Vicente Vargas leaned forward, studying the crystalline blue eyes staring back at him from the computer screen. The picture was of a small girl with fine blond hair, holding a dandelion up in the last of the summer day’s rays. Her face was scrunched, her brow furrowed as she spotted the tiny white spider perched on the flower.
The shot was a perfect story to Vic. When he selected his “keepers”, there was a significant rule he lived by: each shot must tell a story. He was not a wedding photographer or even a mall hack who took portraits. However, he did consider himself a budding artist.
He tagged the pictured and saved it on his hard drive. She would be featured in his collection. One day he would get his chance with a gallery and have a showing.
The voice of his late mother floated through his mind. I know you will make Mama proud. You and your sister will show the world.
She always said it to him when he was growing up. It might have been one of the last things she ever said to him. He couldn’t remember.
He and Cat had been shipped off stateside five years back. He was old enough to watch his baby sister on his own by then. Mama saved and sacrificed for years to get enough money to send them ahead to a house she managed to mortgage. The plan was to rejoin them in a year.
Then Hurricane Sandy took her life away. Flooded the city and drowned all their dreams.
“You can’t hear that?” Cat snapped from the kitchen doorway.
“Your phone is ringing! I could hear it through my headphones. Vic, you have got to go!” She scolded.
His sister, Catarina, was only sixteen herself yet in many ways since his return, she had become the mother figure.
He hated the change.
“Fine,” he groaned, shut off the computer monitor and gave up resisting the call.
He had worked for six months now as a driver for an internet food service called Impulse Deliveries. It barely paid him more than minimum wage, even the tips were insulting.
The clock on the wall flashed at him. He called down the hallway. “The power went out again?”
“No. Some sort of ‘brown out’ hit the entire area. Too many AC’s working overtime, bro.”
Bro. Cat was in some mood. Her mouth got as sharp as her wit when she was stressed, or something was bothering her.
He swept up his cell phone, walked through the kitchen doorway and poked his head past her dirty bedroom door. “What’s going on?”
“Cat… What is it?”
She shook her head and pretended to be scanning the textbook in front of her.
“You know you can talk to me. I’ve been aro—”
“—Yeah. I heard how jail gives you a well-rounded education these days.”
He sucked in a breath between his teeth as her words stung him. He rotated on the heels of his sneakers and stormed through the kitchen back door.
As the screen slammed shut, he heard a muffled, “Hey Vic, I’m so—”
On days like this, he sincerely missed his mother. She had a real gift for reading people and their emotions. Ava Vargas always knew the right words to say.
Irritated and frazzled by his sister’s taunt, he rubbed his nose. It was a nervous habit of his. Throwing his bag into the back seat of their beat-up Nissan Altima, he revved the engine for effect, plastered his foot on the gas and peeled out of the driveway into the street.
At the first red light on Washington, he hauled out the cell phone from his jeans’ front pocket. On the screen was a flashing bike symbol with a capital “I” centered on it. He tapped it.
An address appeared as Google Maps opened automatically for him. It zoomed in and identified his target address and the time he’d take getting to it.
9982 W Broadmore Apt #7E, Tempe.
More instructions appeared below the address. Burger Express: 815 W Warner Rd. Order: 2 Jumbo Boy Burgers with fries. 1 order of onion rings and 2 Medium Cokes. Ask for Jackson.
He sighed and wiped at his forehead. Already beads of sweat had popped up. The temperature in Tempe was a “hair dryer 110 degrees”. Not quite the “stick your head in an oven 118 degrees” yet — those temperatures were guaranteed by the weatherman on Channel 17 for the weekend.
Over an hour later, parked in the shade of an old warehouse, he lay back in his seat. The last three deliveries had gone smooth, but the “tip jar” feature on his work dashboard had shown only $7.50 total. For the four total deliveries, he successfully sweet-talked three of them into adding something extra. The Jackson order stiffed him.
“Mighty white of you, Mr. Jackson,” Vic cursed to himself.
He shut off the car radio playing an obnoxious rap version of Mac the Knife — even at his age he knew some classics you just leave alone. Glancing at the dashboard clock, he wondered if he should head home and call it a day. Then he remembered the exchange with his sister and decided he wasn’t ready yet for the awkward apology session.
Since his release on parole and coming back to the house, they had been working on rebuilding their relationship. In the three and a half years he was in juvie, then jail, she had grown up.
Friends of his parents took her in after the trial. Vic was her only rock back then. He had let her down, was forced to abandon her. She needed him, but one dumb night of idiotic decisions had led to a stupid joyride.
Vrrt vrrrrt vrrrrrt. His cell phone vibrated like a mad bee on the seat next to him. Again, the bike symbol pulsed on the screen.
It’s the Vic signal, V-man! Another daring adventure and another damsel needs saving! The joke broke his sour mood and a smirk cracked his lips. He knew his jokes were lame, but they amused him at least.
1718 Lioness Estates Dr, Scottsdale.
Chipotle: 2819 N Scottsdale Rd, Ste. #9 Order: 3 burritos, 2 steak and 1 chicken with sour cream. No green onions on any of the orders. Ask for Shari
Scottsdale? That might just save this day. Bound to have a few extra dollars for a tip, no?
The phone blipped a tiny bell and a text came through: Ring the doorbell three times to be sure I hear you. Thanks.
Per Google, he was fifteen minutes away from the restaurant.
He started up the Nissan.
Ten minutes after picking up the meal order, he pulled into the gravel drive leading to the large ranch house in Scottsdale.
Balancing the drink carrier with the three bags while trying to close the driver door with his leg, he spotted a piece of pink paper flapping from the glass door of the house.
When he stepped up to the porch he read, “Come around the side, door is not working. Sorry! Shari”
He sighed loudly, turned around and went to the right side of the house. He wasn’t sure if she meant the right, but it had a cement walkway that ran parallel to the brick façade.
In the back, he found a sparkling greenhouse with a single door propped open with a red-orange brick.
Vic used his foot to push it back so he could squeeze inside. The strong scent of citrus filled the entire greenhouse. He didn’t see any other doors to the house. Along the back were dozens of flowerpots. Down the middle of the room were rows of hanging plants and flowers.
“Hello?” Vic called out.
“I’m here with your Chipotle order? Hello?”
He walked along the center aisle where it turned to the left. A metal screen door with another wooden door behind it came into view. The window in the wood door had closed beige curtains.
Where are they? C’mon! It’s too hot in here to play this game. Sweat trickled down his back and wetted the pits to his black tee shirt.
A dirty sink and shelf were built into the wall next to the screen door. He set the items down in order to knock.
Still no answer. He was getting irritated, this was taking too long. He placed his hands on his hips.
“HELLO?? ANYONE THERE??” he shouted, cupping his hands to magnify the words.
Perhaps she was upstairs or had headphones on?
He tried the door handle. Both doors were unlocked, and he walked in. He had no idea this was the worst decision of his life.
“Uh… Shari? I have your food order. Shari, are you home?”
He left the food and proceeded inside. The foyer was dark and musty. It led to a cramped sitting room with three love seats, a tiny unused fireplace and a desk covered in old mail and papers.
A light ahead coming through an archway drew him in further.
He walked into a much bigger living room with two couches facing each other across a glass coffee table. There were twin book cabinets on opposite walls and a long stairwell in the east corner. Thick brown curtains were drawn closed, burying the room in shadows.
It was nearly pitch black. Vic slipped and fell face first into the back of the couch. He crashed to his knees. Trying to catch himself, his hand splashed into something wet and sticky. He yanked his hand back, gasping when he raised up a bloody palm to his eyes.
The blood trailing down his arm was still warm and syrupy. The leg of his jeans was stuck to his calf where he landed in the spreading puddle.
“Oh… Oh, shit!” He scrambled to his knees, backpedaling to the other room.
Panic gripped his chest. His breath was raspy.
This is too much blood!Too much to survive! I have to get out of here!
He bolted back through the greenhouse and raced out to his car. Slamming the car into drive, Vic didn’t notice the disappearance of the pink note from the front door.
Fifteen minutes later, he was parked in the lot of a rundown gas station. Its yard was cluttered with car parts, abandoned vehicles and rusted barrels. Spotting an outdoor sink set-up, he drove behind the station.
He got out, looking around for anyone watching. It was all clear. He washed the blood from his arm and took his pants down to wash the blood from his leg.
Later, as he waited at a stop light two minutes from his house, he shook his head as if it might help him make sense of what had happened. His entire 6’2” frame, coated in sweat, still shook with tremors.
“I had to leave,” he whispered.
She’s gotta be dead… I cannot be near that! I’m on parole and they won’t listen to me. No part of it! Won’t take the word of a Puerto Rican felon! Awww, shit! What am I going to do?
His rambling thoughts continued to run in circles inside his head. A car horn blared at him. He hadn’t seen the light change.
When he rolled around the corner, he spotted a single police car parked in his driveway.
They couldn’t know anything yet. I just found it. What is going on?
Since the squad car was taking up the only available parking area, he parked on the street in front of the house.
Through the front window, Vic saw Cat speaking to a patrol officer. She looked upset and emotional. He swallowed hard and took a quick spot check of his jeans. They were drying, but he didn’t see any telltale signs of blood.
Steeling himself, he straightened his shoulders and stepped across the yard to the front door.
“This is ridiculous! Isn’t this profiling?” Cat exclaimed at the male police officer who towered over her. In his late forties, he was white with a shock of black and white hair, and an air of impatience about him.
“It’s not profiling. I’m just doing my due-diligence and following protocol on any tips given to the police department.”
“What’s this about?” Vic spoke loud enough to make them both jump at his sudden appearance.
The officer whipped his head around and lowered his hand to his belt, close to his service revolver.
“What’s going on here, sir?” he rephrased his question in a calmer demeanor, trying to ease back the dial on the tension.
“Who are you?” the officer demanded.
“Vicente Vargas, sir.” He used the same downward cast of his eyes, the non-threatening tone and the lowered shoulders posture he learned in jail. When you talk with the boss, this was how you talk. Anything different caused further scrutiny or triple the trouble coming your way.
The heavyset officer studied him then replied, “Well, Vicente, my name is Officer Reccard. There was a break-in down the street at Mennen’s Stereo Warehouse, lots of equipment and items were stolen. A tip came in that a young teenage girl by the name of Catarina Vargas might have been involved. She and her boyfriend Jimmy Brower may have information on it.”
The officer raised his eyebrows in surprise, ”Oh? Do I need one? Nothing to hide, right?”
“Uh… no. You’re right we have nothing to hide. We don’t have anything.”
He crossed over to Vic standing in the doorway and leaned into his face. “So… I’m not going to find anything in that car, either. Right? Or would you like to wave that holier-than-thou rights stuff in my face again and make me get a warrant?”
Vic shook his head, focusing on a spot on the floor by his feet.
Reccard brushed past him and headed out to the car. Vic and Cat followed him without a word.
As they crossed the poorly mowed lawn sprinkled with tall weeds, the cop froze in his tracks. Vic looked past the bulk of the officer and spotted something dripping from the backend of the car, puddling under the trunk by the driver’s back tire.