By Russell Guenther
It was 11:25, Tuesday evening, and Detective Rogelio Santana drove up to his unlit and empty house. By no means a paranoid man like many of his colleagues, he rarely locked his own car when parked under the shelter of the carport. Tonight, however, Santana had driven the county car home with the tube tucked away in the trunk, and made certain all doors were locked. No cop would leave easy access to a shotgun for some kid to fiddle around with, secured as it may be.
He let himself in the house, pushing the front door open with a grunt, and tossed his bag on the floor before switching on the light. He shut the door behind him and went into the kitchen, where he knew an uncorked bottle of Añejo tequila awaited him in the cabinet above the fridge. Out of habit, he pulled down the two matching shot glasses, the pair a memento from when he’d made it past probation as a rookie more than two decades ago, and his uncle had taken him to the bullfights in Mexico City. He poured himself a glass, leaving its mate empty on the counter.
“Salud, Tío Marco,” Santana said aloud, and drained the glass. He shuddered from the jolt of alcohol and stared at the wall. He was no stranger to coming home to a house dark and quiet, but the knowledge that his family wasn’t asleep in their respective bedrooms added a dimension of surrealness. He hadn’t had the house to himself in…what was it, twelve years? He remembered Maria pregnant, Marisol only four or five years old at the time, visiting Maria’s mother in Guanajuato.
Too exhausted to be bored, Santana took his shoes off, undid his belt, and sat on the sofa. He picked up the remote control, then put it right back down again, resting his head on the back of the sofa before dropping off to sleep.
At 8 AM the following morning, Santana was back at the Santee station, turning in the county vehicle.
“Finally taking that vacation, huh Roger?” It was Deputy Hayes, Santana’s former patrol partner. He’d remained a patrol deputy after Santana had moved on to detective. Hayes had insisted he’d been perfectly content in his post.
“Right after this,” Santana said. “Taking the trolley down to the border.”
“I can’t believe you still ride that thing,” Hayes said.
“It’s fine,” Santana said. He actually enjoyed the trolley, when it was early enough in the day, after the morning rush of commuters, if you could call it a rush. The hoods started crowding the Blue Line much later, down near Imperial Avenue on through Logan, and the college kids on the Green Line were harmless enough. The worst time was the evening, when the youngsters packed in after a day of cheap drinking in Tijuana, like noisy pickled sardines.
“Give you a ride to the station,” Hayes joked. The Santee trolley stop was right across the street.
“See you in a couple weeks,” Santana said.
He boarded the Green Line trolley bound for the transit station at San Diego State, where he’d get off and transfer to the Blue Line all the way down to the San Ysidro border crossing. His family was already in Guadalajara, having left the previous Friday. The original plan had been for the whole family to make the trip together, but Santana, as usual, had been stuck working through the weekend. Maria and the girls had gone down without him, in good hands with Maria’s older brother, while the irritated detective stayed behind to wrap up a depressing case(was there any other kind?) and make the solo trek to meet his family after he’d cleared.
Santana stepped off the trolley at the final stop just before 11, along with the usual smattering of dedicated tourists. Most were there for the day-trip to TJ, for cheap shopping, beer and street tacos. The line crossing the border into Mexico was nonexistent, a simple walk through the heavy iron turnstiles. The crossing back to the US more often than not took hours, though crossing by foot was preferable.
Having skipped breakfast in his haste to get going that morning, Santana stopped at one of the many streetside taco eateries. He sat down under a large patio umbrella encrusted with the Dos Equis logo. The wandering Mariachis and street vendors paid him no heed, they were there only for the tourists’ dinero. It was obvious to the locals Santana did not fall into that category, by demeanor, and the fact that he was more darkly complected than most of them.
“Tacos Al Pastor,” Santana told the waiter. “Tecate, también.” He was officially on vacation.
The tacos and beer came rapidly. The bottle of beer had chunks of ice still attached from the bucket whence it no doubt came, frequently along with nine others for a fifteen-dollar turista bargain. Santana didn’t need ten beers, but would get the real price for his meal. It was no secret the prices were jacked way up before being offered at a “discount.” Santana squeezed a lime wedge into his beer before poking it through the bottleneck, watching the foam recede before taking a long pull. The heat of the day had grown exponentially, and the sharp refreshment of the ice-cold cerveza was the best sensation Santana had experienced in a week.
Santana had just about gotten to the bottom of his bottle of beer, to where the foam mingled with the lime pulp, when a shrill female scream cut across the plaza, followed by what sounded like a tray of dishes tumbling to the floor inside the restaurant’s kitchen. A growing commotion of confused shouting in Spanish precluded the young man bursting through the exit door of the establishment across the way, in Santana’s full view.
The wiry Mexican youth sprinted to the south, and a stocky man in a greasy once-white apron burst the doorway, looking around before spotting the fleeing boy.
“Stop that boy!” the man shouted in Spanish. Without even noticing the fact that the sparse crowd of tourists and locals alike were frozen and dumbfounded, Santana was already on a beeline in pursuit, having kicked over his chair in his haste. Driven by cop instinct, he ran, quickly gaining on the man who’d had the advantage of being more than twenty years younger.
The boy made a move to cut through an alley to his left, sacrificing ground to the older detective. Santana saw the move coming, and had already started to turn the corner. By the time the fleeing boy had regained his stride, it was already too late for him. Santana was close enough that he was able to lunge toward the boy’s flailing extremities and disrupt him, like sticking a tree branch into the spokes of a bicycle.
The boy fell violently to the ground, achieving a full somersault before coming to a stop. Santana had to step quickly to his left in mid-run so he wouldn’t trip over the boy and join the splayed figure on the rough pavement.
Santana stood over the unmoving youth, the mixture of Tecate, lime, and tacos al pastor rising up in his esophagus. He leaned down with his hands on his knees, catching his breath, then sprang erect when he noticed two of the local Tijuana flatfoots trotting up the alley. His initial reaction was one of not showing weakness to these cops in their territory, directly followed with irritation at himself for not having shed the machismo that had followed him up from his days as a youth on the streets of Mexico.
“What’s going on here?” one of the officers said. Santana didn’t really have an answer, unaccustomed as he was to being questioned.
“I stopped him,” Santana said, pointing to the prone young man with his chin. “Thought he might have been a thief or something.”
“Is that so?” the other officer said. “Did he take something from you?”
“No, nothing like that. He came running out of the restaurant back there, and the cook came out shouting after him.”
“And that gives you a reason to rough up this muchacho?”
“Looks like he stole from the wrong hombre at least once before,” the second officer said, indicating the boy’s left hand with the toe of his cowboy boot. The thumb and forefinger were missing; the flesh around it suggesting an old injury, or a birth defect.
“Why don’t you have a word with the cook?” Santana said. “He could shed some light here.”
“We don’t need you to tell us our job,” the first officer said. The man glared at Santana, waiting for him to concede authority. Santana returned the stare, silent and impassive. He knew the game.
“Stay here,” the officer finally said to his partner, then returned to Santana. “Come on, tough guy.”
Santana and the officer took the short walk back to the restaurant in silence. A crowd was now quickly gathering outside of the door where the chase had begun. The cook, still in his greasy apron, looked at Santana, his yellow eyes wide with panic.
“You catch him?” the cook asked Santana, ignoring the officer.
“Didn’t get too far,” Santana said, smirking.
“Que paso, pues,” the officer said.
“Por favor,” the cook said. “In here.” The two men followed the cook in through the door, past vertical spits wrapped in roasting adobada. On the floor, amongst various spatulas, several broken plates, and spilled crockery, lay a woman. It was difficult to immediately tell her age from her position, lying face down with a mass of bleach blonde hair obscuring most of her upper body.
“Everybody out,” the officer said. He looked at Santana. “You stay.”
After examination, the body was revealed to have belonged to a woman in her late forties or early fifties. The police on the scene, outside of the protocol to which Santana was accustomed, had looked over the body, moving it several times. This wasn’t his scene, and he watched the breech, retaining his poker face throughout.
It had also come out through questioning that Santana was a detective from the States passing through at the time of the crime. This had not sweetened the attitude of the TJ cops toward him.
Santana now sat in the Tijuana police station, not quite under interrogation, but close enough for him.
“I believe we have all we need from you, señor,” the Mexican investigator, a thick-set balding man of about fifty, said. “The cook confirms that you were indeed a good samaritan in this case. Doesn’t that make us lucky?” The question, more of a comment, was laced with sarcasm.
“What about the muchacho?” Santana asked.
“He’s not going anywhere. Don’t worry.”
“What’s the charge?”
The investigator, whose name was Sánchez, snorted. His manner stiffened when he saw Santana wasn’t smiling. “I don’t know how you handle these things in Estados Unidos, but this is as clear a murder as any.”
“He didn’t do it,” Santana said.
After being ejected from Policía Municipal, and being told bluntly his expertise was not welcome, Santana knew as soon as his feet hit the sidewalk that his vacation was a bust. He would not leave Tijuana until he cleared this case, welcome or not. He had become involved from the moment he tossed the poor muchacho in the back alley.
He had nobody to bounce his ideas off of, he hadn’t even had a chance to verbalize his problems before the cops had practically thrown him out on his ear. He wasn’t about to phone one of his San Diego colleagues for help with a Mexican homicide.
He pulled out his cell phone to call his wife, but not for help on the case. He didn’t have to say more than a casual hello for her to know something was not going as planned.
“What happened?” Maria Santana said. “Don’t tell me you got stuck at work. You were supposed to be on the trolley this morning.”
“No, I got on the trolley,” he said. “It’s something different. Well, same but different. Hard to explain. I’ll be stuck in TJ a while.”
Santana, experienced as he was in his detective work, faced a novel set of challenges. Being in Mexico was nothing extraordinary to him, being his country of origin, but being here in an official capacity was another story. Not official, he reminded himself. He was not working with anyone’s blessing; in fact, Santana was the opposition, albeit not a criminal. He had neither gun nor badge to protect him. His business in Tijuana would be strictly cash and carry.
He went back to the restaurant to start his own avenue of investigation. Santana’s theory that the boy couldn’t have carried out the murder was based mostly on a hunch. Santana himself had fallen into working a case in a cop’s tunnel vision, having his mind made up about a suspect and making the leads fit that end. In this case, he had no suspect.
Santana spoke to the cook first. He harbored the optimism that the man would cooperate with him on the basis that he’d helped him, stopping the fleeing boy upon being bidden. He’d milk that for as much as it was worth, but he had his money belt as a backup. He never carried cash in his wallet in Tijuana, and on the way over from the Policia Municipal he’d watched the children selling roses in the plaza crowd an unsuspecting 20-something gringo tourist fall victim to the pickpocketing. There was nothing to be done about it, the oldest of the thieves couldn’t have been past the age of six. The young man would probably piece it together after he’d already crossed back over the border, and learn his lesson for next time.
“Buenas Tardes,” Santana said to the cook. It was now well past 3 in the afternoon. “Quite a hell of a thing earlier.”
“Es verdad,” the man said, immediately recognizing Santana. “The way things were going, I was afraid they were going to arrest you.”
“Si, Pues,” Santana said. “It didn’t quite come to that. Cerveza, por favor.” He wanted to play it cool, like he was just dropping by for a beer and a chat.
“So, where you headed from here?” the cook asked as he squeezed the lime wedge into the bottle, then slid it over to Santana.
“Rosarito,” Santana said, not sure he needed to lie, but playing it safe. He put a five-dollar American note on the counter, unbidden. Not a bribe, just a man paying for his beer. For now. “So, how’d all this business happen to play out in your kitchen earlier?”
“No se,” the cook said. He introduced himself as Manuel, chef and proprietor of the restaurant. “I come in to open the restaurant and there’s this muchacho, standing over the guera. I yell at him, he runs away. You know the rest.”
“Mierda,” Santana said. “Not something you see every day.” He paused for another sip of his beer. “So, you didn’t see him whacking her one, did you? He was just standing there, holding…what was it he used, a frying pan?”
“No,” Manuel said. “He wasn’t holding anything. Just standing over her, like I said. ‘What’s going on here?’ I say, and he takes off.”
“Not likely he could have just found her there?”
“What else would he be doing in my kitchen?”
“Good point,” Santana allowed. Apparently, Manuel didn’t find anything wrong with her being there before business hours. “What about the woman? She come back there often?”
“¿Que?” Manuel was getting defensive. Santana was teetering on the precipice of losing this man’s cooperation, giving himself and his motives away. “I never seen her before, man. Gueras like her, I’d remember.”
“I guess you would,” Santana said, laughing. Hoping to put the man’s suspicions at bay. “What about the boy, you know him?”
“Pinché cabrón,” Manuel said. “He’s a common punk, a thief. The vendors all know him.”
“Where’s he from? Has he got a family or friends around?”
“I tackled the muchacho, I don’t want anyone belting me over the head for revenge.”
“I don’t think you have much to worry about, señor. The kid mills around the streets, family lives up in the shanty town. They probably don’t even know where he is.”
Santana knew all too well about Tijuana’s shanty towns. Squalor wouldn’t begin to describe it. He had no desire to ever visit one again, and decided immediately that tracking down the boy’s relatives would be of little use anyway. Getting about as much out of the man with the current tack, Santana took it a step forward, going for broke.
“Mind if I check out your kitchen?” The man’s face played between befuddlement, indolence, and suspicion. “I’m opening a restaurant north of the border,” he lied. “Authentic Mexican. I’m starting to worry that I’ve been up there too long, and forgotten a few things on how to run a genuine cocina.” Santana winked to accent the impression he was putting forth, that as fellow Mexicans, only they knew best.
“No se,” Manuel mumbled, running a hand across the back of his neck. Santana slid a 20 dollar bill across the counter. Manuel quickly snatched it off the counter, and just as quickly, the looks of reservation vanished from his face.
Santana, in a baseball catcher’s crouch, looked over the floor. Manuel had left him to his own devices and was in the restaurant’s scant dining area, likely doing bus work, being the sole employee of the establishment as well as the chef/proprietor. Santana was unsure what he was hoping to find, but he never worked a crime without a close look at the actual scene; even if it turned out to be a huge dead end.
He examined the scuff marks on the floor. Some were obviously old, scarring from years of heavy use. One fresh gouge recessed the area where Santana’s memory-based reconstruction told him would have been above and to the left of the victim’s head. La Policia Municipal de Tijuana had forgone the use of a chalk outline in this instance. This is where it fell, he thought.
Santana rose from his crouching position to examine the crockery. He assumed the chef would not wish to depart from an item so essential to his kitchen. The murder weapon, if it were not seized by the police, remained in its intended use. He tried to pick out the skillet from memory, matching it like a suspect in a lineup. His eyes ran across an 18-inch cast-iron frying pan. This looked about right. He tested the handle for heat, found it to be cool, and wrapped his right hand around it. He hefted it, then drew it above his head and swung it downward at varying degrees. It was heavy, and difficult to do one-handed, even for a man of decent strength, as Santana was. He judged the boy, meager as he was, would have needed both hands on the handle to swing the skillet with any kind of force, and a support hand with the two most important digits wouldn’t have been much help.
Perry Mason would have been able to make it stick, but that was television crime. A good show, though; one of Santana’s favorites after he’d been introduced to it by an old-timer in the Sheriff’s Department. He’d found the style of shows like Law & Order irritating, and as for CSI…well, everyone knew it was crap.
Finding the ways the murder couldn’t have been done would be of no help without a theory of how it was done. And by whom. Santana sighed and dropped the skillet onto the stovetop harder than he intended, causing the range to crash loudly enough to be heard from the street. He stood, arms crossed, looking at the stove as if it were a suspect, listening to the echo of the racket he’d made. As he did so, something in the way it sounded made him listen with intent, his brow furrowed. He lifted the skillet and repeated the motion, with purpose the second time.
“¿Que quieres?” the cook shouted, standing in the kitchen now after being drawn back by the noise. Santana paid no attention to him. He was now bent over the stove, listening again. It made the same strange echo as it had the first time; it had not been his imagination, he was now sure. He looked down at the base of the stove. Around the grit and grime of years of kitchen use, there was a half-inch or so of relatively clean-looking floor.
Santana looked up at Manuel. “This thing been moved recently?” he asked.
“Chingada,” Manuel said. He looked exasperated, shaking his head emphatically with his arms out. “Does it look new to you?” Santana nodded and bent back down. He grasped the back of the stove with his left hand over the top, squeezed the fingers of his right hand between the wall behind the stove, and heaved backward. It slid easily, and though he couldn’t see anything behind, he was able to fit his hand in the gap between the stove and the wall. He felt a large hole in the wall, and his pulse quickened. Fueled by excitement and adrenaline, he knelt down on the dirty floor, most likely permanently staining the knees on his favorite jeans. He leaned a shoulder against the wall and used his palms to push the stove away from the wall until it was clear of the wall. He could see clearly now the hole in the wall. This was no rathole, it was definitely a manhole, cut uniformly square.
Though he had no gloves, badge, or gun, Santana had the pocket flashlight that he always carried, clipped onto his keychain. He detached it from the ring and snapped it on, shining it into the opening. Ordinarily, this would be the time to call for backup, but Santana wasn’t in his element. He did feel this was his case. He stood back up and looked around the cooking station, grabbed the biggest butcher knife he could find, and crouched back down. As he started to crawl inside, Manuel started to say something behind him. Santana couldn’t tell what it was, but didn’t stick around to find out.
The opening of the hole was just big enough for Santana to crawl through, but once he was completely in and shone the beam of his flashlight inside, he could see that the ground dropped off into a much larger open space; a cave or tunnel, perhaps. He slid a little bit further until he could reach his feet down over the sheer drop onto the makeshift cellar floor several feet below. He planted his feet and was able to fully rise to a standing position, the ceiling several inches over his head. It was dank and musty, but his instinct and his nose told him there was no sign of death inside; at least not recently. He held the light with his left hand, the knife in his right at the ready, and looked around the room. The walls and ceiling, though obviously carved out carefully, were still bare dirt.
The place reminded Santana of a large three-story house he had once accompanied a drug team on a raid in the foothills of El Cajon, and Santana was still a patrol deputy. The house was in an affluent neighborhood, but it turned out that the son of the occupants had been a major drug trafficker, storing hundreds of pounds of marijuana and contraband pain pills in the unfinished cellar of the house, and selling them to the teens at the local high school. It had struck Santana that the cellar was odd and out of place in such an otherwise neatly constructed home.
Though it was unclear where this avenue would lead him, Santana’s mind was clear and focused, driven by instinct like a cat on the prowl. He looked around the room, lighting his view from floor to ceiling. There were a handful of old fruit crates stacked against the far wall that looked like they had been there for years, judging from the rotten wood. He ignored these and continued surveying the room. The wall to his immediate left lay bare, save for a dozen or so mice scurrying away from the light. Shifting the light to the third wall, he found a bedroll and a gallon jug of water. Stepping closer, he examined them. The fabric on the sleeping bag was in good shape, likely placed there recently, or it would have been ripped to tatters by rodents.
Santana looked up at the entrance hole, his attention brought back to the room by a shifting sound, too large to have come from mice. He swung the light back around to track the noise and was pushed roughly against the wall before he could train his light to the source. He was able to maintain his grip on the flashlight and the knife in his hand, and when he brought the light back up he saw a figure coming toward him. He brought an elbow up in self-defense, attempting to keep the light on what he could now briefly see was a man about his size, an American from the look of him. The man rushed at him, and Santana brought the knife down hard as the man brought his foot up for a kick to the groin.
The knife acted as a shield, absorbing the brunt of the impact, likely causing a deep laceration in the man’s leg, before Santana lost his grasp. The man let out a bestial grunt of pain and as Santana shone the light back up he saw the man fleeing up toward the opening to the restaurant kitchen. Santana lunged at the man, grabbing him from behind in a bear hug and wrestling him to the ground. The flashlight was lost in the struggle and went out as it struck the ground, and the wrestling match on the floor was conducted in pitch dark, the light from the opening above making no difference.
The man flailed around against Santana’s grip on him, managing a blow, Santana was unsure if it was a headbutt or an elbow, against his nose. Momentarily dazed, eyes watering, Santana felt around the man’s shoulders, reaching a forearm across his throat, then pushing the other against the back of the man’s neck. The man’s struggle against him only secured Santana’s purchase on his neck, and the old-school chokehold Santana hadn’t used in years had once again proven its effectiveness. The trick was to know when to let go. The man went limp after a few seconds and Santana lay underneath the full weight of his combatant.
“Well, you’re a lucky son of a bitch,” the Captain said. Santana grunted, not quite a laugh. The Captain sat across his desk, looking at Santana with shrewd eyes as he placed the phone back in its cradle. “The TJ cops are going to take the credit for this one. You dodged getting your ass in the Mexican slammer, going cowboy down there like that. Or should I say vaquero?”
“Funny, Captain,” Santana said. “If I hadn’t done what I had, they’d still have that kid shitting in a pail, awaiting trial. Or dead.” Hell, thought Santana. He might still…but not for this.
“Probably,” the Captain said. “But we’re going to let it go.” He shook his head. “A guy goes down there to off his wife. There’s gotta be a hundred easier ways.”
The murder of the American woman would eventually make the papers on both sides of the border. The victim, fifty-two-year-old Gloria Douglass, had been killed by her husband, fifty-nine-year-old Francis Douglass, in order for him to collect on life insurance. He had been an unscrupulous businessman at best, and had used his Mexican contacts through various smuggling operations to find just the right place to do it…or so it seemed.
The cave in which Santana had found, then subdued him, had been a construction of the local cartels as a storehouse, unused for years after the building had been sold as-is with the kitchen set-up in place to the current owner. Manuel had never replaced the stove and was allegedly unaware of the special room addition. Douglass had obtained access to the kitchen long before opening hours, and, under the pretext of showing his wife a prospective property acquisition, bludgeoned her with a cast-iron skillet. His plan was to hide in the cave until the business had closed and slip out after dark. The blame, he was confident, would have been shifted away from him altogether as he made his way back across the border. Conveniently enough, the kid had snuck in just before the restaurant opened to scavenge. Douglass had constructed an alibi in Anaheim, where his girlfriend awaited him at the Disneyland Hotel.
Douglass was now awaiting trial in Tijuana, as crimes committed by US citizens on Mexican soil are prosecuted there. One of the quirks of the justice system, conversely, any crimes committed by Mexican citizens on American soil are prosecuted in Mexico as well, after deportation. Santana’s superiors had negotiated with the Mexican officials to allow the story to be as beneficial as possible to the Tijuana police, omitting Santana’s involvement completely, so as to avoid public embarrassment.
“Hell of a vacation, Detective,” the Captain said in summary. “Maybe you ought to try New Mexico next time. Ever been to Carlsbad Caverns?”
Santana winced. “I’m good on caves for a while, Captain.”
Bio: Russell Guenther is an emerging fiction writer based in the Pacific Northwest with a collection of darkly humorous stories, from the gritty to the fantastic. His work has been featured in The Stardust Review, The Yard Crime Blog, and Drunk Monkeys Magazine. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel. Twitter: @RussellGuenthe5 Website: RussellGuenther.com