Chapter 1: A Rare Opportunity
"One person's misfortune is another's opportunity." I smiled as I remembered my daddy's words. Daddy had a lifetime of that misfortune; misfortune that must have given opportunity to a boat load of other men. Still with all of his hard luck I could never think about him without thinking of one of his similarly upbeat, off-the-wall comments. I even remembered daddy teasing the nurses as he lay in the hospital firmly battling the cancer that ended his life.
My frown turned into a weak grin as I realized that I was on the receiving end this time. The banks had a surplus of repossessed homes and apartments to be cleaned and prepared for sale. With the way the economy was heading they weren't quite sure when those sales would be but wanted the repos ready for sale on the spur of the moment. Almost no one had any ready cash, especially the twenty percent down the banks were now requiring. Most of those with any ready money at all were holding on to it with a tight fist. Hard times have arrived.
I couldn't keep from thinking that all of this is an opportunity for someone. Freelancing as a home closure expert, I carefully looked over each home taken back, sized up the dumpster requirements needed to clean the place out, and the man-hours of cheap labor needed. It wasn't complicated to figure and there was an abundance of newly vacated houses. Glancing down on the contract bid form I quickly noted a dollar figure and then double checked the address on the form against the mailbox at the curb. Hell, this one wouldn't even require a dumpster; the sub should be able to get this garbage in the back of his pick-up.
The price on the bid sheet was $600, the minimum bid that I make on any project. As it was, my bids averaged $800 per house and my average cost was about $400 of that. By the time I wrote down my bid I was already looking at the next house on my list. I gave a curse under my breath as I realized the next house was all the way on the other side of town. Well, it would be my last for the day. Looking at the marks on my tally sheet I realized that the next one would make 26 bids for this week alone, and today was only Thursday. If everything held up, I would win bids on 16 to 18 of those on Monday. My crews had already finished cleaning out ten this week with six more to be completed by next Tuesday. My gross profit had averaged six grand a week over the past four weeks and four grand a week for the three months before that. All of my sub's Mex labor was billed at $8 an hour and there were no taxes, no unions, no problems; those were the responsibility of the subs. Hell, that $8 an hour was $2 an hour better than any of my competition and I still outbid them on 75% of all jobs and almost every job that I really wanted.
"My competitors are really a greedy lot, " I thought as I headed into heavy traffic. Yep, the real secret in this business is knowing when to walk away from a job rather than bid it. Like this job way across town. I'd look at it but most like wouldn't bid it because of the distance from the other jobs and from the labor. Most jobs are in the new subdivisions that had sprung up around the auto radiator plant five or six years ago. That plant had shut down less than two years after it opened a victim of the stagnant auto industry.
As I listened to the droning voice of the electronic navigator I began to weave my pick-up through the streets of what looked to be an affluent section of town. I noticed that the houses here were much older and larger than the ones I typically bid. The houses, for the most part, seemed to be populated by old money. Not a bad place to live, really. I imagined that a house in this area would more normally be a target for an estate sale. I observed that there were no 'For Sale' signs on any of the highly manicured lawns that I passed.
Ah, here was the address. The first thing I saw was that there was no foreclosure sign on the house that seemed even older than the other houses in the neighborhood. Looking at my clipboard I checked the address again; 101 Bell Whistle Drive. The name matched that on the street sign at the corner and the numbers matched those hammered out of ornate bronze that were attached to one of the tall wooden pillars supporting the portico above the front porch. The grass needed mowing, but other than that the house didn't look vacant at all.
The house was old and yet stately and almost looked out of place here among the other, more modern homes on the street. Not that any of the homes on the street were new. Most were probably built in the 1920's or earlier. Still the house at 101 Bell Whistle looked a century older than that. For all its age, the house seemed to be in good repair.
As I stood examining the outside of the home, a sultry female voice almost echoed from the next yard. "If you're looking for the Andersons, they moved out about six weeks ago." After searching I found the seemingly disembodied voice belonged to a woman hidden by the privet hedge fence that separated the two yards. The woman was a svelte older blonde, probably in her mid-60s, languidly stretched out sunning herself on an outdoor lounge chair. The somewhat sun wrinkled woman was clothed in a fashionable blue short set and obviously intent on catching the last rays on a sunny day.
I introduced myself and explained the reason for my visit. The last thing I needed was for some nosey neighbor calling the cops. The neighbor, Elise Howard, provided me with some background information including the fact that the neighborhood did not even allow signage displayed in the yards of the homes being sold. The bank had come and put out a sign but Elise's neighbor, a member of the bank's board of directors had immediately had the sign removed. Elise seemed to know most everything that went on in the neighborhood.
"The Andersons lived in that house for over 40 years. Irma and Chad played bridge with the same club that Edward, that's my husband, and I still do. It seemed like one day everything was fine and the next they were gone. Said they were going to some retirement village in Arizona. Said she would write me when they got there. Never did though. Irma said the market meltdown took most of their retirement savings and they couldn't afford the mortgage payments or upkeep any longer. She sounded really embarrassed by it all, like it was their fault. I asked about the movers but she said the place they were moving to was completely furnished and they didn't want to pay for storage. Said they were looking at it as a fresh start. I asked her about selling the furnishings but she said she couldn't bear to go through that. Just left it all, can you imagine that?"
"What about the kids?" I asked.
Elise sat up and stretched as she replied, "Didn't have any kids, just some foreign couple and their worthless daughter who took care of the place. Don't know where the hell they went. They left months before the Andersons did and as far as I'm concerned it's good riddance." Elise looked at him expectantly after finishing up as if he was expected to add some information to what she already knew.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, "All I know is that the bank wants a bid on clearing the house out and making it ready for sale. There are so many foreclosures now that I don't think they send anyone out to look at these places anymore. Most of the foreclosures are across town so I doubt my competitors will even come way over here to bid this one."
Elise rose to her feet and pulled off her sunglasses as she said, "Obviously they have no idea what's inside that place. Hell, the furniture alone may be worth as much as the mortgage. Irma was off her rocker not to sell that stuff. You'll see when you look at it. Irma was an antique collector when she was younger. Why she would leave all of that I'll never know. People sometimes get foolish as they get older."
Giving me a stern look she said, "Don't look at me like that, I'm not that old." As soon as she said it her smile took any sting out of what she'd said.
I stuttered an apology, assuring Elise that I had no intentions of inferring she was old at all. Hell, she looked damn fine for her sixty years. Of course I didn't say that either. I was curious now to see exactly what was in the house so I said, "Guess I better get back to work. It was nice talking to you."
Elise harrumphed then laughed and said, "Guess I'd better get inside. The sun's gone for the day anyway. Edward, that's my husband, will be back from his golfing and wanting supper soon."
I shook my head as I watched her sashay over to her front porch. She had a nice firm butt for an older lady, if you know what I mean. I bet she was a heartbreaker in her day; still acted like she knew it too. Just before I turned she got to the porch and smiled at me; a knowing smirk if I'd ever seen one. I laughed and waved as I moved back to the yard of the house we had been discussing. Better look things over and then write up my estimate.
The lights were off in the house which meant that the bank had not sent in the order for the power company to turn them on as they were supposed to. That shit happened all the time and so I returned to my truck and picked up the long five-cell Maglight. The house had been clean at one time, as it was fairly clean now with only the coating of several weeks dust on the furniture.
The first beam of the light around the formal living room let me know that the nosey neighbor had been right. The items arranged around the room looked to be genuine early American antiques. I don't watch Antiques Road Show except upon occasion, but I could sense even in the half darkness that these were not knockoffs. The Persian rug that was the centerpiece of the large room was the largest I had ever seen. The chandelier hanging from the 14 foot ceiling looked to be real crystal, something made generations ago.
My mouth was hanging open as I wondered what would possess someone to up and leave all this. I was shaking my head as I strolled into the dining room. Another rich rug graced the floor. The mahogany table that was the centerpiece of the room had chairs for twelve people arranged like soldiers around its periphery. There was an elegant glass fronted hutch that dominated one side of the room. I could see through the glass doors of the hutch that it was full of china. There was a serving table and what looked to be an antique serving cart along the other side of the room. Impressive paintings in heavy frames hung from the wallpapered walls.
As I continued through the first floor I discovered a den that was furnished with rich leather furniture. The door to a wall safe was open on one wall; a painting leaning against the wall at floor level must have covered the safe. Again there was a thick rug on the floor instead of the more modern carpet. One long wall was built-in book cases that were about three-quarters full of books. The books seemed to have been pulled off of the shelves at random. Most likely the owners had pulled down those books of value to them and packed them to take with them. The room was richly paneled and the paneling didn't look like the cheap six mil stuff. There was a roll-top desk centered in the room with several rather uncomfortable looking chairs arranged around the edge. I knew that the roll-top desk alone would probably pay for the clean-out of most houses.
I sat down in one of the leather reading chairs and thought of what to do next. Whipping out my cell phone I dialed my contact at the bank. It was only 4:30 so he might still be there. The phone rang twice and a voice said, "First National Bank, Mr. Wheatley's office. May I help you?"
"Meg, this is Joe. Is Bob in? I have a question about the last property you gave me."
"Joe, it's a good thing you called now. Bob has been in meetings all day and just got back to his desk. Hold on, I'll let him know you're on the line."
I waited, wondering exactly what I was going to say. Normally I only contacted Bob to let him know the jobs were done. I usually dropped off the keys to several jobs as I gave him bid sheets for the other. Bob had let me know early that he didn't like questions he didn't know the answers to. He was one of those people that got into a routine and then got very upset if something messed up that schedule.
I heard a click on the line and then heard an obviously harried Bob say, "What is it, Joe? This has been a hell of a day and I'm about ready to head to the house. Six more houses added to the repo list yesterday. I don't know what I'm going to do if this pace keeps up. The way things are they won't let me hire more help and I can hardly deal with what I have."
"Bob, this last house you gave me over on Bell Whistle, what do you want done to it?"
There was a pause and then Bob answered, "What do you mean? I want the same job as all the others. Clean it out to the bare walls and make it ready to sell."
Then as if he sensed some reluctance on my part he added, "I know it's all the way across town but it still has to be cleaned out. You're the only contractor that would even look at it. Give me a bid, anything reasonable, and then get to work. I can promise that there won't be any competition on this one."
I dreaded saying it but I said, "But Bob, there's a house full of furniture in here."
Bob must have thought that I was angling for a higher bid because he sounded terse and out of sorts when he replied, "Then figure it in your bid. Hell Joe, you've been doing this for a while, you know how these things go. I know you'll give me a fair bid. I've got too much on my plate to mess with these minor details. I'll expect your bids in tomorrow. When you get here I'll have those six new bid sheets waiting for you. I've got to go."
I wasn't surprised but at least I had my answer. I didn't even have to worry about anyone else bidding the job either. I spent the rest of the afternoon detailing the job to be done. I decided to subcontract with a moving company to move the furniture out. I would put it all in storage; there was no place for any of it in my small two bedroom apartment. The place was huge, five furnished bedrooms on the second floor and a smaller servant's apartment behind the kitchen on the first floor. The kitchen appliances were older top of the line equipment. I would have to come back tomorrow and check out the basement. This was going to take some time. I would go ahead and put in a standard bid in on the project, hell, I felt like I was stealing anyway.
About the time I was getting ready to leave I heard a sound like a door closing. I was in the front room and the sound seemed to have come up from somewhere down below. I almost chalked it up to old house syndrome, those creaks and movements off old timbers made by old houses, but it seemed too loud for that to be the case. I debated just leaving but my curiosity wouldn't let go of my imagination and so I searched for the basement entry. The stairway leading down to the basement ended up being a narrow one that was fronted by a door to what I had earlier thought was a coat closet.
The constricted staircase wound downward into what appeared to be an endless pit of darkness. Not being particularly brave I decided to walk to the bottom of the stairs with my flashlight and see if the source of the noise was visible at that point. The wooden stairs seemed to creak louder as I moved forward onto each downward step. As I neared the bottom of the stairway I noticed a single dusty footprint on each of the two bottom treads. Shining the light back up the stairway I couldn't see if there were other footprints that I might have missed mingled with my own. It was also impossible to make out any other footprints on the green Astroturf-like carpet covering the floor of the basement.
The basement had a musty smell tainted with some unrecognizable other odor. I pointed the bright beam of the flashlight around the room, examining each area carefully. The immense basement seemed even larger than the house above. The area was tidily arranged into storage areas which contained chest-high stacks of boxes, discarded household items, books and old furniture divided by aisle ways between the items. Some of the stacks of boxes were higher than others and it was almost impossible to see beyond some of these although most of the tallest stacks were anchored by a basement wall. Finally I saw a tumbled heap of books; books that had possibly once been neatly stacked and managed to rationalize the noise I had heard as the toppling of that stack. About that time I heard a loud drawn out meow emanating from behind a stack of boxes near that pile of books.
With my curiosity overriding my nervousness I quickly moved around the stack of boxes. There I saw a largish orange and grey tabby. The cat was intently pawing a box as if trying to bat it aside.
"What's the matter, kitty, trying to get to a mouse?"
The cat peered up at me as if I was stupid, something cats always seem to do when I ask them questions. The cat remained motionless as I approached and softly meowed as I picked it up. As soon as I started to stand the cat scrambled and scratched against me to get loose and then jumped onto the top of the pile of boxes. I tried to pick the cat off the top of the boxes but it lightly jumped across from one stack of boxes to another and ended up on the other side of the room. Cursing some half remembered epithet that I had picked up from one of my Mexican workers I kissed the scratch on my hand and walked around the boxes to find the cat. Shining my light all over the stacked furniture on that side of the room I realized that finding the cat wasn't going to be easy.
My best ploy was to get the cat to come to me so I called, "Here kitty, kitty, come here kitty." Of course it was to no avail as any cat worth its salt would be blackballed for coming when called. Still, I tried and repeated the call over and over, searching for the cat's eyes using the bright beam of the flashlight. Knowing that I wasn't going to find the cat without some help I went back upstairs to the kitchen. Going to the cupboard I found no cat food, or food of any other kind. I did, however find a couple of old chipped dishes. I took the only saucer and half filled it with water from the faucet. I thought that at least they had the water still on, even if the lights were not.
Moving carefully back down the stairs I called to the cat again but still no results. I sat the saucer down under the bottom step and headed back up the stairs feeling some comfort in knowing that at least the cat had water. All of a sudden it dawned on me that if it had been six weeks since the owner's left the cat must have some way to eat and drink, else it would be dead by now. At the top of the stairs I turned and gave one last look towards the darkness below, responding to some inner feeling that I was not alone. Shrugging off that feeling, I locked the house without further incident and then sat in my pick-up as I wrote up the bid and made a series of phone calls.
The first call was to the power company to get power turned on. I had done this several times in the past and I was on their authorized list. The second call was to a moving company that I occasionally used. I talked to a friend there and cajoled him into meeting me at the house the next afternoon with a wrap and pack crew. I would have to pay full rate to get a truck out on Monday to remove all of the furniture and boxes. I figured to take all of my bid sheets into the bank in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the basement, looking through boxes, sorting things to throw out. Hopefully, at that time I would also find the cat. My third call was to a dumpster company to site a dumpster on Tuesday to remove all the remaining detritus. I advised them to place the dumpster where it wasn't visible from the road.
All of this reminded me to check out the garage in the back which was a one story brick building at the end the wide paved driveway. As I walked to the back I noticed that the back yard looked to have been professionally landscaped. There was even what appeared to be an old covered stone well at the center. I noticed that someone had placed flowers in the old bucket that now hung from the crosspiece. Someone must have been watering these flowers as they looked bright and healthy.
The garage itself was a nice enough brick building with white trim that matched the trim on the house. It looked to be large enough to hold at least three cars and then some additional room for storage. The front had what looked to be two modern double garage doors, probably controlled by garage door openers that I didn't have. I found a normal entry door on the back yard side of the building that I opened with a second key that was on the small split ring with the front door key.
This door opened into a room that was obviously a laundry room. There was a modern commercial washer / dryer combination sitting below shelving that was made to hold laundry products. In the center of the room a nice large wooden table provided space to fold clothing near a built in ironing board attached to the wall. Another door leading from this room into the main garage was standing open.
My senses were assaulted by the same unrecognizable scent that I had noticed in the basement tinged with the familiar hint of gasoline. I was only mildly surprised that the garage was not completely empty. Along the metal shelves that lined the walls were many of the common items used to maintain cars. This part of the garage was the first part of the property that appeared to be in disarray. There was a large metal pan that contained the oily gasoline that accounted for one of the odors. Inside the pan were some roller bearings that had apparently been left there to soak.
After seeing nothing major in the garage itself my eyes moved to the door to a second space next to the laundry room. This room was about twice the size of the laundry room and contained a large collection of small power woodworking tools neatly ensconced on pegs along top of a nice, rather sturdy workbench. The other side of the room contained a riding lawn mower, a smaller hand mower and various and sundry garden tools. There was a large built in cabinet above the workbench. Inside the unlocked cabinet I found every hand tool a wood or metal worker could want, all neatly shadow boxed as if waiting for someone to start a project. There was one room or closet behind the work room that was locked. I tried the key I had been given but it would not unlock this door.
I quickly locked up and was still shaking my head in disbelief as I walked back to the truck. Hell, someone could move in here tomorrow and the only thing I could see that they would need to do would be to buy some groceries and turn on the power. That was when I begin to wonder what a property like this would go for. I knew the bank was still in negotiations with several realtors and hadn't yet listed any of the recent acquisitions. I also knew that Bob had mentioned in passing that if I saw a place that I wanted, just to let him know. After my puzzled look he let me know that the bank was so loaded with properties that they would let most of them go for the balance owed, and with the way the real estate market was dropping probably would not even get that on most of the properties.
I knew that I had all of my money in cash. It wasn't in my mattress but it was in three different banks. Ninety percent of it was in six-month maturity CDs. I trusted banks but only because of the federal depository insurance. I also knew that when a bank folded there could be a short period where your deposits were temporarily unavailable so I kept my money spread out among different banks. They all happened to be the largest banks that contracted me and each probably thought that I had all of my depository accounts with that bank.
When I reached my small apartment I took my wheel book from my back pocket and logged onto my laptop computer. I went straight to the internet login of each of the banks and accessed my accounts. It only took a few minutes to note the totals and the maturity dates of the CDs. I was really surprised seeing that I had been able to accumulate over $245,000 cash over the past three years. Not bad for a 26 year-old high school graduate. I knew I had made much more than that but taxes had killed me. My accountant kept telling me that I needed to invest the money and give it room to grow, but from what I saw of the market, CDs were the only investment that made sense at the moment.
I looked out on the web and located the county tax assessor's website. I went to the search feature and pulled up the record for 101 Bell Whistle Drive. I wanted to find out what ball park I would be playing in. This site was really good, it gave a basic floor plan, square feet and the tax assessed value of the property. I knew the state had laws that limited the amount that residential property tax assessments could grow per year but also knew that with declining property values these appraisals were at least a starting point. I saw that the county was owed back taxes for the past year on the property. The 6,800 square foot house with detached garage was assessed at $560,000 less the homestead exemption.
Looking at the recorded liens I found that the property was mortgaged ten years ago for $220,000. Up to that point it had not had a mortgage. The owners, as expected, were Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Anderson. The listing must be slightly out of date as I was sure the bank would have immediately recorded the foreclosure. I was hoping to find the amount owed here. I moved on to the clerk of court website and quickly scanned through the pages of foreclosures that were processed in the last month. Finally I found it, two weeks ago, amount owed was $130,000. Hell, it made no sense to me at all. Why would someone give up a property worth well over a million dollars for $130,000? I was going to call Bob bright and early in the morning.
The rest of the evening was spent finishing my reports and reprinting the bid sheets from templates I had stored in the computer. I headed for bed after watching the late local news. In my excitement I had completely forgotten supper and ended up snacking on the frigid remains of a pizza I had only half finished the previous evening.