Excerpt: Zero Edge

Tremors, mudslides, and fires again set records this summer. But the shrewd investor can always spot new opportunities—especially in disaster.

One interest of mine was buying distressed properties and then restoring and flipping them. I trusted Jackie, my realtor, who also oversaw the renovations; real estate was just a sideline with me—I speculated in foreign commodities—and I rarely interfered or even visited the properties.

But curious about my latest acquisition, I attended the open house.

The once elegant seaside neighborhood, prone to mudslides and quakes, had been in decline for decades. As usual, Jackie did an excellent job restoring the plaster and medallion moulding, chandeliers, marble fireplaces, and floral wallpaper.

The house was a large 1920s Italianate residence, once owned by a famous movie director. Tragedy and scandal marred the director’s short if brilliant career. Tried and convicted of statutory rape, he slit his wrists in the bathtub rather than face prison. Jackie mentioned none of this in her literature, but every guest—and the open house was full—lingered in the master bathroom as if hoping to glimpse bloodstains.

These people, gawkers and curiosity seekers, I thought. And so it surprised me when, after the tour ended, Jackie showed me visitors’ bids that far exceeded our asking price.

To celebrate I invited her to dinner.

We ate at an upscale waterfront restaurant. I ordered Alaskan King crab legs, Kuomoto oysters, and champagne, while Jackie stuck mostly to her lemon quinoa salad and carbonated water.

I then asked about her latest audition. Like many young people, she had come to the city to pursue a film career. 

She twirled her salad fork, frowning at the shred of lettuce that drooped from its tines like a limp flag. 

“Remember the 1930s Buzz Berkeley musicals?” she said. “The kaleidoscopic dance numbers and synchronized swimming? There’s a new TV program, a musical comedy I tried out for that’s like that. They asked me back for a second audition, but I’m not sure I’ll go.”

Jackie had been a competitive swimmer and studied dance and music at Juilliard. “Why not?” I said. “The show sounds perfect for you.”

“I fell into real estate to pay the bills, more lucrative, say, than waiting tables or driving for Uber. But even if I got the gig, how many more singing-dancing roles will there be for me?”

She was right. The film industry’s “sell-by-date” for ingénues was brutal. At least she’d found another career.

“If you’re interested,” I said, “I have another property to show you.” 

The house where I’d been staying had been built atop a canyon rim with soaring views of the city, mountains, and ocean. Mostly glass and stone, it rose on slender girders to jut into the sky. But heavy rains and an earthquake had dislodged many homes and threatened to slide mine into the canyon too.

I hired a contractor to shore up the foundation, but work hadn’t yet begun. And, despite city inspectors’ warnings—they’d strung yellow “do not cross” tape throughout the lower part of the house—I didn’t vacate. My contractor assured me the second level—master bedroom, deck, swimming pool—was still safe, though he suggested I drain the pool, which I couldn’t bear to do.

It was a “zero-edge” or infinity pool, with one side that appeared to plummet like a waterfall over the cliff—though a glass wall and spill trough prevented that occurrence.  

I grabbed a bottle of wine from the kitchen and led Jackie outside. I took a deck chair while Jackie stepped toward the pool. A three-meter-high diving board rose near the “waterfall” end. After reaching the board, she mounted the first rung. 

Jackie wore shorts and a halter top. I noticed, not for the first time, her tall, leggy, lithesomeness. I suggested she change into a bathing suit, of which I had several that might fit.

“My clothes will dry,” she said. 

“As you wish.” 

Jackie kicked off her sandals and climbed another rung. Then a jolt and rumble in the earth sent shock waves racing across the water’s surface. She paused, hugged the ladder, and stared at me.

“A 4.0, I guess, depending on the epicenter,” I said.

Jackie shrugged and clambered to the top rung. 

“It’s just that I’ve never felt a tremor atop a high-board before.” 

“Above an infinity pool.”

Then Jackie surprised me—and perhaps herself. She sprang into a hand-stand and leaped into the air, somersaulting twice, jackknifing once, and then plunging into the water, barely making a splash. 

Moments passed. Then Jackie burst to the surface, gasping for breath.

She got out and sat beside me, soaked and trembling. I retrieved a bathrobe from the house and wrapped it around her. But the air had cooled, with fog swirling from the canyon and the sun vanishing behind clouds, and so we returned inside.

In the kitchen I made an omelet, thinking she was hungry. As Jackie sat at the table, plates and silverware began rattling. 

“Another 4.0?” she asked. I nodded. She frowned. “I don’t think I can sell the house. Even retrofitted, how many years can it last?”

“Caveat emptor,” I said. “You’ve a genius for sales. You’re right to give up an acting career.”

I reached over to touch her. Her skin was still damp. She let me hold her. Then she trembled and pulled away. 

“I should go,” Jackie said.

Later I made another omelet and took it outside on the deck. I consoled myself. The city was full of people on the make, especially young women. 

The fog retreated into the box and side canyons below, while the moon rose over the ocean. I braced myself, feeling a tremor. 

Maybe a 3.5, or another 4.0.

The pool glinted, steam rising—I’d turned on the heater—I peeled off my clothes and, naked, rushed over and plunged in the deep end.

First published in BlazeVox.