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Message in the Flames
By Steven Torres
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Steven Torres
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLuis Gonzalo, the sheriff of Angustias, sat on the edge of his bed and pulled on a sock. He stopped at midtug, seeing his reflection in the mirror in front of him. He was dressed in his best uniform, neatly starched and ironed by his wife, Mari, the night before. On his chest were several ribbons and four pinned medals-ornaments he rarely wore. Gonzalo picked at one of the medals given to him for valor and thought it ironic. That particular medal had been awarded to him by the governor of Puerto Rico after a gunfight in which Gonzalo had defended the life of Rafael Ruiz, a grocery store owner, putting down three bad guys in the process. Ruiz had had his left hand blown cleanly off his arm by a sadistic gunman that night, and though things might have gone much worse, Gonzalo could only ever think of how things could have gone better.
"What are you staring at?" his wife asked, snapping him out of his stupor. She stood in the bedroom doorway in a black dress that set off both the light brown of her skin and the curves of her figure.
"Am I just as handsome as I was twenty-five years ago?" Gonzalo asked.
Mari laughed and walked away.
"We're going to be late," she tossed over her shoulder.
Gonzalo finished dressing, then looked at himself more closely in the mirror. He was not as handsome as he had been. His mustache was flecked with gray, and his teeth had grown a bit long. The gray in his head of hair was no longer confined politely to his temples, and he no longer needed to squint or smile to show wrinkles around his eyes to go with the shadows under them that used to dissipate when he rested but were now a permanent fixture. Examining himself objectively, Gonzalo noted that he could not be said to have a proper double chin, but then neither could he call the fat beneath his chin baby fat. He made a mental note that he should start exercising again, but then scratched it out to save himself the disappointment of failing to keep to a regimen later.
And there were scars. He had worn a small scar at his chin since childhood, but there were others now. One ran for about an inch above his right eyebrow. Another was as long but Y-shaped on his left cheekbone, a gift from a local drunk who didn't want to be told he'd had enough to drink. He moved his hand to one of his more recent scars-a jagged one in his scalp at the back of his head that had taken eight stitches to close. He thought for a moment about the amount of blood he had dripped to the ground of Angustias since accepting the position of sheriff a quarter century before. A pint at least. This brought him to the worst day he had suffered as the sheriff of the small town-a day two years earlier when a set of very bad men had come to town looking for trouble. They had found it. In ten minutes they killed several citizens of Angustias, Angustiados, and one of his deputies. They wounded three other officers, himself included, and attacked his wife. He had never wanted to murder someone as desperately as he did on that day.
"Are you still at that mirror? Caramba! You're not a teenage girl, Luis. Get moving."
Mari stood in the doorway again, her hands on her hips, and Gonzalo wanted to hold her and clasp her face between his hands and kiss the scars she now carried from that day, but he knew they were barely visible now and no source of pride to her, and she would have found the gesture silly, so he refrained.
"I'm coming," he said. Then he finished dressing, gave his uniform a final look, and followed his wife out to the car.
The drive from the Gonzalo residence to the center of Angustias would have been only a mile or two had there been a straight road, but straight roads are in short supply in the tropical island of Puerto Rico. Nowhere are they less likely to be found than in the towns of the central mountain range. The modern traveler may think the engineers who mapped out the roads were a bit perverse, but the mapping was usually done long before any engineers showed up. Many of the roads grew up along footpaths or horse trails and these necessarily followed closely the natural contours of the earth. The routes are either scenic or challenging depending on the mood of the driver. Today Gonzalo thought of the road as challenging, not wanting to apply his mind to the ceremony he was about to attend in his own honor or the words he would be asked to say. He had thought of both these things too often for his own good already, and he could not think of a good way to say that he would have been happier if the town had let him celebrate at home or if he had been allowed to go on vacation a day earlier.
Like most ceremonies of note, the celebration for Gonzalo's twenty-five years of service was held in the town's plaza. Unlike other, larger cities, Angustias still used the plaza built by the founders more than two centuries earlier. Like many original plazas, it was situated at the heart of the city with the Roman Catholic church standing at one end and the alcaldia or city hall standing at the other. The homes of the wealthy had lined the sides but many of these had fallen into disrepair after having been passed down or sold to people who lacked the income of their predecessors.
The plaza was lined with trees that baked in the sun and threatened to die each summer only to be saved by a thunderstorm or two. Beneath these trees were stone benches often empty because the trees gave little shade. A fountain spurted water into the air when the water pressure sufficed. At other times it trickled pathetically until someone had mercy on it and shut it down.
On this day, as on many previous, the mayor and his deputy had called the prominent people of Angustias to the plaza-there was no other place within the limits of the town that would hold so many. When Gonzalo made it into town, he drove first to the station house attached to the rear of the alcaldia-like a boil was the running joke. There really wasn't anything for him to do, but there was a prisoner in custody waiting for transport to San Juan, and Gonzalo wanted to make sure there was nothing to worry about on that count. This, at least, was what he told himself. Greater honesty might have revealed a strong desire to avoid the ceremony altogether.
He walked to his desk and checked the fax and answering machines, gadgets he was still uncomfortable with. He usually let one of his younger deputies handle them. The fax machine had no paper hanging from it, which he took to be a good sign, but he made a mental note to tell a deputy that the answering machine had a light blinking on it.
"Hey, Sheriff," the prisoner called from his cell at the back of the precinct. "When are we leaving for San Juan?"
"It's Friday, Carlos. You're here until Monday morning, you know that."
"That's too long. I didn't do nothing wrong. Send me home already."
Carlos sat at the edge of his cot holding his head in both hands, passing them through his hair. He was one of those who had gone through school as the class clown, and his antics were simply no longer funny when committed by a man of thirty-five.
"You were drunk and disorderly at six a.m."
"I did nothing wrong...."
"You punched one of my officers. I'm going to ask the judge to throw the book at you, Carlos. You used to be funny, but now you're just a joke."
"You just got no sense of humor, Gonzalo." Carlos waved Gonzalo off.
"Yeah, I guess you're right. I should have let Iris pound your brains in with her nightstick; that would have been a real laugh."
"Don't you have someplace to go, Sheriff?" Carlos asked, then laughed softly to himself and lay down on the cot again.
Gonzalo would have liked to continue the pointless conversation, but he thought better of it and decided to face the day.
The sky was nearly empty of cloud cover and with the sun shining brightly, the temperature promised to be uncomfortable. Gonzalo calculated the crowd gathered in the plaza to be numbered at about three hundred; many more were on the balconies of the houses around the plaza and finding shade in the adjacent side streets.
The new mayor was at a portable lectern near the fountain. The deputy mayor was at his side and Gonzalo's senior deputies, Hector Pareda and Iris Calderon, were standing behind them. The mayor waved for Gonzalo to make his way to him. Francisco Primavera had been in office less than a year, but he had already managed to rub Gonzalo and many others who worked for Angustias the wrong way. Rafael Ramirez, who had long been the mayor, was abrasive, loud, and demanding, but everyone knew he had the best interests of his neighbors at heart. Francisco was young and flashy, Gonzalo thought, and though he had the college degree Ramirez had never even tried to attain, it seemed that every new policy had no deeper reason than to make the new mayor look good. Gonzalo would shake his hand today, and thank him for kind words today, but he seriously contemplated retiring. He thought of this as he moved around the crowd and toward the mayor's side.
The mayor started to speak before Gonzalo took his place.
"Wow, what an honor," he said. "Twenty-five years. I was eight, Luis, when you started working here. Wow." The mayor turned to face the sheriff and started clapping. Few in the crowd followed his lead. Gonzalo raised his hand to the crowd and smiled weakly.
"Well, Luis," the mayor continued. "You deserve all the honor and praise we can bestow upon you because, wow, I mean ..."
Gonzalo tuned out the rest of what the mayor had to say, a skill he had begun perfecting almost from the time Francisco took office. Instead he searched the faces assembled before him. In the front row was his first deputy, Emilio Collazo. Emilio was seventy-nine now and had retired only two years before after watching his partner die in a shoot-out. Collazo's rightful place was at Gonzalo's side, and the sheriff was half tempted to wave him over, but he knew his friend to be nothing if not a private man. He was content to see Collazo was still tall and strong and showed no sign of stooping to age. Collazo made a small wave and used the same hand to correct a wisp of white hair that had been blown out of place.
Rafael Ramirez was also in the front row of the crowd, standing next to his former deputy mayor, Jorge Nuñez. Ramirez was only an inch or two above five feet in height, but massively built so that he had trouble getting his arms to cross. Though Ramirez had butted heads with the sheriff on more occasions than either could count, Gonzalo would have liked to have him at his side. In fact, as he continued to ignore the current mayor's speech, Gonzalo reflected on all the many who had helped get him through the twenty-five years that were being celebrated. He began with Mari's support. He thought of how he would never have taken the job in the first place had it not been for her. He started to form an inventory of all the times the job had made him cry and Mari had been the only one to witness his tears, but he left that to think of the young people he was working with now.
He turned to look at Iris Calderon and Hector Pareda. Hector was leaning close to Iris that moment to hear something she had to say. He smiled and said something in turn. Gonzalo caught himself taking a page from Mari's book-he wondered for the briefest instant what would happen if Hector could grow up just enough to appreciate a young woman like Iris Calderon. True, many would have thought there was a disparity of looks. Hector was twenty-nine, tall, athletic, and handsome. More than one teenage girl had confessed to having a crush on him. Iris was good-natured, but not a true beauty unless, perhaps, one had the eye of a connoisseur and could appreciate asymmetry. She also was tall, but lanky. Still, Gonzalo thought, she was younger than Hector by several years, and might fill out a bit more as she matured. And, the sheriff reminded himself, there was no disputing that she had a captivating smile.
Gonzalo was just beginning to break this train of thought (after all, the love lives of his deputies were their business) when Lucy Aponte snapped his picture. The flashbulb caught his attention. It was a bright summer day in the tropics. She was standing a few yards to his right and looked down at her camera as though she couldn't believe she had the flash on. She fiddled with it and looked up at him again. She smiled broadly and gave him a wave and a shrug, then snapped another photo. With a camera bag strapped from right shoulder to left hip, a camera in her hands and a second one hanging free at her neck, Lucy was another reminder of the attack on Angustias. She had taken pictures the men wanted destroyed. Lucy credited Gonzalo with saving her life that day. He had tried to save her, Gonzalo would remind her to no avail, but she had run when necessary and hidden herself, doing more to save her own life than anyone else did. The photos she had published and the stories she had written about that day and the scandals surrounding it had found homes in major magazines and won her awards. Now she spent part of the year in Angustias, but only when she wasn't practicing the photojournalism that earned her salary. He wondered if she had taken time out of her schedule just to shoot photos of his big day. But his train of thought was derailed again. There was a disturbance in the crowd and even the mayor had stopped talking.
A fire was burning on a hillside a mile or so behind the crowd. At first the image was just of a plume of smoke rising steadily but without hurry. The people on the plaza and some on the balconies turned to watch the spectacle. Because of environmental concerns, no one was allowed to burn their garbage or burn their land clear. Soon, however, it was clear this was a much bigger fire and out of control. Flames leaped into the air, and the people on the plaza started to move, though not with any purpose yet.
Collazo said something to his wife and then moved to Gonzalo's side.
"It's Pedro Ortiz's house," he said.
"Yup. His property is across from a field I used to work for Martin Mendoza the father."
Gonzalo had already started walking to his car. Collazo stayed at his side. Gonzalo could see Hector Pareda jogging to the precinct ahead of him. He knew Hector would be putting in a phone call to the nearest fire department in Naranjito. That firehouse only had one truck, but they had responded to fires in Angustias before without getting lost, and they were only a few miles away so they were a safer bet than larger, farther departments.
Mari had moved quickly to get the car and was waving to her husband from the driver's seat. Both Gonzalo and Collazo got in.
"It's Pedro Ortiz's house," Collazo told Mari, and she accelerated around pedestrian traffic toward the open road.
The Ortiz home wasn't that far from the plaza, but the road dipped into a valley and then rose again after a number of lazy turns, so the drive took a little more than five minutes even at sixty miles an hour. Because of the vegetation overhead, after leaving the plaza there was only an occasional view of the flames. Each glimpse made the fire seem fiercer, and Gonzalo worried there might not be any house left to rescue when he got there. The Naranjito firefighters might have nothing more to do than douse the embers of what Pedro Ortiz had built for his wife.
As they neared the house, they could see it was engulfed in flame from front to rear and top to bottom. They could see the small crowd of the nearest neighbors-a dozen people or so-standing in closed-mouth awe. What they did not see made their hearts sink and brought the three of them almost to tears.
Excerpted from Message in the Flames by Steven Torres Copyright © 2004 by Steven Torres. Excerpted by permission.
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