This story begins like many stories do, with a knock and a murder. The alarm went off, one of the most hateful screeching sounds in the world, and I woke up in my office in a foul mood, sprawled on my tattered couch, fully dressed, still wearing my Rockports, gasping for breath, soaked with sweat, head pounding, nauseous, stabbing pains in my side. I stood up in terror. Thank God it was only a screwed-up nightmare! It was morning in sweltering New York City. My Hamlet coffee cup was empty and waiting for Bustelo. Ruben Blades was singing “Don’t Double-Cross the Ones You Love” on my little black radio. I looked out the window across the Bronx, a lone roach crawling up the wall. I heard a police siren outside my window and voices in my hall.
I was alone except for my Chihuahua, Boo, big head, big ears, big eyes, nervous, trembling, planted like a Sphinx before me and looking up with visions of turkey slices dancing in his eyes. Then he started barking like mad at the knock on the office door and I prayed it wasn’t the landlord looking for rent money. I went and opened it and caught my first glimpse of Pablo Sanchez.
Pablo Sanchez was short, curly-haired, worried-looking, pale, and fat—about 250 soft pounds of fat. He stood sweating and gasping in my doorway like uncooked dough wrapped in dark blue shorts and a red T-shirt with the comic-book hero Superman flying across his chest, a black bag marked Cosmo Comics slung across his shoulder, and orange Doritos dust on his collar. He had lively brown eyes and not one hair on his face. On the phone, he had said he was eighteen years old, but he looked about fifteen.
“This is my mother,” Pablo said in a soft voice not in keeping with his size, and pointed at the short and bony woman with him. She was wearing an old “Obama for President” campaign button, smoking a cigarette, and tottering on a steel cane. She was also wearing dark blue shorts and a T-shirt. Maybe there was a mother-son sale at Macy’s.
“Esther Sanchez,” the old woman said, blew smoke, and put out her skeletal, pale hand. I shook it. Esther Sanchez had white hair and a strong handshake.
Pablo and his mother hobbled into my small office, and I closed the door.
My office on 149th was hot and bewitched. I leaned my head on my hands to ease my throbbing head. I had only two hours of sleep in me. My hands were shaking like Shakira at a hula-hoop convention. I needed coffee. I was up to about three pots a day. I needed those pots to wash down the ten chocolate bars I was using to keep my strength up since I stopped smoking and drinking—again.
The room was still damp and alive with the scent of coffee grounds and perfume.
The girl from the Starbucks where I had gone after bowling at Harlem Lanes last night was gone. Great lips, thick, big hips, and big dark lovely legs, sure. But it was the way she whispered with a smoky voice, “Sir, we’ll be closing in fifteen minutes,” that really got me going. But she was not Ramona.
Marriage. Ten years. Divorce papers waiting to be signed, heavy on my desk beside my Zippo lighter and a postage-stamp-sized black-and-white TV. Ramona on my mind. Her second book, The Detective, was out. She was thriving without me. I considered stalking Ramona for about a minute, but I’ve never been that kind of guy. I wouldn’t know what to wear.
The divorce papers sat beside an address I had for my mother (yeah, she was still alive) and a yellow Post-it reminding me to go see Willow Mankiller Johnson in Parkchester.
I thought about the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill, and the nightmare, a mixture of my father’s murder and the murder that I had committed on the Kirk Atlas case (self-defense, Santana, not murder, self-defense). The details don’t matter, the nightmares did. They came back. Again and again. Every time I closed my eyes at night or at noon. They came back. The gunshot, the ears ringing, the blood and bone, the body slack and slumping, the skull fragments in a pool of red. They came back. I wanted to forget. I couldn’t. I was marked and there was nothing I could do about it and now . . .
Pablo looked around and said, “I like your office.”
Esther Sanchez looked around at my unpacked cardboard boxes, dirty dishes, scattered shirts and socks, with a scowl and said, “It’s not very neat or comfortable in here. Is this where you live? This is how you do business, muchacho?”
“I make noise when I eat spaghetti, too,” I said, rubbing my temples. “I’m an acquired taste.”
She looked me up and down. “Are you smarter than the average private investigator, Mr. Santana?”
“No,” I said. “But I’m taller.”
“No thanks. I quit.”
“Too bad,” she said, lighting up again and coughing a bit. “They’re delicious.”
“And good for you, too,” I said.
Mrs. Sanchez eased out of her coughing fit.
“Jesus! Your office is hotter than a cave in Bonao. You ever hear of air-conditioning?”
I nodded. “World peace. Air conditioner. It’s on my to-do list.”
Apparently, Boo didn’t like the looks of Pablo and Esther Sanchez, and seeing that his order of turkey slices would be late, returned to his corner, sipped some water out of his silver bowl, and went back to sleep near the open window to wait on cool August breezes that would never come.
I sat on the new swivel chair that Officer Samantha Rodriguez bought me as a gift.
“How did you know where to find me?” I asked Pablo.
Pablo looked at his mother.
“Joey,” said Pablo, out of breath. “He saw your ad. Chico Santana and Company.”
Yeah. I had an ad. I had a bunch of ads in the newspapers, The Village Voice, El Diario, New York Amsterdam News, and on Bronxnet TV, and still I was stone-cold broke.
I was over seven months into renting my own office and the 1972 Charger with the white racing stripes and the sea-blue paint job had broken down (again). It was in the shop on River Avenue for a total overhaul, body work, and a new engine. Nothing serious. It was my father’s car. Vintage, my ass.
Sure, I’d had a couple of low-paying gigs since I opened the joint, mostly for kids taken in custody battles, by mothers and fathers who refused to negotiate or be reasonable, all returned safely, thank God, not a punch thrown, not a knife pulled, not a shot fired.
Sure, I got some bites on cheating husbands. But no thanks. Hiding in closets with a digital camera ain’t my idea of honest work. It’s more of a hobby.
Sentimental reasons were putting me in the poorhouse.
And then it was either give up the basement apartment in Pelham Bay or give up the office on 149th Street. So, goodbye basement apartment. The office had become my home. I didn’t entertain much anyway.
Troubles, I had troubles.
“Are you Dominican, Chico?” asked Esther Sanchez.
Here we go again. Why did people always wanna know my lineage, as if I were some kind of rare show dog or something, as if it made any difference to the case? “No, I’m not Dominican,” I said.
“Where are your people from?” asked Mrs. Sanchez.
“You look more Dominican than we do,” said Pablo and cocked his pale head.
“Everybody’s got a cross to bear,” I said.
“Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are cousins. Same face, same race,” said Mrs. Sanchez.
I didn’t want to tell her that her face, while Dominican, was pale as flour, and looked nothing like mine. But that would spoil the rhyme. And I’m a sucker for rhyme. “Same face, same race. Yes, ma’am.”
“Not really,” I said. “My parents . . . I never learned.”
“What do you need from me?”
Mrs. Sanchez looked questioningly at Pablo.
“You got the clipping I pushed under your door yesterday?” he asked. “The one about Joey?”
I picked up the newspaper clipping that Pablo Sanchez had slipped under my door the day before and glanced at it again. I read:
HUSBAND SOUGHT IN MISSING WIFE CASE
Law enforcement sources said Ms. Gabby Gupta, an artist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 37, went missing shortly before midnight two weeks ago. Police are still searching for her husband Joseph Valentin, 33, in connection with her disappearance. “We believe that Joseph Valentin has information as to his wife’s whereabouts,” said Detective Margarita De La Cruz. “Anyone with information about Ms. Gupta or Mr. Valentin is being asked to contact authorities.”
The article also said that Gabby Gupta had been missing sixteen days and there was no body or blood but there were problems in the marriage—infidelity and domestic violence—and the police were called out three times before Gabby Gupta disappeared. Joseph Valentin never reported his wife missing, assuming, he said, she had packed a bag and run away, as she had threatened to do.
In the fireplace of the apartment Gabby Gupta and Joseph Valentin shared in Williamsburg, the police found unusually large piles of ashes, mementos and photographs Joseph Valentin claimed that Gabby Gupta must have burned. The police also found a one-way ticket to India, purchased by Joseph Valentin (who was reportedly thinking of divorce).
Shortly after the police swooped in again, Joseph Valentin vanished. Police found his car abandoned on Brook Avenue in the Bronx.
I threw down the clipping.
Joseph “Joey” Valentin had been a member of my childhood gang—The Dirty Dozen. The Dirty Dozen, Nicky, Rob, Gabriel, Leroy, Bryan, Tito, Fitzroy, Michael, Terry, Albert, Joey, and me. First that trouble with Albert on the Kirk Atlas case and now Joey Valentin was a wanted man. Joey Valentin was an artist. At least he was when I knew him as a kid. He was the best artist at St. Mary’s Home for Boys. Before I met Joey, I thought Goya was just a can of beans.
Joey was tall, dark, muscular, almost pretty with dark eyes and black hair that he wore long.
He was known as “Conan” or “El Indio” on the street. His father was black as coal, mother white as milk, both Puerto Rican. Joey came out looking like an Indian. He looked like one of those Indians from the cowboy pictures or one of those Tainos that I heard and read about (at the Schomburg library with Ramona) being enslaved or wiped out and replaced with Africans by Christopher Columbus and his gang when they landed in Puerto Rico in 1493.
Some dudes who were strange to Brook Avenue and Joey let the pretty face and the long hair catch ’em off guard. They learned quick. Joey was not only muscular from lifting weights; he was the kinda kid that would iron his shoelaces and creases into his jeans and he was also the best of us at the round house and the flying kick.
Joey had the largest comic-book collection at St. Mary’s. Boxes in the hundreds. He had once tried to run away when he was eight, to Hollywood. Joey’s father, an American Marine, got back from overseas after serving in Panama and went to prison for killing his mother’s lover (who happened to be a cop) upon return. After his father went to prison, Joey had run away to live with Lou Ferrigno, who played The Incredible Hulk on TV.
He didn’t make it.
He got sent to St. Mary’s Home for Boys instead.
But while I was still drawing Hong Kong Phooey, Joey moved on to reproducing Goya (war, clowns, witches, angels) in pencil so close to the real thing that Father Gregory dubbed him The South Bronx Master. Joey never let any of that go to his head.
Joey was one of those down-to-earth, open and friendly cats, funny too, always smiling and telling jokes and calling everybody pal and sweetheart and amor no matter what the color, the age, or the size. He was physically big and wild and unpredictable. Generous and kind, too. He was one of those guys you couldn’t help wanting to be around when you met him in the yard or the classroom or the cafeteria or the street. Always grinning, like he knew where the next good time was and how you could get the dollars to pay for it. He made money selling his drawings and designs to auto repair shops before I had ever earned my first dime and he often paid for the whole gang of us to go to the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. He was also a good dresser, wearing immaculate clothes when I was still waiting for my Lee jeans to come back in style. Sister Irene once said that Joey Valentin was like walking sunshine. He had that kinda energy. Man, it was true. The girls loved Joey. The guys loved Joey. Grown-ups, kids, hustlers, cops, teachers, beggars, priests, pimps, social workers, prostitutes, undertakers, and dentists, everybody loved Joey.
I didn’t know who that Joseph Valentin from the newspaper clipping was. That wasn’t the Joey I knew. And when I first read the newspaper clipping announcing that Joey might have made his wife disappear, my heart sank a little. And all night long I had those nightmares of shootings, and I had woken up in such terror because it felt like the world had a little less sunshine in it. One less “Hola, pal,” in it, and that was too much.
I wasn’t sure if Joey had disappeared his wife like the paper was saying. But you never know. People change. I’ve seen it. And if Joey did something to his wife, I wanted nothing to do with him.
Pablo said, “Joey told me about you, Mr. Santana. Said you were a cartoonist.”
“That was a long time ago. And call me Chico.”
“Joey is not guilty,” said Mrs. Sanchez, sitting on my broken-down couch with great difficulty. “I don’t believe it. And I’ve lived long enough to see many things. Mothers drown their children every day. So I know what people are capable of.”
She glanced at her son.
“How did you two know Joey?” I asked.
“We worked together,” Pablo said. “At the Project. There was talk that Joey was going to be made president and now he’s on the run. That’s not a coincidence.”
“President of what?”
“TSP,” said Pablo. “The Superman Project. It’s a spiritual program.”
“A spiritual program?” I repeated. “Like ghosts?”
“No,” said Esther Sanchez. “Not like ghosts.”
“My loyalty is to Joey,” said Pablo.
“The secrets I know about TSP,” said Esther Sanchez, nodding and glancing at me. “I could take that place apart brick by brick. Why would Joey hurt his wife Gabby? Why now? He had so much going.”
“He didn’t do anything wrong, Chico,” Pablo whined. “Gabby ran off. Some members at TSP jumped to conclusions, panicked, and called the cops. Joey was suspended from TSP and when the police came for him, he bounced. Guilty. All they need is a body. That’s probably what the cops are thinking. Case closed. Bullcrap! Joey is an artist.”
“What do you do at this Superman Project, Pablo?” I asked.
“I’m an engineer,” Pablo said and took a deep breath as if fighting for air.
“Pablo!” Mrs. Sanchez scolded.
“Well,” Pablo said, and gave his mother a look. Esther Sanchez shook her gray head, sucked her teeth, and looked away at Boo, who was snoring.
“I’m in maintenance, right now,” said Pablo.
“He’s a janitor,” said Mrs. Sanchez, turning back to us.
“I maintain the building, Ma.”
“Caramba! Janitor is a perfectly good word,” Mrs. Sanchez said. “He makes a good salary. I was head of house keeping at the program and then personal secretary to the president Father Ravi until I retired because of my heart condition. Honest work is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m not ashamed, Ma.”
Pablo turned to me. “I’m not a member of TSP. I’m a janitor but it’s temporary. I write graphic novels.”
“Comic books!” yelled Mrs. Sanchez.
“How long have you been in maintenance at this TSP?” I asked.
“A little over a year,” said Pablo, “since I graduated high school.” He went into his pocket and pulled out an asthma pump and something fell out on the dusty wood floor with a clack. I looked down and saw that it was a Superman—
“Doll!” said Mrs. Sanchez and shook her head in disgust. “His doll.”
“Not doll, Ma!” Blushing red, Pablo picked up the pocketsized Superman. “Action figure.”
“They look like dolls to me,” said Mrs. Sanchez. “It’s those dolls that keep you single.”
“Well,” Pablo said, pocketing his doll. “We’re not here to talk about my doll—I mean action figures.
We’re here to talk about helping Joey.”
“Good idea,” I said, searching the desk drawer for my Timex watch and spotting my father’s old baseball signed by Roberto Clemente. I was seriously considering putting that baseball up for sale to some collector.
“Do either of you know where Joey is now?” I continued.
“We don’t know,” Pablo said. “Nobody knows. He calls on disposable phones, makes a request, and moves on.”
“Can you tell me where you saw him last?”
“Joey is a wanted man,” said Esther Sanchez. “Innocent. And a friend. Even if we knew where he was we wouldn’t tell you. What kind of people do you think we are?”
“Sorry,” I said, flipping on the coffeemaker I kept on my desk. “I haven’t had my Café Bustelo yet.”
“There are those of us,” Pablo said and glanced at his mother, “who understand that one of the greatest values is the love of a friend. When someone tries to destroy a friend and we’re forced to say goodbye to what was good and strong, we have to do something. After almost a year of solid friendship, I know this, Joey did not do anything to his wife Gabby.”
Excerpted from The Superman Project: A Chico Santana Mystery by A. E. Roman.
Copyright © 2010 by A. E. Roman.
Published in 2010 by A Thomas Dunne Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.