Forewarned is forearmed, they say, and in justice to — well, everyone! — I guess I must admit that I was forewarned. It’s just that when people told me that real estate is a cutthroat business, I didn’t think they meant it literally.
My name is Savannah Martin, and I sell houses. Or I should say that I try, because I’m brand new at my job, and truth be told, haven’t sold so much as a lean-to yet. I should have realized, when the call came in about 101 Potsdam Street, that it was too good to be true.
It was about 8:45 in the morning on the first Saturday in August, and I was at work. As usual. For the past six weeks I’d been on call pretty much 24/7 — not exactly what I’d had in mind when I looked forward to setting my own hours — and I haunted the office like the proverbial ghoul.
I guess I should also mention that I didn’t actually have anything else to do. I used to work at the make-up counter at the mall, but when I got my real estate license, I quit my job and started living off my savings in the hope that my dwindling bank balance would give me the incentive I needed to succeed. So far it hadn’t worked, and if something didn’t change soon, I’d have to crawl to Dillard’s to beg for my old job back. If it was still available, with the way the economy was going these days.
But that was why, when the phone rang, I snatched it up on the very first ring, and had to take a couple of steadying breaths before I put the receiver to my ear. “Good morning. Thank you for calling Walker Lamont Realty. Savannah Martin speaking. How may I help you?”
“Savannah Martin?” a male voice repeated.
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
I waited for him to comment, but instead he just continued chummily, like we were old friends, “See, Savannah, it’s like this. I was supposed to be meeting Miz Puckett at eight, to see 101 Potsdam Street, but I’ve sat here for 45 minutes, and I ain’t seen hide or hair of her.”
“I haven’t seen her this morning, either,” I answered, my heart starting to beat faster. Someone was interested in buying 101 Potsdam? And my colleague and competitor Brenda Puckett had dropped the ball…? “Though it isn’t like her to be late.” Much more like her to be early, so she could feel superior when you merely showed up on time. “Are you able to wait while I try to call her?”
My caller said he was, and I put him on hold before dialing Brenda’s cell phone, and when there was no answer, her home number. There was no answer there either. I got back on the line. “Sir? I’m sorry, I can’t get in touch with her. But if… that is… I mean…”
My tongue tripped over itself in its eagerness to offer help. The caller didn’t say anything, but I could sense amusement through the line. I gritted my teeth and tried again. “If you’d still like to see the house, I’d be happy to come out and open the door for you…?”
I held my breath. The Italianate Victorian and surrounding two acres were listed for almost a quarter million USD, a fairly high price for Nashville, Tennessee. The commission would pay my rent and keep me in gasoline and Ramen noodles for the rest of the year, at least.
“You sure you can spare the time, darlin’?” The voice was a baritone, husky and low, with a hint of velvety roughness that made him sound like he’d just rolled out of bed.
I assured him, with all the sincerity I could muster, that there was nothing I’d rather do than be of service to him. He chuckled, but didn’t comment. Even so, the ripeness of the chuckle brought a blush to my cheeks. I ignored it, promising him I’d be there in fifteen minutes, and then I wasted the first thirty seconds of that time doing a (premature) victory dance before I grabbed my purse and headed out the door. If I was going to get from the office to Potsdam Street in the fourteen and a half minutes left to me, I would have to get my tail in gear and keep my foot glued to the gas pedal the whole way.
This may be a good time to explain about Brenda Puckett, the Wicked Witch of the South, or, as she prefers to think of herself, the Empress of Everything. She’s a short, plump woman with big hair and a bigger ego, approximately fifteen years older than me and at least fifty pounds heavier. And she has disliked me from the moment she first set eyes on me. Could be because I’m younger and thinner — though certainly no reed; it doesn’t take that much to be thinner than Brenda — or could be because my blonde hair is my own and didn’t come out of a bottle, the way Brenda’s did. Or maybe I just wasn’t deferential enough the first time I met her. Through no fault of my own, I assure you. How was I supposed to guess that the dumpy, middle-aged woman in the ill-fitting blouse, padding around the front office in her stocking-feet, wasn’t the cleaning lady, but one of the most successful realtors in Nashville? She sure didn’t look it. But she wasted no time in correcting my mistake, in terms that could have curled my hair had it not already had some curl of its own, and she still held it against me six weeks later. The thought of being able to put one over on her made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside as I skidded around the corner of Potsdam Street, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a souped-up green Dodge, and gunned the car up the street.
It took me four minutes longer than the fifteen I had promised before I could pull my pale-blue Volvo — the safest car on the road — to a stop behind the sleek, black Harley-Davidson waiting in the circular driveway. The man straddling the seat matched the motorcycle: dark, muscular, and more than a little dangerous. The T-shirt might as well have been painted on for all that it left to the imagination, and the tattoo peeking from under the left sleeve looked like the tail end of a viper curled around his bicep.
I hesitated before I opened the car door. Real estate can be a scary business on occasion. Those of us who are involved in it advertise our faces and phone numbers all over town, then agree to meet total strangers who call, claiming to want to see an empty house somewhere. Often in an area that isn’t the best, like the one I found myself in now. Sometimes — rarely, but it happens — one of us gets attacked. And there was something about this man that suggested that I ought to step carefully. So I did, both because it seemed prudent and because the gravel was difficult to navigate on three inch heels. “Sorry I’m late. I’m Savannah Martin…”
And then I stopped — dead, if you’ll pardon the pun — when he removed the mirrored sunglasses and I met his eyes.
They were as dark as those on a Jersey cow, and surrounded by long, thick, curving eyelashes. There’s nothing wrong with my lashes — nothing a liberal application of make-up can’t correct, at any rate — but I would have sold my soul to possess his. He could hawk mascara for Maybelline with those lashes. Not that that was the reason I was staring.
“Struck speechless by my good looks, darlin’?” His voice was amused.
“Sorry,” I managed, fighting back a blush. How mortifying, to be caught staring! “For a second there you looked familiar, but…”
“You ain’t never forgotten me?” He grinned. White teeth flashed against golden skin, and a ghostly memory stirred, like an alligator in a swamp, but it subsided without breaking the surface.
“Um…” I said, distracted. The grin widened wickedly.
When a few seconds passed while I didn’t say anything else, he added, “Been back to Sweetwater lately?”
So he was from back home. Well, it made sense. The drawl, slow as molasses, was pure South, and he wasn’t someone I had met recently, or I would have remembered.
“A few weeks ago,” I said slowly, running mental mug shots past my inner eye. “You?”
“That’d be telling.” Another grin curved his lips and the alligator stirred again. I concentrated, and almost had it, but just as I was about to reach out and grasp it, it slipped through my fingers once more.
“You couldn’t give me a hint, could you?”
I smiled hopefully. He contemplated me in silence for a few seconds before he said accommodatingly, “Sure. Columbia High.”
I nodded. Of course. He was someone I had gone to high school with. That explained it. Long enough ago that I wouldn’t necessarily remember him right off; not so long ago that I had forgotten entirely. But there had been hundreds of students in my high school, from all over Maury County and beyond. How in the world did he expect me to recognize him after all this time…?
And then the brick dropped, or the alligator reared, or whatever. I jumped back. “Oh, my God! Rafael Collier. You’re…”
“Guilty as charged.” He made a little mocking half-bow. His voice was pleasant, but his eyes were anything but. They had turned as black as the motorcycle he’d been riding, and approximately twice as hard. I swallowed and opened my mouth. And put my foot in it.
“I thought you went to prison.”
He lifted an eyebrow. Just one; the other didn’t move so much as a fraction of an inch. “That was twelve years ago, darlin’. I got out.”
Obviously. I swallowed again and took another step back.
Rafe Collier had been a senior in high school when I was a freshman, so our paths hadn’t crossed often. I knew who he was, of course — everyone did — but we’d never had much to do with each other. I don’t think we exchanged three words in the year we both attended Columbia High. Or maybe three — “Looking good, sugar!” followed by a wink — but no more. He graduated the next spring, by some miracle of God, or maybe because some of the teachers passed him so they wouldn’t have to deal with him for another year.
It wasn’t surprising. Rafe was the quintessential small-town bad boy, updated for the new millennium. Gone were the days of tight jeans and leather jackets; Rafe had worn his jeans baggy and enough gold around his neck to post bail for murder one. I knew he’d gotten arrested the summer after he graduated, and seeing as he was the kind of kid whose yearbook-entry had identified him as ‘most likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars’, I had assumed he would be shuffled from one correctional facility to the next until he dropped dead and saved society the expense of keeping him. I certainly hadn’t expected to come across him now.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, with more curiosity than tact.
“Looking at this house.” He nodded toward it. I glanced at it, too.
“You must have done pretty well for yourself if you have a half a million dollars to spend on a ramshackle hundred-and-fifty-year-old house in a bad… um… I mean, transitional neighborhood.”
Narrow escape there. Brenda Puckett would have had my head on a platter if she had heard me refer to the property as being located in a ‘bad’ area. She’s the queen of puffing, which is RealtorSpeak for making something sound better than it is without actually lying about it. Lying outright is called intentional misrepresentation and is illegal, but puffing is considered a necessary evil.
Rafe didn’t take the bait about his finances. “Nice save,” he said instead, mildly. I grimaced. He added, with a look around, “What’s so bad about this? Looks better’n where I grew up.”
I glanced around, too. “It doesn’t look like any part of Sweetwater I’ve ever seen.”
“You prob’ly didn’t come down my way a lot,” Rafe said dryly. “You grew up in that big mausoleum on the hill, right?”
I wasn’t sure I’d classify my ancestral home, the Martin Mansion, as a mausoleum, but it was big and square with white pillars and sat on a little knoll just outside Sweetwater proper, so I assumed we were talking about the same thing. “I guess.”
“You prob’ly still had slave quarters out back and brought in darkies to do the housework.”
His voice was flat. I shrugged. I wouldn’t have put it exactly like that, but yes, my mother sometimes employed some of the young women in the area — black and white both — to clean house or help with the cooking or serving for one of the many parties she held. Rafe’s own mother had been among them, if I remembered correctly, though it didn’t seem diplomatic to bring it up at the moment.
“Thought so,” Rafe said.
There wasn’t much either one of us could say after that, so the silence lengthened. A black youth in a shiny, green car with chrome wheel wells and a sound system that threatened to shake the fillings from my teeth drove slowly by, staring at us from a half-reclining position in the front seat. It looked like the same car I had seen on my way here. Rafe followed it with his eyes until it was gone before he turned to me. “So when you say the neighborhood’s bad, you mean it’s full of black folks?”
I hesitated. Every real estate agent learns about testers: people who are hired by the real estate commission to make sure agents aren’t violating the fair housing laws. You know the ones I’m talking about: laws that preclude discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national or ethnic origin, familial status and a few other protected classes. I didn’t really believe that Rafe Collier was an undercover agent for the commission, but I couldn’t afford to be careless. “I’m not actually allowed to comment on the racial make-up of a neighborhood.”
“Afraid I might take it personal?” He smirked. I decided not to dignify this comment with an answer, just continued as if I hadn’t heard it.
“But if you’d care to take a drive around the area, you’ll see what kind of people live here. And if you’re concerned about crime, you can always contact the police department and ask about their statistics.”
Rafe snorted. “Yeah, that’s gonna happen.”
I shrugged. Rafe didn’t seem to have anything else to say, and before the silence could lengthen once more, I nodded toward the front door. “You still want to go in?”
“If it ain’t too much to ask.”
His tone was dry. I reverted to realtor-mode, polite and distant. “Of course not. It’ll just be a second while I get the door open.” I headed up the stairs to the porch with him behind. Far enough behind that I worried that my skirt was too tight and made my derriere look big. When I reached the heavy front door I stopped, frowning. The little black lockbox hanging from the handle was open, and empty. “Where’s the key?”
“If I knew that,” Rafe said from behind me, “you think I woulda called you?”
“It was more of a rhetorical question.” The key wasn’t in the lock, but when I reached out and tried the doorknob, it turned in my hand. “You didn’t try the door, I suppose?”
“If I had,” Rafe repeated, “you think I woulda called you?”
I hesitated. Some people might have been too cautious or too law-abiding to enter an empty house alone, especially when it said No Trespassing in letters two inches high on the door, but Rafe Collier…? “Probably not. You would have just walked in.”
“Like I’m gonna do now.” He reached out and gave the door a push. It opened with a protesting shriek. It must have been decades since anyone oiled the hinges.
I hesitated for a second on the doorstep. The house was cool and dark, with all the draperies closed against the sun, and there was a certain safety in being outside, in the open. Inside the thick walls, nobody could hear me if I screamed. Not that I had any reason to think I’d be doing any screaming, but I’m a woman, and not stupid, so the possibility is usually at the back of my mind.
“After you,” Rafe said. I looked back at him. He quirked an eyebrow. I couldn’t very well refuse to go in, considering how I’d practically begged for the chance to come here. So I forced a professional smile, took a deep breath, and stepped over the threshold. Rafe came in behind me and pushed the door shut. I moved a little further into the hall, out of his reach, before I looked around.
We were standing in a huge entry, giving way to a long hall running the depth of the house, with doors leading off it to the left and right. It didn’t look as if anyone had lifted a finger in here for at least twenty years. There were cobwebs draping the 15-foot ceiling like canopies, and mouse droppings scattered across the scuffed wood floor. There was peeling wallpaper, sagging doors, and posts missing from the banister, and everything was overlaid by a thick layer of dust. A faint metallic scent that I knew I’d smelled before, but which I couldn’t place, hung in the air, along with the odors of dankness, mold, dirt, and dust.
“Know anything about the owner?” Rafe asked, looking around. His nostrils were quivering too, I noticed.
I shook my head. “Not other than that he or she hasn’t been taking care of the place. But when I see Brenda on Monday, I’ll ask her.” He didn’t answer, and I added, “There should be five rooms down here and five more upstairs, plus the third floor and basement. Where would you like to begin?”
“May as well go up.” He stepped onto the staircase, just to our left.
The second floor looked much like the first. Rafe wandered down the hall and opened one of the doors. A room with peeling paint and a sagging ceiling met our eyes. It was empty except for dust and debris and a soiled mattress in the corner. The mattress squeaked and rustled, and I squeaked too, and backed up hastily. Rafe shot me a look over his shoulder.
“I don’t like mice,” I said defensively. He smirked.
“Those ain’t mice, darlin’. Those’re rats.”
I took another step back, feeling the color draining from my face. Rafe grinned and closed the door.
The rest of the second floor looked pretty much like the first room, with shredded wallpaper and cracking plaster, scuffed and gouged wood floors, and chunks missing from the ceilings where water had gotten in. As Rafe walked from room to room taking it all in, his face impassive, I snuck glances at him, wondering what he was doing here.
All right, so I know that just because a guy was a bit of a hellion in high school, doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have straightened himself out by 30 or so. People do it all the time. He might have a good job and a stock portfolio and be able to qualify for a quarter-million dollar loan without any problem. Anything was possible. Unlikely, but possible.
“You know,” I said casually, “I didn’t ask what you do.”
He glanced at me, in the act of opening another door. “Do?”
“For a living.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “This’n that.”
He turned back to the door. I nodded gravely. This and that? What did that mean?
Eventually we ended up in the third floor ballroom, where I stood at the top of the stairs admiring the dust motes dancing in the streaks of sunlight while Rafe prowled and peered into closets and dark corners.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” I asked finally. He shot me a look over his shoulder.
“I thought maybe I could help. If you’re checking for dry-rot or something.”
“Oh. No, I ain’t looking for anything special.”
He turned away, to contemplate a picture of a black Baby Jesus forgotten on the wall behind the door. I left him to it. If he was looking for something in particular, he obviously wasn’t going to tell me what it was, and whatever it might have been, he didn’t find it, because he was still empty-handed and silent when we went back down the stairs.
“Just the first floor left,” I said brightly when we stood in the downstairs hall again. “Parlors, sitting rooms, dining rooms, and other formal-rooms. Ready?”
Rafe nodded, unmoved. I headed off down the hallway with him right behind.
The first room we entered was empty. It was a formal parlor or sitting room, with faded, peeling wallpaper sporting big, red cabbage roses, and a rather nice fireplace on one wall. The moth-eaten draperies were closed, leaving the room in semi-darkness, and while I walked over to the window to pull them aside, Rafe went directly to the adjoining door into the next room. And stopped in the doorway, as quickly and completely as if he had walked into an invisible wall. I took one look at him, at the tense muscles and somehow brittle posture, and moved to join him.