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Saturday 5 July 2003.
The first thing Nate asked when he had me alone was where was Richard?
I was wearing Jackie O sunglasses, had too much make-up on, enough ibuprofen in me that my lips were numb.
"Richard," I said, rolling the latex onto my left hand, looking at my fingers instead of Nate. "We're not a package, you know?"
"But—" he started, looking around to a patrolman, watching us like we didn't belong.
But I needed my Homicide chaperone. But I was coming up through the ranks all wrong—handpicked out of my last semester by a Detective 2 for six months' field training before going active with a CSU unit.
"I got my certification, Nate," I said. "Just like you."
Nate smiled, backed off, both hands up, and had no idea how nervous I was behind the glasses—that I was going to contaminate the scene, break the chain of evidence, make one of the hundred other mistakes everybody would be expecting me to make.
If I were with CSU, like I was supposed to be, I'd have a crew to watch me, to double-check my work this first time.
Now, though. Now I was forensic support for a Homicide detective who wasn't here. A magician's assistant standing alone on the stage, the crowd waiting to see what I could pull off here. What I couldn't.
I rolled my right glove on finger by finger, snapping it tight.
"What do we know?" I said.
Such a standard line, but for a reason, I guess.
Nate studied me for maybe five seconds, trying to see through my glasses, I thought, and then just stepped aside, gave me the hall.
"Marta Villarreal, meet Jennifer Rice," he said, then added, "deceased."
Behind me, one of the other officers laughed into his cup then pinched it off.
"It's undisturbed, I take it," I said, stalling, looking down the only hall, at the closet door the dead girl was evidently behind.
Nate laughed through his nose, didn't have to answer. It was six o'clock the morning after a national holiday that had nearly burned the city down. Of course it was undisturbed. Nobody wanted the paperwork, especially not for some nobody from the barrio.
"Jennifer Rice," I said.
"Twenty-eight, single, Mexican," Nate said, then flashed me a bagged snapshot probably taken from the fridge: a foggy Jennifer Rice and some boyfriend.
"He found her?" I said.
"Sebby Walker," Nate said. "The man made of dime bags."
"He was on a—what you might call a buying trip down south. The tax-free kind."
"But her name's Rice."
"But he's not. Mexican."
"Half," Nate said, pursing his lips like half was enough?
I turned away, was running out of questions. Down the street to the south, where Tays dead-ends against 9th, there's a two-story mural on the windowless side of an apartment building. The painting is an angel, shepherding a boy and a girl out of the mural. Or maybe it's Jesus. Either way, the mouth's been chipped away somehow, exposing the grey cinderblock beneath. Like ash. Thinking about it made me cough.
Driving up to the house, all the men and women of the neighborhood had been standing out on their wrought iron porches, watching me with slit eyes. Their doors and walls painted oaxaco blue, deep pink. Nothing growing in the yard because the dirt there was packed down from generations of cars.
At the other end of Tays was 6th, a tiendita down there by St. Vrain that had been a panadería when I was girl, before it sold out to all night convenience. I only remembered it because 6th had railroad tracks down the middle of it, buried in the asphalt, and my father had made me stop there once, to be sure a train wasn't huffing down on us out of the nineteenth century, carrying sad-eyed Apache to Florida.
"Well then," I said to Nate, and he bit his lower lip, was loving this.
I didn't take my Jackie O sunglasses off for the narrow hall. Already there were floor lights baking the wallpaper.
And the closet door.
It was shut.
I turned back to the living room once more, like to say goodbye, or to let the patrolmen know I was doing this, yes, and one of them was tamping something down into his chest pocket, then buttoning the flap. A dime bag. I didn't let my eyes stop on this. Growing up Mexican in a border town, you have no illusions about the law. Or, your only illusion is that, if you were a cop, it would all be different. Meaning you wake up years later behind the temporary badge of your first assignment, maybe don't recognize yourself.
But the closet door. Jennifer Rice.
I rolled the latex onto my right hand, snapped it tight over my fingertips, and made my way down the hall, turned the knob, thought that because I was on display here, all the officers in the living room watching me and pretending not to, I'd be able to control my response.
I was wrong.
First, I let go of the doorknob as if it were hot. Next I turned away, hiding my face. What the officers couldn't see were my eyes behind my sunglasses, closing.
Not because she was dead, Jennifer Rice—I'd seen cadavers in Forensic Anthropology—but because, at first, she didn't look like she was: dead.
She was down in the corner, her arms around her knees, black hair spilling to the ground. Like she could look up at any moment, run off down the hall, her footfalls muted, a long whisper of motion.
From what I could make out of the skin on her forearm, she'd been dead for days: it was mottled, drawn, dry.
To see her better, I lowered myself to my knees. Became aware of my own hair in a new way—that I needed to tie it back, tuck it under my shirt, keep it from contaminating the scene, mixing with hers.
From my new angle I could see her shins, the back of her thighs. They were aquamarine; she was wearing scrub bottoms. Up top as well, just cream-colored, with little dancing boxes for a pattern. The slope of her shoulder smooth enough under the thin top that there was no bra strap there. And you don't wear your old prom bra for a twelve-hour shift.
Meaning—she'd been dressed?
I wanted to reach out with a finger, thread her hair behind an ear. Give her that dignity at least.
But I had been trained, knew the rules.
"Jennifer," I said instead, just a whisper, and she didn't look up.
"Think she no sabe the English muy bueno " Nate said from above, his voice dragging like Speedy Gonzales. He was only person in El Paso I would let say that, like that. He was half-in, half-out of the kitchen doorway.
"They let you out of the lab for this?" a patrolman said to him, passing through the kitchen.
"Weekend pass," Nate answered without looking around, and the way he kept his eyes on me I could tell he had something to show me, here.
"Well?" I said.
He just smiled.
The thing about Nate was that he'd failed the FBI test four times in a row already. The general one, that you had to pass before even getting considered for whatever was in line for an analyst slot. Probably what he'd done was offer the agent at the front desk of the field office a profile, or tried to solve the case of which elevator was going to open first, and why, and then drawn an elaborate diagram or probability tree, something that was supposed to charm, establish him as agent material.
I'd been two years behind him at school, but we'd sat through some of the same courses. Where my degree qualified me for entry-level criminalist, his had swelled out into a full-fledged case of criminology. The profiles he'd turned in for his behavioral studies classes were legend. Not so much for their accuracy as for their false precision: on paper, he was like the psychic who can 'see' that the kidnapper has a golden, slightly asymmetrical scorpion mounted in his belt buckle, and can tell the belt buckle is definitely from a maternal uncle, but as to whether the kidnapper's in Florida or California? Foggy; 'Somewhere with an interstate.'
Now, instead of profiling, he was running fiber samples in the lab at the Sheriff's office. Had been for two years. Until now.
He plucked me away from Jennifer Rice as if he couldn't imagine I wouldn't want to see what he'd found.
It was a rose petal, deep in the garbage disposal. He had to hold the rubber flaps to the side with tweezers and a probe, the flashlight in his teeth.
I nodded, shrugged, and could tell by the way he held his mouth, looking for words, that I was so far behind him here that he didn't even know where to start.
"Look," he said, finally, reaching for my sunglasses, as if they were what was slowing me down.
I stopped his hand before he could even come close, looked where wanted me to: a vase, on the counter.
"What's it doing there?" he whispered, leading me like he always had.
"Sitting," I said.
"Nothing," he corrected, "it's doing nothing, Marta. Seem a little out of place?"
I turned from the vase back to the sink, the disposal.
"You're saying it had roses in it?"
He nodded, bit his lower lip.
"It's how he got in," he said. "Y'know, landshark, flowers, all that?"
I shrugged, didn't not buy it, but knew too that we were just tech support here, that it was a trap trying to solve the crime, trying to see the big picture, lying to yourself that the key was locked in whatever you could comb up from the carpet, dust off the front door. It was bigger than that, always. A puzzle for Homicide, not Forensics.
At some level, Nate had to know this.
On the surface, though, he was blind to it. Smiling so big his cheeks were narrowing his field of vision.
Instead of explaining any of this to him, I catalogued the kitchen without really meaning to. The pans, the spoons on nails, the two burners on the stove that got used the most, the low spot in the linoleum by the door where water would probably stand. The refrigerator.
Centered on the freezer door, magnets at the top two corners, was another snapshot. A guy I took to be Sebby Walker, and, in front of him, his arms loose around her neck, Jennifer Rice.
We could have been sisters, the kind boys would confuse.
"What?" Nate said, suddenly beside me, his hand to the small of my back. "You know her?"
I shook my head no, only looked away from the snapshot when a man behind us laughed, as if to himself.
I tracked over to him—a fifty-something detective barely taller than me, cracking a sunflower seed shell in his mouth, the effort pulling his whole face down to it.
"Detective Madrone," Nate said, doing the introductions—him to me—"Marta Villarreal."
Madrone shrugged it off, my name. Said instead, "Godder's helper. That the departmental term these days?"
I just stared at him, not sure how to respond. This was why he'd been laughing, though.
"Where is he anyway?" he said, stepping in, eyeballing all the counters at once. Settling back on me.
"Gone," I said, and left it at that.
Ten minutes later I was on the back porch with Nate. I rolled the latex from my left hand, looking at my fingers. We were waiting for the CSU van to roll up, take over. Waiting for whoever Madrone was calling from the ME's office to sign the death investigation papers, let us—somebody—start processing Jennifer Rice.
It didn't matter that we'd been the first ones there, Nate and me. We were nobody; less.
Without Richard to hold me by the elbow, guide me through the crime scene, I wasn't even supposed to have been in the house, really. Seeing Jennifer Rice had been a breach of procedure.
Still, Madrone had told us, he'd be willing to let all that slide if I'd just get Richard on the horn.
In response, I'd asked him if it was sharp, this horn.
Madrone looked at me like he'd looked at the counter earlier: as a thing to study. Finally, he said, "Got a mouth on you there, don't you?" To show what he meant, he reached out with the back of the thick index finger of his right hand, touched my tender lower lip.
I jerked my head to the side, spit the smell of his hand away.
Madrone shrugged, smiling to himself, eyes flat like a lizard's, and said, "You'd learn to like it." Before I could think of anything to say back that wouldn't get me fired, arrested, or shot, he left us with the rose petals in the garbage disposal. I watched him until he was gone.
"It always like this, you think?" I asked Nate.
"You're common property," Nate said, already shrugging off the explanation—that it wasn't what he thought. "To Homicide, I mean."
"Because I'm CSU?" I said, trying to follow. "Or because I don't have a dick?"
"Specifically because you don't have one, I'd guess " Nate said, then hissed a smile through his teeth, started in on the disposal again, passing me the flashlight. It was still warm from his mouth. As he dug with his tweezers and probe, he told me how this Homicide-orientation ride I was on with Richard was supposed to have been Madrone's, he'd heard. That it had meant a hundred extra bucks a month for him, plus 'benefits.'
"Twenty-three-year-old supermodel in waiting?" Nate said, bumping me with his hips, doing his eyebrows. "I mean, everybody knows rookies—female rookies—tend to fall for the first male with authority who pays them any attention "
"This is—" I said, unable even to find the right word. Bullshit wasn't enough. "Richard didn't steal me away, Nate."
"Not you specifically," Nate said, "but the coital opportunities you present to a man of Detective Madrone's unique carriage and proclivities "
"He likes Mexican women?" I said, my whole face drawing up in disgust. Smelling his finger on my lip again.
"Likes to pay for his taco meat " Nate said, "yeah," his words clipped like English wasn't his first language. He leaned far away from me then, grinning large. I followed him with the light right in his eyes. I hadn't heard 'taco meat' since high school, probably.
"Richard didn't steal me away, though," I said. "They made him—pick me. Pick someone. It could have been any of us."
"Had to twist his arm, like?" Nate said, then, in falsetto,"Hundred extra dollars a month, sir, and if you play your cards right, this one'll even let you move in with—"
"It was disciplinary action on him or some shit," I said, cutting him off. "I was punishment. Training me was the deal he made. He told me. He's not getting the money."
"As far as you know," Nate added.
I nodded. As far as I knew. And maybe bullshit was the right word for all of this: because Richard had chosen me instead of whatever other punishment the department had lined up for him, for whatever he'd done, not only did all my classmates think I thought I was better than them now, but I was a non-person now to the lead detective on my first unofficial homicide. A walking talking reminder of what might have been. Less than that, even: an intruder. Taco meat.
Forty minutes later, Nate and I had twelve petals and fragments of more, each bagged and tagged. More in the P-trap, for sure. Nobody offered us any coffee.
"Take your shades off then," Nate said, as if he'd been trying to figure out just how to say it. Like we'd been talking about this all along. "So I can see your eyes," he added.
"You my commanding officer?"
He turned away.
It wasn't the first time Richard had hit me. The only difference was, last night, I'd told him it was the last time.
Not that it was any of Nate's business.
Any anyway, the ibuprofen was keeping most of the swelling down. With makeup, it'd be hard to even see in a day or two.
"Who's going to D.I., you think?" I asked.
Nate shrugged, knew I was just trying to change the subject. He was dusting the vase the roses had come in. It was just another thing the CSU crew could write him up for, but he didn't care. What, were they going to bust him down from lab assistant to lab custodian?
I just watched, didn't need to get written up.
And there weren't any prints anyway. Not even a smudge.
More than anything, that suggested Nate was right about means of entry. Because you don't wipe down vases in your own home.
"Think I'll get credit for it?" Nate asked, smiling like he knew the answer.
I started to say something then stopped: the kitchen light had dimmed. The floor, shaking.
I pushed off the counter with my hips.
"They're here " Nate trailed out, pursing his lips, nodding to the front of the house.
The CSU crew. They were using the garage, the electric opener drawing enough juice that it pulled everything in the house down a few amps.
"Our cue," Nate said, opening the screen door into the backyard again.
I followed, stepped off the concrete block of the porch. Could see Juarez from it, like a pale reflection.
"This is bullshit," Nate said.
"Just figuring that one out?"
"I mean you," he said. "You and Ricky Ricardo."
"Not now, please."
Excerpted from Seven Spanish Angels by Stephen Graham Jones. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Graham Jones. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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