The address this Waite guy had given Kitty 2 was outside of town by the lake. I took that as a good omen. If this guy could afford property by the lake then he must have money. In real estate location is everything. A house on a lakefront lot is worth more than a house at the bottom of a lake, for instance. It was a fine, sunny day, and I was in a good mood. The prospect of a paycheck helped to push the morning’s disaster out of my mind. I couldn’t get anything good on the radio, so I sifted through my collection of audio books. When I say audio books, I really mean books on tape, since my Corolla was only slightly younger than I am. The bad thing about books on tape was that I had trouble finding recent titles, but the good thing was that the titles I could get were cheap. I got the collected works of Donald Trump for five cents at a garage sale, after extensive haggling. The owner had wanted ten cents, but there was no way I was paying that much. I sent Mr. Trump a letter describing my negotiating prowess because I thought he would be impressed by how I had managed to get such an incredible deal for all of his collected wisdom. I never heard back. I’m not a sensitive guy, but being ignored hurt my feelings. If Donald Trump and I are ever at a party together, I’m definitely going to give him the cold shoulder.
I followed the winding road along the lake, passing many fine homes. I checked the address again, but couldn’t seem to find my destination, so I stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions. I went into the store and grabbed a candy bar. I walked up to the counter and laid my purchase down. As the old woman behind the counter rang it up I asked, “Do you know where the Waite house is?”
At the mention of the Waite house, the old woman looked up at me, her finger hovering in the air over the register buttons. “Not many people have reason to go to the Waite house,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “I am one of those few people who does have a reason to go to the Waite house. In fact, I have been invited to visit, so could you please tell me where it is?”
The old woman shrugged. “Sure, it’s just that old man Waite has a reputation around here.”
“Is it a reputation for not paying his bills?” I asked.
“No. He’s what you might call eccentric. A recluse. I don’t think anyone’s seen him outside of that big, empty house of his for decades.”
“So he’s solvent, is what you’re saying?”
“Oh, he’s richer than old Croesus, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That is what I’m asking,” I said. “And does this Croesus guy live around here? Do you think he needs any real estate appraised?”
The old woman gave me a disgusted look and rang up my purchase. I guess she had something against real estate appraisers. I paid her. She made change.
“Go back the way you came about half a mile. There’ll be a dirt road on your right that winds up the hill. You can’t miss it if you just keep an eye open for the dead trees,” the old woman said.
I drove back the way I came, and I soon found the road the old woman mentioned. I wondered how I had missed it the first time. While the trees around the lake were quite verdant, the tall trees lining the dirt road were gray and barren, their spindly branches reaching far into the sky, blotting out the sun. I drove up the dirt road through the unnatural gloom. I felt a chill creep into the air through the open driver’s side window. It got so dark I turned on my headlights. As I made my way down the road a deer leapt in front of my car. I slammed on my brakes, coming to a stop just a foot from the animal. The deer turned and looked at me, squinting into the headlights. The deer then walked around the driver’s side of the car, narrowed its eyes, leaned back a bit and spat right in my face before strolling off into the trees. I wiped the deer spittle off my cheek with the back of my hand and rolled up the window. I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t quite right here.
When I emerged from the woods, I found myself in the driveway of a large, crumbling Victorian mansion with peeling paint and sagging gables. I thought I saw movement at one of the many darkened windows, but I couldn’t be sure. The place had a nice view of the lake, but it was definitely a fixer upper. After checking to make sure the area was free of wildlife, I got out of my car and approached the house. There was no doorbell, but the massive oak door had a huge brass knocker in the shape of man’s face, his mouth contorted as if screaming in terror. I grabbed the knocker and banged it a couple of times. I was relieved when the only sound I heard was the dull thud of metal against wood. After a couple of minutes I heard some ominous shuffling footsteps slowly approaching the door. The door creaked inward to reveal an attractive brunette woman in business casual attire.
“Hello,” she said. “Are you the appraiser?”
“I..uh..yes,” I stammered.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting out here for so long, but I sat on my leg funny and it fell asleep, so I had to kind of shuffle down the hall. You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I hate when that happens.”
“Anyway, come on in. Mr. Waite is expecting you,” she said.
The woman ushered me inside. I stepped into the musty foyer.
“I’m Diane, Mr. Waite’s personal assistant,” she said.
“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “And let me just say Diane is fine name for a personal assistant. I was just trying to get my secretary to change her name to Diane this morning.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Diane led me down a long hallway past a long row of portraits that appeared to be of the same skeletal old man in various styles of dress, including colonial garb, a Victorian style suit, a top hat and tails, and a wig and a hoop skirt. When I reached the last one I stopped and stared. I couldn’t help it.
“Are these all pictures of Mr. Waite?” I asked.
“Oh, no. These are his relatives,” Diane said. “I believe that’s his great aunt Adeline.” She pointed to the old man in the hoop skirt. “I think she died of pneumonia or maybe consumption. One of those diseases with a lot of coughing.”
“They all bear a very strong resemblance,” I said.
“Yes,” Diane replied. “The Waite family has a very distinctive bone structure.”
She led me to a large door, which she pushed open.
“Go in,” she said. “Mr. Waite will see you now.”
I stepped into the office, squinting in the darkness. I could make out a frail figure sitting behind a massive desk. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could see that the room was packed full of curios. I recognized shrunken heads and strangely shaped corals, as well as shelves full of preserved biological specimens I could not identify. Still another cabinet contained large crystals, and another was full of Beanie Babies. I was glad my cousin Wanda wasn’t around. She would have lost it over the Beanie Babies.
“You must be the appraiser,” the man behind the desk rasped. “Please sit down.”
I sat down and looked at Mr. Waite. He was dressed in a black suit and tie. He had the same skeletal look as the people in the hallway portraits. He opened his mouth to speak, but started to cough instead, spasms wracking his body. I waited for the coughing to stop, but it just kept going.
“Do you need some water?” I asked after a while.
He shook his head, but kept coughing.
As the fit wore on, I had to resist the temptation to look at my watch. I didn’t want to appear rude. He was a client after all. Finally, the coughing fit stopped, and Mr. Waite regained his composure.
“My apologies,” he said. “My health isn’t what it used to be.”
“Whose is?” I replied.
“I suppose you are wondering why I have asked you here.” Waite said.
“Not really,” I said. “You told my secretary you needed some property appraised.”
“Yes, but I mean I suppose you’re wondering why I chose you specifically.”
“No. My firm is listed first in the phone book. I named it AAAA Appraisals for a reason. So people who don’t like to think too much about stuff can find me without effort. And to screw over those guys at AAA Appraisals. I hate them.”
“Yes, well that may be the case,” Mr. Waite continued. “But I have a very special property that needs appraising. I, and the consortium of investors I represent, need an appraiser with a discriminating eye. One who isn’t afraid to look past the surface and see the real value of a piece of property. One who isn’t afraid to get to the truth. Because we must know the truth before we invest.”
“If you’re saying this is a setup for some sort of insurance scam then you came to right place. I’m definitely not scared of the truth,” I said, winking for emphasis.
Mr. Waite shook his head. “I’m afraid you misunderstand me. I need someone who will bring me a full report on the property. A report that looks past the mere bricks and mortar that holds a property together and reveals its true essence. I’m told you are such a man. You come very highly recommended.”
Now I knew this guy was blowing smoke. The last person who highly recommended me for anything was my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Hemlock. And she was recommending me for summer school. I had learned a thing or two since sixth grade, though, so I decided to play along.
“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” I said. “Of course, my services don’t come cheap.”
“I didn’t think they would,” Mr. Waite replied. “How does $10,000 sound?”
“That sounds….acceptable,” I said, grabbing onto the arms of the chair to keep myself from jumping up and dancing a jig. “Tell me about this property.”
“The property in question is an outlet mall in an out-of-the-way village called Innsbruck,” Mr. Waite said. “For many years Innsbruck was a busy place. It was located on a main thoroughfare, and many people stopped there to shop for deals on brand name merchandise. This mall helped the town prosper well into the Eighties, when a bypass was built so that travelers no longer had to pass through town. The bypass hurt business at the outlet mall, and for many years it struggled. People seemed to forget about Innsbruck. Then the Internet came along, and Innsbruck all but disappeared from memory as people turned to shopping online. Indeed, in time Innsbruck even seemed to drop off of maps. But rumors persisted. Rumors that the mall still received shipments of brand name luxury goods in the dead of night. Rumors that brave shoppers could, for a certain price, find deals at the Innsbruck Outlet Mall that were unavailable anywhere else in the world. And now word has come that the mall may be for sale. I want you to travel to Innsbruck and appraise this mall for me. Let me know what you think it’s worth.”
“Sure thing,” I said. “Sounds like a cinch. Now, about that ten grand…”
“I have a check here for five thousand,” Mr. Waite said, sliding a piece of paper across his desk. “You will receive the other half of your fee when you present your appraisal.”
I casually snaked my hand out and grabbed the check, slipping it into my pocket.
“Well, Mr. Waite, I won’t let you down. I’ll be making your appraisal my top priority,” I said, rising from my seat. “I’ll just show myself out.”
I backed out of the room as quickly as I could, anxious to get to a bank before Mr. Waite came to his senses and stopped payment on the check. I scurried down the hall and out the door. Gray clouds kept the sun at bay, and I shivered as I emerged onto the front steps. Wind made the dead leaves in the desolate trees rustle in ominous bursts. I was heading for my car when I heard someone speaking in hushed tones.
“Hey,” the voice said. “Over here.”
I looked around, but I didn’t see anyone. I shrugged my shoulders and was opening my car door when I heard the voice again.
“Hey,” it said. “Over here.”
It seemed the voice was coming from a bush. Between the confrontational fauna and the talking flora I couldn’t wait to be away from this place, but I decided to see what the bush had to say. I had never conversed with a plant before. Plants don’t talk much, and I figured if one of them wanted to talk to me it must have something pretty important to say. I walked over, and, as I got closer, I realized the bush wasn’t doing the talking. Diane was hiding inside the bush.
“Are you hiding from that deer?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the ill tempered beast wasn’t sneaking up on me.
“What deer?” Diane asked, looking confused.
“Never mind,” I said. “If you’re not hiding from the deer why are you in the bush?”
“I wanted to warn you,” she said. “You seem like a nice guy, and I just wanted to let you know you’re not the first appraiser Mr. Waite has sent to the Innsbruck Outlet Mall. Two others have gone before you. The first disappeared, and the second one, Oliver Barley, is now in the De Sade Hospital for the Criminally Insane. You might want to visit with him before you go to Innsbruck.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” I said. “I’ll do that.”
I jumped in my car and sped away. I began to believe my luck was changing. If the two previous appraisers hadn’t disappeared and gone crazy, respectively, I wouldn’t have just made the easiest five grand I had ever earned.