The house on Lookout Mountain Road was set far in from the street and nestled against the steep canyon embankment to the rear. This afforded it a long and flat green lawn running from the wide front porch to the white picket fence that ran along the street line. It was unusual in Laurel Canyon to have such an immense lawn, front or back, and one so flat as well. It was that lawn that would be the key selling point of the property.
The open house had been advertised in the real estate section of the Times as starting at two p.m. and lasting until five. Cassie Black pulled to the curb ten minutes before the starting time and saw no cars in the driveway and no indication of any activity in the house. The white Volvo station wagon she knew belonged to the owners that was usually parked outside was gone. She couldn't tell about the other car, the black BMW, because the little single-car garage at the side of the house was closed. But she took the missing Volvo to mean that the owners of the home were out for the day and would not be present during the showing. This was fine. Cassie preferred they not be home. She wasn't sure how she would act if the family was right there in the house as she walked through it.
Cassie remained in the Boxster until two p.m. and then grew concerned, her mind jumping to the conclusion that she had gotten the time wrong or, worse yet, the house had already been sold and the showing canceled. She opened the real estate section on the passenger seat and checked the listing again. She had been correct. She looked at the for sale sign posted in the front lawn and checked the broker's nameagainst the name in the advertisement. They matched. She got her cell phone out of her backpack and tried to call the realty office but couldn't get a connection. This didn't surprise her. She was in Laurel Canyon and it always seemed impossible to get a clear cell transmission in any of L.A.'s hillside neighborhoods.
With nothing to do but wait and control her fears, she studied the house that stood behind the for sale sign. According to the advertisement, it was a California Craftsman bungalow built in 1931. Unlike the newer homes on either side, it was not only set back off the street into the hillside rising behind it, but it also seemed to possess a good deal of character. It was smaller than most of the neighboring homes, its designers obviously putting a premium on the large lawn and the openness of the property. The newer houses in the neighborhood had been built to every lot line, under the philosophy that interior space was premium.
The old bungalow had a long, sloping gray roof from which sprouted two dormer windows. Cassie assumed that one belonged to the bedroom shared by the couple and the other was the girl's room. The sidings were painted a reddish brown. A wide porch ran the length of the front of the house and the front door was a single-light French door. Most days the family lowered a set of blinds over the door's glass but today the blinds over the door and the front picture window were up and Cassie could see into the living room. An overhead light had been left on.
The front yard was definitely the play area. It was always neatly cut and trimmed. Built along the left perimeter was a wooden swing set and jungle gym. Cassie knew that the girl who lived in the house preferred to swing with her back to the house and facing the street. She had often thought about this, wondering if there was something about this habit that could be read as some sort of psychological clue.
The empty swing hung perfectly still. Cassie saw a kick ball and a red wagon sitting motionless in the grass, also waiting for the attention of the girl. Cassie thought the play area might be one of the reasons the family was moving. All things being relative in Los Angeles, Laurel Canyon was a pocket of reasonable safety in the sprawling city. Still, it wasn't desirable in any neighborhood to have your children playing in the front yard so close to the street, the place where harm could befall them, where danger could come to them.
It didn't say anything about this potential problem with the yard in the advertisement. Cassie looked down and read it again.
BRING ALL OFFERS! 1931 Classic Calif. Craftsman 2/2, spacious living/dining, huge wooded lot. Highly motivated and anxious! Reduced and priced to sell! Cassie had noticed the for sale sign on the property during a routine drive-by three weeks earlier. The sighting had thrown her life into turmoil, which was manifested in insomnia and inattention at work. She had not sold a single car in the three weeks, her longest absence ever from the sales tote board.
Today's showing was the first open house as far as she knew. So the wording of the ad struck her as curious. She wondered why the owners would be so anxious to sell that they would already have reduced the price after only three weeks on the market. That did not seem right.
Three minutes after the open house was scheduled to begin, a car Cassie didn't recognize, a maroon Volvo sedan, pulled into the driveway and stopped. A slim, blond woman in her mid forties got out. She was casually but neatly dressed. She opened the trunk of her car and removed an open house sign, which she carried toward the curb. Cassie checked her hair in the visor mirror, reached to the back of her head and pulled the wig down tight on her scalp. She got out of the Porsche and approached the woman as she set up the sign.
"Are you Laura LeValley?" Cassie asked, reading the name off the bottom of the for sale sign.
"I sure am. Are you here to look at the house?"
"Yes, I'd like to."
"Well, let me open it up and we'll go from there. Nice car you've got there. Brand new?"
She pointed to the dealer blank in the front license plate holder of the Porsche. Cassie had taken the plates off in the garage at her home before driving to the open house. It was just a precaution. She wasn't sure if brokers took down plate numbers as a means of tracing leads or backgrounding potential buyers. She didn't want to be traced. It was the same reason she was wearing the wig.
"Uh, yes," she said. "New to me but used. It's a year old."
The Boxster looked pristine from the outside but was actually a repo with almost thirty thousand miles on it, a convertible top that leaked and a CD player that habitually skipped when the car hit the slightest bump in the road. Cassie's boss, Ray Morales, was letting her use it while he dealt with the owner, allowing the guy until the end of the month to come up with the money before putting the car onto the lot. Cassie expected that they would never see a dime from the guy. He was a deadbeat through and through. She'd looked at the package. He'd made the first six payments, late every time, and then skated on the next six. Ray had made the mistake of taking the guy's paper after he'd gotten no takers from the outside loan companies. That was the tip-off right there. But the guy had talked Ray into taking the paper and turning over the keys. It really bugged Ray that he had been beaten. He'd personally gone out on the rig when they hooked up the Boxster outside the deadbeat's hillside box overlooking Sunset Plaza.
The real estate woman went back to her car and removed a briefcase, then led Cassie up the stone walkway to the front porch.
"Are the owners going to be home?" Cassie asked.
"No, it's better when no one's home. Then people can look where they want, say what they want. No hurt feelings. You know, people's tastes are different. One person will think something is gorgeous. Somebody else will call it hideous."
Cassie smiled to be polite. They got to the front door and LeValley removed a small white envelope from her briefcase and took out a key. As she opened the door she continued the patter.
"Are you being represented by a broker?"
"No. I'm just kind of in the looking stage at the moment."
"Well, it helps to know what's on the market. Are you currently in ownership?"
"Do you own now? Are you selling?"
"Oh. No, I rent. I'm looking to buy. Something small like this."
LeValley opened the door and called out a hello just to make sure no one was home. When there was no answer, she waved Cassie in first.
"Then this should be perfect. It's just two bedrooms but the living spaces are large and very open. I think it's just darling. You'll see."
They walked into the house and LeValley put her briefcase down. She then offered her hand and introduced herself again.
"Karen Palty," Cassie lied as she shook the broker's hand.
LeValley gave a quick description of the attributes and assets of the house. From her briefcase she took out a stack of printed fliers containing information on the house and gave Cassie one as she talked. Cassie nodded occasionally but was barely listening. Instead she was intensely scrutinizing the furnishings and the other belongings of the family who lived in the house. She stole long glances at the photos on the walls and on tables and chests. LeValley told her to go ahead and browse while she set up the sign-in sheet and information packets on the dining room table.
The house was very neatly kept and Cassie wondered how much of that was due to the fact that it was being shown to potential buyers. She moved into a short hallway and then up the stairs that led to two bedrooms and bathroom above. She stepped a few feet into the master bedroom and looked around. The room had a large bay window that looked out on the steep rock hillside at the rear of the house. LeValley called from below, seemingly knowing exactly what Cassie was looking at and thinking.
"Mudslides are not a problem. The hillside out there is extruded granite. It's probably been there for ten thousand years and, believe me, it's not going anywhere. But if you are seriously interested in the property, I would suggest you get a geological survey done. If you buy it, it will help you sleep better at night."
"Good idea," Cassie called down.
Cassie had seen enough. She stepped out of the room and crossed the hall to the child's bedroom. This room, too, was neat but cluttered with collections of stuffed animals, Barbie dolls and other toys. There was a drawing easel in one corner holding a crayon drawing of a school bus with several stick figures in the window. The bus had pulled up to a building where a red truck was parked in a garage. A firehouse. The girl was a good artist.
Cassie checked the hall to make sure LeValley had not come up and then stepped over to the easel. She flipped over some of the pages containing prior drawings. One drawing depicted a house with a large green lawn in front of it. There was a for sale sign at the front of the house and a stick figure of a girl stood next to it. A bubble coming from the girl's mouth said Boo Hoo. Cassie studied it for a long time before breaking away and looking around the rest of the room.
On the left wall there was a framed movie poster for an animated film called The Little Mermaid. There were also large wooden letters spelling the name JODIE SHAW, each letter painted a different color of the rainbow. Cassie stood in the middle of the room and silently tried to take it all in and commit it to memory. Her eyes fell on a photo which stood in a small frame on the girl's white bureau. It showed a smiling girl standing with Mickey Mouse amidst a crowd at Disneyland.
"Their daughter's room."
Cassie almost jumped at the voice behind her.
She turned. Laura LeValley stood in the doorway. Cassie had not heard her on the steps. She wondered if the broker had been suspicious of her and intentionally sneaked up the stairs to catch her stealing or doing something else.
"Cute kid," LeValley said, giving off no sign of suspicion. "I met her when I first took the listing. I think she's six or seven."
"Five. Almost six."
Cassie quickly pointed to the photo on the bureau.
"I would guess. I mean, if that photo's recent."
She turned and raised a hand, taking in the whole of the room.
"I also have a niece who is five. This could be her room."
She waited but there were no further questions from LeValley. It had been a bad slip and Cassie knew she was lucky to have gotten away with it.
"Well," LeValley said, "I want to get you to sign in so we have your name and number. Are there any questions I can answer for you? I even have an offer sheet with me if by any chance you're ready to do that."
She smiled as she said the last line. Cassie smiled back.
"Not just yet," she said. "But I do like the house."
LeValley headed back to the stairs and down. Cassie moved toward the door to follow. As she stepped into the hallway, she glanced back at the collection of stuffed animals on a shelf above the bed. The girl seemed partial to stuffed dogs. Her eyes then went back to the drawing on the easel.
Down in the living room LeValley handed her a clipboard with a sign-in sheet on it. She wrote the name Karen Palty, the name belonging to an old friend from her days dealing blackjack, then made up a phone number with a Hollywood exchange and an address on Nichols Canyon Road. After she handed it back LeValley read the entry.
"Karen, you know, if this house isn't what you are looking for, there are several others in the canyon I'd be more than happy to show you."
"Okay, that would be fine. Let me think about this one first, though."
"Oh, sure. You just let me know. Here's my card."
LeValley offered a business card and Cassie took it. She noticed through the living room's picture window a car pulling to the curb behind the Boxster. Another potential buyer. She decided it was time to ask questions while she still had LeValley alone.
"The ad in the paper said the Shaws were anxious to sell the house. Do you mind me asking how come? I mean, is there something wrong here?"
Halfway through her question Cassie realized she had used the name of the owners. Then she remembered the letters on the wall of the girl's room and knew she was covered if LeValley noticed the slip.
"Oh, no, it has nothing to do with the house at all," LeValley said. "He's been transferred and they are anxious to make the move and get settled in their new place. If they sell it quickly they can all move together, rather than him having to commute back and forth from the new location. It's a very long trip."
Cassie felt she needed to sit down but stood still. She felt a terrible dread engulf her heart. She tried to remain steady by placing her hand on the stone hearth but was sure she was not hiding the impact of the words she had just heard. It's a very long trip.
"Are you okay?" LeValley asked.
"Fine. I'm fine. I had the flu last week and . . . you know."
"I know. I had it a few weeks ago. It was awful."
Cassie turned her face and acted as though she were studying the brickwork of the fireplace.
"How far are they moving?" she asked, as casually as was possible considering the fears welling up inside her.
She closed her eyes and waited, sure that LeValley knew by now she wasn't here because of the house.
"Paris. He works for some kind of clothing import business and they want him working on that end of things for a while. They thought about keeping the house, maybe renting it out. But I think realistically they know that they probably won't be coming back. I mean, it's Paris. Who wouldn't want to live there?"
Cassie opened her eyes and nodded.
"Paris . . ."
LeValley continued in an almost conspiring tone.
"That's also the reason they would be very interested in any kind of an offer. His company will cover him on anything below appraisal value. Anything within reason. So a quick, low bid might really be able to turn this. They want to get over there so they can get the girl into one of those language schools this summer. So she can start learning the language and be fairly integrated by the time school starts."
Cassie wasn't listening to the sales pitch. She stared into the darkness of the hearth. A thousand fires had burned there and warmed this house. But at the moment the bricks were black and cold. And Cassie felt as though she were staring at the inside of her own heart.
In that moment she knew that all things in her life were changing. For the longest time she had lived day to day, carefully avoiding even a glance at the desperate plan that floated out on the horizon like a dream.
But now she knew that it was time to go to the horizon.