I know you will make Mama proud. You and your sister will make our name famous!
The voice of Vic’s late mother floated through his mind. She always said that to him and Catalina as he grew up. It might have even been one of the last things she ever said to him. He couldn’t remember.
Vicente Vargas leaned forward and studied the eyes staring back at him from the computer screen. A small girl with feathery-fine, blond hair and crystal blue eyes held a dandelion up in the last of the summer day’s rays. Her face was scrunched up, her brow furrowed as she spotted a 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 that he made: each shot must actually tell a story. He was not a wedding photographer or even a mall hack that took portraits. He considered himself an artist.
He tagged the pictured and then saved it on his hard drive. She would be featured among his collection. One day he knew he would get his shot and have a showing.
He and Cat had been shipped off Stateside five years back. Mama had saved and sacrificed years to get enough money to send them ahead to a house she had managed to mortgage. The plan then was to rejoin them in a year. He was old enough to watch his baby sister on his own by then.
Then Sandy took his mother’s life away. Flooded the city and drowned all of 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 got to go!” She scolded him.
Catalina 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 delivery call.
He had worked for six months now as a driver for an internet food delivery service. It barely paid him more than minimum wage and even the tips were insulting.
The clock on the wall flashed at him. “The power went out again?”
“Yeah. Some sort of ‘brown out’ hit the entire area. Too many ACs 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 and walked through the kitchen doorway, down the hall 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 words of her textbook in front of her.
“You know you can talk to me. I have been aro—”
“—yeah you sure are with it all. Jail gives you a well-rounded education these days so I hear.”
He took in a breath between his teeth as her words shocked and stung him. With that, he rotated on the heels of his sneakers and stormed through the back door in the kitchen.
As the screen slammed shut, he heard a muffled, “Hey Vic, I’m s—”
On days like this, he sincerely missed his mother. She had a gift for knowing people and their emotions. Always Ava Vargas knew the exact words to say.
He rubbed his nose, irritated and frazzled by his sister’s taunt. Throwing his bag into the back seat of their beat-up Chevrolet Cobalt, 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 letter P centered upon it. He tapped it.
An address appeared and then Google Maps opened automatically for him. It zoomed in and identified his target and the time he’d take getting to it.
9982 W Broadmore Apt #7E.
Below the address, more instructions appeared. The order: Perry’s Hot & Fresh — two Jumbo Boy Burgers with fries. One order of onion rings and two Medium Cokes. Ask for Jackson.
He sighed aloud and wiped at his forehead. Already beads of sweat had popped up. The temperature in Phoenix was a “hair dryer 110 degrees”. Not quite “stick your head in an oven 118 degrees” yet — this was guaranteed by the weatherman on Channel 17 for the weekend.
Over an hour later, he laid back in his seat, parked in the shade of an old warehouse. The last three deliveries had gone smooth, but the “tip jar” feature on his work dashboard had shown only $10.50. For the four total deliveries, he had sweet-talked all but one of his callers to leave a decent tip.
“Mighty white of you, Jackson.” Vic cursed to himself.
He shut off the car radio which played an obnoxious rap version of Mac the Knife — even at his age, he knew that 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 for the awkward apology session just yet.
Since he had been released on parole and back in the house, they had been working on rebuilding their relationship. In the three and a half years he was in juvie and then jail, she had grown up on her own.
Friends of his parents had taken her in after the trial. Vic had been her only rock back then. He had let her down and was forced to abandon her. She needed him and one stupid night of stupid decisions led to a stupid joyride.
Wonk Wonnnnk Woonk. It was his cell phone again. The 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. His jokes were lame but they amused him at least.
1718 Lioness Estates Dr, Scottsdale.
Order from Chipotle — three burritos, two steaks and one chicken with sour cream. No onions on any of the orders.
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: Ask for Shari. 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 Chevy.
Ten minutes after picking up the meal order, he pulled into the gravel drive that led up to the large ranch house in Scottsdale.
As he balanced the drink carrier with three bags all while trying to close the driver door with his left foot, he spotted a piece of pink paper flapping from the glass door of the house.
When he stepped up to the porch, he could see that it read, “Come around the side, the door is not working. Sorry! Shari”
He sighed loudly, turned around and went to the right side. He wasn’t sure if she meant the right but this side had a cement walkway that ran parallel to the brick facade of the house.
In the back, he found a sparkling greenhouse with a single door propped open with a red-orange brick.
Vic used his foot this time to push it back so he could squeeze inside. Along the back of the greenhouse, dozens of flower pots were arranged while down the middle of the room were rows of hanging plants and flowers. The strong scent of citrus filled the entire structure. He didn’t see any other doors to the house.
“Hello?” Vic called out.
“I am here with your Chipotle order? Hello?”
He walked along the center aisle where it turned to the left. Another door, a metal screen door with a wooden door behind it. The window in the wood door had drawn beige curtains.
Where are they? C’mon! It is too hot in here to play this game. He thought to himself. Sweat trickled down his back and wetted the pits to his black t-shirt.
A sink and shelf were set next to the screen door.
He set the items down on the shelf in order to knock.
Still silence and no answer. He was getting irritated. He stood with his hands on his hips, standing indecisively.
“HELLO?? ANYONE THERE??” He shouted, cupping his hands to magnify the words.
Perhaps she’s upstairs or has her headphones on? Vic tried the door handle. Both doors were unlocked and he made his way in. He had no idea that this was going to be the worst mistake of his life.
“Uh… Shari? I have your food order. Are you home?”
He left the food and proceeded inside. The foyer on the other side of the doors was dark and musty. It led to a cramped seating room with three loveseats, 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 wider living room with two couches that faced each other across a glass coffee table. Twin book cabinets on opposite walls and a long stairwell went up in the east corner. Thick brown curtains were sealed closed and the room was buried in shadows.
It was nearly pitch black. Vic slipped and nearly fell face first into the back of the couch. His back hand was coated. He raised up a bloody hand to his eyes.
The blood was warm and syrupy as it trailed along his arm. His jeans’ leg was sticking to his calf where he laid in the spreading puddle.
“Oh… oh, shit!” He scrambled to his knees and backpedaled to the previous meeting room.
Vic panicked as fear gripped his chest. His breath came out raspy.
There’s too much of it! His mind screamed. Too much to survive that. I have to get out of here!
He bolted back to the greenhouse and raced out to his car. As he put the car in drive, Vic didn’t even notice that the pink note had disappeared from the front door.
Fifteen minutes later he was parked at a cluttered, run-down gas station. He had driven behind it when he had seen an outdoor sink set up.
He got out, looked around for anyone watching. The yard behind the station was empty and the bulky building would hide him from any passing cars. He washed the blood from his arm and then took his pants off to wash the blood from his leg.
Later, as he was waiting at a stop light two minutes from his house, he tried to make sense of what had happened. Sweat coated his entire 6’2 frame and he still shook with tremors.
“I had to leave,” he whispered to himself.
She’s got to be dead and I cannot be near that! I am on parole and they’ll not 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 worries continued to rant 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.
What the… No, no, no, no! They could not have known anything yet. I just found it. What is going on?
Since the squad car was taking up the only available parking area, he pulled in and parked in an empty spot on the street in front of the house.
Vic saw in the front window 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 anything of the tell-tale signs of blood.
He steeled himself, 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. The officer was tall and towering over her. He was white, of course, and had a shock of black and white hair. He was in his late 40s and had the air of impatience about him.
“It is not profiling. I am just doing my due-diligence and following protocol on any tips given to the police department.”
“What is this about?” Vic spoke loud enough to make them both jump at his sudden appearance.
The officer whipped his head back to see who was speaking and lowered his hand to his belt, close to his service revolver.
“What is going on here, sir?” He rephrased in a more calm 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 welcomed more scrutiny or triple trouble coming your way.
Officer Reccard studied him and then replied, “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 Catalina Vargas might have been involved. She and her boyfriend Jimmy Brower may have information on it.”
“Watch your tone, son!”
“My sister is not involved. I am telling you.”
“They already searched the house, Vic. Didn’t find anything.”
“Did you have a warrant?”
Officer Reccard 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 where Vic was standing in the doorway and leaned in toward 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 and focused 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 cross the poorly mowed lawn sprinkled with tall weeds, the cop froze in his tracks. Vic can see past the bulk of the officer and spotted something dripping from the backend. Something was dripping and puddling under the trunk by the driver’s back tire.
It was more of the warm and syrupy blood…