It was a nice enough little house, in a decent if not particularly prosperous neighborhood; I would probably have little trouble marketing it. The place still looked fairly well kept up. There was a Ford F-150 in the driveway that had that slightly skinned up look that says 'work truck, ' rather than 'toy.' I sauntered up the walk and rapped on the door.
The woman who answered looked about forty, brunette, thin, and worn out. "Yes?"
"Ms. Harkness? My name is Roger Smithson. I understand that you're having some financial problems..."
She held the screen tightly closed. "You aren't a process server or anything, are you?"
"No, Ma'am," I replied solemnly. "I'm here to help, if I can."
A hard-muscled individual with a grey beard and shoulder-length lank grey hair to match made himself visible beside her. "And how would you do that?" he enquired.
"Would you be Mr. Harkness?" I asked. "Mr. Clement Harkness?"
"I might be," he replied. "What do you want with me and my sister?"
That set me back — I'd assumed that they were married. Both names were on the deed and the mortgage... "I, uh came by hoping to offer you a way out of your current difficulties," I stammered. "Maybe get you back on your feet. I specialize in real estate solutions."
Ms. Harkness eyed her brother. "That's a new one. What do you think, Clem?"
"As long as he isn't packing paper we might as well talk to him," Clem opined. "Let him in, Rachel." He eyed me as his sister opened the door. "Just how do you propose to solve our problems?"
I shrugged. "It's probably best that I hear more about them before offering anything specific," I ventured. "Why don't you tell me what else there is besides what I know from the legal notices?"
"There's no work, obviously," Clem said, leading me through the neat living room and into the kitchen. "That's why we're where we are..." We settled into chairs around the kitchen table and Clem looked up at Rachel. "Why don't you make coffee?" He turned to me. "I'd offer more, but we ain't got it."
I nodded. "I understand."
Slowly, it all came out. Rachel and her husband had bought the place fifteen years ago for ninety thousand — but they'd divorced. Clem had bought half-interest and moved in so Rachel could buy her husband out. Art -- Rachel's other brother, who'd wandered in about twenty minutes into the conversation — had come in a couple of years ago when he'd fallen on hard times; he had no interest in the house, though, and no say in what happened to it. He leaned against the counter and listened while Clem and I hashed things out. Rachel was up and down, clearly agitated.
The math looked like this: They'd bought the house for ninety thousand, and mortgages being structured the way they are, they still owed sixty thousand halfway in — but the house's fair market value was a hundred twenty thousand, which is where I would make my money. I made my first offer: "I'll take over the mortgage, pay off the penalties and fees, and give you five thousand to move and set up elsewhere. That'll help your credit and make the transition easier."
Clem shook his head. "Probably won't cover the truck. They're gonna come for it any day."
I grimaced. "How much do you owe on it?"
Clem shrugged. "A year at three hundred a month?"
"How far behind are you?"
I pounded the calculator — it would be around $4500, worst case. "Okay. Get a payoff. I'll give you a check for the balance so you can get out of trouble and you'll own it, free and clear."
Clem nodded. "Still got nothin' comin' in."
"You'll have the five thousand to hold you," I reminded him.
"Been living off credit cards for three months..."
A little more digging and scratching and it was clear that between Rachel and Clem, there was another five thousand out — and they were maxed out, with nothing else available. I sighed. "Okay, I'll cover that, too." My sixty thousand dollar profit was down to around forty five — which still wasn't chicken feed. At least the house required little or nothing in the way of repairs...
Clem was sold. "I think we're about there," he allowed.
"I don't know --I just..." Rachel hadn't said more than a half-dozen words, but she was seriously agitated — and she owned half interest.
"What haven't we addressed?" I asked her.
"I don't want to move," she said softly. "This is my place. I don't want to go somewhere else..."
I sighed. "You're going to lose it," I reminded her. "Very soon. You can walk away with your head up and a little money in your pocket, or you can be totally ruined — but you can't stay. I'm sorry, but that's how it is..."
"Maybe," she nodded. "This all sounds wonderful — except I lose my house." She rubbed her face. "I can't think straight!"
Clem leaned in. "She hasn't been eatin'..."
I was unsurprised to hear this; the more I looked at her, the more she looked like a Holocaust victim. Her clothes fit like sacks. Her legs, where they extended below her over-the-knee skirt, were bone and gristle and a little bit of sinewy flesh. "You all look like you could use a good meal..." I said as I peeled five one hundred dollar bills from my money clip. "Somebody should make a run to the grocery store, maybe."
Clem's eyes lit. "I'll take Rachel — we can talk about the deal. Art, show Mr. Smithson around the house while we're gone." He hauled Rachel up out of her chair and I watched them head out the front door and get into the truck, Clem leading her by a hand around her upper arm.
They were gone for two hours; in the meantime, Art showed me the house. There was, frankly, nothing wrong with it — and it was exceptionally neat and clean. "Rachel's a neat-freak," Art related, "and she ain't got nothin' to do since they laid her off at the restaurant. She's one of them women who needs to stay busy. Havin' a man and some kids would've been the best thing, but she couldn't afford to be picky, and she picked wrong." He grimaced. "I don't figure Clem and I have helped any..."
I nodded noncommittally. A woman living with her two grown brothers probably generated some negative gossip — and you had to wonder how much truth would be in the conjecture... Art eyed me and shook his head. "Nope. We don't do nothin' like that. Both of us got lady friends — or know where to get it for money. Sis isn't bothered that way." He grinned a little sheepishly. "It's probably best we talked about it — Clem would've been pissed..." THAT might have ended up painfully for everyone, I figured.
Rachel and Clem got back and spent some time sticking things in cupboards and munching on this and that like starving people. Clem took me aside and said, "Rachel's gonna be a problem — this place is all she has."
I nodded. "What should I do?"
"Take her out to dinner and talk to her. I've done about all I can, but I can't make things as clear as you can, probably. She has some wild ideas... Best you shoot 'em down somewhere where she can't make too much of a fool of herself," Clem advised. "Once you shrink her head back down to size, she'll settle down."
"Okay." I turned to Rachel, who was closing cupboards. "I understand that I need to negotiate with you separately. Would you like to have dinner somewhere and talk?"
Rachel flicked a grateful glance at Clem. "That would be nice," she said, smiling tentatively. "Let me change clothes..." She headed off.
"Let's go in the living room," Clem suggested.
I settled on the couch; Clem sat in a recliner but didn't recline, and Art dropped in an upholstered rocker. "She's gonna be 'Hell on Wheels' — you don't have any idea what she's put herself through to keep this place," Clem sighed.
"Am I going to win?"
"Yeah, but it'll be messy and emotional."
"Great." I glanced around. There was a photo of the three of them on the end table — or at least I THOUGHT it was them. I frowned. "Is this Rachel?"
Clem glanced at the picture. "Yeah."
"When was it taken?" The men hadn't changed much...
Clem cocked his head thinking. Art piped up, "A year ago February. Make it eighteen months."
The woman in the photo weighed probably sixty pounds more than the one changing clothes in the other room — and had curves and a soft-looking cleavage, nice calves, a sunny smile... She looked ten years younger. "Is Rachel sick?"
Clem shook his head. "Nope. She's pretty much stopped eating to save money. Says Art and I have a better chance of gettin' work if we ain't wasting away..." He sighed. "Not that it's helped."
"So she's starving herself?"
"The woman has an iron will," Clem sighed, "at least where she herself is concerned. It shames me that I haven't found shit to do."
"What DO you do?" I asked.
"Carpentry, landscaping. Art's a plumber's assistant."
"Can you hang sheetrock?" I asked.
"Sure. That's simple shit."
"What about plaster? Metal studs?"
.... There is more of this story ...