Dead in the Doorway
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Peanut Butter and Jealousy
My fluffy cat Sawdust raised his head from the sofa and eyed the door. Curious to see who had come by, he hopped down from the furniture and followed me as I walked to the door and pulled it open.
Nashville might sit in the south, but winters here could nonetheless be quite frigid. My cousin Buck stood on the porch, blowing into his cupped hands to warm them, his shoulders hunched inside his heavy winter coat. Given that our fathers were brothers, Buck and I shared the last name Whitaker. We also shared a tall physique, blue eyes, and hair the color of unfinished pine. But while Buck sported a full beard, a monthly waxing at the beauty salon kept any would-be whiskers away from my face.
As half owner of the stone cottage I called home, Buck could have let himself in with his key. But he was polite enough to respect the privacy of me and my two roommates, Colette and Emmalee. I waved him in. “You’re just in time for lunch.”
“Looks like I timed my arrival perfectly.”
After stepping inside, he removed his coat and hung it on a hook near the door. He reached down and gave my cat a pat on the head. “Hey, boy.”
Sawdust offered a mew in return.
The cat trotted along with us as Buck followed me to the kitchen. My best friend, Colette Chevalier, stood at the counter preparing warm sandwiches on her panini press. Colette had adorable dark curls and a bright smile, somehow managing to remain thin despite working in the restaurant at the Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville. I was jealous. Thanks to her irresistible cooking, I’d gained five pounds since we’d moved in together.
The two of us had been best friends since we’d gone pot luck for roommates in the freshman dormitory at Middle Tennessee State University and been assigned to live together. We’d hit if off right away. While some of the other girls spent their weekends at parties or nightclubs, loud crowds weren’t our style. Not that we weren’t fun-loving. Colette and I often hosted small gatherings in our room at the dorm and watched movies, made crafts, or played board games with friends. We’d even started a monthly book club. We’d pool our spare change for snacks, and Colette would prepare simple yet delicious appetizers for the group.
After we’d graduated, Colette had followed me up the road to my hometown of Nashville. While she’d gone on to complete a culinary arts program, I’d continued to help out at Whitaker Woodworking, my Uncle Roger’s carpentry business. I’d also landed a part-time job as a property manager for Home & Hearth, a mom-and-pop real estate firm. Colette liked to feed people, and I liked to house them. We were both domestic goddesses, in our own right.
Colette cut a glance at my cousin. “Here to mooch a meal, Buck?”
“It’s only fair.” He plunked himself down on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. “After all, I installed all those lights under the cabinets, like you asked me to. Never asked for nothing in return, neither.”
“You got me there.” She slid the sandwich she’d made for me onto a plate, cut it diagonally, and set it down in front of me. She used the knife to point to the variety of breads, cheeses, and meats next to the press. “What’ll it be, Buck?”
“How about a peanut butter and jelly?”
She brandished the knife and gave him a look that was as pointed as her kitchen tool. “I am a professional chef. Would you ask Harry Connick, Jr. to sing ‘Yankee Doodle?’”
A mischievous grin played about Buck’s mouth. “Surprise me.”
As Colette set about making Buck’s sandwich, I inquired about her late return home the night before. The restaurant closed at 10:00, and she normally arrived home around midnight after working a late shift. But it had been after 2:00 when she came through our front door last night. I knew because I’d stayed up late in my bedroom binge-watching home renovation shows. What can I say? I’m addicted to them. “You were late getting home last night. Problems at the restaurant?”
She seemed to stiffen, and hesitated before replying. “No, no problems.” She added another slice of cheese to Buck’s sandwich and closed the press.
I picked up one of the halves of my warm panini. “Let me guess. You finally had that glass of wine the sommelier has been begging you to drink with him.”
Buck straightened in his seat next to me. “The sommelier’s been hitting on you? That’s harassment. You should turn him in.”
“He’s not in my chain of command,” Colette said. “He’s just a coworker. Besides, I’d hardly call his behavior harassment. All he did was ask if I’d like to sample a rare vintage he’d bought.”
Buck’s eyes narrowed. “You and who else?”
“Only me. He knew I’d appreciate it. It was a two-hundred-dollar bottle of burgundy. A 2008 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières 1er Cru.”
Having been born and raised in New Orleans, Colette’s French was impeccable. Buck’s attempt to speak the language, on the other hand, was downright embarrassing.
“La-di-da,” he said. “Mercy boo-coos.”
“How was the wine?” I asked.
Colette kissed her fingertips. “Magnifique.”
Buck scowled. Could he be jealous? My cousin and best friend got along well, even ribbed each other on regular basis, but I’d never considered that either of them might be interested in something more than friendship. His reaction told me that maybe I’d been naïve. Then again, Buck was old-fashioned, a southern gentleman. He could be simply looking out for Colette.
“I thought I smelled something cooking.” Our third roommate, Emmalee, entered the kitchen, still in her pajamas despite the fact that it was half past one in the afternoon. Her coppery hair was pulled up in wild pile on top of her head. She rubbed her eyes with her freckled hands, looking only half awake.
Buck lifted his chin in greeting. “Hey there, Raggedy Ann.”
“Hey, Buck.” She turned her attention to Colette. “What’re you making?”
“Paninis,” Colette said as she lifted the top of the device. “Want one?”
Emmalee slid onto a stool next to my cousin. “Do you even have to ask?”
Emmalee was a nursing student in her early twenties, seven years younger than Colette and I. She worked as a waitress at the same fancy restaurant where Colette served as a chef. That’s where they’d met. The three of us had become roommates only a few short weeks ago. Colette had broken up with her long-term boyfriend and needed a new place to live. Emmalee’s previous roommate got a job transfer and left her looking for a new living arrangement. I’d been living like a hobbit in the converted pool house behind my parents’ house, and it had been high time for me to get a place of my own.
Although Buck and I had originally planned to flip this place, we’d decided it made more sense for me to move in rather than put it on the market. I’d invited Colette and Emmalee to share the house with me. The three of us got along great. Colette did the grocery shopping and cooking, Emmalee did most of the indoor cleaning, and I made repairs and maintained the lawn. From each according to her ability, as well as one-third of the utilities.
Colette set Buck’s plate in front of him. “Eat up, big boy.”
He picked up the sandwich, took a bite, and moaned in bliss.
Colette smiled. “I take it you like the surprise?”
He nodded and rubbed his tummy as he chewed. She sauntered over to the fridge, retrieved a pitcher of sweet tea, and poured him a glass to go along with it. With Buck all set, she proceeded to prepare a sandwich for Emmalee.
Emmalee turned toward me and Buck, and ran her gaze over our work boots and coveralls. “Y’all got a carpentry job today?”
I’d spent the morning at one of the properties Home & Hearth managed, replacing a couple of rotten boards on the back deck. Buck had been helping his father and his younger brother Owen build a custom entertainment center at a house in Nolensville. But after lunch, we planned to head over to a property I’d just purchased with the help of Marv and Wanda Hartley, the owners of Home & Hearth. The Hartleys were a kind, down-to-earth couple nearing retirement age. They’d known Buck and I were looking for a property to flip, and they realized the fixer-upper on a quiet, established cul-de-sac could be the perfect project for us. They’d not only brought the listing to my attention, but had also made me a loan at a ridiculously low interest rate so I could afford to buy the place. I couldn’t ask for better bosses.
“I’m going to show Buck the place I bought,” I explained to Emmalee. “In just a few weeks, when we put it up for sale, we’ll net a nice profit.” I rubbed my hands together greedily.
Buck was more cautious. “Best not count our chickens before they’re hatched.”
He was being a party pooper, but he had a point. Flipping houses was a risky business. Sometimes what started as a minor renovation could turn into a major overhaul, depending on what troubles a house might have hidden. What’s more, the real estate market was subject to wide fluctuations. Properties could go up or down in value virtually overnight. But Buck and I knew good and well what we were getting ourselves into. Both of us were willing to take a chance. We might not be able to count on much in this business, but we could always count on each other.
When we finished our lunch, we thanked Colette and offered to clean up the kitchen before we left.
“I got it,” she said. “No worries. But before you go, I’ve got something for you, Whitney.”
“What is it?”
Colette went to a shopping bag on the counter, dipped her hand into the bag, and dug around. When she pulled her hand out, it was clutching a small pink canister with a metal ring on the end. “Pepper spray.” She pressed the device into my hand. “You never know when a crazy tenant might come after you again.”
People tended to get angry when they were evicted. One such irate tenant had come after me recently. It couldn’t hurt to have a means of defense at the ready. “Thanks, Colette. I’ll attach it to my keychain.”
Buck and I headed for the door. Before we left, I grabbed Sawdust’s carrier and harness so he could come take a look at the house, too. Between the carpentry work, the property management gig, and working on flip houses, I wasn’t home much. I felt guilty leaving my cat alone for long stretches of time. I missed him, and I assumed he missed me. Besides, cats were instinctual explorers, furry and four-footed Davy Crocketts or Daniel Boones, Lewis and Clark with mews and claws. He’d have some fun exploring the flip house.
My breath fogged in the frigid air as I stood on the cracked concrete driveway and snapped cell phone pics of the dilapidated white Colonial. Later, I’d look the pictures over and make a list of the repairs to be done and the materials needed.
From off to our right came the muted rumble of an airplane engine as a Delta flight took off from the Nashville airport, aiming for the heavens. Plane traffic was to be expected in the Donelson neighborhood that bordered the BNA property. Fortunately, this house was far enough away that the sound amounted to nothing more than white noise, hardly noticeable. In fact, the home’s easy access to the airport, Percy Priest Reservoir, and the Gaylord Opryland hotel and shopping mall would be selling points when we put it on the market. The fact that the house sat atop a small slope, offering a view of the downtown skyline, was another plus. The outer suburbs might have newer homes, but they didn’t offer the Donelson neighborhood’s convenience.
Sawdust performed figure eights between my legs, wrapping his leash tightly around my ankles as if he were a cowboy at the rodeo and I was a calf he’d roped. I slid my phone into the pocket of my coveralls, leaned down to extricate my legs from the tangled leash, and picked up my cat before turning to my cousin. “What do you think?”
Buck’s narrowed gaze roamed over the structure, taking in the peeling paint, the weathered boards, and the missing balusters on the front porch railing. Several shutters had gone AWOL, too. A wooden trellis stretched up the side of the house, looking like an oversized skeleton trying to scale the roof. Several of its slats hung askew, like broken ribs. The climbing roses that graced the trellis had withered in the winter weather, awaiting their annual spring rejuvenation.
Buck cocked his head as he continued his visual inspection. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. But I don’t see anything we can’t handle.”
The home’s former owner, a widow named Lillian Walsh, had lived a long and happy life here before passing from natural causes. Her fixed income hadn’t allowed for much upkeep, though, and her two sons had put the place on the market as-is rather than deal with the cost and hassle of repairs. That’s where flippers like me and my cousin came in.
House flippers maximize their profits by investing both their money and sweat equity in their properties, fixing up the homes themselves rather than hiring the work out at a markup. As a professional carpenter, Buck had the know-how to spruce the place up. Having regularly helped out at Whitaker Woodworking over the years, I’d grown adept at carpentry, too. What’s more, thanks to my property management work and YouTube tutorials, I’d learned how to handle all sorts of minor repairs. If you need drywall patched or a sticky door re-hung, I’m your gal.
Looking back at the house, I felt hopeful. A new year means a new beginning, doesn’t it? There was no better way to start a new year than by renovating a house. I motioned for Buck to follow me. “C’mon. I’ll show you the inside.”
We ascended the crumbling brick steps to the porch. A bristly doormat that read WELCOME lay in front of the door, directly greeting us and more subtly inviting us to wipe our feet. A yellow door-hanger style advertisement for an income tax preparation service hung from the doorknob, the business proprietor attempting to get an early jump on the competition. A two-foot tall ceramic frog with a fly on his unfurled tongue stood next to the door, his bulbous eyes seeming to stare at us. I could understand why the frog was smiling—he was about to enjoy a snack. But why the tiny fly was smiling was beyond me. He seemed clueless about his fate.
“Fancy door,” Buck said as he stopped before it.
Indeed, it was. The door was made of heavy, solid wood with an ornate oval of frosted glass to let in light yet provide some measure of privacy. Once it was sanded and treated to a new coat of glossy paint, it would really add to the curb appeal. “Maybe we should consider painting it red. Add a splash of color to the place.”
“Not a bad idea.”
Setting Sawdust down on the porch, I unlocked the door and the three of us stepped inside, stopping on the landing of the split-level house. The landing’s mock-tile linoleum featured small squares in a lovely shade of lima bean green that had been popular back when disco was the rage and a loaf of bread cost thirty-six cents. But at least the steps were real hardwood.
To the right of the landing was a coat closet with a rickety folding door that was either half closed or half open, depending on how you looked at it. But optimist or pessimist, you couldn’t miss the smell of mothballs coming from inside. So many dusty jackets and coats were squeezed into the closet that the rod bent under the weight, threatening to break. The outerwear shared the lower space with a mangled umbrella and a hefty Kirby vacuum cleaner circa 1965, complete with attachments. The shelf above sagged under the weight of a reel-to-reel home movie projector, around which mismatched mittens, scarves, and knit caps had been stuffed. Lillian’s family had cleared the house of everything of value, leaving the worthless junk behind for the buyer—yours truly—to deal with. Sigh.
After closing the front door behind us, I unclipped the leash from Sawdust’s harness, setting him free to explore. Noting that the house felt warmer than expected, I checked the thermostat mounted next to the closet. It read 72. That’s odd. Didn’t I turn it down to 60 the last time I was here? I hoped I’d merely forgotten to adjust it when I’d left. I’d hate to think the HVAC system might be on the fritz.
I reached out and gave the lever a downward nudge. The three of us wouldn’t be here long. No sense paying for heat nobody would be needing.
The thermostat adjusted, I swept my arm, inviting Buck to proceed me upstairs. “After you, partner.”
We ascended the steps with Sawdust trotting ahead of us. On the way, Buck grasped both the wall-mounted railing and the wrought-iron banister and gave each of them a hearty yank, testing them for safety. While the banister checked out, the wooden rail mounted to the wall jiggled precariously. One glance at the support brackets told us why.
“It’s got some loose screws,” Buck said. “Just like you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ha-ha.”
He circled a finger in the air. “Put it on the list.”
“Will do.” I pulled my phone from my pocket and snapped a photo of the loose bracket as a reminder to myself.
As we topped the stairs, Buck came to a screeching halt, one work boot hovering over the carpet as he refused to step on it. “Yuck.”
Couldn’t say that I blamed him. The carpet was hideous, a worn shag in the same greenish-brown hue as the hairballs Sawdust occasionally coughed up. Ripping out the carpet would give us no small pleasure. But I wasn’t about to let some ugly, balding carpet spoil my enthusiasm. I gave my cousin a push, forcing him forward. “Go on, you wimp. It’s not going to reach up and grab you.”
“You sure about that?”