Short Story: “As Is”

What do you do when its not someone else’s problem any more?

“As Is”
Part 1 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

Ryan Svorlin stood in front of the big house, gaping. The keys hung loosely in his shaking hand, clattering against one another in rhythmic reflection of the waves of shock coursing through his troubled mind. “It… it’s… mine,” he stammered, unable to comprehend what had just happened.

“Well, sure,” the real estate lady told him. “You did sign the papers, didn’t you?”

He slowly turned to look at her. Paper-thin skin stretched across unnaturally prominent cheekbones. Overdone make-up. Probably over seventy, he guessed. “Of course. But I never expected to —.”

“To be selected? Well, someone had to be. They couldn’t afford to let these places go vacant, after all.”

Less than a year had passed since the first cannonade in the financial meltdown destroyed the façade of normalcy masquerading as prosperity in the United States. Some faceless blogger had instigated a mortgage strike, an incautious response to the revelation that the reason the government was so determined to protect the masses from being dispossessed in their forced insolvency was the dirtiest little secret at the heart of the country’s high-flying economy – that nobody really owned all those high-risk loans, and therefore the houses could not be foreclosed. No one could have predicted what happened next.

“But what happened to the people who used to live here?” he said, taking in the carefully manicured grounds surrounding what must have been a million-dollar mansion not more than a year ago.

“Didn’t you follow that slow-motion train wreck in the news? How all the high-risk loans had been bundled into anonymous investment vehicles and oversold to the tune of about a hundred to one?”

He shrugged. “Well, sure. But what I didn’t get was why that meant the people in places like this ended up on the street. I thought they were rich. I mean, wouldn’t they have to be, in order to afford a place like this?”

“Come on, Mr. Svorlin, you can’t be that naïve, can you? They were only rich on paper. People like Gregory Davis, who used to live here, were only riding high because of the same financial leverage that made the risky mortgage scam work. Once the investment banks realized they couldn’t liquidate the loans they’d turned into sludge, they had no choice but to pull the so-called safe ones, like this gem. Davis might have thought he was rich, but once his house of cards came down, he wasn’t worth enough to get his own dog back from the pound.”

“So where did he end up?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really care. The world might be in chaos right now, but it’s a far sight better, as far as I’m concerned, than it was before the meltdown. At least now there’s some relationship between a person’s ability to do things and her budget. With all those clowns out of the picture, ordinary folks, people who can offer some useful product or service to others, are finally getting their due. For my money – and I earned it by knowing a thing or two about aircraft back in the day – I think it was worth the cost.”

He studied her briefly, wondering after her back-story, but then let it go. Things were changing so quickly any more that the most important thing about a person was what he could do right now. “Well, thanks for all the help,” he said, nodding courteously.

“Sure.” She turned smartly, perhaps recalling a younger day, and strode back towards the bus stop.

Ryan waited until she had rounded the bend before heading towards the big house’s ornate front door. Like all the other people who had posted bids for these mansions, he had no idea what he might find inside. They were all offered as-is, and it was up to the lucky winner to deal with whatever it is they might find.

His pace slackened as he drew towards the broad brick stairway up to the deck, which looked like it encircled the building. He slowly scanned the façade. The windows were intact, and he didn’t see any obvious signs of forced entry or vandalism. At least Davis’ public anonymity was good for something. A lot of these homes had been ransacked within days after the bottom fell out. Those were the ones with owners whose faces were plastered all over the news in the inevitable hunt for the guilty. Happily, even the newspapers didn’t fall for that dodge. They ran the stories, of course, but only as a way to hook the shadowy types who had thrown their business associates in front of the train to save their own skins. But Davis wasn’t one of them. Nobody really knew what he did, or where his wealth came from. Only that it had all evaporated one afternoon. And that he never made a move to protect it.

As he reached the top step, he raised the bundle of keys the real estate lady had handed him, and located the one she’d said was for the front door. He could see inside, through the gauzy layer of curtain beyond the big windows flanking him on both sides. The lights were still on.

The moment he opened the door, Ryan knew something was wrong. He hadn’t smelled death before, but couldn’t think of anything else to attribute the stench to. He grabbed a small table from just inside and used it to prop the door open. He’d crack some windows as soon as he’d determined what the source was.

Whatever else Davis might have been, he was a man who didn’t like clutter. The big room had a few carefully placed chairs and tables, Danish Modern from the look of them, and little else. He glanced down the long corridor that led towards the back of the house, but didn’t see any lights. So he followed the dogleg around to the right, and towards the arched entry to the dining room. He was getting closer, judging by the smell.

Steeling himself, Ryan stepped past the long dining room table, only tangentially aware of the intricate inlay work along its edge. Finding a body slumped over a table in the kitchen had been so overused in film and fiction, he was already flashing to several vintage mysteries, in a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood. So, when he crossed the threshold and scanned the room, he was relieved to find the man he assumed to be the former owner, collapsed over the island sink, with a bloody pile of towels strategically placed to minimize the mess.

“How thoughtful, Mr. Davis” he said to the corpse. “Low profile to the end. I guess now I know why your house was so attractively priced.”

After opening the kitchen door and windows to clear the air a bit, Ryan returned to Davis’ impromptu sacrificial altar for another look. He’d cleanly slit his wrist with one of seven knives he’d laid out for the chore. The lucky one was submerged in the half-filled sink.

“Indecisive?” he asked. Then, spotting an open bottle of prescription narcotic near the microwave, he added, “And conscientious, too. So who were you, and how did you come to this?”

Not too long ago, a discovery like this would have been reason to call 911. But that was before the meltdown, before the city government admitted that it had been engaging in foolhardy investment schemes, too. It was just as broke as Davis here. The only city services still functioning were the ones charging users directly, like the bus system. The fire department had taken to using a pay-as-you-burn system. They’d put out your fire as soon as you showed them enough real money to cover the call, which meant that for most people, there was no fire department.

Davis was Ryan’s problem.

He’d have to dispose of the body himself, unless he had some way to pay for someone else to do it. Fortunately, there was plenty of lawn. All he needed was to find a shovel. Who knows, maybe the guy left one of them around, too.

But that could wait. At the moment, he was more interested in finding out more about his late benefactor. So he set off into the house in search of clues. Not surprisingly, it was a brief search. Davis had left some papers open on his office desk, and Ryan sat down to look through them.

The one on top was a copy of Davis’ will. Before the meltdown, he’d decided to leave everything to charity, a foundation that helped people rebuild their credit after going through bankruptcy. “Feeling guilty, were you, Greg?” he said as he paged through the man’s financial records. Just about every bit of his estate had been tied up in one kind of risky derivative or another… bundled mortgages, several kinds of GDP futures. It was a veritable grab bag of monetary moronity. And they were all worthless.

The only saving grace in the whole stack was a frayed news clipping, part of an old investigative piece that, if it were true, nearly landed the man in a Senate hearing room. Ryan flattened it out and began to read. About two-thirds of the way through, the author asserted that Gregory Davis had been instrumental in getting the government’s oversight board to look the other way when they had the chance to stop the worst of the schemes from being launched.

Davis had personally cocked the trigger. He was responsible for having set up the meta-derivatives that were offered to the governments of the world as a way to actually profit from their own debt. The meltdown, as inevitable as it might have been, must have been triggered by something. He was just unlucky enough to have been the fool who placed that last straw on the camel’s back. And nobody knew. It was his secret, and he couldn’t live with it. No wonder he killed himself.

Ryan dropped the clipping and went back to the kitchen… back to the site of what he now guessed was Davis’ idea of ultimate penance: personal blood sacrifice. He stared at the man’s body for a long moment, with not so much as a thought coursing through his head.

It wouldn’t do to clean up the mess, he decided, not after Davis went through so much trouble to make such a dramatic, albeit private, exit. No. Not when it could be put to such a good use.

He rummaged around the house for a while, until he finally found something suitable for a sign, and some heavy markers. When he was finished, he took it out on the patio and hung it from the banister so anyone passing by could see.

‘Thank the Trigger Man,’ it read, ‘$1.00 a spit.”

Davis, he decided, would be worth more, left as is.


[Afterword: It’s not over yet. Read on in “Full Value“. Or for a taste of corporate pay-back, try “Logical Conclusion“]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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