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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Homewreckers

1. Do Drop-in

As she inched along on her back beneath the rotting foundation of the Tattnall Street house, Hattie Kavanaugh was already having second thoughts. About her insistence on inspecting the corroded cast-iron pipes herself, instead of taking her plumber’s word. About all the money Kavanaugh and Son had already sunk into this 157-year-old magnificent wreck. About not owning one of those wheeled things auto mechanics used—what were they called? Creepers? But mostly, she was having second thoughts about that second cup of coffee she’d gulped just before being summoned to the house they were restoring in Savannah’s historic district.

The call had come from one of their subs, reporting the unhappy news that scrap bandits had struck overnight, stealing the copper tubing from three brand-new air conditioning compressors. An eleven-thousand-dollar hit to their already wildly out-of-control construction budget. And now this.

“Uh, Hattie?” Ronnie Sewell, Hattie’s plumber, was lounging against the bumper of his pickup truck when she and Cassidy Pelletier, her best friend and construction foreman, arrived at the Tattnall Street house that steamy Saturday morning. “We got issues.”

She and Cass followed the plumber around to the rear of the house, where she found a freshly dug trench leading beneath the home’s brick foundation.

“I had a feeling something wasn’t right,” Ronnie said, pointing to the trench. “I decided to get under the house and take a look.”

Hattie swallowed hard. “Just tell me, Ronnie. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is, you got a hunnerd percent crappy old cast-iron pipes under there. And you know how it floods on this flat street, right? And it all drains to the back of this lot. Water’s been collecting under there for no telling how long. Well, it’s all ruint. Rusted, busted, ruint.”

“Oh God,” Hattie moaned. She eyed her plumbing contractor. He was in his late fifties and built like a fire hydrant, with a huge belly that lapped over his belt. “Are you sure? I mean, you went all the way under the house?”

Ronnie shrugged. “I got as far as I could go. It don’t take a rocket scientist.”

Without a word, Hattie walked away. When she returned, she was zipping herself into her own baggy white coveralls. She pulled a bandana from her pocket and tied it around her hair, then fastened plastic goggles over her face.

“What?” Ronnie said, his face reddening with indignation. “You calling me a liar? Hattie Kavanaugh, I been doing business with your father-in-law since before you were born.…”

“Calm down, Ronnie,” Hattie snapped. “I had this house inspected before we made an offer on it. Nobody said anything about bad pipes. I’m not calling you a liar, but I need to see it with my own eyes. Tug would tell you the same thing if he were here.”

“See for yourself then.” He turned and stalked off in the direction of his truck, muttering as he went. “Goddamn know-it-all girls.”

Cass bent down and peered at the trench beneath the foundation, at the pool of mud and brick rubble, then looked back at her friend. “For real? You’re crawling down into that swamp?”

“You wanna go instead?”

“Who, me? Oh hell, no.” Cass shuddered. “I don’t do mud.”

Hattie went over to a tarp-covered stack of lumber, selected a pair of two-by-fours, and slung them over her shoulders. She shoved the boards under the house, considered, then went back for another pair, laying them beside the first two boards.

Cass handed Hattie her flashlight.

“Pray for me,” Hattie said, flattening herself on the boards. “I’m going in.”

* * *

Mo Lopez pedaled slowly along in the bike lane. The neighborhood he was passing through was clearly in transition. On one side of the street, brick or wood-frame Victorian-era homes boasted signs of recent restoration, with sparkling new paint jobs and manicured landscapes. There were smaller homes, too, modest Craftsman cottages with bikes chained to wrought-iron fences, porches bristling with fern baskets and potted plants and weedy yards. As he pedaled, an idea began to form in his head.

Savannah, he reflected, was a pleasant surprise. He’d accepted the invitation to speak to television and film students at the Savannah College of Art and Design strictly as a favor to Rebecca Sanzone, the assistant head of programming at the network. One of her former classmates now worked in the SCAD admissions office. Becca, of course, had been much too busy to make the trip herself, and had forwarded the invite to Mo.

“You should go,” she’d urged. “Why sit around town and wait for these network idiots to make up their minds?”

The idiots were Rebecca’s immediate bosses at the Home Place Television Network. The former president of programming had been abruptly fired two months earlier, and the new guy, Tony Antinori, was said to be taking a long, hard look at the HPTV lineup.

Mo was understandably anxious. Killer Garage’s first season was considered a success for a new show, but this second season, viewers weren’t quite as fascinated with watching motorheads spend obscene amounts of money building garages equipped with everything from video-gaming consoles to elevators to full kitchens. The numbers, Rebecca had pointed out, weren’t awful, but they weren’t awfully good either.

He needed a new idea, and he needed it fast. His thoughts drifted back to what Tasha, the SCAD administrator, had told him; that Savannah had the distinction of being the largest intact contiguous trove of original nineteenth-century architecture in the country. This town was a beehive of restoration and renovation activity.

His mind worked as furiously as his legs. On a street called Tattnall, he spied a trio of vehicles parked in front of an imposing three-story Queen Anne Victorian. As he got closer, he saw two pickup trucks that had KAVANAUGH & SON, GENERAL CONTRACTING stenciled on the door.

Mo paused at the curb and looked up at the house. A full-scale restoration was obviously under way. Scaffolding had been erected on the east side of the house, where some of the old wooden siding had been replaced, and other sections had been scraped down in preparation for paint. Piles of lumber were stacked around the yard, and pallets of roofing shingles had been unloaded on the porch.

The roof and the porch overhang were both covered with blue tarps. The eaves and porch of the house dripped with elaborate wooden gingerbread trim.

He leaned the bike against a sawhorse and climbed a set of temporary wooden steps leading to the porch. The front door, a period-perfect confection of hand-carved detailing inset with a leaded-glass window, was ajar.

Mo paused in front of the door, edging it open with the toe of his shoe. “Hello?”

His voice echoed in the high-ceilinged foyer. No answer. He shrugged and stepped inside. The interior of the house was a marvel of Victorian excess. Several different decades’ worth of wallpaper layers were in the process of being stripped away to the bare plaster walls. Overhead, an enormous chandelier dripping with dusty crystals and frosted glass globes swung from a ceiling decorated with crumbling but intricate plaster ornamentation.

“Place is a money pit,” Mo muttered, but the contrast between the before and after could be amazing. He walked toward the back of the house. Looking up, the view was of ceilings with gaping holes; underfoot were floors of oak parquet laid in a herringbone pattern, nearly obscured with decades of blackened varnish.

“Nice.” He kept walking, passing what had obviously once been a bathroom. The old penny tile floor was filthy, and the only remaining fixture was a claw-foot bathtub filled with fallen plaster fragments. Exposed pipes poked up through the floor.

At the end of the hallway he spied the wide opening to what would obviously be the kitchen. He stood in the doorway, studying the scene. It had high, water-stained ceilings and walls that had also been stripped to the studs. The floor featured layers upon layers of linoleum, some of which had been peeled all the way down to the subfloor.

Mo took a couple of steps into the kitchen and suddenly, the world seemed to crumble beneath his feet. He heard wood splintering and reached out, in vain, to try to break his fall. Then, darkness.

The last thing he remembered hearing was an outraged voice screeching, right in his ear, “What the hell?”

* * *

Hattie scooted on her butt as far under the house as she could, looking for the source of the broken pipe. She thought she was now directly beneath the kitchen, but it was damp and dank, and her flashlight beam picked out a maze of corroded cast-iron piping that had been dug out to expose the line.

She heard footfalls overhead.

“Cass?” But these footsteps were too heavy to be coming from skinny-as-a-rail Cass. Maybe Ronnie had a change of heart? Surely he’d know better than to walk into the kitchen where termites had laid waste to those floor joists.

Thunk. Chunks of rotted wood and linoleum and more than a century’s worth of unspeakable debris rained down onto her face. Followed by a body. A large, living body, which landed directly on top of her.

“What the hell?” she shrieked.

In the dim light she could see that the body was a man.

Uuuhhhh,” he moaned. His face was beside hers, and he looked dazed.

“Get offa me,” Hattie said through clenched teeth. With effort, she managed to roll him sideways, until he was lying flat on his back in the muck beneath the house.

She heard footsteps again. “Hattie?” Cass’s head poked through the hole in the kitchen floor. She pointed the beam of the flashlight at her friend, and then at the prone body of the intruder, who was groaning and also trying to sit up. “Who’s the guy? And what the hell is going on down there?”

“Damned if I know,” Hattie said. She held out a hand to her best friend. “Come on. Get me outta here. Ronnie was right. The pipes are toast.” She pointed at the stranger. “And so is this guy. Call the cops. Looks like we trapped us a scrap bandit.”

 

2. The Proposal

Hattie looked down at the guy sprawled on the kitchen floor. Some women might have found him attractive. He wore black designer jeans and a black open-collared shirt, which told her he wasn’t local, because nobody with any sense wore all black in the sweltering heat and humidity of a Savannah summer. Currently he was splattered with muck and scowling up at her like she was the intruder instead of vice versa.

Cass prodded Mo’s leg with the toe of her boot and glanced over at Hattie, who was brushing chunks of gunk out of her hair. “Doesn’t look like my idea of a scrap metal thief.”

“You’re right,” Hattie said. “For one thing, it looks like he’s got all his own teeth. For another, he’s dressed too nice.” She played the flashlight over Mo’s ruined tennis shoes. “Day-um, girl. Check it out. These Nikes cost like, six hundred dollars.”

“Maybe he stole them,” Cass mused.

“Cute,” Mo said, suppressing a groan as he got back on his feet. “Hilarious. You two must be a smash hit at the comedy clubs around here.”

He glanced down at himself and sighed. Both arms sported jagged, bleeding scratches. His clothes were filthy and the Nikes were caked in mud. Or something like it. He groped the back of his head with his fingertips and felt a knot raising. Maybe he was concussed? It was that kind of day.

“The front door was standing wide open,” he lied. “How was I supposed to know this place is a death trap? I could sue you for maintaining a criminal nuisance.”

“And we could call the cops and have you locked up for trespassing,” Cass shot back. “Right, Hattie?”

But Cass’s best friend was studying the guy’s face. She’d definitely seen him before, the dark hair brushing his shirt collar, the olive complexion that went with the hair and eyes, aggressively thick eyebrows, and one of those trendy not-beard beards. He’d been staring down at his phone, but she was sure he had been listening to her conversation with Tug.

Hattie snapped her fingers. “Hey. You were sitting at the table next to ours at Foxy Loxy this morning. And obviously eavesdropping on my conversation.”

“Not eavesdropping,” Mo insisted. “Minding my own business, having breakfast. Not my fault that you talk so loud everyone in the place could hear you.”

“Hmm. And then you show up here less than an hour later. At this house we were just discussing. Obviously a coincidence.”

Mo made another snap decision.

“Okay, not a coincidence,” he said. “I did overhear you and—your dad?—talking at that café. And I was intrigued.” He reached into his hip pocket and brought out a slim leather case. He plucked a business card from the case and handed it to her.

Hattie’s eyebrows drew together as she read the card. “Mauricio Lopez. President, executive producer, Toolbox Productions.” She handed the card to Cass. “This doesn’t tell me why you followed me over here, and then trespassed on my work site.”

“Toolbox is a television production company. I create original reality shows, currently for the Home Place Television Network. While I was biking around the historic district this morning, I got an idea for what I think could, potentially, be a new reality show. So, what, you and your dad are flipping this house? And I gather it’s not going well.” He looked pointedly around at the gutted kitchen, then down at the man-size hole in the subfloor.

Cass and Hattie exchanged a look.

Hattie flicked the card back in the direction of Mo’s chest and it fluttered to the floor. “First off, Tug is my father-in-law, not my dad. Secondly, not that it’s any of your frickin’ business, but the house is coming along just fine.”

Mo shrugged. “So you’re not over budget? The banks actually do want to loan you enough money to finish? And you were crawling around under this house just for shits and grins when this rotted floor collapsed beneath me?”

Hattie’s face blushed a dull red. “You should go now, before you really piss me off.”

“Do not piss her off,” Cass warned. “Seriously, dude, just go.”

“Don’t you even want to hear my idea?” Mo countered. “An original, unscripted show. You and your crew would be the stars. Rehabbing an old house as a flip.”

“Oooh!” Cass deadpanned, nudging Hattie with her elbow. “He wants to put us in the movies. Hollywood, here we come.”

“Not the movies. Television. And not Hollywood,” Mo said. “That’s the point. Savannah is the perfect setting for a reality show. All this history, these old houses. Plus, labor and material costs have gotta be way cheaper down here. What did you have to pay for this place, anyway?”

“None of your business,” Hattie said.

“Eighty-two thousand,” Cass volunteered. “Squatters were living here. It was a bank foreclosure. So, what? You’d buy this house for the show?”

“Cass!” Hattie shot her a warning look.

“No. That’s not how it works. You invest your own money in the real estate, and you earn all the profits off the house when it sells. Of course, we negotiate a standard performance fee for you and your crew and line up some sponsors to trade their product in return for exposure on the show. Just how much have you sunk into this money pit already?” he asked.

“We’re done here,” Hattie said. She pointed toward the back door. “Go. Away. Now.”

Mo shook his head in disbelief. “You know how many people would sell their soul for an opportunity like this? To star in a new network reality show? I passed half a dozen historic houses being rehabbed while I was riding over here.”

“Go trespass on their job sites then,” Hattie said. “Fall through their floors.” She took his elbow and gave him a not-gentle shove. “Move along.”

* * *

When he reached his bike, Mauricio Lopez turned, whipped out his cell phone, aimed, and clicked off a series of photos. The two women stood in the driveway watching him speed away on the fat-tired bike. “You think that guy’s for real?” Cass asked.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Hattie said. She unzipped her coveralls, stepped out of them, and reached for her cell phone. “I gotta make nice with Ronnie, apologize, and get him back over here to start replacing all those cast-iron pipes.”

Hattie gazed up at the house. She’d been so thrilled when she’d seen the address on the county tax assessor’s list of foreclosures. She’d been watching this street for two years, riding past this particular house on an almost daily basis, stalking it like a jealous lover.

Her secret name for the house was Gertrude, after Gertrude Showalter, an elderly woman who’d lived across the street from Hattie’s family when she was growing up.

She’d seen the busted-out windows, the piles of empty liquor bottles and trash strewn around Gertrude’s porch, watched with dismay as a summer storm sent a huge tree branch crashing through the roof, knowing that the rain pouring in would further deteriorate the structure.

When the foreclosure listing was finally published, she’d been the first to show up on the courthouse steps, two hours before the bidding started, determined to win at any cost, to save this elegant old girl, polish her up, and sell her for a handsome profit.

Tug tried to warn her about buying a house without ever stepping foot inside, but she’d been determined to prove him wrong.

She’d driven directly from the courthouse to her new old house on Tattnall Street with the key clutched tightly in her fist.

Nothing about Gertrude fazed her. Not even the pigeons that had taken up residence in the attic or the petrified possum carcass she found under a rotted kitchen cupboard gave Hattie pause.

It wasn’t just money and sweat equity Hattie had invested in Gertrude. She’d poured her heart into this house. But now, damn it, she was seeing it through the eyes of the ballsy television guy.

The realization dawned on her suddenly, like a cold hand gripping her throat. She’d broken Tug Kavanaugh’s first commandment of real estate investing, the one he’d preached to her since she’d scraped up the down payment for her first flip. “A house is just a bunch of lumber and nails, Hattie. It’s just a thing. Never fall in love with anything that can’t love you back.”

She’d had one great love in her life, and lost it in the blink of an eye. When would she learn? Tug was right, she knew. No amount of love, creativity, or good vibes was going to turn Gertrude into the peacock she’d envisioned. Her shoulders slumped as she thumbed through the contacts on her phone.

She found the plumber’s number, tapped it, and waited. The phone rang once, twice, three times. He picked up after the fourth ring.

“Yeah?” He was still pissed.

“Ronnie? Look, I’m sorry. You were right, but I had to see it with my own eyes. All that pipe under the house is shot. What’s it gonna cost to replace everything?”

“Minimum?” The number he quoted was way north of what Hattie’s gut told her. “Hattie? You there?”

“I’m here,” she said grimly. “Never mind.”

* * *

Tug’s footsteps echoed through the high-ceilinged rooms. It was early evening, and a slight breeze was blowing through the open windows. Hattie trailed after him, resolute in her determination to bite the bullet.

He was muttering numbers as he walked, shaking his head, rolling his eyes. When he got to the kitchen he stared down at the jagged hole in the floor before looking up at his daughter-in-law.

“There’s a couple of guys I met at the lumberyard last month. They’re investors. Buying up houses in Midtown. We got to talking while I was waiting for my stuff to get loaded. I told the younger one about this house. He said he’d been watching our progress. Likes this street. Thinks it’s got great potential. He gave me his card. Name’s Keith. Said if we were interested in selling…”

“We are.” Hattie bit off the words.

“They’re paying wholesale. Not retail. We’ll lose a bunch of money on this one. You know that, honey, right?”

She nodded, unable to speak.

Tug went on. “You’re doing the right thing. It hurts, I know, but hell, we all make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world.”

Hattie swallowed hard. “What about the bank?”

He patted her shoulder. “I’ll talk to the bank. We’ve done business with those SOBs for nearly forty years. They’ve never lost money on me before. It’ll be okay.”

Hattie touched his hand. Tug’s skin was tough, wrinkled, crisscrossed with scabs and scars. “I’m sorry, Tug. You tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen.”

“Don’t be sorry, little girl,” he said, his voice gruff. “Be smart. Take what you’ve learned from this and walk away, knowing you did your best, but this time, it just wasn’t enough.”

Copyright © 2022 by Whodunnit, Inc.

The Homewreckers
by by Mary Kay Andrews

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250278368
  • ISBN-13: 9781250278364