Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors (and, here, its editor) to perform their own real-life act of surveillance — and to write about what they saw.
The plan was to go to Columbus, look at some houses, maybe rifle through some homeowners’ personal things while my real estate agent wasn’t looking—an underwear drawer here, a medicine cabinet there—and report back. An easy way to fulfill my surveillance assignment for Catapult . Something that wouldn’t get me in too much trouble, but also a complete invasion of private space. What kinds of antidepressants do Midwesterners use nowadays? Do they prefer boxers or briefs? I was excited to find out.
Plus, it would let me kill two birds with one stone. After three long years of living as an itinerant professor, moving every nine months per the academic calendar, around the country and from job to job, I’d finally been offered a permanent position in the city I was born in. To say that my wife and I were eager to settle down is a gross understatement. Ever since we’d fled Los Angeles, in no small part because of the cost of housing, we’d been house-hungry. And we had some money saved up.
In the weeks leading up to the visit, I’d been scouring Redfin and Zillow, zeroing in on the perfect neighborhood—walkable, with access to vegan restaurants, locally sourced cafes, parks, natural grocery stores, good schools; the very neighborhood I’d spent the first year of my life in, in fact—and watching houses disappear as soon as they went up. As in so many Midwestern cities harboring middle-class refugees from the extreme wealth of the coasts, the Columbus real estate market was red hot. A halfway-decent-looking house posted in the morning would be under contract by the end of the day. In the month I spent sipping coffee and watching the market from afar, I saw the average price of a three-bedroom house jump ten and then twenty thousand dollars. When my parents bought their first house in the same neighborhood it cost them $30,000. Now it looked as if it was going to cost ten times that, at least.
I began googling suburbs, having panicky flashbacks of bidding wars and $100,000 down payments, from the last time we tried to buy a house in L.A.
Then, a few days before we were supposed to pack up the car and venture forth—from my latest academic posting in the hinterlands of New York, up along the Canadian border—a new house went on the market. It was a farmhouse, white with green trim and a columned porch and a sprawling, shaggy front lawn. My immediate reaction was that it looked dignified, stately in a Gone with the Wind sort of way, but smaller and, I hoped, without the racism and only a little run-down. The interior photos were promising too: out of focus and amateur, but revealing hardwood floors in good condition, freshly painted walls, no obvious signs of damage or neglect. Not bad for a hundred-year-old house. Best of all the asking price was less than others in the neighborhood. Tens of thousands of dollars less.
I copied the link and texted it to my sister, who happened to live just a few of blocks away. “What’s wrong with this one?” I asked.
“That house?” she texted back. “It’s great. We walk our dogs by it all the time.”
A couple of hours later, my sister arranged a walk-through with her realtor. My mother would drive down from Cleveland, and she and my sister-in-law would tour the house on Friday, the very next day.
On Friday, my mother sent text messages. Not word messages, but videos that she shot as she and my sister-in-law walked through the house. In the first one, she walks through the front door and pans up to the living room ceiling, revealing exposed wooden ceiling beams. “Erin,” she says to my sister-in-law, “can they hear me?” They meaning me and my wife.
“They can hear you,” Erin says.
So my mom talks to us through the camera. “It looks amazing,” she says.
In the second video, they’re in the kitchen. “Oh my gosh,” my mother says. She sweeps the camera across the stainless-steel appliances and new cabinetry, the elaborate backsplash. “It’s amazing,” she says again. “How many people are walking through the house today?” she asks the real estate agent.
“Five,” says the agent, off camera. “We’re the first ones.”
Then my mom says, “This is an amazing house.”
By that point I’d found my wife and we were sitting in my office, watching the videos as they came in, waiting for my cell phone’s next ding .
The third video, the fourth, the fifth. There were ten in total. We see the basement, the three bedrooms upstairs, the attic, the garage. My mom walks around the perimeter of the yard. “This is an amazing house,” she says for the I’d-stopped-counting-how-many-eth time.
Somewhere between the third bedroom with the stairs that led up to the large, unfinished attic and the two-car garage, I said to my wife, “We’re going to buy it, aren’t we?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, we haven’t even seen it.” But she was grinning.
We made an offer and, after some tense hours of waiting, the offer was accepted. I’d bought a house that I hadn’t even seen.
“Don’t worry,” the real estate agent told us. “There are still plenty of ways for you to back out.”
I’m not so sure,” my dad, the lawyer, said when I filled him in on everything that had happened. “You did sign a contract.”
I replied that Rachel, our realtor, was an expert. If the house turned out to be a lemon, I trusted her that we could cancel the contract.
Early the next morning, I packed the car for our now-urgent trip to Columbus. Then, while my wife showered and my nearly three-year-old son watched Thomas & Friends cartoons, I drank coffee and browsed the internet. I typed the name of the house seller in my search bar.
Most of the time when you google someone, you don’t learn much of anything. When I google my wife’s name, for example, I see her LinkedIn page and that she likes knitting. She has one IMDb credit on the cast and crew page for The Matrix: Path of Neo video game from back when she worked in the entertainment industry. There’s also a picture of a pretty French woman dressed up in a mermaid costume. This woman, who shares a name with my wife, is Kickstarting a line of fashionable mermaid tails for swimming or just for wearing out: “Whether you’re looking for a fun weekend activity, an enjoyable workout, or just something new, our mermaid tails are sure to please!”
Mistaken identities and doppelgängers like this are the most common result. For a long time when you googled my name, the first result was the mugshot of an old and overweight Bryan Hurt, pale and puffy and angry-looking. Some guy who drove drunk, road-raged, and pulled a gun on a family of four. During the trial he assaulted the bailiff and tried to steal his gun. Even worse, this Bryan Hurt lived in Rocky River, Ohio, less than an hour away from my hometown. For a while, he dominated my Facebook newsfeed. Posts from high school friends who chuckled and told me that I hadn’t aged well at all.
The house seller had a common enough name, seemed to be in his forties or fifties, and lived alone. When I watched the videos of his house and his belongings—the small, unmade bed in the den downstairs, the empty upstairs bedrooms minus one with a messy desk and an outdated CRT computer monitor, the large TV shoved indecorously in front of the living room fireplace—I didn’t expect to find that he lived much of a life online.
The first result was a newspaper headline: “Apologetic real estate agent sentenced for fraud.”
I didn’t do a spit take exactly. I clicked on the link and learned more. In 2013 the seller had been caught in a mortgage fraud scheme. He and some of his friends in the real estate industry had been defrauding banks: They’d buy houses cheap and then sell them for a profit without reporting the sales or the profits back to the banks that had made the initial loans. Our guy, who was not the mastermind, was sentenced to one day in jail, six months of house arrest, and had to pay $700,000 in restitution and fines.
I called my wife to the computer. It was not yet eight o’clock.
When I got the real estate agent on the phone, she started freaking out too. “Oh my god,” she said. “Twenty years in the business and I’ve never seen anything like this.” She meant that not only had she never sold a house to a couple who had never actually seen it, she’d never sold a house that belonged to a real estate criminal.
While we were talking, I was googling more. In 2015 there had been a break-in at the house. Was it related to the seller’s criminal history? Some sort of mortgage fraud deal gone bad? How did we know that he wasn’t selling this house as part of another con? Zillow showed that the house had lost sold in 2015 for $100,000 below the current asking price. Trulia showed that the house had been sold in 2006 but not in 2015. According to Redfin the house hadn’t been on the market since 1998. Who actually owned the house?
“Look,” said Rachel. She could sense that I was spiraling. “First thing on Monday I’ll call a friend who works for the city. We’ll get everything sorted out. Plus if there’s anything fishy on the financial side of things your mortgage company won’t give him the money. They stand to lose too much.”
After we hung up, I asked my wife if she still wanted to drive to Columbus. Instead of spending eight hours in the car , we could stick around for a few more days, enjoy the nice weather, and continue looking online for houses, ideally from people who were not trying to rip us off.
“We don’t know that he’s going to rip us off,” she said.
She was right. I didn’t know that. In retrospect, I didn’t know anything about him. I still don’t. Maybe the mortgage fraud thing was just one stupid decision, the only bad choice he’d made in his life. Maybe his friends roped him into it. They’d said, “It’s amazing, it’s amazing,” enough times that he believed them and ignored any of the doubting voices in his head. Maybe he was like me and wanted something so badly that he rushed into it. I can google and google and I’ll never find out.
We bought the house. When I finally saw it for myself, I knocked on the walls to test their soundness. I opened and closed the windows. I pulled the rugs up to look for stains. Everything was old and a little run-down and it wasn’t quite as amazing as my mom said it was, but it could be a good house with a little work.
While I was there, I didn’t rifle through the medicine cabinet or look in his underwear drawer. Boxers or briefs? I didn’t want to know. I’d seen enough of his dirty laundry already.
W atchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, is available now from Catapult Books.