Authors: Tristan J. Tarwater
Copyright © 2012 Tristan J. Tarwater
Some rights reserved.
Published in the United States by
Back That Elf Up Publishing House.
This book is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.
That means you are free:
Under the following conditions:
Book Design: Christopher Tarwater
Original Cover Photo: Lauren Oster
Editor: Annetta Ribken
Cultural Consultant and Proof-Reader: Vas Littlecrow Wojtanowicz
Dedicated to my family and the LES.
‘Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let it sink back in the ocean!’ Rita Moreno sings on the television and I smirk, picking up my glass of soda. The sides are slick with moisture and the damn thing slips out of my hands, spilling ice and soda everywhere.
“Shit,” I say, vaulting myself out of my chair and standing over the growing puddle, hands up in surrender and helplessness even though its only a spill. Just a spill of soda and my brain freezes for a minute, the television playing the Bernstein tune in the background. Before I can do anything, my grandmother pops her head out of the kitchen to see what I'm cursing about.
” she asks me. She has a wet dishrag in her hand already, her tiny frame hobbling towards me.
“Just the damn soda,” I say. “I can do it,
,” but she's already on her hands and knees cleaning it. I'm about to bend down to help when my phone chimes. It's work.
“Go, go get it,” she scolds, getting up to wring out the rag in the kitchen. I can't say no to her, and I can't ignore the text. I make a sound that's supposed to mean 'I surrender' and wrestle with my jacket, pulling out my phone and sliding my finger across its screen to read the message.
[605 Avenue B/12/1-26]
I curse under my breath and my grandmother doesn't even say anything as I grab my gun and my bag, pulling them both on as I go to head out the door. “I'll make you a plate!” she calls after me. “
Senor te bendiga
I don't let her see me cringe. I head out the metal door, careful to pull it all the way closed, leaving it up to her to lock the damn thing. She's lived in this apartment fifty-two years and the door still sticks. A metal door. Damn project housing.
I hear the three locks snap closed as I head towards the staircase.
Senor te bendiga
and lock all the doors. Right.
I get there in seven minutes and cops are already on the scene, yellow tape drawing gawking stares from people in the neighborhood. I flash my badge at the officer watching the perimeter and he lets me pass through. Hunts saw me park my car, I know he has and he nods at me as I fall in step with him into the building. The cops outside, their faces are white as ghosts. Twelve is a big number. Hunts seems a bit unsteady himself. He hands me a mask.
As soon as my feet hit the steps heading down into the basement I smell it. Stale incense and blood. The rot of bodies. Herbs. An extinguished fire. The odors make their way through the mask and into my memory. I know these aromas and I smell them here, their scent growing stronger as we descend. No one hung any lights in the staircase but I can see the light growing at the bottom of the landing, where the reek is coming from. Light and the terrible stench. Rotting meat and thick resins, so thick you want to scrub the inside of your head to get the stink out but you can't think of cleaner strong enough.
Only a handful of cops are down here, looking over the piles of meat, bone and organs. That's all they are for now, till Forensics can ID them. Even after that, they'll only be people in the memories of those still around. That's all you get, if you're lucky. But my musings are slapped out of my head when I see the walls. The closest body makes my stomach turn in a way it hasn't in a while.
The walls are painted in dried, brown blood. Giant eyes all around. They all stare down at the bodies. And the bodies...where the top of the head should be, there isn't one. The eyes are wide with terror, the mouth stretched in a soundless scream but what poured out had apparently been brain matter. Shards of skull litter the floor. I put my hand over my mouth. I can't help it.
“No signs of powder or incendiary devices, before you ask.” Yang stands up. Her hands are wrapped in stained, blue latex gloves. She talks through her mask. How she can breathe so close to these bodies, I don't know. “Except for the candles, but they hardly count. I'd put the time of death at three days ago, sometime between midnight and three in the morning.” She points at the piles of remains as she speaks, and I can't help but stare at the maroon splattered on the bright blue. “Five females, seven males, all between the ages of nineteen to late 40s, I'd say. One even went to your alma mater.” She holds up a student identification card. NCU. It's the nineteen year old. The picture is of a sullen undergrad, dyed hair, dark circles under her eyes. Pretty. I probably would have asked her out if we were classmates. Hell, I might have asked her out today, if she were alive.
“I'll have fun looking through the yearbook,” I say. It's a dumb joke, I know but sometimes dumb jokes are all I got. Yang manages a smile and Hunts crosses his arms across his chest. “What about the candles?” Start off easy, before I have to look at the gruesome stuff, shove my face into it.
“A little gift left by whoever did this,” Hunts says, walking over to one corner of the room. There's actually a trash can in this part of the room, a small one. The contents have been laid out across the ground, strewn methodically, tagged and bagged. Hunts picks one up and hands it to me.
Botanica de los Fondos
. I know the place. They close at eight, so I've got time. I nod and put it in my bag, and one of the other officers call Hunts over so he excuses himself.
Now's the time to put my face in it. I pull out my pad and pencil and I walk around, careful not to step in any of the crusted smears on the floor. It's a new pad, spiral bound. I stand in front of one of the eyes and I draw it. Some people would just take a picture and I'll take a picture too but for me drawing gives it more meaning. I'm not the best artist but I'm okay. I practice by trying to copy pictures. It's all just lines. Straight lines, curved lines, lines making no sense. Beginnings and endings. I draw the eye from the wall drawn in blood. I wonder where the blood came from. Yang's crew will be able to tell me later.
I draw the eye with thick lines. Thick strokes, back and forth, sloppy. There are spatters of blood on the wall. I draw a few dots. Lines and dots. Pulling out my phone I take a few pictures.
I turn around and take in the scene. I count the steps between the bodies and draw the rough circle. I look at the candles and sketch them in. Limbs become crooked lines, blown open heads interrupted circles, pools of gore curves with no logic. I look over the clothes. Brown robes. No jewelry.
The lines on the floor and the circles I draw next. I turn the page and the sound makes people look toward me. They can fuck themselves. Symbols are written and I write them as carefully as I can, inspecting each one. I pull my phone out to take another pic and I've got a message.
[Frankies Bday this Sunday. You comin?]
I blow out my cheeks and dismiss it, turning on the camera again. A few pushes on the screen. Twenty new pics added to the gallery. The symbols seem familiar but don't place with anything I've come across recently, nothing I’ve studied. But it's obvious from the scene the person I'm dealing with is one of the bad ones.
“Quintana, you heading out?” I just close my notebook and shove it into my bag when Yang waves me over. I step toward her, trying to ignore the stains on the floor but avoid them at the same time. It's hard. My stomach hurts. But she pulls back the sleeve of one of the bodies.
A tattoo. I pull out my notebook to sketch it and she laughs. She's got a nice laugh, Yang. She doesn't laugh enough. “Just take a pic and be done with it,” she said.
“Drawing it makes it stick more,” I say. Another circle in a circle. Looks like a stylized skull to me, but not one I've seen before. “When you ID them, send me the info,” I say, pulling out the phone. I snap a picture of it and put my notebook away. “I'm heading out to check on some people before I head back to the office.”
“We know how to get a hold of you,” Yang says. I lower my head and wave goodbye to Hunts before I make my way up the stairs, the mixture of fresh and fetid air reigniting the stink in my nose. It's disgusting. If hell is real and smells like something, it'd be pretty damn close to this.
is only a few blocks away so I don't bother driving. I'm not going to risk not finding a parking spot. The stink of the scene is still in my nose and I spit to the side to try and dislodge it. An old woman comes out of the
, pushing a wire shopping cart. I hold the door open for her and she smiles warmly at me. Her face is all wrinkles and she grins at me toothlessly, thanking me in Spanish. I just smile back and duck into the store.
The owner of the store comes out of the back holding a box in his hands. He's dressed all in white and doesn't look like the kind of guy who would own a shop like this. Rows of candles, herbs, statues of saints. It smells like incense in here. Danny is a young guy, not even thirty years old. Good looking, more Taino blood than Spanish. Curly dark hair. Used to sell drugs but never got busted for it. Something happened and he took up Santeria and working with his uncle. His uncle was killed about a year ago and I helped clear Danny and his practice of the charges. He and his uncle were some of the good people. I didn't give a shit if they killed animals from time to time. They turned a coke dealer into one of the model citizens in the neighborhood.
Danny looks happy to see me and he puts the box on the counter. Some music plays in the background, some old salsa music. “Luis,” he says. “What brings you here?” He's calm and goes to the little fridge he keeps behind the counter and pulls out one of those cheap sodas, coconut flavor. “You need a drink?”
“Business, not pleasure, Danny,” I say. It comes out grim. Danny twists the cap off the soda and gives me a strange look.
“What's up?” he asks me and I pull out the receipt. It's still in the plastic bag and I place it on the counter. The door opens and a different little old lady walks in. Danny waves at her before he looks over the receipt. He gulps. I see it.
“You know who bought this?” I ask. “A few days ago? I know you got cameras in here.” I point to the corners of the shop and wave into one of them. “This person a regular?”
“No,” Danny says quickly. I can tell he knows the guy and he looks worried. Thinking back to the bodies in the room, I'm not surprised. “I don't usually deal with this guy. He paid cash, before you ask.”
“But you know him,” I say, stating the obvious. “I can't tell you what he did but I can say, it was very, very bad. I don't want him doing it again. I don't think you would want him to do it either.”
Danny just shook his head. “He's not a
,” he insisted, pulling out a video tape from under the counter. He slides it over to me. “He's not from this neighborhood. He's from the Upper East Side.”
“Why's he coming down here to cause trouble?” I ask. Danny just shrugs. “What'd you sell him?”
“Just a few candles. Black and green and red. He came in around closing time.” Danny takes a sip of his soda and his hands are shaking. “Is everything okay?”
“I'm going to try to make things better.” It's the truth. “Do you know his name?”
Danny can only shake his head and he sets the soda on the counter. “No. But people call him
. I look at Danny and I can't help but feel it's a bit theatrical. Come on. “You guys need to chill out with this,” is the advice I give him. “Can I call you if I have any questions?”
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “Just,” He's nervous, still. “Be careful.”
“Right,” I say. I put the tape in my bag and I walk toward the door. The eyes of the saints follow me on the way out, or at least they seem to. They're just plaster and paint after all.
“I'll keep you in my prayers,” he calls after me. I cringe but I don't let him see before I head out the door.