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Conversations in the Dark

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      “You’ve got to be bloody kidding me!” She heard the helicopter before she saw it.

      How dare you interrupt my peaceful evening!

      She fixed her eyes in the direction of the sound as she waited for it to appear. It rose slowly above the peak of the mountains, rotors spinning in a blur. It was a 6-seater, not a news or traffic chopper as she had expected. She guessed it must be a private tour of the Central Cascades. Tourists to Washington state loved to explore the mountain ranges and volcanoes from the air. She set her laptop aside, and picked up her glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

      From the comfort of her outdoor living area, Claire had a phenomenal view of the magnificent peaks and troughs of the Central Cascades in a 270º sweep. Acre upon acre of unspoiled open wooded land lay between her and her view of the mountains and she had always hoped it would remain that way permanently. However, the greater Seattle area, and particularly the area known as ‘the Eastside’, had exploded in recent years, and developers were buying up land at a frenzied rate. New neighborhoods were springing up all the time and Claire just hoped she could enjoy her private, peaceful oasis - her Eastside home - for as long as possible. She knew it was inevitable that some of the land around her would eventually be bought up and developed into a small neighborhood with single family homes, roads, a park or two, and lots of noisy families. Before Henry’s illness, they had even spoken about buying up a decent chunk of the land to retain their privacy and uninterrupted views. But as his cancer progressed, their lives were focused on far more important things than open land and trees. And now, two years after her husband’s death, Claire still hadn’t given much thought to the land and whether she should seriously consider snapping it up.

      Sighing, Claire took a sip of wine and waited for the helicopter to start bearing west towards the peaks of the Cascades. She swept her gaze across the mountains, and tried to imagine what the helicopter passengers were seeing. It was mid-June and most of the snow caps had melted, but she could still see snow clinging to the very tops of some of the peaks. The tourists were in for a treat, no doubt about that. She watched the helicopter, mentally urging it to start heading west towards the central peaks, but instead, it started to bear down, lower and lower, and began to make low sweeping passes over the land adjoining her property. It hovered over a certain area, then moved on, and then swept back around to hover over a different area. All the while, it moved closer and closer to her terrace. When it was quite close, it swept back and forth a few times, and Claire had the distinct feeling that the occupants could see her clearly. She could make out some human forms in the cabin, and they were peering out of the windows on all sides of the chopper.

       Wait, are you seriously waving at me? You come and invade my evening by flying way too close to my home, and now you’re waving at me!

      She squinted into the cabin of the chopper. Hard to tell, but she thought she counted 4 people, including the pilot. She could tell that the frantically waving man had a shock of white hair, and wondered what on earth he was up to. She wasn't sure whether to wave back or flip him off, but before she could decide, her phone buzzed next to her. It was a text from Milo Lukic - a dear friend.

      Milo and his wife, Suki, were Henry’s college friends, and after Claire moved to Seattle seven years ago as Henry’s bride, they had become her closest friends too. They had been there for her throughout Henry’s illness. They were in the room with her when he took his last breath. They held her when she sobbed her pain and howled her grief and yelled her anger at the unfairness of losing her husband. At the unfairness of her twins losing their beloved step-dad. At the unfairness of the world losing a business genius and philanthropist. A widow at 32.

      Milo and Suki had loved and supported her in those raw, dark days. Wiping her tears and snotty nose. Sustaining her and helping her through the funeral arrangements and Henry’s celebration of life. Standing by her side as she received an endless stream of visitors and flowers and meals. Even a couple of news crews from local TV channels. Henry’s position as Professor Emeritus at Fulton Business School and appointment to the boards of several large companies had afforded him a fairly high profile in business circles, and there was a surge of interest in the life and death of one of Seattle’s business personalities and his young widow. Two of the boards immediately dispatched their media relations teams to help Claire deal with the press. And after the turmoil and frenzy of those first few weeks had abated, after the meals and flowers had dwindled, and the visitors stopped coming, Milo and Suki were still there. Still bringing meals for her and the twins, still holding Claire’s hand as she dealt with yet another surge of grief. Still ferrying the twins to and from school and events and activities, and dealing with the lawn service, and club memberships, and insurance and minor roof repairs after a windstorm. Still standing with Claire as slowly, slowly, she started to pick up the pieces and began her return to motherhood and work and life.

       I see you!

       She quickly texted him back:

       Milo! Is that you - I can see your hair from here!

       How are you doing, my beautiful English rose?

       Doing well, thank you! Just getting some grading done. Student case studies and project reports.

       Hah! Look at you, Professor Beauchamp.

       Nope - still Dr. Beauchamp. Still Associate Professor. But interviewing and negotiating hard - there's a professorship in the works. We need to grab dinner so I can tell you all about it. Are you and Suki hardcore quarantining, or you up for dinner? Also, WTH are you doing flying over my house!

       Looking at the land for a potential client. Top secret. I’ll call you from my car in about an hour or so. I need to chat with you about something.

       OK. Later.

      As happy as she was to hear from Milo, her heart dropped a little too. If he was looking at the land, then chances were quite high that there was a development in the offing. Milo and Suki were among Seattle’s top five realtors. She wondered how many houses would be built there. Construction would be hard to tolerate - a minimum of two years of noise, dust, and activity.

      With another deep sigh, she picked up her glass and her laptop, and headed indoors. Time to throw together a quick salad and FaceTime the twins.

 

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      Milo’s call came just as she was wrapping up her FaceTime session with the twins.

      “Hey sweetheart, how are things?”

      “All good, Milo! How are you and Suki doing?”

      “We are fine. Quarantining dutifully like everyone else. We’re doing the distancing thing, but we have a fairly good idea who we can and can’t associate with. We’re so ready for this to be over! We’re heading to our place in Arizona in a couple of weeks for a change of scenery. You and the girls are more than welcome to join us. How are they doing?”

      “Aww, you’re so thoughtful, Milo! I might take you up on that later in the summer. Right now, I am super busy with project reviews and managing a summer cohort, and I’m in the middle of discussions about a potential professorship. Oh - and the girls are with their dad in Boston.”

      “Oh? Since when? You must be missing them like crazy!”

      “Oh, I am! Three weeks since they left! I know last time you and I spoke, they were just completing their online schooling and semester finals. Frank wanted them to fly out earlier this summer and spend more time with him and his family. They'll be there for a couple more weeks, and then home for the rest of the summer.”

      “Wow! I bet they’re missing you big-time, but probably enjoying the time with their step-siblings. Please send them my love next time you talk to them.”

      “Will do. Milo, please tell me Seattle’s top realtor has not found a buyer for the property next to mine.”

      “Hah! I think I heard you swearing at me from the helicopter - in your poshest accent!” Milo chuckled, imagining Claire’s annoyance at the disruption of her peaceful evening. "Well ….” he continued, “it’s good news and bad news. Bad news first - yes, we have a potential buyer looking at it fairly seriously. I know, I know - you were hoping that the land would always be there, undeveloped. The guy’s from the U.K. and he's only seen it on Google Earth and drone footage, but he knows the area from previous visits. He’ll be out next week to look at it in person. In fact, I was planning on asking you if you’d be willing to meet him briefly - observing social distancing rules, of course. A quick meeting to talk to him about the area, pros and cons of living there, schools, shopping, property values, walking trails - you know all the usual questions potential buyers have. It’s always helpful to have a friendly neighbor to talk to.”

      “Of course!“ Claire responded, trying not to sound hesitant or disappointed.

      Sure, she would love for the land to remain unspoiled forever, but she knew that was not realistic. Besides, Milo and Suki were practically family - she would do anything for them. “What’s the good news?”

      “He’s not a developer. He wants to buy all 26 acres. He’s a private man with a very public profile, and just wants something secluded and spacious. He’ll build something beautiful and classy, and will likely keep horses. He’s already said that he’ll stable the horses as far away from your house as his land will allow. No smelly horse poop to deal with,” he chuckled.

      “Hmmm. Well, if I have to give up my privacy, I’m really glad it will be to a single family. I’m really relieved about that, to be honest. How old are the kids?"

      “Actually,” Milo said, “there are no kids. He’s not married. We found him a 6-week rental on Lake Washington last October-November, and he was on his own for most of that time. His sister and her family came to visit for a couple of weeks. So no kids of his own for the moment but likely some family visits from time to time.”

      “Why was he renting on Lake Washington?” asked Claire, puzzled.

      “He loves the Seattle area and has been planning to buy property here for a while. He wanted to spend time in the area to see what grabbed him and where he might want to settle. While he was staying at the Lake, Suki and I took him to all the usual affluent neighborhoods to view properties - but he really wanted something on the Eastside. He is nuts about mountains, so he really can’t do better than Washington. And since he wants to be in the Greater Seattle Area, I feel like your neighborhood is a really good fit. We drove him out there in November and he says it reminds him of his home town in Scotland.”

      “So he’s from Scotland? What does he do?” asked Claire, a little more interested. Scotland was high on her list of places to re-visit. She had spent a few years there as a teenager and young adult, and really wanted to go back and explore some more.

      “Well, that’s where this gets tricky,” Milo replied. “This is one of those top secret deals where Suki and I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement because he’s a celebrity. We can tell you a little, but we’d rather do it face-to face. What are you up to tomorrow?”

      “Hah!” chuckled Claire. “Don’t judge me, but I’m taking advantage of the loosened restrictions and have planned a full morning of self-care and pampering. Mani-pedi, facial, massage, and hair. I’ll be done by 1:00’ish.”

      “Yeah! Good for you, Claire! No judgment here. You totally deserve it. In fact, I’m going to encourage Suki to do something like that soon. She deserves it too after putting up with me at home for weeks on end! Why don’t you come grab a light lunch with Suki at home when you’re done with pampering tomorrow? I have to drive to Bellingham for the day, but Suki has all the info about our client and the transaction, and I know she’s dying to see you.”

      “That sounds divine! Please let her know I’ll bring dessert. It’ll be somewhere between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. Can’t wait to catch up with her.”

      As Claire curled up on the sofa and set her phone down next to her, she couldn’t help feeling intrigued by the private, nameless celebrity who might become her neighbor.