by P. Orin Zack
Ryan Svorlin stood in front of the big house, gaping. The keys hung loosely in his shaking hand, clattering against one another in rhythmic reflection of the waves of shock coursing through his troubled mind. "It... it's... mine," he stammered, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
"Well, sure," the real estate lady told him. "You did sign the papers, didn't you?"
He slowly turned to look at her. Paper-thin skin stretched across unnaturally prominent cheekbones. Overdone make-up. Probably over seventy, he guessed. "Of course. But I never expected to ---."
"To be selected? Well, someone had to be. They couldn't afford to let these places go vacant, after all."
Less than a year had passed since the first cannonade in the financial meltdown destroyed the facade of normalcy masquerading as prosperity in the United States. Some faceless blogger had instigated a mortgage strike, an incautious response to the revelation that the reason the government was so determined to protect the masses from being dispossessed in their forced insolvency was the dirtiest little secret at the heart of the country's high-flying economy --- that nobody really owned all those high-risk loans, and therefore the houses could not be foreclosed. No one could have predicted what happened next.
"But what happened to the people who used to live here?" he said, taking in the carefully manicured grounds surrounding what must have been a million-dollar mansion not more than a year ago.
"Didn't you follow that slow-motion train wreck in the news? How all the high-risk loans had been bundled into anonymous investment vehicles and oversold to the tune of about a hundred to one?"
He shrugged. "Well, sure. But what I didn't get was why that meant the people in places like this ended up on the street. I thought they were rich. I mean, wouldn't they have to be, in order to afford a place like this?"
"Come on, Mr. Svorlin, you can't be that naive, can you? They were only rich on paper. People like Gregory Davis, who used to live here, were only riding high because of the same financial leverage that made the risky mortgage scam work. Once the investment banks realized they couldn't liquidate the loans they'd turned into sludge, they had no choice but to pull the so-called safe ones, like this gem. Davis might have thought he was rich, but once his house of cards came down, he wasn't worth enough to get his own dog back from the pound."
"So where did he end up?"
"To tell you the truth, I don't really care. The world might be in chaos right now, but it's a far sight better, as far as I'm concerned, than it was before the meltdown. At least now there's some relationship between a person's ability to do things and her budget. With all those clowns out of the picture, ordinary folks, people who can offer some useful product or service to others, are finally getting their due. For my money --- and I earned it by knowing a thing or two about aircraft back in the day --- I think it was worth the cost."
He studied her briefly, wondering after her back-story, but then let it go. Things were changing so quickly any more that the most important thing about a person was what he could do right now. "Well, thanks for all the help," he said, nodding courteously.
"Sure." She turned smartly, perhaps recalling a younger day, and strode back towards the bus stop.
Ryan waited until she had rounded the bend before heading towards the big house's ornate front door. Like all the other people who had posted bids for these mansions, he had no idea what he might find inside. They were all offered as-is, and it was up to the lucky winner to deal with whatever it is they might find.
His pace slackened as he drew towards the broad brick stairway up to the deck, which looked like it encircled the building. He slowly scanned the facade. The windows were intact, and he didn't see any obvious signs of forced entry or vandalism. At least Davis' public anonymity was good for something. A lot of these homes had been ransacked within days after the bottom fell out. Those were the ones with owners whose faces were plastered all over the news in the inevitable hunt for the guilty. Happily, even the newspapers didn't fall for that dodge. They ran the stories, of course, but only as a way to hook the shadowy types who had thrown their business associates in front of the train to save their own skins. But Davis wasn't one of them. Nobody really knew what he did, or where his wealth came from. Only that it had all evaporated one afternoon. And that he never made a move to protect it.