It was Ramón who saw it first. He and Mateo had been sent to replace the carpet and do the painting in Apartment 1305 to get it ready for the next resident. Their company was always called in to turn over apartments at Mission Heights Estates; it was a steady source of income and the boss made it clear he wanted it to stay that way. Anyone sent there had to do the job right the first time.
They pulled up in front of the building and got their equipment out of their truck. It took a while, what with having to haul down the stepladder, painting materials and plastic-sheeted rolls of carpet. Finally they were ready to go in. Ramón unlocked the door and pushed it open, using a heavy can of paint as a doorstop.
Then he and Mateo went in. They decided to start by pulling up the bedroom carpet and headed in that direction. As they passed down the hall, Ramón noticed that the hallway closet door was slightly open. When he leaned over to shut it, he saw the foot. He pulled the door open and saw the rest of the body. Then he turned back to Mateo.
One look at his partner’s face was all Mateo needed to know that something was very wrong. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
Ramón pointed at the body. ‘There’s a goddamned dead body in there!’
Mateo looked over Ramón’s shoulder. ‘Holy shit! That’s the resident! The guy who was supposed to move out. His name’s Saunders. Him and his wife lived here. They got a kid, too.’
‘You know them?’
‘A little. I’m here all the time.’
They looked back at the body: at the dark hair covered with dried blood, at the tan polo shirt liberally spattered with brown patches, and at the other brown patches on the carpet around the dead man.
‘We better call the cops,’ Ramón said shakily.
‘Yeah, we will.’
‘Thank God you didn’t bring Carlos with you today.’ Carlos was Mateo’s sixteen-year-old son, who went along with his father whenever he could. He wanted to own his own apartment turnover company someday and right now he was learning how to do the job.
‘Yeah, well, Carlos is spending a couple of weeks with his grandparents. Good timing.’
The moment of almost normal conversation calmed both men down and Ramón started to pull his ‘phone out of his pocket to call the police.
‘Wait a sec,’ Mateo held a hand up. ‘That’ll be Graciela. We need to tell her. I don’t want her finding this.’ He waved his hand at the body.
‘I don’t, either,’ Ramón said. He put his ‘phone away and the two men went to the door of the apartment
From the doorway they could see Graciela coming towards them. Part of the apartment community’s housekeeping/maintenance staff, she was lugging a large rolling bucket full of cleaning supplies and a pile of folded towels. Her glossy black hair was pulled into a ponytail that fell across one shoulder. She smiled when she saw them. Ramón dreamed of that smile at night, and of those golden-brown arms around him. He’d do anything for Graciela. One day he’d work up the courage to ask her out. He’d already found out she wasn’t married; he just had to find the words to say what he wanted to say. Now he swallowed hard as she came up to them.
‘Wait,’ he said when she got to the door.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked as her smile morphed into a puzzled frown.
‘You can’t go in there right now,’ Mateo said. ‘We gotta take up the carpet.’
‘I’m starting in the kitchen,’ she said, ‘I won’t be in your way.’ Then she tried to push past them.
‘Seriously, Graciela, you need to wait,’ Ramón insisted.
Now she glared at both men. ‘What the hell is going on?’ she demanded.
Mateo and Ramón looked at each other. Finally Mateo stepped aside and Graciela walked in. She’d only gone about two steps when Ramón stopped her. ‘You don’t want to go back that way,’ he said, pointing towards the hallway.
‘There’s a body in the closet. The guy who lived here. He’s been killed.’
‘Saunders? He’s dead?’
‘Oh, thank God!’
For a moment, neither man could think of anything to say. Graciela watched them both and then said, ‘Saunders was a bastard. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept pestering me to work for him.’
‘Work for him?’
‘The guy was a drug dealer. Very careful about it. Not a lot of people knew. He wanted me to get involved. My daughter Ynéz, too. Said we’d be good for business. It got too much for Ynéz. She – she had to go. I sent her to stay with my sister. I haven’t seen her for a year.’
Ramón finally found the words he’d been looking for. ‘I didn’t kill him, Graciela, but now I wish I had.’
She smiled a little. ‘Doesn’t matter now. Whoever did it deserves an award. Now I can tell Ynéz it’s safe to come home.’
Mateo had been silent, but now he said, ‘Bastard!’ startling Ramón and Graciela. Then it hit Graciela. ‘You, too?’ she asked gently.
Mateo nodded. ‘Carlos,’ he said. ‘He stopped wanting to come here. He wouldn’t say why at first, but then one day I finally got him to tell me. That’s why I sent him to his abuelos for a while.’
‘What about the cops?’
Three hours later, Brenda Saunders pulled into the parking lot near the apartment building. Part of her knew she shouldn’t come back; it was only asking for trouble. But she had to. What if Lucy had dropped something? She’d been hysterical as she ran out of the apartment, so she could have, and one tiny piece of evidence would be all the cops would need. They wouldn’t care that Dave had tried to get Lucy to ‘work’ for him. Scum! Why Brenda had ever married him in the first place, she couldn’t even remember. Some dream about a father figure for Lucy, probably. What a laugh! And then Dave telling them that the family was going to move. No, not telling them – ordering them. Well, they were free of him now. And the way she saw it, Brenda was just doing her job as a parent to make sure Lucy would be safe.
She glanced around to make sure the parking lot was empty. Then she saw it. The cleaning company’s truck. What the hell were they doing there so soon? She broke into a sweat. There were no cop cars around, but it wouldn’t be long. Oh, God, what if Lucy had dropped something? They’d thrown the hammer into a nearby creek, so that was all right, but what if there was something else? Her mind whirling, Brenda stepped out of the car. She was going to have to think of something to say.
She’d just started towards the building when she saw the two guys from the cleaning company come out of her apartment. Not hers any more. They were carrying a load of trash towards the dumpster when one of them saw her. He nudged the other one, who started in her direction. She’d seen that guy before. Damn! He’d remember her. When he got closer, he said quietly, ‘Mrs. Saunders, right?’
‘Yes.’ Then she felt the need to add something. ‘I – I came back because I think I left something behind. In the apartment.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, looking straight into her eyes. ‘Our company has the best reputation in the business. We clean everything, and we do it right the first time. Nothing gets left behind.’
‘But – I – ’
Then the other guy joined them. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘We cleaned the whole apartment very carefully. It looks like new.’
It slowly dawned on Brenda that she and Lucy might actually be safe. She looked from one to the other of the two men, watching their faces, watching them nod reassuringly.
‘Thank you,’ she finally said.
‘No,’ the taller one said. ‘Thank you.’