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

Chapter 2 – A Time and Place to Meet (3024 words)

On Saturday afternoon, Beth looked around the laundry room. In spite of the lint hanging from the rafters and water bugs crawling down into the drains, a few tenants had already arrived for the meeting. Strangely, Ted Dillon, who had first complained to her, and his wife Arlene, were not among them. Beth wondered why not. What could have come up that was more important than the comfort of their own home? Were they still huddled around that electric space heater that Ted said he was going to use? 

Now the room contained ten bright yellow and lime green lawn chairs, beach chairs and a few kitchen chairs with an assortment of people sitting and looking up expectantly at Beth. She could recognize only a few of them from her own building. Who were the others?

Bob sat in his chair as if he too were just another tenant with a complaint. Beth gave him a stack of papers. “Bob, can you give one of these to everyone.” He looked up at her surprised, but soon resigned himself to his role as her assistant.

“My name is Beth Murphy and this is my husband Bob Murphy. We live in Building A. I want to thank you all for coming. I’m sure, like me, you are tired of the constant problems we’ve been having in this apartment complex, and now there’s no heat in our building. It’s been twenty-four hours now and still very little heat.” Beth looked around.

“I had heat for two hours yesterday, but no hot water,” one of Beth’s Building A neighbors said. Beth knew she had seen the woman numerous times heading out to work, but couldn’t recall her name. 

“I’m sorry I forgot your name.”

“June, like the month.”

“Ok, June, thanks for coming.”

Beth looked around the room for other comments. 

Another neighbor sat up in his chair. “Yeah, me to. I’m Jerry, from your building. I called the office and they said they’re working on it. I saw the truck of a furnace repair crew in our parking lot this morning.”  

“Jerry, I know you,” Bob said. “We dug each other out of the snow last winter. Thanks for loaning us your shovel.” 

Jerry nodded, “No problem.”

Bet now knew that two people out of sixteen had come to the meeting from her building but she did not recognize the others. “Are you all from Building A?”

“No,” they responded.

Beth was amazed. There were eight people from other buildings. She had only put the flyer out the day before to tenants in her own building. Word had traveled quickly throughout the complex.

“If my child gets sick from this lack of heat, I’m suing,” a woman tenant announced. She stood and looked around the room. “I’m looking into getting an attorney right now. My brother-in-law works in a law firm.”  

Everyone looked in this woman’s direction as if she had announced that a powerful wizard was about to be summonsed from an ether world. Beth fought to keep from moaning. She had to educate these people. She stepped closer to the group.

“The Tenant Action Network says we don’t need an attorney,” Beth explained, “at least, not yet. We can do this ourselves without the expense of an attorney. Just look at the paper Bob is giving you. I put my name and phone number and the Network’s contact information there. See there’s some advice on how to organize. We have to write a letter to the landlord listing all our problems. We have to let him know that we will take serious action if things aren’t fixed soon—especially the heat. But we have to give the landlord a chance to make the repairs.”

“I think we should get an attorney. We can’t wait forever. Most of us have been complaining for years,” a man said. He was dressed in a suit, but held his jacket over his arm. His tie was no longer around his neck, but dangling from his pocket. 

“We have to put the landlord on notice, give him our official complaints. Then we have to give the landlord a chance to “cure” our problems,” Beth responded.

“How long will that take? He’s already had twenty-four hours to get the heat back on. Even more than that, I called him on Thursday,” said another tenant.

“What building are you from?” Beth asked.

“Building G.”

Building A was not the only building that lost heat. Beth wondered how two buildings that weren’t on the same furnace could lose heat at the same time. 

“Obviously, we need to focus on the heat,” Beth explained. “But while we have the landlord’s attention, we might as well give him our entire list of problems. Let’s get some work done here this afternoon.” 

A woman tenant stood up and raised her hand. Beth nodded toward her.
“My name is Alice. I’m not from your building. I’m from Building K. A friend of mine, Arlene from your building, told me about your meeting. I brought Julie. She’s from Building J.” Alice pointed across the room. “And Lisa over there, Lisa’s from Building M. We live in the other buildings of this complex, on the other side of Park Lane. We have problems too. That’s why we came here today.”

Beth immediately liked Alice. Why? Alice had brought people to the meeting from several buildings. Beth looked around at the three women. If they all became active, this could be a very good group. Beth wondered how she would remember all their names. Each of them dressed in tee-shirts of green, blue or gray. Each wearing blue jeans or sweat pants. Alice had dark brown hair pulled up at the sides and hanging down in back. Julie had short blonde hair. Lisa had curly red hair. Beth tried to think of some way to fix their faces and names in her mind.

One truth that was coming out of this meeting was that the landlord’s many failures had sparked an interest in doing something to improve the situation. If all the tenants in the entire complex acted together, they could really force the landlord to listen to them. But Beth’s stomach did a flip-flop. Was she ready to take on a large group like this? She had only wanted to get heat and repairs in her own building, Building A, sixteen apartments, not the whole complex. 

“Let’s go around the room and give our names and which part of the complex we live in,” Beth advised them. “Please sign here on this clipboard so we can get each other’s contact details and begin communicating online. My husband is giving you two papers, one with some sites to look at online to learn about our rights and what we can do. The other is a form to fill out with any repairs you need to have made.”

The clip-board went from person to person until all their names were on it with all their contact information. Beth was about to take the board from one tenant’s hands when he stood and announced, “I’m here on behalf of the landlord and I’ll take this board. Thank you!”  

“What?” Beth screamed, “No, you won’t.”  

She grabbed the board and the two of them pulled from opposite ends. Every face in the room was wide-eyed and terrified. They watched as Bob joined Beth to pull on one end of the board. Finally, it slipped from the man’s grasp. Beth pressed it against herself to keep it safe.  
Bob, who was tall and had a booming voice yelled, “You go back to the landlord and tell him, he’d better start making repairs. If he doesn’t, he’ll never see another rent check from us.”

Having lost his grip on the board, the man stepped back. “I’ll do that, you idiots. There’s no way you can push this landlord around. You better start looking for new apartments right now.”  

The man turned and stomped out the door. Beth looked at him. He was average height and wore a blue jacket that was typical of winter jackets. His hair was hidden under a red baseball cap. He was wearing black jeans and brown work boots. After he passed through the door, he slammed it behind him.  

Beth was amazed. Already the landlord had sent a spy. 

“I knew it. It’s not safe to be here,” said a woman who was sitting nearest to the door. “The landlord will find out what we’re up to and throw us all out of our homes. I’m getting out of here.” She folded up her chair and turned to leave. 

“No, please,” Beth called. The woman seemed intelligent and gentle. Beth liked the way she braided her gray hair around the top of her head. Beth wanted to win her over. “Stand up for yourself. The landlord cannot throw us all out. Besides, he wants our rent money. We just need to make him live up to the conditions he is obligated to provide us. They are the same conditions that all the other landlords have to abide by. Why should our landlord get away with cheating us?”  

“Besides,” said Bob, “If this place is as bad as you all say, being thrown out of here would be a blessing.”

The woman thought for a moment, unfolded her chair and sat down, but she remained close to the door.

“My name is John Oldham, Building D, across the street from you Beth. I say we should look this stuff over.” He lifted the papers that Bob had given them. He turned toward the other tenants, “As I see it, we have one of two options. Either we get disgusted and move out or we put our foot down and start fighting here. We can do this. We need to train this landlord like you train a beast. We can make this a good place to live. I love it here. I love the trees, the squirrels, the green lawns. It’s centrally located here in town. It’s great. We just need to get the landlord to fix a few things. Please, I beg of you, give this a try.” He looked around the room at everyone. He had a kindly grand-fatherly look in his eyes. He was dressed casually in a dark maroon shirt and gray pants. 

Bob and Beth smiled at each other. Mr. Oldham seemed calm and practical. They hoped he was another one they could count on. A few more good people like this and they would have a great group.

“But what about the murder?” asked a woman in faded blue jeans and a bulky red sweater.

“What murder?” Beth asked.

“The murder of the old woman gardener? My name is Cassandra, Building L. I just moved here five years ago. I was told when I first moved here to be careful of the Super. He’s likely the one. He murdered her. He’s a little off his rocker. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would make him mad. He might crack. If you’ve ever dealt with him, you know what I mean. He’s deadly quiet, then suddenly he just growls at you. I asked him to fix a dripping faucet and it was so scary. I thought he would strangle me on the spot.”   With fear in her eyes, she looked around the room.

“Ah, give it a break,” Bob responded. “The guy is overworked. You know our landlord is cheap. They don’t give Ramon the kind of work crew he needs to do the job. He doesn’t even have good tools to work with. I don’t doubt he’s a little on edge some days. We all have bad days at work. But I’ve talked to him a few times and he’s ok, he just gets exhausted with all the work and no help.”

Beth felt proud of Bob for giving the superintendent or the “Super” as tenants called him, some respect as a working person, but she knew what the woman was talking about. There had always been a certain storm cloud over the guy that made her feel ill at ease around him. It did not surprise her in the least that he might do something crazy. But murder?

“What was the woman gardener’s name?” Beth asked.

“Mrs. Mary Gilligan, Building L,” replied the woman with the braided hair who was still sitting near the door. “My name’s Rosemarie, but you can call me Rosie. I have an apartment near where Mary lived. I could see that someone had tried to garden there along the fence. But it looked all weedy and abandoned. I asked my neighbor Cassy, here, what the story was with that. She told me about the murder. The landlord allowed Mary to plant the flowers, but Perez didn’t like the tenants planting flowers. He would have to mow around them. He said it made his job difficult. Sometimes he would mow them down and tell Mary she couldn’t plant anymore. I guess, they were in quite a battle with each other. You know how ugly Perez gets when he’s upset with a tenant.”

“I can’t believe he killed her over a flower bed,” Bob said.

“But he ain’t like most folks, he’s a little loose in the head,” Cassy said. She gazed around the room. Fear came from her eyes like a light beam from a light house. The tenants huddled together looking at her and waiting to hear more.

Beth shrugged. There was no way to deal with this craziness but to move the meeting along.

“Here’s what we’ll do first,” Beth stated. She held up the form that Bob had given them. “Fill this form with any of the problems you have with your apartment. I will compose a letter to the landlord. Then I’ll put the forms with the letter and I’ll send all of this to the landlord. Bob, here, hand out some pens.” 

Beth handed Bob a bag of pens she had collected from their junk drawer. The tenants leaned back in their chairs, looked at each other thoughtfully and began filling out the forms.

As they shared complaints, Beth observed this random gathering of people from her neighborhood. They really all seemed like nice people, except for Cassy, who was probably a little crazy herself. Murder! How silly. If Ramon had murdered anyone, the police would have caught him. He would have gone to trial. He would be sitting in prison right now. Who could believe a murder had been committed here?

“I’ll fill one out for us,” Bob said, smiling at Beth.

“Please do,” Beth replied.

“I have an idea,” John Oldham said. “Why don’t we choose a name for our group? After that, why don’t we elect you, Beth, as our president?” He looked around the room. Everyone smiled. John continued. “Let’s call ourselves the Tall Trees Tenants Association with Beth as president. The landlord can send all communication to her and she can direct us on what to do next.”

Beth was flattered that John was ready to throw the entire leadership in her lap, but then again, all the risk would fall on her too. In spite of this, she felt a sense of support for what she and Bob were offering.

“Good idea,” said Alice. “I know I can get other tenants from the other buildings to join. I think we should have a captain assigned to each building. We’ll report to you Beth. You let us know what the landlord says.”

Beth looked at Bob. He smiled. It would be nice if there were building captains all over the apartment complex. It would be a team working together. That would be good. 

”Ok, I’ll accept your vote for president, but we need to work quickly to get a captain for each building.”

John Oldham stood up. “Let me give you some details. I did a little calculating before I came here today. You know there are a total of twenty two-story buildings in this whole complex, that’s two hundred apartments.”  
Beth wrote down the number in her notes. 

John continued, “We also have to reach out to the people in the Tower at the corner of Prospect and Main Street, six floors high. They are part of the complex too, I researched it, same property owner. Those are the studio apartments, six small apartments on each floor. That’s another thirty-six apartments. All together there are two-hundred and thirty-six apartments.” John smiled and looked around. “We have our work cut out for us, but I think it will be well worth it.” 

Beth felt weak and worried. She could not do all this organizing alone. They had to help. They had to be serious. Could this little group of people be counted on?  

John waved his arms in the air. “By popular acclamation, I pronounce you, Beth Murphy, president of the Tall Trees Tenants Association. All in favor?”

“Aye!” they shouted.

“When should we have the next meeting?” Alice asked. “Let’s have it in the laundry room in my area.”

They looked at the calendar and selected a date and time. It was confirmed: the location would be at Alice’s laundry room in Building K. “Bring your own chair,” Alice reminded them.

“We’re off and running,” said John. “I’m glad I came. I think this groups is going to get plenty of work done.”

They laughed and cheered, gathered their chairs and handed Beth the papers that they had filled in with their complaints. 

Beth put the complaints on the clip board and thanked everyone for coming. Bob turned off the laundry room light and they closed and locked the door.  

Above in the sky, they could see some big gray clouds. A cool wind sent acorns falling from the trees. 

The tenants strolled along the maze of sidewalks then departed to their own front doors. Bob and Beth unlocked their door and went in. Their hearts were warmed with hope from the support of their neighbors, but once upstairs, they felt no comfort. The apartment was cold and alien to them.