She’ll be in her backyard deadheading flowers right now, or pulling weeds, a cup of coffee on the patio table. That’s where she’s been every morning for the last eight days. That’s her routine. The blue rope next to me holds light, like it’s picked up the toughest part of the sunshine. It’s ready, and my hands are ready. They know what’ll come next—the one-minute work. Sara Herrington. The one with the crazy hats. Sixty seconds to purple.

.  .  .

T U E S D A Y,  M A Y  3,  2 0 1 6 

A F T E R N O O N

Paint chips drop to the sink, sometimes falling as far as the gun. It looks like confetti made from eggshells, or cut-up paper that once was white. I stop scraping the wood, push off the stepladder, and walk to the gun.

It won’t do to compromise the Glock’s mechanism with bits of old paint although, frankly, I wouldn’t mind compromising all guns. Everywhere.

I tease out a bit of hair caught in my safety glasses and slide it to the far end of the kitchen counter. A frown pulls my mouth down. The need for the Glock irritates me. In fact, the feeling rushes past irritation into something more like hate. I hate what these small machines stand for: bullets ripping through flesh. Okay, they’re useful for hunting food—I’m not a total idiot—but they shouldn’t be used to punch holes into other human beings. Hopefully, the original inventors didn’t have that in mind.

I sigh. They probably did.

The window is shoved all the way up to let the spring day in and the cleaning fumes out. Coming back to it, I look at the backyard, rough as a dog’s tongue with newly aroused grass. The green of May suffuses the yard and the woods beyond it. It’s hard to believe that this calm, slow dance of trees holds a threat, but it does. Everything seems so private from here. No one would guess that the Rogers live just three hundred feet to the east, their bungalow clothed by the explosion of willow and maple that rears from the ravine between us. I hardly ever see the woman and her grown son.

A wasp bumps the eaves, tapping out a telegraphic statement of warmer days, the urge to chew wood, make paper nests, mate. Mockingbird noise floats through the window, carrying a message of mockingbird work to be done. I rub the back of my neck and step back up the ladder.

I have work to do, too.

Pushing my broad knife into the blistered paint, I watch pieces careen away, loosened by the humidity of thousands of dish washings.

Usually the work of renovating a house is a mindless affair with plenty of elbow grease involved—that’s a given. But sometimes the building stands as a piece of the world I can better in some small way. At those times, the house rushes to life. The walls of the building become something almost animal that I scrape, brush, tend. It all borders on a loose, semi-holy contract with some swearing mixed in. I like the exercise of it, the big looseness. After fussing with artwork for greeting cards all morning, it’s a pleasure to drag paint across walls.

I lean into the top board of the window frame, wanting to get this part done. I won’t leave until it is, though I need to get home soon and start dinner. Chicken, I guess, and something green to go with it. Green beans? I stockpile green beans like soap and bath tissue. Splash on some Tabasco sauce one night. Lemon, another. Canned green beans are a super-simple choice, a habit that stems from my childhood when I was responsible for meals. A fresh salad might be better for a change.

The paint has cracked into rectangular patterns like dried mud. It has no chance against the efficient metal. I relax into the work; it’s work that keeps everything but the moment at bay, the way playing tennis does with that lime-green ball flaring hard at you, the sun hot on your arms. I should get Lisa back out on the court again.

A rap snaps against the front door, breaking the thought.

I glance at the gun but decide to leave it here. To hell with it. People can’t live in chronic fear, even in an area that’s suffered three murders during the course of a year. That number might be apropos for a larger city, but not for a town of five thousand like Mustang. Especially when an identical calling card is left around each victim’s neck: blue rope.

Pulling my safety glasses to my neck, I walk to the empty living room.

A man stands at the storm door, backlit with sun, hard to see. Recognition flickers and relief sets me breathing again, though a filament of anxiety still stirs my gut like an internal spoon.

“Perry?”

Through the top screened half of the door, he says, “Yep. Just me.”

I walk over, snap the latch down.

“Hey, fella. Come on in. This is a surprise, nice one.”

He removes a cap from auburn—almost carrot—hair and steps into the house. His khaki shirt is tucked loosely into jeans secured with a leather belt so worn it carries a sheen at the edges. The angled planes of his body extend upward into sharp cheekbones. I remember, suddenly, the last time I saw him. I was waving goodbye to him as I walked across his dark yard.

That was last year. We’d invited his family to dinner because up until then Mark was the sole land surveyor in town. We wanted to welcome this new guy setting up shop in the same field. They would practically be partners, I remember thinking, or at least colleagues. Okay, to pare facts to the bone, competitors. And there’s not much work to share in Mustang. But it was the right thing to do. Two weeks later, the Birches returned the favor by entertaining us with a cookout at their new home on Ward.

And a funny thing happened, the way weather just happens.

As the evening unfolded hour by hour, I found myself more than entertained. I was surprised, beckoned, lit. Something inside me was lit, and the bright rapport was troubling.

When Perry spoke, my head turned. It just swung without my permission in the direction of his voice. His hand brushed mine once when he handed me a glass of tea; inarguably an innocent touch, the effect was unexpected, like finding a color photo inside a stack of black and whites. Being next to him felt right, and that felt wrong. The disorienting mesh of right and wrong wrapped me all evening like a toga with five hundred folds and I kept the feeling close for another week or two. Just for the heck of it, I guess. It’d been far too long since I’d felt that way. But then I put the feeling—a good green feeling despite the splash of wrong—away.

When Mark suggested we issue another invitation, I’d hesitated, and my husband, more social caterpillar than butterfly, didn’t push the issue. The days welled up into weeks, then months, with little contact between our families.

Now, here he is.

Perry brings his cap to his thigh and it mesmerizes me for a split second, this green cap with its birch logo landing on his thigh.

“Setting up Section 34 out here,” he’s telling me, “looking for corners. Saw your car. Heard Mark bought the place and thought I’d stop. Say hello.”

“If I let that stand, Mark would never forgive me. He won’t buy real estate. It’s my house.” I shrug because, though true, it sounds small. “And that makes me think of Rose Evans. Did you ever meet her or was she…well, gone…by the time you moved here? Can’t remember. Wait, yes, I can. She died a few days after our second dinner together. Rose taught me a lot about real estate.”

That Rose.”

“That one. Can you believe this crazy stuff is happening in our little town?”

“Crazy’s about the right word for it. Brit mentioned that she met her somewhere, but I never had the chance.”

“Mind if I scrape paint while we talk? I’m getting behind with this stuff.”

“Don’t stop because of me.” His mouth moves into a half-smile. “So, tell me something Rose taught you about real estate.”

I tug my safety glasses back into place and walk to a living room window, shoving the broad knife along the bottom sill. The first sounds are harsh, but they quickly grow rhythmic and are something we can easily talk over. Every window in the house has to be scraped down. This one’s as good as any and, somehow, it feels right to keep him by the front door. I’m pleased to see him. Too pleased. Something light is rising up inside me and I’ll have none of it. I chew at my bottom lip.

“Wasn’t so much what she said—more like what she did, I guess. Rose gave workshops, programs geared to help women. That was never stated—guys could attend if they wanted to but they didn’t. Not sure why. She showed us how to find a house at a good price, usually a fixer. Gave great tips, like house paint applied before ’79 had lead in the mix. That kind of thing. Showed us how to patch vinyl flooring with aluminum foil and a hot iron.” I cut him a look. “Hey, it worked. How to hang wallpaper. Yada, yada, yada. This was years ago. Rose was close to retirement age then, but there she was, buying properties and improving them. Renting them out. I got inspired.”

“Sounds like a remarkable woman.”

“She got a divorce so she could buy her first investment house. Back in the sixties, a married woman couldn’t own property without the signature of her guy, and hers was dead set against it.”

“Kiddin’ me.”

“That’s how it was then around here. Rose was just twenty but a real racehorse. Had a banker scouting houses for her. She decided on one, and they stopped at an attorney’s office to draw up the paperwork. Rose called her husband, said to get on down there and sign either mortgage or divorce papers. He drove over, scratched his name on a fresh divorce document, and that was that.” I brush crumbs of paint from my hands as I turn to look at him. “Mark feels the same way. Pales at the mention of title work and house paint. Lucky for us, I don’t have to have his John Henry to buy property. Still can’t believe Rose had to go through all that atrocious…crap. Have you heard about the tiny heart he draws on the rope?”

“Yep, like a twisted love note or something. Love you so much I’m killing you, right? Scary. Now Moore.” Perry shakes his head. “Doubt Mustang’s police are up to the task. I see them drive around town a bunch and patrol the edges. They look awfully busy, but they’re never out in the boonies when I’m surveying.”

“Out of their jurisdiction, maybe?”

“Maybe. Still, I’d go a couple miles out if it was me, wouldn’t you? Search the scrubs, shacks, the deserted trailers.” His gaze stills. “Aren’t you worried about working alone out here, Dee?”

“Nah, I keep the door locked and pack a pistol. Took a gun safety course. I know how to shoot mine and some other types—Browning, Taurus, Colt. In fact, my Glock’s in the kitchen right now. You might not’ve come around if you’d known just how trigger happy I am.”

He laughs, a sound that fills the room.

“I’ll take my chances,” he says.

I tiptoe, running the blade high, feeling the pull in my thighs. The green feeling is here again full force. I fall back on my heels.

Time to talk about his wife.

“How’s Britney doing after a whole year here?”

“Okay with it, I guess. Joined the Garden Club, has a friend or two.”

“And your girls? Must be mental whiplash after Los Angeles.”

“We like their friends. Some luck there. And they’re involved in a bunch of stuff…Chess Club, volleyball. Allison starts tennis lessons next week. Shelby’s nailed a summer job at Mazzio’s so we’ll be feeding our faces plenty of pizza, guaranteed. The girls find the murders more exciting than frightening.”

“Thus the phrase, young ’n’ dumb.”

“Feel just like a daddy rooster with his chicks scattered over the barnyard. Impossible to know where they are every second of the day.”

“So glad we don’t have to worry about Kat anymore. She’s at Missouri State, you know, though there’s a chance something like this can happen anywhere. Sad. Well, enjoy them these last few years, Perry. These days I find myself wondering what the heck’s wrong when I walk into the house. The music’s gone. Of course, it’s not all bad. The music was rap and heavy metal.”

He laughs again and I find myself wanting to watch his mouth part, his eyelids dip. Instead, I focus on the window. It’s not only age and sun damage that I’m attacking here. The lower sill was obviously used as a mini table and is wreathed in flaking rings. Made from trees, the wood still holds the need for water, the desire to chug it down. He shifts.

“Remember when we got together last summer? Your daughter was raring to go.”

“So true. Kat had her suitcase packed six weeks early. And now she’s finishing up second semester and is already enrolled in summer school. Not her mother’s daughter, I’ll tell ya. I was always ready for summer break.”

“We sure liked getting together with you.”

These last words hold more intensity. I hear their double meaning, or think I do, but decide to ignore it.

“Kat loves her freedom, hardly ever comes home. We miss her so much. I do, anyway. Mark’s such a workaholic that I doubt there’s all that much difference for him.”

The window frame is stripped of paint now. White dust powders the floor, looking disconcertingly like ant poison. I feel as if I’ve betrayed my husband in some important way. “Not that they aren’t close,” I add, meeting his gaze. “Sometimes I think dads and daughters are close whether they spend time together or not.”

“You’re right, there.”

As we trade smiles I register that unusual intimacy again. Flushing, I walk to another window to put more distance between us. Which is silly, out of proportion to what’s going on. One of us says something. The other one says something back, correct? It’s called conversation. People do it all the time.

I attack the length of the frame with more muscle. Flying skeins of chips tap the plastic of my glasses and the side of my neck, skittering along my skin. Crumbs of paint are already finding their way under the neckline of my T-shirt. Except for the scrape of blade on wood, silence wraps us. A moth the color of chalk flutters on the other side of the glass. I find myself thinking that he should go now.

I mean, it’s really time for him to go.

But Perry stands in the empty room with the cap held in long fingers as if he’ll always do so. Hyperaware of him, I see a fresh scratch on his arm, the Band-Aid stuck to the side of one thumb. Surveying is physical work. Mark has plenty of minor battle wounds, too, mostly from fighting greenbriers.

He watches me just as closely. His gray eyes absorb me.

The light in the room has acquired a varnished depth. The late afternoon sun lowers itself into the swipe of sand just above the horizon, establishing the start of a sunset. What’s that dust in the air called? Loess. The part of the earth that’s always unsettled.

Despite the silence, I feel easy in his presence.

Too easy.

I roll my shoulders. An acrid taste sits at the back of my tongue. Hopefully, my lungs know what to do with the dots of paint that must be sifting in. I picture tiny somethings at work with mops in the black rooms of my body. Walking to the work pail by the door, I grab a paper mask, pull it on.

“Just call me Doc Tamarack,” I say glibly. “So glad you stopped by…tell Britney I said hello. I’ll call her sometime.”

Lie. And he knows it.

“Okay.”

Yet he stays solidly where he is. More time drops off into the yellowed light and I stop working the wood with a grunt. Have a couple of minutes passed, an hour? Not sure. Stripping off my mask and glasses, I turn to face him, but the words I was going to say evaporate on my tongue. There’s no role playing here. No social debris. We stand in a place empty of everything but ourselves and our watching of each other. It’s like standing side by side in an intimate hall of art where my every thought is a painting that he can see. Or something like that. I can’t quite place it.

We stand this way a long moment, looking at each other, then he nods slightly and leaves.

From the window I watch the black Jeep Cherokee roll away, jolting on a pothole that I still need to fill. Part of my mind is on the gravel I need and part is suspended. The sound of the fading engine tangles somehow with the air in the room and the glint of the blade I grip in my right hand. The fingers of my left are slightly splayed. I shake myself lightly and walk to the kitchen. Grabbing a cloth, I go back to the living room to wipe the loose paint from the sills. But every movement is awkward now, large with adrenaline.

I give up, toss the rag on the floor, and walk out of the house. Shoving my Accord into gear, I coast north on Highway 80, heading toward Mustang.

Can’t go home, though. Not yet. Maybe I’ll go see Lisa.

My car, all on its own, seems to go faster and faster. Or is it the road? The road’s going faster and faster. Floating across my mind like a wisp of smoke is the thought that I should check the speedometer.

But my eyes stay locked on the moving road, and the thought goes away.

~ from Blue Rope, a suspense novel by Ann Casey