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juliet blackwell
juliet blackwell juliet blackwell

If Walls Could Talk


If Walls Could Talk

This was one pitiful-looking mansion.

As I pushed open the heavy front door, an empty beer can rolled across the dusty oak floor, its metallic rattle echoing off bashed-in walls and broken bookcases. More cans, wine bottles, and an impressive assortment of power tools lay strewn about the floor, spoiling the once-shiny black lacquer of the grand piano and littering the graceful sweep of the circular stair leading off the octagonal foyer. A damp, salty bay breeze blew in through a broken casement window. I tried clicking on the overhead chandelier to shed some light on the dim interior, but either the fuse had blown or the electricity had been cut.

My former client lay sprawled on a worn black leather couch, a gash between his eyebrows still oozing blood.

I had warned him.

Long, freckled fingers gripped a half-empty bottle of a local favorite: passion fruit-infused Hangar One vodka, brewed in an abandoned Navy airplane hangar just on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. At least the fool had taste, if no sense.

I pried the bottle from his hand.

With a snort, Matt Addax opened bright blue, red-rimmed eyes.

"Wha...Mel? What're you doin' here?" He asked in a British-accented slur.

"Your son called me," I said. "He was afraid that last night's 'Do It Yourself' remodeling party might have gotten out of hand."

"The lad's wise beyond his years."

"Mmm." I kicked at a stray piece of old molding, laying rusty-nail-side up, with the steel toe of my work boot. "What happened to your face?"

He sat up and raised a hand to probe the cut between his eyes. "Ah, bloody hell, I've got a photo shoot tomorrow. A piece of wood snapped off -the stuff that they used to put old plaster onto? What's that called?"


"Yeah. I was prying off some lath and it snapped and beaned me. I loathe lath." He smiled. "Try saying that five times fast."

"You promised me you'd wear safety glasses."

He shrugged, looked me up and down, and lifted his eyebrows. "You always look like you're on the way to a fancy-dress party. Don't the boys tease you?"

"Not if they want their paychecks signed, they don't."

Provided I wore the proper footwear -my ever-present work boots—and knew my single-bevel miter saws from my random orbital sanders, the construction workers in my employ didn't much care how I dressed. Today I was wearing a multi-colored spangled shift dress under a leather bomber jacket I had borrowed from my dad's closet as a concession to modesty and the weather. The carnival nature of the dress was a little over the top for a woman just a couple years shy of forty, and strangers on the street frequently mistook me for a Madonna groupie, but after years of wearing the "proper" faculty-wife wardrobe I had sworn never to hold myself back. Besides, even in progressive California people were so surprised to see a woman running a construction company I figured the clothes gave us all something tangible to fixate on.

I sank onto the sofa next to Matt, held my hand out for the vodka, and took a little swig. It was barely noon, but the havoc forty or so drunken amateurs had managed to wreak on this formerly gorgeous, if down-at-the-heels, Pacific Heights mansion was motivation enough for a quick drink an hour or three before happy hour.

Matt leaned his elbows on his knees and cradled his thinning, sandy-haired head in his broad musician's hands. Looking over at him—and around at the once-elegant mansion falling apart around us—I could feel my resolve melting away.

I had sworn I wouldn't get involved with Matt's scheme to flip upscale houses, trading in on his celebrity and social connections to market to an exclusive clientele. But I liked Matt, and it wouldn't take that much for me to help him out. After all, remodeling historic homes was my business.

Still, my relationship to the former rock star was tenuous at best. My stepson Caleb—ex-stepson, actually—went to school with Matt's son. Matt and I met a couple of years ago over cupcakes at a Parents' Association meeting, and then last year Matt hired me to remodel his kitchen in Sausalito. A couple of months ago, as a special favor, I had done a thorough inspection of this house before Matt bought it.

As far as I was concerned, that was the extent of our relationship. But a lot of rich and famous people wind up growing abnormally close to their contractors. We camp out in their homes for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. We have no particular stake in their wealth or celebrity—though our rates might spike when we enter the poshest neighborhoods. But aside from obvious budget considerations, ripping the toilet out of a crumbling Victorian in humble West Oakland is essentially the same as ripping one out of the fanciest Pacific Heights Beaux Arts mansion.

The very banality of this interaction can transform a good general contractor into a client's trusted confidante. There's nothing quite like a protracted remodel project to devastate a marriage or threaten family harmony, and since taking over my dad's construction business two years ago I've mediated more than my fair share of domestic disputes. I respond to panicky calls about leaky faucets in the middle of the night and find myself hearing much more than I want to know about unfaithful spouses, shady corporate deals, or murky political alliances. I'm like a confessor to some of these people.

Matt Addax, whose long-haired, blue-jean-jacketed, guitar-playing image had adorned my bedroom wall in my teenage years, was one of those people.

"Anybody else get hurt?" I asked.

"I don't remember much past the..." he held his hand up toward the jagged shards of glass remaining in the smashed window frame and trailed off with a defeated shake of his head. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ya know that remodel show on cable, where they do their own demo?" Matt asked, his voice recovering its familiar upbeat tone. "Like Kenneth said, it always seems like a blast. He arranged to have a photog here from the Chronicle to document the whole thing. He thought it'd make a brilliant human interest story."

"Why am I not surprised that Kenneth was involved?"

"He means well."

I found that hard to believe. But as my mother used to say, if you can't say something nice, change the subject.

"I'm pretty sure on TV they don't encourage participants to drink while using power tools," I pointed out, passing the bottle back to Max. "They also have professionals running things."

"You're right. I'm an idiot. I should have hired you to supervise."

"You called and asked me to, remember? I refused, because I'm smart."

"Right. Now I remember."

"Besides, Kenneth doesn't like me."

"He just doesn't like your rates."

"Believe me, he doesn't like me."

And the feeling was mutual. Kenneth had acted as project manager on Matt's kitchen renovation in Mill Valley, but he kept insisting on cutting corners and fudging on little things like code requirements. I had finally walked off the job after an incident involving threatening words concerning the creative use of a jackhammer.

"I give up on this place," Matt said with a defeated sigh. "Will you fix it?"

"Which part?"

"All of it. I'm tired of it. I don't care what Kenneth says. Just take over the remodel. If you cut me a break on your fees upfront, I can offer you a share of the sales price. We should still be able to make some good money."

"You're one week into a remodel and you're already tired of it? You might want to reconsider this house-flipping venture."

"We made a killing on the last place."

"One lucky sale is no foundation for such a risky line of business."

"Kenneth got this place cheap, though. Because of the haunting deal."

I was afraid to ask. But I couldn't stop myself.

"Haunting deal?"

"You don't know about that? People say this place is haunted. So we got it cheap."


"Previous owner had to disclose it in the sale."

"Let me get this straight: The owners have to tell you if they think their house is haunted?"

He nodded. "Real estate law. It's part of full disclosure and all that." His red-rimmed eyes scanned the disaster area surrounding us. "Maybe it really is haunted. Maybe that's what happened last night."

I held up the bottle of vodka. "This is what happened last night. These are all the spirits you need to screw up a construction project."

"At least I followed your advice on one thing: I packed up all the glass lampshades, a lot of the door and window hardware, and anything else that looked valuable or historical."

"You forgot the chandelier." I gestured toward the obviously homemade monstrosity hanging in the entryway. Colored rocks and murky crystals had been wrapped in copper wire and hung limply amongst amber, flame-shaped electric bulbs. I sort of admired the concept, but the execution left a lot to be desired.

"With good reason," Matt snorted. "The former owner considered himself an artist, it seems. There are a number of his creations, here and there."

"I take it the mosaic in the bathroom was his handiwork? And the homemade fireplace in the den?" I asked, recalling the ugly rock-and-shell studded surround.

"Yup. And the funky garden walks, and the homemade pond. Seems he owned his own cement mixer." Matt dug into the pocket of his faded jeans and brought out a chain with two keys, one small and one large. "The crate's in the garage. Could you arrange for storage? It's padlocked—here's the key."

"What's the other key for?"

"The front door. Say you'll save me."

"It'll be a huge job if we do it right."

"I know that."

"Pricey." Just wanted to be clear.

"I'll make the money back in the long run. This is Pacific Heights, after all. The sky's the limit....Listen, Mel, I can't afford to look like an idiot with this one. I'm too high-profile. I need to flip it, fast."

He looked grim. Matt Addax may have started his professional life as a teenage rock god, but as is the case with so many of us, advancing age brought with it certain unavoidable insights. His big blue eyes and adorable British accent only took him so far. For the past several decades his music career had been in free-fall, but during a stint in an exclusive rehab center up on the Mendocino coast he had befriended an elite stratum of socialites—the same place he met the well-connected Kenneth Kostow.

Soon Matt became an all-around San Francisco celebrity, one of those people who didn't actually have to do anything to be famous. Since he wasn't a skinny young female who could achieve notoriety by forgetting her underwear, he had to use other methods to distinguish himself. House-flipping gave Matt a semi-artistic, cutting-edge career: As he explained to me once, everyone loves home design. And I had to hand it to Kostow—he and Matt had done surprisingly well so far.

I looked around the living room, entry, and dining room beyond. Yes, there was trash everywhere, holes in the walls, cracked and peeling paint and varnish, and signs of dry rot along some of the windows. But I knew from my previous inspection that the all-important foundation was solid, and the main wood supports were intact. And like most historical structures, Matt's house had been built with more care, skills, and finer materials that one would find on any modern home.

Indeed, the bones of the place reflected the grace and refinement of an era long past. Ceilings were high, with peaked arches leading from one room to the next. Wide-plank oak floors were dressed up with an inlaid Greek key border design. The crown moldings were intact, boasting intricate fleur de lis and acanthus leaves. The living room fireplace mantel, crowded at the moment with plastic cups and beer cans, was elaborately carved limestone complete with spiral columns and frolicking putti.

I could practically feel the people who had once come to this parlor for a cup of tea, hear the rattle of a newspaper, smell the aroma of pipe smoke and the tinkle of laughter through the years.

Who was I kidding? I had fallen under the house's spell from the first moment I walked in to do the inspection two months ago. The signs of its long neglect and recent abuse hurt my heart. I was already itching to get at it.

"All things considered, the damage looks pretty superficial," I said, patting Matt on the knee and giving in to my inevitable impulse to save the place. "Nothing a big fat check won't fix. As long as no one broke a water pipe or compromised a load-bearing wall, you'll be okay."

Matt's bloodshot eyes fixed on me. "You're a peach, Mel. I mean that."

"Let's go survey the damage, shall we?"

First things first. Matt showed me the loaded crate in the ground-floor garage and I made a quick call to my transport and demo guy, Nico, asking him to rescue the grand piano while he was at it. Half Italian and half Samoan, Nico had a big strong truck and an endless supply of similarly endowed nephews. Together, I felt confident they could lift the entire house, much less a piano.

As Matt and I mounted the steps to the second floor, I bit my tongue, trying to keep from commenting on the vodka. It really wasn't any of my business.

I made it almost halfway up the flight of stairs.

"I thought you quit drinking."

"I'm in a new program. Booze isn't strictly forbidden, so long as it's taken in moderation. Besides, my new neighbor brought over a bottle of 18-year-old scotch. Old enough to vote. What's a man to do?"

Sounded more like rationalization than science to me, but who was I to say?

I had to smile as we stepped into the master bedroom. A sheet of wallboard had been hung both crooked and backwards. There were several nails placed, seemingly at random, in one multi-paned window frame. And the piece de resistance: a lacey red bra hung over a closet door.

If this was Matt's definition of moderation, I'd hate to witness his version of overindulgence.

Stepping over an empty champagne bottle, my boot kicked something that clinked and skittered across the floor. I squatted and picked up a few of the small brass objects.

"Are those shells?" Matt asked. "Bloody hell."

"No, they're bullets. Thirty-eight caliber."

"What's the difference?"

"Shells are cartridge casings that are expelled upon firing."

Matt looked bewildered.

"The shells hold the gunpowder," I explained. "They separate from the slug upon firing. The slug's the part that kills you. These bullets haven't been fired."

"You Americans and your guns. What's the deal?"

My father was an ex-marine who had grown up hunting in the Adirondacks. His dismay at having sired a pack of three girls was alleviated by taking us all to the firing range when my mother wasn't looking. My sisters soon bowed out, but I had tried my best to be my father's son and went so far as taking a hunters' safety training course before I realized there was no way I'd ever be able to shoot Bambi, or any of his relations or other furry woodland friends.

Assessing the cold weight of the metal cartridges in the palm of my hand, I felt a tingle at the base of my neck.

"What exactly went down here last night, Max?"

"I'm telling you, I don't remember. My ex walked in with her new boy toy, and I started downing that great scotch. I'll admit, I lost it."

"Who was invited to this shindig?"

"Everybody. The A list. Rory Abrams, the guy with that hot new restaurant in North Beach? He catered the whole thing. Everyone thought the whole Do-it-Yourself Demo idea was a scream."

"Oh sure," I said, "brandishing Sawz-Alls and pneumatic drills and handguns while downing tequila shooters is a real hoot."

"It wasn't that bad. The photographer gave me the name of a guy to handle security on the front door, and he brought along a couple of friends to make sure things didn't get out of hand."

"Sounds positively sedate. You guys trashed the place, cut the lights, and someone had a gun?" My eyes scanned the floor for more shells. "Tell me, Matt, what would 'getting out of hand' look like?"

"Be kind to the man with a beastly hangover. Besides, those bullets could have been here for years for all we know. Maybe they were behind something, just got knocked about in the hubbub."

"Was there anyone at the party that I'd know? Who was the photographer?"

"A kid, Zachary something. He's new. Cute. Looks like a young Antonio Banderas, except, ya know, not Spanish."

I crossed over to the crooked wallboard and peered into the deep recess beyond. Because of the line of the eaves, there was more than the standard six inches of space behind the wall. A dark niche extended back several feet. The perfect hiding place.

"Hey, Matt, I think I see something back in here."

Matt wrinkled his nose. "I hate that, when they open up the walls. It smells funky."

"Are you serious? That's the fun part."

"It's the anthropologist in you coming out. The love of digging up old bones. I'm telling you, it's bad juju."

"I was a cultural anthropologist, not an archeologist. I dealt with live people. And anyway, I relinquished my badge when I became a contractor, remember?"

"Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist. You guys are like musicians. You can't shake it."

He was more right than he knew.

To me, old houses might as well be ancient pyramids. They hold secrets and messages from the past; I feel them whispering to me as I walk the hallways. Walls, attics, basements...over the past five years I had found newspapers from the thirties, liquor bottles, old coins, address books, even the occasional stash of money or stocks. I once unearthed a button-up baby's shoe and a dress pattern book from 1916. I even liked the smell: the distinctive, musty aroma of history, reminding me of used bookstores...promising the serendipitous discovery of the perfect novel or family relic or beloved treasure.

I dug through my satchel for my key ring, on which hung a mini-flashlight. Holding the light with my teeth, I crouched, grabbed on to a stud with one hand for balance, leaned in through the hole in the wall, and reached.

It was frustratingly close, but my arm wasn't quite long enough. I stretched just a little more, managing to knock at the item with my fingertips. Unfortunately, that just pushed it further until it fell into a well between the floor beams. I couldn't see anything anymore, even with the flashlight.

"Darn it!" I swore under my breath. "I almost had it..."

Behind me, Matt screamed.

© Juliet Blackwell

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