He holds out his business card, and she plucks it from his fingers without touching them. “Hope to see you around, Allie Dawson,” he says. That was over a month ago. It seemed too good to be true, but Allie told herself to ignore the nagging feeling in her gut. That was her first mistake.
When she saw Laura Foster’s email welcoming her into a cohort of grant recipients, Allie literally jumped for joy. She was headed to Silicon Valley with a chance to bring her innovative product to market. She’s deaf with a cochlear implant, and she’s developed a screen that can clip onto eyeglasses and caption speech in real time.
But she had no idea how tight the rental market would be, or how cutthroat the competition is for everything from housing to venture capital. So, after a futile search to find a short-term apartment she could afford, she rented a guest house from a chummy real estate agent who approached her at a coffee shop.
But it’s clear now that she should have trusted her instincts. Because there’s something off about her landlord. And his moody wife. And the cryptic Hungarian guy renting his master suite.
Are they after her technology? She knows what it feels like to see her life flash before her eyes, and she doesn’t need that kind of stress right now.
“This twisty, spine-tingling thriller will have you hooked to the very last page.”
~ Leslie Lutz, Award-winning author of Fractured Tide
One thing I’ve realized over the years is that not everyone has what it takes to go the distance when the time comes. If you want something done right, you need to be prepared to do it yourself. I’m committed to reaching my goals, whatever the costs.
If I could achieve them without spilling any blood, of course, that would be my preference. I have killed before though, and I’ll do it again if that’s what it takes to succeed.
But only if I have no choice. That’s what separates me from the crazies. I get no pleasure out of harming people. In fact, it leaves me feeling very empty. But I won’t stop until I get what I need. And I’ll eliminate anyone who stands in my way.
I’m half awake when I feel a thud reverberate through my apartment and shake the bed. I spring up, and my heart is immediately in my throat.
Is this what an earthquake feels like?
Grabbing my phone, I check to see if there’s an alert. It’s 3:17 in the morning, and there’s nothing of concern on my phone, but maybe it takes a while to get the word out. I’m new to California, so I have no idea what an earthquake feels like or if anyone even bats an eye at something like this.
I hold still for a few minutes, and I don’t feel any more shaking. I reach for my speech processor on the nightstand. I’m deaf, and without my cochlear implant I hear nothing. Now I’m concerned there might be an intruder or some other threat lurking outside my door.
The small guest house I rent sits behind a stately, expensive home, and the owners have been away for the last week. There’s a boarder who rents a suite inside the main house. I thought he was still around, although it’s hard to tell with him. The guy’s kind of a ghost, and I don’t normally run into him much.
Once my speech processor is in place, I notice some kind of intermittent scraping noise outside. A tingling sensation crawls up my scalp. They have a dog, and she’s not barking. But then I haven’t heard her at all this week, come to think of it. Maybe they took her with them?
I peek out the window, poised to call 9-1-1 if someone is burglarizing the house, and I spot my landlord—at least I think it’s my landlord—dragging a large duffel bag across the lawn. It seems heavy, and he’s straining to move it. He whips his head around towards me, and I quickly duck down and out of sight.
Did he see me?
My heart starts to race.
I hear a voice call out. “Hurry up,” it says.
A woman’s voice?
I’m terrified of the dark, so I keep the bathroom light on when I sleep. I’m hoping it’s not bright enough for him to see inside my place. I lift the curtain just a hair and look out again. His back is to me, so hopefully he didn’t notice me.
What the hell is he doing?
I thought they were away until tomorrow. Did they come home early and I didn’t hear them? But this is strange. And this living arrangement made me uneasy from the start. Maybe I need to look for another place, although the thought of that puts my stomach in knots. It’s a nice unit at a decent price, and the rental market is extremely tight here. Perhaps he has a good explanation for what he’s doing, although I can’t imagine what it could be.
I double-check the dead bolt on the door, turn off the bathroom light, and get back into bed. I’m not taking my speech processor off though, so I probably won’t be able to get back to sleep; I’m used to total silence. I grab my phone, hold it under my comforter, and start thumbing through apartment listings as I wait for the sun to rise.
One month earlier
I rush into Starbucks to grab a pick-me-up before I embark on my next round of apartment viewings. It’s packed in here, and I need to use the bathroom. Badly. I’ve never been to this Starbucks before. Rancho Shopping Center, according to my app.
“I’ve got a to-go order,” I say to the barista. “Is there a restroom in here?”
“Over there,” she says, pointing towards the other side of the café. “Past the pickup area.”
I’m also hungry and hot. But I’m on a tight schedule, so although I’d like to chill for a while, I need to keep going. I locate the restroom and, thankfully, there’s no line. When I come out, I rush up to the counter to look for my drink order. I pick up a few cups that could be mine and examine them, but my latte’s not ready yet. I let out a long sigh and glance at my watch.
A frazzled worker glares at me but quickly softens her look. I offer her an apologetic smile, not wanting to stress her out any further. I’m surprised she heard me over the whir of the blenders and the milling of the coffee grinder. They’re very backed up and seem hopelessly understaffed. I worked my way through college at jobs like that, so I know exactly how she feels. And if I can’t get my idea off the ground before my funding dries up, I might be right there behind that counter with her.
But I can’t be late for my next appointment, so if my order doesn’t come up soon, I’ll need to leave without it. I’ve just finished a two-week boot camp along with the other women in my cohort, a requirement of the organization that gave me the funding for my start-up venture. I’ve also been looking at apartments on this visit, and I’m starting to think I might have to give up and go back to Milwaukee, at least for now, which is not an ideal option.
The man standing to my right says something, but I don’t catch it. I can’t hear anything out of my right ear, and the background noise is making it harder. And I remind myself that this is exactly why I’m here, trying to bring my concept to market.
I turn to face him so I can read his lips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“New in town?” he asks.
“Yes. Is it that obvious?”
“You went to the wrong side of the store for your pickup,” he says, “and you’re holding a rental car key.”
His wandering eyes look out from a kind, almost jovial face. I glance down at the key in my hand, wondering if I should be more discreet. I don’t need to advertise the fact that I’m a single woman traveling alone.
“You’re very observant,” I say.
“Not always,” he replies.
I hope he’s not hitting on me. He’s nearly twice my age if I had to guess. There are a lot of rich guys around here who can probably get women half their age to go out with them. He’s dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting a Patek Philippe on his wrist—and not an entry-level one. Money’s a compensating factor for some women, but not for me. Not for that big of an age gap. Then I notice a wedding ring and relax a little. Perhaps he’s just being friendly.
“Looking for a place to live?” he asks.
“I’m in real estate,” he says.
“Oh.” I nod.
That explains it.
Now I’m going to get the sales pitch. I should tell him to move on and not waste his time. I’m not planning to buy. But I realize he’s just doing his job. Maybe I can learn something from him. Networking in person isn’t my strong suit, and I need to get better at it.
“Mike Tabernaky,” he says.
“Allie Dawson,” I reply.
“Is it just yourself, or do you have a family?”
“Just me.” Saying that out loud makes me feel vulnerable all of a sudden.
“Well, it just so happens we have a guest house behind our home that’s become available. It’s nearby, in Cupertino. Just over the border from Los Altos. Perfect for a single person.”
Generally, I’m a trusting person, but this seems a bit too good to be true. My mind flashes to the shower scene in Psycho.
“That’s great, thanks. But I think I may have found something.”
He nods as he chews on his lower lip.
“Allie? Your order’s ready,” the barista calls out.
“Well, that’s me,” I say. “I need to run. Nice to meet you, Mike.” I offer him a fluttery wave and flash my best Midwestern-girl smile. If I end up living in this neighborhood, I’ll probably see him again, so I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative. Plus, he might know some venture capitalists he can introduce me to.
“Here. Take my card. In case it doesn’t work out.” He reaches out to me with his business card perched between his thumb and forefinger. I pluck the card from his fingers without touching them.
“Thanks,” I say.
“You’re welcome, Allie Dawson. Hope to see you around.”
I head outside and mentally prepare myself for another round of apartment viewings, trying to lower my expectations. The market’s supposedly softening for renters, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. And without a steady stream of income, I’ve been having a hard time qualifying for a place to rent. I gave up my stable job as a luxury branding specialist to pursue this opportunity. At the moment, I’m hoping that wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life.
It’s a competitive market, and I’m sure there are a ton of prospective renters who seem more desirable, with longer track records in the area. That’s why I’m a little overdressed for the occasion, in my red cap-sleeved Tory Burch dress paired with strappy black sandals. I want to make a good impression and try to appear a bit more mature than my twenty-nine years.
When I open the door to my rental, a white Kia Soul, the heat inside the car hits me and nearly knocks me off my feet. It’s late August, so hopefully it will cool down soon. They say it doesn’t get this hot here too often—just my luck. I see heat waves radiating off the black vinyl interior. I run around to the other side and open the door to air it out a little. I don’t want to show up sweaty and disheveled. Then I shut the passenger door, head back over to the driver’s side, and hop in.
The seat is warm but, thankfully, not burning hot. I sit down, strap myself in, and realize that I still have the business card in my hand. I tuck it into my wallet, start the car, crank the a/c, and pull up the address on my app. Then I take one last look in the rearview mirror, apply some lipstick, and fluff my hair. I make a mental note to find a hairdresser. My dirty blonde roots are showing, and I’m badly in need of a trim. Still, I’m presentable enough.
The dark circles under my eyes are gone because the loud people renting the front half of my Airbnb left yesterday morning, and I finally got a good night’s sleep. I’m not used to sleeping with my speech processor on, so any noise at all bothers me. I felt vulnerable sleeping without it in an unfamiliar place though, so it seemed safer to sacrifice deep sleep. Last night was better, and the extra hit of caffeine is starting to kick in.
I can do this.
Today’s apartment search was even worse than the previous ones, probably because it’s Saturday and everyone’s available. I had four appointments, and each rental had a steady stream of prospective tenants, including the unit that was totally unacceptable to me with no air conditioning, smelly, dog-pee-soaked carpets, and communal laundry.
Even the cramped one-bedroom suite I’m sitting in right now is better than that one, but I can’t afford this Airbnb for much longer, even if I could stand sharing part of a house with a revolving door of random travelers. I’m burning too much cash and energy on this trip, and although I filled out applications at the other three apartments, I’m not holding my breath.
Now I’m taking some time to regroup. I decide I’ll reach out to the organization that helped me with my pre-seed funding and see if they can give me some suggestions. I reach into my wallet to grab the executive director’s business card. But I come across the card I got from Mike Tabernaky, the real estate agent I met at Starbucks, with the guest house. I pull that out instead. He’s a luxury property specialist and the principal broker at the firm. Maybe he does have a pipeline of wealthy venture capitalists he can introduce me to. At the very least, I should try to connect with him on social media.
But why would he be giving his card out to people at Starbucks when the rental market is this hot? Perhaps he doesn’t want to deal with a parade of random strangers at his home? Or maybe he wants a single person, but he can’t say that in the advertising because of antidiscrimination laws. I do a search and find his website. It’s a small firm with two other agents and a few upscale listings on the site.
I tell myself that if I’m going to be a successful entrepreneur, I need to take some risks. If an opportunity like this dropped in my lap, maybe it’s fate. Part of the success story I’ll tell one day about how I was ready to give up when I found a place to live from a random guy I met at Starbucks who introduced me to so-and-so…and then it all fell into place.
Am I this desperate?
Yes, but I’m also not stupid. I’ll make an appointment to see the unit, and I’ll have my brother on the phone with me when I go see it, just in case.
It’ll be fine.
I pull out my phone, take a deep breath, and punch in Mike’s number. I’m a little surprised when it goes to voicemail and a little relieved. It would be more concerning if he was sitting around waiting for my call. Perhaps it’s rented already and I missed my shot. The thought of that makes me want it more.
I open up my email and start drafting a message to Mina Rao, Executive Director at Start-Her, the accelerator that’s sponsoring me, hoping that something comes through before I have to hang it up and head back east rather than burn through the money they gave me before I even get started.
It’s Monday morning and I’m in my home office when Mina calls. The ringtone wakes my sleeping three-month-old, and Kai starts wailing. I could kick myself for not remembering to silence my phone. I pick up the call, put it on speaker, and reach for him.
“This can wait, Laura,” Mina says to me as Kai continues his fussing.
It annoys me that my subordinate is second-guessing my decision to pick up the call, and I fight the urge to snap at her. She means well, but Mina’s not the only person in my life insinuating that I should take more time off. It’s wearing on my frazzled nerves. It’s not the baby or my career that’s making me stressed. It’s the horrible image that haunts my dreams. The one I can’t tell anyone about. But that’s not Mina’s fault, so I take a deep breath and let it go.
“No. He’ll settle down. Hang on a minute.”
“Take your time.”
I lift my shirt, place him on my breast, and grab a pen.
“Okay. What’s up?” I ask.
Mina runs through a slew of information in record time. She’s my executive director. We met at a now-defunct start-up that folded a little over a year ago. I’ve since founded an accelerator for female entrepreneurs, and my first class of ten awardees has received an initial round of funding. The timing is less than ideal with a newborn, but I’m not letting motherhood stop me. There are some promising ideas on the table, ones that could really make a difference in the world.
One woman developed a prototype of a blood-testing machine that could be a game changer in health care, if she can bring it to market. Another is working on a clip-on screen that would allow eyeglass wearers to read captions of conversations in real time. Now is not the time to step back.
“What happened to Allie Dawson? Did she find a place yet?” I ask.
Allie Dawson is working on the caption device, and her project excites me because it serves an unmet need in the market, it won’t get bogged down in a ton of regulatory red tape, and it’s not overly capital-intensive to produce.
“Not yet, but she has a lead on a unit in Cupertino. She’s got an appointment this afternoon, and she’s a little wary of going by herself, so I offered to go with her,” Mina says.
“It’s a guest house. Of some real estate broker guy who approached her at Starbucks.”
Mina gives me the rundown. It sounds fine to me, but I can see how a single woman might be a little uncomfortable renting a place from a stranger who befriended her at a coffee shop, although that’s what real estate professionals tend to do. It’s nice that Mina offered to go with her.
“Give me his name and I’ll check him out,” I say.
We go over the rest of the items on my list and sign off. I’m more tired than usual this morning and not only because of Kai. I had the nightmare again. It took hours for me to fall back to sleep, only to be woken again an hour later by my baby’s cries.
I can’t go on like this. I search my inbox for the therapist I contacted a few weeks back, to finally schedule an intake appointment. But a call comes in from a venture capitalist I’ve been courting, and then Kai needs to be changed, so it goes on the back burner once again.
My husband, Peter, enters my home office, and I glance at the clock. It’s after six already. The hours flew by, and I still haven’t reached out to the therapist.
“How was your day?” He places his hands on my shoulders and kisses the top of my head. Then he scoops up Kai and cradles him in his arms.
“Fine. And yours?”
“Always a ten.”
My husband’s been on cloud nine since I told him about our unplanned pregnancy. I must admit, I’d been looking forward to an empty nest after over a decade of raising my stepchildren. It took me a while to get used to the idea of starting all over. But I’m enjoying motherhood far more than I’d anticipated.
It doesn’t hurt that we came into some substantial money around the same time we found out about the baby, from stock gains at Peter’s biotech company, which brought a cancer drug to market. There are no financial pressures bearing down on us anymore. Not like there were before. But I’m not about to back down on my career, partly because I love what I’m doing, but also because slowing down might give me too much time to think about the craziness of last year.
Four attempts on my life.
The threat is gone, but not the anxiety. I sometimes wonder if Peter’s as jubilant as he seems. How can he be, after everything that’s happened? But his happiness seems genuine, and I’m even a little envious of his ability to move on and forget about it.
“I have some more work to finish up. Can you take him for a bit?”
“Just try and stop me.”
He starts walking out the door, and I go back to my inbox to search for the therapist’s email. Then he interrupts me again.
“Why don’t you try and move the nanny to full-time?”
Ugh. We’ve talked this to death, and I’m so sick of repeating myself.
“I can manage for now. I don’t want someone here all the time, hovering over me. I told you.”
“You like her?”
“Then just get her here full-time. You can lock yourself in your office, and she can sit and wait around until you need her. It’s better than losing a good nanny. What if someone else offers her full-time?”
“Peter. Enough!” I throw up my hands. “I need to focus right now. If you want to help me, then please, give me some space. This isn’t helping.” He thinks I’m on edge because the baby and my career are too much for me. But that’s not the reason.
His eyes widen, and then he lowers them in defeat. It’s obvious my words stung. His expression is somber as he turns from me and walks out the door.
“Close the door, please,” I say, in a softer tone. Then I rest my heavy head in my hands and take a deep breath. I remind myself that he means well, even if he is annoying me.
I know I’m being short with him, and that’s another thing to put on my list for the therapist. How to get over the resentment I feel towards my husband. I pull up the therapist’s email, click on her scheduler, and secure an appointment for next week. Next, I locate the web page of Mike Tabernaky, luxury real estate broker. At first glance, he seems legitimate. But it does give me pause that someone like him is renting out his guest house. The market’s pretty hot right now, and he has some high-end listings on his page. It seems a little desperate.
I check his broker credentials on the state website, and he’s in good standing. No formal complaints. No red flags. There’s nothing in the criminal or civil databases either, aside from a few speeding tickets. Maybe he has kids in college, or perhaps he’s just the kind of guy who likes to maximize his property value. We live in an expensive area, and people do rent their guest houses. I tell myself it’s fine and mentally cross it off my list.
There’s more to do, as always, but none of it is urgent. It’s dinnertime, so I close my laptop and head out to join my family, vowing to be more congenial to Peter. But I’m not telling him about the therapist. He doesn’t know what’s bothering me, and it needs to stay that way for now.
Excerpt from The Guest House by Bonnie Traymore. Copyright 2024 by Bonnie Traymore. Reproduced with permission from Bonnie Traymore. All rights reserved.
Bonnie Traymore is the award-winning, Amazon best selling author of page-turner mystery/thrillers that hit close to home. Her books feature strong but relatable female protagonists. The plots explore difficult topics such as jealousy, infidelity, murder, and the impact of psychological disorders, but she also includes bits of romance and humor to lighten the mood from time to time. She’s an active status member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America.