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On a lovely West Cambridge street this 1903 Queen Anne home is on a large level lot with many mature trees. Graciously proportioned rooms and elegant millwork. Pocket doors and two working fireplaces with original ceramic tile. The house is in need of updating, please see attached home inspection report.
The house was a dump. There was no way around it. The listing had been online for seven months, and it had generated a flurry of interest at first, and one offer so lowball that the real-estate agent refused to dignify it with a reply. The agent had written the ad himself and was justifiably proud of it. It was a great ad. It was also a steaming pile of horseshit, as everyone eventually discovered when they got a look at the house. An absolute lie. The place was a disaster. A money pit. Potential buyers usually fled after spending a minute or two stumbling through the decaying interior.
So Rick Hoffman, who’d left the family house on Clayton Street in Cambridge sixteen years ago, solemnly vowing never to return, was now camping out in what used to be his father’s study, on the second floor. December in Boston could get awfully cold, but he’d turned off the heat, which was ridiculously expensive, so he was sleeping fully clothed in a sub-zero expedition sleeping bag on the old leather couch, next to a space heater. The study smelled vaguely of cat piss. Glassed-in legal bookcases lined the walls, tall and rickety. On his father’s desk was an ancient IBM PC, in Early Computer Ivory that belonged in the Smithsonian, and an Okidata dot-matrix printer. If the 1980s ever came back, he’d be all set. His old bedroom, where he’d lived until he went off to college, had become a storeroom for broken furniture and cardboard boxes of files. So he slept on the leather sofa in a room as cold as a meat locker with the faint aroma of cat urine in the air.
This was, he realized, the lowest point in his life.
He had nowhere else to live. A week earlier he’d been forced to move out of the Back Bay apartment he’d shared with his (now) ex-fiancée until Holly had announced she no longer wanted to marry him. He’d spent a few nights in a motel on Soldiers Field Road in Brighton, but his money was running out fast. He had no income anymore. He’d sent out his resume to dozens of magazines and newspapers, with no reply. He’d sold his watch, a nice Baume and Mercier, on eBay, and unloaded most of his fancy clothes on a website that let you buy or sell “gently-used, high-end” clothing.
His money was almost gone. He was lucky he had a place to crash for free. But it didn’t feel so lucky, sleeping in the cold hovel on Clayton Street, the house he and his sister had grown up in. Wendy, three years younger than Rick, was living in Bellingham, Washington, with her partner, Sarah, who owned a vegan restaurant. “Just sell the damned place,” she’d told Rick. “The house is shit, but the land’s got to be worth a couple hundred thousand bucks. That’s money I could use.”
Until Holly had broken off the engagement and kicked him out of their apartment on Beacon Street, that had seemed like a decent plan. But Rick needed a place to live, at least until he found another job, got back on his feet.
Two months ago, he’d been the executive editor of Back Bay, a glossy magazine devoted to the rich and the famous in Boston, the movers and shakers. It had just enough slavish coverage of celebrity chefs and posh weddings and best bartenders to ensure a nice, fat magazine, and just the right dash of snark—a knife-edge balance, really—to hook covetous and aspirational readers who considered themselves smart and sophisticated but actually weren’t.
Seven or eight years ago, a local private-equity maestro named Morton Ostrow took over the joint, infusing Back Bay with cash, made it slicker and glossier, a rich man’s plaything. He ushered in a golden age of big salaries and almost unlimited expense accounts. You had to spend money to make money! he liked to say. He moved the magazine’s offices from a cramped but elegant redbrick townhouse on Arlington Street in the Back Bay to a converted mill building on Harrison Avenue, in the newly desirable, artist-infested SoWa district in the South End. Brick-and-beam, huge nineteenth-century industrial windows and polished concrete floors. Parties at dark, bunkerlike clubs no one could get into, sponsored by Ketel One or Stoli Elit.
Rick, who’d rented the movie “All the President’s Men” at an impressionable age and had been obsessed with it, had always wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein, an intrepid reporter who specialized in ferreting out high-level government fraud and conspiracy. He went to work for the Boston Globe in the metro section and got a lot of attention for an expose he did on private, for-profit prisons. He did an article about corruption in the city’s taxi business and a series on how easy it was to get out of drunk-driving charges in the state. He might, he told himself, have been on the upward trajectory toward Woodward-and-Bernsteinism if he hadn’t met Mort Ostrow at a book party in Cambridge. Ostrow, a short, squat frog of a man, liked him right away. He was hired away from the Globe at a ridiculous salary to beef up Back Bay’s coverage of the “power elite”—scandals at Harvard, intrigue at the State House, gossip among the pashas of the hedge funds. He was given license to puncture and skewer.
He acquired a big apartment on Beacon Street and a beautiful blonde girlfriend to go with it. He and Holly went out to parties or dinner almost nightly. He could get a table at the tiniest, most exclusive restaurant, the kind that’s booked months in advance (not years; this was Boston, after all), at half an hour’s notice. When he wore suits, they were made by Ostrow’s tailor (working buttonholes on the cuffs, Super 130s, fully canvassed), at the friends-and-family rate. He had a weekly breakfast with Mort Ostrow at Mort’s regular table at the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons.
While it lasted, it was a pretty nice life.
The space heater buzzed and snarled. He heard something . . . scurrying somewhere within the walls nearby. A soft commotion, a rodent scrabbling. Mice? Rats? Squirrels? Anything could have gotten in through the chimneys or vents in the long years the house had stood unoccupied. Rodents or birds could be living in the walls. He got up from the couch, listened in silence for a moment, heard the muted scrabbling sound from inside the study’s back wall—then slammed the wall with his fist.
There was a great crash as one of the bookcases toppled, hurtling its contents to the floor, its glass front shattering.
“Shit,” he said. At least the scrabbling sound had stopped.
Broken glass was scattered everywhere, jagged shards twinkling in the morning light. Red-bound volumes of the Massachusetts Law Reporter were arrayed on the floor. Rick’s father, Leonard, had been an attorney, a solo practitioner whose clientele included some sketchy characters: strippers, porn purveyors, club owners. He’d rented an office on Washington Street in downtown Boston. But he’d always kept a duplicate set of his law books in his home study.
He went to fetch a broom and a dustpan and sweep up the broken glass. The broom closet was off the kitchen, down one floor.
A thick blanket of dust and debris had collected on the wooden stairs, including some crumpled Narragansett beer cans and a discarded foil condom wrapper. Teenagers had gotten into the house—hence the broken window— but probably not squatters. No long-term residents. The house had been rented for most of the eighteen years since Len’s stroke. But as the place slowly deteriorated and repairs were left undone, the quality of the renters deteriorated along with it. The last ones were so rowdy and degenerate that the neighbors started complaining. Three years ago Rick had given up renting the house altogether. The hallway was dark—the light bulbs in the ceiling fixture were burned out— but he knew the way by heart. He could navigate the house blindfolded. He found the broom closet and located a tangle of plastic shopping bags but no brooms. And an old carpet sweeper that, even if it still worked, wouldn’t pick up most of the shards of glass anyway. He looked around the kitchen. More beer cans here, and beer bottles, and discarded Big Mac cartons.
“Don’t move, asshole!” someone shouted.
Rick jumped, startled. He spun around, saw a tall, skinny, balding man in a barn coat, jeans, and boots.
“Oh, it’s you,” the man said. “Hey, man, good to see you, Rick!”
“Oh, hey, Jeff.” He smiled with relief. “Been a while.”
“Sorry, dude, didn’t mean to scare you. I thought it was those damned Rindge and Latin kids again.” He held up a key ring and jingled it. “Wendy gave me a set of keys a couple, three years back and asked me to keep an eye on the place.”
“No problem.” He shook his head. “And listen, I really appreciate it.”
Jeff Hollenbeck lived next door, had grown up there and inherited the house after his parents’ death. He was a year or so younger than Rick. He and Rick weren’t friends, exactly, but used to play a lot of one-on-one basketball in Jeff’s parents’ driveway using the hoop mounted to their garage. Jeff, always tall and skinny and athletic, usually won. When Jeff went to Rindge & Latin, the local public high school, Rick had gone off to the Linwood Academy, a private school, so their already minimal friendship had been attenuated further. Also, Jeff began to make fun of Rick’s “faggoty uniform”—the blue blazer, white shirt, and striped crimson-and-gray repp tie. All legitimate grounds for ruthless teenage mockery, but not great for their friendship either.
Apparently Jeff had gone through a druggy phase in high school, came close to being expelled once, but straightened up in time to go to Bunker Hill Community College. Rick didn’t remember what he did for a living—something in the construction trade, maybe? His balding head was close-cropped on the sides. As a teenager he’d worn it down to his shoulders. Now, as if to compensate for the hairlessness up top, he had a goatee, wiry, gray-flecked. His eyes were a watery blue-gray.
“I think the word got around the high school that the house is empty, and there’s this gang of kids who use it for partying and screwing and whatever whatever. If I ever hear them I show up and shoo ’em away. How’s your dad doing?”
He smiled sadly, shook his head. “Same.”
“Same, yeah? I guess he’s—still in that nursing home?”
Rick nodded. “He eats and gets parked in front of the TV all day and that’s his life, you know . . . ?” It was beyond sad, actually. It was heartbreaking the way his father had ended up.
“Wendy still out in Oregon?”
“Washington, but yeah.”
“And you’re the grand poobah of Boston Magazine?”
Rick shrugged, too weary to correct him on the name of the magazine, which would also mean setting him straight on his job title, which was no longer any title at all. Plus, there was something enjoyable about being out in the real world, where the news of his firing actually hadn’t made it. It was refreshing to visit a place where no one could hear the low beating of the tom-toms.
Which he himself hadn’t heard until it was too late.
He was the last person to figure out he was going to get sacked. His numbers— subscriptions and newsstand sales, anyway— were looking great. He’d told Holly he was expecting a raise. There was even talk of end-of-the-year bonuses if the magazine was “ahead of plan.”
Later, of course, he found out that the gossip that his days were numbered had been burning up the wires for weeks. Mort had made a couple of disastrous market calls. He’d lost a big bet on a gold mining company and a Chinese timber firm. His fortune had gone poof, just like that. Or so the rumors had it.
Rick found out over breakfast at the Four Seasons, after he’d ordered, before he’d finished his first cup of coffee. It wasn’t that he was being fired, that wasn’t it at all; his job was being eliminated. Mort was discontinuing the print edition. He could no longer afford the fat salaries and the expense accounts. Anyway, the luxe strategy wasn’t working. The ad guys were always having to discount to fill the pages, too obviously stuffing the remnant space with house ads. Time for some disruptive innovation! He was slashing the payroll, letting his overpaid editors go. Staffers were getting converted to freelance, paid by the piece, meaning by the post. Rick was certainly free to pitch stories to the new editor/publisher, a loathsome little squirrel in Chuck Taylors and Ben Sherman and ironic Buddy Holly glasses who Rick had hired as a web editor a year earlier. By the time his prosciutto-and-roasted-asparagus omelet had arrived,
Rick had lost his appetite.
“Still living across the river?” Jeff said.
“Nah, I’m moving out.” Rick didn’t want to get into the gory details.
Not with Jeff Hollenbeck, anyway.
An arched brow. “Moving in here?”
Rick shook his head. “I mean, for a little while, yeah, but it’s time to sell.”
“They’ve been showing it for a while now. I guess no bites, huh?”
Rick spread out his hands. “We got one lowball offer. Place is a shithole.”
“Definitely needs work. But it’s got good bones. Someone wanted to invest some time and money into it, it could be sweet.”
“That’s sorta what I’m thinking. Maybe get a carpenter in here, a
plasterer, sand the floors, new paint . . .”
“You’re not thinking of doing it yourself, are you?”
“No way. Not my skill set.”
“You hire someone yet?”
He shook his head again. “Bank account’s a little light. Maybe a couple of months down the road.” He said it in an offhand way, as if it was only a matter of time before a tsunami of money started pouring in. Jeff shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at it. You know that’s what I do, right?”
“Yeah. Builder, carpentry, gut renovations, the whole nine yards.”
He pulled a business card from the front pocket of his barn coat and handed it to Rick. It said JEFF HOLLENBECK BUILDERS. “Got a couple guys working for me now. I don’t know what kind of quotes you’re getting, but I don’t mind giving you a break, you know—childhood friends, all that.”
“Huh.” He’d never thought about Jeff as a serious adult, let alone a successful builder.
“You wouldn’t believe what houses on this block are selling for, man. It’s crazy. It’s like—you know the D’Agostino place across the street?”
“I think they got one-point-five mil for that place, and it’s not nearly as nice as this . . . could be, I mean.”
“A million and a half bucks? For that dump?”
“I know, it’s crazy. I mean, you put some good work into this place, you could get two mil easy. More, even.”
“I don’t really have the . . . liquidity, I gotta be honest with you.”
Jeff nodded. “We could do a deal, maybe. Like, my company does the work and I get a cut of the sale. Work out something that’s good for both of us.” He took out a pack of Marlboros and a Zippo. “Mind?”
“You kidding? Anything to get that cat piss smell out of my nostrils.”
Jeff chuckled as he lit a cigarette. “Luckily I don’t smell it.”
“Upstairs in my dad’s office, that’s where it’s bad. Plus, we’ve got
critters living inside the walls.”
Jeff exhaled twin plumes of smoke. “So what do you think?”
Rick was quiet for a long moment. He thought, what the hell. This could be fairly painless. “When could you start?”
“Anytime. Like, now.”
“Always slows down in the winter. I mean, I’ve got a couple of big jobs lined up starting March or April . . .”
“It’s an interesting idea. If we can work it out, I mean.”
“Well, so think about it. Meanwhile, let me check out what that smell is upstairs. I got a pretty good idea I know.”
Jeff followed Rick up the stairs. “Jeez,” he said, toeing the condom wrapper. “Can’t even clean up their own shit.”
When they got to the study, Jeff said, “So that was the crash I heard.” He snorted. “Oh, yeah, I smell it now. That’s nasty. Hold on,
I’ll be right back.”
He galumphed down the staircase. Rick was picking up the larger pieces of glass when Jeff appeared in the doorway, a shop broom and dustpan in one hand and a crowbar in the other.
“Thought you could use this.” He handed Rick the broom and dustpan. Then, waggling the crowbar, he said, “If you’re serious about doing work on the place, I can open up the wall and see what the problem
Rick shrugged. “Go for it, why not.”
Jeff walked carefully to the middle of the room, weaving around and through the broken glass. Then he stood, head cocked, listening. A moment later, the rustling started up again. Jeff followed the sound to the back wall, then stood still for a few seconds more. He opened the closet door, heavy and paneled, with an ornamented brass knob. He noticed the dangling string, the pull cord, and tugged it to switch on the bare bulb mounted on the canted ceiling.
Jeff nodded, smiled. “They’re in the crawl space. Squirrels, I betcha. They get in through roof vents or they chew holes in the soffit. Evil little buggers.”
He hoisted the crowbar and slammed its hooked end into the back wall of the closet. A chunk of the wall came away with a screech. It wasn’t plaster-and-lath, Rick saw, but a flat piece of plywood, ten or twelve inches across, a couple of feet long.
“Here she comes,” Jeff said. “Easy.”
Jeff stepped aside as the long board toppled to the closet floor in a cloud of plaster. A tall hole had opened in the back wall of the closet, too narrow to get through, but enough to glimpse the dim interior. There was a scree sound and a quick pitter-patter, like rain on the ceiling, the mad scrambling of small creatures.
“Squirrels,” Jeff announced. “Knew it.” He coughed. “Whoa. Gross.”
Rick stepped closer to get a look.
“Hate squirrels,” Jeff said. “Nothing more than furry-tailed rats.”
Then he jammed the crowbar into the wall once more and ripped out the adjoining board. It squealed as it came out, nails screeching against wood, and clattered to the floor.
“No plasterboard here,” Jeff said. “Strange. Like they just painted over this plywood.”
“What is it, a nest?” Rick asked. “I don’t want the goddamned squirrels running around inside the house.”
“Nah, if there’s a nest, it’s probably on the other side of the house. This right here is their latrine.”
“Squirrels don’t soil their own nests usually.”
“Think they’re still in there?” Rick asked.
“Maybe, maybe not. If they’ve got babies in the nest, they’re not leaving.”
“So now what?”
“Trap ’em, that’s the best way. Or chase ’em out of here. Then seal up the holes with hardware cloth or steel mesh.”
Rick could now see into the crawl space a little more clearly. In the faint, dappled light—from a lot of little holes in the roof, he guessed—a pile of some sort was silhouetted, a heap a few feet tall.
“Careful where you walk, there, dude,” Jeff said.
Rick took a few more steps, through the opening, into the crawl space. He hunched over—because of the steeply pitched roof, there wasn’t enough room to stand.
“You know,” Jeff said, “if you want to open up some of these walls up here, we can get some more square footage on this floor. Bedroom nook, a kid’s room, whatever. Could even put in skylights—that would be nice. I’ve had good luck with Velox Cabrio balcony roof windows.”
As Rick’s eyes adjusted to the light, he moved closer to the pile. A black plastic tarp, on top of what were probably boxes. Now the boarded-up section of the closet wall made sense. At some point in the century or so of the house’s history, the crawl space, normally wasted space, was used for storage. Maybe it was accessed through the closet. A trap door, a removable panel, was put in. Maybe it was part of the original construction.
“Careful in there,” Jeff said. “I’ve seen squirrels attack people, you know. They don’t even have to be rabid. You invade their nest . . .”
Rick tugged at one corner of the tarp, but it wouldn’t lift up; it was stapled to another piece of tarp. He yanked harder this time, and a couple of staples popped and sprinkled to the floor, and now he could see inside.
“Jesus,” he said.
He looked again. What he saw didn’t register.
“You get bit?” Jeff said with a cackle.
The light in there was bad, but there was just enough to make out the engraved number 100 and Ben Franklin’s face. It seemed a mirage. He stuck his hand into the hole in the tarp and pulled at the first thing he could grasp.
A wad of hundred-dollar bills, it looked like. A band bisecting the packet, printed twice with the number $10,000. His hand was actually trembling, he realized.
“Dude, what is it?” Jeff said.
“Nothing,” Rick said.