Again, the telephone in the kitchen rang, and this time Rudge answered it in time. "Hello."
"Hello. This is Libby Mathabane. I don't know if you remember me or not but your sister introduced us at the Greek festival last spring."
"Oh, right," he lied.
"Anyway, what I called about is your pickup truck. I'm on my way to your cabin to claim it and I was wondering if you need my address to send me the title or is it inside the truck?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, lady," he said in bewilderment. "My truck isn't for sale."
"I know that. I understood you were giving it away."
"Come again?" he blurted.
"That's what you said in your ad."
"The one in the Courier this morning."
"I didn't place any ad there."
"Well, someone did," she said as she looked again at the "Open House" ad in the paper that she had circled with a red pen. "It says you have been forced to sell your cabin and all your possessions there, including the pickup, are free for the taking."
"That's preposterous. I'm not selling my cabin."
"Well, that's what it says."
"I can't believe it."
"If I were you, I'd get out there as soon as you can before everything's gone."
He did not reply, he was so stunned by what he had just been told by the woman.
"And I'd call the sheriff's office too."
"Yeah, I'll do that."
"Whoever did this to you ought to go to jail."
For a long moment, after hanging up the phone, Rudge just stared out the window as if in a trance then he grabbed his keys from the breakfast counter and rushed out the door to his car. Usually it took him a good forty-five minutes to drive to his cabin but he hoped he could make much better time this morning. He had to, he realized, or else scarcely anything would be left when he got there.
"Damn it!" he screamed, racing past a slow moving panel truck. "Damn it ... damn it ... damn it!"
He just could not believe this was really happening to him, thought he was caught up in some weird dream until one of his back tires clipped a curb and he bit the tip of his tongue. His mouth suddenly felt on fire. He wished he could stop to get a drink of water but he didn't have the time and pressed his foot down on the accelerator pedal.
About half a mile from his cabin, heading in the opposite direction, was a grungy station wagon with a mattress strapped across the roof. Immediately he wondered if it belonged to him but knew there was no way of telling so he kept on driving. When he got to his place he saw several cars parked outside of it and a man and a woman coming out the front door, their arms stacked with dishes and lamps and silverware.
"You can't take those things!" he shouted as he stormed out of his car. "They're mine!"
The couple ignored him and continued on to their SUV.
Quickly they put the items inside the trunk then turned and headed back to the cabin.
"This is my property and I want you to leave now!" he screamed, striding after them.
Another guy, breathing heavily, then staggered out the front door, cradling a coffee table in his bulging arms.
"What the hell do you think you"re doing?" he demanded.
The guy, puzzled, stared at him but did not say a word.
"This is my house. You can't come in here and take my things."
"The ad in the paper said I can," he snorted, staggering past the incredulous Rudge.
"It's not my ad," he snapped, grabbing one of the table legs. "Now put this back where you found it."
"The hell I will. The ad said whatever is here is free for whoever wants it and I want this table."
Rudge, seething, struggled to pull the table out of the guy's arms but it wouldn't budge despite how hard he pulled. Then, all of a sudden, the guy let go of it and spun around and clipped him across the side of the head with the back of his hand. He went down at once, groaning in pain, and the guy then picked up the table. He reached out for it again but the guy kicked away his hand.
"You want something you get it yourself, buddy. You don't take what I've got."
Dozens of people were still rummaging through the cabin, despite Rudge's frantic demands that they leave, when a deputy from the sheriff's office pulled up in his cruiser a little after nine o'clock. At once, Rudge introduced himself as the owner of the property, and though he didn't have his deed with him, he did have a photograph of himself standing in front of the cabin with two of his nephews last winter. He also told him he was the one who called his office for help. Deputy Bolton wasn't sure whether to believe him but decided not to allow anyone to remove anymore items from the cabin until someone with more authority could examine the deed. A few people protested his decision, showing the "Open House" ad to him, but all complied with it if somewhat reluctantly.
"So how do you figure something like this could have happened?" the deputy wondered as he wound a spool of security tape around the cabin.
"I've no idea. All I know is, I sure as hell didn't invite people to come here and take whatever they damn well please."
"You figure this was some kind of prank?"
"I just don't know."
"If it was, it was a mean one all right," he said, continuing to string the tape. "They clean you out pretty good?"
"I haven't had a chance to figure out what all was taken, but I suspect it's a fair amount," he said disconsolately. "I just can't believe no one would stop after I told them who I was and what they were doing was stealing."
Turning his head aside, the deputy spit out a stream of tobacco juice. "If folks think they can get something for nothing, they're going to take it even if they don't need it."
Rudge, devastated, stared blankly at an overturned lantern that the deputy had prevented some agitated woman from hauling away in her car.
"What you should do now, sir, is make as complete a list as you can of all the things that were taken from you. You never know, but we might be able to recover some of them. And you should also make a list of anyone you can think of who might be behind this."
"I can't believe anyone I know would've done this to me."
"Well, sir, you'd be surprised what so-called friends can do sometimes."
Though it took a while, Rudge was able to provide the sheriff's office with a fairly complete inventory of all the items taken from his cabin, but he had a hard time thinking of anyone who could have placed the "Open House" ad in the paper. Deputy Bolton was convinced that a hoax as malicious as this was done by someone Rudge knew in retaliation for something he did to the person.
"You cross some folks badly enough you're likely to be crossed yourself," the deputy told him just before he left the cabin.
Rudge was fifty-five years old so he had some strenuous relations with more than a few people in his life but he could not imagine he had offended any of them so gravely that they were willing to commit a crime to get back at him. As a result, when he gave Deputy Bolton the list of missing items, he did not include a list of possible suspects.
"You're sure you can't think of a single person who might have done this to you?"
"Not yet, but I'm still giving it some thought."
"Well, you keep thinking, sir, because I'm sure someone who knows you caused you all this grief."
He did come up with two possible suspects but he didn't mention them to the deputy because he thought he should speak with them before he got them involved in the investigation. One was an old flame, Charla Cummings, who became so furious when she discovered he was seeing someone else while he was living with her that she cut up half a dozen of his dress shirts and spread them across the hood of his car. Another possible suspect was a neighbor he had wrongly accused of stealing library books. He bought a couple of atlases from Crocker at a yard sale and noticed library stamps on them and notified the director of the local branch and, sure enough, the books were listed as missing. His neighbor, however, had proof that he purchased them from someone else so he apologized profusely for his mistake but Crocker never forgave him for accusing him of the crime.
The first one he telephoned was Charla, late one night after one too many beers. He had not spoken to her in a couple of months when she asked him to return the key to her apartment.
"Hello, kiddo. This is Harvey."
"What do you want?" she asked coolly.
"I called to see if you heard about what happened at my cabin over the weekend."
"Why do you think I'd be interested anymore in anything having to do with you, Harvey?"
Quickly he told her about the spurious newspaper ad and all the people who responded to it and took things from his place.
"So am I suppose to feel sorry for you? Is that why you called so you can have a shoulder to cry on?"
He took a deep breath. "No, not at all. I was just wondering if you might have left something in the cabin the last time you were there because, if you did, someone probably has it now."
"You must have me confused with some of your other lady friends because I was there only once, if you remember, and that was six or seven months ago."
"What you're really calling for is to find out if I'm the person who placed the ad," she said after a lengthy pause. "That's right, isn't it?"
"It did cross my mind."
"You bastard. You really think I'd risk going to jail to get back at you? If you do, you're wrong because I put you out of my thoughts a long time ago."
"I thought I should ask," he replied meekly.
"You did, did you? Well, as far as I'm concerned, you deserve every bad thing that happens to you. And, believe me, if I'd known about the ad, I would've been at your cabin taking everything I could get my hands on."
*Rudge had intended to call Crocker right after he spoke with Charla, but his conversation with her was so withering he decided to put it off until the following evening. Then he put it off to later in the week because he wasn't in the mood to listen to someone else denounce him. Curiously, the longer he took to call Crocker, the more people he thought of who had enough of a grudge against him to place the "Open House" ad. He was surprised. Only a few days ago he could not think of one person who might have done it now he had come up with several candidates. The thought of calling each of them mortified him yet he knew he had to unless he chose to give the names to Deputy Bolton to call. Then, of course, they would detest him more than ever he knew.
Before he got around to calling someone other than Charla, however, he was notified by the deputy early one morning that the people who perpetrated the hoax had been arrested in a neighboring county. A man and a woman were caught trying to sell three stolen bicycles, one of which belonged to Rudge, over the internet.
"It turns out they've placed ads like this before to cover up their theft. Their name is Rockove. You know them?"
"Well, I sure was wrong. I really thought the ad was placed by someone you knew because of something you had done. Revenge is the usual motive in pranks of this kind."
He sighed, cradling the telephone against his left shoulder. "I don't know anyone by the name of Rockove."
The deputy chuckled nervously. "If it's any consolation to you, it's nice to know that you haven't crossed anyone enough to cause them to pull a stunt like this against you."
He did not reply, wondering if that was really the case. He had rankled a lot more people than he had ever imagined until Deputy Bolton asked him to compile a list of possible suspects. He may not have committed crimes against them but he certainly had hurt them. Probably each one could have placed the bogus ad, might even place another one some day.
The deputy, before hanging up, said he hoped Rudge would be able to recover some of his possessions but now Rudge didn't much care if he recovered anything. Maybe he deserved what happened to him, just as Charla claimed.