When they returned to Stuart's house it took Jeff three tries to back the Land Rover down the drive. As he drove back up to the top of the driveway after his second attempt, his face burned with humiliation.
“It's a big car, takes some getting used to,” Stuart offered kindly. “Don't sweat it.”
It didn't actually make Jeff feel any better, but he appreciated it anyway. Within three hours of their meeting, Victor Stuart was consoling him. It was not an auspicious beginning.
They unloaded the groceries that Jeff had put on his new AmEx at the Safeway. No one would have mistaken their cart full of canned and frozen food as anything other than the sustenance of two bachelors. The keystones were frozen pizzas and canned beef stew, but there was also an assortment of ground beef, cheese, tortillas, soda (Sprite for Jeff, a cheap knockoff of Dr. Pepper for Stuart) and snacks.
“When I'm out here I keep things pretty basic with the menu,” Stuart had said, dumping a stack of pizzas into the grocery cart, “Mostly because I want to have plenty off stuff around in case I have to fend for myself. I sure don't expect you to cook.”
Once the food was packed away, Vic gave Jeff the complete tour.
“I don't expect you to have anything to do with these rooms,” the author said, gesturing at the two bedrooms at the far end of the house. “You don't have to do any cleaning at all, either. We have a woman come in once a week, Mondays, she's been doing my cleaning for years, we're used to each other. Most of the time she's gone before I even wake up. My room will basically always be a pig sty for the summer, so if it bothers you, close the door.” He did so, shutting away the mess. “The kids and the maid are responsible for their room. They'll only be here a couple weekends this summer. When they're here, I still write, but I start later and we generally spend the days together. We usually order in or eat out when they're here. They'll bring their Wii with them, so I hope you know how to play fake tennis.”
They went out onto the deck, which looked onto the back yard, fenced in by trees and brambles. The lawn had a full spring's growth and stood almost a foot deep in places. Jeff could see a single heavy clump of grass halfway between the deck and the trees. The deck was railed in, with a set of steps leading onto the lawn. A picnic table stood beneath a large umbrella. Stuart took a deep breath.
“The ocean. Dunno what it is about smelling the ocean, but it's one of the best things about being here. You got yer grill,” he kicked it, “And the trail through there,” he pointed to a break in the trees, “Leads down to the beach. Private beach. Doesn't mean you can go naked, but it means you can tell tourists to get bent if they're hanging around walking a dog.”
Back inside, Stuart showed Jeff how to use the three remotes to turn on the television and stereo and use the cable. “Movies on the left, porn on the right,” Stuart said, pointing to a low cupboard in the entertainment center. Jeff thought he was kidding, but when he opened it, there were mainstream movies on one side and there were more than a dozen porn DVDs on the other, mostly of the barely legal vein with titles like, “Don't Tell Daddy.”
“We'll stash those in your room when the kids are here, if you don't mind. They snoop around in my stuff every so often.”
“Is that weird?” Stuart was looking at him like he genuinely expected an answer. Jeff didn't have a problem with porn, but he thought of it as a private thing. He assumed that Malcolm must own porn for those dry spells, but damned if he'd ever ask about it.
Jeff shrugged. “No biggie.” He wondered how many other things he would discover about his hero before the end of the day.
“Speaking of your room,” Stuart said, and lead the way back to the kitchen. There was a door opposite the fridge that Jeff had taken for a pantry. Instead, it lead into a small laundry room and a staircase. At the bottom of the staircase, which was surprisingly wide and well-lit, there was another door.
Stuart opened it and recoiled from the neck up, sucking air in through his teeth.
“Shit, I thought that would be gone by now. Sorry. I shoulda let the place air out after whatsisname left. I think something died under the house, you know? A rat or something.”
Jeff caught the scent as it wafted up the stairs, stale and unpleasant, a smell of the rot after rot, the dry putrid stink that came after the wet, nauseating one. It smelled like vegetables that had been forgotten in a fridge drawer for too long, the kind that would inevitably be steeping in their own brown juices.
Stuart fumbled inside the door and the lights came on, along with a humming. “Since there isn't a window, there's an exhaust fan,” he said. “I should have left it on, but it'll have you sorted out soon enough. If it still stinks tonight, you can sleep upstairs in the kids' room or something.”
“I'm sure it'll be fine.”
“So if you wanna drag your bag down here and set your shit up, this is all you.”
Jeff did so, bumping his rolling bag down the stairs, and ignoring the smell until he got used to it, which took less time than he would have expected.
There was a closet built into one wall, a simple double bed that sagged a bit, a bedside table with a lamp, a desk with another lamp, and a dresser.
Jeff plugged in his laptop and left it on the desk. He plugged in his new phone and turned it on. He scrolled through the numbers in the phone book and saw that there were only two listed. 'Firm' and 'Stuart'. The phone rang and he dropped it in surprise. 'Firm' blinked insistently on the screen.
“Mr. Reynolds?” The effete voice of Arthur Reed was on the line, sounding, if Jeff wasn't mistaken, quite put out. There was interference on the line and Jeff remembered the lawyer saying the reception out here was shitty.
There was a hiss on the line. “—attempting to reach you for several hours, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Oh, God, I'm sorry, it's just—“ What? Your client pulled a fucking gun on me and then made me pay for brunch? “The phone they gave me was dead and once I met Mr. Stuart we went to breakfast and...”
“I'm having a hard time understanding you, Mr. Reynolds. Normally this would not— but after the last caretaker—” There was another hiss, but Jeff knew what the man was saying. After the last guy fucked up, we're a bit gun shy.
“I'm charging the phone right now and I'll keep it with me once it's charged up.”
“Very good. How is everything so far?”
“I'm just unpacking.”
“Ready to get started, I think.”
“Yes, I would—you for your time. Give my best to Mr. Stuart. Don't forget to send receipts at the end of the week.”
“Of course.” A cold panic stabbed Jeff's heart as Reed hung up the phone. He'd fucked up already and they would can him. One day on the job and he'd already fucked up and now the job would fall to the third runner up and whoever the hell that was they didn't want this job as much as he did.
But, consciously or unconsciously, Jeff had done the right thing. Both the brunch receipt and the Safeway receipt were safely in his back pocket. He pulled out the top drawer of the desk to put them safely away. The wide pencil drawer had several odds and ends in it, a pair of scissors, a Sharpie, some paper clips, a pad of sticky notes. Jeff dropped the two receipts in with the rest of the clutter and sighed. He wasn't sure he would be able to handle any more adrenaline spikes today.
He sat down on the bed and kicked off his shoes. He took a deep breath and realized that, while the smell was still there, it was much less noticable.
The room was very brightly lit for what could virtually be a cell under other circumstances. There were no personal touches and Jeff wondered if Mac had brought decorations with him and then packed them up again or if it hadn't occurred to him to bring in some touches of life either.
If you were a glass half full kind of person, you'd say the room was bland. Glass half empty folks might call it bleak. Jeff had a sudden impulse to pick some flowers and find a vase for them, bringing a small touch of life into his monk-like suite, but he quashed it. Men don't need flowers, he told himself.