Forgiving Mariela Camacho: New Excerpt

Forgiving Mariela Camacho by A.J.Sidransky is the second book in the Forgiving series following an apparent suicide turned murder case in a NYC apartment that leads to an international serial killer.

Detective Pete Gonzalvez knew from the start that the dead woman he and his partner, Tolya Kurchenko, discovered in a Manhattan apartment did not commit suicide. Pete knew her better than that. Mariela Comacho was the love of his life. The road to the truth winds through the slums of the Dominican Republic, the cold streets of Soviet Moscow, the hot sands of the Judean Hills, and into the dark clubs of New York City's underworld. They learn that Mariela was not merely murdered, but was the most recent victim of an international serial killer—a phantom from Tolya's past—and Karin Kurchenko, nine months pregnant, could be in his cold-blooded crosshairs.

Chapter One

Washington Heights, NYC

3 June 2010

4:15 p.m.

Tolya was looking at the clock when the call came.  He was a wreck these days.  One would think that, with the impending birth of his third child, he would have been an old hand at waiting for the call.  Every time the phone rang, he thought it was Karin, which he knew in itself was ridiculous.  He was a detective with the New York City Police Department. There were a hundred reasons his phone would ring for something other than his wife calling him to tell him to meet her at Columbia Presbyterian.  Nevertheless, he was nervous, more so than usual.  This pregnancy had not gone as smoothly as the previous two.  The doctor had said the baby might come early so, though she wasn’t due for another six weeks, Tolya was certain little Oleg was on his way and that every call was that call from Karin.

He stared at the phone for two rings before he heard Pete from behind him.  “You gonna pick that up?”

Tolya reached over the desk and grabbed the phone.  “Detective Kurchenko,” he said into the mouthpiece.

“You’re up. Front and center with Gonzalvez, now,” the duty officer said, then hung up before he could say OK. 

Tolya was relieved.  “Pete, come on,” he said, taking his cell from atop the desk.  He knelt and pulled open his bottom drawer and withdrew his gun, slipping it into the holster under his pant leg in one swift motion before turning for the door.

“Finally,” Pete said.  “It’s been a slow day.”

Tolya smiled at Pete. “For who?”

****

The super was waiting at the front door of the apartment building on Wadsworth Avenue between 192nd and 193rd streets.  Tolya chuckled to himself.  What real estate genius built a luxury apartment building in this location? He had read about it in the Manhattan Times, the neighborhood’s free bilingual paper.  The building had been conceived as a condominium before the market collapsed in 2008.  The builder had been forced to rent the units rather than walk away from the building. At least there would be an elevator.

“You speak English?” Tolya asked the super.

“No,” he replied.

“All yours.”

“What’s the story?” Pete asked in Spanish.

“There’s a terrible odor coming from apartment 7F,” the super replied.  “The other tenants are complaining.”

“Who lives there?” Pete asked.

“A woman,” the super said.

“Did you try to get in?”

“Yeah, but no one answers and the chain lock is against the door.  I didn’t want to break it.”

“So you called us.”  Pete sighed and explained to Tolya what the super had said. 

“OK then, let’s go up and break in.”

Pete grinned.  “I was hoping you’d say that.”

****

The smell in the hallway was overwhelming.  Tolya knew what it was before they unlocked the front door.  Only a dead body smelled like that, and then only after a few days, and the last few had been warm. 

He slipped his hand into the crack between the door and the frame, realizing immediately that there were no way his large mitts could unhinge the lock.  He knew Pete’s hands were even bigger than his.  “Anyone there?” he called out.  “Police.”

There was no answer, though the neighbor from across the hall opened the door.  A small woman in a blue and red bathrobe with her hair in curlers stepped out into the hallway, a handkerchief over her mouth and nose.  “I told him to call you yesterday,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Pete replied, smiling.  “Now please go back into your apartment and let us do our job.”  He turned back toward Tolya.  “What do you wanna do?”

“Shoulders, I think,” Tolya said.  Simultaneously, he and Pete rammed the door with their bodies, shoulders first.  It took three attempts, but the chain did give way and, as the door opened, the smell intensified. 

Light streamed into the apartment, the late-afternoon sun blazing through the uncovered windows.  They were blinded at first.  “Police,” Tolya shouted out again.  Still no response.  Both he and Pete pulled their guns.  As Tolya turned toward Pete to tell him he would lead, he saw the super cross himself and withdraw from the apartment. 

They walked slowly down the narrow hallway into a small foyer that opened into a large living room.  In front of them was a sight inconceivable to both.  They had seen plenty of crime scenes before, both individually and together, but never anything like this.  In front of the window, silhouetted against the sun in the western sky, was a huge wooden frame.  Suspended in the frame was a woman seated in a chair, her hands extended like Jesus on the cross.  A kitchen knife dangled from her right wrist by a leather cord.  Her body slumped forward but, by the volume of blood that covered her, it was obvious that her throat had been cut.

Tolya and Pete pulled handkerchiefs from their pockets and covered their mouths and noses.  “Check the rest of the apartment,” Tolya said through the handkerchief, lowering his gun.  As Pete moved out of sight, Tolya moved toward the victim.  He removed a pair of latex gloves from his back pocket and slipped them on, then gently lifted her head.  Her face was contorted into a smile.  Despite the heat, he shivered. 

“All clear,” Pete called out, coming back into the room.  He walked toward Tolya and the dead woman, then stopped in his tracks.  His eyes widened and his mouth opened, but at first nothing came out.  Then he vomited and collapsed to his knees.  He looked up at Tolya.  “I know her,” he said before passing out.

****

She was particularly excited about this exhibition, as it was her first as a full-time employee of the Museum of Jewish Heritage.  She had worked on it as a volunteer before she had decided to go back to work. She didn’t want to go back to her job at NYPD Internal Affairs. She had been volunteering at the museum when a permanent position opened.  She applied despite her lack of experience in museum management.  It turned out her Spanish skills, coupled with her personal connection to the few living survivors of the Sosúa experiment, were more important than a fancy graduate degree.  “Dominican Haven,” an exhibition dedicated to the 854 Jewish refugees saved by the Dominican Republic during WWII, was set to open in a couple of weeks.  She would be there, pregnant or otherwise, unless she was actually giving birth.

She looked at the clock 5:15.  She was already late for their class.  She had hoped that she and Tolya would finish their conversion course before the new baby came, but if Oleg came early, well, some things were beyond her control.  She stopped and texted Rabbi Rothman to tell him she would be a little late, then turned on the small TV on her wall.  She wanted to check the traffic before heading uptown.  Tolya had insisted she begin driving to work a few weeks earlier.  He didn’t want her going into labor on the subway.  The museum gladly supplied her with a parking space rather than lose her earlier than expected, especially with the show opening. 

“Breaking News” flashed across the screen as it popped to life.  She read the caption: “Unidentified woman found dead in locked apartment in Washington Heights.”  She recognized the curve in Wadsworth Avenue, then saw Tolya’s familiar face. 

She sat down at her desk, pulled out her phone and texted him, “What happened?”

Seconds later, she saw him reach into his pocket and check his phone. Then, seconds after that, her phone vibrated.  “You wouldn’t believe what we found.  Tell you later.  Can’t make class. Please tell Shalom.”

“OK,” she texted back.  She called the babysitter and asked her to stay for an extra hour. 

****

Pete sat dazed in the interrogation room at the precinct.  Tolya and the captain sat opposite him.  “Pete, tell us again, how did you know her?”Tolya said.

“I helped her come here,” Pete said.

“Is she related to you?” Tolya asked.

“Not really. Sort of, a cousin, kinda,” Pete replied, then thought for a moment.  “She was the cousin of my cousin.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen her?” the captain asked.

“About ten years.”

“Yet you recognized her?” the captain said.

Pete’s mind raced back.  He couldn’t forget passion like that.  “Yes,” he said, nodding slightly.

“What was her name again?”the captain asked.

Pete swallowed hard.  “Mariela Camacho.”

“The woman’s ID –or should I say, one of them, anyway –confirmed that,” Tolya said.  He took a plastic baggie with a Dominican passport out of a file and dropped it onto the table.

“How many did she have?” the captain asked, removing the Dominican passport from the bag and flipping through it.

“Three,” Tolya said.  “One Dominican, one American and, get this, one Russian.”

Pete shook his head.  He couldn’t believe what was happening.  He’d been a cop a long time, but never had he expected to find a dead body –no, a mutilated dead body –of someone he knew at a crime scene.  “I just can’t digest this yet,” he said.

“I understand,” said the captain.  “Maybe we should pick this up tomorrow.  You can write out a statement, tell us what you knew of her. And I’ll have to take you off the case.”

“Of course,” said Pete.  He rubbed his shoulder where he had hit the heavy front door of the apartment earlier.  “Tomorrow.  That would be better.  I can’t do this now.”

They all rose.  The captain walked around the table and put his arm around Pete, the ever-increasing bulk of his stomach pushing Pete into the corner of the tiny room.  “Gonzalvez,” he said, “I’m sorry about this.  Go home, kiss your wife and kids and get some rest.  We’ll sort this out.”

“Thanks, Cap,” Pete said, then looked at Tolya.  He knew Tolya understood to stay back for a moment after the captain left. 

The captain walked through the door and down the hallway.  Tolya turned toward Pete. “What’s up, hermano?” he asked.

“Let’s go get a drink.  I need to tell you a few things.”

“Sure,” replied Tolya.  “I already told Karin I’d be late.”

****

She liked Rothman.  He was a good and honest man and, although she knew she would never practice his severe, rigid brand of Judaism, both she and Tolya felt comfortable having him complete their conversions. Tolya, though, had bristled at the idea that he needed to be converted to begin with. 

He was the genuine article, Rothman, a man who had come to his faith by choice rather than just acceptance.  She knew his beliefs were a matter of conviction, not indoctrination.  Also, she respected how he had embraced a friendship with Tolya, a friendship that had changed Tolya deeply after Tolya had arrested Rothman’s wife for murdering Rothman’s father.  She admired his dignity, a quality she rarely found in people.

Karin knocked gently on Rothman’s door, the old sign with his father-in-law’s name still appended to it.  He had died a broken man a few months earlier, never recovering from the tragedy of his daughter’s actions. 

“Come in.”

She opened the door slowly and peeked in.  “Good evening, Rabbi,” she said. “Sorry for my lateness.”

“Not a problem, Chava,” Rothman said, using the Hebrew name she would soon adopt as her own.  Chava, Eve, the first woman, the mother of mothers. “Where is Adam?” Tolya picked that name because it had been his maternal grandfather’s Hebrew name.  As far as Tolya knew, he was the last member of the family who had had one.  Tolya and his twin, Oleg, had been close to him as children, spending summers with him and their grandmother in Ukraine.

“He’s caught up on a case, up on Wadsworth,” she said, settling into the chair opposite Rothman’s.  “He asked me to send his apologies.”

“Hmm,” replied the rabbi.  “I saw something earlier on the news.  Seems it was a rather grisly scene.”

“Yes.”

“Well, let’s get started then.  Do you have any questions about what we discussed last week?”

Karin paused for a moment in thought.  She did have questions, but she wasn’t sure how to ask them.  “Yes,” she finally said.

“Then why are you hesitating?” said Rothman.

“Because I don’t want to offend you,” she replied.

Rothman leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “Karin, nothing you say will offend me.”

“Even if it offends the rules you live by?”

“You know me better than that.  My rules are for me,” he replied.  “You may choose to live any way you want.  I can only hope to guide you.  What happens between you and HaShem is your business.”

“OK then,” Karin said, shifting herself slowly into the chair to relieve the pressure against her back.  “I understand thoroughly the idea of rest on Shabbat, of separating the holy from the profane, but I can tell you with all honesty that we, my family, Tolya and me and the kids, we won’t observe the Sabbath in the way you do.  It’s not practical for us.  Yet, I want to build a construct within which my family will experience the Sabbath.”

The rabbi smiled at her and placed his hands on the desk.  “Chava,” he said, “I am going to tell you a little story. But if you ever tell anyone I told you this story, I will deny it because, as a rabbi of such a traditional congregation, I would be run out of town for suggesting this to you.”

“Go ahead.” Karin laughed.  “It’s our little secret.”

“Many years ago, before I became ba’al t’shuvah, I was going on my first trip to Israel and I had a pair of tefillin that had belonged to my father’s grandfather.  My father had carried them with him from Europe.  I wanted to pray with them at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  You understand what tefillin are?”

“Yes,” Karin answered.  “The small boxes men wrap around their arms and forehead when praying.  They contain a passage from the Torah.”

“Very good.” Rothman gave a broad smile.  “I’ve successfully taught you something.  Anyway, I had to have the tefillin checked to make sure the parchments inside the old boxes were still good.  There was one shop on the Lower East Side where you could do this.  I went to the shop and found a very old man with a very long beard and a yarmulke way too big for his head sitting on a low stool repairing religious articles.  There was another man, not quite so old, in the shop as well.  When I walked in I explained to the old man what I was seeking –to make certain that the tefillin were kosher –and before the old man answered me, the other man chided me for coming into the shop with my head uncovered.  The old man, who had been silent till then, turned to the other man and told him to apologize to me for his rudeness. He said that, though I didn’t wear a yarmulke on my head, it was clear I was wearing one in my heart.”

Karin shifted again in the chair, then smiled.  “So, Rabbi,” she said, “are you suggesting that I can build a construct for Shabbat that might differ from the more traditional approach?”

“I have a very intuitive student,” he replied.

“And I a very tolerant teacher.”

“What are your plans for your first Shabbat?”

“I plan to have a family dinner where we will bless the wine, the challah and the children, and then for us to spend the evening together with the kids, no television.  I have a special project planned for Tolya and the boys to do together.”

“Excellent.  Good luck with it. And let’s talk again early next week.”

Karin got up slowly from the chair.  Shalom came around the desk to help her.  “Chava,” he said,  “a question.”

“Yes, Shalom, what?”

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Do what?”

“Convert.”

“Yes. Why are you asking me that now?”

“We have an old custom that we must continue to ask at least three times before the conversion is undertaken to make sure the person’s heart and mind are together in the decision.”

“They are.”

“And why are you doing this?”

“I want my children to understand this part of who they are and, at the same time, I want to be able to share this heritage with them.  I can’t do that if I don’t become a part of it.”

“And you accept, or should I say, you believe in our view of HaShem?”

“I believe there can be more than one interpretation of the same thing, and I am comfortable accepting this interpretation.”

Shalom smiled.  “Are you still planning on doing your conversion before the birth?”

“If possible, yes. The day after the pre-opening party.”

Shalom raised an eyebrow.  “And will Tolya be joining you?”

She smiled.  “I’m not supposed to tell you, he wanted to tell you himself. But, yes.  He decided you were right, that he should look at this more as a recommitment than an insult to his personal history.”

Shalom smiled.

****

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Tolya said, sipping at his beer.  “You’ve had three already.”

“I’m fine, Tol.  You might want to consider having a couple yourself before I tell you this story.”

“I’m fine with the beer, thanks.  You ready to enlighten me?”

“I will be in a moment,” Pete replied.  “Just let the tequila settle in a little first.”  He picked up the fourth shot and downed it.  The warmth of the liquor rose up from his stomach into his chest.  The effect of the first three began to lighten his mind.  The rush of the tequila reminded him of the warm breezes coming off the ocean in Samanáthat summer, all those years ago.  The tiny fishing village, the broad beach lined with palm trees, the tiny room facing the ocean where they had spent four days sleeping under mosquito nets, the windows open to catch the breeze and the sound of the surf.  He looked Tolya directly in the eye.  “OK,” he said.  “Let’s get right down to it.  We were lovers.”

Tolya put the bottle of Corona down on the bar.  He hesitated for a moment then said, “OK.  I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Pete turned his head away.  They were closer than brothers, but sometimes Tolya didn’t know when to keep his comments to himself.  Pete forgave him for that.  He swallowed hard, remembering those moments so many years ago when he knew this woman, this woman who was now lying on a slab in the morgue at the coroner’s office.

“Wait, I thought you said you were cousins,” Tolya said.

Pete turned back toward Tolya.  “I said we were cousins of cousins.  No blood relation.  But then, I don’t suppose you Russians ever marry within the family.  Let’s see, didn’t that neighbor of yours end up marrying…”

“OK, OK,” Tolya replied, putting up his hands in surrender.  “Point taken.  Sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Enough said.  Now, you wanna hear the story?”

“Yeah. And please, tell me everything.”

Pete lifted the bottle of beer, took one more swig then began.  “It was my first time back in Santo Domingo in about seven, eight years.  I had just become a citizen and finished school.  I wanted to take a little break before I began on the force.  I was going with Glynnis, but she was still in school so I went back to visit my family, my cousins, aunts, uncles, alone.  It started out as innocent as could be.”

Chapter Two

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

30 June 1992

The sunlight was as brilliant as Pete remembered it.  The air felt warm and wet against his skin, all his memories rushing back at him at once.  He walked down the ramp toward the doors.  In the distance he could see a man with three young women and a younger man waving at him. The man was older than he remembered him to be, but he knew it was his uncle, his mother’s youngest brother. 

Tío Polito had been like a father and an older brother, protecting him and getting him into trouble at the same time.  Without doubt, the younger man was Chicho, his amigo de alma.  He recognized two of the women as his cousins, his uncle’s daughters, but they were not the little girls he had left behind.  He didn’t recognize the other woman.  She was a great beauty in that way only Caribbean women–no, only Dominican women –can be. Not perfect, but enticing. 

“Pedrito,” his uncle called to him.  He felt himself smile, slung his bag over his shoulder and ran toward him.  His uncle did the same, crossing the flimsy rope barrier meant to keep the tourists from being overrun by returning Dominicans and their families.  They slammed into each other and embraced for a long moment. Then something happened that Pete had never expected since the moment he had left this sad but beautiful place.  He cried. The feeling of his uncle’s arms around him brought him back to his childhood, to the closeness of those he loved, a familiarity so often missing in New York, where everyone chased the dollar. Here where there were no dollars.  Here they smiled for each other, not for money. 

“Tío,” he said weakly through his tears.

“Why are you crying, Pedrito?” his uncle said, pushing Pete back and looking at him.  “Diablo, you’ve grown up.  You’re bigger than me.”He laughed, then pulled Pete to him and hugged him again.

Pete wiped his eyes and smiled.  “Because I’ve missed you and I didn’t realize how much.” He slapped his uncle playfully on the head.  “And yes, I’m bigger than you now, so you better watch out.”

Chicho came up from behind Polito.  “Hermano,” he said, then grabbed Pete and pulled him close, hugging him tightly.

“Chicho, mi hermanito.  I’d better watch out.  Look how big you are.  Like a bull.”

Chicho laughed.  “It’s so good to see you, man.”

“Pedro,” the girls called out to him.

 “They want to see you,” Tío Polito said.  “They’ve been talking about nothing else for days.”  He took Pete by the arm and led him through the crowd.

As they neared, the young women smiled. The taller one, slightly older, came toward him.  From her dark hair and cinnamon-colored skin, he knew immediately it was Imelda.  He embraced her.  She kissed him gently on the cheek.  “Do you still have all those dolls? ”he said. 

She laughed and poked him in the stomach.  “Yes, I saved them for you.  You’ll be sleeping with them.”

She released him and he reached out to her sister standing just behind her.  She was shorter than Imelda, with the same cinnamon-colored skin but unmistakable from her blue eyes.  “Brisas,” he said, using the nickname he had given her as a child.

Katarina embraced him.  “No one calls me that anymore,” she said.

“They should,” he replied. “You’re still like a soft breeze.”

She smiled.  “I want you to call me that for as long as you’re here.”

Pete hugged Katarina close. 

The third young woman stood behind her, perhaps three feet away, smiling at him.  Somewhere, deep in his memory, her face was there. 

“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said.

“No,” he replied, letting go of Katarina and straightening up.  “I’m sorry.”

Her beauty riveted him.  Long black hair framed her perfect face, her cheekbones high and her lips full and red, black eyes deep and dark but ringed with a thin rim of gold, full of mystery, the color of her skin like coffee ice cream.  She smiled, her perfect white teeth filling her face.  “Soy Mariela,” she said, shifting her eyes downward, then back to his.  “Do you remember me now?  I remember you.”

****

Pete was surprised at how much had changed in the eight years since his mother had sent his ticket to come to New York.  The wooden, single-story house he had lived in with his uncle and his uncle’s family after his mother emigrated was gone, replaced by a villa with modern baths and kitchen, running hot water, and lights that stayed on thanks to a private generator.  There was a second story where the bedrooms were, all built around an interior courtyard.  They sat in that courtyard at a long table, the heat from the barbecue warming the cool night air, enjoying the last of the desserts his aunt had made in his honor.

Chicho raised a glass.  “One last toast to mi hermano.  How much we’ve missed you.  But it’s like you were here with us yesterday.  Bienvenidos compai.”

Everyone raised their glasses and shouted, “Felizidades!”

Mariela sat opposite him.  He stared at her all through dinner.  He was captivated by her smile.  It was seductive and innocent at the same time.  “Would you like to show me that view now?” he asked her.

“Por supuesto,” she said, rising gracefully from her chair, the sleekness of her body evident under the gauzy yellow fabric of her sleeveless dress.  “We can stop at my room to get a sweater.”  She rubbed her shoulders to warm them.

Pete followed her slowly with both his legs and his eyes as she walked across the patio and up the stairs to the second floor.  She turned left toward her room.  He waited for her in the open-air corridor outside, peering over the banister into the courtyard below.  He was proud of how well his uncle and aunt had done with the beauty shop and motorcycle repair they had opened in front of the house facing the street, hiding the tangible evidence of their prosperity behind it.  He smiled, remembering the little outhouse that had stood where the barbecue pit was now.

“Ready,” Mariela said, taking his hand and leading him toward the circular wrought iron staircase that led to the roof.  He followed her up the stairs.

The sky opened above them, the brilliant light of the full moon illuminating the city.  He could see the crests of the mountains to the north way off in the distance outlined by the reflection of the moonlight.  The stars shone above much brighter than in New York.  The sparse lights of the houses in the patios that filled the hillsides of Arroyo Hondo descended below them, twinkling, the sound of Salsa filling the air in every direction.  He felt at home for the first time in many years.  He had forgotten how much he loved this place, how much it was home to him.

“Quélindo,” Mariela said.

“Sí,” Pete replied, turning toward her and repeating her phrase, “quélinda,” changing the masculine to the feminine.  She turned her head and smiled that smile again.  He knew she understood his meaning.  The “linda” was for her, not for the view.  “I want to apologize,” he continued.

“For what?” she said.

“For this afternoon, for not recognizing you.”

She laughed then touched his arm.  “How could you? It was so long ago, I was a little girl.  We hardly knew each other.”

He ran his fingers over her arm, then took her hand.  “I’m sorry about your parents,” he said.

“Thank you,” she replied.  “Thank God for your uncle and my aunt.  They took me in when I had nowhere to go.”  She smiled, then chuckled.  “My grandmothers were too afraid to take me in.  I would have been left to the streets.”

“How long ago was that?” Pete asked.

“Six years.  I was 12.”

Pete leaned in toward her and put his hand over hers.  She moved in closer to him, their bodies nearly touching.  His lips grazed hers, soft and warm.

“Mariela,” Imelda called from below.

She pulled away from him, tossed her hair back and smoothed her dress.  “Sí,” she called back.  “We’re on the roof.”

“Chicho and Freddy want to go dancing. Do you want to come?”

“Do you salsa?” Mariela asked Pete.

He smiled at her.  “Sí, como un boricua.”

“Vamos,” she said, taking his hand and leading him down the circular stairs to the world below.

****

The DJ mixed to another cut, faster, more like a plena.  He shouted, “Let’s go outside for a drink.”

She nodded and led him off the dance floor to the terrace on the second floor of the club.  As he pushed open the glass door and held it for her, a rush of humid air hit his face.  

“What would you like?” he asked her.

“Whatever you’re having,” she said, pushing her hair back over her shoulders. 

His stomach tightened as he watched her fan herself lightly with her right hand, a thin film of perspiration making her skin glow.  “I’m drinking whiskey.”

“Well,” she said, “in that case, I’ll be drinking whiskey too.”

They laughed.  Pete turned toward the bartender.  “A bottle of Black Label, please.”

“Right away, señor.  Did you want anything to mix with that?”

Pete looked at Mariela.  “Orange juice, please,” she said.

“And ice.”  He laid out two 5,000 peso bills on the top of the bar, took Mariela’s hand in his, brought it to his lips, and then kissed it gently. 

The bartender returned with the bottles and glasses.  Pete poured the whiskey and added a splash of orange juice.  He picked up his glass and tapped hers.  “Salud,” he said.

“Salud,” she replied.

“Mariela,” Pete said, fidgeting a bit, not sure where to look.  He usually wasn’t this nervous around women. “I’m glad we met again.”

“So am I.”

Awkwardness hung in the thick air for a moment.  Pete chuckled to himself.  He hadn’t expected to fall in love his first night back.  He caught her eye and smiled.  “What are you studying in school?” he asked, trying to lighten the moment.

“Nursing,” she said.

“That’s very noble,” he replied.  He tapped her glass with his again.

Mariela laughed.  “No, not really, but I’ll be able to get a job, maybe even leave the country.  There is little else a woman can do here, you know?”

“Do you want to leave the country?”

“Of course,” she said. “Who doesn’t?  And besides, there are too many difficult memories for me here.”

“I’m sure that’s true.”

“Sometimes this is a very ugly place,” she said.  “And at other times, it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”

“I understand that feeling completely.  Our people are desperate to leave and then desperate to return.”

She took a sip and touched his hand.  “Enough about me,” she said.  “And you?  Imelda told me you’ve just finished school.”

“Yes,” Pete replied.  “Not college like you, Police Academy.  I want to be a detective.”

“Also admirable,” she said.  “I imagine the police are different in New York than here.”

“What do you mean?”

She hesitated, took another long sip of her drink as if to fortify herself.  “You know, the corruption.”

“Yes,” Pete replied, “it’s better, or maybe it’s just different.  There’s plenty of corruption there too.”

“You know,” Mariela said, “here, when the police don’t want to solve a crime, they don’t bother.”

Pete moved closer to her.  He was curious about the circumstances of her parent’s deaths.  “Can I ask what happened?”

She slid her hand into his, interlocking their fingers.  “Sure,” she said, “Why not?  The police said it was a crime of passion, that my father had killed my mother and then himself after he found out that she was having an affair.  In the barrio, they said my mother was a bruja and my father a drug dealer, and that the local gang killed them after they turned informant for the police.  That’s why my grandmothers wouldn’t take me in.  They said they would kill anyone who helped me because my parents were informants.”

“What do you believe?” Pete asked.

Mariela looked off into the distance, across the club toward the dance floor inside.  She moved her hips slightly with the music.  Pete watched her as she prepared to answer him.  She seemed far off for a moment.  She turned toward him and sipped her drink again.  “I believe the police killed them.”

 

Copyright © 2015 A.J. Sidransky.

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A.J. Sidransky is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker.  Born in the Bronx, he resides in Washington Heights with his wife.  He has a college age son who attends the University of Miami.  He is a life long Yankees fan.

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