Sunday, March 30, 2008



A Sara García Mystery


The clock in the hallway struck the hour when I looked up from the Excel spreadsheets and into the eyes of the murder suspect featured on last night’s news. I froze, one hand on the spreadsheets, the other in mid-air as I reached for my calculator. The figure stood just beyond my doorway, blocking my only escape route. When I’m stressed or scared I turn to the familiar for comfort. I counted the chimes of the clock: three, four, five…

The dimly-lit hallway added shadows and contours to his face that the glaring lights of the news cameras had all but washed out. Dark half moons colored the hollows under his eyes and deep creases etched his face from his nose to his mouth.

He wrung his hands as he took the final step into my office.

“Did I scare you?” his voice barely a whisper.

I tried to speak, show some bravado, but discovered I was holding my breath. Before I could say a word, or scream, the phone jangled into the space between us.

“Better get that.” He nodded toward the phone as he stepped further into my office.

I stared at the phone, afraid to answer it, but more afraid not to. My hand trembled as I reached for the phone on the third ring.

“Hey, girl, did Ray get in? I’m calling you from my cell. I’m at the front door and I don’t see a security guard. Can you let me in, your building’s locked.” Sofía’s voice sent a wash of relief over me.

I swallowed hard and took a deep breath before I found my voice. “Uh, yeah, he’s here, and he scared the pee outta me. I’ll call security and have them let you in. Come on up.”

When I opened my one-person audit practice two years ago, the executive office suite near the North Dallas Tollway offered everything I was looking for: affordable rent, the companionship of other entrepreneurs and lobby security. Like tonight, I sometimes worked very late and felt safer in a building where everyone had to sign in and out after six pm. Unlike tonight, I’d never had unannounced guests, and I wondered whether the new security company was as diligent as its predecessor.

I hung up and dialed the guard on his cell phone. Maybe he was on a smoke break, or escorting someone to their car as he had done for me on several late nights. After giving the guard quick instructions, I disconnected and turned my attention to my visitor.

He stood about five nine, of medium build with broad shoulders and eyes the color of Mexican chocolate. The crisp white dress shirt was a contrast against his olive skin, and his black jeans were neatly pressed. The muscles in his jaw were taut and pulsing. A slight grin made its way onto his face.

“Sorry I scared you. Sofía wanted to make sure we talked to you tonight. She called you at home and when you didn’t answer she figured you must still be here.”

“How did you get in the building?”

“The door was unlocked when Sofía dropped me off in front of the building so I came on up and she went to park the car.”

I was so relieved that Ray was someone I knew, if at least slightly, not just a “person of interest” in a murder as the police had titled him. I came around my desk and gave Ray Gonzalez a warm hug, then lightly punched him in the arm.

Por Dios, Ray, why didn’t you guys call?” I raised my hand, palm out to indicate no explanation was necessary. “Never mind, if Sofía’s involved you don’t have to say anything more. Siéntate, hombre.” I indicated the visitor chairs in front of my desk.

Ray pulled out the chair nearest him and sat stiffly. He glanced at the arrangement of diplomas and certificates framed above my desk as I organized and rearranged my desk. I stacked the write-ups and spreadsheets I had spread out before me and turned them face down. I placed my pencils in the black pen holder I’d bought in Mexico on my last visit. The highlighter went into the “I ♥ NY” mug on the right side of my desk pad calendar, near my calculator. I arranged the clear ruler at the top edge of the calendar pad, parallel to the month name, the bottom edge of the ruler just touching the top of each letter in October.

The electronic chime announced the elevator. Sofía swept into my office, exuding her usual air of command. She wore the knit pants and long-sleeved knit shirt which had been my birthday present to her last year. Even this late at night Sofía wore gold jewelry: earrings, her Virgen de Guadalupe medallion on a 24-inch gold chain, and a bangle bracelet that I knew was at least 18-karat gold. Sofía kept her diamond ring sparkling, and now it shimmered in the fluorescent lights of my office.

“Hi Sara, I’m sorry we’re barging in on you like this, but I just didn’t want to wait one more minute. I remembered you said you were gonna work late, so when Ray agreed to get some help we came right over.”

Her words tumbled out in front of her as Sofía moved toward me for an abrazo. With one arm still around my shoulders, she extended her left arm toward Ray.

“You remember my cousin, Ray Gonzalez.”

“Of course, we met a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen you in a while, though.” What a stupid thing to say. I had seen him on the news last night, but did that count? Maybe he hadn’t noticed my question.

“Sofía, siéntate. Tell me what’s going on.” I indicated the chairs as Ray pulled one out for Sofía and took the one nearer the wall for himself.

We exchanged glances and no one said a word. I knew this wasn’t an ordinary social call, and I still had a lot of work to do. I opened up the discussion.

“What’s up, Sofía? You’re not usually this quiet. It’s scaring me.”

“The cops are going to charge Ray with killing his girlfriend. You prob’ly saw it on the news last night. It was in today’s paper, too.”

Ray hung his head, and rubbed his thumbs along the sharp crease of his black jeans.

“Yes, I did see him, uh, you,” I glanced from Sofia to Ray.

Pero, Sofía, that doesn’t tell me why you’re here,” I added, still puzzled.

“Sara, we need your help to find who really killed Beth.”

I could only stare at my closest friend. We were more like sister than friends, but at this moment I felt like she didn’t even know me. I’m an auditor, a bean counter. I feel most comfortable in front of my computer with a contract for reference in front of me, a stack of invoices to the left and my calculator on the right. Híjole, I avoid the local news program because sometimes the crime scenes are too graphic.

I turned my full attention to Ray, “You need a private investigator.”

“We don’t know any private investigators. Can’t you help us?” Sofía was on the edge of her chair, scrunching a tissue in one hand.

Ray spoke for the first time since Sofía had joined us. “Sofía told me you have a background in investigations. I didn’t realize you were a...that is...that you weren’t a private...”

“Sara, por favor .” Sofía interrupted before Ray could finish, “We don’t know who else to go to. At least listen to Ray’s story. Sin compromiso.”

Sin compromiso. No commitment, no promises to get involved. It was the least I could do. But I knew I wouldn’t change my mind. No way. Jamás. Never.

“Okay, no promises. I’ll listen so I can get a better idea which investigator to send you to. But first let’s get some coffee.”

I grabbed my coffee cup and walked out of the office with Sofía in tow. We trudged somberly down the hall to the kitchen where the smell of a scorched coffee pot filled the tiny room. I set the burned pot aside and set about making a fresh pot of coffee in a clean carafe. I flung open cabinet doors, looking for clean coffee mugs. Not finding any, I grabbed two that were on the counter, squirted detergent into them and scoured them until they sparkled. My own cup got a scouring.

I turned to face Sofía, “You know I’d do anything for you. I’ve always been there for you, but not this. This is a murder investigation, Sofía. This is serious shit.”

Sofía’s intensity filled the room as she leaned closer to me. “Listen, the police are calling him a ‘person of interest.’ You and I both know that’s cop-speak for ‘suspect’.”

“I know, I know. But what if I screw up? What if I find out something you may not want to know? What if I find out he did it? What’s that going to do to our friendship?”

“And what if you find out he didn’t?”

“Sara, he was despondent when he came to my house. I couldn’t let him go home to that empty apartment. Can you imagine? First his girlfriend is found murdered and now the police think he did it. Pobrecito."

Her eyes clouded with worry. She hung her head and shred what remained of the tissue. Crumbs of white paper clung to the glitter on her shirt.

“And how am I supposed to find out who killed his girlfriend?”

“You can start by listening to him.”

“Look, I know a couple of private investigators. Let me make some phone calls for you.”

I poured steaming coffee into the three mugs and handed one to Sofía. She measured creamer and sugar to her liking. She stopped stirring and held my gaze directly.

“Sara, he didn’t do it. En mi alma, I know he didn’t.” She brought the palm of her right hand flat against her chest to indicate the seat of her feelings. Her voice was hypnotic.

Who was Sofía trying to convince? Me? Or herself?

“What are the police doing?” I asked hopefully as I took a tentative sip of the hot brew.

The spoon clattered loudly as Sofía tossed it into the stainless steel sink. The derision in her voice was as scalding as the hot coffee.

"Not a damn thing. They think it's the same old thing. You know, just another Mexican who killed his girlfriend. Once they convinced themselves of that, they quit looking for anybody else.”

She turned to face me before continuing. “You’ve got to help him, por favor, Sara.”

In her eyes I saw worry, compassion, pleading. How could I turn down my friend’s request to listen?



Ray set his coffee on the desk without tasting it.

I pulled a yellow writing pad from my left hand drawer, selected a black pen, and took another sip of coffee. I set my mug on the coaster before speaking.

"Ray, tell me everything. Start at the beginning.”

He set the mug on the coaster I slid toward him and intertwined his fingers, his elbows resting on the arms of the chair.

"That morning, Beth and I drove to The Rock to work out.”

“When was that?”

“The thirteenth. I remember cause the next day was Beth’s birthday.”

“The Rock, is that the gym over on Walnut Road?”

“Yes, that’s it. Anyway,” Ray continued, “she was teaching the six o'clock Jazzercise class, and I was going to lift weights and then jog back to my apartment. We walked in together then we each went our separate ways.”

“What time was that?”

“Around five thirty, I guess.”

Ordinarily I would have laughed out loud about anyone being up before dawn to work out. Right then it wasn’t funny.

He paused and inhaled deeply before finishing. “That was the last time I saw her.”

“That’s it? You didn’t see her again?”


“You didn’t walk by her class on your way to the weight room? She didn’t come talk to you while you were working out?”

“No. Once I was in the locker room I decided not to lift.” He paused for a sip of coffee. “I ran one lap around the outdoor track and then jogged home.” Ray clenched his right hand into a fist before adding, “Maybe if I had stopped in to tell her I was leaving early. If I had stayed to lift weights. Maybe I could have done something or seen something.”

“Why didn’t you tell her you were leaving?”

“I figured she was busy preparing for her class. She told me she had a new routine that she wanted to practice before class started.”

I looked over at Sofía, who at the moment sat quietly, pondering the depths of her coffee.

"The police called me that morning to tell me about her.”

"How'd they know to contact you?”

"I guess Jerome told them.”

“Who’s Jerome?”

“He works the front desk at the club in the morning.”

I jotted on my yellow pad before asking, "Did Jerome see you leave?"

"No, I don’t think so. I walked out the back door of the club to get to the track.”

“Did anyone see you walk out? Was anyone else on the track with you?”

“If anyone saw me leave, I didn’t see them. And I didn’t notice anyone else on the track.

"How long did it take you to get home?"

"Maybe twenty-five, thirty minutes. Then I showered, dressed and left for work. I needed to be in early to get some work done. That’s why I decided to skip the weightlifting.”

“So then how did you learn about Beth?”

"The police came by my office in the afternoon to talk to me, but that’s the first I’d heard about it. I mean, about anything happening to her.” He wiped his eyes with his fingertips.

“But I thought you said the police called you in the morning?”

“I was in meetings all day. When they called they left a message. I guess since I didn’t return their call they decided to come to the office.”

“So what did you tell them?”

“What I just told you. There’s nothing else to tell. They said I wasn’t a suspect. That they were questioning everyone who had been in contact with her that morning.”

“What happened to make them take you in yesterday?”

“They said I’m their prime suspect. I think they were trying to scare me into telling them a different story, but I told them the same as before. Same as I just told you.”

I leaned back in my chair and studied Ray. He avoided looking me in the eyes, finding great interest in his coffee mug. Why wouldn’t he look at me? Because he was grieving? Or because he was lying? Were his answers too easy?

“Didn’t you usually talk to your girlfriend during the day? Maybe make plans for dinner or just to say hello?”

Ray shook his head, “I knew she was in schoolall day, and I had told her I’d be in meetings most of the day. We already had plans for dinner.”

"Why would anyone kill Beth?"

"I don't know." He looked around the office as if he'd find the murderer lurking in a corner, then his eyes settled on my face. "I keep thinking it was a crazy person. Everybody loves Beth. I'll always love Beth.” He hung his head and sat quietly.

Sofía reached over and put an arm around Ray’s shoulders.

"Ya, Ray, ya.” Then to me, “Beth was wonderful. She was over at our house quite a few times and she was always so cheerful. When she and Ray came over for dinner, she’d always help with the dishes afterward. She was going to college and working at the gym.”

“How long had you been seeing her?”

Sofía answered for him. “They'd been going almost a year and were going to get married."

I darted a look at Ray and wrote in my yellow pad.

"You were engaged?"

"Yeah. No. Well, we'd talked about getting married, but I hadn’t proposed.”

He shifted in his chair and reached for the coffee mug.

I asked Sofía to get me another coffee. Once Ray and I were alone, I leaned forward in my chair and stared at him until the silence in the room was thick. When he finally lifted his gaze to me I asked, “What really happened that morning? Did you hurt Beth?”

Ray stared at me without a word and swallowed hard.

“Maybe an argument got out of hand? Sometimes that happens. We all have a breaking point. You probably didn’t mean to hurt her....”

“No! I love her. I’d never hurt her.” With his fists on the edge of the desk, Ray’s breathing became ragged. “I know the cops don’t believe me. But I swear I’m telling the truth!”

I pushed away from the desk, increasing the space between him and me.

“Should I believe you? Did you ever lose your temper with Beth?”

“No. I love her. I’ll always love her.” As he regained control, he sat back in the chair, deflated and pale.

“How was she killed?”

“The police told me her head was bashed in.” His voice was full of tears as he stared into the space between us as if seeing the whole scene.

Sofía returned and set the mug in front of me. “Should I walk out again?”

“It’s all right.” I placed the mug on my coaster, never taking my eyes off Ray’s face.

At times during our talk Ray seemed vulnerable and hurt, which made me want to help him. But some holes in his story only raised more questions. What time did he get back to the apartment? Was he really in meetings all morning?

On the other hand, Dallas police had a reputation of their own. Some people said that racial profiling was invented by the Dallas cops. And still others said Dallas cops weren’t the kind to shoot first and ask questions later.

But if I didn’t contribute to the solution, I was siding with the police in their efforts to pin the murder on the Mexican boyfriend.

“Okay. I have a few days before my next audit. I’ll see what I can do.”



When I swatted my alarm clock at six the next morning, I’d been in bed only four hours. I’d stayed at the office until I finished the audit report, numbering each page and cross-referencing each spreadsheet. I’d stayed awake only long enough to drive home and collapse into bed.

I padded down the short hallway from my bedroom, pulling down the sleeves of my flannel nightgown. I felt the cold floor through my heavy sweat socks. As I peered in the bathroom mirror I noticed that I looked as tired as I felt. After a good night’s sleep my hazel eyes are bright and offer a contrast to my dark brown hair. This morning my eyes were a dull brown, like the mud pies of my childhood. My shoulder-length hair was electrified this morning, and jutted from my head in all directions. It would take a long hot shower and steaming coffee to make me presentable this morning.

I was getting dressed when the phone rang.

“Hey girl, let’s talk about last night. I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“Great idea, we do need to talk.” I would tell Sofía I had changed my mind. Today I would stand my ground, unlike last night.

An hour later Sofía and I were sitting at a table at Cafe Brazil, white ceramic mugs filled with an aromatic blend from Africa and South America in front of us. I arranged my flatware perpendicular to the edges of the place mat, which I squared in front of me. Then I forged ahead without losing time.

“Listen, Sofia, I’ve thought more about last night. I can’t investigate Beth’s murder.”

I interrupted Sofia as she tried to interrupt me. “Ray’s future and possibly his very life might be at stake. He doesn’t need an auditor, he needs an investigator and a good defense attorney.”

“Sara, we go back a long way. I’ve never asked you for anything you couldn’t handle.”

“I know. I still remember when we met in that high school calculus class.”

A smile played at my lips as I thought of the first time Sofia had leaned across the aisle and whispered, ‘Hey, girl, you speak Spanish?’ As the only two Mexicans in that class—the media had not yet invented the ethnic group Hispanic—we forged a friendship out of necessity and earned the only A’s in that class.

“That’s what I mean we’ve been through a lot together.”

“I know we have. I was at your bedside when you lost the baby and your husband was out of town.”

“Yes, and I held your hand when you thought you were pregnant and still in college. And then we celebrated when you found out you weren’t pregnant.”

Sofia reached for my hand across the table and our fingers entwined in a familiar gesture.

“I loaned you money when you and Frank were going to lose your business.”

“We paid you back. With interest.”

“It was my college loan money, I was paying interest.” I sounded very defensive.

“My point is I’ve never asked you for anything you couldn’t handle.”

“And if I thought I could handle this I wouldn’t be sitting here sipping coffee. I’d be out talking to people.”

Sofia’s gaze bore into me.

Sofia, I’ve always helped you when I could.”

“I never thought I’d ever bring this up, but what about when I kept you out of jail?”

There it was on the table. Sofia had pulled out her trump card. She was the only living person who knew about that incident. We both knew how much I owed her.

“I will do anything you ask...but not this.”

“This is what I’m asking.”

I raised my hands in surrender.


“You met Ray once before at my house at a family dinner. Those can get kind of crowded and loud, so you may not have been able to talk to him much. He’s my Aunt Carolina's youngest son, been up here in Dallas since he graduated from UT with an accounting degree. He works for the bank that’s in the rocket building downtown.

I sipped my coffee as Sofia continued. “After he started working, he took classes at SMU and got his MBA. He’s been promoted a couple of times, and now heads up the commercial lending department.

On top of that Ray is chair-elect of the Dallas Mexican Chamber of Commerce. He’ll be sworn in during a ceremony in January.”

I’d been savoring my coffee and looking over the menu, trying to decide between the Brazilian omelet and the French toast, which came piled high with fresh fruit and drizzled with crème fraiche. But at this last remark my head jerked up and I was alert, coffee and menu forgotten.

“That’s the most powerful ethnic chamber in the state. Weren’t they recently involved in a public campaign to get the Dallas police to hire more Hispanic officers?”

“That’s right,” Sofia picked up on my line of thought. “When all that was going on, Ray headed up the Public Affairs Committee of the Chamber. He served as the Chamber’s spokesman.”

Could it be the police were retaliating against the Mexican Chamber by railroading Ray? He had been the most public figure of that campaign. To the police, Ray was the Chamber.

Before we could continue our discussion, the waitress appeared and took our orders.

“Do you know whether anyone else on the Board of the Chamber has been harassed by the police during this campaign?”

“Ray hasn’t mentioned it, but I don’t usually talk to him about Chamber business.”

“What else does he have going on in his life?

“Even with all of that,” Sofia continued, “Ray still has time for a social life. He had several girlfriends, but nobody special.”

Sofia stirred more sugar into her coffee. “That is, until he met Beth. It was like he’d found his soul mate. Once Ray started going out with Beth, he appeared calmer, he didn’t seem as restless. He’s still very ambitious at work, but he’s settling down in his personal life.”

She sighed and shook her head, “How could anyone think Ray would do anything to hurt her? And with your help, we’ll prove the cops wrong.”

Sofía reach into her oversized bag and pulled out a manila envelope and passed it to me across the table. “Here, I brought you this.”

“You’ve been busy.” I scanned the pages she handed me.

“I’ve been up since five o’clock this morning. Figured I might as well do what I can to help.”

Our food came and I slipped the pages into the fat envelope. As we dug into the Brazilian omelets filled with sausage, tomatoes, onions and hot peppers we talked about Sofia’s daughter, Mia, and her upcoming quincerañera, her fifteenth birthday gala.