Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
The extended stay hotel suite smelled faintly of pine. Some cleaning product, Scott thought. He plugged his laptop in and spread the property section of the Levall Daily Register across the kitchenette table.
The suite had a small kitchen and combination breakfast nook, as well as a sitting area, work desk, and basic bedroom. He paid for a month with an option to extend.
Levall had an active housing market, mostly oriented toward the student population, but active nonetheless. He noted listings and checked them online. The street level views couldn't tell you everything, but they helped eliminate some properties. He wanted to live close to campus yet maintain his privacy, if possible.
His phone rang from a number that wasn't in his contacts, but with the familiar 432 area code from home.
"Mr. MacIntyre?" a woman's voice asked.
"Who's calling please?" Scott hated solicitation calls and moved his thumb over the disconnect icon.
"Simone Engdale, I'm a property acquisitions lawyer with the Western Group."
Scott shook his head. Everett Wahl must have decided to help him find a place to live. "I don't think we've met. Is it miss or misses?"
"I've not had the pleasure, Mr. MacIntyre. Miss Engdale is fine, or Simone if you prefer. I was asked by your management team to examine the Broken Creek property."
Huh, Scott thought. He had only mentioned Broken Creek in passing to Everett as they talked on the phone during the long drive back to Levall. "Have you reached any conclusions?"
"The price is right," Simone said, "and the State is eager to recoup revenues owed. Although from an investment standpoint, the property is not attractive when compared with others in the area."
Other properties? That grabbed his attention. "What properties have you looked at?"
"A parcel outside Fort Stockton with access to the interstate caught my eye," Simone said. "It's an ideal location for an interstate travel center, if the research pans out. A successful truck stop can be a solid performer in any economy."
"Commercial development isn't on my radar at the moment," Scott said. "Anything else?"
"Yes," Miss Engdale replied, "a substantial hunting property. It's being sold to settle a civil lawsuit."
Scott stared at the phone. "That's not a Lewis property by any chance?"
"That's correct," she sounded surprised. "You're familiar with it?"
"Can you tell me which of their properties it is?"
Scott heard paper shuffling in the background.
"The 'Lewis Sportsman Ranch' was the one I found interesting," the acquisitions lawyer said. "Given the economic factors, large properties haven't been quick to move, but the listing has appeal on several levels."
The Sportsman Ranch, the words cast his mind back to the summer of 2007 when he worked for the Lewis family. They owned two substantial properties, the ranch and a larger hunting range. He spent the summer surveying their hunting property, learning to track and move in rough terrain. The job had been good training for the Marines. Until his friend Bo Mason discovered the body of little Andrea Jones, and the Lewis clan self-destructed in the aftermath.
Scott snapped back to the present. The Sportsman Ranch was a nice piece of land. It hadn't sold yet? Interesting. "Miss Engdale, would you send what you have on the Broken Creek and Lewis properties to Everett Wahl, please, with your thoughts. I'd like his input."
"I can certainly do that, Mr. MacIntyre. Any final questions?"
Scott looked at the property listings on the table. He knew the woman primarily dealt with commercial properties, and had done him a courtesy with the Fort Stockton property because he was a Western Group client. "Any advice on residential properties? I'm in Levall, Texas, looking for a place to live."
Her voice shifted slightly. "I'm not familiar with Levall."
"Small university town," he said, "Lots of listings in the local paper. I'll be living here for the next couple of years."
"I see," she said. "You're looking through the paper for a house?"
"Mr. MacIntyre, call a realtor. An agent will help you narrow the search and show you prospective properties."
"I suppose that makes sense."
"It'll be much easier. Before you make any decisions, call me and I'll be happy to examine the deal. We have our own appraisers and of course the group's legal expertise is at your disposal."
"Thank you, Ms. Engdale. I may do that."
Diane Beamer of Levall Realty, a dishwater blonde wearing too much makeup, did not look happy when Scott opened her office door. The realty company had their own building, which was a step above the strip mall offices he'd considered and rejected. Did that make him a snob? He wasn't sure, but he'd gone with the impulse.
"Diane Beamer," she said. "Are you my ten o'clock?"
"Scott MacIntyre," he said. "I believe I am."
"Mr. MacIntyre, I don't do rentals."
Scott suppressed a momentary flash of anger, "That's good because I'm not looking to rent."
The friendly mask she wore slipped back into place and she asked him to take a seat. He filled out a short form and the realtor ran his credit. Her smile grew predatory as the results came in.
"Mr. MacIntyre, can you give me an idea of what you're looking for?"
"Well, Diane, may I call you Diane?"
"I'm looking for a property close to campus. I'm single with no family considerations. Something with good space, modern amenities, privacy, and covered parking. Beyond that, I'm flexible."
The realtor squinted. "That's very broad."
"As I said, I'm flexible."
"How do you intend to finance?"
Scott debated how to answer, and decided to be straightforward. "Cash purchase. I'll have my own inspectors and legal people attend to the details."
Diane Beamer smiled and Scott knew what many seal pups saw before being swallowed by a killer whale.
She gave him a tour of the town and the various residential areas, broken down in her mind along property values.
The first neighborhood they stopped in was west of campus. The street was lined with stately trees and sprawling homes with even larger lawns. She'd gone straight to the high dollar listings. The area, she explained, was popular with university administrators and the city's wealthier business types.
NTSU was a state school, how much were the administrators making, he wondered.
The afternoon dragged on as they visited Levall's tonier areas. He admitted liking some homes, but most were too grand. Perhaps that wasn't the right term. It wasn't the grandeur that bothered him, but the thought of all the upkeep. Lawns and flowerbeds required regular work and big houses had rooms he'd never use.
Diane drove them out of the city to view a ranch owned by a departing professor. Scott liked the house and the land, but it was too far from the university for his liking.
The realtor may have been frustrated, but she wasn't letting it show. Scott admired her zealous nature as she tried to sell him on property after property. She quizzed him on what he liked and didn't like, trying to narrow the choices. By afternoon's end, Scott thought he'd seen everything Levall had to offer, but she assured him there was more. He worried when a glint appeared in her eye.
"Mr. MacIntyre," she said as a preamble. "You strike me as the adventurous type."
Scott felt a tingle, as if the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle had settled on his back.
"I suppose that's fair," he said.
"Tomorrow," she said, "I'd like to show you something a little different. I'll even treat you to lunch. What do you say?"
"Yeah, why not."
They agreed to meet the following morning around ten.
Parking downtown was a challenge. Scott finally found a multilevel parking garage several blocks away from the meeting spot on Main Street. He enjoyed the walk. Levall had a strong downtown economy that fed off the university, but also attracted business from the surrounding counties. The result was an eclectic blend of businesses from bars to banks. The wide mix of food choices, and their smells, reminded Scott that the realtor had promised to buy lunch.
He crossed north at a light behind a group of girls. Spring in a university town meant short skirts and he appreciated the view. He was thinking about improving his social life when he caught sight of Diane Beamer. She was standing outside the door to a rough looking bar, and waved to get his attention.
"Morning, Diane," he replied as he drew closer. "What are we here to see?"
"What do you think of the area?"
"Downtown? There's a lot of energy, good atmosphere."
"This is the Black Horse," Diane said with a wave of her hand. "A local institution."
The entrance to the bar was cut into the corner of the building and Scott couldn't make out anything of the dark interior. He didn't think he'd be patronizing the Black Horse, local institution notwithstanding.
Like most buildings along Main Street, the two-story bar had a brick exterior that dated to the turn of the century. Facing north, there was an alleyway to the left of the entrance, and to the right a modest three-story brick building at the corner of Main and Twelfth Street.
She guided him along the sidewalk, east toward Twelfth.
The three-story rectangular building was fancier construction with limestone window casings on the second and third floors and a stone cornice at the roofline. The ground floor lacked windows, but had evenly spaced recesses dressed with more of the limestone to give the impression of windows.
A steel security door sat between the two buildings.
Diana Beamer extracted a key from her purse and unlocked the door. The door opened into a narrow hallway.
"You're going to show me a loft?"
"Something like that," the realtor said.
"If there's no parking, I can tell you it's a nonstarter."
She ignored him. "This hallway is a firebreak between the Black Horse and this property, but I want you to see it from the off-street side first."
After letting him look down the uninteresting hallway, she closed and locked the door.
He had no idea what she was up to, but he followed to see what her surprise was. They walked the length of the building along Main Street and turned the corner north on Twelfth.
He tried to visualize what a loft in the building would look like. The second and third floors were covered with a double bank of windows at the narrower Twelfth Street end and the windows repeated on the Main Street side. The building was perhaps as wide as a standard home and more than twice as long. He did a rough calculation in his head. The top floor might be two-thousand square feet? More than generous for a loft, or a starter home, he could handle that.
Diane pointed north up the gentle slope of Twelfth Street, past a park, to a church at the next intersection. "Saint Bartholomew's, or Saint Bart's as we say, is your northerly neighbor."
His neighbor? He didn't think she had cause to be so confident. For its part, the church was an ornate cathedral covered with the native limestone that decorated many downtown buildings. He had to admit, it was an attractive view.
"The park is owned by Saint Bart's, but is open to the public year round."
Forty-feet of privacy fencing extended from the building to the park boundary, complete with motorized gate. The fence appeared to wrap around the back of the property and had seen better days. The realtor consulted a note on her phone and punched in a code for the gate. The gate lurched and squealed in protest as it slid open.
"Private entrance," Diane said.
Inside the gate was an asphalt-topped parking lot that needed repaving. On the opposite end of the lot was a large, story and a half building with two oversized garage doors that had shed their paint. The garage sat perpendicular to the Main Street building. Together, they formed a loose "L."
"Private garage," Diane said, "for a private entrance."
"You could turn this into a parking lot and earn some cash," Scott said.
The three-story building had a formal landing that didn't make much sense to Scott. Granite steps led to a stoop, but the entire face was covered with plywood. Any entrance would have been a good six feet above ground level. Aside from that, the building's brick exterior needed cleaning and extensive repointing.
"You're showing me a renovation project disguised as a loft?"
Diane Beamer smiled, which Scott found discomforting.
She said, "This building and detached garage were built in 1892 by Saul Liebowicz."
Scott doubted many automobiles were puttering around Levall in the 1890s. "What did they use the garage for?"
"Horses?" Diane said. "Anyway, this building is part of Levall history. The Liebowiczes were clothiers by way of New England." She walked to the garage, flipped up a metal panel and punched a button. A motor struggled to raise one of the hinged doors.
"The property is zoned for residential or commercial use. As you can see, it comes with ample private parking."
The interior of the garage was rough, but there was room for four vehicles if they parked side by side.
The place has great parking, so what, Scott thought. "This is a major restoration project," he said, "What are you suggesting? I occupy the loft and convert the rest to apartments?"
"That's an option," the realtor said. "What do you think so far?"
Scott rubbed the back of his head. "I'm not sure what we're doing here." He wasn't an expert, but it had to be a two or three-million dollar property.
From the way her eyes twinkled, Scott thought he'd better make sure he still had his wallet.
"We're just getting started," Diane Beamer said. She produced another key and led him to a set of double steel doors at ground level to the right of the big formal entrance.
"Why is this place boarded up?" he asked.
"That's part of the story."
He realized she wasn't going to tell him until she was good and ready.
"Saul Leibowicz was a shrewd investor," Diane explained as she unlocked the door. "When the bigger retailers undercut his clothing business, he diversified. He opened Leibowicz Jewelry on Sixth Street. The business stayed in the family until the 1980s, and people still shop there because of the name. The estate sold this property 1995. That's where the story takes a turn. In 2007, the new owner tried to burn the place for the insurance money."
"It's been empty ever since?" Scott asked.
A building in a prime location unsold for five years? Something wasn't adding up.
Scott helped her push the big steel door open.
"The interior had to be gutted," Diane said. "Insurance money paid for the internal skeleton to be rebuilt and that's all." Diane Beamer threw a switch on a power panel and lights flickered to life.
The bottom floor was completely empty. He could see all the way to the far wall. There were no internal walls or rooms, only bare floor and the twelve-foot ceiling above. The dimensions were impressive. Exposed steel I-beams showed the building's bones. Scott was impressed that they'd saved the structure. He'd like to have seen how they pulled that off without losing the exterior brickwork.
"The ground floor was originally used to store cloth and machinery for the business. It lacks windows because they never intended for it to be a storefront, or so the story goes."
In the harsh glare of bare light bulbs, there was still evidence of the fire on the brickwork. The elevated entrance was a different story from inside. Originally, the doorway must have led to the second floor, via a staircase. That had all been removed when the building was gutted.
"The service elevator was over there," Diane said, pointing to an area covered with plywood sheeting from floor to ceiling."
A crude wood staircase made from raw lumber and plywood led to the second floor.
Scott followed the realtor. Their footsteps echoed through the empty building as they climbed the stairs.
"This corner view is what I wanted to show you," Diane said. "People kill for this kind of window exposure."
The light on the second floor completely changed the character of the interior space. Even without internal construction, he could see the potential.
"The fire was a disaster," Diane said, "but it gives a new owner the opportunity to shape the building to suit their needs. The city historical commission desperately wants to see this building saved, and I know they'd be eager to work with a new owner."
"What's the square footage?"
The realtor mumbled something.
"Sixty-two hundred square feet," Diane said.
"That's some apartment space."
"No lawns to mow," Diane said, "and a building ready for you to make it into exactly what you want. You'll have private parking, gorgeous views, and the vibrancy of downtown."
"The historical commission is pretty strict?" Scott asked.
"Yes," the realtor's head bobbed, "but like I said, they want to see this building saved."
Scott walked around, looking out each window. The back of the building overlooked the garage lot and the park buffering Saint Bart's.
"Lovely old church," Diane said. "Not for sale."
The third floor was a duplicate of the second, empty space but with more of the wonderful view. The space was huge. Did he want to be a landlord in Levall, with renters living below him? To make the building livable would take a great deal of work, but he found himself considering the challenge.
The idea of living in downtown Levall didn't seem so farfetched. The area was relatively quiet with a church for a neighbor. Except for the questionable bar next-door, he thought he could get used to the idea. Across Main Street was a florist shop adjacent to a mattress store. The neighbor on the other side of Twelfth Street was an insurance office.