“In for a dime, in for a dollar.” — Proverb
Ken had purposely kept important information from Roy: Tommy still owned the land adjacent to The Bungalows. The investigator’s report Ken had commissioned before deciding to work with Roy disclosed the connection between Roy, Gretchen, and Tommy—but not all the details. Enough of them, though, that Ken feared Tommy’s presence—albeit as an absentee owner—might cause Roy to pass on his proposal. Something he was determined not to let happen. So he figured what Roy didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. Ultimately Roy would learn of Tommy’s involvement, but that was okay with Ken. It would be too late for Roy to reverse course.
What wouldn’t have been okay with Ken—had he known—was Roy’s involvement with Gretchen after her marriage to Tommy. Worse still would have been if Ken had been aware that Tommy knew of Gretchen’s infidelity. The report, however, was silent on both. Consequently, neither Ken nor Alan could properly assess the potential risk if Tommy became aware of Roy’s connection to The Bungalows. Fortunately, Roy believed that was unlikely. Tommy had no reason to check on the Bungalows’ ownership and Ken certainly wasn’t about to tell him. Roy was convinced, though, that had Ken been aware of all the facts regarding Gretchen’s betrayal, he would never have risked working with him. Ken may have been a gambler, but he wasn’t a fool. Besides, Alan wouldn’t have let him. Or would he have? Roy wasn’t so sure. Friends with split loyalties were unpredictable.
Meanwhile, Claire wasn’t surprised that Roy knew Tommy. After all, one was the current owner of The Bungalows and one a former owner. Or, at least, that was the way Claire understood it. She was mystified, though, by the extent of Roy’s concern over the ownership of the adjacent property. She asked a lot of questions, but Roy equivocated. Unlike Claire, he had no intention of sharing personal information with someone he’d just met. Tommy was simply the husband of an ex-girlfriend, Roy explained. “Ex-girlfriend” got Claire’s attention and Roy was happy to keep the focus on Gretchen. No need for Claire to see how concerned he was that neither Ken nor Alan had been honest with him.
Although it was too late to do anything about it, Roy now questioned his decision to work with Ken. Over the years, many of Roy’s decisions—personal and professional—had been shortsighted and had often resulted in unintended consequences. Things never quite turned out as Roy imagined. He hoped that wouldn’t be the case here. Struggling once again to leave his past behind, he wondered if he had the energy to re-invent himself one last time. But at sixty, Roy wasn’t ready to sit by and let time expire. He still hoped that posterity might actually have a reason to remember him.
The rain had subsided by the time Roy and Claire got back on the road. Three beers had given Roy a nice buzz. Claire’s speeding bothered him a lot less.
“How do you know so much about the situation?” Roy asked.
“The ownership of the property, the adjacent parcel, the erosion problem.”
“Ken’s a talker when he wants to be. He’s had to do a lot of it to keep me interested in being The Bungalows’ quasi manager from Norfolk. It hasn’t been easy. Without the money he’s thrown my way, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“I thought you said you didn’t mind the drive?”
“The drive’s the easy part, Roy.”
“Sorry, my turn for a question.”
“Fine,” Roy said. But if there were inherent problems in managing The Bungalows, he needed to know.
“First, why don’t you tell me why Tommy sold off just The Bungalows, but kept the much larger adjacent lot that lacked direct beach access.”
“Sure. But understand when I was told the story Ken cleverly omitted names. Until just now, I had no idea he was talking about Tommy Thompson.”
“Good,” Roy said, pushing his seat back so he could comfortably stretch out.
“Here’s the story as it was told to me. More than a decade ago, Tommy needed cash for a real estate investment in New York. He had big plans. He wanted to leave North Carolina real estate behind. Ken did him a favor. He bought The Bungalows, but had no interest in the adjacent land. Tommy pushed Ken hard to buy it, but Ken refused. Actually, Ken wasn’t even interested in The Bungalows, but Tommy was an up-and-coming developer and Ken saw a chance to court favor. Fast-forward to today. Tommy knows the parcel he was forced to retain isn’t worth much without the Bungalow piece and so he tries to buy it back—without success. He planned to tear down the bungalows, eliminating the erosion problem, and making the adjacent land beachfront property. The increase in land value would be significant. However, his offer was too low for Ken to even consider.”
“And Ken failed to mention Tommy by name because he was afraid it might have deterred you?”
“Not might have, would have.”
Claire, like Emma, was nobody’s fool. Clever, funny, and judicious when she wanted to be, she could give as well as take. Roy liked that about her.
“And who’s Alan?”
“An old college buddy of mine and a business associate of Ken’s. His loyalty, though, appears a bit suspect. I need to call them both when I get to Buxton.”
“Not fun conversations, I imagine.”
“Yeah, well, not everything can be fun. Right?”
“Right,” Claire agreed. Tempted to elaborate, she chose to remain silent.
Roy was angry, but needed to be smart. Tommy probably wasn’t going to be a problem, so there was nothing to be gained by alienating Ken. It would be a foolish way to start life in Buxton. Best, he thought, to call Alan first. Make it a warm-up call for Ken. Alan must have realized Roy would quickly learn that Tommy was his neighbor—an absentee neighbor, but a neighbor nonetheless. Did Alan just not care? Did he assume that once Roy had committed there would be no turning back? Hopefully, he believed as Roy did that Tommy wouldn’t be an issue, so let Roy just suck it up. Fuck both of them, Roy thought, and focused his attention elsewhere.
Since boarding his flight in New York, a question had been on Roy’s mind. Now seemed like a good time to explore it.
“Has anyone ever considered year-round rentals? The beach has an eerie beauty in winter—desolate, stark, raw. I’ve been here before in January. I loved it.”
“Just because you loved it doesn’t mean other people would.”
“Maybe,” Roy said, somewhat disappointed that Claire hadn’t reacted more positively.
“The bungalows have fireplaces, right?”
“People enjoy getting away as much in winter as in summer. If you promoted the units to the right people, the annual income could be doubled.”
“Possibly. Then again, managing the place year-round could be a pain in the ass.”
“We should think about it,” Roy said, ignoring Claire’s comment.
“A pain in the ass, Roy, or didn’t you hear me?” Claire said, far less enamored of the idea than Roy. “You know The Bungalows aren’t all that well known outside of the Carolinas.”
“Well, there’s another mistake,” Roy insisted. They should be promoted as year-round second residences. The Bungalows may not be well known outside the state, but the Outer Banks sure are.”
Roy positioned his shoeless feet on the Caddy’s glove compartment. He liked the idea of year-round residences and didn’t care that Claire was dubious. Besides, it would give him something to discuss with Ken other than having been seriously misled.
“We’re going to be there in about twenty minutes. If the rain picks up again, I may wait a bit before heading back to Norfolk. I don’t need another two hours behind the wheel in a driving rain.”
“Fine. Rain or no rain, though, I need you to show me around.”
Exactly twenty minutes later, Roy and Claire reached the turnoff to The Bungalows. A long gravel road led to a well-landscaped parking lot, mostly hidden from view. Residents needed to walk from there to their units. Rather then head directly to the bungalows, however, Claire detoured to the far side of the parking lot to show Roy the adjacent property still owned by Tommy. It had been cleared of trees and shrubs some time ago. Now, weeds, sand, and trash laid claim to it for as far as Roy could see.
“You weren’t kidding when you said it was an eyesore.”
“When I’m kidding, Roy it’s generally easy to tell.”
With the seasonal tenants yet to arrive, Roy had an unrestrained opportunity to inspect the bungalows. Although located in tiny Buxton, North Carolina (year-round population 1,523), referring to them as bungalows was a misnomer. They were large imposing structures—hardly bungalows. Although partially hidden by high sand dunes, all twenty-five residences were relatively close to the water—some more so than others. Smart landscaping had maximized privacy, and thick, low-lying shrubs provided a dense ground cover. Wooden walkways allowed access between each unit and the beach. The Bungalow’s architect had modified Wright’s concept just enough to make the units appropriate for the grass-covered dunes of the Outer Banks.
At approximately twenty-five hundred square feet, each split-level bungalow had an open layout, large porch, two fireplaces, and an expansive ocean view. Although in good shape, the units hadn’t been upgraded. To continue to command high rent, work would need to be done and time was short. It was already January, and the season opened on the first of May—shortly before Roy’s sixty-first birthday.
Originally The Bungalows had presented a stark contrast to the much smaller, ramshackle structures that populated many areas along the coast. Over the years, however, the Outer Banks—like everywhere else—had succumbed to an onslaught of outsized, ostentatious residences that failed to blend well with their surroundings. Money, not taste, had invaded the wild, natural beauty of the area. The Bungalows no longer appeared out of place, as they had in the ’50s. Instead, they seemed almost quaint by comparison.
As they moved from bungalow to bungalow, Claire pointed out the two that were off limits.
“Year-round tenants,” she said. “So I can’t show you those.”
“Who lives there?”
“Carolyn Ashley lives in one and Olivia Davies and her son Danny in the other. He’s the kid I mentioned who does maintenance for me. Nothing major; we hire out for that. But he’s reliable and smart. That’s all I need him to be.”
“Right. Ken mentioned her. Said she had issues. Recommended I keep my distance. It sounded like more than a recommendation. I didn’t know if he was kidding or not. I didn’t ask questions.”
“Probably just as well.”
“Some other time, Roy. I need to be getting back to Norfolk. I’d just as soon not drive in the dark—or the rain.”
Roy was surprised. He’d expected Claire to stay for a while.
“You sure? I’d planned on buying you dinner. You could show me downtown Buxton. We might even finish the conversation we started.”
“Sorry, Roy. I really should get going. But I’ll take a rain check.”
Roy’s disappointment was evident. He’d felt sure that Claire had been flirting with him on the trip and he’d rather enjoyed it—despite questioning its appropriateness.
“Okay,” Roy said, a bit dejected. It would have been nice to have some company on his first night in town. He said goodbye to Claire and headed to his bungalow. Now he’d have to find something else to keep his mind off the very real possibility that he’d made a mistake by accepting Ken’s offer.
“Hey, Roy,” Alan said, sounding unusually upbeat. “How you doing? You in Buxton yet?”
“Yeah, I got here today. I’m tired. It was a long trip.”
“So, why are you calling if you’re tired?”
“I have some questions that need answering, but I’d prefer Ken not know I’m asking. Can I trust you?”
“Depends on what?”
“How sensitive the information is.”
“Just for once, Alan, do me a favor and tell me this doesn’t get back to Ken.”
“Does that mean I can trust you?”
“As much as you can ever trust anyone.”
“Jesus, Alan, it’s a simple question.”
“What, you want me to lie?”
“Not really,” Roy said, attempting to open a bottle of scotch without putting the phone down.
“Did you know Tommy Thompson owned The Bungalows before selling to Ken and that he still owns the adjacent lot? More importantly, did you see the investigator’s report?”
“Ken wouldn’t show me the report, but I know something in it disturbed him. I knew Tommy still owned property in the Carolinas, I didn’t know he owned the adjacent land.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Sorry, but it’s precisely the kind of thing Ken would share with you. He’d want to know how risky you thought it would be if Tommy learned The Bungalows had been deeded to me. Or, for that matter, how likely I might be to turn down Ken’s offer if I knew Tommy still owned the adjacent parcel.”
When Alan opted not to respond, Roy continued, sounding resigned. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter now. What’s done is done.”
Having filled his glass with scotch, Roy needed to add ice. In the kitchen, he struggled to remove an ice tray from the freezer. The refrigerator was old. Claire was right. Appliance upgrades were a must.
“Roy, you still there?”
Roy had to put down the phone for a minute, to wrestle some ice cubes from the tray.
“Yeah, sorry. Just trying to get organized here. Tell me what kind of problem you think Tommy presents for me?”
“Probably none. Tommy has no idea you’re the new ‘owner’ and he has no reason to visit anymore. And Ken’s certainly not going to share the information with him.”
Roy paused and sipped his scotch. He decided not to press the point.
“What else did you want to know?” Alan asked, looking to change the subject.
“What’s the story with Carolyn Ashley?”
“Who wants to know?” Alan joked.
“Just tell me so I don’t get blindsided again.”
“You want the whole story or just the highlights?”
“Do me a favor. Don’t play games. Just tell me what the hell she’s doing living at The Bungalows?”
Surprisingly, Alan grew serious as he began an abbreviated profile of Carolyn Ashley.
“She’s Ken’s half-sister. Carolyn’s mother married Ken’s father after his first wife died. She’s her mother’s only child and is eight years younger than Ken and the youngest in a family of six children. Her siblings are all highly accomplished and were extremely competitive growing up. The family counts two doctors, two lawyers, and Ken. Carolyn tried to keep up, but it was always a struggle. She floundered after college, starting and failing at two businesses and a marriage. The divorce was ugly. Fortunately, there were no kids. Depressed and despondent, she had a nervous breakdown. She’d always been close to Ken, so after a short hospital stay he put her up at The Bungalows. That was five years ago. She’s never left.”
“Okay, thanks. Good on the history. What about now?”
“She works as a waitress at Buxton’s only upscale restaurant and Ken continues to pay her rent. She paints in her spare time. She’s unattached, which is what you really want to know, right? Careful though. According to Ken she experienced some kind of trauma as an adolescent, but he’s not sure what. He doesn’t think two failed businesses and a failed marriage would have been enough to cause her breakdown.”
“What? Some kind of abuse?”
“Okay. Thanks for bringing me up to date. I appreciate it. But you should have been straight with me about Tommy. I gotta tell you, Alan, I expected better from an old friend.”
“I wasn’t dishonest, Roy. Ken asked me not to say anything.”
“Pretty beholden to the guy, huh?”
“He’s made me a small fortune, Roy. You got a problem with that?”
“Not at all. If this Buxton thing doesn’t pan out, I might have to hit you up for a loan.”
“No reason why it shouldn’t work out. Ball’s in your court.”
“What you mean is that the heavy lifting’s over. The liability is off Ken’s balance sheet. I’ve done my job. Now I’m a glorified babysitter. Behave myself and don’t make waves. Just manage The Bungalows. I was surprised, though, how quickly everything came together.”
“Don’t be naïve, Roy. Everything was already in place. The papers had been prepared; the lawyers were just waiting for a name. The loan had been secured long before you met with Ken. You were just the final piece of the puzzle.”
“Right. I kinda figured that.” But he hadn’t and Alan was kind enough to let Roy’s remark slide.
“Listen, Alan. I gotta go.”
“Hot date? Christ, you just got there. Meet someone on the plane? Maybe it’s that rental manager, Claire. I met her once, a hundred years ago. Roy, you can do better than that.”
“Well then, maybe I should introduce myself to Carolyn. What do you think?”
“Don’t be a jackass, Roy. Didn’t Ken tell you to keep your distance?”
“You and Ken talk about me a lot, do you?”
“You know you’re a hard man to help, Roy.”
“I’ll talk to you later. I need to shower and change.”
“You don’t think Ken’s talked to Carolyn about you? They talk regularly, you know. You want that constantly in the background? I wouldn’t imagine you do.”
“Enough already, Alan.”
“It’s your funeral.”
“Fine. Listen there is actually someone at the door. I need to go. You should consider coming down for a visit sometime. Maybe I can fix you up with Claire.”
“Fuck you, Roy.”
Roy hung up, looked toward the door, and wondered who was knocking.
…to be continued…