Emmett Parson came to the house looking for treasure, and almost as soon as he walked through the door, he kicked over a soup can full of old tobacco juice. It didn’t help the appearance of the room, especially since there had been a layer of mold on top of the liquid, but it didn’t hurt much either. Most of the juice had immediately run under an old gas tank from a tractor that had been cut in half by a torch, and it would soon blend in with all the other stains—oil, ground-in manure, other unidentifiable things—on the floor of what Emmett supposed would be called the living room.
Emmett edged his way between a pile of truck springs and a teetering stack of cogs toward a couch and an old easy chair, both stained and sprouting stuffing from dozens of holes. There was a gap between the two pieces of furniture, leaving a spot on the floor that was clear and almost clean. It was situated for the best view of the old TV that sat atop a milk crate, and from his visits as a kid, Emmett recalled it as Uriah’s chair. He shook his head. It had never been a tidy place, but he didn’t remember it being this bad. It looked like the state troopers had pushed some of the junk aside to form a lane so they could haul Orson through from the bedroom, and Emmett couldn’t imagine why they’d left the can of tobacco spit next to the front door.
The smell in the main room was bad, but it was worse in the bedroom. None of the Speakman boys had ever bathed enough to make a secret of the fact that they worked on a farm, and when you put four of them together, sharing a bedroom—hell, sharing a bed—things got unpleasant. The mattress was stripped of its bedclothes, probably by the state police, Emmett figured, since it wasn’t like the Speakmans to bother changing sheets. The saggy mattress was full of stains and scorch marks from cigarette ash. It was a wonder the boys hadn’t all burned up in a fire before dying for other reasons. Emmett had brought a sleeping bag just in case he wanted to stay and keep an eye on things, but there was no way in hell he was staying in the bedroom. Even driving back to a town big enough for a hotel was losing its appeal. The idea that he was going to find what he was looking for here suddenly seemed ridiculous. He could make it all the way back to Newark before it got too late. Get some dinner at Top’s and forget this whole thing. Try to put Uncle Jake’s obsession behind him.
The bedroom was only slightly less cluttered than the front room, though the clutter had been kicked around by everyone going in and out. There was something odd about it, though, Emmett noticed just as he was about to head for fresh air.
The scraps and leftover parts and twists of rusty wire in the bedroom weren’t piled, semi-organized here. They were formed into… things. Things like sculptures, or maybe devices, though what the devices could have been made to do, Emmett couldn’t say. He picked one of them up, and turned it over in his hands. It was a thick rusty washer arranged against a large drill bit so that it would slide up the spiral of the bit, hauling a piece of wire that was in turn attached to a cog meshed with other cogs. He spun it for a moment, watching the cogs turn. It was clever, if pointless, and when he looked up, he noticed dozens of other pointless machines around the room crafted from scrap and junk. Some were versions of the same twirling object he held, others had their own mysterious purposes. He had a vision of the four brothers sitting up in the bed over long winter nights, manufacturing the little devices by the light of the single dingy lamp in the room. Or they might have made them in the other room, pulling the parts they needed from the piles, then brought them here to where they slept.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The scraps and leftover parts and twists of rusty wire in the bedroom weren’t piled, semi-organized here. They were formed into… things.[/pullquote]
The sound of an engine outside made Emmett realize he’d been standing in the foul-smelling room for a long time, staring at the little creations. He picked his way back through the mess and onto the sagging front porch in the cool upstate New York autumn.
It took a moment for Emmett to see the black Mercedes in the driveway. Like Emmett, whoever had driven it in had needed to weave through tractors and other farm vehicles slowly rusting in place—some so old they seemed to be melting into the dead grass—as well as piles of rusty angle iron, jumbles of frayed cable, and sprawls of oil tanks and axles. The junk started in the front yard and continued out through the forty yards or so between the house and barn out back.
At least some of the junk had been there when he was a kid. Uncle Jake had always sent him out to mess around in the maze of stuff when they visited. Of course, Jake had always had his own motivation for sending Emmett out to explore. He’d go in and talk to the brothers, plead with them, cajole them with a bottle of Old Crow. And when he came away empty-handed and drove them home, knuckles white on the wheel of his truck, he’d quiz Emmett about what he’d seen, what he’d found. “You’re my right hand, Emmett,” he’d say, “I’m counting on you.” But he had never found what Jake was looking for.
Emmett realized that the door of the Mercedes had opened in well-oiled silence and a thin, balding man was standing near it, looking up at him.
He was wearing a thick wool sweater with a fleece vest over it. “Hello,” he said cheerfully.
“Can I do something for you?” Emmett asked.
“Mr. Parson?” the man asked. Emmett nodded. “My name is Laurel, Justus Laurel. I represent parties interested in buying this farm.”
Emmett eyed him for a few moments. “You’re the one who made an offer last week.”
Laurel inclined his head. “For the parties I represent, yes.”
Emmett turned slowly, taking in the farm. “You offered three grand an acre for this.” Laurel nodded again as he turned back. “Why?” Emmett asked.
“Real estate speculation,” Laurel said blandly. “As you can see, it isn’t much of a farm, but combined with some other purchases we’ve made in the area, we may be able to make some money selling residential lots.”
“Well, maybe that’s what I’m planning to do myself,” Emmett said. “Clean the place up and build a few houses.”
For the first time, Laurel’s smile faded. “I wouldn’t recommend that,” he said. “Cleaning up this place could be very unpleasant. And I think we both know you don’t have the assets to start building spec houses. Even if you did, it wouldn’t be as lucrative as it would in Peekskill. Land speculation around here is best left to the locals.”
Emmett came down off the porch. “I was a local, once,” he said.
“Ah. Of course,” Laurel replied, smiling again. “You were related to the Speakman brothers. Third cousin, was it?”
“Second cousin once removed.”
“Of course,” Laurel said, his expression communicating what he thought of the familial ties between second cousins once removed. Maybe he thought it was a relationship not worth inheritance.
“Funny you don’t know that already, what with you knowing about my finances,” Emmett said. “Or that I work out of Peekskill. I live in Newark, after all—that’s where you sent the offer.”
Laurel’s smile faded again. “Due diligence, Mr. Parson. I research business deals I’m involved in. I assumed it would be uncomfortable for you to work as a private investigator in Newark. You’d constantly be running into former colleagues in the police department, after all.”
Emmett walked closer, trying to back Laurel up, but the smaller man refused to be intimidated. “You really have been nosing around,” Emmett said.
“I prefer to call it ‘due diligence,’ as I said.”
Emmett eyed the smaller man for a moment. It wasn’t good, the fact that someone could check into him without his noticing. “Maybe I should do my own due diligence,” he said at last. “See what’s up with you.”
Laurel chuckled. “I’m sure you’re better at it than I am. But not much to find, I’m afraid. I’m just a local fellow, with roots in the area. Hence my interest in the land.”
“Land’s not for sale.”
Laurel shrugged. “Contact me if you change your mind.”
Emmett stood in the driveway, watching him leave. He shivered in the cold breeze, realizing he’d just made up his mind. Someone—Laurel or someone he worked for—wanted the farm bad. Emmett didn’t buy the story about real estate speculation for a minute. Which meant that Uncle Jake had been right. There was something valuable somewhere on the Speakman farm.
He turned to look at the house he’d inherited. A hundred years with only the occasional half-assed repainting had left it, like the barn, a mottled gray-brown that blended into the autumn landscape like it was trying to hide among the piles of junk. It would take months to search the place alone. Roots in the area, Laurel had said. Well, he had some roots himself, and maybe they could help him out…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, now available for pre-order!