Bates looked at him as if the last thing on Earth he’d do was touch a sweating human being. He regarded Stan briefly, then turned his back on him, muttering, “Make sure you cut the back,” before making his way toward the front doors. Stan took no umbrage being mistaken for a landscaper; it turned out to be the highlight of his day. Without skipping a beat, and in an exaggerated New York accent, he said, “Cutting da back will make it a hun-tread bucks.”
Bates stopped in his tracks, turning toward him as if seeing Stan for the first time. His gaze was calculating, but it drifted toward the statues, losing its strength. “Okay, fine. Someone will pay you.” Bates then went inside, closing the doors quickly.
Stan made three observations about Bates that day: first, he was cheap; second, he was a liar; and third, the man was preoccupied, as if there was something wrong with him. The last observation was the most interesting. He finished up that day by blowing grass clippings off the driveway, whistling as he worked, wondering why a guy in a decent (albeit rumpled) suit would drive such an old, piece of crap Caddy.
“I can’t believe you asked for money,” Ruthie exclaimed later that evening as they walked Mr. Peebles. “Richard just died, so Mr. Bates likely has a million things on his mind. He probably thought you were hired help.”
“Do I look like hired help?” Stan replied.
“Do you really want to know what you look like? The truth, I mean?”
“A seventy-year-old balding fat guy wearing Bermuda shorts? No, please lie to me.” Ruthie laughed. Stan gave her a winning smile which the mirror told him was still charming. “You know, Ruthie, one day, the thin guy trapped inside me is going to pop out of my chest, Alien-style, and whisk you away to some far-off, romantic paradise.”
“I can’t wait, but I’ll swoon if there’s too much blood. And besides, it’s not necessary. I love you the way you are, Stanley, you burnin’ hunk a love.” She gave him a peck on the cheek, then clasped his hand tightly. “All he needs is an Elvis jumpsuit,” she whispered conspiratorially to Peebles. Stan remembered laughing as they passed Buchanan’s arch, saying thank ya, thank ya very much. But what had made the walk truly memorable was Peebles’s sudden, raised hackles; the dog was barking fiercely at the largest of Buchanan’s statues, the cross-armed Big Kahuna, forcing Stan to heel him tightly all the way home.
Stan finished his soda just as Peebles began scratching the back doors. He let him in. The dog motored to his bed, circling twice before lying down. He was panting from the heat, looking up at Stan with bright, prideful eyes: another completed mission. “Well done, Wonder-Wiener.”
Man and dog were home alone. Ruthie was visiting her sister in Wisconsin, leaving them to batch it for a week. She’d been gone only two days, but already the house rules had been relaxed: dishes in the sink, unopened mail, pizza boxes stacked like evidence. “Say, Peebles, boys will be boys, won’t they? The cat’s away, et cetera, et cetera.” The dog continued panting, a series of rapid huh-huhs.
Stan was in a good mood; he’d been reviewing his new client’s horse-trading ledgers, an activity he enjoyed thoroughly. Before returning to them, he looked through the kitchen window one more time, admiring his manicured lawn and the two trendy garden gnomes Ruthie had given to him for Christmas; one held a cell phone, the other sported VR goggles. He grimaced again at his neighbor’s knee-high grass, but based on principle, there’d be no more pro bono mowing. Bates was a lawyer and lawyers had money; therefore, Bates could pay someone and not rely on the kindness of strangers. You’re welcome, by the way.
Bates’s cheapness wasn’t what really bothered him, however, nor was it the rioting lawn—it was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something like the feeling of being watched. Stan mulled over the nature of his “dis-ease” as he eyed the eight-foot Big Kahuna. Something’s not right about you, Big K.
He returned to his den.
Excerpt of the first chapter of horror-fantasy novel 22 Dutch Road