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“It is impossible to suffer without making someone pay for it; every complaint already contains revenge.”

―Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapter 1

IF ANYONE KNEW the truth about 113 Bearing Lane, the community would be a ghost town. Many residents had an inkling that something was wrong at the address long before the disappearances made them certain of it. Some neighbors refused to walk near the quaint bungalow anymore, swearing that their leashed dogs pulled away when passing the cobblestone path to its white plank porch.
At yesterday’s emergency homeowners meeting, speculation from panicked residents grew into a competition for the scariest observation about the home. A few long-timers urged calm, reminding everyone that the additional detectives assigned to the case would solve the terrifying mystery soon. Old Man Dunley waved his cane hook over his head to hush the other voices and shouted, “A hundred bucks says this is nothing but a ballsy publicity stunt. Some magician’s trying to score some free media.”
Old Man Dunley would have lost that bet. There were no stunts and there was no magic. What happened inside the home at 113 Bearing Lane was real and warranted every bit of the panic it had triggered.
Eleven days ago, a uniformed Florida Energy Services employee arrived at the address, anxious to finish his last meter reading of the day. After parking his truck in front, he crossed the lush yard and hurried along the narrow walkway beside the home. Halfway to the back, he dropped to one knee and parted the bushy honeysuckle that concealed the meter. He stared at the dials, frowned and leaned closer. He set his clipboard aside, pulled a phone from his pocket and took two photos of the usage readings. After swatting some gnats from his face, he logged the numbers, then checked over each shoulder. He crept toward the back of the house, keeping close to the wall until he reached the rear corner. He peered around it for his first-ever glimpse into the backyard. A covered swimming pool was surrounded by a thick array of stand-mounted solar panels protruding from dead grass.
He tilted his head and listened, noticing a silence broken only by the occasional, faint chirps of birds out front. He pinched his clipboard under his arm and took a few more photos, checking each one until he had a clear image that allowed the solar panels to be counted. “There’s no way,” he said under his breath, stepping closer to the array.
“Are you lost?” A sharp voice startled him. He flinched and turned to it.
The house’s back door eased open enough to see one side of a woman’s shadowed face.
“Oh, hi,” the man said. He took a deep breath while the prickles subsided. “I’m from Florida Energy Services.” He hid his phone behind him.
“Have you installed a new meter in my back yard?” the woman asked.
“No, I was just… uh—”
“Then I wonder what you are doing back here.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I saw an abnormal reading on your electric meter and thought the reason might be your fine solar array here.” He pointed with the clipboard while trying to slip the phone into his back pocket. He missed and the phone crashed to the ground.
“I saw you photographing my property,” the woman said. “Is that standard protocol for collecting meter readings?”
“No.” He picked up the phone and checked it for damage while desperately trying to think of an exonerating reply. “I was just—”
“You were just committing a flagrant privacy violation, right?”
“Uh, no, ma’am.” He closed his eyes and shook his head at his own stupidity. “Listen, ma’am, I’m really sorry about that. I can delete—”
“I forgive you,” the woman cut him off.
“You do?”
“Yes, and I hope your employer does, too, when I send them the footage.” Her hand emerged and pointed up to a dome camera mounted under the corner rafter.
The man bowed his head and sighed.
“I’ll tell you what,” the woman said. “You don’t want a reprimand and I don’t want any special attention. Maybe we can come to an agreement.”
The man mimed wiping sweat from his forehead. “I can be very agreeable.”
“Come closer,” the woman said. “I want to ask you something.”
He approached her while fanning his face with the clipboard.
She opened the door wider and stepped into view.
He stopped fanning and froze.
She was tall and shapely with piercing blue eyes and straight, espresso hair that fell below her shoulders. She wore only red panties and a white T-shirt so thin it masked nothing.
He felt his smile growing crooked and stifled it, forcing his gaze to her face.
She looked down at herself. “Oh… I didn’t expect company.”
“No worries!” The crooked smile rushed back. “My God you’re, you know—beautiful,” he stammered.
“I’ve always wondered who lives here,” he said. “Finally, I can put a… face with the address!”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Manny. And you?”
“Listen, Manny, can you tell me more about my ‘abnormal’ meter reading?”
“Sure, it’s simple, actually. Your net metering, which is excess electricity you send back to us, is off the charts—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name…”
“What does that mean—off the charts?” She spread her fingers, inspecting her nails.
“Well, on a typical month, a house on your street uses anywhere from 600 to 900 kilowatt-hours. This month your meter shows a net metering credit of over 7,100 kilowatt-hours. That’s the kind of juice a commercial building would consume and you’re sending it back to us.”
“And that’s a problem because…” She motioned for him to finish the sentence.
“Because, even this large array,” he thumbed over his shoulder, “couldn’t possibly generate that amount of juice.”
“You still haven’t told me the problem,” she said.
Manny stepped closer. “Ma’am, I’m going to sweeten our agreement by giving you some free scoop.”
“I love scoop.”
Manny grinned. “When I report this reading, your account will get flagged for a closer look because the amount of power you’re generating is suspicious for a home in this neighborhood. My bosses will dispatch a higher-level technician for an inspection. They’ll question you, and if you don’t have a power source and an inverter that can support the amount of juice you’re sending back to us, then it automatically becomes a meter tampering investigation. Nothing I can do about that.”
The woman fingered hair over her ear. “Manny?”
“You have me in a really vulnerable position. I’m willing to do almost anything to make sure you’re the only one who knows about… my juice.” She bent forward and slowly scratched her knee. “Can you think of anything we can do to keep it between us? …Anything at all?”
Manny eventually blinked free of his stare. “I’m sorry,” he said, wincing. “I’m required to report this reading. I just wanted you to be prepared for special attention I can’t prevent.”
The woman nodded. “I understand, Manny. You’re curious about my power source aren’t you?”
He laughed. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. You’re generating an ungodly amount of electricity somehow.”
“Manny, do you enjoy seeing new technology?”
“Of course!”
“I was hoping you’d say that because I want to show you something if you wouldn’t mind coming inside.”
Manny checked his watch and grimaced. “Technically, we’re not supposed to, uh…”
“C’mon,” she coaxed. “I’ll give you the quick tour. We won’t be two minutes.” She opened the door wider, leaning to hold it for him.
As he eased past her, he couldn’t resist committing to memory a close-up glance through the shirt.
“You seem like a guy that can keep a secret. Am I right?” she asked, closing the door behind them.
“Don’t worry,” Manny said, raising his right hand to swear. “For a chance to know what you’ve got going on in here, torture couldn’t break me.”
The woman smiled for the first time. “Wonderful. Trust me, this secret won’t be hard for you to keep.”
Manny pivoted, frowning as he looked around an empty kitchen. “Ah, that explains part of your power surplus—you’re missing your fridge and all your other appliances!” He laughed, turning back to her.
Her smile was gone. She stepped away from the door and two heavy clunks came from it when automatic deadbolts locked…

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