The envelope was thick, and as soon as Ray Cruz got into his apartment, he dropped all the others on the kitchen table and tore it open. There was a letter five pages long and six fifty dollar bills.
Strange that the letter started with “hope you’re doing fine.” Ended with “We need you. Now.”
The three hundred dollars was more than enough for a budget seat on a plane to Puerto Rico where his sister lived. The letter told him to buy a one-way ticket. There was work for him to do.
Esmeralda Cruz, a widow going on five years now, was waiting for him alone when he got off the plane in San Juan. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Brother,” she said.
They walked to the car talking about how hot it was in Puerto Rico – Esmeralda apologizing for tropical weather – even though things were worse in New York City because it was February and freezing.
The car ride was going to be a full two hours or more to the city of Mayagüez. They rolled the windows down, and Ray stuck his hand out to catch the breeze as it flowed by.
“You should see her,” was the first to the point thing Esmeralda got out. “The police cried for her in the hospital. It’s been nine days, but she still looks like a mess.”
It hit Ray hard to hear this about his niece and goddaughter. He had known this was waiting for him in Puerto Rico. The letter had been vague, but when he was needed, it was usually because someone had been hurt.
“It was that hijo de la gran puta, Oscar. Lives a couple of blocks away. Thinks he’s something. Same type of jodon Cheo and I moved out of New York to avoid. If Cheo was here…”
Esmeralda pounded the steering wheel of the Impala once. Cheo had been a good man; Ray liked him. Not really a brawler or anything, but he didn’t take bullshit from people. He took care of himself and his family. Nobody would have messed with his fourteen year old.
“The police ain’t doing shit. You’re her padrino. You’re all we got. What happened to her, that can’t slide. Understand?”
Ray understood. He thought about it a moment. Wanted to know what he was getting himself into. Not that he wouldn’t get into it, but it was nice to go in with open eyes.
“How old is this Oscar?”
“Who gives a shit?” was Esmeralda’s first answer, but then, “I’d say he’s in his early twenties. Was already out of high school when Cheo passed.” She crossed herself at the mention of death.
“Kind of guy to carry a gun? Hang out with people who do?”
“He’s a punk. I don’t know about a gun. Maybe. Friends? I’d slap anyone of them and they’d all run away crying.”
“And you know how I can find him?” Ray asked.
Finding Oscar wasn’t a problem. Oscar was everywhere. Street corners in the morning, park in the afternoon, a series of stoops for the evening.
“I’ll talk to him,” Ray said as they pulled up in front of Esmeralda’s house. “I’ll catch up with him tonight.”
That was hours away. First, there was visiting Luz Maria, fourteen years old, just filling in, but with her eyes raccooned, her nose and lower lip busted and her wrist in a cast. It disturbed Ray to see her the way she was. She had a smile that lightened his soul on most days, but as soon as he walked into her bedroom, she started sobbing, and Ray’s eyes teared until he couldn’t see her or the chair he wanted to sit in and had to feel for it with his hands.
“How you feeling?” Ray asked in Spanish that had a heavy Nuyorican accent. He wanted to ask about the man who did it, about Oscar, but that would have been impolite.
Luz Maria couldn’t get the words out. Ray pulled his chair up to the side of her bed and put an arm around her, she wrapped her arms around his neck, the cast scrapping him. It was a while before she could say what happened, and it wasn’t as clear a story as her mother had told him.
“Was it Oscar?” Ray asked.
His niece looked up at him.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Ray looked into her face, tried to read it. With the knot in her lip, and the tears choking her, her voice hadn’t told him anything. With the bruises on her face, he couldn’t be sure. He’d known women who’d protected their abusers. It happened.
Luz Maria told what she remembered. Out at night, argument with Oscar. She walked away. Fifteen minutes later, near home, a rock to the back of her head – she showed stitches in her scalp – some time crawling, then unconsciousness.
“Would anyone else do this to you?”
Luz Maria thought for a moment before saying she had a necklace on – a thin gold chain with a gold cross – when she was attacked. Now it was gone.
“It’s the one you gave me,” Luz Maria said, looking into her lap, but Ray couldn’t remember ever giving her a cross.
When she looked up at him again, Ray nodded. A junkie might have beaten a girl almost to death for enough for a quick fix. Wouldn’t be the first time.
A few words about her staying strong and getting better and how the bruises would work themselves out and the stitches weren’t noticeable, then Ray stood up.
“Where are you going?” Luz Maria asked. There were tears welling up again.
“I’m just going to talk to Oscar,” Ray said.
“Are you going to hurt him?”
“Do you want me to hurt him?”
Luz Maria looked down at the broken hand in her lap. She nodded. It was enough for Ray.
There was a tiny bodega at the end of the street, and Ray bought himself a beer there, carried it in a paper bag with the top of the bag twisted tight over the neck of the bottle. He sat in the park, watching Oscar with his friends, another girl on his arm. Oscar was tall, maybe even six feet, but he was thin. He clearly led the bunch around him – life of the party. At eight in the evening, the sun gone down, Oscar left the park alone walking quickly. Ray left his bench to follow.
In a just about deserted street, Ray caught up to Oscar, swung hard, and hit him in the back of the head with the bottle. Oscar said something but fell to his knees, and Ray straddled him, swinging twice more, hitting him, ringing his bell. Ray quickly felt the younger man’s waistband – no gun.
“We gotta talk, Oscar,” Ray whispered into Oscar’s ear.
He hoisted Oscar to his shaky feet and walked him five steps to Esmeralda’s car. It was there that Oscar decided he had to struggle, but the bottle showed him the error of that particular way.
“I want to talk with you about Luz Maria,” Ray said.
“I don’t know any…” Oscar started, but Ray stopped him with a smack from the bottle.
Oscar was bleeding freely. His nose and lip were busted open. The back of his head was matted. He was breathing hard though Ray had done all the work so far. Ray stuffed him into the passenger seat.
“Tell me what happened to Luz Maria,” Ray said three minutes later on a road leading away from town.
Oscar complied, his hands up in supplication, Ray’s free hand holding him by the shirt collar.
“I swear to you mister. I don’t know what happened to her. We argued, she left. That’s it. I don’t know who attacked her, and I don’t know why. You have to believe me.”
Instead of believing him, Ray got the bottle he’d been holding on his lap and slapped Oscar in the face.
Ray drove for an hour. After a while, Oscar stopped asking questions or saying anything. They pulled up at a beach, rocky and deserted. Ray turned to Oscar.
“You try anything, and I’ll shoot you.”
“You have a gun?” Oscar asked and Ray hit him with the bottle.
“For asking stupid questions.”
It was a long night for Oscar and it came to a sudden end.
Ray parked the car in front of his sister’s house an hour before dawn. He was near exhausted when he crept into the house. His sister was waiting up for him.
“You talk to Oscar?” she asked.
Her eyes were red-rimmed and teary. Her hair was part pulled into a bun.
Ray nodded to her.
“You hurt him?”
Ray rolled his eyes, but said nothing. It was enough for her.
“I want to see him tomorrow. See if he’s still smiling,” Esmeralda said.
“You won’t be seeing him tomorrow,” Ray answered.
“You killed him?”
Ray didn’t move a muscle or say a word, but Esmeralda sighed, relieved, drawing her own conclusion.
“He got what he deserved,” she said.
“He didn’t do it, though.”
Esmeralda had nothing to say to this. Ray went into the room that had been set aside for him during his stay and closed the door.
Early in the afternoon, Ray emerged from his room, no look of rest on his face.
“Who did it?” Esmeralda asked him as soon as he sat to a bowl of cereal.
“So maybe it was Oscar,” his sister tried. Ray shook his head.
“Trust me,” he said. “He would have told me.”
She thought of asking how he could be so sure, but then she knew what he did for a living.
Back in the street in the afternoon, Ray tried hanging out near places where his niece hung out. He paid one teenager fifty dollars for information but that got him nothing but fifty dollars poorer. He bought pizza for another teen and a six-pack of beer for another. Everybody had heard of the attack. Everyone assumed it was some drunk needing quick cash and seeing an easy target. Probably true, Ray thought, but that didn’t excuse anyone. He ended the night smushing a homeless man’s face into the concrete of the sidewalk until he gave answers Ray could believe.
“Anything?” Esmeralda asked when he came back at midnight.
Ray shook his head.
“Tomorrow,” she told him, but he was already closing the door of his room.
In the morning, as Ray ate cereal, a policeman knocked at the door. Esmeralda answered.
“Just checking on Luz Maria,” the officer said from the door.
Esmeralda let him in and knocked at the door to Luz Maria’s room, making sure she was decent before letting him in. As the officer waited, he looked at Ray, not letting him go with his eyes. Ray got that a lot, but usually it was detectives, not uniformed cops, and usually they were older. This one looked fresh out of the academy, like he still cared and took things personally. Like Ray was a personal insult. Ray kept chewing.
A few minutes later, the officer left after a few words with Esmeralda.
“He said you didn’t look right,” she told her brother. “I told him you were a cousin.”
Ray nodded. No need for the police to know anything about him at all.
That evening Ray caught a break. He had been wasting time, money and his last reserves of patience on teens who didn’t know shit about shit, when down the counter from him at a joint that sold pizza and fried chicken he saw a girl that made him look twice. Maybe Luz Maria had healed and walked out of her room. It wasn’t her though she had the same light smile. Almost.
And she had a gold cross with the body of Christ hanging from it. The chain it was on was thin, but twisted gold, not links. He remembered it. The necklace had been in the shop window of a little store in the Bronx until about five years earlier when he paid a hundred solid for it, and brought it on a Christmas visit – a trinket for his niece.
“Can I ask you something?” Ray said, getting the girl’s attention.
She looked him up and down, knew she shouldn’t be talking to a man like him, he could only be trouble, but decided the place was packed with people and there couldn’t be any real danger.
“Where’d you get the necklace? It’s beautiful.”
The girl touched it and smiled.
“My boyfriend gave it to me.”
She pointed at a young man sitting and laughing with a couple of friends. Then she went to sit with them. The laughter continued, and the girl never looked back to see if Ray left the pizza parlor or stayed.
Late that night, after the girl and her boyfriend had stretched a slice of pizza and a soda into hours of fun, and ducked into an alleyway for an hour of fumbling, Ray caught up with the boyfriend.
“Amigo,” Ray said clasping the young man from behind as though he were a long lost friend.
“Do I know you?” the boy said.
Ray could see he was at most seventeen and if being afraid wasn’t uncool, he would have been terrified.
“Let me ask you about your girlfriend’s necklace,” Ray said.
He reached into his pocket, and the young man tried to pull away. He wanted to scream, but that would have been uncool too. Ray held onto the back of the young man’s neck.
“Listen. This can be hard or this can be easy. Which do you want?”
Later that night, exhausted, Ray tried to make it into the house as quietly as he could, but it made no difference. Esmeralda was waiting for him.
“Anything?” she asked.
“I think so,” Ray said. “I think I learned a lot. Tomorrow, I just have to ask one more person a few questions, then your problem will be gone.”
“Who are you going to ask?” Esmeralda tried, but her brother ignored her.
Ray was up a fraction after dawn and waited. When his niece came out of her room for breakfast, he sat next to her.
“That police officer that came by yesterday. You know him?”
“Of course. That’s Willie. He’s the one that found me in the street and called the ambulance.”
“But you were knocked out, right? I mean, you didn’t actually see him when he found you, right?”
“No, but everybody said so,” Luz Maria said. She sounded unsure of herself.
“And you had talked to him before you got attacked, right?”
“Sure. Plenty of times. He always hangs out in the chicken and pizza place. You know. Doing his rounds. He always stops in.”
Esmeralda had been listening to the back and forth and got into it.
“You think he knows something?’ she asked.
Ray ignored her.
“He pay you more attention than the other girls?” Ray asked.
Luz Maria looked into her plate of eggs and bacon like they might have an answer for her.
“We joke around sometimes,” she said. She looked ready to cry.
“That’s all right,” Ray said patting Luz Maria’s hand. “Eat your breakfast.”
Ray lit a cigarette. It was his first since he’d been on the island.
A few minutes later, Luz Maria went back to her room, a troubled look on her face. Esmeralda turned to her brother.
“You saying Willie had something to do with this?”
She kept her voice low. Ray did the same.
“Willie sold her necklace to another guy. Ten bucks. Said he got it off a ‘puta.’”
“So maybe some puta did give it to him,” Esmeralda said.
Ray waved her off with his cigarette hand.
“Whores don’t give away gold. Not even to cops. He said puta but he meant ‘some bitch I hate.’”
Esmeralda was quiet for a minute, but when Ray got up, she spoke.
“You think him and Luz Maria were…”
Ray waited a second to see if the sentence was going to be finished then he answered.
“Guys don’t hate the girls that say yes. They hate the ones that say no.”
Esmeralda felt better, and Ray went out.
Finding Guillermo Ortiz, Willie to all the young people of the neighborhood, was not difficult. Following him on his beat, round and round, watching him get his lunch and flirt with the teenage girls, waiting for his shift to end in the early evening, that was all hard. No time for a bathroom break or for a real meal. Just barely enough time for Ray to go into a store and buy the one tool he felt he needed to have a conversation with a cop about an assault on an innocent girl.
The officer went back to the precinct and came out in civilian clothes. He made a stop at the chicken and pizza place, chatted up every girl who came in alone, struck out with all of them, though they were all nice to him and laughed only when he had already moved off. Guillermo was twenty years old and small at the shoulders – it was hard enough for him to command respect when he had on his uniform, badge, and gun. In street clothes he looked like a high school kid and not a senior either.
The officer visited with a prostitute in the park, paid her nothing except a look at his badge, then walked home, Ray Cruz behind him.
On a deserted street, Ray picked up a baseball-sized rock from someone’s ten by ten front yard. He quickened his pace, and Willie turned around at the sound of him.
“You’re…” Willie said, and Ray smashed him in the ear with the rock.
Willie fell flat on his back and moved his arms in the air slowly like he was trying to find a handrail that might help him get on his feet again. Ray moved quickly to get the small frame revolver strapped to the officer’s ankle, then he knelt beside Willie’s head and aimed the gun at his face.
“If you want to live you’re going to be quiet and answer my questions. Understand?”
Ray didn’t wait for a response. He pulled a roll of duct tape from his back pocket, tore off a piece with his teeth and slapped it over the officer’s mouth.
Ray half dragged, half walked the officer to an alleyway between two stores that wouldn’t open until the early morning.
“Two questions. You tell me the truth if you want to live. First, when you talked to Luz Maria a few days ago in the chicken and pizza place, she thought you were joking right? I mean, she laughed right in your face, right?”
Willie nodded. Would have loved to have explained, but the tape wouldn’t let him.
“You’re doing good. Second, you thought beating her would teach her a lesson, right?”
Willie nodded again. Ray rolled his eyes then raised the gun to Willie’s temple and took the tape off his mouth with his free hand.
“Anything to say?” Ray asked.
“You said you weren’t going to kill me,” Willie said seeing that things weren’t going as he had hoped.
“Not exactly what I said,” Ray answered, and he pulled the trigger.
A half-mile away, Ray reached a beach he had swum at a hundred times before. There were almond trees and nooks with lovers. Some kids had left a small bonfire burning and Ray dropped Officer Guillermo Ortiz’s wallet into it. The wallet was flimsy – plastic – and Ray watched it melt and burn for a few minutes. In the morning it wouldn’t be more than a gob that the police would have no use for if they ever found it. The gun Ray wiped clean. He held it by the grip using a stray fragment of palm leaf then threw it as far into the ocean as his arm would let him.
“Anything?” Esmeralda asked as he entered the house at one in the morning.
“Got him,” Ray answered.
“It was Willie?” Esmeralda asked.
“You don’t need to know any details about anything,” Ray said.
Esmeralda knew he was right, but she didn’t like it. She had a right to know who had done what to whom when her daughter was involved. She was about to press her case; Ray cut her off.
“You just got to get me plane tickets back to New York,” he said.
“Nah. A few days,” Ray said. “I want to see my goddaughter smile again. We’ll go to the beach this weekend. Give me some time to warm up and get a proper tan. Maybe go for a swim or something.”