The Mystery of
Quercus Gardens Apartments
                      by Patricia Hilliard - Copyright June 2017

Chapter 11 – Huffing and Puffing (3709 words)

Beth sat in a booth at Dos Amigos Mexican Restaurant waiting. She was glad to get away from her ongoing job search. Unfortunately, the economy was tumbling from bad to worse. There were fewer jobs to apply for, but more advice on how to write resumes, do interviews and dress for success. Alice was supposed to meet Beth today with some new information that she had gathered while at the law office where she worked.  

“Hey Beth, I’m here at last,” Alice called. 

Beth smiled and waved. “I’m excited to hear what you found in your research.”

Alice slid into the booth and dumped her bags on the seat next to her.
“Here’s the economic stuff. Bad news. We’re not going to be able to fight the rent increases on any legal basis. I’ve got some research here on market value for this area. Our rents are standard for this location.” She pushed some papers toward Beth as proof.  

As Beth reviewed the papers, Alice looked up at the menu that was posted on the wall. She looked over at Beth again. “The good news is, I did find some agencies that help people who are really destitute. But they have to be destitute. I’m afraid even these resources are running out of funding.”

“It makes sense, money for bombs not for homes,” Beth said, twisting her mouth in sarcasm.  

A waitress came to take their orders.  

“Two tacos for both, yes, and two glasses of Mexican beer. Might as well go all-out Mexican and get a Mexican beer, too, right Beth?”

“Sure. So what else did you learn?” Beth asked. 

“I was able to find one Mrs. Mary Gilligan who actually lived in our town. But what I found on her is from ten years ago. She was active in her church, helping with a soup kitchen. She gathered used clothing to give to the poor. See, I found an article that her church got in the newspaper about the charity work they did. She was head of the committee.”

“Very nice, but did you check the obituaries?” Beth asked. 

“Oh, I looked through the obituaries and found ten Mrs. Mary Gilligans who died at various times in our state. It would take a lot of research to pin down which one lived in Quercus Gardens.” 

“The one that was murdered!” Beth stated, feeling frustrated.

“Yes, of course. So I spent several hours looking through local news articles about murders to see if her name came up. No luck there. It could be she died of old age and the tenants are getting her confused with someone else.”

Beth sighed. “I guess you could say it’s really a dead-end.”

Alice laughed. “I couldn’t find anything else on the internet.” 

Beth turned her thoughts again to Perez. Could he be the murderer? She wondered what Alice thought of him. “Alice, what are your feelings about our superintendent, Ramon Perez?”  

“He is quiet. He came to my apartment to check for squirrels. Can you believe it? I had squirrels nesting in the walls. They chewed a hole under the shingles of the roof to make a nest before winter.”

Beth gasped. She did not think squirrels could get into the buildings. She loved the little critters and worried what might become of them.

Alice continued, “Perez came and put moth balls in the walls. Moth balls are poisonous. They stunk up the whole apartment. I had to leave, with the windows wide open. Yes, the squirrels left too, it worked, but Perez didn’t give me any cautions about the toxins. Landlords are supposed to warn you about any hazards they use.” Alice huffed in disgust.

Hoping that the squirrels found a new nest site, Beth puffed with indignity and expressed her concern for Alice. “He should have warned you, even with a growl. He always seems to growl at me. I’m afraid to ask him to do anything. I get Bob to deal with him. Many of the other women tenants tell me they too feel uncomfortable around him.”

“Maybe he’s just grumpy because he’s over worked,” Alice offered.

Beth nodded, “Bob says the same thing.”

The food was brought to the table by one waiter and then another brought the beers. As the women sipped and nibbled, they thought about Alice’s research.

“Now let’s see where we stand,” Beth began. “There was a Mrs. Mary Gilligan who lived in our town. She was helpful to her church charity. According to her neighbors, Cassy and Rosy, she lived in Building L, Apt #3. She liked to garden and may have been in a conflict with the superintendent who didn’t want her to plant gardens on the complex. She was later found murdered.”

“We can’t rely on what Crazy Cassy says,” Alice stated.

“Oh you think not?” Beth laughed. “Cassy is a psychic who talks to spirits. She led me into Mary’s old apartment. She called upon Mary’s spirit. This all happened last week when I was out delivering flyers to the apartments.”

“Oh don’t tell me you believe that stuff?” Alice took a sip of her beer.
Beth laughed, “No, but she insisted I come to her séance studio in her apartment.”

“Wow, I’ve never been to a séance. How did that go?” Alice laughed then waited for Beth’s reply. 

“Cassy raised her arms to start the séance. I wasn’t afraid. I don’t believe in this, but she kept insisting that I should believe. I was in a hurry, I wanted to get the flyers distributed. Then suddenly, bang! I guess she had fireworks set up. They exploded. I jumped and ran out of the place.”

Alice laughed then took another sip of her beer. “She insisted that you believe?”

“Yes, it was important to her that I believe.”  

“I wonder why she insisted that you believe,” Alice said. “Maybe she is covering something up. Maybe there’s more to this story than she is telling. It’s amazing what you learn about the people in this place. I met a guy who was walking around with a sound recorder. He was sneaking up behind anyone he thought was Arab and trying to record their conversations.”

“Was he a tall guy with blonde hair? He talked to me in the grocery store last week.”

“Are you kidding? Do you suppose there are any sane people in this complex?” Alice asked.

“Oh, I’m sure there are. What about us? And many of the others who go off to work every day.”

“Right, good upstanding citizens working their tails off to pay these high rents,” Alice said, “Like me. Oh well, it looks like we’re done here. I apologize for not having some earth-shaking news on Mary G. But, here, put the information on our web site for those who are having problems paying the rent.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Beth responded.

“Let me pay for lunch,” Alice said. “I’ll do this as an act of charity for the unemployed.”

“Yes, thanks. I’m wondering if I will ever find a job again.” 

“I’ll ask around at my job,” Alice promised.

The two women left the restaurant and walked back to Quercus Gardens. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the wind was a constant reminder of more cold weather to come.

They walked past Building F, then past G and H.

“What’s that?” Beth asked.

A white sheet of paper was attached to an apartment door. The bottom of it was flapping in the wind.  

“Let’s go have a look,” Alice suggested.

They mounted the porch steps and stood looking at the paper.

“They are about to evict someone from this apartment,” Alice said. “This is a Final Notice of Eviction.”

“I suppose this is a tenant that can’t afford the rent.” Beth leaned to the right and peeked into the living room window. Inside she saw a woman sitting in a chair. Beth waved to her to come out and talk. The woman came to the window.  

“What you want?” the woman asked.

Beth and Alice stood looking at her. The woman was pregnant.

“They can’t do this to her. It’s illegal to evict a pregnant woman,” Alice stated to Beth. 

“It looks like our landlord is about to do that,” Beth said. She turned to the woman in the window, “Do you understand that they are going to evict you? Do you have some place to go?”

“Evict? What means evict?” the woman said.

“She doesn’t even speak English well,” Alice said.

“We can’t let this happen,” Beth declared. “We’re supposed to be tenant advocates. How can we stop this eviction?”

“What’s the date on the notice?” Alice asked.  

“Oh, it’s for tomorrow morning. What can we possibly do?” Beth turned to Alice.

“We won’t be able to get an attorney to stop this,” Alice said wringing her hands.

“I’ll call the landlord. I’ll call right now,” Beth said. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. “Quercus Gardens Management please.”

“Hello, this is Beth Murphy. I live at…”

“Oh, yes, we know who you are. What do you want now?”

“You have an eviction notice on a tenant’s door at Building M apartment 6. Do you realize she’s pregnant? We’re going to take this to the media and let them know what kind of landlord you are. How could you evict a pregnant woman in the winter from her home? You really are hateful.”

“What? What? She’s pregnant? Hold on.”

Beth held her cell phone in her hands and waited. She looked at Alice who was pacing back and forth, fuming.

“I can’t believe they would do something this cruel in this day and age,” Alice said. She huffed and her breath could be seen drifting off into the cold air. 

“I believe it,” Beth said. She formed a circle with her lips and puffed a cloud into the sky. It really was cold today. 

The landlord’s office came back on the phone. A secretary’s voice came over the speaker, “Ok, listen, Beth. I just talked to our attorney. We’ll stop the eviction. But she better be pregnant. We won’t put up with any tricks.”
“She’s quite pregnant,” Beth replied. 

“Give me the phone,” said Alice. Beth handed it over.

“Hello, I’m Alice Eisenhower. I’m a tenant here at Quercus Gardens and a legal assistant. I can sign an affidavit to the effect that this woman is quite pregnant. I hope you won’t evict her.”

“Ok, ok, we’ve already requested a cancelation of the eviction with the sheriff’s office. We won’t be evicting her.”

“Just the same,” said Alice, “we’ll be here tomorrow at her door to make sure you do not.”

“I told you, we won’t be evicting her. Did I make myself clear?”

“Fine. We’ll make sure you don’t,” Alice screamed into the phone then handed it to Beth. “Thank you for cancelling the eviction,” Beth said to the secretary and ended the call. She looked at Alice, “What should we do tomorrow?”

“We should station ourselves here. We need to bring some other women. Can you put out the call on the email and website?”

“Sure,” said Beth. “What time should we be here?”

“Make it eight o’clock, just to be safe.”

“Let’s tell her, if we can, what is going on,” Beth said, looking toward the woman in the window. Two children were now standing next to her.  
Alice asked, “Habla usted espanol? Habla usted ingles?”

The woman shrugged.

“I think she may be Egyptian, not Spanish,” Beth suggested.  

“I don’t know that language,” Alice said.

Beth turned to the woman and said in English, “We’ll be here tomorrow. You are safe. Happy time now. See you tomorrow.” Beth gave a big happy smile. The woman smiled back. 

Beth and Alice waved at the children and smiled. Everyone was happy, but they didn’t know quite why.

The two women tenant organizers walked away shaking their heads.

“She’s lucky we just happened to come by,” Beth said.

“I wonder how many other potential disasters exist in this place. Maybe we are fooling ourselves if we think everyone here is living the quiet happy American life.”

“Maybe so,” Beth said. “I feel like I’m discovering a part of America that I’ve never seen before. Right here in my own lovely Quercus Gardens.”

As they headed home, they saw squirrels chasing each other back and forth across the sidewalks, tight roping across the overhead cables and leaping from trees to buildings. 

“I love the squirrels around here,” Beth said. “I didn’t know they would make their homes in our buildings.”

“They are rodents, Beth. I hate rodents.” Alice glared at the fuzzy long tailed animals that ran along the gutter of her apartment building. “I’ll see you later.” She waved good-bye and went in her apartment door.

Beth walked on toward Building A. She felt good. She had threatened to take the situation to the media and the landlord had backed down. Now she had to insure that the landlord kept the promise. She had to pull together a few tenants who could come tomorrow morning to the apartment and…and…and do something. What would they do? Beth ran up the stairs to her apartment to get an answer from the Tenant Action Network.  

Soon, Beth was staring at the computer screen and scrolling through the possibilities. Rent Strike, Eviction for Non-payment of Rent. Eviction for Not Allowing Repairs (that was a strange one). Eviction of Pregnant Woman, Children or the Elderly. Beth clicked on that. They were advising that the Health Board be contacted. No where did they suggest that the news media be called. Stay of Eviction was another link. It suggested getting an attorney, calling the courts. Beth looked at the time. She hoped that the landlord’s attorney was able to get the eviction cancelled. Should she call the Sheriff’s office to be sure?  

The web site heading said: Direct Action: The tenants could just go to the apartment of eviction and try to reason with any authority that showed up to remove the tenant. This is what the Tall Trees Tenants Association would have to do.  

Beth now busied herself with putting out the call to all tenants asking for those who could come in the morning to Building M apartment 6. Lisa responded immediately, that was her building. She would stop by in the morning before going to work. Julie from building J could come also. She was a friend of Alice’s. Beth felt reassured now that she saw their support.  

“What are we going to do when we get there?” Lisa responded.
Beth knew it was good to have an action plan. Should she call the media? But the landlord did say the eviction was cancelled. Beth responded, “We’ll have some protest signs. I guess I’ll call the media. Hopefully the landlord will keep his promise.”

“But what if they try to haul her away? Or take her furniture?” Lisa asked again.  

While Beth was leaning over the keyboard not knowing what to do, Alice posted, “I’m bringing an attorney friend from work. We’ll have her for legal observation.” 

“Great,” Lisa responded.

Another post from Julie, “Beth, please call the media. If they take the furniture out, we’ll grab it and put it back in.”

“And the Mother-to-be?” a new supporter asked. “My name is Sue, I’m a friend of John Oldham’s. I live in his building, that’s building D. I’m a nurse, I’ll see if I can get there to help her.”

“Great,” Beth posted. It seemed to her like the community was taking over this calamity and finding ideas to put into effect. She called a local news reporter and let him know of the protest.

It was almost dinner time and Beth knew Bob would be home soon. She was excited to tell him about their plans. Beth went into the kitchen and poked around in the freezer. What should she cook for dinner tonight? It might have to be quick. Hamburgers and beans? That would do. She heard the key turn in the lock. It was Bob, home already.

“Hello dear,” he called.

“Hello,” Beth responded as she took the plastic wrapped frozen burgers and put them in a pan of cold water to speed their thawing. “Guess what happened today.”

Bob reached the top of the stairs, “Now what?”

“We’re doing a protest tomorrow. We’re going to stop an eviction of a pregnant woman.”

“The landlord is going to evict a pregnant woman? He’s worse than I thought.” 

“Well, I threatened to call the media. The secretary did say that the landlord was cancelling the eviction. So there may not be an eviction. But we couldn’t just take their word, could we? What if they were bluffing us?” 

“I see your point.” Bob walked around, peaking into the kitchen, then turned to look at the dining room table. In the corner he saw the computer on and posts rolling across the screen. “What’s the story on dinner tonight?”  

“Burgers and beans. You like burgers and beans, right?”

“Sure, anything for the cause.”

The next morning, Beth grabbed her jacket. “I’m going now,” she called.  
Bob came out of the shower with a towel on and gave her a kiss, “Good luck.”

Beth hurried down the sidewalk. On her phone, she heard Alice’s voice giving her updates on court cases Alice had found where landlords had challenged evictions of pregnant women. It was sad news and Beth hoped none of it would play out in the next three hours. She ended that call only to hear from Lisa.

“I’m at the woman’s door. No one else is here yet,” Lisa reported. “Oh, someone else is coming over now.” Then Beth heard Lisa’s voice address the other person.

Was it an agent of the landlord? Did they send someone over to check on the mother-to-be?  

“Oh, this woman Sue is here now. She’s a nurse,” Lisa announced. 

“Yes, she’s a friend of John’s. Great. I’ll be there in a minute.”  Beth took off at a run. How could anything start without her? She had to be there. After all, she was the president of the Tall Trees Tenants Association. Beth huffed and puffed as she ran. Were the reporters with their cameras and microphones there yet? Beth hurried on.

Across the lawn she could now see Building M. There was Lisa and that other woman must have been Sue. To the right were several news media types coming up the sidewalk with cameras and microphones. Beth’s stomach twisted into a knot. What would she say to them?

Alice came running in and asked for Beth. Everyone pointed across the lawn. Beth raised her arm and waved.  

“Ok, we’re all here,” Alice stated. “Has anyone pressed the doorbell to see if our mother is home?”

Lisa hopped onto the porch and rang the bell. She waited. She rang it again.

The door opened. The mother stepped out. The news reporters began running the cameras and walking toward the woman. The pregnant woman backed through the door and slammed it shut.

“Who is the spokesperson here? Who called us yesterday about this?” the woman reporter asked.

Beth stepped forward. “Here I am, I’m Beth Murphy, president of the Tall Trees Tenants Association.” She gave the reporter the details then everyone waited. 

By nine o’clock, they had waited an hour for the sheriff to come and begin the eviction. The reporters fiddled with their equipment and called their headquarters. The tenants paced in circles and whispered about Quercus Gardens.  

“Have you talked at all to our landlord?” Sue asked.

“The only time I’ve talked to the landlord was yesterday when I told the secretary that we’d go to the media with this eviction story,” Beth explained.

“You don’t know who the landlord is? Have you ever spoken to him face to face?” Sue persisted.

“I’ve never met him.” Beth replied, “Have you?”

“No, I’ve talked to the women in the office, but they are just clerks working for the landlord.”

“Yes, but I don’t care,” Beth said, “I just want to stop this eviction and get the repairs made in our apartments.”

Alice looked at the two women, “That’s something else I should research. Who really owns Quercus Gardens?”

By noon, Beth shrugged and looked at the tenants. “I guess the landlord is keeping his word, there seems to be no eviction. I just want to thank all of you for coming today. It’s good to know we have a quick team of activists ready and willing to confront the landlord.” Beth turned to see a black car pull up next to the building. What was going on now?

Out came a young man in a business suit. He looked at the small group standing around the door. “Is this Building M apartment 6?”

“Yes, who are you?” Alice asked.

“I’m here to serve a notice on the tenant of Building M, apartment 6 of Quercus Gardens. Tenant is to appear in court to answer some questions in regard to non-payment of rent and the condition of the tenant’s health.”

“She’s in the apartment here,” Lisa said pointing to the door.

The young man skipped up the stairs, pressed the doorbell. After another ring at the bell the woman opened the door. The young man handed the envelope to her. He turned and looked at the women who were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. “Thank you very much ladies. Have a nice day.”

“What was that about?” Sue asked.

Beth watched as the black car rolled down the street. She turned and saw the woman news reporter tucking her microphone back into a suitcase with the camera.  

“It’s over?” Beth asked.

“It’s over,” Alice stated. “They kept their promise. Our mother-to-be has to appear in court now. The landlord has to take other actions.”

Beth watched as the news crew walked away. She was sorry to have wasted their time, but she had done the right thing to protect the tenant. She had brought the other tenants together to protect the mother and children. It was a battle fought and won, with no losses. She hoped it would always be that way.