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July 4, 11:30 P.M.
VICO WOKE UP with a start, his body bathed in sweat, his heart beating faster than it did when he was high. While he slept the darkness had returned, a feeling that had followed him like a shadow for years, disappearing whenever he whipped around to see what was there. He pulled on a shirt and his shoes, grabbed the backpack from under his bed, and headed out into the night.
A chill moved through his body as he drove down the dark, narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, his SUV barely squeezing by the parked cars that lined either side. He looked over at the backpack in the passenger seat. To all appearances it was a worthless, beat-up school pack. No one would guess the fortune of cocaína it held inside. He patted it as if it were a dog. He had to clear his head. This deal was too important to blow. He drove up Calle Norzagaray, the street that ran along the edges of El Rubí, the barrio where the deal would go down. His car buzzed by the restored Spanish villas on the left, where wealthy young families tucked their children into bed, their homes snuggled among the sixteenth-century fortifications that surrounded the island’s tip. On the right-hand side, over the waist-high wall, and down a fifty-foot drop lay El Rubí, where children went to bed with hand-me-down clothes and short futures.
He parked his car a few blocks away from the wall, his electronic lock beeping farewell at his back. His ride was too good to park close to El Rubí. He’d worked hard to build up his reputation and his bank account. He was the youngest player in the city, bought his first Cadillac Escalade at sixteen, his own condo in the Condado at seventeen. Now, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, he was about to make the biggest deal of his life. His lieutenant, Keno, should have been with him, but at the last minute he got a call from Vico’s sister, Marisol, Keno’s on-and-off girlfriend, and backed out. Vico chuckled. Cabrón let himself be led around by his nose like a castrated bull.
He slung the backpack on one shoulder and lit a cigarette in front of the pink house that stood across from the entrance to El Rubí. The moon was rising high over the surf beyond El Morro as he crossed the street, the inky sky pushing it up over the buildings behind him. The dark night made it hard to see the crumbling stone steps, but he could’ve run them blindfolded. Vico had been going to El Rubí his whole life, since when he was little to visit his grandmother, but after he turned thirteen, to buy drogas with his friend Izzy, and now to sell them. Pana had to earn a living in the tanking economy.
He loved the way the decaying cement and wooden shacks were painted in bright colors. And the smell: salty ocean with notes of frying plantain, beer, garbage, and urine. Life. To him El Rubí was teeming with it, unlike his old neighborhood, where families stayed locked up in their gated homes, pretending everything was fine. Pretending fathers weren’t laid off, mothers didn’t die, and kids came right home to do their homework. In El Rubí everything was out in the open: fights, love, drugs … no worries about what the neighbors might think.
By the time he reached the bottom step, the moon was completely cut off by the buildings above, the only light the warm glow of his cigarette floating in front of him in the dark, and from the shadow under the stairs came a scraping sound. He turned around and peered through the dark. Nothing. He shrugged and threw what was left of his cigarette on the ground. I’m just jumpy, he assured himself. Half a mil riding on this deal. That’d make any pana nervous, verdad? He chuckled and turned back. With the money from this score he was going to throw one hell of an eighteenth birthday party tomorrow. Just then he heard a rumbling sound and a stone flew past his foot as if kicked. His chest filled with heat, his hand automatically reached in his pocket, the yellow skulls on his switchblade glowing even in the dark.
“¿Quién está ahí? Show yourself, pendejo, and maybe I won’t cut your heart from your chest!” Vico’s voice sounded more secure than he felt. Damn Keno! He should be here. Not that he couldn’t handle himself, he’d proven that again and again, but there was something about the sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He squinted into the dark and saw the glow of two yellow eyes. Vico stumbled backward, his pulse pounding behind his face. But just as quick they were gone. He shuddered. He must have imagined them. They’d been so strange and yet … familiar. He forced himself to turn around and continue walking, blade out just in case.
He hadn’t taken more than a step when a growl came from behind him. He wheeled around as a street dog with one ear and matted fur streaked out from the shadow beneath the stairs and took off down a side street, tail between his legs, ears pinned to his head. He let out a deep breath and chuckled. “A stupid sato. Scared of a mutt, ay Vico? I need a vacation, man,” he said as he folded his blade closed and tucked it away. He grabbed another cigarette from his shirt pocket. Maybe he would take a vacation after this. Head to Miami for a few weeks, lay low.
His lighter flared to life just before something big hit him like a linebacker from behind, knocking the air from his lungs. The backpack with all those neatly wrapped bricks of white powder slipped from his shoulder. He tried to reach for it but he was pinned upright. His left hand held the still flaming lighter, and he ran his right over his chest. When he pulled it away it felt sticky, wet. He looked down and, in the glow of the flame, he saw red on his palm and watched his shirt grow dark. Another shove hit him from the back. A long serrated claw emerged from his chest, as if it had pushed through from his nightmare. He was numb, his eyes wide, his mouth open in a silent scream as he realized his feet were leaving the ground, his sneakers dangling as he hung as if mounted on the claw. The lights of El Rubí faded as he was dragged backward. Ludovico tried to scream as he heard the sound of jaws snapping behind him. Then everything went dark.
July 6, 12:50 P.M.
“BUT TÍO, I can take a cab. I’ll go straight to your place, promise.” First her father had waited until they were at the airport to tell her he wasn’t going with her on their annual trip to Puerto Rico to see his family, and now that she’d landed, her uncle was suggesting further humiliation.
“Absolutamente no. I’m sending a squad car. It’s not safe for a young woman to travel around the city by herself.”
Lupe harrumphed. He’d made up his mind, so there was no arguing with him. The man hadn’t become police chief by being a pushover. “Fine.” She hit End and waited for the other passengers to move so she could exit the plane. At least without her father along she didn’t need to hide a dozen tiny empty Bacardi bottles that he’d scatter around their seats like insect husks.
The clunk of her Doc Martens echoed in the airport’s linoleum-lined artery, suitcase rolling obediently behind. She’d never come to Puerto Rico without her father, never walked to baggage claim without struggling to keep up with his long impatient stride. She smiled. This was her first trip as an adult. Okay, so sixteen wasn’t adult, but she was off leash. She swallowed down a momentary feeling of panic as strangers rushed by her on either side. It wasn’t like she was in a totally new place. She took a deep breath and felt the press of familiar ground against her feet. It was a teeter-totter feeling of familiarity and not belonging. But she was used to that. Lupe held her head a little straighter, walked a little taller.
She could handle this.
When she pushed open the glass doors to the loading area, the hot, humid air hit her. Year after year, she was shocked when she walked into the heat from the air-conditioned airport. Particularly compared to the still cool, early July morning breezes back in Vermont, the sultry temperatures held trouble in the moist air.
Waiting in the cabs-only section of the pick-up zone was a police officer in full midnight blue, handgun on his hip, dark sunglasses hiding his eyes, holding a sign that read SEÑORITA LUPE DÁVILA.
Lupe ducked her head. She considered walking by the policeman and calling Uber on her father’s dime. Her father had given her the keys to her uncle’s house; she could just let herself in. Yeah, it’d be rude and her uncle would be pissed but, as her father liked to say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Instead she pulled on her own sunglasses, walked up to him, and whispered, “I’m Lupe Dávila.”
“Bienvenidos, Señorita Dávila. I’m Officer Ramirez,” he said in a way-too-loud voice. She followed him to the double-parked cruiser and felt the heat of stares from the other travelers.
So much for being off leash.
After popping the squad car’s trunk, Ramirez tried to wrestle her suitcase from her.
Copyright © 2019 by Ann Dávila Cardinal