Peter saw the house, in a huge, grassy hollow, on his right, just past a small stand of tall trees, as they came around a wide curve on the narrow country lane, on which they'd been travelling, for the last ten minutes. At least two dozen cars, trucks, and vans were parked in the grass and weeds, at the side of the road. Nikki parked her rented Toyota Camry at the head of the line, just inches away from the low-hanging branches of a ragged, old elm tree.
"Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?" he asked her.
Without a word, Nikki settled her purse strap on her shoulder and got out of the car, slamming the door behind her. Peter hesitated long enough to sigh and shake his head, and tell himself again, for about the hundreth time in the last half-hour, that what she intended to do was totally insane. Then he jumped out on his side of the car and hurried after Nikki, who strode slowly, yet with purposeful determination, down the grassy slope, with her head held high and her shoulders square, and her spine stiff and straight as an iron ramrod.
A bright, silvery peal of laughter suddenly erupted from behind the house, rending the sullen, summer air like a sharp pair of scissors. Peter froze. His heart jumped high in his chest and his knees threatened to buckle under him, and his cheeks and forehead burned, as if he had a fever. Turning his head slightly to his left and cocking his ear, he swore he could hear what sounded like the excited buzzing of at least a hundred different voices. They all seemed to flow in and out of each other like dozens of creeks and streams flowing into one bubbling torrent of cheerful, carefree bliss. The noise grew louder as they approached the house.
Like a woman going to the guillotine, Nikki mounted the three flagstone steps leading to the porch.
"So what do we do, now?" Peter asked; he grinned stupidly. "Ring the doorbell?"
Nikki opened the glass storm door. She blithely turned the tarnished brass knob of the wooden door, behind it.
Peter followed Nikki into the living room, which was quiet and dark, except for the golden haze of sunlight pressing softly against the curtains. A long sofa, with bright, multi-colored cushions, stood against the white-painted wall facing the door. Above the sofa hung a painting of a country barn, buried beneath a mountain of glistening snow. There were a pair of green armchairs, a big screen television set, and a smaller sofa, on their right. Sinister shadows pooled in the far corners of the room. A grandfather's clock ticked sonorously in one corner. In another corner, stood an antique spinning wheel, which had been cunningly converted into a planter. From somewhere nearby, Peter caught the low, monotonous drone of an air conditioner. The room was filled with the cloying scent of some type of porpourri. Peter could already start to build in his sinuses.
Peter couldn't help but grin to himself, as he looked around the large, tidy room, and shook his head. He almost wanted to laugh out loud, but he didn't. He would have supposed that someone of Goody Carlisle's notorious stature would live in a home much bigger and grander than this modest, middle-class dwelling. There was no use denying the strange, almost perverse sense of excitement he felt at being in someone's house, uninvited, like this!
A long hallway, to their left, obviously led to the bathroom and bedrooms. They passed through a rounded archway, next to the long sofa, and entered the kitchen. Peter's sense of excitement and anxiety increased when he saw the open back door.
Peter stole like an Indian to the sink. The gleaming formica counter, on both sides of the stainless steel sink, was littered with empty soda cans and beer cans, beer bottles, and champagne and cocktail glasses, and several empty jugs of wine.
He looked out a tiny window, over the sink, past the gleaming redwood deck with its Jacuzzi. He'd been right. There were at least a hundred people partying together in the vast back yard, which slipped downward to the dense forest, at the bottom of the hill. Most of the guests appeared to be in their late teens and early twenties, clad in T-shirts and shorts, sandals and sneakers, and barefooted, in Speedos and bikinis. They stood singly and in loose, little clusters. Almost all of them clasped a soda can or a beer bottle, or a wine glass in their hands. Some of them played volleyball and badminton.
Apart and off to one side, ten older-looking gentlemen---Peter knew there were ten, because he counted them---dressed in somber suits and ties, stood close together in a tight, protective circle like a secret coven. Peter surmised by the ice cubes and sparkling amber fluid in their glasses that they were drinkking something much more expensive than beer or wine.
And throughout this bizarre, festive mix, one woman flittled gaily and mindlessly as a butterfly from one group of merry revelers to the next, with a light in her eyes and a smile on her painted lips. She wore an electric-pink bikini, exposing every line and wrinkle, and every bit of saggin flesh to brutal public scrutiny. In the slender fingers of her right hand, she carelessly clutched the delicate stem of a champagne glass, which was filled to the rim with the same sparkling amber fluid as the ten strange men were drinking, and kept slopping over the rim of her glass.
Peter couldn't help but laugh out loud. "Who's that winner?"
Nikki looked. "That's Goody's wife Lenore."
"You can't be serious!"
"Uh-huh. That's her."
Built into a recess in the wall, on their left, stood a washer and dryer, both from Sears', both a light mint-green in color. On the other side of the washer and dryer, they discovered another closed door, facing the open back door.
Nikki opened the door and took her first step down a steep flight of stairs. Peter took a deep breath and followed her, holding onto the wooden balustrade.
The basement was cool and dark, with a bare, cement floor and cement walls on the three sides of the room. At the bottom of the stairs, on their right, the wall on that side of the room was covered with thin sheets of cheap walnut panelling.
And of course, Peter thought wearily, there just had to be one more closed door...