Deck the Hallways
My meeting with the contractors took place in the library on the second floor. There were no books left on the shelves, but that was fine because they only would have hidden the splendid Art Nouveau-style bookshelves that lined the room. The curving, twisting woodwork was a masterpiece of carpentry, carved from rich, warm golden oak that swirled and undulated from floor to ceiling, covering three walls.
An equally beautiful library ladder moved on a circular track around the room. Two noble Corinthian columns stood on either side of the door as though welcoming the reader into the room and indicating the way forward. A wall of windows allowed a fabulous view of the expansive front lawn and if you leaned in and looked to the left, you’d catch a hint of blue ocean water a mile away.
We had debated whether or not to rent this room to a single person, but finally decided to leave it as a library because the room was just too beautiful. Why not share it with everyone in the house? We also had all those tricky construction details to consider, like adding a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a closet somewhere close by. We decided to avoid those problems and give the tenants a library they could all enjoy. We already had stacks of books being donated by everyone in town, as well as from the bookstore and the public library.
At our meeting, all of the contractors were on board to help cover for the loss of Frank. I gave a good-natured warning that I would hold them to it, but I knew they would come through for me. The guys were anxious to get started and since we’d already had the group tour last week in which I’d pointed out their assigned areas and the basic work to be done, I let them get to it.
Once they cleared the room, Wade and I worked out a more specific schedule of which contractors would cover Frank’s assignment each day. Before leaving the library, he and I scoped out our own assignments for the day. One of the jobs I’d given myself was to examine the eight opulent fireplaces in the house to make sure they were all viable and safe. Luckily, Forester House had central heating and air conditioning, so the apartments without fireplaces would still be warm enough in the winter and cool in the summer. Jason had decided that the families renting the larger apartments would pay nothing extra for those big, grand fireplaces since the amount of wood it would take to warm those rooms would be way too pricey for most of our low-income tenants.
“I’m going to get started on the fireplace in the foyer,” I said. “I’ll try to be finished by the time the morning volunteers arrive. I’ll give them a quick pep talk and then hand out their assignments.”
The contractors knew they’d be getting two or three volunteers, and they already had some easy jobs lined up for each of them.
Wade shut down his tablet. “How about if you and I meet around ten o’clock after your pep talk? Just to touch base and make sure everyone’s happy.”
I took the main staircase down to the large foyer, where I’d left my tool chest next to the massive fireplace. The foyer in Forester House was truly dramatic, starting with the front double doors made of heavy iron and thick glass. The wrought-iron design was classic Art Nouveau with lush curves and swirls, lacy flourishes, and delicate fleur-de-lis cascading along the edges. The floor was inlaid marble and the fireplace was made of shimmering blue mosaic tile. Graceful alabaster cherubim fluttered up the pillars that supported each side of the marble mantel and the large mirror in the center.
It was obvious that the generous owners had wanted their guests to stay warm and happy while waiting for their carriages and limousines to pick them up after an elegant evening of dining and dancing. Why else would they install a huge fireplace by the front door? In addition to warming up the spacious room, it gave an immediate impression of grandiosity. In fact, every inch of this home hearkened back to a time when lavish indulgence was the norm.
Call me goofy, but the thought of sprucing up this stunning old grande dame Victorian made me a little giddy. I knew this job—with its dozens of volunteers and hundreds of quirky construction problems and puzzles, along with the fact that we had to have the entire project finished by Christmas Eve in less than two weeks—was going to be a real doozy.
I tied my hair back, wrapped a bandana around my head, and secured it with my baseball cap. Grabbing my flashlight, I crawled into the wide, tiled firebox to make sure the damper was still working. After a few minutes of struggling with the pulley, it loosened up and I averted my face as I pushed it back. The flue and chimney were amazingly clear, allowing me to see a bit of blue sky—once I was sure nothing was going to drop down on top of me. I always shielded my eyes because Lord only knew what might be trapped inside these old chimneys. In the past I’d been doused with rainwater, grimy soot, any number of dead birds, and, more than once, a petrified squirrel.
Seeing blue sky wasn’t necessarily a good thing in this case, however, since it meant that there was no chimney cap. I made a mental note to purchase caps for all the chimneys in the house to prevent water and animals from getting inside.
Meanwhile, though, I was happy to report that the foyer fireplace was clean and operational. Of course, with children moving into the house and everyone having access to the foyer, I decided I’d better query Jason Walsh about converting this fireplace to gas and covering it with a glass screen. Alternatively, he might want it closed off completely. In that case, it would be simple enough to place a decorative fire screen and a large potted plant in front of the firebox to block access.
I made another mental note to ask the prospective tenants what they thought of those two choices. My mental note list was getting long enough to start actually writing things down, so I crawled out of the firebox to get my tablet.
“Who’s in charge around here?” someone shouted from the front door.
I almost jumped at the sound, but quickly recognized that blustering voice. “Dad!”
I smiled fondly at him. He looked tanned and healthy after a week of fishing up in Alaska. So why was he wearing a tool belt over his work clothes? And what was with the tool chest he was carrying?
Pulling off the baseball cap and bandana I had used to protect my hair, I brushed the smudges of soot off my shirt and hugged him. “What’re you doing here?”
He gave a casual shrug. “I heard you’re short a contractor. I’m signing up for the job.”
I opened my mouth to comment but no words came out. Maybe because I was in shock. My father had suffered a heart attack six years ago and had turned his successful construction company over to me. Now he was looking for a job? In construction? The thought of him overdoing it and getting sick again terrified me.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked.
“You need my help.”
“Not as badly as I need you to stay healthy.”
“Are you saying I can’t handle the work?”
“Are you deliberately trying to be obtuse?”
“Aw, come on, sweetheart.” He grinned. “Don’t worry so much. I’m just going to supervise. Pete’s going to help me out and we’ll have plenty of crew around to take up the slack. My hands will barely get dirty.”
“Why am I not convinced?” Dad and Uncle Pete were best pals and two peas in a pod. Could I possibly depend on my uncle to restrain my father’s natural tendency to overdo it? On the other hand, it had been six long years since the doctors had given Dad a clean bill of health—on the condition that he took good care of himself.
Letting out a sigh of frustration, I said, “I don’t want to see you get stressed out.”
“Who, me? Stressed out?”
“Yes, you.” I shook my finger at him. “I don’t want you lifting anything.”
“I’ll have minions around to do that.”
“You’ll end up doing it yourself and land in the hospital.”
“No way.” He continued to smile. “I’ll be so laid back it’s frightening.”
“I doubt it. You used to be very competitive on your job sites. You always had to work harder, stay later, lift more.” I could feel myself losing the argument so I shook my finger at him again, trying for intimidation. “If I see you lifting something too heavy, I’ll smack you.”
He patted his heart. “I know that’s coming from a place of love.”
“Of course.” Winding my arm through his, I lowered my voice. “Look, Dad. The bank has Mr. Potter overseeing this project. He’ll probably be hanging around here every day. I know how you feel about him.”
“Potter.” He sneered at the name of the bank’s senior vice president. “I can handle that lying blowhard. Trust me, he won’t come around much. He’s allergic to hard work.”
“You’re probably right about that,” I muttered. Giving up, I threw my arms around him again and squeezed him in a tight hug. “Just be careful, please.”
“You have to stop worrying about me. My heart’s fine.” Serious now, he added, “I’ll take every precaution. Promise. The last place I want to be on Christmas Day is in a hospital.”
“You and me both.”
He glanced around, gazing up at the grand staircase leading to the second floor. “So where do you want me to start?”
I frowned at the question. Here was another quandary. I had already assigned my first-floor contractors, but I didn’t want my father to have to climb a lot of stairs every day. I could just see myself insisting that he use the fancy black-and-gold wrought-iron elevator Mr. Forester had proudly installed next to the grand staircase. I knew Dad would do anything to avoid that pokey old rattletrap and sneak up the stairs anyway.
Was it unfair of me to play favorites and consign him to one of the plum downstairs suites? After a momentary argument with myself, I made an executive decision to give up my own assignment to him. That would leave me free to cover Frank’s room upstairs. It made sense, I had to admit.
“All right, apartment three is all yours. It’s huge. It covers the southwest quadrant of the first floor, which includes the ballroom and the butler’s pantry.”
He gave a firm nod, then glanced around, gauging directions. Correctly pointing toward southwest, he said, “Let’s go check out the space and you can tell me what you want done.”
He grabbed his tool chest and followed me across the spacious foyer, past the grand stairway, past the small elevator, and into a wide hall that ran the length of the home. “You’ll be working at the back of the house, but it’s a fabulous space with a nice view of the side yard. It’s got its own entry from the parking area, along with direct access to the back veranda.”
“That veranda’s a great plus, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s like having another room to enjoy.”
“It’s spectacular,” I said, obviously impressed with the expansive and elegant outdoor space. It was furnished with vintage wicker patio furniture still intact from the home’s glory days. Our team would add to the furniture and also provide several barbecue grills so that all the occupants could enjoy the outdoor space once the remodel was completed.
There was even an old-fashioned porch swing that just needed some sprucing up and a bit of oiling to make it functional again.
“This place will be a dream come true for these folks,” Dad remarked.
“I hope so. They’re so deserving of a safe place to live.” I glanced back at Dad as we reached a door at the end of the long hallway. “You know they’ve all signed up to work with us on the rehab so you’ll probably get a chance to meet them.”
“I seem to recall that the charity made that a requirement for anyone who applied for housing.”
“That’s right.” I grabbed the door handle. “Here we are.” Pushing it open, I stood to the side. “You go ahead, Dad.”
I followed him into the elegant ballroom and watched him gaze around. Stepping down from the small entry space into the main part of the room, he crossed the forty foot expanse of shiny hardwood ballroom floor, shaking his head in amazement. “It’s still as spectacular as I remember it.”
That was a surprise. “You’ve been here before?”
I remained in the entry area where two smooth Ionic columns stood sentry on opposite sides of the space. Staring across the room, I could envision couples in evening gowns and tuxedoes waltzing around the room as others gathered on the sidelines to chitchat and observe.
Every inch of the room was extravagantly decorated to a degree I’d honestly never experienced. The coffered ceiling was an explosion of ornate rosettes and flying cherubs. A froufrou ceiling medallion studded each coffer and crystal chandeliers were hanging from every other square. Instead of wainscoting, the room was ringed in half-height pilasters, each with an angel’s head topped by rows of classic dentil molding. As with all of the other fireplaces throughout the house, the one in the ballroom was joyfully excessive with iridescent green tiles lining the firebox and satyrs and angels frolicking along narrow pilasters all the way up to the twelve-foot ceiling.
The heavily sculpted wood mantel supported a beveled mirror framed in foot-wide bas relief grapevines.
Dad pointed toward the far side of the room, where a small, raised section of the floor created a stage of sorts. “That’s where the orchestra played.”
I tried to picture a big band squeezed into the curving, ten-by-ten-foot space. Along the bowed outer wall of the stage area, three sets of ironwork French doors led outside to the back veranda. I imagined the doors were kept open during a party on warm evenings in the summer.
Looking as though he were a million miles and some forty years away from here, Dad continued to wander the room.
“What are you thinking, Dad?”
“Just remembering that night. It was after our high school graduation.” He chuckled. “That was some party.”
“You went to school with Dorothy Forester, right?”
“Yes. We called her Dodie. She was dating my buddy Roy, so she invited his whole gang. A few months after graduation, she broke up with Roy and ran off with Joey Schmidt. They got married and never returned. And then she died, of course. Way too young.”
“Did Joey Schmidt ever come back?”
“No, they both died in a car crash in Germany. It was big news at the time. Her mother never recovered from losing her only child and died a year or so later. And her father famously committed suicide.”
“I remember hearing about that. I wonder why Dodie moved away in the first place. Did her father disapprove of Joey?”
“I can’t say for certain, but frankly, I wouldn’t blame him.” He ran one hand lovingly across the woodwork. “Joey was never much to write home about, but he was a good-looking kid.”
“So maybe Dodie fell in love,” I said, irked at the suddenly wistful tone of my voice.
Dad looked dubious. “I always thought she was looking for someone to rescue her from her father. Old Forester was a rough piece of work. He ruled with an iron fist, as we used to say.”
Franklin Forester had inherited Sylvan-Forester, the country’s largest supplier of lumber and a major source of employment along the north coast for more than 150 years. With the redwood groves dwindling and endangered species standing in the way of the industry gobbling up every tree they could get their hands on, those boom days were long gone.
“Did you know him?” I wondered.
“I met him, but I didn’t know him. Some folks said he ran his family like he ran his business. Into the ground.”
“That’s sad.” Gazing around at the ornate ballroom walls, I sighed. “His family built a beautiful home, though.”
“They did,” Dad said. “And the work you’re doing here will go a long way toward polishing the Foresters’ tarnished legacy.”
“I just hope everyone will be happy with the final results.”
He stared up at the baroque-style ceiling decorated with all those ornate moldings. “It seems a shame to break up the home into separate apartments, but it’s better than the alternative, I suppose.”
“Definitely better than tearing the place down. And we plan to keep most of these big, gorgeous rooms intact. They’ll be set up like loft-style apartments, you know? We’ll add a dining room table and chairs over in that corner, a living area here in front of the fireplace, and the bedroom will be over there where the band played. The designers will come up with all sorts of creative ways to separate the different spaces. You know, using plants and bookshelves and screens and such.”
“It’s going to look great.” Dad slung his arm across my shoulders and gave me a quick squeeze. “I’m proud of you, honey. You’ll do a fantastic job.”
“Hey,” he said with a grin. “Speaking of tearing things down, check out this sweet little demolition ax I picked up in Alaska.” He pulled a small, black tool from his tool belt, unwrapped the rectangular sheath, and held it up for me to admire. “Is that a beauty or what?”
“It looks lightweight.”
“You’d think so, but the ax head itself weighs almost a pound. It’s carbon steel. Try it.”
“Wow.” I took the ax from him and held it in my hand. It was barely fifteen inches long with a seven-inch head. The blade was seriously sharp and the spike end looked as if it could chop through doors. “Very nice. Solid. I like this thick foam grip.”
“Isn’t that handy? We met some firefighters in a bar in Homer and they all recommended it.”
“Well, they ought to know.”
He chuckled. “Darn right.”
I handed the ax back to him. “I hope you’ll have a chance to use it. Believe it or not, we’re going to try to avoid as much demolition as possible.”
“That’s no fun,” he said with a good-natured chuckle.
“Don’t worry. You’re one of the lucky ones. You’ll actually get to do a little demo in the butler’s pantry.” I pointed to the door on the other side of the fireplace. “We want to turn it into a full-fledged kitchen.”
“Sounds good,” he said, admiring his new ax. “Nothing like a little demo to get the blood flowing.”
I rolled my eyes at his bloodthirsty grin. “Let’s go check out the space.” But I stopped as the sound of pounding footsteps rang out from down the hall.
Dad and I exchanged curious glances just as the door to the ballroom swung open with a bang and the senior vice president of the Lighthouse Cove Bank and Trust stormed into the room. He didn’t look happy at all.
“Hammer,” he snarled. “Just as I thought.”
I took a step toward him. “Mr. Potter, can I help you?”
Peter Potter looked like the stereotypical prosperous banker—tall and balding with a large belly cloaked in an expensive black suit with a red power tie.
“What do you want, Potter?” Dad asked, his tone instantly hostile.
Potter’s pasty complexion was mottled and his red nose made me think he’d just indulged in a three-martini lunch, even though it was early in the morning. His eyes flashed with resentment.
He ignored me and glared at my father. “I knew it was a mistake to put your daughter in charge of this job.”
Dad gritted his teeth to contain his irritation. “My daughter is the best person in the country to run this project.”
“Not if she allows you to work here.”
“Now, wait just a minute,” I said, squaring my shoulders. Nobody insulted my father when I was around. “You didn’t put me in charge, Mr. Potter, and neither did your bank. The charity did. And the other fifteen contractors working here took a vote and agreed, so it’s a done deal. They want me to run this project and they won’t be sorry. Neither will you.”
His lip curled in disturbing grin and he took another step closer. “I can change the outcome of that vote in a heartbeat.” He snapped his fingers in my face.
“Why, you old gasbag.” Dad shoved his way between us, forcing Potter to step back. “You try that and every news station and newspaper in the state will hear about it. I’ll bet they’d love to get their hands on the story of how you bullied the crew and interfered with this charity project.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Try me.” Dad jabbed his finger for emphasis. “And while I’m talking to reporters, I might just fill them in on some even juicier gossip—and I think you know what I’m talking about. It’s your choice, but if I were you, I’d stay out of our way.”
Potter’s cheeks turned even redder and he huffed in a breath. “I want you off this job site now.”
“Tough.” My dad snorted derisively. “You’re not in charge. I’m working here and you can’t stop me.”
This conversation was descending rapidly, so I tried to calm them both down. “Mr. Potter, everyone here is working for the good of the families. It’s only for a little while. Can’t we all get along until Christmas?”
He grunted in dismissal. “Your daughter’s as big a simpering fool as you are.”
Dad came in closer and shoved him in the chest. The banker stumbled backward. “One more word against Shannon and I’ll make you sorry you were ever born.” He was as angry as I’d ever seen him and I felt a frisson of fear as I worried about his heart.
“Oh, I’m so scared,” Potter whined sarcastically. But in typical coward style, he said it while backing toward the door.
“You should be scared,” Dad said through clenched teeth. He was still holding his sharp, new ax and he raised it up to make his point. “If I hear you talking trash about my daughter again, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”