Category Archives: detective noir

New Mexico Noir: Back to Manuela’s

Anthony surveyed the damage with me. It appeared that the butterfly artist had not stolen anything, but, then, I didn’t own anything worse stealing. He’d simply made a mess of my already paltry and unstable existence in the world.

“He slashed Sor Juana,” I said.

“What?”

“My muse, Sor Juana, on the poster.” I held the pieces together so he could see the nun in all her splendor, wearing her Catherine wheel, and gazing beatifically back at whomever looked at her. “Who would slash a picture of a nun?”

“Who would hang a picture of a nun? That’s the better question.”

“She wasn’t just a nun, in case you didn’t already know. She was a poet, mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, too.”

“And yet, she hides things. That’s why she was slashed.”

Anthony was right; I had hidden a letter in its original envelope behind the poster, and telltale bits of tape still clung to the wall. The intruder, of course, had pulled the envelope down and flung it to the floor when he’d found nothing of value inside. To me, the envelope was my enemy, as well as my most treasured friend, because it contained the first love letter written to me from the only man I’d ever loved. I’d hidden it behind Sor Juana to prevent myself from destroying it in a fit of lonely rage.

“It wasn’t anything important,” I told him. “Just a letter.”

Anthony decided that we should leave everything as it was and call the police. A small break-in like this wouldn’t rate as high priority for them, but he felt it was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, he took his own photos of the butterfly on the mirror and the sad state of the living room, where my hundreds of books were splayed open, their spines jutting in every direction; and of my bedroom, where the man had tossed my bedding and upturned the futon. My closet was also a wreck, my clothes and shoes scattered across the floor. With my foot, I surreptitiously shoved a few pairs of underwear underneath a pile of Levis.

It was disturbing enough that my privacy had been invaded in such a heartless and destructive way. That Anthony had to witness my unattractive cotton underwear strewn on the carpet was added misery. I was thirty-eight, and my possessions were as cheap and temporary as a college girl’s. My futon was of the cheaper variety, solid wood, but rickety with a lumpy mattress. My bookshelves were of the cinder block and board variety. My kitchen card table was a thrift store find, which was a good thing, actually, because that meant it wasn’t quite as wobbly as the one I’d originally bought at Wal Mart. My best possessions were my books, now in disarray—rather than alphabetically arranged—my cowgirl boots, and my laptop.

The lines that had recently appeared around my eyes were only slightly more permanent than my ragged panties. I’d lose the wrinkles when I was dead. Maybe in the next few weeks, I’d lose the bruising on my nose.

By the time the cops showed up to take my statement and assess the damage, my nerves were about as frayed as everything else.

There were two cops total who responded to the call—a young, short bulldog type named Lopez, and a taller blonde named Hutchins. They looked curiously at the butterfly, but didn’t pay it much attention. Anthony offered them no information about butterflies—ruby, fuchsia, or otherwise. I thought he should have told the cops about Demetria and her threats, at the very least. As it was, it appeared the man in black had targeted me personally, as though he were a jealous ex who had painted our private love symbol on the mirror.

Hutchins patted my back. “Do you have somewhere you can stay tonight? Deal with this mess tomorrow?”

“I’m sure I’ll find a place.”

“Put an icepack on that nose, or you’ll be sorry,” he added.

“Thanks.”

As the cops were on their way out the door, I caught the cop called Lopez doing the fist-smack handshake with Anthony. So they were wonder twins, too.

“I assume this has something to do with a case you’re working on, Anthony, and if there’s something you want to talk to me about, you know where to find me. Nothing was stolen, and she wasn’t really hurt, so there’s not much else we’re going to do.”

“I know how it works,” Anthony said. “I’ll make sure she’s all right.”

“Bueno. We’ll be around. Mucho cuidado, Anthony. Ma’am.”

I gave him a little wave and tiny, tiny smile, but only because it gave me some relief to see their cop car gliding out of the parking lot.

“You could always sleep on my couch, cat piss and all,” said Anthony.

“No, thanks. I’ll go to Angelica’s house. It smells like potted plants—and her husband’s cigarettes.”

“As long as she’s someone you can call at two in the morning.”

“She’s at Manuela’s, working. You met her there the other night.”

“That’s right, huh? Let’s go eat some enchiladas.”

I packed a few things: toothbrush, laptop, and clothes. We turned out lights, shut the blinds, and locked the front door behind us—as if locks made any difference. I shuddered. I wanted some chile very badly, since Anthony had mentioned enchiladas, but I wondered if it was wise to eat after so much turmoil.

With my backpack in hand, though, I climbed back in Anthony’s truck, and we rumbled down the road until the beacon of Manuela’s diner shone before our weary eyes.

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New Mexico Noir: Mirror de la Mariposa

When we left Herman’s house, Anthony was beyond irritated with me. He wouldn’t speak to me, in fact. Clearly, Anthony was far too sensitive. He was my employer, though, and I decided I should placate him.

Back at the house, I threw myself into cleaning. Mysteriously, Anthony pitched in, leaving Walt to clear the weedy yard—that is, after he woke Walt from his drowsy summer nap by punching him hard on one rounded shoulder.

Anthony and I worked side by side for hours, pausing only to order a large, green chile and pepperoni pizza and drink a few Bud lights, which, at that point, I was actually grateful for. I did the unthinkable: poured the beer over crushed ice and added lime juice, compliments of the bag of limes I found in an otherwise empty refrigerator. I also discovered a bottle of Jose Cuervo in the cupboard over the stove, but didn’t help myself, because, frankly, I’m not fond of tequila hangovers.

Long after midnight, Anthony promised that he would hire somebody to clean the carpets. We were both ready to drop from exhaustion and, yet, the house still smelled like cat piss—with the added lingering odor of pepperoni.

I stumbled outside, into the yard that was lit by the moon. Hours ago, Walt had walked off into the night. He’d left the weeds in yard bags at the curb, and not said good-bye. Meanwhile, Anthony and I filled the cleared patch of dirt with garbage, broken furniture, and mangled mini blinds. It was a depressing sight to behold.

I heard the screen door slam behind me.

“Come on, I’ll take you home,” Anthony said, his voice hoarse with tiredness.

“O.k. What happened to Walt?”

“Quien sabe? My primo is a strange man. Always has been. Forty years old, lives with his mom, never says more than a few words, Demetria being one in his tiny vocabulary. When we were kids, they had him in special ed until they realized his IQ was over 130. I was really the only one who could compete with him on a mental level.”

“Oh, yeah, right. I believe that,” I said. Honestly, I’d only seen the light of intellect flick on at the sight of Demetria, whose red dress had revealed her hourglass figure. Other than that, he’d acted like a mute fool.

I climbed in the cab of Anthony’s truck, and, for some reason, he glared at me from the driver’s seat, his brown eyes turning black in the darkness. I was too tired to care. I was filthy, my hair tangled into a million knots, and my clothes limp over my lack of curves. I laid back my head and closed my eyes, listening only to the noise of the music on the radio, ACDC, or something similarly loud and obnoxious.

I didn’t open my eyes again until I felt the truck stop for longer than a red light, and I heard Anthony clearing his throat.

“I’ll pick you up tomorrow around eleven, o.k.?”

I nodded.

“Good work today, Ella.”

He sounded like my little league coach from the second grade. “Thank you, Anthony.”

“Tomorrow we’ll start setting up the office.”

“Right.” I slid from the truck. I wanted nothing more than to strip off my clothes and fall headlong into bed. As I headed for my door, I heard his truck rumbling away in the otherwise silent night.

Because most of the porch lights on the apartments had burnt out, I didn’t see that my door was cracked open until my boots had click-clacked across the sidewalk right up to my welcome mat. My tired and slack body immediately straightened, and adrenaline coursed through my blood. I held my breath, listening, peering through the black space in the crack of the doorway.

I saw nothing, and all was quiet. Maybe I had left the door ajar early the previous morning. It didn’t seem likely, but it was possible. Cautiously, I pushed the door open a few more inches, before stepping onto the bed of carpeted flooring. I padded softly, considering I was wearing my Juarense boots. I stumbled over a box on the floor, which shouldn’t have been there, and fell to my knees. Instantly, a beam of light crossed in front of me, and a black-clad man kicked me in the face, tossing me backwards against my book shelves.

And then he was gone; he slammed the door behind himself and ran. I could hear his feet pounding down the sidewalk, the creak of the gate, and then nothing.

My primary concern was that he had broken my nose. I felt blood gushing down my face, and I pushed myself up, even though my whole body trembled with weakness. When I turned on a light, I saw that the dark figure, whoever it was, had overturned my paltry possessions and had, pathetically, slashed my wall posters from top to bottom.

With tears in my eyes, I stumbled into the bathroom and grabbed a wad of toilet paper, soaking it in tears and blood. I tentatively raised my eyes to the mirror to check the state of my face. Nausea roiled in my belly and burned acid in my throat.

Normally, my reflection does not make me ill. But then, I’d never before witnessed my face outlined with a fuchsia butterfly, its wings hovering haloesque around my ears. It appeared that the artist had used my most expensive Lancome lipstick to draw the image. As evidence, the lipstick lay in the sink basin, rolled all the way up, its tip crushed flat. What astonished me most was the quality of the artistry in the drawing. The wings were delicately folded, and I thought they might flutter away.

I groaned. The butterfly riveted me, especially with my swollen nose in its center. If this was the life of a detective’s secretary, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I had to call Anthony.

I found his business card in the pile of bills and other junk that still sat by my phone, on the topmost corner of my bookcase, back in my otherwise devastated living room.

He answered after two rings. “Bueno?”

His reassuring voice brought me to tears. I tried to talk, but couldn’t quite get the words out.

“Ella?”

“I–you,” I sobbed.

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

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New Mexico Noir: Mrs. Garcia

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.

“Ella?”

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?”

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