Venetian Springs: Chapter 3

Mark didn’t use the peephole, though—even though he figured that Gina was probably right.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Children were still arriving home from school for the day.

If we have to be afraid under those circumstances, Mark thought, then what’s the point of having a house?

He pulled the front door open. The person on the front porch wasn’t exactly threatening, but he was nothing Mark would have expected, either. 

He was about the same age as Mark and Gina—probably in his mid- to late twenties. He had a mop of reddish blond hair, and a scraggly beard of the same color. 

He wore a rumbled blue blazer over his lanky frame. Mark saw threads dangling from the cuffs. 

His trousers—a shade of blue that didn’t match the blazer—were too long. 

Mark glanced down at the man’s feet: He was wearing mud-stained tennis shoes that had once been white. 

“How can I help you?” Mark asked. 

The stranger flashed Mark a smile, revealing several gaps where there should have been teeth. Mark was immediately reminded of documentaries he had seen about drug addicts, how narcotics destroyed their teeth.

“No,” the stranger said. “The question is: How can I help you? Joe Johnson’s the name, and credit counseling’s my game!”

Mark was on edge now.

Only a few minutes ago, he and Gina had been discussing their household budget. Then the sounds at the back door. 

And then this guy shows up, claiming to be a credit counselor.

But nothing about him added up. Mark might be a high school history teacher, but he had had his share of interaction with professionals in the finance industry: banking officers, loan agents, and the like.

None of them were anything like this Joe Johnson.

Then there was the fact that Joe Johnson sounded suspiciously like a made-up name.

“Were you at my back door just now?” Mark asked, getting right to the point. 

“Me?” Joe Johnson said, pointing a finger at his sparrow chest.

“You’re the only one on my porch right now.”

“Absolutely not,” Joe Johnson said, shaking his head. 

Mark didn’t entirely believe him. But there was no way to prove the matter, one way or the other. 

“Okay,” Mark said—though it wasn’t okay. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m a personal credit counselor!” the odd-looking man said. 

Mark listened to about a minute of the spiel. None of it made sense, really. 

A personal credit counselor? Seriously? This guy?

Whoever this Joe Johnson really was, whatever his game was, there was no way Mark was going to let him within a stone’s throw of his and Gina’s finances. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark said, interrupting him, “but I’m really not interested.”

Mark had expected that that would be the end of the matter. Like Gina—he was no milquetoast. In high school, about a decade earlier, Mark had played both football and baseball. He’d been in his share of fisticuffs. Few men tried to bully him. 

And he could have knocked this Joe Johnson off the porch without even trying, had he been so inclined.

But Joe Johnson, for his part, wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“If I could just come inside,” he said, “and talk to you and the missus.”

Now Mark’s hackles went up again—just when he had been ready to dismiss Joe Johnson as a harmless flake. 

“I didn’t say anything about a wife,” Mark said. “And no, you can’t come inside.” Mark’s tone wasn’t exactly hostile, but he was done playing nice.

Joe Johnson seemed flustered again. “A guy living in a house like this,” he stammered, “in this neighborhood…I figured you’d be married.”

Mark considered that. Possible. But he was done with this discussion, nevertheless. 

“Thanks anyway. But I’m not interested.”

“Could I at least get you to take a card?”

Mark didn’t want a business card from this man. But Joe Johnson was already reaching into the front pocket of his rumpled blazer. 

Anything to get rid of him at this point, Mark thought. 

“Okay. I’ll take one of your cards.”

Mark reached out and took the proffered business card.

Then Joe Johnson spun on his heels, and walked away.

Mark watched him depart. He couldn’t help it. There was so much about the man in the shabby blue blazer and soiled tennis shoes that didn’t add up.

Joe Johnson made quick steps up their walkway to the main sidewalk, where he made a sharp right turn.

Then he kept walking. He didn’t turn at the house next door, nor the house after that, either. 

Yet another thing that didn’t add up. If Joe Johnson was working door-to-door, then he would have stopped at at least one of those other houses.

But Joe Johnson wasn’t doing that.

He just kept walking. His pace seemed to accelerate the farther away he got, in fact.

So the door-to-door man wasn’t an actual door-to-door man. Joe Johnson—or whoever he was—had come into the neighborhood for one purpose: to call on Mark and Gina Baxter.

Most unusual.

Mark looked down at the business card in his hand. It was printed on plain white card stock:

Joe Johnson

Credit Counselor

There was a telephone number, which—Mark would have been willing to bet—connected to an over-the-counter burner phone. Also a Yahoo email address.

No company name. No website. No logo.

It simply didn’t add up. None of it.

When Mark walked back into the kitchen, he found Gina sitting at the table. She was looking at the legal pad, the numbers that governed their lives and future.

“Who was that?” Gina asked. 

“No one.”

She made a face. “Come on. It was someone.”

Mark crumpled up the business card and tossed it into the trash container beside the refrigerator.

“Just a salesman,” he said. “I got rid of him. Anyway, let’s get back to the budget.”

Chapter 4

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