Waiting for spring in Reno, Nevada, is like playing weather roulette. Just when you think the ball will drop on your lucky number, the winds pick up, the mercury plunges, and the odds turn against you one more time.
Tuesday, March 15, dawned promising, but that promise was soon dashed as low clouds rolled over the Peterson Mountains. Babs Gallagher--late forties, owner and chief broker of Benjamin Realty--drove past the Aces baseball park toward one of Reno's modest working-class neighborhoods. She noticed the darkening skies, flicked on the SUV's radio for a weather report, and instead heard an ad for a used-car dealer.
Like many other real estate agents, Babs had computer files chock-full of old, possibly expired listings. She had printed some out, and decided today to visit a neighborhood especially rife with them. As she was the listing agent, she wanted to see firsthand if there remained any hope of future sales. She could have sent out another agent from Benjamin Realty, but one of the reasons Babs had succeeded over the years was that she did her own homework.
Street after street of abandoned homes signaled the hard economic times assaulting her state. Nevada led the nation in foreclosures and unemployment, although sometimes it shared the dubious distinction of the highest unemployment statistics with other benighted states, such as Michigan.
While not a political partisan, Babs kept up with newsworthy events. Unlike the government in Washington, D.C., the state government of Nevada couldn't print more money. Nevada would need to be resourceful and make unpopular, unpleasant decisions if it was to crawl out of this economic morass.
She pulled over on Spring Street. Keeping her motor running to ward off the cold, she propped her folder onto the steering wheel and flipped it open to the first page: 267 Spring Street. There were a number of expired listings on this one block alone.
Buttoning her coat, and taking her folder of listings, she stepped outside into the chilly air. Walking up the sidewalk to the front door of 267, she noted the real estate office's lockbox was missing. Gingerly, Babs tried the doorknob. The door opened.
Stepping inside, she was surprised. Even with the busted door, the interior remained in good shape. As she went room to room, she noted on her sheet that the appliances were missing. Other than that, nothing was destroyed. She flicked a light switch. Nothing. Tried a faucet. The water had been cut off.
Making a few more notes, she left, walking down the street to another expired listing. She passed empty house after empty house. Some were boarded up. No "For Sale" signs in what was left of these front yards. Other sellers and real estate agents had given up.
As she opened the door to 232--lockbox also missing from the doorknob--Babs heard someone in the kitchen.
"Hello," Babs called out, voice friendly.
A young man, perhaps twenty, stuck his head around the doors then stepped into the living room. "Are you the owner? I haven't taken anything."
"No. I'm the real estate agent."
"Oh." Sandy-haired and slight, the young man wore only a sweater, inadequate against the cold.
"You have no heat?"
"No. There's no heat, electricity, or water. But it's better than sleeping on the street. Are you gonna throw me out?"
"No," she answered, unsure what to do. "How do you keep warm?"
He pointed to a small ceramic chimenea, an outdoor stove that he'd placed in the living-room fireplace. Focusing only on him, she hadn't noticed it before.
"At night I put wood in. Most everyone down here has something like this that they light up once the police patrols pass by. They don't usually come back after nine. So we start fires. It helps."
"Wouldn't it be easier to just put wood in the fireplace?"
"The ceramic holds the heat better." He smiled.
"An oil lantern. Smells a little."
"I see." She looked him in the eye. He looked like a decent enough guy. "How did you come to this?"
He shrugged. "I was working my way through UNR, lost my job and had to drop out. I couldn't get another job and I don't yet have my degree."
"I'm not sure it would help in these times." She held out her hand. "Babs Gallagher. I own Benjamin Realty."
"You're not throwing me out? Are you going to report me? The cops don't like squatters."
"Actually, I'd rather have someone inside the house who isn't destructive than for it to be empty. Here's my card."
"How many people are living in the neighborhood?"
"I don't know. A lot of houses have somebody in them. Some have whole families." He paused. "If you go three blocks east it's full of crack dealers, meth dealers. I hope they don't move into our neighborhood. It's the end when they do."
"Yes." She hesitated. "Your name?"
She headed for the door. "I promise not to tell."
Once back in her SUV--a good vehicle in which to haul clients, especially if they were tall--she sat for a moment. Then she started the motor, turned the vehicle around, and drove to 141 Spring.
Again, the lockbox had been removed. Opening the door, Babs surprised a little girl, who was bundled up and riding a pink tricycle around the living room. The chill in this house was sharper than that in Donald Veigh's.
Smiling, Babs asked, "Where's your mommy?"
"Out? Who are you?"
"I'm Mrs. Gallagher. That's a nice tricycle."
"Uncle Bob bought it for me. I have lots of uncles. Do you?"
"I did." Babs's voice sounded soothing. "Are you here alone?"
"Mommy told me never to answer that."
"I see. Do you have any idea where Mommy is?"
"She's next door. She works there and I have to stay here while she works."
"I see." Babs walked into the kitchen. The child followed, nearly running her over.
The kitchen counter held bottled water neatly lined up, canned food, and a small camp stove. A skillet rested on the one burner.
A cooler was on the floor.
"Honey, when was the last time you ate?"
The little girl shrugged.
Babs then asked, "Are you hungry?"
The child, not fearfully but forcefully, replied, "Mommy told me never to take food from anyone."
"Your mommy told you some important things. I'll go next door and talk to her."
"She'll get mad."
With that warning in her ears, Babs left the little girl to her tricycle and walked across the denuded front lawn to the next house, which wasn't her listing. She noticed a few cars parked farther down the street.
She was going to knock on the door but then she thought better of it. Carefully, she opened the door. It was warmer in this house. Unlike Donald Veigh, whoever lived here wasn't worried about smoke. Perhaps they had made some sort of deal with the police.
Babs listened. The unmistakable sounds of sex filtered down the stairs.
Sighing, she let herself out. Maybe crack dealers hadn't moved in yet but other dysfunctions had.
She thought about the child in 141 and wondered if she should wait until her mother finished up and joined the little girl. She thought better of it. The child seemed fine, knew her mother was next door, and Babs had nothing to offer the little girl. Even if she'd bought food, the kid would not have eaten it. She seemed clear about her mother's orders.
Back in her car, she removed her coat and turned on the ignition. The heat was welcome.
If she reported these people, they'd be thrown out--and they'd go where? The shelters were jammed. They might be turned away, banished to the cold.
As numerous courses of action ran through her mind, she noticed several children coming home from school. She watched as they entered various abandoned homes. Opening a front door, a haggard mother hugged a boy with a heavy backpack.
How did these people survive? No water. No heat. No electricity. How did they bathe?
Donald Veigh had no furniture that she'd seen. Perhaps some of these people slept in beds, sat at kitchen tables.
How had it come to this? Who knew about this hidden segment of society, and more to the point, who cared?
For professional reasons, Babs worked hard to cultivate good relationships with bankers. She always tried to steer her clients toward the responsible banks but people, being who they are, jumped at low rates, low down payments without considering the fine print. Babs called those kinds of loans "Liar's Loans," because the loan officials making these offers invariably knew that sooner or later the mortgagee wouldn't be able to make their payment. Three missed payments and you're out.
What the banks had never foreseen was these same people, disenfranchised by these upside-down mortgages, simply walking into the bank and handing back the keys. There was no longer enough value in those homes to fight for ownership.
Still sitting in her SUV, Babs spotted the woman she assumed to be the tricycle child's mother in her rearview mirror. The woman left her place of employment and headed to 141. Of medium build, in her late twenties, she was raven-haired and attractive.
About to pull away from the curb, Babs stopped when a Silver State Resource Management truck rolled down the road. She put the car in gear and followed.
The truck stopped in front of a house with a blue door. The SSRM driver, Twinkie Bosun, got out.
She came up alongside and put down her passenger window.
"Babs. What are you doing out here?"
"Checking old listings."
"Hell, Babs, you can't even give these houses away."
Bunny Matthews, Twinkie's partner, got out and came over to Babs's window. "Hey, girl."
"Fellas, what are you doing here? I thought you'd be out in the county fixing things."
Twinkie took in a breath. "SSRM's let a lot of people go. We're all doing double-duty now."
"Yeah, we do repairs like always but today we're down here cutting off water," Bunny grumbled.
"Guys, there are squatters with children in these places."
"Yeah, I know. Sucks." Twinkie spat on the ground.
"What would happen if you left the water on in a few houses?"
"We'd get fired," Bunny answered.
"Well, what if you turned on the water in a few houses, came back tomorrow and turned it off, then did the same at a few other houses? People could at least wash up."
"Babs, once that meter's running, SSRM knows where it is and how much water is being used," Twinkie said.
"Sorry to put you on the spot." She meant it.
"We don't like doing this. We don't care about cutting service in Cracktown." Bunny referred to the bad part of town. "But a lot of people in this neighborhood are just down on their luck."
"Whole nation's down on its luck." Twinkie sighed.
"You got that right, brother," agreed Babs. "My business is nowhere. Thank God, I put a little away, and you know what? I don't know when the good times are coming back." Babs shook her head. "Know one thing, though."
"What's that?" Twinkie leaned his arms on her windowsill along with Bunny.
"If this gets fixed, it will be because we fix it. Don't wait on Washington."
"I wish I had a solution." Twinkie smiled at Babs.
"Well, I'm getting one little idea and it's that I want to help these people get back on their feet and I want to restore value to these homes. That might be a good start."
"Let me know when you're ready." Twinkie reached over and touched her hand. "I'll help."
"Thanks. I'll keep you posted."
As Babs drove off, her emotions roiled. She truly did want to do something about this problem. If she didn't, who would?
The person who would have the best ideas, who very well might come up with a good plan, was Jeep Reed.
You could always depend on Jeep.
Legs crossed under her, Jeep watched the flames jump in Howie Norris's river-stone fireplace.
King, a German shepherd mix, stretched out at Jeep's feet. Zippy, a dark chestnut-colored Australian kelpie, sat next to Howie in his deep club chair.
Outside, a light snow fell. The sun had set a half hour ago, the dark sky deepening with the passing minutes.
Howie's house had been built about the same time as Jeep's, back in the early 1880s. Over the years both houses had expanded, a room here, a porch there, creating a wonderful lived-in feeling. Sometimes Jeep felt she heard those early voices whispering, but she kept the prospect of ghosts to herself.
Knowing each other since the fifties, Jeep and Howie had remained close. With Ronnie, Howie's wife, having passed away two years ago, Jeep made a point of weekly visits to see how he was, to check the place out, and to make sure all was well. If a big job needed doing she'd send her ranch crew over to do it, despite Howie's protests.
They talked on and on, laughing as only two people who adore each other can. What richness there was in a friendship nudging six decades. Jeep's memories of Howie harkened back to when she was trying to make a go of it after World War II. He was young and finding his way also.
"Is he buying any?" Howie, a cattleman like Jeep, asked about her adopted son's trip to Sheridan, Wyoming, to look at the red Angus.
"He is. Enrique's buying twenty-five head to start. You know me, I love my Herefords. I know the horns are a problem. People always tell me I need Polled Herefords but I love the true old Hereford, have since I was a kid. They are the sweetest cattle, I love being around them. 'Course you have Baldies--good good cattle." She complimented his choice.
Baldies were Angus crossed with Polled Herefords. They were popular across the United States, bringing good prices at auction.
Jeep didn't like black cattle in hot climates. She was out of step with most of the country on this. Even in the American South people thought black cattle were better. She didn't understand why.
The heat kept the meat-to-bone ratio down, plus it was harder to keep fat on them. It's fat that makes meat taste delicious and makes all those uptight dietitians self-righteous--they're all for low fat.
"He's a good hand with cattle, your boy."
"Dot and I sent him to college thinking he might go into medicine or law. He was bright enough. He majored in agriculture and he's doing what he loves. I don't think Enrique could sit behind a desk any more than I could. You know, Howie, if more people worked at what they loved we'd have far fewer problems."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Murder Unleashed by Rita Mae Brown. Copyright © 2011 by Rita Mae Brown. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.