By Steven Torres
Steven Torres is the author of the highly praised Precinct Puerto Rico series (most recently 2004’s BURNING PRECINCT PUERTO RICO: BOOK THREE) featuring Sheriff Luis Gonzalo, published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur. Born in the Bronx, Torres spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico before returning to New York City. A graduate of Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, Torres now lives and teaches in Norwalk, CT. He may be reached at http://www.mysterypr.com
Sheriff Luis Gonzalo was working the night shift. In Angustias in the late seventies, this meant taking a drive or two through town, settling in for a few hours of solitaire or a nap at the stationhouse, then taking another drive before dawn. He was between drives and sound asleep, his head resting on crossed arms when the phone rang. A hysterical voice cut him off before he had a chance to announce who he was and ask how he could help.
“Rivera’s dead!” The lady screamed. “A truck hit him!”
Gonzalo stood up and reached for a pen.
“Okay, ma’am. Which Rivera is this?”
In Puerto Rico, the Rivera last name is as common as Wong or Smith is in other parts of the world. Angustias was a small town, but there were at least five or six Rivera families.
“Which Rivera?” the lady asked, annoyed. “My Rivera!” She yelled. “He’s dead!”
The longer voice sample allowed Gonzalo to figure out who was calling and who was dead.
“Are you in your house Laura?” he asked firmly, trying to cut through her sobbing.
“Where else should I be?” she asked back.
“Okay. Stay there and stay calm. I’ll be there in two minutes.”
He hung up the phone not waiting for her response, grabbed his car keys and his gunbelt, thought about waking his only deputy at home with a quick call, decided against it, and left.
Abraham Rivera’s house was well known to the sheriff. Rivera was a mean drunk. He was mean when sober too, but he was meaner when drunk which was bad for Laura, his wife, and for his two children since drunk was his natural state.
Early in their marriage, Laura had fought back and held her own when Abraham attacked, but he had broken her spirit and her nose a couple of times, and for many years, Gonzalo knew, she had simply not even complained of his abuse. When the children came, they were fair game also for Abraham’s violence, but they had been spared his full physical fury for the last half dozen years. One night he had drunken himself to sleep in the middle of the lonely road near his house, a practice he had indulged in previously. Drivers normally stopped short of running him over, but one driver didn’t. The driver didn’t stop after running him over either.
The accident left Abraham paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair bound. Doctors had offered the hope that extensive rehab would get him walking again with the help of crutches, but when he found that Social Security would send him checks to stay in a wheelchair and never work again, he laughed at the rehab notion. He talked like paralysis was the best thing that could happen to any man and those who still walked and worked and didn’t get the government’s free money were all suckers.
Gonzalo came to a screeching halt in front of the squished body of Abraham Rivera. He left his car’s roof rack of blue and red lights running, got a flashlight and got out to inspect the body.
Rivera’s house was on a side road, steeply inclined and perpendicular to one of the main arterials that cut through the hills and valleys that made up Angustias. Gonzalo tried to draw a quick mental picture of what had happened.
The body was in the middle of the arterial; the wheelchair was in the tall grass across the road. The simple explanation was that, in drunkenness (Gonzalo could smell the alcohol) Rivera had lost control of his chair, rolled down the hill in front of his house, fallen where he lay, and gotten crushed. The wheelchair had just kept rolling. Gonzalo knelt to examine the corpse though it had been plain even from the car that Rivera was beyond help.
On close inspection, Rivera’s eyes were open and bulging, his nose and mouth had bled profusely. A close set of wide wheels, tractor-trailer wheels, had gone over an arm and across Rivera’s chest. Gonzalo lifted the shirt to see if tire tracks were imprinted onto the skin, but the man was just a bloodied and bruised mess. The medical examiner might find something useful, but he doubted it. He would try to find the trucker, but there were several who used this road late nights because it was so quiet. In any event, no jury in Puerto Rico would convict on even the most watered down charge. On a lonely country road a body lying across the road might be an innocent drunk or part of a hijack team. Truckers were warned against falling for the ploy. “Keep going,” union leaders said. Hell, even the police said it sometimes.
Besides, the trucker would have been going downhill and finishing a curve when he first saw the body, and braking hard would have meant jackknifing at best and rolling over at worst, and even at that nothing short of the mighty hand of God could have stopped a truck doing fifty or even forty from going over Rivera anyway.
Laura, in front of her house at the top of the side street, called out to Gonzalo and waved her arm over her head. Gonzalo motioned for her to come down, and he started to go up the hill. He wanted to meet her halfway. He wanted to talk to her apart from her children.
“It’s terrible, no?” she asked. Over the phone, Laura had sounded hysterical; now, her voice and her eyes said nervous. She scratched lightly at her neck, then her forearm, then put her hands behind her back.
Gonzalo nodded and looked back towards the body. He tried to put together words for the moment. He and Laura were the same age and had gone to school together until he graduated and went to college and she graduated to marry Abraham. Abraham had been a few years older, and Gonzalo never really got to know him except professionally. The sheriff suffered a moment of anxiety - he wanted to spare Laura any further pain, but he felt certain he would need to arrest her for murder.
“Tell me what happened,” he started.
“What do you mean ‘what happened’?” she held her hands out, palms up in classic question pose. “He’s dead. A truck ran over him.”
“You saw this? You saw the truck?” He pulled a pen and small pad from his shirt pocket as though he were going to write down a description or license plate number.
“No,” Laura said, crossing her arms on her chest. “I didn’t see it, but I heard it.”
“What did you hear?”
She rolled her eyes and shifted her weight from left foot to right.
“I heard a truck horn, maybe a half an hour ago. I didn’t think about it until I called for Abraham to come inside and he didn’t answer. That’s when I came out. I didn’t find him. I came down the hill and saw his body there, right where you see him.”
“What was he doing outside?”
“Waiting for his dinner.”
“You were making dinner at this time of night?”
“Abraham spent the night getting drunk by himself in the living room, then he woke me up after one to cook for him.” Gonzalo squinted, showing he found the story hard to believe; Laura took a defensive tone.
“You think because you arrested him twice that you know him? Let me tell you, you know nothing about Abraham. When he wants dinner he’s going to get it. The doctor gave him a cane when he left the hospital. He laughed. He said, ‘What do I want this for?’ The doctor said, ‘Keep it, maybe one day you’ll do rehab, and you’ll use it.’ Well, he never did rehab, but he’s used that cane almost everyday for the last six years.”
“He hits you with the cane?”
Laura wiped away tears from both eyes.
“You don’t know, Gonzalo. He traps me in a corner and whips me. His arms are stronger now than they used to be. He’s quick. When I eat, I eat with a fork in one hand and the other hand is a fist. I used to leave it flat on the table but he broke my fingers twice with that cane. Look.” Laura put out her right hand and showed the sheriff a crooked pinky and a crooked ring finger. Then she raised her skirt a few inches and showed a freshly stitched cut on her thigh.
“He did that. He grabbed a steak knife and jabbed me,” she said.
“Why?” Laura repeated with a laugh. “Why? You don’t know Abraham, Gonzalo. That little man is the meanest thing on the whole island.”
“Was what?” Laura asked.
“He was the meanest. Now he’s dead.”
“Yeah, well I can’t say I’m completely sorry.”
“Did you kill him?”
Laura’s eyes opened wide and her head jerked back in surprise. From the reaction, Gonzalo could tell she hadn’t killed her husband. Still, he was pretty sure someone had.
“Did I kill him?” Laura repeated, checking what she thought she had heard.
“I have to ask, Laura.”
“You have to? Well, you don’t know me either, Gonzalo. I wish I… If I had killed him, I would have stabbed him a thousand times. Then I would have gone to the precinct with bloody hands and the bloody knife, and I would have begged you to shoot me.”
“Okay.” Gonzalo put an arm around her. She was crying and breathing hard. He thought she was nearing hysteria when she would be no good to his investigation. He would admit later that he was also thinking of their school days’ friendship. “One doesn’t like to hurt a friend,” he would say. “Even if it is necessary for an investigation.”
“Look, Laura. Let me tell you the truth,” he said. “There is definitely going to be some kind of investigation - it looks like the body was moved, and the medical examiner and the district attorney are going to demand information to clear up what happened here.”
“Abraham’s body is face up. If he had fallen from his chair when he rolled downhill, he would have fallen face down…”
“Who says he fell out?”
“His chair is across the road in perfect condition. He certainly wasn’t sitting in it when he got hit.”
“What if he just wheeled himself down to the road then got out of the chair and lay down to take a nap like he used to? Or maybe he fell off the chair face down, but he turned over in his sleep. I’ve seen him do it before Gonzalo. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times.”
The only problem with these very plausible lines of reasoning was exactly how plausible they were. He knew that Laura hadn’t killed her husband, but she had a ready alibi. He hated to do it, but he would have to dig deeper.
“Let’s go talk to your children.”
“About what?” Laura asked. “I can tell them that Abraham is dead.”
“Yeah, but I have to check what they have to say against what you say. It’s procedure.” He added the last part quietly when Laura gave him a look that told him she was no longer a friend.
“Only Elisa is home,” she said as she walked up the hill.
“With my sister in Aguada for the past week,” Laura answered. The boy, sixteen, would have been Gonzalo’s second suspect, but he was seventy miles away.
“Isn’t he supposed to be in school?”
“He was getting into fights with Abraham lately. More than usual. I sent him away so he wouldn’t do something stupid like kill his father.”
Gonzalo made a mental note to check on the Aguada alibi.
“Why were they getting into more fights?”
Laura looked at him with a wan smile. He knew she wanted to say “You didn’t know Abraham” but refrained because she had worn out the phrase.
“Because of Elisa,” Laura said as they climbed the steps onto the front porch. Laura called for her daughter; the girl came out of her bedroom rubbing sleep from her eyes.
Elisa Rivera was thirteen and beautiful. Her smile was radiant and her hair long and dark. Gonzalo thought to himself as the girl walked to the living room, that if Abraham Rivera had been degenerate enough to molest his own child, he would stop asking questions, call the death accidental, and let the Rivera’s go on with their lives as best they could.
“Why were Miguel and your father fighting?” Laura asked her daughter.
Elisa opened her eyes wide, taken aback by the question. She looked to her mother as though confirming what she had heard. Apparently, confirmation was given.
“Papi sold me,” the girl said simply and quietly.
It was Gonzalo’s turn to be taken aback. Laura smiled at him as he finally understood that he had not known Abraham Rivera at all.
“What do you mean?” Gonzalo asked the girl.
“I’m supposed to marry Juan Flores from Comerio. Mister Flores gave papi three thousand dollars. He says it was a gift, but really it was for me.”
Gonzalo had heard of the practice before - parents once routinely gave underage daughters into marriage. As long as they signed the right documents, it was perfectly legal on the island as it is throughout much of the United States. But it was an increasingly rare practice and the exchange of money Elisa mentioned was completely illegal.
Gonzalo shifted his weight and rubbed the dull ache forming at the back of his neck.
“Elisa, I need to ask you a very important question, and you have to answer me with the truth, do you understand me?”
The girl nodded.
“Elisa, has Mister Flores ever touched you in a way he shouldn’t? Do you understand what I mean?”
“I understand, but he never touched me. I’ve never even seen Mister Flores.”
“Okay, good. Now. Has your father ever touched you that way?”
“Papi? Never. He just hits. Sometimes he uses the cane.”
“Okay,” Gonzalo said aloud. Internally, he shouted “Hallelujah!” Abuse is never good, but some forms, in Gonzalo’s mind, were worse than others.
“Let me just use your phone to call Miguelito and confirm his whereabouts,” Gonzalo said. Laura looked up at a wall clock before answering.
“It’s kind of late,” she said. It was nearing three in the morning.
“Good, then he should be in bed and easy to find.”
Laura led Gonzalo to the phone and had trouble finding her sister’s number. Finally, she handed it over with some hesitation.
Laura’s sister confirmed that Miguel was spending time with her, but told Gonzalo that he had borrowed the car in the evening and wasn’t back yet. Where had he gone? With friends was all she knew. What friends could he possibly have in a town seventy miles from his home and school. “Who knows?” was the response. “Teenagers.”
Two days later, when Gonzalo had matched the fingerprints on the wheelchair to everyone in the Rivera home including Miguel and had met with the young man who said he could not name his Aguada friends or even find them again if he had to, he typed out a detailed report and hand delivered it to an assistant district attorney in San Juan. The man read the report carefully then turned to the sheriff.
“What would you like me to do?” he asked with a smile that told Gonzalo he was inclined to do nothing.
“Pick up Miguel,” Gonzalo said though he too would have preferred to do nothing.
“And charge him with what?”
“You see in the report…”
“I see what, sheriff? I see I can charge him with having pushed his father’s wheelchair once. Or I can charge him with not being too picky about who his friends are. Not really crimes, sheriff.”
Gonzalo sat back.
“What about Flores?”
“No crime there either. I’ll call him myself and let him know that the Rivera family appreciates his financial gift and that Elisa won’t be marrying him. I’ll tell him to stay away from the girl. Heck, I might even get the other three thousand for the family. He won’t be a problem.”
Gonzalo sat thinking over the case and closing it in his mind.
“Go home, Gonzalo,” the attorney said. “Go home and take care of your people.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
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