The Squatters (#2)
To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
Part 2 : Rick commits the no-no of self help
Helena Clark Maxwell did not have any alcoholic beverages in the house. Rick, therefore, had to pretend to enjoy plain quinine water with fresh lime, while several old boom-boxes blared combinations of heavy metal and country music from his house over Helena’s rooftop to the patio where he sat with his hostess. At first he squirmed, a little shaky from sobriety, and grit his teeth, a reaction to the music; but then the breeze changed direction, and the soughing of the bamboo grove that was a quarter-acre deep at her property line, pushed the raucous sounds away. The relief he felt was palpable. “Tell me more about yourself,” he insisted. “You’re obviously an educated woman… a distinguished alumna, perhaps?”
“I studied fine arts in Paris and Amsterdam. Portraiture mainly. Classical style, no impressionistic stuff. I was once considered an excellent portrait artist.” She smiled. “I had a knack for painting pearls and diamonds. I don’t know why. But the very first day I tried to paint them, I succeeded. Other things I had to work at… but not pearls and diamonds. I could also do eyes… but teeth! Oh, they gave me trouble. It took me a year before I could get them to look natural. Soon after I turned pro, I was self-sufficient. I had beautiful clothes and I loved being seen in them. I traveled.” She sighed and grew quiet.
The squatters’ music could still be heard. “Do they ever play anything else?”
“The heavy metal is for the teenaged boy and I think the men like the western music.” She sat up.
“I’ve got an old CD player and a rather nice Shakuhachi recording that I haven’t listened to since before the 4th of July. The batteries should still be good… if you’d like to hear it.” She paused nervously. “I don’t want to force my Zen music down your… ears! You’ve been so kind.”
Rick pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather hear more than your voice and a Shakuhachi flute. Promise me you won’t stop talking just because the music’s playing.”
Helena giggled. “You just stay comfortable. I can carry a CD player all of twenty feet.”
Rick drank more quinine water and lime, and as he listened to the flute he began to relax and actually to enjoy sitting outside in the evening air on the squatter-free side of her house. They made a pact not to discuss problems; but then the breeze grew into a wind and perfidiously changed directions.
The flute recording had ended and Helena sighed, “It’s just as well. Come on. I’ll make us a bedtime snack.”
Rick noticed that her swimming pool was covered. “Don’t you swim anymore?”
“The squatters throw dead rats and all sorts of debris into the pool and then call the Board of Health who issue me citations. They killed a neighbor’s dog from down the street and threw it in… and reported me. That was the last straw. I drained the pool and covered it.”
“You are a kind human being… and the first who ever called me ‘kind.’ If you’re also tolerant and, perhaps, cooperative, I promise that you will be swimming in your pool very soon, indeed.”
“You will find me an able assistant if you intend to direct some malice towards my neighbors. Anything you ask, I will do. You have my word.”
“Great minds think alike,” Rick joked. Suddenly, a nearby gate opened. “Maybe it’s the surveillance guy,” he said.
A man carrying a stack of boxes came into the patio area. “Maxwell?” he asked. “I’m Jeff.”
Rick introduced himself, produced several folders of traveler’s checks from his hip pocket, and reiterated the conditions. “The cameras must be hidden and the recording’s resolution as high as possible. Can you do it?”
“You wanted ‘state of the art,’ and that means tiny, powerful, high res and expensive. You’re out here in the middle of nowhere… lucky to get cellphone service. There’s only a handful of internet users and they’re all DSL. You’ll get remote viewing, but don’t count on it. DVR, High Def, 24/7, 8 channel, 500 GB hard drive, 120 frames per second, playback, copy. The works. Interior cameras on the doors. You’ve got street lights and flood lights all around you so you don’t need night vision. I’ll do a complete perimeter installation. We’ll put the monitors in your downstairs’ office as you indicated.”
“”Lay on MacDuff,” Rick said, looking around to see two workers follow Jeff into the patio. “Would you like us to get out of your way?”
“For a couple of hours or so, that would be nice. Ms. Maxwell told me in some detail the unpleasant circumstances. I checked and verified that Richard Dubrovsky is the registered owner of the property next door. I’ll have to ask you both to sign a release because the way the courts are now, criminals have all the rights. ‘What’s yours, is mine and what’s mine, you keep your goshdarned hands off of.'” He produced several documents. Rick and Helena signed them and went inside.
The old itch seized Rick. “How about if we go out for some refreshment and let these men do their work unimpeded?”
Helena Clark Maxwell had not gone out with a man in months. “You don’t mind being seen with a scarred-up woman?”
“You offend me, Madam. I will be proud, indeed, to have you on my arm.” Curiously, Rick meant it. Such spiritual discipline as he had enabled him to despise superficiality in all its forms. And for a reason he did not quite understand – especially after seeing the disaster of his house – he felt playful. He extended his arm. “Shall we go? Your carriage awaits.”
Rick opened the mobile home’s door and ushered Bruno inside. He opened the passenger door for Helena, tossed Bruno’s bedding behind the seat, and said, “Your Highness… now you can do that flat-palm wave to the thousands that line the streets. You know that royal, ‘Howdy, folks’ wave.”
She laughed, and as they drove to Holbrook, it amused him to realize that he was slightly giddy. He thought to himself, I am not the man I was a few months ago, but neither am I anybody else. This woman is bringing out the good version of myself. The Good Rick. I am turning over a new leaf. Maybe she’s the page turner for the virtuoso pianist. He looked at her and wondered what she would be like in bed. Could the squatters have driven her to the extremity of conscience-free evil? This intrigued him. She was probably a nice girl once. Still… an artist in Paris and Amsterdam? She’d know the dark side. Maybe all the agony they put her through had made her sexually depraved. Or, maybe she’d behave lasciviously to please him. Maybe she’d want him to debase her. He’d need the lights on to appreciate the scene. Those lights would work both ways, and he was immediately reminded of his own scars. His humiliation inhibited him. Better to keep in mind that all cats are grey in the dark.
They went to a bistro and discussed solutions over vodka gimlets. Rick sipped his drink with relief. “While I see merit in tossing some dynamite under the house and blowing them all to tiny bits, it is my house, after all. Let’s start small.” Helena agreed. Rick outlined his plan. “We can buy some balloons and fill them with Karo syrup and toss them under their cars or in the weeds under the windows and let all the ants in Arizona come and have a banquet. We can get clay or baking potatoes and push them against their exhaust pipes to get a precise measurement of the diameter and then get polyethylene pipes – you have a sprinkler system so you probably have some lying around and, if not, we can buy tubing of the precise diameter. Then we fill a condom with water and put it inside the pipe and freeze it. Since we’ll be freezing them in your fridge, we don’t want anything dirty.”
“Ah,” Helena nodded approvingly. “Then at dawn, when it’s still freezing, we can slide the ice into the exhaust pipes. By the time they realize that they’ve got a serious problem, the ice and the evidence will have melted and the damage will have been done.”
“Exactly! How quickly you put things together! I am impressed!”
“We ought to stick a pin in the balloons before we launch them,” Helena said, “so that the syrup is sure to seep out. And we could stop in a party shop and buy that stinky stuff… it’s a liquid. I weigh only 115 pounds. I can tiptoe to their chimney and pour the stuff down.” She hesitated. “Another thing we could use is a package of those instant biscuit rolls. We can flatten them against the side of the exhaust pipe and then, as they heat, they swell up as they bake. They’ll prevent the exhaust from escaping. While they’re doing the damage, they’ll turn black and flake away like ordinary carbon. I’ll buy some tomorrow if that’s ok with you.”
“Excellent! That’s a fine idea! ‘Fart and Skunk Juice’ it’s called. I confess, that never occurred to me. Maybe it’s because I can’t envision myself climbing onto roofs.” He patted his belly. “And I tend to think of biscuits only as comestibles.” He picked up her hand. “And pricking the balloons,” he said suggestively. “You naughty girl. I can hardly contain my joy.” He suddenly became solemn. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself and omit things you ought to know. What I’m saying is that I have a confession to make.”
Helena became apprehensive. “What is it? You can tell me.”
“You know that originally I had a contract with a property management agency. They’d pay the utilities – to keep my credit good – and I’d reimburse them immediately and they’d get the money from the tenants. It worked out fine for the longest time. But then the house went vacant and while they were looking for new tenants, those animals moved in. The utility bills came in and the agency paid them and I reimbursed them – but they couldn’t collect from the squatters. I had left the water and power on so that the lawns would be maintained and the floodlights, of course, so that prospective tenants could be shown around.
“At first I didn’t pay much attention. I may have been in South America at the time… I’m not sure… but the bills became enormous and I asked the agency to get the squatters out. But though they didn’t pay rent, or taxes, or utilities, they did receive mail at my address and a couple of them registered to vote. So the address became their legal address. It was difficult and expensive but the agency finally won their case and I immediately had the utilities turned off – and that’s when your problems began… because that’s when the squatters had the decision reversed by taking in a disabled vet; and the agency was warned that if they persisted in harassing them they faced all kinds of charges. I paid to have the vet paid-off, and he moved out. The sheriff came and verified that there was no vet living there, but I never did anything more about it. I assumed that the judge had reversed his reversal. I wasn’t being billed for any more utilities and the agency had had enough of those people and ceased to represent me. I wasn’t really bothered about it… I guess my interest was elsewhere. So for the last months you’ve suffered because of my negligence. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
“Of course. It isn’t your fault. They are so crafty. They know how to get the judge to sympathize with them. My attorney’s efforts are always blocked… They produce a pregnant woman…. or an elderly man… or a disabled vet. On it goes. I hate to tell you what it’s cost me… besides the scars, career, and marriage. They earn money “renting” rooms out. They could have paid their bills. But they have an ‘outlaw gang’ mentality. Thank God for my religion. I’d have gone crazy if I hadn’t been able to get control of my mind.”
“What did your lawyer tell you?” Rick asked. “It seems to me he could have done more to protect you.”
“He said that the utility companies said that if I suspected a crime had been committed I should report it to the police. Meanwhile, I was liable for the bill. I could take more civil actions to recoup the charges, but that would hardly be worth the time and expense. I reverted to a kind of primitive existence. I bought a padlock for my circuit breaker box in the back yard, and at night, I’d throw the electric switch. I also got a toy shotgun and since I couldn’t sleep I’d stand guard occasionally at a kitchen window holding it. I got an adult terrier from the pound and he’d bark whenever someone came into the yard. I tried to keep him in the house… but he wasn’t trained and wouldn’t obey; and one day he got out and died soon after. I hadn’t been that close to him but I felt responsible. I had him buried beside Greta. And then I had all the exterior electric outlets removed and the faucets welded shut. Then they started to get their power and water from the neighbors on the other side of them. These people have children, and I heard that their kids were threatened if any complaints were made. After what happened to me, people took their threats seriously.
“I don’t have the right to initiate eviction proceedings. You do; and my attorney said that if they live there for two years, they’ll have a legitimate claim to assert that they’re holding the ‘abandoned’ property by hostile or adverse possession. This means they’ll have the right to shoot you if you try to dislodge them.”
“I could only glimpse what they did to the garage doors and lawn. Has the rest of the house been similarly abused?”
“I would suppose so. From what I’ve seen, the kids would swing on the cabinet doors in the kitchen and they are mostly pulled off their hinges. The woodwork around the windows has been destroyed by their incompetent installation of the air conditioners. Your house is the oldest in the neighborhood. It had its own well, which became a water company when the other houses were built. And then it came under County management. There’s a small brick building right where you parked your mobile home. The well is inside it. Only the fire department can access it.”
“Hmm. And we can’t just burn down the place. My insurance policy was not renewed.”
“And a burned out wreck next door wouldn’t help me sell my house. I don’t have home owner’s insurance either. The policy would not be renewed.”
“Good grief!” Rick exclaimed. “We can’t even commit insurance fraud!” They both laughed.
On the drive home, they stopped in a convenience store and bought syrup, balloons, a tube of raw biscuits, and a bottle of vodka. As they left the store they saw a dead rabbit lying in the road. A child again, Rick stopped and got a plastic trash bag from behind his seat. “Let’s give them something for my pool,” he said, collecting the dead animal. They giggled all the way home. Rick placed a ladder against the fence and flung the dead animal into his pool. When they heard the splash they jumped up and down and clapped their hands.
“Let’s do the syrup and balloon thing before the surveillance guys connect the system,” Rick suggested. Using a funnel, they filled half a dozen balloons, tossed half of them over the fence, and tossed the remaining three under the cars in front of the house. The music was off for the night. Helena mixed two drinks and brought out two blankets. Rick turned on the Japanese flute music and they braved the cold night air and lay back on the deck chairs on the patio to marvel at the stars.
The surveillance company men finished installing the cameras and monitors. “If you want to switch off the cameras, you can shut them down at the monitors or, since the system runs on house electricity, you can throw the circuit breaker out back and shut off the whole house. I have a big battery generator in stock. You can get along without it; but if you fear natural power outages – like thunderstorms – you should get an emergency generator. That takes a simple hookup. Just call me if that’s what you want. And read the manuals!” he said firmly. Then he added, “The system’s on if you want to go watch us leave.”
They hurried to Helena’s office and could hardly believe the clarity of the images on the monitor that picked up the unmarked van’s departure. There was only one chair at the desk. Rick sat on it and Helena sat on his lap. In a soft voice, Helena finally said, “It’s getting late.”
Rick walked her to her bedroom door. “Dear lady,” he sighed, “you are a worthy partner.” He kissed her goodnight and then retreated to the guest room.