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By Aidan Niles

    Conrad smiled as he gazed at the house in front of him. A square box with a black tiled roof and a fresh coat of white paint, the place towered over a neatly ordered yard of freshly mowed grass and carefully tended roses. Autumn leaves littered the ground like a blanket, creating a gentle carpet of soft yellows, tranquil reds, and peaceful oranges. A gentle breeze caressed his face, causing his hair to blow across his eyes. He smiled as he looked at the number on his door.

    "413 Errwood Drive. My new home." Conrad pulled a bronze key from his black overcoat as he balanced the cake box. His black oxfords tread softly on the rolling carpet of leaves, only clicking when the heel struck the brick pathway beneath. With a swift motion, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. Shutting it behind him, Conrad sighed. He stripped off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack he bought last week. A new job, a new home, a new neighborhood.

    He looked at his watch. Dorian and Nina would be expecting him to arrive at 6:30 for dinner. That gave him half an hour to relax. He kicked off his shoes and padded into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, he placed the cake box on the top shelf. He hoped they liked red velvet cake. The baker had sworn it was a local favorite.

    Grabbing some ice from the freezer, Conrad poured himself a glass of water and headed back into the living room. He settled into his favorite armchair and clicked the remote on the T.V. His long, spindly legs had no trouble reaching the cream-colored ottoman. It felt good to be home. He still couldn't believe how lucky he was to have found this house. Why the previous owners had been willing to sell it at such a bargain, he didn't know. However, he was grateful for his good fortune.

    Havenshire was a small bedroom community just outside the city of Northglen. His commute to work only took thirty minutes. There was a grocery store no more than ten minutes away. If he didn’t mind a bit of a walk, there were several restaurants just about a mile from his home. He was looking forward to dinner with Dorian and Nina.

    The day he moved in, Dorian and Nina introduced themselves and brought him a welcome basket. Having moved to Havenshire from Los Angeles, he wasn’t used to these types of niceties. People came and went from L.A. with barely a nod. The local news had just started, and he reached for the remote to turn up the volume. The news anchor’s deep voice spoke of the local pastor, Joseph Moretti, who had tragically gone missing a couple of days ago and requested that anyone with any information come forward. Conrad sighed. Apparently, Havenshire had a few things in common with L.A.; there was no escaping crime.

    Checking his watch again, he realized he needed to freshen up for dinner. Heading to the master bedroom, he took off his suit and hung it back in the closet. Unbuttoning his white shirt, he placed it gently into the hamper. From his dresser, he pulled a pair of blue jeans and a nice red polo that complimented his thick coffee-colored hair. Heading into the bathroom, Conrad stared at himself in the mirror. Looking back at him was a man in his late thirties. And while Conrad felt he looked his age, he found his regular features rather pleasing. Stroking his hand across his chin, he decided he didn't need to shave again today. Instead, he turned on the faucet and splashed his face with cold water. Reaching for the hand towel, he patted his face dry before returning to the bedroom and getting dressed.

    The walk to Dorian's and Nina's house was short. They only lived two doors down. Ringing the doorbell, Conrad waited until Nina opened the door. Her light brown hair was pulled into a neat ponytail, and she was wearing a pink floral dress that matched the color of her lipstick.

    “So glad you could make it. I hope you like pasta. I made a bolognese sauce tonight. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with Italian. Almost everyone likes Italian. Come on in.”

    Conrad stepped through the front door enjoying the fragrant smells wafting from the kitchen. “I love Italian,” he said. “Thank you again for inviting me. I brought a red velvet cake.”

    Nina smiled and took the box that Conrad held out to her. “I love red velvet cake.”

    “Looks like the baker was right.”.

    Nina gestured for him to come inside. “Dorian is in the kitchen finishing up the salad.”

    “May I help?” Conrad asked.

    “You can keep us company. I’ll pour you a glass of wine.”

    The floor plan of the house was almost identical to his, except it was reversed. Whereas his kitchen was on the right, their kitchen was on the left. Looking at the walls, Conrad noticed they had decorated their home with botanical prints. By comparison, his house was bare. He really should make it a point to pick out some prints from the local mall. A little bit of art really made the place feel homey.

    Stepping into the kitchen, he saw Dorian, dressed in an apron with a knife in hand, slicing tomatoes. Flashing a smile of perfectly white teeth, Dorian's hands never missed a beat as he looked up at Conrad, "Welcome! Do you prefer white or red?" Dorian nodded to his own glass on the counter. "Personally, I prefer red, but Nina prefers white. Both bottles are open. Take your pick."

    “I’ll have the red, please,” Conrad said.

    Dorian grinned. “A man after my own heart.”

    Nina rolled her eyes. "I was sure you were a white wine man." She let out a small chuckle. "Dorian and I like to make bets with one another. He picked you as a red wine man. Personally, I thought you would choose white. You can never go wrong with a good white."

    Dorian sprinkled the tomatoes on top of the salad. “Dinner’s ready!” He said. “Shall we carry this into the dining room?”

    “Are you sure I can’t help with anything?” Conrad asks.

    “Why don’t you carry the plate of garlic bread,” Nina said.


    Dinner was lovely, Conrad thought to himself as he helped clear the table. While he scraped the plates, Dorian rinsed, and Nina loaded the dishwasher. This move really had been good for him. In L.A., he had lived near his neighbors for years and only knew them by sight. He had been in Havenshire for just over a week and was already becoming part of the community.

    “That was absolutely delicious. Thanks again for having me over.”

    “Don’t thank me yet,” Nina chuckled. “Can I cut you a piece of that red Velvet? That cake is calling my name.”

    "Please do. I saved room." Conrad patted his flat stomach. "If you will excuse me, I'm going to make a quick run to the restroom.

    “You know where it’s at?” Dorian asked.

    Conrad nodded. “We have almost the same floor plan.”

    “All of these houses were built about seven years ago,” Nina said. “There are four plans in the entire neighborhood.”

    “You have to love track housing,” Dorian chimed in.

    With a smile, Conrad left the kitchen. This really had been a lovely evening. He would have to return the favor and have them over as soon as he finished unpacking his things. On auto-pilot, Conrad headed to the guest bathroom and opened the door.

    “Oops!” he said.

    And then it hit him. He went the wrong way and opened the closet instead. He was about to shut the door when something fell forward. Staring down at his feet, he saw a leg. Conrad froze. What the hell? It must be Halloween decorations. He bent down to pick up the leg and stuff back into the closet. A rush of cortisol scattered his thoughts, sending his pulse thumping in his ears. This can’t be.

He parted the clothes. The lifeless face and body of Joseph Moretti, the missing preacher, sat perched on a suitcase sans legs. “Sweet mother of God!” Conrad crossed himself. This can’t be. This isn’t real. With a tentative hand, he reached out and touched the corpse. Icy flesh met his quivering fingers. Oh, God.Oh, God. This is real. His mind searched frantically for an explanation, struggling to accept that his charming hosts were murderers. Nina and Dorian seemed so normal. A wave of sickness began to envelop him. Fear clutched at his chest. His heart pounded. He wanted to vomit. He had just eaten dinner while a man lay dead, stuffed in a closet. He felt lightheaded.

    His legs were slow to respond, but he managed to stagger back down the hall. He needed to stay calm. He had to get out of there and call for help. Beads of sweat formed on the brow, and his whole body trembled.

    Nina called out from the kitchen. “Is everything alright?”

    “It’’s fine,” Conrad said, hoping he sounded normal. The world seemed to be tilting. “I turned the wrong way.”

    Nina peaked her head out from the door jamb. "Do you want ice cream with your cake?"

    Bracing himself against the wall, Conrad tried to answer, but his lips felt numb.

    "Ice cream?" Nina's smiling face asked.

    With the front door in sight, he began to run, half stumbling through the living room. His breath felt labored, and his vision began to blur. He reached for the knob but missed. His legs buckled, and he slumped to the floor.

    He was vaguely aware of Nina standing over him, holding a carton of vanilla ice cream and shaking her head. Dorian's voice carried from the kitchen. "I told you he was a red wine guy," he heard Dorian say.

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