Vicente Vargas leaned forward and studied the eyes staring back at him. A tiny girl with a crown of feathery fine blond hair and blue, crystalline 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 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 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. He decided to feature this portrait among his growing collection. One day he would get his shot and have a showing.
I know you will make Mama proud. You and your sister will show the world. The voice of his late mother floated through his mind. She always said that to him as he grew up. It might have even been one of the last things she ever said to him. He couldn’t remember.
Ava Vargas shipped him and Cat 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.
But Hurricane Irene took her life. Flooded the city and drowned their dreams away.
“You can’t hear that?” Cat shouted from the kitchen doorway.
“Your phone is ringing! I could hear it through my headphones. Vic, you got to go!” She scolded him.
His sister, 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 he call.
He had worked for six months now as a driver for an internet food service called Forerunner. It barely paid him more than minimum wage and even the tips were insulting. When an order came in, he would go to the desired location, pick up the food and then deliver the meal. Simple enough.
Yet, he hated every minute of it and often hated most of the lazy, rich kids that used the service like toilet paper. Most likely it was his emotions that garnered his lack of tips.
The clock on the wall flashed at him. “The power went out again?”
“No. 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 stressed over something or something was bothering her.
Since his release and moving back into the house, he realized that he had lost a lot of ground with Cat. In the three and a half years he was in juvie and then jail, she had grown up. His mistakes forced her to.
Friends of his parents had taken her in after the trial. Vic had been her only rock back then. He let her down and literally abandoned her. She had needed him. But on one stupid night of stupid decisions, it all led to a stupid joyride.
He swept up his cell phone, walked through the kitchen doorway, and down the hall.
Poking his head past her bedroom door, “What’s going on?”
“Cat… What is it?” He persisted.
She shook her head and pretended to be scanning the words of her text book 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 with knowing people and their emotions. Always Ava Vargas knew the exact words to say.
He rubbed at his nose, irritated and frazzled by his sister’s taunt. It was a bad habit.
Throwing his bag into the back seat of their beat-up Chevrolet Cobalt, he revved the engine for effect. Then he plastered his foot on the gas and peeled out of the driveway into the street.
Wonk Wonnnnk Woonk.
It was his cell phone again. The phone vibrated like a mad bee on the seat next to him. Since he hadn’t accepted the order, it was probably a reminder call. If he ignored three calls in a row, it would be a mark against him.
“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 understood that his jokes were lame, but they amused him at least.
At the first red light on Washington, he answered the cell phone. On the screen there was a flashing bike symbol with 4R 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.
1718 Lioness Estates Dr, Scottsdale, AZ 85252
Scottsdale? That might just save this day. Bound to have a few extra dollars for a tip, no?
The phone blipped a tiny bell sound and a text came through:
FAT JACKS BURGERS — 608 Mill Ave. Tempe, AZ 85281. Two Jumbo Boy Burgers with fries, one Spicy Chicken Sandwich. One order of onion rings and three Medium Cokes. Ask for Shari.
Per Google, he was fifteen minutes away from the restaurant.
He sighed aloud, texted ACCEPT and wiped at his forehead. Already beads of sweat had popped up. Today, the temperature in Phoenix was a “hair dryer 110 degrees”. Not quite “stick your head in an oven 118 degrees” yet — guaranteed by the annoying weatherman on Channel 17 for the weekend.
As he cut across town along University Drive, 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 left alone. Glancing at the dashboard clock, he decided he would log off after the delivery and call it a day.
Close to 6 pm in the evening, ten minutes after picking up the meal order, he pulled into the gravel drive that led up to the large ranch house in Scottsdale.
He balanced the flimsy, drink carrier and three bags of food as he closed the driver door with his right leg. When he turned back to face the house, he spotted a piece of pink paper flapping from the glass french door of the house.
As he stepped up to the porch he could see that it read, “Come around the side, door is not working. Sorry! Shari”
Vic sighed loudly, went back down the path and took 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 an red-orange brick.
Vic wedged his foot inside so he could squeeze through. Along the back of the greenhouse, dozens of flower pots were arranged in tight clusters. 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 Forerunner order? Hello?”
He walked along the center aisle where it turned to the left. There it ended with a metal screen door with another wooden door behind it. The window in the wood door had closed 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 teeshirt.
A sink and dirt-caked shelf were set next to the screen door. He dropped the food items down so he could knock.
Still silence and no answer. He was fast getting irritated. He stood with his hands on his hips, standing indecisive.
“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. He left the food and proceeded inside. He had no idea how this was to haunt him — that this was the worst mistake of his life.
“Uh… Shari? I have your food order. Are you home?”
The foyer on the other side of the doors was dark and musty. A light filtered through from another room, coming through an archway and drew him in further.
It led through to a cramped seating room. There were three love seats, a tiny, unused fireplace and a desk covered in old mail and papers. On the same wall as the fireplace, he saw another archway.
From there, he walked into a much bigger 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 drawn close and the room buried in charcoal shadows.
She’s got to be upstairs.
It was nearly pitch black. On the way to the stairs, Vic slipped and fell face first into the back of the couch. His left hand was suddenly coated. He raised it up before his eyes.
Rivulets of blood, warm and syrupy, trailed along his arm. His jeans’ leg was sticking to his calf where it laid in a spreading puddle.
“Oh… oh, shit!” He scrambled to his knees and backpedaled to the previous meeting room.
Vic panicked and fear gripped his chest. His breath came out raspy.
There is 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.
Back on University, he spotted a dirty, run down gas station. He drove behind it, hoping for an outside bathroom. He exhaled a big breath when he spotted something better — it had an outdoor sink set up.
He got out, looking around for anyone to be watching. It was all clear. Carefully, he washed the blood from his arm and then took his pants off to wash the blood from his leg.
Later, as he is 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 already dead and I cannot be near that! I am just out 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 his worst fear: a single police car parked in his driveway.
What? How?? They could not have known anything yet. I just found it. What is going on?
Since the squad car took up the available parking area, he parked in an empty spot on the street in front of the house.
Vic sees in the front window Cat speaking to a lone patrol officer. She looked upset and emotional. He swallowed hard and took a quick spot check of his jeans. They are drying, but he doesn’t see any tell-tale signs of the blood.
Steeling himself, he straightened his shoulders and stepped across the yard to the front door.
“This is ridiculous! Isn’t this profiling?” Cat snapped at the male police officer. The officer was tall and towered over her. He was white, of course, and had a shock of black and white hair. He was in late 40s, his weight pushing 250 at least and he had an air of impatience about him.
“It is not profiling. I am just doing my due-diligence and following protocol on any tip given to the police department.”
“What is this about?” Vic spoke loud enough to make them both jump at his sudden appearance.
The officer glared over his shoulder to see who was speaking while he 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 learned, downward cast of his eyes, the non-threatening tone and the lowered shoulders posture he mastered in jail.
When you talk with the boss, this was how you talk. Anything different welcomed triple the trouble coming your way. His former cell bunkie had educated him.
Officer Reccard studied him. “There was a break-in down the street at Mennen’s Stereo Warehouse last week. Lots of equipment and items stolen. A tip came in that a young teenage girl by the name of Catalina Vargas might have been involved. Her 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? Everyone is innocent here.”
“Uh… no. You’re right. We have nothing to hide. We don’t have anything.”
He walked over to where Vic was standing in the doorway and leaned in toward his face. In a hushed whisper, “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? Make me get a warrant?”
Vic shook his head and stared at the space of the floor between his feet.
Reccard brushed past him and headed out to the car. Vic and Cat followed after him without a word.
As they crossed the poorly mowed lawn sprinkled with weeds, the cop froze in his tracks. Vic looked around the bulk of the officer and spied something dripping from the Cobalt’s back end. Something that dripped and puddled under the trunk by the driver’s back tire.
It was warm and syrupy…