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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Dead as a Door Knocker

A House-Flipper Mystery

A House-Flipper Mystery (Volume 1)

Diane Kelly

St. Martin's Paperbacks

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER 1

DEADBEATS

WHITNEY WHITAKER


I grabbed my purse, my tool belt, and the bright yellow hard hat I’d adorned with a chain of daisy decals. I gave my cat a kiss on the head. “Bye-bye, Sawdust.” Looking into his baby blue eyes, I pointed a finger at him. “Be a good boy while Mommy’s at work, okay?”

The cat swiped at my finger with a paw the color of pine shavings. Given that my eyes and hair were the same shade as his, I could be taken for his mother if not for the fact that we were entirely different species. I’d adopted the furry runt after his mother, a stray, had given birth to him and two siblings in my uncle’s barn. My cousins, Buck and Owen, had taken in the other two kittens, and my aunt and uncle gave the wayward mama cat a comfy home in their hilltop cabin on the Kentucky border.

After stepping outside, I turned around to lock the French doors that served as the entrance to my humble home. The place sat in my parents’ backyard, on the far side of their kidney-shaped pool. In its former life, it had served as a combination pool house and garden shed. With the help of the contractors I’d befriended on my jobs, I’d converted the structure into a cozy guesthouse—the guest being yours truly. It had already been outfitted with a small three-quarter bath, so all we’d had to do was add a closet and kitchenette.

Furnishing a hundred and fifty square feet had been easy. There was room for only the bare essentials—a couple of bar stools at the kitchen counter, a twin bed and dresser, and a recliner that served as both a comfortable reading chair and a scratching post for Sawdust. Heaven forbid my sweet but spoiled cat should sharpen his claws on the sisal post I’d bought him at the pet supply store. At least he enjoyed his carpet-covered cat tree. I’d positioned it by one of the windows that flanked the French doors. He passed his days on the highest perch, watching birds flitter about the birdhouses and feeders situated about the backyard.

At twenty-eight, I probably should’ve ventured farther from my parents’ home by now. But the arrangement suited me and my parents just fine. They were constantly jetting off to Paris or Rome or some exotic locale I couldn’t pronounce or find on a map if my life depended on it. Living here allowed me to keep an eye on their house and dog while they traveled, but the fact that we shared no walls gave us all some privacy. The arrangement also allowed me to sock away quite a bit of my earnings in savings. Soon, I’d be able to buy a house of my own. Not here in the Green Hills neighborhood, where real estate garnered a pretty penny. But maybe in one of the more affordable Nashville suburbs. While many young girls dreamed of beaded wedding gowns or palomino ponies, I’d dreamed of custom cabinets and built-in bookshelves.

After locking the door, I turned to find my mother and her black-and-white Boston terrier, Yin-Yang, puttering around the backyard. Like me, Mom was blond, though she now needed the help of her hairdresser to keep the stray grays at bay. Like Yin-Yang, Mom was petite, standing only five feet three inches. Mom was still in her pink bathrobe, a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. While she helped with billing at my dad’s otolaryngology practice, she normally went in late and left early. Her part-time schedule allowed her to avoid traffic, gave her time take care of things around the house, and spend time with her precious pooch.

“Good morning!” I called.

My mother returned the sentiment, while Yin-Yang raised her two-tone head and replied with a cheerful Arf-arf! The bark scared off a trio of finches who’d been indulging in a breakfast of assorted seeds at a nearby feeder.

Mom stepped over, the dog trotting along with her, staring up at me with its adorable little bug eyes. “You’re off early,” Mom said, a hint of question in her voice.

No sense telling her I was on my way to an eviction. She already thought my job was beneath me. She assumed working as a property manager involved constantly dealing with deadbeats and clogged toilets. Truth be told, much of my job did involve delinquent tenants or backed-up plumbing. But there was much more to it than that. Helping landlords turn rundown real estate into attractive residences, helping hopeful tenants locate the perfect place for their particular needs, making sure everything ran smoothly for everyone involved. I considered myself to be in the homemaking business. But rather than try, for the umpteenth time, to explain myself, I simply said, “I’ve got a busy day.”

Mom tilted her head. “Too busy to study for your real estate exam?”

I fought the urge to groan. As irritating as my mother could be, she only wanted the best for me. Problem was, we didn’t agree on what the best was. Instead of starting an argument I said, “Don’t worry. The test isn’t for another couple of weeks. I’ve still got plenty of time.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced, the two syllables soaked in skepticism. “Have a good day, sweetie.” At least those five words sounded sincere.

“You, too, Mom.” I reached down and ruffled the dog’s ears. “Bye, girl.”

I made my way to the picket fence that enclosed the backyard and let myself out of the gate and onto the driveway. After tossing my hard hat and tool belt into the passenger seat of my red Honda CR-V, I swapped out the magnetic WHITAKER WOODWORKING sign on the door for one that read HOME & HEARTH REALTY. Yep, I wore two hats. The hard hat when moonlighting as a carpenter for my uncle, and a metaphorical second hat when working my day job as a property manager for a real estate business. This morning, I sported the metaphorical hat as I headed up Hillsboro Pike into Nashville. Fifteen minutes later, I turned onto Sweetbriar Avenue. In the driveway of the house on the corner sat a shiny midnight-blue Infiniti Q70L sedan with vanity plates that read TGENTRY. My hackles rose at the sight.

Thaddeus Gentry III owned Gentry Real Estate Development, Inc., or, as I called it, GREED Incorporated. Okay, so I’d added an extra E to make the spelling work. Still, it was true. The guy was as money-hungry and ruthless as they come. He was singlehandedly responsible for the gentrification of several old Nashville neighborhoods. While gentrification wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—after all it rid the city of ramshackle houses in dire need of repairs—Thad Gentry took advantage of homeowners, offering them pennies on the dollar, knowing they couldn’t afford the increase in property taxes that would result as their modest neighborhoods transformed into upscale communities. He’d harass holdouts by reporting any city code violations, no matter how minor. He also formed homeowners’ associations in the newly renovated neighborhoods, and ensured the HOA put pressure on the remaining original residents to bring their houses up to snuff. These unfortunate folks found they no longer felt at home and usually gave in and moved on … to where, who knows?

When I’d come by a week ago in a final attempt to collect from the tenants, I’d noticed a FOR SALE sign in the yard where Thad Gentry’s car was parked. The sign was gone now. Had Gentry bought the property? Had he set his sights on the neighborhood? Time would tell, I supposed.

Turning my attention back to the task at hand, I pulled to the curb next door and glanced at the rental house. While I’d fought a groan minutes before when conversing with my mother, I let out a big groan now. The place bore the telltale signs of having hosted a raucous Halloween party last night. Wispy fake cobwebs hung from the porch railing. Disposable cups littered the yard, scattered among novelty gravestones. A plastic skeleton lay in the neglected flower bed, a bony arm cradling an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.

As my eyes took in the place, they caught movement at the house to the left. The sixtyish woman who lived there peeked out the window, her faded strawberry curls filling the glass. When I raised a hand in greeting, she let the curtain fall back into place rather than return the gesture. Whether she was unfriendly or embarrassed to be caught spying, I wasn’t sure.

I climbed out of my car and walked up to the small porch of the stone cottage. An ornate iron knocker graced the front door, the face of the mystical Celtic Green Man deity sculpted into the metal as if he were keeping watch on the world with his deep, all-knowing eyes. The Green Man, which featured carved leaves about his face, symbolized rebirth. The embellishment was an intriguing touch, both decorative and functional. I raised the knocker’s ring and tapped it against the plate. Knock-knock-knock. When no response came from inside, I lifted the ring again, using it more forcefully this time. KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. Still no answer. The Green Man stared at me, as if to ask What now?

“They’ve left me no other choice,” I told the knocker. I’d have to barge in.

I pulled my oversized, crowded key ring from my purse and fingered through the keys. Nope. Nope. Nope. There it is. I stuck the key in the door and took a deep breath to steel myself. Evictions were the worst part of my job as a property manager. Someone always ended up shouting or begging or crying. Often that someone was me. My heart broke when landlords ran out of patience waiting for past-due rent and forced me to put a struggling family or an elderly person with a fixed income out on the streets. Fortunately, the deadbeats du jour were a trio of spoiled college kids from wealthy families. Judging from the smell of the place as I opened the door, as well as the bottles and greasy boxes littering the floors, they’d used the rent money their parents had sent them to buy pizza and liquor instead. Several boxes from a mail-order electronics company sat about too, one of them containing a receipt for a two-hundred-dollar virtual reality headset. Needless to say, my heart wasn’t breaking this morning. My nose, on the other hand, wriggled involuntarily in protest. The place reeked of stale garbage and beer and young males teeming with testosterone. Ew.

You’d never know it to look at the place now, but prior to the current tenants moving in, the house had been freshly painted inside and out and the wood floors had been refinished. Rick Dunaway, the property owner, was exceedingly cheap when it came to his rentals. I’d managed to convince him to have the house painted and the floors refinished, but only after agreeing to bill him solely for the supplies and do the work gratis myself with the help of my cousins. Call me a pushover, but I didn’t want Home & Hearth to gain a reputation as a manager for slumlords. I wanted to be proud of the properties I managed. Of course, there wasn’t much to be proud of here now. The walls bore smudges and spots. One wall was freckled with small holes around a hand-drawn bull’s-eye that had served as an improvised dartboard. A dart hung from one of the holes. Graffiti covered the rest of the wall, doodles in permanent marker all over it. Several fist-sized holes pocked the drywall. Hmm.

I stepped into the small hallway to the left, and addressed the three closed bedroom doors. “Rise and shine, boys! Time to pack up and move out!” Actually, that time should have come weeks ago, but the eviction process in Tennessee required a thirty-day written warning, then a court hearing and delivery of a formal eviction notice.

I strode about, snapping photos with my cell phone to document the damage. In addition to the walls, the floors were a wreck, scratched and scraped and warped where beer and sodas had been spilled and left to soak into the wood. Refinishing these floors had been backbreaking work, and now I’d have to do it all over again.

I closed my eyes and sighed. If I passed my upcoming real estate exam and became an agent, I could leave property management behind. The work paid peanuts, and dealing with problem tenants and penny-pinching landlords was a hassle. Still, I loved the part of the job that involved fixing up properties, turning eyesores into dream homes. After working with owners to set a budget and choose the paint and materials, I’d oversee the contractors, make sure the projects were completed correctly and quickly. As a skilled carpenter, I often did the work myself, earning extra bucks to add to my savings and keep my spoiled cat in tuna treats.

When I finished taking photos in the living room, I ventured into the kitchen. Cheese-n-grits! Dirty dishes towered in the sink, while trash and food scraps overflowed the garbage can. Flies buzzed about, enjoying the buffet the boys had left for them. Not to be outdone, a quartet of cockroaches feasted on goo on the countertop, stimulating my gag reflex. Uck. Should’ve worn a hazmat suit.

I turned and headed to the bedroom doors, throwing them open. When sounds of protests came from the bedrooms, I put a quick end to it. “Out of bed now!” I hollered. “Y’all have one hour to get your things out of here before I’ll toss whatever and whoever is left out on the lawn.” It was bluster, of course. Carpentry work had given me some muscle, but not enough to lift a full-grown male. With that, I walked out to the front porch where the air was fresher.


Copyright © 2019 by Diane Kelly