Chapter 21

Old People

The title transfer took a little longer than expected, because the vendors requested a meeting with representatives of the buyer. They had recognised the Döhm name and apparently wanted to discuss the house with us.

They were expecting a junior legal person to see them, so they were bowled over when Errol, as DöhmCorp company secretary, Kashuba, as HI chief executive, and I, as owner of DöhmCorp and head of HI, turned up at the address we’d been given. It was a nursing home, and the vendors were the grandson and granddaughter of the original owner of the house. They were both in their nineties and suffered from arthritis—hence their request for us to visit them, and not the other way around. They were not very mobile, but there was nothing wrong with their minds!

After greetings and introductions they got straight to the point. They were curious as to why a company with the prestige of DöhmCorp had bought a rambling old house in what was by then a rather blue-collar area of the city. It was apparent that they feared for the house’s future.

Errol and Kashuba deferred to me. Taking a deep breath, I began, “Have you heard of Help Incorporated?”

“Oh, yes,” Miss O’Keefe, the older sibling, said, “we watched your interview with that reporter… what was her name?”

“Amy King,” her brother said.

“Yes, that’s her. Oh, you did a wonderful job of putting her in her place, young man!” she said, with a chuckle in her voice. “But what does that have to do with our house?”

“Well, as you will know, HI is trying to help packs of scallies, and a few days ago we were contacted by a group called the Wolfgirls. Because of the way they have been treated by males over the years they were reluctant to trust us. After all, most of us involved with HI are male. It took some work but we were able to convince them that the help we were offering came with no strings attached. The only catch was that they needed accommodation and we had nothing suitable available for them. One of the Döhm executives lives near your house and had noticed that it was on the market. We investigated and decided to buy it.”

“So,” said Mr O’Keefe, “our house will become a home for young ladies who need a bunk-up in life?”

“Yes,” I replied. “There are nine of the Wolfgirls, and they will move in as soon as we complete the transfer of ownership. There may be others later, but that’s likely to be some way into the future.”

“And these girls are truly needy?” Miss O’Keefe asked.

“Oh, yes,” I replied. “They’ve been treated very badly, and at the moment they just want a safe place to live. We will keep the surveillance system operational. The imperial guard are contracted to us to provide twenty-four-hour emergency response and we will extend that arrangement to your house. There should not be any danger of gatecrashers, if I can use that word. If you’re worried about the girls themselves damaging the place, I don’t think that is likely, but we will be keeping a close eye on them and the house.”

“Oh, that was not my concern,” Miss O’Keefe said. She looked at her brother and he nodded. “We’ve been aware for a long time that we humans treat each other terribly badly at times. We were very impressed with your News Network interview and even more impressed with what you had set out to do. We both shed a tear when Amy King reported that the young boy who spoke during your interview had been reunited with his brother and sister. You were not directly responsible for that, but it came about because of what you started, and we applaud you for that, Echo.

“No, my concern was more that our house would be used for a worthwhile purpose. Our grandfather built that place with his own hands—he was a builder, you know—and we both lived our entire lives there until…” Her voice caught. “Until we were forced to move into care. It means a great deal to us, and it holds so many happy memories. When we saw that the buyer was DöhmCorp we feared that you simply wanted the land because it abutted the industrial area, and that you would demolish the house. It seemed very unlikely that you would want to use it as an executive residence or guest house.” She stopped to take a deep breath, obviously struggling to hold her emotions in check. “We… we…” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.

“Miss O’Keefe,” I said quietly, “would you prefer that we preserve the house as it is, and not use it for the girls? We could make it into a museum, perhaps…”

“Oh, no!” her brother said. “What my sister is trying to say is that we had many happy years in that house. Neither of us has family to pass it on to, and under the terms of our parents’ wills that means we have to sell it. That’s rather painful, but we’re delighted that it will be a place where young people can live. We hope it serves them, and you, as well as it did us.”

Miss O’Keefe nodded her agreement through her tears.

Errol, Kashuba and I spent a good hour just chatting with the siblings. Their minds were sharp as tacks and they didn’t miss anything. They each had a wonderful sense of humour and we all enjoyed the time with them. Before we left I asked if they would like to visit their old home after the Wolfgirls were settled in. Their faces lit up as they said they would love to do that. I promised to arrange it.

Talking with the old folks had given me an idea.

Old House

After we left the nursing home I ran my idea past Errol and Kashuba. “When we were discussing buying the house I wondered what we should call it. At first I thought it should be something to do with the Wolfgirls, but while we were talking to the O’Keefes I had a brainwave.”

Kashuba groaned. “Oh, no. Not another one!”

I shot him my best ‘oh, that hurt!’ look. Errol chuckled. Everyone was used to my brainwaves. My mind was always active, thinking things through, and others had trouble keeping up with me. It didn’t help that I was always so enthusiastic about sharing my thoughts with those around me.

“The O’Keefes have so much invested in that house,” I went on, undeterred, “why don’t we name it O’Keefe House?”

There was silence for a few seconds. I looked from Errol to Kashuba and back again, waiting expectantly. The two looked at each other. Errol had a small smile on his lips. Kashuba, as only he could, looked inscrutable.

“Oh, come on, you two!” I said, realising they were teasing me.

Finally, Errol nodded. “I think that would be apposite, Echo.”

Not being a walking dictionary like Darm, I had to ask him what ‘apposite’ meant.

“It means fitting or appropriate,” he said.

Satisfied that Errol was agreeing with me, I turned to Kashuba. “Certainly, the idea has merit,” he said. It was obvious he was having trouble keeping a straight face.

I hit him on the shoulder. He laughed.

“It is a great idea,” he said. “I think everyone will be happy with that.”

“You should probably get approval from the O’Keefes, though,” Errol added.

I agreed to do that, happy that they thought my idea was acceptable.

I spent the rest of the trip back to DöhmCorp pondering on my good fortune to have colleagues like Errol and Kashuba. They deferred to me as owner of the corporation, but they were not afraid to tease me a little. We respected each other, and we had excellent working relationships, but we were the best of friends, too. From what Errol and the other executives told me, their interactions with my parents had been much the same. I woke from my reverie only when we landed on the rooftop at Döhm HQ.

* * *

The following day the house was ours. Tian-yun put together a crew to make the necessary repairs. We added monitoring of the security system to our contract with the imperial guard, and arranged for a locksmith to attend in a couple of days’ time to install iris-operated locks, when April and the girls would be there to have their eyes scanned.

Mindful of the Wolfgirls’ antipathy to males, I waited until Tian-yun informed me that the repairs were complete before I arranged for the girls to move in. That only took a day, but I called April to make sure they would be okay in the meantime.

I went in a transporter to collect the girls and their belongings, and Kashuba and Masoko met us at the property.

Our ‘welcoming committee’ also included Antonia and Maria, because I’d roped them in to help the girls settle in. They had gone shopping the day before, and arrived with boxes and boxes of food and other supplies.

Tian-yun was there as well, to make sure the girls understood how everything worked.

The Wolfgirls were amazed. I was, too. The house was magnificent. It was three storeys high, clad in weatherboards, with a tiled roof. The cladding was a rich cream colour, with pale green trim. Wide wooden steps led up to the front veranda, which ran across the right-hand half of the building. The front door, in the centre of the house, was of solid, dark-stained timber with a sandblasted glass panel depicting a musician. To the right of the door there was a hanging seat wide enough to fit at least three people. When I stopped at the door and turned to look around I realised that the seat was positioned to take advantage of a commanding view to the south, across the harbour to the city, and beyond that to the palace on its high rock.

“Wow!” I said to the others. “I know where I’d be sitting to read if I lived here!”

There were more surprises inside. The entry hall was panelled in honey-coloured wood for half the height of the walls. Above that was wallpaper in a brown and green geometric design that set off the wall panelling. The ceiling had exposed beams in a square pattern, stained to match the walls. The floor was a honey-coloured, herringbone parquetry. The overall impression was of richness and opulence, yet it felt warm and welcoming. It smelt wonderful.

The office, opening off the hall to the right, was finished in a similar manner. The living room, on the other side of the hall, had a huge bay window that took in the view over the harbour. That room was papered in a floral pattern, with curtains that picked out the main colour of the wallpaper. The ceiling and cornices were painted in a rich brown, and the plain carpet on the floor matched the ceiling colour. The living room flowed through a wide opening into the dining room, which had the same decor.

The other downstairs rooms, a library or den (with some of the shelves still holding books), and an informal living area, were decorated in equally sumptuous style. I wondered what the bedrooms were like, but something else caught my eye: the furniture. In his brief report, Tian-yun had told us the house was furnished. He hadn’t mentioned the quality of the furniture.

“Tian-yun, you didn’t tell me the furniture was antique. This stuff must be worth a fortune!”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I’m a builder, not an antique dealer. It just looked like furniture to me.”

I laughed. “Well, I don’t know anything about furniture, either, but these things look like stuff in the palace, and some of that is hundreds of years old.” I let it go at that, but decided that I’d ask the O’Keefes about it.

April was a bit leery, too. “Echo, are you sure you want us to live here? This place is a mansion, and the furniture looks like it should be in a museum.”

I chuckled. “Yes, this is your home, now.”

Maria interrupted us to suggest that April and the girls help to put the food and supplies away, so that they knew where to find things when they needed them. “If Antonia and I do it,” she said, “you’ll spend all your time looking for everything! Besides,” she added, “if you help put it away you’ll know exactly what you have on hand, which will allow you to make a list of stuff you still need to buy.”

That made sense, so I left them to it. I called Miss O’Keefe.

First, I asked if she and her brother would allow us to name the house after their family. I told her we would like to acknowledge their link to the house. She was astonished, but said she would talk over the idea with her brother.

When I explained my concerns about the furniture she told me she and her brother had grown up with it. “As we told you the other day, our grandfather built the house. It passed to our mother, who was a classical pianist. That’s why there’s a music room.”

“There’s a music room here? I haven’t found that yet.”

She chuckled. “Oh, yes, Grandfather added it when our mother showed an aptitude for music. She used it when she was learning, and so did my brother and I. We had many happy hours in that room. You might find the piano needs tuning, though. It hasn’t been played for a long time because our fingers… you know, the arthritis…”

She continued. “Anyway, our mother joined an orchestra when she was just eighteen. She was so good that she was soon playing all over the place. That’s how she met our father, who conducted one of the orchestras she played with. After they were married they lived in the house and my brother and I were both born there. Our parents were often away on tour, so we were raised by our grandparents, really. We had a nanny, too, who lived in the flat on the top floor.”

I didn’t know about that, either. Tian-yun hadn’t mentioned a flat.

“It seemed to us that every time they came home they brought a new piece of furniture with them, so you will find there is stuff from everywhere. It was just furniture to us. They never told us to keep off it, or anything, because it was there to be used.”

She went on to tell me that she and her brother hadn’t thought the pieces were particularly valuable, which was why they had included them in the sale of the house. She assured me that they were happy for us to leave the furniture in the house for the girls to use. “After all,” Miss O’Keefe said, “it survived us and our friends and our childhood shenanigans!”

“What about the piano?” I asked. “Are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”

“Oh, Echo.” She gave a deep sigh. “Yes, we would love to keep it, because it was Mother’s and, more than that, it was her wedding present from our father, but it’s an old thing and… well, to be realistic, what would we do with it? We’re both in our dotage, and we can no longer play it, so, really, there’s no point in our hanging on to it. No, you keep it, and make use of it. Your girls might find a new vocation through playing it.”

I chuckled inwardly at the thought of the O’Keefes being in their dotage. I doubted there was anyone else their age as sharp as those two. When I asked about the books in the library, she explained that they’d decided to leave those in case whoever bought the house liked books. “We kept all we wanted,” she said, “and nothing that’s left is valuable. If your girls don’t have a use for them I’m sure a secondhand bookshop would appreciate them.”

I thanked Miss O’Keefe for talking with me, as well as for the books and the furniture and piano, and we ended the call.

I still had misgivings. I knew the palace had curatorial staff who cared for the artworks and furniture, so I decided to ask the emperor if one of them could assess the stuff at the house. I took photos of some of the pieces so I could show Marcus what I was talking about. Finding out that there was a piano had given me another idea. I wondered whether Yoso would agree to give a small recital when the O’Keefes visited. I was sure that they would enjoy hearing their piano making music again.

By the time I’d finished talking with Miss O’Keefe and taken the photos, Tian-yun and Kashuba had disappeared. I found them in the security control room with the ladies. Tian-yun was showing April and the other girls how to operate the system and to activate the manual alarm. “At night, you can just switch the system to AUTO, he said, “then, if anything sets off an alarm, the imperial guard will respond immediately. During the day—or any other time you need to—you can change to MANUAL and monitor the system yourselves. It can be turned off altogether, but I would not recommend doing that, because it would leave you vulnerable to intruders.”

Once he was sure that he had shown the girls everything he needed to, Tian-yun left, after handing me several cards that operated the house’s existing locks. They would only work until the locksmith changed the locks, but thinking about that jogged my memory.

“April, we have a locksmith coming the day after tomorrow to change the locks. The new ones will be iris-operated, which means we have to register the eyes of everyone who needs access. I assumed that you would want all the girls registered, but I just remembered that there is an override function on the locks to allow for emergency access. At the other places where we use this type of lock, as a safeguard that function can only be used when authorised. Who in HI or DöhmCorp would you feel comfortable having that authority? At Breaker One and Breaker Two, and our other facilities that use iris locks, the people who can give emergency access are the DöhmCorp secretary, the head of HI, and the CEO of HI—in other words, Errol, me, and Kashuba.”

After some discussion, the girls decided on the same arrangement for their house. I was surprised, and asked if they were sure. “Echo, I’ve seen you three guys at work. I reckon I have a pretty good feel for sleazes after all these years on the street, and none of you strike me as being in that category. I trust you guys.”

“All right, we’ll make the three of us the designated people. If you change your mind for any reason, please tell me and we can change it, okay?”

I received a “Yes, thank you,” and a nice hug. I could get used to those!

The locksmith Tian-yun had teed up was a genial lady who had worked for us before. I was sure she would get along well with the girls, but I had arranged for Masoko to be there all the same.

There was nothing else that Kashuba and I could do, so we decided to let Masoko, Antonia and Maria get on with helping the girls settle in. When we left they were making a list of bedding and other things that the girls still needed, intending to go shopping before the end of the day.

Old Furniture

I had to wait for Marcus to return from an official function before I could ask about the furniture. When I showed him the photos I’d taken he said, “Wow! That looks like valuable stuff. Are these people sure they want to leave it in the house?”

“Well, I contacted Miss O’Keefe, and she told me they—she and her brother—didn’t think any of it was particularly valuable. They no longer have a use for it themselves, so they decided to sell it with the house.” I laughed. “She said it had survived her and her brother and their friends, so she wasn’t worried about our girls damaging it. I should mention that April reckoned it looked like it should be in a museum.”

The emperor laughed. “April sounds like an interesting young lady.”

“She sure is! Anyway, I’m asking you about the furniture because I was wondering whether it would be possible for one of the palace curators to look at it and give us an idea of its value. My main concern is that we will need to insure the furniture if it stays in the house.”

“Hmm,” Marcus said. “I’ll talk to the secretariat and see what they think. One of the staff is a qualified valuer, so we might be able to get her to take a look for you.”

“Oh, that would be great, thank you. HI will reimburse any costs. I asked you because I wasn’t sure what reaction an antique dealer would have. If the stuff is valuable they might want to get their greedy hands on it.”

The next day the secretariat gave approval for Sarah, the valuer, to give an appraisal of the furniture. I let April know we were coming, and I took Sarah to the house myself.

When we walked into the dining room she let out a long whistle, and again when we moved into the formal living area. I wasn’t much interested in watching her examine the pieces of furniture, and April and Sarah had hit it off, so I figured they’d be fine without me.

I grabbed a book from the library and went out to sit in the seat on the veranda. It was so nice sitting there, looking out over the harbour, that I forgot about the book and spent the next couple of hours just enjoying the view and watching all the activity below. I’d dozed off by the time April came to get me.

I woke to a gentle hand shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find April bending over me smiling. “Uh…” I said.

She laughed. “You looked so sweet sleeping I didn’t want to wake you! Sarah has finished, and she’s ready to go home.”

I groaned, and struggled upright. “It’s nice here. Can I move in?”

That got another laugh. It was wonderful to see the old, strident April replaced by a new, gentle, quietly-spoken young lady.

I grinned. “Just kidding. You’d soon get sick of me. In any case, I don’t think I could live with a house full of girls.”

April punched me on the shoulder. “Ow!”

Chuckling, she pulled me to my feet and took me inside the house.

* * *

A few days later I received Sarah’s report and valuation. I was astounded.

The furniture that came with the house included a number of pieces that Sarah described as antique: a dining table and chairs, two lounge suites, a couple of chaises longues, two desks, and a library table.

The dining setting was a 300-year-old Regency suite. The table alone was worth just over five thousand credits. The valuation report described the table as a ‘stunning crotch top mahogany with reeded edge and satinwood crossbanding’. Stunning isn’t the word, I thought. It looked absolutely beautiful to me, and I reckoned it might have even surpassed the table in the formal private dining room at the palace. The chairs, also mahogany, were elaborately and exquisitely hand carved. There were twelve of them, including two with arms. They were valued at a thousand credits each.

The first lounge suite, in the formal living room, was described as ‘a superb 19th century Victorian mahogany lounge suite with showood frames, the backs and seats upholstered in damask, comprising a canape, pair of armchairs and four side chairs’. It was made in about 1850, and its value, according to Sarah, was 2500 credits. There was a footnote explaining that showood referred to the wood surrounding the upholstery, in effect ‘on show’.

The second suite was a ‘Chesterfield real leather threesome sofa and two armchairs in original design’. It dated from about 1960, and was valued at nearly three thousand credits. It was located in the informal living room. Its leather had a charmingly worn look, indicating that it had seen a lot of use.

One chaise longue was in the music room. It was Victorian, dating from about 1850. It included elaborate carving and buttoned plush velvet upholstery. Sarah’s valuation was five thousand credits. The other was in the master bedroom. Sarah described it as ‘of North American origin, equivalent to the Regency style’. It was made of sycamore, with classical carvings, and decorative accents of gilt brass. It dated from 1815, and it was valued at more than nine thousand credits.

The library had a beautiful table that I had admired when I first saw it. I now discovered that it was worth a fortune. Sarah described it as a ‘19th century oak library table, from about 1840’. She estimated its value at more than twenty thousand credits!

Two of the bedrooms had beautiful desks. One, an elegant table, was ‘a handsome 19th century French Colonial rosewood desk’. It had a centre drawer and two corner drawers that swivelled out to the sides. This desk had originated in Vietnam. Sarah valued it at a little over three thousand credits. The second one was ‘a handsome desk, made of walnut, from 19th century France, done in the Louis Philippe style’. It had a black leather work surface with gold tooling, and nine drawers. It dated from the 1880s and was worth nearly three thousand credits.

The piano was a concert grand. It was just over one hundred years old, and its estimated value was more than one hundred thousand credits. Holy moly!

As I read the report, I became increasingly uneasy about the value of the furniture items. The piano was the last straw. We could not accept the furniture and piano as part of the purchase price of the house. We had to find a way to compensate the O’Keefes for them. If necessary I would pay them myself. While the total valuation was not a great deal in comparison to the cost of the house (it amounted to about 0.5% of the price), I did not feel I could accept it. That simply seemed unethical.

I sought advice from Errol and the other executives, and Kashuba.

“I agree that it seems a lot of money,” Riccardo said, “but, as you point out, it’s a tiny proportion of the cost of the house. And, the O’Keefes did choose to include the furniture.”

“That’s true, but from what Miss O’Keefe told me, I don’t think they had any idea how much the furniture and the piano were worth.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should just take it and run. I’m just pointing out facts,” Riccardo said. “What if we give them a copy of Sarah’s report and offer to pay them the assessed total?”

Everyone nodded. I was delegated to speak to the O’Keefes. I arranged to do that the following day. At the same time I would deliver their invitation to the dedication ceremony for the house.

* * *

“Well, I never!” Miss O’Keefe exclaimed. “One hundred thousand credits for that old piano?”

“And the furniture!” her brother said. “Who would have thought that Chesterfield was worth three thousand? We used to clamber all over that old thing.”

I laughed. “I wondered why it looked a bit worn!”

Miss O’Keefe said, “Echo, we do appreciate your coming to see us to express your concerns, but we did offer the house for sale including the furniture and the piano. And, frankly, the whole lot is still only a miniscule portion of the amount you paid for the house.”

“I agree,” her brother said. “The amount may have caught us by surprise, but my sister is correct—it’s not much in the grand scheme of things.”

I smiled. “I can’t change your minds?”

Mr O’Keefe shook his head. “No, we would like you to have it all, as we originally intended. We are just happy that the house will serve a good purpose, and the furniture might as well be used as part of that.”

“April, the leader of the Wolfgirls, reckons the furniture should be in a museum,” I said. “I’m positive she will make sure the girls take care of it all. I can’t believe you won’t let me pay for it, though.” I had a sudden thought. “Um, do you have a favourite charity, or some cause we could donate to on your behalf? I would be much happier if we did something to acknowledge the extra value.”

“Oh, Echo,” Miss O’Keefe said, “you don’t need to do that.”

“How about a music scholarship, or something like that?” I asked.

“I can see you’re not going to give up easily,” her brother said. “Let us think about it. We’ll give you our decision when we see you at the dedication.”