The Empty House
She was Thirty five-ish, and excited. She hadn’t been on a date for a few years. Completely unexpected, this break-your-heart handsome man had asked her out.
Gwen was no movie star, but she was neat, trim, and well-groomed due to her job at the travel agency. She had bumped into Larry at her neighborhood Thai takeout, when she turned too quickly. He had helped her regain her balance. She ate her supper with her mind more on the encounter than on her noodles. He was so gorgeous.
She noticed him several more times through the following month. She soon started eating more Thai. The greetings grew into short banters, then into longer discussions.
One day, Larry waited for her outside the Thai takeout. “How would you like to go eat somewhere sit down?”
“Yes.” Shyness spiked and she’d found herself incapable of saying more. He led the way to a local, takeout style burger place, but with seating. Conversation always circled back to travel. Then he asked her out on a real date.
She felt her heart rate rise up a notch when he rang the doorbell.
“Well, hello,” he said, while scanning her up and down rather deliberately, taking in her tan pants, beige silk shirt and navy blazer. “If you’re ready, we should get going.”
“Oh, yes,” she replied. She whirled over to the coat rack a few steps from the door, grabbed her purse and pulled the door closed behind her, hearing the snap as it locked shut. He escorted her to the passenger side of his car, opened the door, waited for her to pull in legs and handbag, assisted with her seatbelt, pulling it out and waiting for her to click it in before releasing it.
Gwen’s shyness peaked as he entered the car, but was soon dispelled as he took charge of the conversation.
“So, tell me. I’ve been doing most of the talking,” he finally said. “What is your favorite type of food?”
She felt tongue tied, with so many answers to the question. “Uh, I guess most food appeals to me.”
“Tell me more.”
“Uh, well, I really like desserts. I know people love chocolate, but I like complex flavors. Millionaire shortbread. You have to get the caramel just right.” Once she started talking, it was like a faucet had been turned on. “I hope to have a bed and breakfast. I told you about that before, and I’ll fix fancy brunches. Brioche, muffins...”
“Sounds wonderful. I’ll have to come for one of your brunches sometime.”
She went silent, feeling shy again,. Her great aunt Gertie had left her a nine room farmhouse. It needed some TLC. Preoccupied, she missed his next comment.
He noticed and repeated his question. “You didn’t answer about what you might like at Farm to Table.”
“Oh, I haven’t ever been there and they get most of their food from very local sources, and even their alcohol beverages come from Maine. Isn’t it something? There are wines, beers of all types, and even vodka and I think I read about some whiskey being produced in Skowhegan or somewhere.”
“I just think vodka is vodka. They charge you extra because it comes from a small local company.”
Softly, she responded. “I don’t know much, just what I hear. It just seems like other people have more experience. What I heard is they have an excellent Merlot, and I’ve never had it.”
“Well, I say it’s all pretty much the same. And after the second or third drink, you can’t tell what it is you’re drinking. It could be bathtub gin, for all your taste buds know.”
“That’s an interesting topic. Not very long ago I ran across an article about prohibition. There were some who just made it, really, in bathtubs, by the tubful, and sold it.” She heard herself rambling again.
“That’s interesting. Hope you brought your appetite. What we’ll pay for, here, I hope you’ll eat.”
“Yes, oh, yes. I don’t ever fake eat.”
She was glad he hadn’t heard the last part since he’d gotten out of the car. She let him lead her into the fancy restaurant. White table clothes dripped to the floor over a three room floor plan. Larry led her to the ski chalet room. She missed the comment Larry made after they were seated.
Larry repeated it. “Do you want anything to drink? A cocktail? Maybe some bathtub gin?”
She blushed at the fun he was poking, but tried not to let it show. “Yes, that would be nice.”
The waiter appeared. “May I get you drinks? Appetizers?”
“No, no appetizers, please. Merlot for the lady. I’d like just a Bourbon with soda.”
Silence, after the waiter left. Larry was looking around the room, seeming to study other patrons, the decorations, even the fake fireplace.
She studied her menu.
Larry startled her when he spoke. “Have you decided, then?”
“Uh, yes. The halibut looks very good.”
“I don’t have much use for fish. I think I’ll go with the Veal Parm, then. Fettuccini. That’s pasta, right?”
“Right.” The one word had her cheeks flaming, as she curbed her desire to explain.
“Good. I love pasta. And Veal. That’s just a fancy way of saying beef.”
Just then the waiter appeared with their cocktails. “Have we decided?” He looked to Larry.
“We have.” Larry put down his menu. I want that Veal thingy, with the pasta, and she wants the fish, the one with herbs.”
“Very well. Those come with a salad, with house dressing, if that’s all right.”
“Fine by me,” answered Larry.
The waiter still didn’t acknowledge Gwen.
“I hope that won’t take too long. I’m really hungry.” Larry took a big gulp of his Bourbon and checked his watch.
She wanted to ask about his life, but when she did, he started on about some other topic.
He asked her more questions about family, her work and property she owned.
Gwen sometimes nodded and often smiled and felt herself relax as the Merlot worked its magic. She found the wine sweet and fruity and only gently alcoholic. Her food was accompanied with a side plate that had sour cream, butter, and lemon wedges.
Larry’s veal was served on a fairly large deep dish, with wide fettuccini, and also artfully arranged, with parsley and a lemon wedge on one side.
“Looks wonderful,” Gwen said to the waiter. “Smells wonderful.”
Gwen tucked in. She noticed Larry had scoffed his meal down and was looking at his watch again. When she had almost finished, he signaled the waiter.
“Yes, sir? Was everything all right? What might I get you for dessert?”
Larry cut him off. “Just the bill please.”
“Yes, sir. Certainly.”
“Can you believe that? For just two meals? It was a good meal, eh?”
“Movies, here we come,” bayed Larry, outside the door. They sped away from the curb.
Popcorn smells and noise in the lobby as many animated movie goers crowded in at the same time, and a press of bodies mingled with the sound of popping corn, filled Gwen with a sense of excitement. “Two for Speed Track,” she heard Larry say, above the din. He then ordered two large popcorns, but no drinks.
He handed her one of the buckets and she followed him up the narrow hall, to the appropriate door, down the aisle and to a seat. The roar of unmuffled cars filled the theater as the opening title scenes scrolled.
Larry was a noisy watcher, commenting on racing scenes and a few of the personal interactions, but softly, almost under his breath. Apparently, this was expected, as others did it, too. He urged the heroes, including the female ones, on to victory both on and off the race track. He booed when the villain short-circuited his opponent’s car, and when the lone female racer blamed the hero wrongly.
It was almost ten when they exited the theater. Gwen’s ears were still ringing from all the roar of race cars, magnified by the surround sound.
“What did you just say,” she asked Larry.
“A party. We’ll go to a party.
Gwen was tired after the long day. She’d looked forward to the date, but had had enough, and felt drained.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“I think I’ll just go home.”
“Babe, you’re with me. I’m not taking you home.” He was bordering on anger.
She imagined how it would play out at the party. They all expected more.
“Babe,” she mocked. “It isn’t going to happen. I’ll just grab one of those taxi cabs.”
She sighed with relief when the taxi dropped her off. She was home. She was so focused on getting comfortable that her brain didn’t process what her eyes saw.
What she saw was a vacant house. She stepped back out the door and looked around. This was her house. She walked back in. Nothing was left but detritus. Walls, some dust bunnies and dirt. Nothing. Even the shower curtain and liner were gone. The vanity was missing.
She finally dialed 911.
The operator told her to not touch anything.
“You don’t understand. There’s nothing to touch.” She was sobbing.
“Yes, I’ll stay here till the police arrive. And yes I feel safe. They’ve gone.” And then she was babbling again. “They took my sofa, it was heavy, one of those sleeper kinds, and my easy chair that I had looked for so long, and …"
She took a deep breath to steady herself.
She went to the front door when she saw flashing lights. “Yes, the police are here now. Thanks.”
The first officer through the door was her childhood friend Donna. Over the years she and Donna had slid apart
“Oh, Donna. Oh, welcome to my home.” Tears then started afresh and Gwen couldn’t get any other words out as she looked around.
“Gwen, oh my. Minimalist housekeeping?”
“I went on a date and came home to this. It looks like it was interrupted, like they knew I was coming home earlier than planned. There’s some stuff in the bedroom.”
“You went on an actual date? Sorry. I know in school you almost never dated.”
“Don’t mock.” Gwen felt a chuckle well up. This is what it had been like for them in school. They teased and harassed each other, but usually it was Donna on dates.
“Sorry. How long were you away?”
“He picked me up here. We went out to supper. Drop dead gorgeous, too. But just a little stupid, too.”
“We went to supper at Farm to Table. The movie was a racing one, Speed Track.”
“So, how did you meet?”
“At that Thai place outside the travel agency “
“What sort of vibe did you get?”
Gwen contemplated the question. “I was flattered that he’d ask me out.”
“I don’t know. That’s it. He wanted me to go with him to Petey’s, after the movie. Said his friend was well heeled.”
“Well, what’s Larry’s last name, where does he live and work?”
“Now that I think of it.” Gwen paused. “I truly don’t know”
“It’s a small town. We’ll try to find Larry and this Petey. We’ll try to find your stuff, too. I read about the death of Aunt Gertie. She left you her mansion, didn’t she?”
“Yes. And that’s where I’ll be. At least there are beds and chairs there. I’m glad the key to the house was on the key ring in my purse.” Tears threatened but didn’t fall.
“Here’s the forensic team. Has anyone besides yourself been in there in the past little while?”
“No. Just me.”
“I may have a few more questions for you.”
After a few minutes, Gwen got into her car, and drove off to Aunt Gertie’s house.
Was Larry involved, the mysterious Petey, or was it someone else?
Gwen was sure Donna would solve it.
(The start of a novel and series)