Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Julius House

Charlaine Harris

  THE JULIUS FAMILY vanished six years before I married Martin Bartell. They disappeared so abruptly that some people in Lawrenceton phoned the National Enquirer to tell a reporter that the Juliuses had been abducted by aliens. I had been home from college for several years and was working in the Lawrenceton Public Library when - whatever it was - happened to T. C. , Hope, and Charity Julius. And I was as full of speculation as anyone else. But as time went by with no trace of the Julius family, I forgot to wonder about them, except for an occasional frisson of creepiness when the name "Julius" came into a conversation.

  Then Martin gave me their house as a wedding present. To say I was surprised to get a house is an understatement: "stunned" is more accurate. We did want to buy a house, and we had been looking at fancier homes firmly anchored in the newer suburbs of Lawrenceton, an old southern town that itself is actually in the regrettable process of becoming a commuter suburb of Atlanta. Most of the houses we'd been considering were large, with several big rooms suitable for entertainment; too big for a couple with no children, in my opinion. But Martin had this streak that yearned for the outer signs of financial health. He drove a Mercedes, for example, and he wanted our house to be a house where a Mercedes would look at home. We'd looked at the Julius house because I'd made a point of telling my friend and realtor Eileen Norris to put it on the list. I'd seen it when I was searching for a house for myself alone.

  But Martin hadn't loved the Julius house instantly, as I had. In fact, I could tell he found my affection for the house strange. His arched dark eyebrows rose, the pale brown eyes regarded me questioningly.

  "It's a little isolated," he said.

  "Just a mile out of town. I can almost see my mother's house from here. "

  "It's smaller than the house on Cherry Lane. "

  "I could take care of it myself. "

  "You don't want a maid?"

  "Why would I?" I don't have anything else to do, I added privately. (And that was not Martin's fault, but my own. I'd quit my job at the Lawrenceton library before I'd even met him, and as time went on, I regretted it more and more. ) "There's that apartment over the garage. Would you want to rent it out?"

  "I guess so. "

  "And the garage being separate from the house . . . "

  "There's a covered walkway. "

  Eileen tactfully poked around elsewhere while Martin and I conducted this little dialogue.

  "You do wonder what happened to them," Eileen said later, as she locked the door behind her and dropped the labeled key into her purse. And Martin looked at me with a sudden illumination in his eyes.

  So that's why, when we exchanged wedding gifts, I was stunned at his handing me the deed to the Julius house.

  And he was equally bowled over by my gift. I'd been amazingly clever.

  I'd given him real estate, too.

  Choosing Martin's present had been terrifying. The plain fact was we didn't know each other that well, and we were very different. What could I give him? Had he ever expressed a want?

  I sat in my brown suede-y chair in the "family" room of the townhouse I'd lived in for years now and cast my thoughts around frantically trying to think of the perfect gift. I had no idea what his previous wife had given him, but I was determined this present would be more meaningful. Madeleine the cat spilled over from my lap to the cushion, her heavy warm mass moving slightly with her purring. Madeleine seemed to know when I began thinking she was more trouble than she was worth, and she would make some demonstration of an affection I was sure was false. Madeleine had been Jane Engle's cat, and my spinster friend Jane had died and left me a fortune, so I suppose Madeleine reminded me of good things - friendship and money.

  Thinking of Jane led me to think of the fact that I'd wrapped up the sale of her house, so now I had even more money. I began thinking of real estate in general - and suddenly, I knew what Martin wanted. Sophisticated corporation man Martin was from rural Ohio, oddly enough. The only obvious tie-in this had with his present life was that he now worked for Pan-Am Agra, manufacturing farming products in conjunction with some of the more agricultural Latin American countries, principally Guatemala and Brazil. Martin's father had died early in Martin's life, and his mother had remarried. Martin and his sister Barby had never gotten along with husband number two, Joseph Flocken, particularly after the death of Martin's mother. Martin had told me bitterly that the farm was falling to ruin because the stepfather was too consumed with arthritis to work it, yet he wouldn't sell, to spite Martin and his sister.

  By golly, I'd buy the farm for him.

  The tricky part had been thinking of a good reason to be absent from town for a few days. I'd finally told Martin I was going to visit my best friend Amina, now living in Houston and into the second trimester of her pregnancy. I phoned Amina and asked her if she and Hugh would mind letting their answering machine screen their calls for a few days. I'd call her every night and if Martin had called me, I could call him back from Ohio. Amina thought my idea was very romantic, and reminded me she'd be driving over to Lawrenceton soon, with her husband, Hugh, for the festivities preceding the wedding and the wedding itself. "I can hardly wait to meet Martin," she said happily.

  "Don't turn on your charm for him, now," I said cheerfully, and suddenly became aware I meant it. I felt quite savage when I thought about Martin being charmed by another woman.

  "How charming can I be?" Amina shrieked. "I'm poking out to China, honey!"

  I figured Amina probably had a slight convex curve to her tummy. We closed with our usual chatter, but my jealous reaction gave me thinking material for that flight to Pittsburgh (the nearest airport), and on the drive west in the rental car to the town nearest Martin's family's farm. This town, Corinth, a little smaller than Lawrenceton, boasted a Holiday Inn where I'd reserved a room, not being sure what else I'd find. You have to understand, for me this was an exotic adventure. Though I told myself repeatedly that other people traveled by themselves to unfamiliar places all the time, I was highly nervous. I'd studied the map repeatedly during the plane trip, I'd sat in the airport parking lot anxiously checking over the Ford Taurus I'd rented, I'd marveled over the fact that no one in the world knew exactly where I was.

  My first impression of Corinth, Ohio, was of how familiar it seemed. True, the land configuration was slightly different, and the people dressed a little differently, and maybe the prevailing architecture was more heavily red brick, more often two-story. . . but this was a small farming center grouped around a downtown with inadequate parking space, and there were plenty of John Deere tractors in the big sales lot right outside town. I checked in to the Holiday Inn and called a realtor. There were only three listed; Corinth was modest about its salability. The company that advertised specializing in farms ("agricultural acreage") was Bishop Realty. I hesitated, my hand actually on the receiver. I was about to do some lying, and I wasn't used to it.

  "Bishop Realty, Mrs. Mary Anne Bishop speaking," said a brisk voice. "This is Aurora Teagarden," I said clearly, and waited for the snicker. It was more like a snort. "I want to look at some farms in the area, specifically ones that are not in the best shape. I want somewhere pretty isolated. " Mary Anne Bishop digested this in thoughtful silence.

  "What size property did you want to see?" she asked finally. "Not too big," I said vaguely, since I hadn't wriggled that information out of Martin.

  "I could line some things up for you to see tomorrow morning," Mrs. Bishop said. She sounded rather cautious about it. "If you could tell me - are you actually planning to farm the land? If I knew what you intended to do with it, maybe I could select propertie
s to show you. . . that would suit you better. " She was trying awfully hard not to sound nosy.

  I closed my eyes and drew a breath, glad she couldn't see me. "I represent a small but growing religious community," I said. "We want a property that we can repair ourselves, and modify to suit our needs. We'll be doing some farming, but mostly we want the extra land for privacy. " "Well," Mrs. Bishop said, "you're not Moonies, are you? Or those Druvidians?"

  Druids? Branch Davidians?

  "Gosh, no," I said firmly. "We're Christian pacifists. We don't believe in drinking or smoking. We don't dress funny, or ask for donations on street corners, or preach in the stores, or anything!" With an effort, Mrs. Bishop joined in my light laughter. The realtor gave me clear directions to her office, recommended a couple of restaurants for supper ("If you're allowed to do that"), and said that she'd see me in the morning. I located the soft drink machine, bought a Coke, and watched the news while sipping a bourbon-and-Coke made from the second half of my airline bottle. I was glad Mrs. Bishop wasn't there to see the conduct of this purported member of a religious cult.

  After a while, feeling strangely anonymous in this little town where no one knew me, I drove around, staring through the fading light at the town Martin had known so well growing up. I went past the ugly brick high school where he had played football. Through a light drizzle in the gray spring evening, I peered at the houses where Martin must have had friends, acquaintances, girls he'd dated, boys he'd gone drinking with. Some of them, perhaps most of them, were surely still here in this town . . . maybe men he'd gone to Vietnam with. Perhaps they mentioned it as seldom as he did.

  I felt as if I were eavesdropping on Martin's life. I had a book in my purse, as usual (tonight it was the paperback of Liza Cody's Stalker), and I read as I ate supper at the diner Mrs. Bishop had recommended. The menu was slightly alien - none of the southern diner standbys. But the chili was good, and it was with reluctance I left half of everything on my plate. Now that I was over thirty, gravity and calories seemed to be having a little more effect than they used to. When you're four feet, eleven inches, a few extra calories end up looking like a lot.

  No one bothered me, and the waitress was pleasant, so I had a nice time. I took the light rain as a sign I should not walk or run tonight, though I'd virtuously brought my sweats and running shoes. As a palliative to my conscience, I did some stretches and calisthenics when I got back to my room. The exercise did relieve some of the cramped feeling the plane and the long car ride had caused. I checked in with Amina, who told me Martin had indeed left a message on her machine not thirty minutes ago.

  I smiled fatuously, since no one was there to see me, and called him. The minute I heard his voice, I missed him with a dreadful ache. I pictured his meticulously groomed thick white hair, the black arched brows and pale brown eyes, the heavily muscled arms and chest. He was at work, he'd told Amina's machine, so I could imagine him at his huge desk, covered with piles of paper that were nonetheless neatly stacked and separate. He would be wearing a spotless white shirt, but he would have taken his tie off when the last employee left. His suit jacket would be hanging on a padded hanger on a hook in his very own bathroom.

  I loved him painfully.

  I couldn't remember ever having told Martin lies before, and I kept having to remind myself of where I was supposed to be.

  "Is Amina talking a lot about the baby?" he asked. "Oh, yes. She's scheduled to take Lamaze in a couple of months, and Hugh's gung-ho about coaching her. " I hesitated a moment. "Did you take Lamaze when Barrett was born?"

  "I don't remember taking the course, but I was there when he was born, so I guess Cindy and I did," he said doubtfully.

  Cindy. Wife number one, and mother of Martin's only child, Barrett, now trying to become a successful actor in Los Angeles.

  Martin was saying, "Roe, is Amina being pregnant giving you ideas?" I couldn't tell how he felt from his voice. He'd spoken so much about Barrett lately I'd felt it wasn't a good time to talk about another child. "How do you feel about that?" I asked.

  "I don't know. I'm pretty old to be changing diapers. It's daunting to think of starting all over again. "

  "We can talk about it when I get home. "

  We talked about a few other things Martin wanted to do when I got home. By a pleasant coincidence, I wanted to do them, too.

  After I hung up, I picked up the little Corinth phone book. Before I could reconsider, I flipped to the B's.

  Bartell, C. H. , 1202 Archibald Street.

  Now, this may sound fishy, but up until that moment I hadn't thought of Martin's former wife being in Corinth.

  I discovered I was burning with the urge to see Cindy Bartell. A particularly ridiculous jealousy had flared in my heart; I wanted to see her. Wise or not, I decided to lay eyes on Cindy Bartell while I was here. I took off my glasses and relaxed on the slablike motel bed, with an uneasy feeling that I was being seriously stupid, and wracked my brain to try to remember what Cindy did for a living. Surely Martin had mentioned it at some point or other? He was not one to discuss his past much, though he seemed fascinated with the placidity of mine. . . .

  I almost fell asleep fully dressed, and when I forced myself to get up and wash my face and put on my nightgown, I had dredged up the fact that Cindy Bartell was, or had been, a florist.

  The little telephone book informed me that there was a listing for a Cindy's Flowers.

  I fell asleep as if I'd been sandbagged, still not having decided if my good taste and good sense would keep me away from Cindy's shop.

  The next morning I showered briskly, put my mass of long, wavy hair up in a bun that I hoped would make me look religious, went light on the makeup, and cleaned my glasses carefully. I wore a suit, a khaki-colored one with a bronze silk blouse, and modest brown pumps. I wanted to look ultrarespectable, so Mrs. Bishop would be reassured, yet I wanted the religious cult front to be objectionable enough to tempt Joseph Flocken to sell the farm to spite his stepchildren. Unfortunately, I didn't know the location of the farm, since Flocken didn't have a phone listing. I was simply hoping I'd spot it during my driving around with the real estate agent.

  I scanned myself in the motel mirror, thought I would pass whatever test Mrs.

  Bishop chose to give, and went off to have a little breakfast before I met her.

  Her directions proved excellent, which boded well for her efficiency. Bishop Realty was in an old house right off Main Street. As I entered the reception area, a door to the right opened, and a tall, husky blond woman emerged. She was wearing a cheap navy blue suit and a white blouse. "The Lord be with you," I said promptly.

  "Miss Teagarden?" she said cautiously, after a glance at my ring finger. Naturally, I'd left my huge engagement ring in a zippered pouch in my purse. It hardly fit my new image.

  "I do have a few places to show you this morning," Mary Anne Bishop said, still obviously feeling her way with me. "I hope you like one of them. We look forward to having your group settle in our area. It is a church, I understand?" She waved me into her office and we sat down.

  "We're a small pacifist religious group," I said with equal caution, wondering about tax exemptions and other hitches connected with claiming to be an actual church. "We like privacy, and we're not rich," I continued. "That's why we want a farm a fair way out of town, one that we can fix up. " "And you want at least - what - sixty acres?" asked Mrs. Bishop. "Oh, at least. Or more. It would depend," I said vaguely. I had no idea how big the Bartell/Flocken farm was.

  "Excuse me for asking, but I was wondering why your group was interested in this part of Ohio. You seem southern, and there is so much farming land available down there . . . "

  "God told us to come here," I said.

  "Oh," Mrs. Bishop said blankly. She shrugged her broad shoulders and assumed her Selling Smile. "Well, let's go find that place that's just right for
you. We'll go in my Bronco, since we're looking at farms. " So for a whole morning I drove around in rural Ohio with Mary Anne Bishop, looking at fields and fences and run-down farmhouses, thinking about how cold and isolated some of these farms would be in winter, how the land would look covered with snow. It made me shiver to imagine it. None of these farms was Martin's.

  How on earth could I get her to show me the right place? Evidently Flocken hadn't listed it with anyone, was just sitting on it to keep Martin and Barby out. I began to hate Joseph Flocken, sight unseen. We returned to town for lunch, after which Mary Anne excused herself to recheck the afternoon's appointments. I sat alone in the waiting room and fretted about seeing the right property. Even after that, maybe he wouldn't sell to me. I got up to look in the mirror on the wall above a tiny decorative table, a little closer to Mary Anne's office. My hair, which leads its own life, was escaping from the bun in a tightly waving chestnut nimbus. I began repair work. If I listened really hard, I found, I could make out Mary Anne's words. "So I'll bring her out this afternoon, Inez, if you're ready. No, she doesn't wear funny clothes or anything like that. She's tiny, and young, and she's wearing a suit that cost a mint. . . "

  Damn! I should have gone and picked out something at WalMart. ". . . but she's very polite and not at all weird. A real southern accent, you-all!"

  I winced.

  "No, I don't think the pastor would mind," Mary Anne said persuasively. "This group evidently doesn't drink, smoke, or believe in having guns. They can only have one wife. It sounds pretty respectable, and if they're off in the country by themselves. . . well, I know, but she has the money, it seems . . . . kay, see you in a little while. "

  Mary Anne strode out of her office with a bright face and a sheaf of papers on the various places we'd see this afternoon. My heart sank down to join my spirits.

  It was a long afternoon. I learned more about agriculture in mideastern Ohio than I ever wanted to know. I met many nice people who really wanted to sell their farms, and felt sorry for most of them, victims of our economic times. But I couldn't afford all those farms.

  By four o'clock I'd toured everything Mary Anne Bishop had lined up. There were three more places to see the next morning. I was pretending to consider seriously two of the properties we'd looked at, but found sufficient fault with them to make her eager for tomorrow. We were pretty sick of each other by the time I got in my rental car, which had been parked at her office all day. I'd tried a couple of times to steer her conversation toward the years Martin had been growing up here, but she'd never mentioned the Bartells, though she and her husband were both natives of the town.

  I missed Martin dreadfully.

  I was almost through with my paperback, so when I saw a bookstore on my way back to the motel, I pulled into its parking lot with happy anticipation. Any place books are massed together makes me feel at home. It was a small, pleasant shop in a little strip with a dry cleaner's and a hair salon. A bell over the door tinkled as I went in, and a gray-haired woman on a stool behind the cash register looked up from her own paperback as I paused just inside the door, savoring the feeling of being surrounded by words. "Do you want anything in particular?" she asked politely. Her glasses matched her hair, and she was wearing, unfortunately, fuchsia. But her smile was wonderful and her voice was rich.

  "Just looking. Where are your mysteries?"

  "Right wall toward the rear," she said, and went back to her book. I had a happy fifteen or twenty minutes. I found a new James Lee Burke and an Adam Hall I hadn't read. The true crime section was disappointing, but I was willing to forgive that. Not everyone was a buff, like me. The woman rang up my books with the same cheerful live-and-let-live air. Without thinking at all, I asked her where Cindy's Flowers might be. "Around the corner and one block down," she said succinctly, and reopened her book.

  I started my rental car and hesitated for maybe thirty seconds before going to Cindy's Flowers instead of the Holiday Inn.

  It looked like a prosperous place on the outside, with a very pretty Easter-decorated front window. I powdered my nose and inexplicably took the pins out of my hair and brushed it out before I left the car. The front of the store held displays of both silk flowers and live plants, and some samples of special arrangements for weddings and funerals. There was a huge refrigerator case, a small counter for paying. The large work area in the back was almost totally open to view. Two women were working there. One, an artificial blond in her fifties, was putting white lilies on a styrofoam cross. The other, who had very short dark hair and was about ten years younger, seemed to be making a "congratulations on the male baby" bouquet in a blue straw basket shaped like a bassinet. Being a florist was a rites-of-passage occupation, like being a caterer - or a minister.

  The women glanced at each other to see who was going to help me, and the dark-haired woman said, "You finish, Ruth, you're almost done. " She came forward to help me silently and quickly in her practical Nikes, ready to listen but obviously in a hurry.

  "What can I do for you?" she asked.

  She had large dark eyes and a pixie haircut. Her face and her whole body were lean. She was beautifully made up and wore bifocals. Her nails were long and oval and covered with clear polish.

  "Um. I'm just here for a couple of days, and I suddenly realized my mother's birthday is tomorrow. I'd like to send her some flowers. " "From the sunny South," she commented, as she picked up a pad and pen. "What did you have in mind?"

  I wasn't used to being so identifiable. Every time I opened my mouth, people knew one thing about me for sure; I wasn't from around here. "Mixed spring flowers, something around forty dollars," I said at random. She wrote that down. "Where are you from?" she asked suddenly, without looking up.

  "Georgia. "

  Her pen stopped for a second.

  "Where do you want these sent?"

  Uh-oh. I'd walked right into this. If I'd had the brains God gave a goat, I'd have sent the flowers to Amina, but since I'd said they were for my mother, I felt stupidly obliged to send them to my mother. I had sustained a deception all day, and perhaps I was just tired of deceiving. "Twelve-fourteen Plantation Drive, Lawrenceton, Georgia. "

  She kept writing steadily, and I shed an inaudible sigh of relief. "It's an hour later in Georgia, so I don't know if I can get anything there today," Cindy Bartell pointed out. "I'll call first thing in the morning, and I'll do my best to find someone who can deliver them tomorrow. Will that do?" She looked up, her eyes questioning.

  "That'll be fine," I said weakly.

  "You have a local number?"

  "The Holiday Inn. " She was past being pretty; she was striking. She was a good six inches taller than I.

  "How'd you want to pay?"


  "Cash? Credit card? Check?"

  "Cash," I said firmly, because that way I wouldn't have to give her my name. I thought I was being crafty.

  I'd been watching the blond woman work on the funeral cross; I always like to watch other people do something well. When I looked back at Cindy Bartell, I caught her staring at me. She glanced down at my left hand, but of course my engagement ring was still zipped in my purse. "Do you have relatives here, Miss?"

  "No," I said with a bland smile. And I handed over my money.

  I am not totally without resources.

  As I picked up supper from a fast food restaurant and took it to the Holiday Inn, I wondered why I'd done such a stupid thing. I couldn't come up with a very satisfactory answer. I hadn't given Martin's past life much thought, and I'd been overwhelmed with sudden curiosity. Surely prospective wife number two always wonders about wife number one?

  I watched the news as I ate, my book propped up in front of me to occupy my eyes during the ads. It was a relief to be myself after pretending to be someone else all day. While I enjoyed imagining this or that in my head from time to time, su
stained deception was another matter.

  The knock at my door scared me out of my wits.

  No one knew where I was except Amina, and she was in Houston. I pitched the remains of my supper in the trash on my way to the door. I'd put the chain on. Now I opened the door a crack.

  Cindy Bartell was standing there looking tense and miserable.

  "Hi," I said tentatively.

  "Can I come in?"

  I had some bad thoughts: "Rejected Wife Murders Bride-to-Be in Motel Room. " She interpreted my hesitation correctly. "Whoever you are, I don't mean you any harm," she said earnestly, as embarrassed by the melodrama as I was. I opened the door and stood aside.

  "Are you. . . " She stood in the middle of the floor and twisted her keys around and around. "Are you Martin's new fianc¨¦e?"

  "Yes," I said, after a moment's thought.

  "Then I'm not making a fool of myself. " She looked relieved. I thought that remained to be seen. There was an awkward pause. Now we really didn't know what to say.

  "As you know," she began, "or I think you know?" She paused to raise her eyebrows interrogatively. I nodded. "So you know I'm, I was, Martin's wife. " "Yes. "

  "Martin doesn't know you're here. "

  "No. I'm here to buy his wedding present. " I indicated she should have one of the two uncomfortable chairs on either side of the round table. She sat on the edge of it, doing the thing with the key ring again. "He told Barrett he was getting married again, and Barrett called me," she explained. "Barrett said his dad told him you were very small," she added wryly, "and he wasn't kidding. "

  "For Martin's wedding present," I said steadily, "I want to buy him the farm he grew up on. Can you tell me where it is? I haven't told the realtor I want to see this one particular farm because of course she'll know I want it for some reason, and Joseph Flocken won't sell to me if he knows I'm going to give it to Martin. "

  "You're right, he won't. I'll tell you what you need to know. But then I'm going to give you some advice. You're a lot younger than me. " She sighed. "It's a good idea, getting the farm for him," she began. "He always hated someone else having it, someone else letting it fall into ruin. But Joseph always had it in for Martin, in particular, though he wasn't too fond of Barby. I'm not either, for that matter. One of the disadvantages of being married to Martin is that Barby becomes your sister-in-law. . . I'm sorry, I promised myself I wasn't going to be bitchy. Barby had a hard time as a teenager. The reason the blood's so bad between the kids and Flocken -  Martin'll never tell you this, Barby told me - she got pregnant when she was sixteen, and when Mr. Flocken found out, he stood up in front of the whole church - not a mainstream church, one of these little off-sects - or off sex, ha! - and told everyone in the church about it, with Barby sitting right there, and asked their advice - so she got sent to one of those homes and missed a year of school and had her baby, and gave it up for adoption. And nothing ever happened to the kid who was the dad, of course, he just went around town telling everyone what a slut she was, and what a stud he was. So Martin beat him up and blacked Mr. Flocken's eye. " What a dreadful story. I tried to imagine being publicly denounced in that fashion, and cringed at the thought.

  "Okay, the farm is south of town on Route 8, and you can't see the house from the road, but there's a mailbox with 'Flocken' on it by the gate. " I copied the directions onto the little pad the motel left in the drawer below the telephone. "Thanks," I told her. And I braced myself for the advice. "Martin has a lot of good qualities," she said unexpectedly.

  She was giving the good news before the bad.

  "But you don't know everything about him," she went on slowly.

  I had long suspected that.

  "I don't want to know unless he tells me," I said. That stopped her dead. And I couldn't quite believe that had come out of my mouth. "Don't tell me," I said. "He has to. "

  "He never will," she said with calm certainty. Then her mouth twisted. "I'm not trying to be bitchy, and I wish you luck - I think. He never was bad to me. He just never told me everything. "

  I watched her while she stared into a corner of the room, gathering her strength around her, regretting already her display of emotion. Then she just got up and left.

  It took everything I had not to get up and run after her.

  The next morning I met Mary Anne Bishop at her office. I was in a brisk frame of mind. I asked her which farms we were to see today, looked at the spec sheets, and asked that we see the one on Route 8 first. Looking a little puzzled, she agreed, and off we went. I looked carefully at each mailbox as we passed, and spotted one labeled "Flocken" just before the farm we'd come to see, which we toured quickly. I paved the way by telling Mary Anne that the area felt right, but the farmhouse was too small. On our way back to town, I asked her about the road that led from the mailbox over a low hill. Presumably, the farmhouse was not too far from that. "I liked not having the house visible from the road," I commented. "Who owns that property?"

  "Oh, that's the Bartell farm," she said instantly. "The man who owns it now is called Jacob - no, Joseph -  Flocken, and he's got a reputation for being cranky. " But she pulled to the side of the road and tapped her teeth with a pencil thoughtfully.

  "We could just drop in and see," Mary Anne said finally. "I've heard he wants to move, so even though he hasn't listed the farm, we can check. "

  The farmhouse was large and dilapidated. It had been white. Now the paint was peeling and the shutters were falling off. It was two-story, undistinguished, blocky. The barn to the right side and back a hundred yards or so was in much worse shape. It had housed no animals for some time, apparently. A rusted tractor sat lopsidedly in a field of weeds and mud. A tall, spare man came out of the screeching screen door. He didn't have his teeth in, and he was leaning heavily on a cane. But he was shaven and his overalls were clean.

  "Good morning, Mr. Flocken!" Mary Anne said. "This lady is in the market for a farm, and she wanted to know if she could take a look at yours. " Joseph Flocken didn't speak for a long moment. He looked at me suspiciously.

  I looked straight back at him, trying hard to keep my face guileless. "I represent the Workers for the Lord," I said, making it up on the spot. "We want to buy a farm in this area that needs work, a secluded farm that we can renovate. When the work is done, we'll use the dormitories we build as shelter for our members. "

  "Why this farm?" he said, speaking for the first time.

  Mary Anne looked at me. Why indeed?

  "Not only does it meet the criteria my church lays down for me," I said staunchly, praying for forgiveness, "but God guided me here. " Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mary Anne looking over the mess of mud and weeds dubiously. Perhaps she was thinking God apparently had it in for me. "Well, then, look around," Joseph Flocken said abruptly. "Then come on in and look at the house. "

  There wasn't much to look at outside, so we murmured together about acreage and rights-of-way and wells, and then went inside.

  Martin's childhood home.

  I gave Flocken some credit for trying to keep the kitchen, the downstairs bathroom, and his bedroom clean. Beyond that he had not troubled, and observing the pain it caused him to move, I could not blame him. I tried to imagine Martin as a child running out this kitchen door to play, climbing up the stairs to the second floor to go to bed, but I just could not do it. Despite the immeasurable difference loving parents would have made, I could not see this place as anything but lonely and bleak. So great was my wish to be away that I negotiated for the farm in an abstract way. Flocken obviously relished details of how the church members would have to work their butts off to build their own shelter, so I managed several references to the strict work habits my church required and encouraged. He nodded his gray head in agreement. This man did not want anyone to have a free ride, or even a pleasant one.

sp; He and Mary Anne began to discuss the selling price, and suddenly I realized I had won. All it took was someone asking, someone he was convinced Barby and Martin would not want the farm to go to.

  I wanted to leave.

  I leaned forward and looked into his mean old eyes.

  "I'll give you this much and no more," I said, and told him the sum.

  Mary Anne said, "That's a fair price. "

  He said, "It's worth more. "

  "No, it's not," I snapped.

  He looked taken aback. "You're a tough little thing," he said finally. "All right, then. I don't think I can take another winter here, and my sister in Cleveland has a spare bedroom she says I can have. " And just like that, it was accomplished.

  I shook his hand with reluctance; but it had to be done.