Anthony’s office was a squat adobe edifice with a slanting porch and a yard full of weeds. Actually, it was the hovel Anthony currently called home. He had inherited it from his grandmother after she’d moved in with his parents in their upscale neighborhood; she’d apparently felt sorry for him after he’d lost his house in the divorce. That was the problem with New Mexico: the women felt sorry for their pathetic sons and grandsons.
He unlocked the house for me and explained that my job was to clean it up and turn it into an office. Without any further instructions, he turned around and fled the house, while mumbling something about cleaning up the yard. A moment later, I heard his truck rumble out of the drive.
I stood there, clutching my lunch bag and thermos of coffee, and surveyed Anthony’s inherited house. First sensation—cat piss assailed my nose. It was early in the day, so it wasn’t quite an oven, not yet, but it was unbearably stuffy. It was cluttered, too. Every surface was covered in the refuse of alcoholic bachelorhood. Anthony seemed to prefer Bud light as his main course, with Domino’s pizza as his appetizer.
I couldn’t work in a dark hovel, I decided, not one that smelled like cat piss. I walked around the house, yanking up sun-burnt mini blinds and opening windows. Then I poured myself a capful of coffee from my thermos. I would begin in the kitchen. I would not touch the rest of the house until Anthony either rented a high-powered steam cleaner or hired outside help to clean the carpets.
My curiosity took hold, though, and I couldn’t help wandering around and looking at the strange, tacked-on rooms with their creaking floor boards. It was clear where the original adobe house stood; there was an arched doorway from the living room leading into the kitchen that was about two-feet thick.
The floor dropped down about an inch from the kitchen into the living room, and, as I wandered down the hallway and into the bedrooms, I noticed several other distinctive shifts in the level of the floor. In fact, I felt for a crazy moment that I was in the crooked house where the crooked man lived, who had a crooked cat, or many crooked cats by the smell of it, not to mention a few crooked bed frames in otherwise empty bedrooms.
At the end of a turn in the hallway, I discovered Anthony’s domain. It was the one clean, orderly room in the house that didn’t smell like cats. His entire life appeared in the form of neatly stacked boxes pushed against one wall, all of his possessions hidden away.
Startled, I spun around. They call them gumshoes for a reason.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I was looking for cleaning supplies.”
“Oh. Sorry about that. They’re in the bathroom, under the cupboard. Walt and I’ll be outside working on the yard. When you get this place cleaned up, you can help me go through files. I need to find what I’ve got on Demetria Gallina.”
“It’s going to take me awhile.”
“The faster we get an office set up, the better. Get what I’m saying?”
“I’ll do my best.”
Cleaning, to be perfectly honest, was not my favorite activity, especially when it was someone else’s filthy house. I lugged the cleaning supplies into the kitchen, anyway, and resigned myself. It was a job. I would get paid. And afterward, he would allow me to sort through his detective files. That sounded exciting. With gusto, I began to cram Anthony’s garbage into bags. I took a few sips of coffee; I crammed some more.
Then I found myself staring out the kitchen window at Anthony, who was in earnest conversation with a tiny, elderly woman wearing a flowery blouse similar to one I’d picked up at the Goodwill. It did not surprise me that my fashion sense inducted me into the octogenarian crowd. If I read my age backwards, I would be eighty-three. This octogenarian looked familiar to me, and I suspected we were already in the same crowd. It wouldn’t hurt if I went out for some fresh air, I told myself. It wasn’t as if Anthony and Walt were working.
I pried open the latch on the screen door and let it slam behind me, then took several gulps of fresh summer Albuquerque air that smelled like hot grease and weeds. I violently sneezed three times in a row. Apparently, Walt had attempted to cut down the overgrowth with a weed-wacker, but had given it up for a snooze in the paltry noon shade.
“Mrs. Garcia?” I called out.
“Oh, Bernadette’s daughter! Ella, is that you?”
“It is. How are you?”
“I can’t complain. How are your parents? Anthony, why didn’t you tell me it was Bernadette’s daughter working for you? You better treat her right.”
“I have every intention of paying her, if she ever does any work,” said Anthony.
“I was just telling Anthony I wanted him to catch the thief who keeps stealing my gardening tools. Maybe you can help him.”
“We could do a stake-out,” I said.
“That would be perfect. I think it’s my nephew, Herman. You know him, don’t you, Ella? He’s the one on the drugs.”
Anthony pulled off his Pete’s Construction cap, rolled the bill nervously until it formed an ‘O’, and replaced it on his head. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Garcia, I’ll take care of it. I’ll talk to Herman. You don’t want Ella to get mixed up with Herman’s friends, do you?”