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

Chapter 5 – The Basement (1671 words)

By Friday, the autumn rains were falling. Water was accumulating in huge puddles all over the lawns of Quercus Gardens. The gray skies made it easy for Beth to stay home and do a little more research on tenant issues. She leaned toward her computer screen and began reading emails from the Tenant Action Network. It was a world until itself with lots of battles reported and discussions as to what should be done with other more hostile landlords. Beth was following one struggle closely when her phone rang pulling her away from the long wordy details. She answered, "Hello?"

“Hi, Beth, this is June, your neighbor. Have you seen the back yard? It’s full of water. It looks like a lake. I’m worried because I noticed we’re losing our heat again. Could the water be doing something bad in the basement?”

Beth took a look out the dining room window. The depth of the water in the backyard made kayaking look like a possibility. “June, I’ll give Perez a call and have him check it.” She went to the radiator and found that it was not giving the heat it had been giving earlier that morning. This made her feel angry. Were they going to go through this all winter?

In spite of her discomfort at calling Perez, she feared worse things could be happening down below. She called his number. The phone rang and rang, but no one answered. She tried the emergency number. Still no answer. She left a message. She was furious. This could be a serious emergency. There was no one to help. She took another look out the window. The tall oak trees were holding firm, but ripples in the water indicated that it was moving somewhere.

She took a deep breath. Stay calm. Maybe she was making a big deal out of nothing. What was going on in the basement? She needed to know. She could not sit passively here and wait. Beth decided to go out and walk behind the building to have a look. She put on a rain coat and plastic hat to cover her hair, then struggled to pull on her knee-high rain boots. Seeing her pocket-sized camera on her desk, she grabbed it and put it in her coat pocket.

Outside, the wind was blowing and throwing the rain sideways against her. She walked around to the back of the apartment building, passing the garbage shed, to the narrow green backyard that was lined with oak trees. Birds huddled together under the eaves of the building. Squirrels hugged the dry sides of trees. Beth looked down at her boots making waves as she walked through the water. Oak leaves floated like little boats in the current. She followed the stream and found that it was running toward a basement window.

Beth knew the furnace was in the basement, but it was also the place where the electrical box connected to thousands of kilowatts of power. The water was flowing from the yard into the basement. If this kept happening, she feared the electrical box could be under water. If that were so, at some point in time, the entire building could explode into a raging electrical fire. Beth really wanted to know what was going on in the basement. She walked over to the basement stairway.

At the bottom of the stairs, she saw water rising over the top of the bottom step. So this meant that the electrical box was not under water. But was the water flooding the pilot light of the furnace? That would cause the loss of heat once again.  Beth went down the cement stairs and stood at the door. It was metal with a round doorknob and no window. There was no way to quickly peek inside.

Beth now looked up the stairway at the gray sky. The swirls of clouds threatened to make the conditions worse. Beth looked again at the blank metal door. Did she need to go in? She could wait and let Perez deal with it, but did he get her call?  Would he come sooner or much later?  She really wanted to know what was going on in the basement. Was knowing this worth the risk of being trapped there? Everyone said the superintendent was crazy. He could burst into a rage and murder her just as quickly as he murdered Mrs. Mary Gilligan. 

“Ah, I can’t let the gossip of my neighbors make me crazy!” She was their tenant leader. She felt she had to be strong. She turned the doorknob. 

The door swung open. 

This was not what Beth expected. It should have been locked. 
She looked up the stairs again to be sure no one was there. She saw a squirrel twirling about on a tree branch. An acorn tumbled down the steps. Beth kicked it to the corner. “I don’t want to slip on that and break my neck,” she muttered.

She turned back to the doorway and stepped through. Two small basement windows cast a dim light into the room. Water was running down the wall from one of them.

Next to her was the electrical box. Ten glass globes were lined up on the wall, each containing a dial with small hands metering the electricity each tenant used. Looking at the wall, Beth realized that the bottom two rows of globes had been immersed in flood water at some time, but now they were covered with dry deposits of mud. 

She turned and looked across the room. The basement was empty except for a broken bicycle in the corner. Silt and sand on the floor showed the direction that the water flowed toward the big drain in the middle. The air was heavy with the smell of mold.

At the back of the room was another doorway, but it lacked a door. Judging from the big pipes that were coming out from a gap in the wall, the furnace was in that next room. 

Beth took several steps, looked back at the entrance. No one was following her yet. As she moved forward, her feet slipped in the mud. She looked back again and saw her own foot print, the mark of a small foot heading toward the furnace room. She regretted this proof of her trespass. 

She stopped and looked at the furnace room doorway. What was the point of going further? It was obvious that water had risen quite high in the basement. Fortunately, it had failed to compromise the electric boxes. All the tenants in this building were probably safe. There was no reason to proceed. But what about the furnace? The water might be deep enough to flood some part of the furnace.

Curiosity gripped Beth. She wanted to look in. Just a quick look. She needed to know how bad the situation might be. 

She moved forward through the furnace room doorway. She stopped. 

There it was, the furnace, a big metal monster. Silent. Dead. As if the water had drowned this beast. It was sitting in a bricked in area lower than the floor. Water had run in and flooded the furnace. A sub-pump was there, but apparently not operating to remove the excess water. That explained why they again had no heat in the building. They were lucky to still have electricity. 

Beth pulled her small camera out of her pocket and took a few pictures. This might be useful in court, if they decided to go to court. Beth wished life didn’t have to be so challenging. Why couldn’t that superintendent come and take care of this problem? Or why couldn't the fire department come and pump out the water? Maybe they were busy rushing from one flooded basement to another. This October the rain had been extreme.

Suddenly the metal basement door slammed shut.

Beth felt her heart turn cold. She tucked the camera back into her pocket. Who could it be? Probably the superintendent. He had come at her call. Now, she was trapped with that mad-man and there was no way to escape. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a weapon? She had no way to defend herself. All she could do was hope.

She turned and stepped out of the furnace room, bracing herself for an attack. Yes, it was Perez. In his hands, he was carrying a big heavy metal wrench. 

Beth swallowed her fear. "Hello," she said. She watched as his face turned from shock to anger.

“What are you doing here?” he growled as he walked toward her. His big boots slid in the mud. “Tenants are not allowed in the basement,” his said. His angry eyes pierced like knives. 

She wanted to scream, but instead choked out a passive,  “Of course, I understand. I’ll leave now." 

But it just wasn't like Beth to drop the subject and go, she needed to make him think she wasn't really afraid of him. "It looks like the furnace is under a lot of water.” 

“I know that,” he growled, raising the wrench in the air.  "Why do you think I'm here?"

Beth dodged past him, then across the slippery floor to the metal door.

"I don't want to ever see you down here again," Perez yelled.

"Certainly," she responded. She pushed on the door. 

It would not open. She looked back at the superintendent. Had he locked her in?  She frantically pushed on the door again, gasping for breath. The thick moldy air filled her lungs. 

He turned and looked at her with a grimace on his face. He stepped toward her with the wrench in his hands. “Pull,” he yelled. 

She pulled the door open and raced up the steps. She had to get out to the street. She wanted to be with people. There must be witnesses to her murder. Someone might try to stop him. Keep him from bashing her brains in with that wrench. 

Now standing on Park Lane she coughed, trying to get her breath. An old woman came up the street on a battery-operated wheelchair. Beth looked back at the building where she had just departed. No one else appeared. Fear had killed her trust for the only one person who could make the repairs and solve their problems. She cursed herself for being spooked again by rumors.  

A group of children skipped down the street dressed as trolls and wart-faced witches, ready for Halloween. Beth wondered why terror seemed like so much fun to them.