Good day, Mr. Peller.” She pulled the security door out of Harvey’s hand, closed it and threw the bolt. Then she closed the house door.
Her brusque response caught him off-guard. He remained motionless on her porch for a few moments then went back to his house and poured a glass of scotch. He sat down, stared at Nedra Cowan’s house and waited for her to die.
Three days later a truck with a construction company name and logo on its side pulled into Nedra Cowan’s driveway. Harvey focused his binoculars on the truck. Two men got out and started carrying tools, thick plywood panels, 2×6 planks, bundles of thick insulation, and other building materials into Nedra’s house.
What the fuck is she doing? He drank some scotch.
At the end of the day Nedra Cowan came outside with the workers, spoke to them before they drove away then turned and waved at Harvey’s house before going inside.
She did this every day the workers were there. And every day Harvey watched her with his binoculars. And every day he thought, What the fuck is she doing?
In the late afternoon of the fifth day Nedra Cowan walked with the workers to their truck, shook hands and waved as they drove away. She looked at Harvey’s house for a long minute. Harvey focused his binoculars on her face, saw her smiling at him. Then she raised a pair of binoculars and looked at Harvey. For a moment Harvey thought they were making eye contact. He dropped his binoculars and stared open-mouthed out the window at Nedra Cowan. She walked to her door, turned around, smiled and waved before she went inside.
Smarmy bitch. He took another hit of scotch.
Several days went by. Harvey didn’t see Nedra Cowan, but he knew she was home; the lights went on and off randomly so somebody had to be inside. Then one morning he saw her cross the street and come up his walk. The doorbell chimed. Harvey opened the door to a smiling Nedra Cowan.
“Good morning, Mr. Peller.” The smile remained on her face. “I want to apologize for my unpleasant behavior. I’m afraid we got off to a bad start the other day. I’m sorry I was rude to you. Do you think we can have a do-over, perhaps start again?”
“Well, sure, I suppose so, ” said Harvey, thrown off-balance by her request.
“Wonderful. I’d like that. Why don’t you come over at 2:00 tomorrow afternoon? We’ll have wine and start over.” Her smile brightened. “I want us to be friends. After all, we are neighbors.”
“Neighbors,” Harvey repeated, still shocked by her invitation.
“I’ll show you the renovations I’ve made. I’m sure you’ve been curious about what I was doing.” Nedra Cowan smiled, said, “Two o’clock tomorrow afternoon. Don’t forget.”
Harvey poured scotch into a glass and sat in his chair, brooding. Why did I accept her invitation? He picked up the binoculars and focused on Nedra Cowan’s house. Curtains drawn. No activity. I don’t like her. I’m never going to like her. She’s a nasty woman. He put the binoculars down and drank some scotch. Why the hell doesn’t she die?
“Mr. Peller,” Nedra said when she opened the door. “I’m so glad you’re here. I worried your fear of my house might make you change your mind. Please, come in.” She stepped back. Harvey entered.
“You see, a perfectly fine, non-threatening house that looks quite comfortable, don’t you think?” Nedra said cheerfully.
Harvey didn’t say anything. He looked about the sun-lit room, saw large floral prints on the walls he thought might be Monet, or maybe O’Keeffe for all he knew. A flat-screen television sat on a narrow table pushed against the wall. Book cases full of hard-covers flanked the flat-screen. A sofa, coffee table, and two stuffed chairs facing the television completed the furniture. An open bottle of red wine and a plate of cheese and other snacks sat on the coffee table. A generic setting, except for the caged cockatiel next to the window.
“Please, sit down.” She poured two glasses of wine and handed one to Harvey. “To friendship.”
Harvey took a sip. “You still have that bird locked up in a cage.”
“Cockatiels are native to Australia so I’ve named her Victoria. You will be astonished when you hear her talk.” Nedra turned toward the cage. “Victoria, talk to me.” Nedra whistled a loud piercing sound that made Harvey wince.
The bird emitted a shrill squawk then said, “I’m a little bird. Give me rubs,” over and over, bobbing up and down on its perch each time it sang out.
“Isn’t that marvelous?” Nedra clapped her hands with obvious pleasure. “I just love it when she talks to me.” She stood. “Now, Mr. Peller, let me show you the renovations I’ve made. You’re an inquisitive man. I know you want to see what I’ve done.” She took his arm and pulled him up. “Please leave your glass. Don’t want you to spill that red wine. New carpet, you know.” They went down a hallway with more floral prints hanging on the walls and stopped at a solid-looking door.
Nedra pulled the door open. “Please, you first, Mr. Peller. Go to the center of the room and look at the ceiling.” As soon as Harvey stepped into the room Nedra slammed the door.
“What the hell?” Harvey turned around, grabbed the door handle and tried to open the door. The handle didn’t move. “Open this door!” he shouted. He pounded on the door. Then he tried to kick the door open. “Open this fucking door!”
His shouts were interrupted by Nedra’s voice. “Look around you, Mr. Peller.”
Harvey stopped pounding on the door and surveyed his surroundings, saw he was in a windowless room with bare white walls made of heavy wood panels. A recessed light and what looked like a speaker were embedded in the center of the ceiling.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Open the fucking door and let me out right now, you bitch.”
“Such harsh words, Mr. Peller. I’m afraid I can’t let you out.”
Harvey pounded on the door. “Open this fucking door!”
“No one can hear you, Mr. Peller. The room is sound-proof. The doorframe and door are reinforced. You can’t kick the door down. The room you are in is a fortress, really. The door is the only way out and I am not opening it.”
“God damn it, this has gone far enough. Let me out!” Harvey tried the door handle again. It didn’t move. “Why are you doing this?” he shouted.
“I don’t like you, Mr. Peller. You are a rude and nasty little man.”
“Let me out, damn it.”
“Do you remember what you said the day you introduced yourself with that cheap floral bouquet?”
“I don’t remember and I don’t care what I said. Open this fucking door right now!” Harvey kicked the door several times.
Nedra laughed. “Mr. Peller, you sounded positively gleeful when you said, ‘I think you’re going to die in this house.’ You are right, Mr. Peller, someone is going to die in this house, but I am not the one.”
Harvey twisted the door handle as hard as he could and screamed, “Let me out” over and over. He kicked the door, pounded on it with his fists until he was exhausted. Mad with fear and anger he leaned his head against the door and wept. Finally, he said, “Please let me out.”
Nedra’s voice came out of the speaker again. “We cage them, sometimes for life. Do you remember saying those words, Mr. Peller?”
“No, I don’t remember. Please, open the door,” he sobbed.
“You’ve been caged, Mr. Peller, for life,” Nedra said. Then she turned out the light.