This was first published in Crimespree a couple of years ago. Enjoy:
José Vargas was going to jail that day. He had been told to report to the Angustias station house, and he would be transferred to a courthouse in San Juan where he would enter a plea of guilty for his part in the theft and resale of a car. He would start serving a year long sentence that same day. His lawyer, a nervous man who warned him repeatedly that he had to be at the station house on time or the plea deal would fall through, had arranged all this. He would be a fugitive if he were late, and the lawyer had called him that morning with the same message.
Vargas decided on a drive. He had until the afternoon, 3 pm, to turn himself. He was a free man until then, as free as anyone else in Puerto Rico. A sixty-five mile drive to the beaches of Cabo Rojo would take him through scenic and challenging roads, and he could bask in the sun, go for a swim and visit his grandmother. He would not tell her he had done anything wrong or that he was going away. He only saw her two or three times a year, and for the next year he could substitute phone calls, and say he was a little too busy to make the trip. Or maybe he would tell her, and she would cry for his troubles, and they would hug.
He put jeans on over his swimming trunks and wore flimsy foam slippers. His shirt was open, showing bronze chest. He wore shades as he got into his car, a Trans-Am that his younger brother would be in charge of for the next twelve months.
The first stop was the panadería for coffee with milk and a small loaf, buttered and warm. This was breakfast.
“Te vas?” the man asked from behind the counter. “Are you going?”
“In the afternoon,” José answered. He smiled. There wasn’t anyone in Angustias who didn’t know he was off to prison that day. It was a small town with no place to hide.
The storeowner refused his money. The bread and coffee were a going away gift.
At the next stop, the one for gas, there was an unpleasant reminder of how the day was going to end. Hector Pareda sat in his squad car at one end of the gas station property. Pareda was the deputy who had arrested José three months earlier. There had been a car chase two days after the car theft when José came back to Angustias; it was hopeless. No one could outrun Hector; that was well known. Hector was like a machine, efficient in his moves and fearless. Hector nodded to José and made eye contact. To José, the nod, the look, the slight smile were signs of imprisonment, a taunt.
Hector returned his look to the road in front of him. He was waiting for speeders or a dilapidated car dragging its muffler in need of repair and a ticket. José pumped his own gas – twenty liters. Then he got into the Trans-Am, started it up and pulled away carefully where he would normally have made his tires squeal. He looked Hector in the eye again as he turned off of the gas station property and onto the road. Hector’s look said “I’ll see you later.”
José glanced at the squad car receding in his rearview mirror. He would have to return and be on time, but first he would have a drive, a swim, and a visit. It would be a good day to make up for a year full of bad days that were coming to him. He glanced into the mirror again and the station owner was at the side of Hector’s car, flailing his arms, obviously yelling. Hector turned on his roofrack of lights and pulled out on to the road behind him, and José remembered that the ten dollars for the gas were still in his pocket. He looked down at his speedometer. He was already going forty miles an hour, and that decided the issue for him as though forty were a number that had some power over him. He wasn’t going to pull over or make a sheepish U-turn or otherwise explain his infraction. He was going to run and reach the beach. He was going to dip into the ocean even if Hector was a second behind him all the way.
“Pull over, José,” Hector said through the squad car’s PA system. “You forgot to pay for the gas.”
Hector said “forgot” though he knew José had been guilty of petty theft before. He didn’t want a chase or a confrontation – not with a man who was already going to jail.
Both cars were going over fifty miles per hour, then sixty, then seventy. The hills in Angustias, a mountainous town, were not made for high speeds; they were narrow and filled with twists and at either edge there were trees and grasses or precipitous drops. Usually, there were precipitous drops behind the trees and grasses. Both cars passed the grade school complex at over eighty miles an hour, Hector’s siren at full volume. The various classes stopped their recitations for a moment and eyes turned to the windows. There was the chatter of children after the cars zoomed or whooshed or zizzed by depending on which child was talking.
Nothing upset Hector more than drivers who did eighty in a school zone. Classes had already started, so there should be no danger of hitting a child until lunch time, but there was always a chance that a child hadn’t heard the school bell or was walking to school late, having missed the bus.
At eighty-five miles per hour, Hector pulled up to a few feet away from the Trans-Am. He called to José on the PA system. “Pull over, José. You’re not going anywhere.”
A turn and a dip in the road and both cars were doing ninety. Hector radioed his sheriff to say he was following José doing ninety, ninety-three, ninety-five miles per hour and leaving Angustias, going into Naranjito. Luis Gonzalo, the sheriff of Angustias, was tempted to say he’d pay for the gas himself, but José was a car thief – with a friend he had pushed his way into the car of an elderly driver, taking him for a five mile drive before pushing him out the door in the middle of nowhere. He had frightened a man who had never done anything to him and had sold the car to a chop shop. He was getting off with a light sentence only because he had given the locations of other chop shops, given up his partner’s name, had given the names of other car thieves. The old man had spent two nights in the hospital with chest pains.
“Go get him,” Gonzalo said, and he knew José would not escape his deputy.
In Naranjito, the roads turned uphill. José had missed the turn he had wanted to make and was now headed nowhere near Cabo Rojo, getting further from it with every mile. He figured out where to make the turn to get back on track.
Another squad car tried to join the chase. The driver of the Naranjito squad car wanted to pull onto the road in front of José’s Trans-Am to box it in, but he miscalculated the accelarative power he would need and wound up coming in behind José and Hector. On a narrow road, he would have no chance of having an effect on the chase.
Naranjito was a bigger town than Angustias though not by much. There was traffic in the oncoming lane and several cars pulled onto the gravel to give the procession space. José made his turn in the direction of Cabo Rojo again. This road opened up into two lanes each way and went into a valley and gave all drivers a clear view for a mile or more. There was only one car on the stretch ahead, a white pickup.
On the straightaway, Hector and José went over a hundred miles an hour. José looked back in the rearview mirror several times, racing downhill. He could see Hector was a car length or less behind and five or ten car lengths behind Hector another squad car had its lights on but wasn’t really chasing anyone. Hector’s rearview mirror showed him Francisco Colon was behind him, a nice guy and a rookie. He thought of radioing Francisco to have him close the gap and maybe even pull ahead, but that would be dangerous and this was only a ten dollar theft. Besides, Puerto Rico is an island – José was, ultimately, going nowhere.
At the bottom of the straightaway, they would all be leaving Naranjito. Hector radioed his sheriff again. Francisco Colon radioed his sheriff, and José Vargas, who started out just ten minutes earlier with the intentions of going for a drive and a swim and a visit with his grandmother, accelerated into the right hand lane to pass the white pickup truck. The squad cars followed.
José took a bite of his loaf of bread and floored the gas pedal to get by the truck. The driver of the truck changed lanes at the last second, cutting José off, making him slam on the brakes with both feet, making him turn his steering wheel hard, trying to get back into the left lane. The truck turned back into the left lane as well, clipping José’s front fender.
Hector applied his brakes and drove onto the shoulder, Francisco Colon following him at a safe distance. José’s car went on to the shoulder of the road as part of an uncontrolled spin. His rear right tire went off the shoulder and into a hard mud rut. The car flipped over three times. José, without a seatbelt, hit the roof of the car, the windshield and then flew out the passenger side window on the second flip.
Hector reported what he had seen to his sheriff then ran out to see what he could do for José though he knew José was dead before the body hit the asphalt.
Francisco Colon was running to his side as Hector knelt beside José. Hector sprang up and waved him off. Unlike the movies or even the police training videos, a mangled body is a disgusting sight and smell. Hector walked toward the rookie.
“What?” Francisco said.
His cheeks were red with the short jog he had taken at a sprint and with fear and nervous energy.
“Nothing. I just wanted to slow you down a bit. The driver’s as dead as he can be. His head is crushed, his neck is broken, his chest was turned to mush. He urinated and defecated and he’s drenched in his own blood. If you want a look, take it, but there’s no point.”
Francisco Colon hesitated a moment, but he took the look. It was a point of pride, and he didn’t throw up though his eyes teared. He walked back to Hector who was reporting back to his sheriff.
“You get used to that?” Colon asked Hector when Sheriff Gonzalo had done telling him to stay where he was.
“Get used to what?” Hector asked.
“To bodies, to dead bodies.”
“Never. You get used to controlling yourself and you get used to blocking the body out of your mind. Think about something else.”
“Like getting a blanket to cover the body.”
Francisco went to get the blanket, and Hector noticed the white pickup truck backing its way toward the wrecked Trans-Am. He jogged to the truck, waving his hand over his head, and it stopped twenty feet short of the wreck and fifty feet short of José. The driver jumped out. He was about sixty years old and five feet tall. He limped hurriedly toward Hector.
“Did we get him?” he yelled.
“Did we get him?” The man put out a hand for Hector to shake. Hector looked at it.
“I saw the two squad cars… What did he do?”
“I need you to sit in your truck, sir. We’ll need to talk to you.”
“Okay, but what did he do?” He spoke slowly, frustrated with the deputy’s inability to understand the question and his interest.
“Sit in the truck,” Hector said. He was walking back to the accident.
“I’m not the criminal here,” the driver said talking to Hector’s back.
“Get back in your truck.”
Hector went back to his car and started jotting down notes as Francisco Colon covered the body and set out flares to close off a lane of traffic around the spoiled car and driver. The three men waited in their vehicles for another squad car with other officers who could take care of the scene and the witness and José.