“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” — Mark Twain.
Roy put down his scotch and answered the door. Not expecting anyone, he wasn’t inclined toward company. It’d been a difficult flight, a long drive, Claire was interesting but not easy, and Alan was more of a pain in the ass on the phone than in person. Perhaps Claire was too tired after all for the drive to Norfolk, or Carolyn had decided to be neighborly.
But it was neither Carolyn nor Claire. Instead, a young couple—a man and a woman— had stopped at Roy’s bungalow on their regular weekly recruiting mission. They stood—as if at attention—clutching their bibles, deferential smiles on otherwise empty faces and introduced themselves as members of the Apostolic Church of the Pentecost. As church congregants, they wanted to welcome Roy to Buxton and invite him to the following Sunday’s service. Roy wasn’t overjoyed to see strangers, but did his best to be friendly. It wasn’t easy. He wasn’t in the mood for God.
But they were. Peddling a harsh, grim version of the gospel, they began their harangue without invitation. Roy let the couple ramble on just long enough to be polite. Then he lowered the boom. They were wasting their time. He was an avowed atheist and likely to stay that way short of an act of God, which, of course, his uninvited guests insisted this was. Roy begged to differ, but not before learning they made frequent visits to The Bungalows. That, he told them, needed to stop. They might be in the business of saving souls but he was in the business of renting beachfront properties; his tenants paid handsomely for their privacy. So, unless God intended to lease a bungalow, their conversation was over.
Having amused only himself, Roy was about to close the door when he heard a friendly-sounding hello in the distance. He glanced down the walkway. A smartly dressed woman was headed his way. When she reached Roy’s doorstep, they shook hands.
“Carolyn Ashley, I presume,” Roy joked.
The woman smiled.
“Roy Bloom, I presume,” Carolyn said, mimicking Roy and adding, “Did they recruit you?”
“They never had a chance.”
At five-six and unusually slender, Carolyn had deep-set blue eyes, short, dirty blonde hair, thin lips, and a small, slightly upturned nose. She was, frankly, plain looking. If Roy had been expecting a female version of Ken, he hadn’t gotten it. No physical feature dominated or captivated, but Carolyn didn’t want for style. Overdressed for the off-season in Buxton—or any season for that matter—Carolyn wore a pair of tight black leather pants, a loose-fitting white cashmere sweater, and a silk scarf. Although she appeared young, Roy knew she had to be in her late forties.
Carolyn handed Roy a bottle of expensive Champagne. Apparently all Ashleys—even the poor ones—had money. Roy invited her in.
“I saw Claire giving you a tour and thought I’d stop by and say hello. It’s lonely around here in the off-season. Besides, we have something in common.”
“Really. What’s that?”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Okay,” Roy said, willing—for the moment—to let Carolyn’s cryptic remark pass without comment.
“There’s another year-round tenant here. You don’t socialize?”
“You mean Olivia?”
“To be honest, I try to avoid her.”
“Didn’t Claire give you the lowdown?” Carolyn asked, pointedly.
“Not really,” Roy responded, motioning to the couch, a large, ugly, L-shaped unit. Roy hadn’t yet had a chance to survey his new home or its furnishings. The couch was a monstrosity. It would have to go.
“Thanks,” Carolyn said, as she sat down and crossed her legs. “But I can only stay a minute.”
“No Champagne?” Roy said, holding up the bottle.
“I’d love some, but not now.”
“Fine. I’ll save it then.”
Disappointed, Roy put the bottle down and sat directly across from Carolyn in an expensive Eames chair. The Eames chair, he liked.
“Okay if I ask you about Olivia?”
“Sure. What do you want to know?”
“Who is she?”
“A widowed socialite—eccentric, and very wealthy. She’d have to be, to live here year-round. Her husband died of AIDS almost seventeen years ago and she didn’t feel like sticking around Richmond. Too much talk, too much innuendo. I think she moved here with her two-year-old son Danny because she found it easier to cope in an out of the way place like Buxton. Danny’s been working for Claire. I imagine he’ll work for you now. Olivia’s just a lost soul, but she can be abrasive at times. Not what I need.”
“Her husband died of AIDS?”
“Sorry, that’s all I know. I don’t have any of the details. That’s just what Danny told me. He seemed hesitant to say even that much.”
“And what’s Danny’s story?”
“He’s nice enough, a little young for his age perhaps. Very good-looking, though,” Carolyn added approvingly. “A bit of a loner, I think. Definitely knows his mother’s odd.”
“If mom’s so wealthy, why does Danny have to work?”
“He doesn’t. I think it just gets him out of the house and away from her.”
“So avoid her if I can. That’s your advice?”
“For what it’s worth,” Carolyn said. “Funny, though, Ken took a liking to Danny. Felt sorry for him, I suspect. Always made a point of seeing him when he was down here. I think the kid was grateful for any male bonding he could get. Besides, Ken and his wife couldn’t have children and Ken always wanted a son. So I guess they each served some kind of purpose for the other.”
Danny’s relationship with Ken didn’t interest Roy, but Carolyn’s did.
“You visit Ken in New York often?”
“I don’t. Actually, I don’t travel.”
Roy was reminded of Alan’s earlier comment. Carolyn had moved to Buxton five years ago and never left. Roy hadn’t realized that never left meant never left.
“So what did Ken tell you about me?” Roy asked. “Or about our arrangement?”
“Not much. Ken and I are close, but he doesn’t talk business with me. I’m very much indebted to him for setting me up here—and keeping me set up. He doesn’t need me asking questions, so I don’t. He did advise me not to get overly friendly with the new management.”
“I see you don’t listen.”
“Don’t be so sure. As I said, I just stopped by to introduce myself before we bumped into each other on the walkway or on the beach.”
“You sure I can’t convince you to stay for some Champagne?”
“You probably could, but I need to get going. I’m due in town in a little while.”
With that, Carolyn uncrossed her legs and stood up. Roy followed suit.
“Another time, then. Before you leave, though, could I ask a small favor? I need to lease a car in Buxton. Can I impose on you for a ride into town sometime?”
“Sure, I waitress at Charley’s Crab…”
“Charley’s Crab?” Roy said, amused by the name.
“Trust me. It’s more upscale than it sounds. Tomorrow, my shift starts at four. I could drop you off at three-thirty, but you’d have to find your own way home.”
“That’s fine. Thanks. Hopefully, I’ll drive myself back.”
“Hopefully, you will.”
Nodding to Roy, Carolyn smiled, and walked out into the surprisingly cold Buxton winter without a coat and little in the way of a goodbye. Roy watched her disappear down the walkway. She was an odd combination, alternately forthright and reticent. As for Ken’s preference that Roy keep his distance he couldn’t have cared less. Roy had, however, already concluded that was probably the prudent course of action. No need to court trouble. Still, Roy was attracted.
Roy’s encounter with Carolyn motivated him to call Ken, not that he needed much motivation. Concerned the conversation could get confrontational Roy decided another scotch was in order. He’d stocked up on the drive south from Norfolk, so there was plenty of the good stuff in the kitchen. Still fully intending to cut back, Roy figured tomorrow might be a better day to start.
Although it was almost dark, Roy wandered onto his porch and stared at a barely visible, turbulent-sounding ocean before dialing Ken’s number.
“Good to hear your voice, Roy. I guess Claire got you to Buxton okay.”
“What did you think of her?”
“Seems perfectly competent.”
“And your accommodations?”
Roy’s answers were perfunctory, and his voice expressionless.
“What’s up, Roy? You don’t sound like yourself.”
“Funny, Alan said the same thing. Did you just get off the phone with him?”
“Just a hunch. Not important,” Roy said, although it clearly was.
“Important enough to ask.”
Roy ignored Ken’s response. Instead, without bothering with any preliminaries, he began his inquest.
“Ken, any reason you neglected to tell me Tommy Thompson still owns the property adjacent to The Bungalows? Or that he owned The Bungalows until you bought them from him? Did it just slip your mind? Didn’t think it was relevant, maybe?”
Ken sighed audibly and Roy knew immediately he wasn’t pleased to have to dance around the Tommy issue so soon after Roy’s arrival.
“Alan and I didn’t tell you because we didn’t want it to adversely affect your decision. It’s not really relevant, despite what you might think.”
“Come off it, Ken. Adversely affect my decision, my ass. I wouldn’t have even considered the deal if I known about Tommy, and you know it.”
“My point exactly, Roy. And you would have been making a big mistake.”
“Thanks for the concern. What else was in the investigator’s report that you’re conveniently not telling me? Alan claims you didn’t show it to him, but I’m not buying that.”
“I didn’t show it to him.”
“Sure, Ken.” But Roy didn’t believe him, and he didn’t make it sound like he believed him.
Roy walked back inside looking for a refill. The freezer gave him trouble again. As he struggled with the ice, he reminded himself that angering Ken wouldn’t make his situation any better.
“Okay, have it your way,” Roy said, trying hard to sound conciliatory. “But I think we’d all be a lot better off if we were straight with each other.”
After a prolonged silence, Ken surprised Roy. “All right, let’s try that. See how well it works. I hadn’t planned on sharing this, but you want straight, I’ll give you straight,” Ken said, calmly. He paused again to maximize the impact of his next remark. “You weren’t our first choice for The Bungalows.”
Roy was taken aback. He had foolishly assumed the deal had been structured with him in mind. His arrogance had blinded him. He was no more than a convenient solution to Ken’s problem, and apparently not the most convenient. Caught off guard, Roy chose not to respond. He was curious, though, why he was being told this now. Had Ken just seized the opportunity to make Roy realize he wasn’t indispensable? But the deal was done. What value could there be in making Roy uncomfortable?
“Sorry to say, Roy, you were third in line. There were two other ‘Roys’ ahead of you. Regrettably, neither worked out. Originally you were first, but Alan demoted you to third. He was worried you might be too independent. He wasn’t sure you’d stick around if things didn’t go your way. We needed someone we could trust for the long haul. When the other Roys didn’t pan out, we were in a bind. Especially after the investigator’s report turned up your unfortunate connection to Tommy. I seriously considered passing, even though we were short on time. But, in the end, we were both afraid we’d never find anyone quite as incentivized. So we rolled the dice. A manageable risk, Alan and I agreed. But it made me nervous. Still does.”
“Gee, Ken, I hate to think I make you nervous,” Roy said sarcastically, avoiding a more meaningful response.
“Okay, so we didn’t level with you. Don’t act so offended, Roy. That’s the way life works sometimes. You know, maybe your career’s been something of a bust because you weren’t willing to do what was necessary to succeed. If we’d practiced full disclosure, you’d still be in New York, still pining for a lost love, and still in financial difficulty. Instead, you’re on your way to easy street.”
“Nice how my interests seem to align so neatly with yours.”
“Isn’t it though,” Ken said. Roy could almost feel the smirk on Ken’s face.
Having freed the ice from its tray and poured himself another drink, Roy had returned to the porch just prior to Ken’s disclosure of the other Roys. Now, more intent than ever on corralling his emotions, he decided to seek some assurances.
“Ken, aren’t you bothered in the least that Tommy’s wife and I lived together for four years and that she married him on the rebound? A marriage, by the way, that isn’t destined for greatness. If only half the stories I hear are true, Tommy’s a vindictive asshole. It’s one thing for me to know he owns the adjacent property; what if he finds out I’m his next door neighbor?”
“Not going to happen. Tommy has no reason to go back to Buxton. He was there several months ago to reconsider buying The Bungalows, but the changes he made to his bid were too minimal to matter. He said if I wasn’t satisfied with his offer, I was free to dispose of the property any way I wanted. It was Tommy’s arrogant way of telling me I wasn’t going to get a better deal. Instead, I went a different route—as you well know. That should be the end of it.”
“For both our sakes, I hope you’re right.”
“I am, Roy. I know him. He may be a difficult, unhappy human being, but he’s not stupid. Tommy has bigger fish to fry.”
“If you say so.”
“Listen, I’m sorry we couldn’t be honest with you. It was a chance we couldn’t afford to take. But for Christ’s sake relax. Tommy’s busy in New York. He couldn’t care less about the Carolinas.”
But Roy understood what Ken didn’t. If Tommy were to discover Roy “owned” The Bungalows he would care plenty about the Carolinas. Fortunately for Roy, Ken remained blissfully unaware of both Roy’s extramarital relationship with Gretchen, and Tommy’s knowledge of it. Had the investigator’s report contained that information, Ken would have immediately eliminated Roy from consideration for the Buxton assignment.
It’d been a long day. Roy was tired. He’d said his piece. Registered his concern. On the verge of ending the conversation, Roy remembered his idea about year-round renters. Probably best to leave it for another time, he told himself. But he couldn’t resist. Roy’s sense of timing was anything but impeccable.
He glanced at his glass, almost empty. If he was going to raise a new issue, he needed to fortify himself. This time he dispensed with the ice, and didn’t skimp on the scotch. Focused on refilling his drink, Roy realized he hadn’t been listening to Ken. He just caught the last part of what sounded like a final summation.
“What’s done is done, Roy. If I had told you to just suck it up, you would’ve gotten pissed off. You have a job to do. Do it.”
“I intend to,” Roy said. Then using Ken’s admonition, he segued to his own idea. “You ever consider year-round tenancies? Could make a lot more money and might even be easier to manage.”
“No,” Ken said, firmly and quickly. “Don’t try to fix what’s not broken. Seasonal rentals have worked fine all these years. Mixing seasonal and year-round renters could create problems. Leave well enough alone.”
Ken’s attitude surprised Roy.
“Come on, Ken. I thought you’d love the idea.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t an intriguing idea. I just don’t see the necessity of it right now.” Truth was Ken didn’t like the idea at all.
“Easy for you to say. You have what you want. The Bungalows are no longer a headache for you. I have only a limited number of years to squirrel away as much cash as I can. Besides, there’s really no additional work involved.”
“Not interested, Roy. Sorry. Wait a year. We’ll talk.”
“Now’s the time, Ken. I still have decent contacts. I don’t want to waste them.”
“Jesus, Roy. Leave it be. I respect your enthusiasm, just put it somewhere else please. Listen to Claire, will you? She’s been doing this for a long time and I have no problem with how she’s handled things. Besides, we’re trying to wind this business down over the next decade. Don’t make it more complicated.”
Roy could hear Ken’s frustration. He didn’t need Roy doing anything but managing a long-established operation. Roy didn’t quite see it that way. The extra income could be a significant windfall for him. He wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. Listen to Claire. Listen to Ken. Fuck that, he’d listen to Roy. Besides, how much more difficult could year-rounders be?
“Whatever you say, Ken,” Roy said, not meaning a word of it. After a quick goodbye, they hung up.
Roy felt the call had gone reasonably well and was less acrimonious than he expected. Ken hadn’t been evasive. He’d been decent and direct, if not exactly friendly. And while he hadn’t jumped at Roy’s idea of renting The Bungalows year-round, he hadn’t entirely shot it down. At least that was Roy’s self-serving interpretation. Tough and arrogant at their earlier meetings, Ken had been more subdued this time around. He didn’t need problems. Roy found them hard to avoid.
…to be continued…