After finishing that shitty coffee, my cell phone rang. It was Mystery Lady.
“Hello?” I answered, “Mrs. Jones?” I switched my grammar and diction filters back on.
“Hello, Mr. Walczak. Again, thank you for coming.” As always, her telephone voice was just heavenly. And her ongoing attention to my name melted my heart.
I laughed and said: “While I’m sure it’s my fault, I think I might be lost.”
“No, you’re fine. Step outside. I’m right behind you.”
I glanced left at my driver-side mirror. In it I saw the broadside of a black car. It sat idling in the fading sunlight behind my bumper, blocking me in my parking space.
My phone still to my ear, I exited the van and turned. There stood Mystery Lady by the car in her brown velvet hat and matching jacket, cell phone to her own ear. She smiled and lowered her phone. In amusement I lowered mine too.
With a second look I realized the black car was a limousine, its rear passenger door hanging open beside her. In the front seat sat a uniformed chauffer.
“Please join me,” she gestured to the open limo door. “We have a long drive.”
“What about my van?” I fumbled uncomfortably at this whole turn of events. “All my equipment is in it.”
“I already have all the equipment you’ll need. If anything is missing we’ll come back here for it.”
No! I thought. There’s no such thing as a customer providing a plumber with tools. And certainly not the RIGHT tools. This isn’t real! I stood frozen in fear.
She saw my hesitation and her face grew worried. She walked up to me as I stood paralyzed in the open door of my van.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“I … really … prefer my own tools,” was all I could say.
She stared at me, puzzled yet thinking, for a long while.
“Do you want to back out?” she finally asked in a quiet voice. “Just say the word and we’ll call it off right now.”
Calling it off scared me for no other reason than my inability to refund her money.
“I already spent most of your cash,” I shook my head. “I paid off a bunch of debts this afternoon with it.”
“We can try and work something out then. I’m serious: if you can’t do this we’ll just find some other way for you to work off the payment.”
My fears only multiplied. I sensed my cell phone-wielding hand begin to quiver. I squeezed hard to make it stop.
The prospect of trying to “work something out” unnerved me because I’d heard tales of people becoming financially beholden to the rich and powerful. Those people were then “owned,” body and soul, with no way out for the rest of their lives. When my lending agent asked me if I had gone to a loan shark perhaps on some level he was right. At this point, trying to rescue the contract --no matter how repulsive it might prove-- seemed like my only option.
“How is it possible that you have the correct tools I would need?” I said, hoping her answer would sound halfway plausible.
“We used to have a regular plumber who was also a long-standing friend of the family. He unfortunately got drafted last year and sent to Afghanistan. And at his request we’ve been safe-keeping all his plumbing equipment.”
While that scenario wasn’t impossible, it was certainly an anomaly. I relaxed only a little, my guard still up.
“Okay, let’s assume for a moment that you really do have all the needed equipment. Tell me how bad the leak is. How much oil hit the floor before you found the leak? Has it leached into the ground at all? Is it under control at this point? What I’m really asking is: if I back out now, and then you have to scramble at seven o’clock on a Friday night to get another heating expert--”
She interrupted me: “--It’s still leaking as we speak. I discovered it three days ago, but it had already been dripping for what might have been nearly a month because the puddle I found on the floor was massive. And no, it hasn’t leached into the ground because the basement floor is sealed against oil permeation. The oil is contained and the puddle is merely getting deeper.”
I took a deep breath and considered her claims at face value. An oil-tight basement floor was expensive and rare. But in this event such a floor would more than pay for itself by averting the massive EPA fines concerning ground water pollution --not to mention lawsuits from adjacent neighbors who relied on wells or springs. Maybe it all was legitimate. I lowered my guard by just a few notches more.
“Have you had any oil deliveries in the past month? Deliveries that woulda’ made the spill worse?” I scolded my blue collar upbringing for the lazy pronunciation of “would have.” But I asked that question because such a scenario was all too typical. More than one horror story abounded about a basement tank with a tiny, yet-to-be discovered leak. Then along came the scheduled tanker truck delivery where the oil guy innocently pumped hundreds of gallons through the outside fuel port at very high pressure, ripping open that tiny leak into a massive hole, instantly flooding the basement with a gushing fountain of oil.
“No,” she shook her head. “I haven’t had any new deliveries since last year.”
That answer gave me hope that the tank might have been less than half full when the leak started. That would also mean less for me to wade through as I worked. Because the whole conversation was actually feeling “normal” now, I further lowered my guard by several more notches.
“So how much do you think you’ve lost?” I asked.
“It looks like I’m losing twenty gallons a day. And my best guess is that since the leak began, I’ve probably lost over 600 gallons and counting.”
Over 600? I dismissed that claim as evidence that she didn’t know what the hell she was even talking about. Most home oil tanks from the days of oil heat were about 265 gallons -- the size of a vintage Mini-Cooper. The absolute biggest size available in domestic tanks was 550 and no larger -- the size of a Hummer. And 550 gallons was more than enough to heat even a massive home for at least a month at a time. The reason for these size limits was it was almost impossible to physically squeeze a tank into the standard basement doorway of a domestic house if it was any larger than 550. Only custom tanks and/or custom doorways could handle anything bigger. And even if she did live in a veritable palace with 30 bedrooms, the more typical way to engineer such a home heating system was to install three or four separate tanks of 550 gallons each. So there was no way she’d lost 600 gallons from a tank that only held 550.
“What’s the capacity of this tank?” I asked, disguising my skepticism.
“It’s 5,000 gallons,” she said matter-of-factly.
Once again, she obviously didn’t know what she was talking about. A 5,000 gallon tank was the same size as the long cylindrical cargo tanks found on the backsides of 18-wheel big rig trucks, and the smaller style railroad tanker cars. While it’s not impossible that such a transport tank from that era could have been retro-fitted as an in-place domestic home heating oil tank, it was highly implausible. Usually, the rare choice to install that sized tank in a private home was reserved for large country estates or luxury vacation retreats -–places so far removed from civilization that truck deliveries were infrequent, especially during snowy winters when roads might be blocked for weeks. And even then such a tank would almost never be installed free-standing in the basement mostly due to the inability to get the tank in through any normal doorway. So that tank would instead get buried in the ground outside, making it an “underground storage tank” or a UST. A 5,000 gallon tank left free-standing on the floor of a basement was a scenario only found in two now-defunct building types we used to call “high-rise apartment buildings” and “office skyscrapers.” And the engineers behind those old and monstrous buildings usually crouched each tank down into its own rectangular concrete pit sunken into the basement floor, so in the event of a leak the pit would contain the spillage. While I was willing at the time to concede maybe Mystery Lady could have been filthy rich enough to live in a 30-bedroom estate with a free-standing in-home 5,000 gallon tank in her cavernous world-class basement, such a residence would assuredly be staffed with full time servants including a house manager (sometimes called a butler) whose duties should have included taking care of all the dirty work for her. That would apply doubly-so for matters involving the contracting of blue collar low-lifes like plumbers. The fact that she was making these arrangements herself indicated she had no house manager/butler, and thus had a “normal” house of “normal” size. So all I could surmise at this point was she might have mistaken the number 500 for 5,000.
Seeing as how she was not only helpless but also clueless, I started feeling bad for her and wanted to hurry up and get to the job site and see what I could do. And I was also growing increasingly annoyed with Mr. Mystery for failing to be there for her and take care of this nightmarish mess himself. I was starting to hate that son of a bitch for not regarding his woman with a little more respect.
“Mrs. Jones,” I sighed, “It sounds to me like you could really use some help. So how about we try and get there right away before your whole basement gets flooded?”
She smiled and nodded.
I turned to lock up my van. But she next voiced another odd request: “I do want to make one stipulation about your cell phone,” she said. I froze at her words and looked back to her for clarification. “Please leave any phones in your van as well. Once again, that’s a privacy requirement.”
No phones allowed? You have to understand: back then we lived and died by our cell phones. To us, the psychological trauma of being separated from one’s cell phone was akin to the physiological trauma of being separated from one’s kidneys. And the thought of being alone in a strange house with no way to call the outside world wasn’t even rational.
My inner terror returned and my immediate instinct was to jump back in my van and tear the hell out of there. But the limo had me boxed in. I then revisited in my head the long string of negative suspicions I’d been entertaining all night about her. And I likewise revisited the succession of evidence pointing to her maybe being okay. As the balancing scales in my mind continued rocking back and forth, the fact of the already-spent money became the deciding factor.
Stiff as a zombie, without saying a word, I put my cell phone in the car charger and locked the van.
-------------------End of Chapter 4-c--------------------