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?

No comments: