Marcy drove the van and Tim sat in the passenger's seat. The whole trip the two of them split the driving between them, talking animatedly up front, apart from the rest of the group. They worked together back at the office. Both of them were in their mid-twenties, and single, and they'd grown very close. Behind them sat Mike, a little older. He tried again and again to enter the conversation without much success. He talked too loudly, and no one answered. Tim said something that made Marcy laugh and touch him on the arm, while Mike stared at that like it was a spider scuttling over the seat. He and Tim had been friends once.
Watching the three of them go at it from the middle seat was Vincent. Deep into middle age, he had a thick northern accent. He was solidly built and full of scars. He looked like he'd been in fights, serious ones. He was the construction supervisor of the company, and no one knew exactly where he'd been living before this job, because he wouldn't say. A smile played on his face as he watched Marcy and Tim flirting, and Mike trying to butt in.
And in the very back in a kind of constant shadow was a small-boned dark-haired man with pale skin, and his name was Gordon. He came from one of the offices out of state, and no one knew him. He said almost nothing. They tried to include him in conversations when the trip began, but eventually they gave up. They drove through the neighborhood staring at the houses, getting a feel for the place.
"Where should we start?" Mike wanted to know.
"It doesn't matter," Vincent said. "We can start anywhere. We'll split up into two groups, cover more ground."
Vincent had gone over the checklist with them beforehand. They were looking for broken windows, cracked walls, graffiti, water stains, pests -- any signs of major damage or decay. They needed a full report for the entire neighborhood so the bank could assess current value. There was a rumor of an upcoming government program to buy places like this off the market. There were other plans, other possibilities. But as with so much property out there, the bank didn't really know what it had. They would have to find out. They would spend a few days here, and nights living out of a hotel near the highway.
They found a spot to stop the van, and they all stumbled out, sore from the trip. They walked around to bring the feeling back into their legs. Mike pulled the cooler out to offer something to Marcy and the others. He tripped over himself and knocked it on its side. Ice and water bottles tumbled out in a spray pattern, and one rogue orange rolled quickly out of reach. It headed for the curb, and disappeared beneath a drain with a plop. Mike smiled sheepishly. Marcy returned his smile, and he warmed to her for the first time that day.
Vincent took Gordon to one side of the street and the remaining three began at the other. They took pictures with digital cameras and scribbled notes on a clipboard, careful to mark the address of each house. An hour into the job each group had covered two houses when Tim found a crack in a lower wall... and something that was barely visible beneath the sheet rock. It was odd enough that they stopped everything and called Vincent over for assistance.
All of them were clustered around the crack, when Vincent stuck his utility knife into the wall and drew the thing out. It was tough fabric and came grudgingly, caught for a moment on some buttons. He held it up for them to see -- a blue dress shirt, maybe a hundred year's old. In the front pocket they found five iron nails, black with rust. And though they didn't know this, at the moment they uncovered the shirt in the wall, a strange wind blew through the storm drainage pipes. There was a low noise in a minor key, barely audible, that came out from curb grates all over the subdivision. The orange floating down in the dark water developed a rip in its waxy skin. A single cockroach crawled out of it, as if newly hatched, and flew away.
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