Chapter 1 – Safety Reports and Disclosures
A little over sixty years ago, about the time I first kicked, punched, or head butted inside my mother’s womb, she decided to call me Chip. Of all the preppie handles she’d read in glamour magazines such as Hap, Biff and Cub, she liked Chip best. I’m not sure whether she realized they were just nicknames used by spoiled rich kids or not, but she had a dream that I would someday attend one of the big ivy league schools back east, and she wanted me to fit in. Of course, back then, she also had to pick out one of the glamour magazine names for a girl, too. My sister, Muffy, was born twenty months after me, and while I don’t remember anything else from my first two or three years I do remember a lot of red and two men dressed in white pushing my mother out the door on a bed with wheels.
My grandmother always said, “Every path has a few puddles,” but Lord knows the puddles on Grandma’s were deep enough to drown in. When I was old enough to understand, she told me that Mother had hemorrhaged shortly after arriving home from the hospital with Muffy. She also told me in those days ambulances had to stop for red lights and that my mother bled to death before they got her to the emergency room. About a month later Muffy died in her crib from what’s now known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, sending my father, Jonathan Hale, into a deep depression from which he never recovered. He ultimately hanged himself, leaving my divorced grandmother to raise me without any help. I sometimes wonder how I didn’t wind up in jail.
I guess a lot of people who should be in jail aren’t and vice versa. It’s difficult to know when you’re talking to one of those who probably should, which was the case each time I met with Hansen Tennyson, co-owner of Tennyson & Tennyson Realty, to discuss making repairs on one of the properties he had listed for sale. He was wearing a rumpled brown suit and seemed a friendly sort with a gift of gab that never quit, which I suppose didn’t hurt in his line of work. But Mr. Tennyson always seemed to be in a hurry to get things done and go somewhere else. I once heard him tell his secretary, “If I wanted it tomorrow I would have asked for it tomorrow.”
“Carbon monoxide?” I said, reading the fire department citation he handed me in front of a property on Spinnaker Drive. “You know we don’t do heating and air conditioning, Mr. Tennyson.” I’d worked for Handyman Inc., the second largest franchised home remodel and repair company in the country for the past six years. I’d done several jobs for the fast-talking realtor, explaining every time that we didn’t do roofing, carpeting, or roto-rooting. It wasn’t that he didn’t get it; he just wanted to shave corners and avoid paying a specialist.
“My heating guy says there’s nothing wrong with the fireplace except a clogged vent pipe. He told me to get someone to clean it out because he couldn’t get on a ladder with his leg in a cast.”
I glanced up and recalled getting my own leg out of a cast not that long ago. It was a single-story house with composition shingles and a gentle sloping four/twelve pitched roof. Cleaning out the vent pipe wouldn’t be all that difficult and I could charge Tennyson at least an hour, but we didn’t do roofing jobs at Handyman Inc. because insurance premiums were just too high. I could almost hear my boss, Jake Du Monde saying, “You fall off that roof, Chip, you’re fired before you hit the ground.”
“I’ll take a look at it,” I said, as I read over the other items on his punch-list of needed repairs, “but I won’t be able to guarantee anything other than the pipe is clear.”
“Good enough,” he said. “My heating guy’s got the HVAC license, and he’s ultimately responsible for the sign-off. He’ll probably attach a copy of your completed contract before sending it in.”
“Sending it in?”
“Yeah, anytime someone dies at home we have to jump through hoops before selling the property. Safety reports, disclosures, disclaimers, you name it. People are funny about buying a place where someone died. You got any questions on what else needs to be done?”
I shook my head. I actually preferred doing jobs where the houses were empty, or the homeowners weren’t around. But now that I knew someone had died inside, the place did feel a little strange. I remember the first time my ex-wife, Shari, dragged me to an estate sale and the weird feelings I got looking through those dead people’s stuff. Like reading someone else’s mail or taking something that didn’t belong to me. Logically, I knew they didn’t need it anymore, but going through it just sort of creeped me out, as my teenage granddaughters would say. “No,” I said. “I’ll write up a contract and bring it over to your office for you to sign before starting.”
“Just give me a blank one. I’ll sign it now and you can get started right away. Drop a copy off at the office on your way home.”
“Sorry, Mr. Tennyson, you know that isn’t legal, and I don’t work that way.”
“I know how you work Chip, and I trust you, which is why I specifically requested you for this job,” he said, pulling one of his blue and gold realtor signs out of the trunk of his car and carrying it across the lawn. “Not that we’ve ever had any complaints about the other handymen in your company.”
“I appreciate that, sir, but I still have to write it up and have you sign before I begin.”
He hammered the sign into the grass and glanced at his watch. “Impossible. Soon as I leave here I’m meeting a client in Carson City. Then I have to drive to Vegas. I won’t be back ’til Friday. I was hoping you’d have the place ready by then because I’ve scheduled an open house for the weekend.”
I looked down at the list in astonishment. There was at least a week and a half worth of work, maybe two. “Here?”
“Where do you think?”
“Can’t your brother sign the contract?”
“He’s got a corporate board meeting to attend.”
“Well, I’m going to need someone to sign it before I start. Besides, even if I began work this minute, I doubt that I could finish before the middle of next week at the earliest.”
“How about with overtime?” he asked, loosening his tie.
“I’m sure I could give it some today and tomorrow, but you know we bid the whole job. Your price is locked in regardless how much time I give it, including overtime. However, Friday I have to leave early. My granddaughter is competing in a swim meet after school and I promised her I’d be there.”
“I’ll make it more than worth your while.”
I closed my eyes and took a breath. “Best I can do is check at the office and see if we have anyone who might be between jobs and get them to help me. Even then, I can’t guarantee we’ll finish before the weekend.”
“Well, do what you can. The main thing is to clean out that heater vent and sign off the paperwork. Meanwhile, I’ll instruct my secretary to sign the contract for you.”
I wasn’t sure how satisfactory that would be. Jake always told us to have the property owners sign the contract in case there were any complaints later. Legally, they were the ones we’d have to deal with in court. I’d worked for Tennyson before, fixing up a rental property he managed, and Jake never had a problem with him signing the contracts. But then, I guess, Mr. Tennyson was the one who was liable based on whatever contract he had with the property owner. “It’ll only take me a few minutes to write this up.”
He glanced at his watch again. “The thing is,” he said, “I don’t have a few minutes.”
“Okay,” I said, figuring that since he didn’t own any of the other properties I’d worked on, all I needed was a signature from someone in his company. I also figured on adding my travel time into the contract price. “I’ll get it over to Becky this afternoon. Why the rush? I thought the market was slowing down.”
“Seller’s instructions, not mine.”
“Sounds awful cold if you ask me.”
He shrugged and headed toward his car. “Mortgage companies are like that.”
Chapter 2 – Bad News doesn’t get any better with Age
“What’s this?” my youngest granddaughter asked, taking the brown paper bag I handed her when I got home that night.
“Something for school,” I said, setting my briefcase on the dining room table.
Franklynn peered in the bag. She cocked her head to the side and frowned at me, a question in her teak brown eyes.
“It’s a bird nest . . . for biology class.”
She tossed the bag on the table beside my briefcase. “I took biology last year, Grampy. I’m a junior now, remember?”
“I know you are. I just thought—”
“Dinner will be ready in half an hour,” she interrupted, heading for my one-butt galley kitchen, wisps of baby-fine hair fluttering behind her head. “So, you got time to finish your field reports and clean up.”
“Something bothering you?”
“What makes you ask?” she said, bending down to look into the oven.
I followed her into the kitchen where my mouth began to water. Whatever she was fixing smelled wonderful. “Your attitude.”
“I don’t have one.”
“The hel—eck you don’t,” I said, catching myself.
She stood and turned from the stove and wrapped her arms around my neck. I heard her sob. “Oh Grampy, I’m sorry.”
I stroked her hair. It was silky smooth and the color of satin finished honey maple. “For what?” I asked, with a nervous chuckle.
“I got expelled from school today.”
I grabbed her shoulders and pushed her away. Tears streamed down her cheeks like melting solder. “You what?”
“I heard you,” I interrupted, grabbing a dishtowel off the handle on front of the oven and daubing the wet streaks on her face, “but I don’t believe you.”
She hugged me close and rocked her head back and forth on my shoulder. “It’s true, Grampy. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“They would have called me.”
“I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”
I hugged her back and held her for a moment. Then led her out of the kitchen over to the davenport where she flopped back and pulled one of the decorative pillows in front of her face.
“Let’s have it,” I said, sitting down beside her. “Bad news doesn’t get any better with age.”
Just then the front door opened and her older sister, Winston, came into the room. “Have you told him yet?” she asked, in the self-righteous voice she sometimes used with Franklynn.
I glared at her. “Told me what? All I know is that she got expelled from school.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Winston asked, stepping into the kitchen and turning the oven down.
I stood and ran my fingers through my hair. “Still doesn’t tell me why? And how is it that you know so much about this and I’m just hearing about it now?”
Winston came back into the living room and placed her hands on her hips. “Because you don’t answer your cell.”
I closed my eyes intending to count to ten, but ground my teeth instead. I’d left my cell phone in the truck on vibrate while dealing with Mr. Tennyson because nothing irritates me more than trying to talk with someone and being interrupted with a phone call. The darn things do take messages. Unfortunately, in my haste to get the contract over to his secretary I’d forgotten to check for one.
She glared at me, her smoky gray eyes flaring amid a thousand cinnamon freckles. “So, I got called and had to skip my Accounting class to go get her.”
I put my hands on my hips and mirrored her stance. “Are either of you going to tell me what happened,” I said, looking her in the eye, “or are you going to make me guess?”
Franklynn pulled the pillow tighter against her face and sobbed so hard her shoulders began to shake. “I’m sorry,” she said, again. This time her voice sounding like a child’s.
“You’re so screwed, Fran,” Winston said, tossing her lustrous, Burmese rosewood colored hair to the side. “Any shot you had at a swimming scholarship is history.”
Franklynn threw the pillow on the floor. “You think I care? That creep deserved what happened.”
Winston snorted. “I tried to tell you it’s always the second player into a fight who draws the penalty flag.”
“It wasn’t a fight. I just hit him hard enough to get away.”
“Hard enough to get expelled, you mean. Maybe if they didn’t have to send for paramedics and take him to the hospital you’d have only gotten suspended.”
I picked up the pillow and tossed it on the davenport. “Well, this just keeps getting better and better.”
“I can’t say he didn’t deserve it,” Winston said.
“Deserve what? Who?” I asked, sitting down beside Franklynn again and draping my arm around her shoulders. “What happened, sweetie?”
Her eyes were puffy and red. “I guess I kicked the apcray out of Ty,” she said, using the pig-Latin I’d cleaned up my salty language with when the girls were small. Over the years it had become a habit.
Winston came over and sat on the other side of her sister and put a comforting arm around her shoulders, too. “Tyrone Robinson. The boy we told you about last year. He’s such a pig. Tries to put his hand down any girl’s pants he can. He’s been doing it since grade school.”
I pulled her close to me. “I told you to punch his lights out if he tried that again, didn’t I?”
Franklynn nodded tearfully and sniffed. “You did, Grandpa. So, I did . . . I guess . . . sort of.”
“Good for you.”
“How can you say that, Grandpa?” Winston asked, pulling her sister close. “Her life is so ruined.”
“I doubt that. Just tell me what happened. I’ll go to the principal tomorrow and straighten this out.”
“Not going to happen, Grandpa.”
“Don’t be so negative, Winston. Someone had to have seen what happened.”
“Just his friends,” Franklynn said, “and they’re not going to rat him out.”
“That he came up behind me in the hallway, grabbed my ta-tas, and ground his junk against my booty.”
“That when you laid him out?” I asked, trying to put together what she’d just said. Talking to a teenager is like picking up a book that’s written in code.
She nodded. “I didn’t even think about it. Just did it. You know, like a reflex or something.”
I tousled her hair. “Good for you, sweetie, but was it like a reflex, or was it actually a reflex?”
She slid off the davenport as someone knocked on the front door. “Oh, Grampy, I hate it when you do that,” she said, wiping her eyes as she disappeared down the hallway. “I don’t want to see anyone.”
I looked at Winston. “You staying for dinner?”
She rolled her eyes and headed for the kitchen. “Someone’s got to finish cooking it.”
I stood and went to look through the peephole in the door. Det. Zorn’s familiar face stared back from the other side. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted as I opened it. “Well, this is a surprise. What can I do for you, Detective?”
“I have an arrest warrant for Franklynn Shari Pierce,” he said, with a voice that sounded like a rusty rasp on hardwood. “She here?”