The Mystery of
Quercus Gardens Apartments
by Patricia Hilliard - Copyright June 2017
Chapter 6 – Say It Isn't So (4005)
At first, it was fun job hunting in jeans and an old sweater. Beth stared at the bright screen of her desktop computer and remembered the days when she used to get dressed up, go into the city for an interview, then come home and wait for the phone to ring. Now, she could get a rejection without all the effort.
Job history. She had been working for years as a sales representative of a printing company. The pay had been good, the hours were easy. She could knock off work early on Friday and head home. But the printing industry went belly-up. The tech nerds had created a way to turn paper into light images that flashed through time and space in seconds. No one needed bulky sheets of paper stacked in piles and shipped off in boxes. The world had changed forever.
Job training. Beth had taken numerous courses online hoping to improve her chances of getting a new and different kind of job. She had studied web site design, data base analysis and how to do digital advertising campaigns. The courses had been useful for tenant organizing, but they still hadn’t qualified her for a job. She wondered if she could claim her computer work for the Tall Trees Tenant Association as work experience. Too bad you couldn’t make a living organizing tenants. Or maybe you could. She clicked over to the Tenant Action Network web site and looked around for job openings. Nothing was listed.
It had been about two weeks since she had dropped the letter in the mail to the landlord. With that letter she had sent the original forms that the tenants filled out at the last meeting. She thought about the requests. The tenants needed repairs to drippy faucets, cracked walls and broken stairways, along with the tumbled down tub that Julie showed her. Of course, for Building A, Beth and Bob had complained of lack of heat. Since Beth’s surprise meeting in the basement with Perez, the heat had been on. Maybe when he saw how assertive she was, he realized he’d better get that furnace fixed. Beth leaned back in her chair and enjoyed the heat that now drifted up from the radiator. How different a home is when it is warm and welcoming! Let the snow and wind ravage the outside world, Beth felt safe. The door bell sounded. Beth collapsed deep into her chair. Who could that be at this time of the day? Another tenant with a problem? Beth wondered why she felt so negative. On the contrary, could it possibly be Ted or Arlene to thank her for getting the heat back on? Maybe they wanted assurances that they could put their space heater away. Beth looked out the window to the sidewalk below. She could see no one there. The doorbell persisted with a demanding ring, ring, ring! She put on her slippers and went down the stairs. She pulled open the door. It was Ramon Perez. He did not look happy. “I want a word with you,” he growled. Beth saw the anger boiling out of his eyes. Seeing him twice in a week was pushing the stress level of tenant organizing higher than she thought she could endure. But she had to be strong. “So have a word right here then,” Beth replied gently, so as not to irritate him.
She folded her arms in front of her as she continued to stand in the doorway, she was gentle but suborn. She wasn’t inviting him in. She hoped the tenants next door might be home, standing near their windows, trying to listen. Surely he would not murder her in front of witnesses. Murder her? Better to be safe than sorry.
“I am the superintendent of this complex. If you have any need for repairs, you contact me. Me, do you hear? I’m the Super around here. I don’t like it when tenants go behind my back and contact the main office.” Perez leaned forward and glared into Beth’s eyes. She looked at him, but quickly turned away. Fear was twisting its way through her. Perez had chosen to come at a time when he knew Bob was not around. That was no coincidence.
Beth had lived long enough in this society to know that if a woman appeared to be confrontational with men, she could risk further attack. She knew she would need to appear to soften and look obedient.
“Well, sure, Ramon, I understand your situation, but when the heat was off the entire weekend it made people angry.” “I’m not talking about the people in Building A. I know the heat is supposed to be on. I’m talking about you calling a meeting and having all these other tenants bringing in their complaints and sending them right to the main office. That doesn’t give me time to check on things. Sometimes these tenants just complain. There’s nothing wrong with their apartment.” Beth heard these words but doubted them. What would a tenant benefit by complaining, just to complain? To get repairs meant that the tenant often had to take off work, move furniture out of the way, and if it was like Beth’s place, maybe do a little clean-up before the superintendent gets there with the work crew. She understood that what really made Ramon angry was that they had gone beyond him. But the tenants were getting desperate. Now the main office knew that repairs were not being made. “I’m telling you. Next time anyone needs repairs, you or any of the tenants, call me. That’s it. Don’t be sending complaints to the main office.” He finalized with one last intimidating glare. Beth submitted, “Ok, we’ll try to work with you. We’ll try.” He turned and looked back at her, “I’m telling you, don’t get me mad.” He stomped away.
Was he really the type to commit murder? If he killed Mrs. Mary Gilligan over a flower bed, what would he do to Beth for organizing tenant meetings?
Beth closed and locked the door. She wondered why Perez wanted to prevent his boss from knowing what was going on at this property. Was he hoping to do some “cost containing” that would result in a raise for himself?
What other motive could he have? Obviously, Perez was nervous about tenants talking to each other at a meeting. Was he afraid they would gang-up on him? Beat him to a pulp in one of the parking lots? Or was he afraid that the truth about the murder would spread. Was it because of the MURDER?
It just wasn’t fair. When people rent an apartment, they expect a certain amount of safety, cleanliness and efficiency in the place. Rents were going up every year, yet maintenance was neglected. What was Julie supposed to do with the tumbled-down bath tub? Was she expected to just wait until it fell completely through the floor? What about those dripping faucets? All summer the state was issuing drought warnings. There could have been hundreds of dripping faucets all through the complex just dripping good drinking water down the drain. What a waste. Beth was now furious and determined to do something. She could not let Perez silence her.
Now sitting down again at the keyboard, she began doing more research on the Tenant Action Network. She learned about state agencies, city agencies and their responsibilities. There were health boards, building inspectors, plenty of places to file a complaint and bring on an inspection. If Perez wanted to make trouble, she could call the government agencies and make trouble for him.
Hum…here’s one, fire code inspection. Beth wondered, when was the last time the complex went through a fire code inspection? This was great. She would make Perez sorry he complained. His intimidation tactics would not work on her. Beth read over the information and prepared a report for the upcoming meeting. She hoped tenants would still attend. She would assure them that there were other things they could do. They had plenty of resources to help them get results.
Beth scrolled down through some comments in a chat room. Here’s an interesting one. A tenant suggested a rent strike. Refuse to pay the rent until the repairs are made. Someone else advised that you needed an attorney for a rent strike. You still had to pay your rent. The money went into an escrow fund that your attorney monitored. A new email alert appeared on the screen. It was an invitation for a job interview. Beth gasped. Finally she may have a chance to bring in a paycheck again. But what would happen to the tenant association? Would she have time for it anymore? Not to worry, after reading the email Beth decided this was not the kind of opportunity she was hoping for. First off, getting to the place would be impossible. It was just too far away.
She stared beyond the brilliant screen before her and let her thoughts drift. Her life was becoming different and strange. Her old work routines were gone. Now she was running around the neighborhood making trouble. She had never taken on such a battle before, right on your home turf, the place you come to rest and revive. The battle was heating up, hotter than the radiator that had started this whole turn of events.
A week later, Beth and Bob were preparing to go to the tenant meeting. “Ok, I’ve got pens, paper, and copies of the list with the agencies we can contact. What else do I need to take?” Beth asked aloud. Bob hung the dish towel on the rack to dry. “Did you ever get any letters from the landlord?” “None, all I got was that visit from Perez who threatened me.” “We’ve had heat and hot water in our apartment for three weeks now. I’d take that as a response,” Bob said. He grabbed his jacket and put it on. He pulled two lawn chairs out of the closet. “I’m ready for the meeting.” “But I remember, Perez said we weren’t the problem. He said he could fix the heat. He just didn’t like us getting together with the other tenants. He doesn’t want the main office to know what’s going on. I still can’t figure out why he doesn’t want his boss to know. Doesn’t the landlord have to pay for all the equipment and supplies for repairs? So the landlord needs to know what Perez is doing.” Beth grabbed her jacket and purse. She followed Bob down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk. As he walked with the two lawn chairs tucked under his arms, she looked ahead, keeping an eye open for the sudden appearance of Ramon Perez. It would be just like him to pop up again, the very night they had a tenant meeting. Beth reminded herself that it was Saturday afternoon. Perez hated to work evenings or weekends. He was probably home eating dinner. Remembering this, she tried to enjoy the walk over to Alice’s section, Building K. It was December and the air was chilly. Beth knew that after the meeting, she could go home to a cozy apartment. She wished she were heading home now. “I’m dreading this meeting,” Beth confessed to Bob. “Why?” “What if no one comes? What if they are all afraid of Perez? This whole effort could collapse. The story keeps going around that he murdered someone. They may get scared and not show up.” “We got our repair. The heat’s on. If they are really concerned about their problems and the problems still exist, they will have to come to the meeting. If they don’t come, we’re off the hook. At least we tried.” Bob responded with reason. That’s what Beth liked about Bob, level-headed reasoning. They stepped through the door of Building K’s laundry room. Alice was already there with an array of lawn chairs lined up and a small card table. “Bring your seats over here,” Alice said pointing to the small table. Bob went over and placed their lawn chairs. Beth put her papers and pens down on the table and sat in one of their chairs. “I have good news,” Alice announced. “A truck pulled up a few days ago and a crew came in and fixed my dripping faucets.” “What?” Beth looked to Bob. “That’s an answer to our complaints.” She smiled. The landlord had responded. Some of the repairs were being made. More tenants came in dragging their chairs and taking a place around the table. “Hey, I gotta tell ya, a truck pulled up two days ago and a crew came in and plastered all the cracks in my living room walls.” “What?” Beth gasped. “Another victory?” “My place too, Hi, I’m Lisa, I came to the last meeting, remember? Yes, they came in and fixed all the dripping faucets in my place. The shower had been dripping water for five years. I’d been trying to catch the water and water my house plants with it, but most of it was a waste. I can’t believe they finally fixed it.” Beth looked around the room, “Where’s Julie? I’m wondering what happened to the tumbled down bath tub.” The door opened and in came Julie dragging a lawn chair. “Sorry, I’m late but I’ve got to tell you, a truck stopped by and a crew came. They inspected the bath tub and then went under the building. They said it was termites. They tore out all the wood, jacked up my bath tub, put metal braces under it and re-did the tiles. Next week they are coming to treat the building for termites.” “This is incredible,” Beth squealed. “I’m so happy. Let me tell you. Perez came to my door and told me that he doesn’t like us meeting. We are not allowed to send our complaints to the main office. He said we have to tell him first.” “We’ve always told him first,” one tenant responded. Beth had never see this man before. He continued speaking. “I’m here to fill out one of those forms. I had just about given up on this place when Alice here told me what happened to her place. I told some other folks. Here is Joe, there Walter and Sue. We all want to fill out complaint forms and get some repairs made. Please, I insist, send them to the main office.” Beth was amazed. She was so worried about what Perez had said to her that she never even thought to bring more printed forms for new tenants to fill out. “I’ll have to send the forms to you by email or you can download them from the web site,” she said. She was impressed by their insistence that their complaints be sent without Perez’s knowledge. Now with their web site, the complaints would roll in without any effort on her part. This was great. But wait, who was at risk here? She had promised Perez that they would contact him first. She would be going back on her word. But the tenants said that they had frequently tried to contact him, yet no repairs were made. They had reached a point of no return and wanted to use this new way of getting something done. The landlord had responded, not by letter, but by action. This encouraged them to keep going. The room was now full of laughter as the tenants told again and again how surprised they were when they saw trucks and work crews come to their doors. “Our tenant association has scored great victories,” Beth announced. Now feeling encouraged, she added, “We need to keep getting the word out. We can make Quercus Gardens a wonderful place to live in again.” “Well, I don’t mean to bust your bubble,” a voice said from the back of the room. Everyone turned to look. “Hello, I’m Martin. My wife is Rosie, she came to the last meeting.” “Oh, yes, I remember,” Beth said. She was getting better at remembering names and faces. Rosie was one of the women who spoke of the murder. “I just got a notice today. I want you to know. This landlord is going to retaliate. We had lots of repairs made to our apartment a year ago and now, I get this letter in the mail today. It’s a rent increase. See here. It includes additional charges for all those repairs. It makes me wish we hadn’t gotten them done. Now look at what our rent will be. It’s far more than I’d care to pay to live in this place.” The room was silent. Beth had no idea what to say. This tenant was insinuating that the wonderful repairs they had just gotten would drive the rent up beyond the means of most of the tenants. “Oh, no, I can’t be paying more rent,” one woman said. Beth looked at her. She did look familiar. “You came to our last meeting, didn’t you?” Beth asked. The only memory that stuck in Beth’s mind was that this woman was disagreeable. “You should know me, I’m Cassy. I’m the one who first warned you about Perez. You know how those Puerto Ricans are. He’s dangerous. He committed the murder of Mrs. Mary Gilligan. The landlord covered for him. That’s why he never went to prison. The landlord is a big stakes player in some illegal drug dealing scam. He has Perez do his dirty work. Mary Gilligan’s husband was a cop who was hot on their trail. You have to be careful. If you give Perez any problems, you’ll be next on his hit list.” Fear gripped everyone in the room. Beth felt it swelling up inside her again too. She took a deep breath and thought. How could someone come to a meeting with a story like this? And what did she mean by “you know how those Puerto Ricans are?” Beth was not into hating people for their culture or nationality. It wasn’t fair. Maybe since the last meeting, Cassy had come up with new ideas for her story. So far, there had been no proof of any murder, just Cassy and Rosie and rumors. Bob stood to speak. “Now wait a minute everyone. You can’t let your apartment fall apart around you in hopes of preventing a rent increase. That’s a ridicules strategy. If the rent is too high, we need to fight against high rent. We also need to fight for higher pay. I’m a union rep and if you want to talk to me about getting better pay at your job, we can talk.” “I’m telling you, I can’t pay the rent if it gets any higher,” Cassy screamed. Alice stood up to speak. “I work as an legal assistant. I think we need to do some research. We need to find out just how much they can legally charge for rent. We need to find out if the landlord is allowed to charge more based on repairs. I’m willing to look into this. I’ll report back at our next meeting.” “I can’t wait that long,” Cassy screamed. “No one’s rent is going up yet. They will send you a notice first,” Beth advised. She saw a familiar face in the group. It was John Oldham. She pointed to him to speak. “Hello, I’m John Oldham. I was at the last meeting. I work, oh I mean, I used to work in the real estate industry, I’m retired now. I don’t think they can just increase the rent whenever they feel like it. It’s got to keep in line with market value. The market determines these things. We need to do some research and I’m glad my neighbor Alice is willing to help us on this.” Beth could feel the mood changing in the room. Now that they appeared to have some “experts” in their midst, everyone felt calmer. (As if reading all that information on the TAN website didn’t make Beth an expert. She had spent hours…oh well.) “Please be sure to go to the web site I created,” Beth asked. “I’m going to put a newsletter there to keep everyone informed of what’s happening. We’ll also be putting flyers out each month telling people where to meet so we can bring in new tenants.” “You said you had the complaint form for repairs on the website. That’s a big help. That way tenants will be able to fill it out and send it to the landlord whenever we need repairs,” said John Oldham. He smiled and looked around the room. The other tenants all nodded and smiled with approval. “Yes. It’s there,” Beth assured him. Beth thought of her feeble promise to Perez. She was sure he would think she just put him off with a false promise. But the main office was responding to the demand for repairs, completely leaving Perez out of the work. The satisfaction of the tenants was a full grown reality now. Beth looked over at Bob who smiled back at her. Cassy stood up to speak. Her eyes were wild. “You are really going to send Perez off like a rocket. He’s not stable and he will crack. You’re in for trouble big time, missy,” she said looking at Beth. “You better take care.” John Oldham looked at Cassy, “Madam, you should not go around spreading rumors of the sort that you do. Mr. Perez has done his best to keep up with this property, but it’s more than he can do.” “I think we need to push for a larger work crew so Perez can make more of the repairs,” Alice suggested. “I like the fact that we are taking charge of this situation. We are really going to turn things around in this place. Who’s with me?” “Aye, aye, yeah. Let’s give it a try,” the tenants cheered. “When’s the next meeting?” “Two weeks from now, same place, ok?” “Sure, see you then.” “Good. Meeting adjourned,” Beth announced. They picked up their chairs and proceeded to move toward the door. The tenants had decided what they wanted to do. Beth looked at Bob again. “Good job, Beth,” he said. “You’ve got them fired up and ready to fight.” “I’m so glad. I just hope I don’t have to die for the cause.” “Oh don’t worry about what Cassy says,” Alice assured her. “We are within our rights to get the repairs made at a reasonable time. Look the landlord found a way to get contractors in here. Now, much of the work is done already. It didn’t exhaust poor Mr. Ramon Perez. He can just go about doing the garbage without a care in the world about the internal problems in this complex.” Beth laughed. “If Perez sneaks up on me, I’ll just remind him about that. Just do the garbage Perez, don’t worry about the rest.” “That’s right, Beth,” Bob assured her. “In the meantime, I’ll try to have a talk with him and see what his work contract is like. Maybe a raise in pay would make him happier.” They left the laundry room and walked across the complex past the gleaming light posts and porch lights that guided them. “It was a good meeting after all.” Beth said. But she knew she would find it difficult to look Perez in the face any time soon. They opened the door to their apartment and the warm air wrapped around them like a big hug.