East on St James

by Rick Beck

Chapter 14


Gary had plans to dig deeper into the St. James equation the following day, after the latest discussion with Dury and Keith. It had been nearly a year since Gary laid a brick or did any work at all. He knew he was ready to get started on Pleasant Valley planning.

Fran refilled Gary's coffee cup twice while he ate breakfast. He told her not to fill his thermos, although she knew he was going to a job site of some sort by how he dressed.

Gary didn't say much about his new project, but Fran knew it involved Dury. If it involved Dury, she was certain that it was a solid venture. In time Gary would show her the plans and explain what he was doing, but first he need to have a plan.

Fran hoped this was the beginning of a new routine. She'd been after him to spend more time with Dury. Now that he was spending a couple of nights a week at Dury's, his old zip was back and he wasn't spending as much time in front of the TV watching meaningless games.

Gary hadn't come in until after midnight. Being up before eight surprised Fran. It told her he was serious about their plans. He said that he'd tell her about it later and they were still early in the planning stages. This told Fran that the final deal that started the work hadn't t been struck yet.

He'd talk to her about it later, but never this early on a new contracting job. Gary liked having things settled before he told Fran what it was he was doing.

Standing at the stove, Fran smiled as Gary kissed her goodbye.

"See you this afternoon, Babe." Gary said, giving her a goodbye kiss.

Gary turned off Jackson Highway onto onto St. James just before nine. He checked the row of shops on the right as he passed. Nothing had changed and there was no sign of life. It was an isolated location. Mindless idiots hadn't broken every window yet, which meant they hadn't passed here.

New life was coming to St. James. The shops could open after a good scrubbing and whatever decorative touches that would make each shop unique. Gary saw endless possibilities in walking distance from the apartments and the three Kurtz buildings.

'The shops would be easy,' Gary thought.

He'd gotten assurances he could buy the majority of the shops. For the plan to work, they needed all of them. He doubted the missing owners would try to hold out. Receiving a few thousand dollars for property they'd abandoned would be gravy.

The St. James Apartments remained unsecured. It was the lynchpin of Dury's plan. No apartments and no development. With a private owner, they needed to be careful. If he suspect development was coming to St. James, he would hold them up for top dollar.

Gary would be careful but he needed to see what he had to work with. He didn't like to wait when there were things he needed to do. St. James showed no signs of life. He'd take a good look around and start developing the property in his mind.

This was where Gary excelled. He could see what needed to be done to get the result he wanted. He knew what he could do with it and how it would look. This was his art and it couldn't be taught. When he reached the curbing at the end of St. James, Gary eased his F-150 over it and onto the grass beyond. A road that serviced the Kurtz property had been destroyed to limit access, but the ground was solid and he drove to the first factory building.

He parked under an overhang and checked to see if anyone was moving around on the street, but Gary was alone. It was a legal question now. He was Dury's contractor and Dury had a verbal deal with the state of South Carolina to develop the property and adhere to all state tax laws once Pleasant Valley was open for business.

As Gary stood beside building one, he imagined it in its heyday. He could hear the machinery turning out Kurtz doors. People and vehicles would have been coming and going. He then heard the silence.

He liked the feel of the brick and the straight perfect line they made as one brick was placed next to another, one on top of another. There was no bend in building one's wall, no uncertainty in its foundation. Kurtz one stood solid after standing empty for thirty years.

Good workmanship was appreciated. It's what Gary hoped his brickwork looked like after thirty years, straight and strong.

Kurtz doors went first class. The factory dated back to the late 40s or early 50s, when brick was king.

The windows were long ago busted out. He'd check the foundations but a man who did this kind of work didn't skimp. He wasn't going to find any shoddy workmanship. He'd been there ten minutes, but he knew what he'd tell Dury, "Solidly built."

Gary put on his hard hat and got out his gloves. He'd worn his work boots. It's what he did on a job site. He'd admired the first Kurtz door building, and now he'd investigate Pleasant Valley 1. What, if anything, could be salvaged for PV1. He was sure the foundation would be fine if they wanted to use the same footprint as Kurtz one?

He walked around the building, paying particular attention to the base of each wall where it met the foundation. On the second walk around he looked up to be sure the walls still stood straight.

He looked at building two a hundred yards away. It looked solid too. Gary made a mental notes. He wanted to know who built them. Doing quick math, he knew the builder was dead now. Gary had a desire to talk to him. Tell him Kurtz 1, 2, and 3 stood the test of time.

This was where Gary ran into trouble. Going in through the bent broken door, the floor shifted under his boots. Climbing over debris, the interior of the building was in shambles, badly abused.

'Why are people so stupid,' Gary wondered, realizing only a few feet of the concrete floor were ruined. Light fixtures hung by electrical wire. The brick work was visible inside the factory. Only steel girders covered the brick where they furnished heavy duty interior support for the two upper floors. The staircase had several metal desks and numerous chairs thrown down from the upper floors. The stairs were wide. It wasn't much work to get around the obstacles. The stairs were concrete. He imagined indoor/outdoor carpet covering them. Gary reasoned, 'It'll cost a pretty penny to bring these buildings down. The interior could be rehabilitated. He'd done great work with remodeling older buildings years ago. He'd keep that in mind. Dury might not like the buildings. Bringing them down would be expensive.

Walking on the floor carefully, his steps made a crunching sound from glass and crumbling ceiling tiles. This was a manufacturer. The girders were needed to support the weight of the machinery. Now he understood them.

When Gary stood looking at the bottom floor of building two, the sun was shinning inside the building. He walked to the back of the first level to investigate. He found himself looking up at a whole in the ceiling of the first floor. It matched up with a hole in floor three, and a hole opened the third floor to the roof.

Gary immediately thought, elevator shaft. Only there was no shaft.

'What's the hole for?' Gary asked himself.

He walked away from the hole, using his boot to clear the dirt and debris. Ten minutes into his search, he found what he expected. He worked faster, bending to throw ceiling tiles out of the way.

He found where a machine had been bolted to the floor. When he finished clearing, it revealed the outline of a machine. Checking the hold against the size of the machine, he knew what the hole was for.

He estimated ten machines on each side of the floor.

'They brought in a crane, cut a hole big enough to accommodate the machines, put a dolly under each corner, and move each machine to the hole. The crane lifts them through the roof and sets them down onto the back of a flatbed truck.'

Gary could see how it was done. It was how he'd do it.

Kurtz didn't go out of business. They moved to a new location.

He shook his head, looking at the blue sky above.

"You left a big damn hole in my buildings," he yelled at the sky.

Gary sat in the truck and ran searches for the builder. The corner stone had 1951 chiseled in it. He wanted to see if the building company was still around but he came up empty.

After three hours of investigating, Gary eased his truck down off the curb, parking beside the apartments, wanting to take a closer look at the outside of the building. Once he was satisfied, he decided to take a look inside and see what he could see in order to get an idea of where he'd start remodeling.

Dury didn't have ownership or an agreement on this building. He didn't want to leave without having some idea of how much work he was looking at to get the old brick structure up to code.

As he rounded the far corner of the building, a woman was hanging her wash.

"Hello, you're Mr. Lane's friend?" Lisa told him.

Gary jumped. His mind was somewhere else, but he took off his hat once he saw Lisa. He hadn't seen a living soul all morning and he'd forgotten there were still tenants in the apartments.

"Yes. You have me at a disadvantage. I'm Gary," he said. "I'm Dury's friend and contractor. I'll be remodeling the apartments."

"I'm Lisa," she said, moving to shake his hand. "I'm hanging my unmentionables out to dry. Makes them smell nice."

"Well, I won't mention it if you don't," Gary said with a smile.

Lisa laughed and finished hanging her clothes.

"You're in luck. I put a pot of coffee on before I came down. You look like a man who could use a cup."

"I am," Gary said, wanting to see inside an apartment. "Could I look around your apartment? I want to see what it'll take to remodel the building."

"Suit yourself. I'll furnish the coffee. You can look to your heart's content," Lisa said.

Gary checked the floors, the doors, and the studs in her walls. He stood on a chair to feel the cross beams in the ceiling. He was always surprised when he found an old building in good shape. Gone were the craftsman.

Gary believed he'd seen this builders work before and not far away. The corner stone on the apartments said 1949. When Kurtz build it's buildings, they hired the man who built the apartments. That was Gary's guess. It was the same even lines. a fingerprint of sorts.

"Upgrading the building won't be as much work as I thought. If the other apartments look like this one, it'll be a matter of updating the plumbing and electric system."

"I don't know much about building. The doors open and close. There are places where the floor creaks. It's only a noise."

"Show me where it creaks if you don't mind."

"Here," she said. "Standing on a spot next to the kitchen table. I don't feel anything but it makes that noise when I walk on it."

"Where else?" Gary asked, standing on the creaking board.

` "In front of the closet and as you go into the bathroom."

Gary moved around and turned the light on in the bathroom. He immediately looked at the ceiling and the floor under the sink and next to the bathtub. He checked the toilet and the quality of the materials that went into the apartment.

"We'll refinish all the wood floors. I'll try to match this tile in the bathroom, but this is solid tile and everything is plastic today. We'll go low flow toilets to save water. It won't be as solid as your toilet. I wouldn't want to replace the sink or or the tub. There's nothing on the market that matches the quality of these. Cheap and easy is what you get today," Gary revealed. "I wish they still made these sinks. I'd love to have one of these in my bathroom."

"I'm just looking. We don't even know who owns it yet."

"I have my rent receipts. Will that help?" Lisa asked.

"It's a front company. Collects the money takes the complaints. The owner doesn't want to get his hands dirty dealing with tenants."

"My mother lived here for twenty-five years. At first with my father, but he died. She wasn't hard on the place and I've been here since she got sick. No parties or football in the apartment."

Gary laughed.

"It helps to start with a well built apartment. There is no reason for them to ever fall apart. The plumbing and electricity will cost the most to upgrade. We want each apartment to be someone's home."

"You don't want to mention I was looking at the property. I get restless when I have a job coming. We don't want to alert anyone."

"Keith told me it was all hush hush for the time being," Lisa said.

"I've seen all I need to see. Thanks for the coffee," Gary said.

"Mum's the word," Lisa said.

"Noise?" Gary asked as he turned to leave.

"The building is close to empty right now, but I was here when most of the apartments were occupied. You could hear a door slamming in the hallway. People talking as they pass my door, but I don't think I've heard noise from other departments or people."

"That's a good sign. The building is well constructed. I'll need to check footings and I'll check the roof once we own it. I don't want to spend any more time here today."

"You're in business with Mr. Lane?" Lisa asked.

"Yes, you might say that. We'll be making St. James a much more pleasant place to live. We'll even have a chef cooking meals."

"Yes, Keith? He is a magician with food, and I'm a good cook."

"Keith is our partner. Thank you," Gary said, letting himself out.

Once back in the truck, Gary put his phone to his ear as he started his truck.

"Lane, I'm surprised you're up at this hour," Gary said.

"It's after noon. I was wondering if you were up."

"What do you say about having Keith fix us a late lunch or early supper. I've toured the Kurtz property and Lisa let me see her apartment. That was helpful. I'll go home and put it on paper."

"No one saw you looking about?" Dury asked.

"No. I parked out of sight and the only person I saw was Lisa."

"We won't be pulling everything down and starting over?" Dury asked.

"No. They left us some well constructed buildings. I think the same builder built Kurtz that built the apartments. I can't build you anything this solid for five million a building today. For two million a building, I can make them new and put anything you want inside. The apartments would need renovation, using what's there," Gary said.

"So give me ballpark for the three buildings and the apartments," Dury said.

"That's six million to renovate the existing factory buildings. Another one and a quarter for the apartment building. We'll probably need to replace the existing plumbing and electricity. Then there will be the cost of roads and paths. Call it eight million for that."

"Don't hold me to one and a quarter number on the apartments. I think we can get in cheaper, but I'm giving you a high ball figure. I just had coffee with Lisa and I checked her apartment. That was a big help."

"You have been busy. I'll get Keith to double the sirloin steak he was going to prepare. Salad, baked potato, cucumbers and onions and fresh strawberry pie for dessert."

"Oh man, you're killing me, Lane. I'll take two of each. See you in three to four hours. I need to get home and to my office. That way I'll be able to backup my work. I'll break it into materials and labor."

"We'll see you for dinner, Gary."

Gary backed out onto St James, driving back up the street, looking for what he didn't know, until he saw it. In the final block he found it. Pulling over in front of one of the empty shops, Gary got out his Windex and some paper towels for window cleaning.

The paper was taped on the inside of the window. It gave the name of the company to call if someone was interested in buying the property. Gary took the information down. He was making real progress. Gary was a happy camper but not happy enough to clean all the windows on two blocks of shops, looking for more fliers.

Gary sat back once he'd finishing his second piece of sirloin. The cucumber and onions in sour cream was a perfect dish to go with steak. He was accustomed to Fran's red wine and vinegar on the cucumber. Keith introduced a new flavor that went with a food Gary liked and it was quite good.

"You're in rare form today, Keith. How do you get such a great flavor in your eat? I've never had better steak. Sirloin is my favorite cut."

"I marinate the meat overnight. I have a special combination of herbs and spices. I live it like that for a few hours and I add red wine and leave it overnight. Starting with a good cut of meat the key to success."

"I do envy your ability to fix fine food. I can boil eggs in a pinch but they're never soft boiled. I must say, I do have quite good success with frozen dinners. When Fran goes away, she stocks up on frozen meals. I rarely ruin one, unless there's a good game on TV. I can forget to turn them off on time," Gary said.

"My kitchen is a place where a creative chef is at work," Dury said. "I enjoy food again. I'm sure I've gained weight since Keith came."

"I don't usually hear what people think about my meals. I prepare them and send them through a door and that's the end of it. From time to time, when I was a chef in New Orleans, a customer would ask to meet the chef. It's nice to hear compliments and seeing the faces of the people eating my food," Keith said.

"I'll take some more of that iced tea and I'll go out to my truck and get the drawings I made of the Kurtz property. I was busy today."

When Gary came back to the dining room, one end of the table was cleared. He opened his briefcase and laid out the sketches he'd made of St. James.

"You need a drink, Gary?" Dury asked, fixing himself a pitcher of martinis.

"After we're done. I don't drink while I'm working. Bad habit," Gary said, spreading out a half dozen drawings on the table.

"Now I drew these once I got home from St. James, while I had it fresh in my mind. You'll get the idea of what I'm thinking from the last two sketches. The first Sketch is Kurtz one outside. I don't see how we change the general appearance of the apartments without making it look out of place. They blend in well with the shops."

"And we own nothing on St. James. We only have the rights to the Kurtz property, which has a St. James address without being on St. James," Dury said.

"Hopefully, after you see what I'm suggesting, you'll be motivated to get the other properties. First picture simply the facade and one side of Kurtz one.

"The second picture is of Pleasant Valley 1. I've used neon to highlight the roof facing St. James. We put in an overhang, where a driveway will allow access to the main entrance. Double doors. Nice carpet inside and a partial living room like space, where perspective tenants get their first taste of Pleasant Valley living. Stressing the pleasantness. Nicely done but not to the point of nausea."

"Sketch three is how Pleasant Valley 1 looks after being completed, against the contrast of the way two and three looked this afternoon."

"That's a big improvement," Keith said. "The pink and blue accenting the roof is quite lovely."

"Lane, you have a blank look on your face. If you hate it you need to say so before we are walking into PV1 and it looks just like this."

"I didn't realize you were that creative. These are quite well done," Dury said, looking at the drawing from different angles. "I don't know what I think. This is a drawing. A building is a building. I don't dislike it and if it gets better by being bigger, like on a building, I think I can live with it."

"It's all merely mind games right now. I don't know the cost of neon and I've never installed it. I can talk to someone. When I got done seeing what's there, this was what I came up with off the top of my head."

"For a man with no imagination, you have certainly taken the work out of a decision on what to do with the Kurtz buildings. I like the facade," Dury said. "I don't need to see it on the building. I know it will be great."

"It didn't take any imagination. It was apparent what it needed."

"Easy for you to say. When I looked at it, I saw a wrecking ball and a lot of rubble where those buildings use to be," Dury said.

"The Kurtz interior will all come out. The floors are concrete and the supports look structurally sound. You've got to think they had a half million pounds of weight on each of those floors. No matter what we do, we won't have a quarter of that weight once we're done."

"There is a large hole in the roof. We'll replace the roof to be sure of what we have."

"Sounds like demolition and starting over is no longer a plan?" Dury asked.

"The price of knocking them down will cost a million of your dollars. We'd be trucking those buildings out of there for two solid months or more. The interiors are huge. The supports are steel girders inside of brick. I couldn't build one of those buildings for less than five million. The structure is sound and renovating it will cost you maybe two million a piece. That doesn't include the solar array I'll put on the roof of each building or the elevators I'll fill those holes in my roof with."

"If they're so well constructed, where'd the holes come from," Dury asked.

"They cut the hole to lift the machines out. I've seen knuckleheads knock half a wall down to move machines. The way Kurtz did it left three solid buildings for some enterprising entrepreneurs to make something out of.

"Elevators? Why elevators? It's only three floors."

"Because it's the easy way to fill the hole. You're going to need them for the disabled people who will come to live here. We want it friendly and accessible."

"You don't really need me. You've already figured it all out," Dury said.

"It's not as difficult as it sounds. There are only so many ways to go. If you don't want to waste the budget on tearing things down, you build them up."

"I can keep them fed," Keith said.

"I got a number off one of the shops. A real estate broker claims to represent the shops. I'll give you the number. I called and got a recording."

"You aren't going to leave anything for me to do?" Dury said.

"Get out your wallet. The apartments are your baby. I have no urge to get involved with an absentee landlord or his front company."

"We'll move on the the shops first. I need to talk to the people evicted from the apartments. It sounds like a landlord with plans. He's forcing out the tenants. He can't do that. I'll start a suit with Keith's name on it. The other tenants evicted can join the suit."

"Lisa stays in touch with the guys she looked after," Keith said.

"She came out while I was checking the apartment building. She invited me in for coffee. She let me check out her apartment. They are well built but will need upgrades."

"Lisa is making a list of the men who were evicted," Keith said.

"I'll draw up your suit against the landlord and expect to add names to it. If I'm the attorney of record, my name can't go on the apartments. I'll need you to buy the apartment, Gary."

"Is that legal?" Gary asked.

"All's fair in love and real estate. This guy evicted sick men. We plan to offer them a deal to return to their apartments. I think our motives are good, and we won't do anything illegal.."

"Many money man hire front companies to keep their names off of legal documents. What you and I are doing isn't any different. You are a contractor and developer. You are the front man in our operation. It's all above board. I wouldn't want the current owner to know that, but there's no reason he should."

"I take back all the nice things I said about you, Lane. I didn't know you knew how to do this stuff," Gary said.

"You'll buy with the understanding that you'll deal with any litigants. If they don't ask, don't offer that information. If they knowingly sell a property to hide their unethical treatment of tenants, we'll have one more count against them. I strongly suspect the evictions violated the law. That's how we explain our forming a company to help men who were mistreated. That's way better than anything they'll bring to court."

"So we're giving them a taste of their own medicine," Gary said.

"And that's why there are so many lawyers. You summed it up in a dozen words or less. A good attorney would take two pages to say that."

"You're telling us you have a racket?" Gary said.

"Of course not. You need lawyers to explain what lawyers write."

"It's like getting your business back. It took less than two hours once we got to court. We spent two years getting there."

"I thought you said you made sure you got that judge," Gary said.

"It never hurts to be on good terms with the judges," Dury said. "I mentioned over lunch that I would like him to handle your case. We did not discuss said case. I merely asked him to take it. I knew he'd hate what was done to you. His father was a top notch builder in Georgia."

"How in the world did you find that out?" Gary asked amazed.

"It pays to be on good terms with the judges and to know his background. I wanted a judge who could relate to you. He did. It gave us an advantage."

"Sometimes you leave me speechless, Lane. You do know your shit," Gary said.

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