If you scroll down a bit, you'll see a short story that first ran a couple of years ago in Shred of Evidence. It's from my novel series - Precinct Puerto Rico. Hope you enjoy:
Like many bad days, this one was starting late. Gonzalo was scheduled to leave the station house and head home in fifteen minutes. His relief had already come in and Mari had called to say dinner was nearly done. Instead of finishing up his paperwork for the day, however, he was listening to someone on the phone, running his free hand through his hair and wishing he was one of those sheriffs who could leave well enough alone. Or at least that the deputy who was relieving him were more experienced and able to do things on his own rather than still learning the job.
“Okay, can you repeat the description,” Gonzalo said. He had written down some features of the missing person – six feet tall, two hundred and eighty pounds, about fifty years old, mustache. As the person making the call repeated himself, Gonzalo wrote down “glasses,” “blue uniform,” and “.38 caliber revolver.”
“And his name again.”
He wrote down “Leonardo Vega.” The name rang no bells, but the caller insisted Leonardo had been to Angustias at least ten times in the past several years. How do you miss a man that size in a uniform, carrying a gun?
“Problem?” The question came from Hector Pareda in his second month on the job.
Gonzalo handed Hector the notes he had jotted down. Hector’s eyes widened.
“I would think this guy could take care of himself.”
Gonzalo got out of his chair and shrugged.
“The guy was telling me the job is dangerous.”
“What’s the connection to us?”
“He’s a meat inspector. Maldonado’s Carneceria was supposed to be his first stop after lunch this afternoon. He never made it to his second stop, never called in.”
Gonzalo called his wife, told her he’d be home late, and then went out to the squad car with his deputy.
“What’s the plan?” Hector asked as they pulled away from the station house.
“We’re going to talk to Maldonado,” Gonzalo answered.
Anibal Maldonado had been a butcher in Angustias for twenty years. His father had done the same job for forty years before him. Certainly he wasn’t the only butcher in town. Most of the farmers who raised animals slaughtered their own. Maldonado was just the only one who did it exclusively and made his living from sticking pigs and slitting the throats of chickens, goats, and cows. Some of the meat was sold out front to a steady stream of customers, some was frozen, some was refrigerated, some was sent out in a van to stores and restaurants he sold to wholesale. His business was about a mile from the center of town. Gonzalo checked his watch as he got out of the car a few minutes later. It was after five and he expected the shop to be closed. It was, but inside, work was still going on.
Gonzalo and Hector walked in. A worker was running a bandsaw, cutting up a rack of pork chops into thick slices. Another worker was brooming bloody water toward a drain in the floor. Anibal Maldonado was walking out the back door. He was a short man, but stout, thick through the shoulders and with thick forearms. He wore a leather apron over jeans and a formerly white tee shirt. Gonzalo walked his way, but before he reached the back, Maldonado came back in, a rope in his hand, a cow at the end of the tether.
“Have you ever seen a cow being slaughtered?” Gonzalo asked his deputy.
“No,” Hector said. His eyes widened and his shoulders tensed.
“Maybe you don’t want to look.” It was too late. In a swift motion, Maldonado had applied the knocker to the cow’s head; there was pop that was just barely heard above the bandsaw, and the cow collapsed.
“Oh my…” Before Hector could finish his thought, Maldonado had punctured the cow’s throat, draining it.
“Maldonado!” Gonzalo called out. He whistled for the man to hear him. Maldonado stopped what he was doing, wiped the blade of his knife and put it on a small table in that back room. He came out to speak with the sheriff.
“What happened?” he asked.
Outside, the police officers noticed that the air was fresher and cooler. Had he not been working on a case, Hector would have put his hands on his knees and breathed deeply. As it was, he tried not to blink; the inside of his eyelids had the picture of the cow on them.
“Do you know Leonardo Vega?” Gonzalo asked.
“Vega? Sure. Meat inspector. That’s the only one I know.”
“Did you see him today?”
“Vega? No.” Maldonado smiled as he answered.
“What’s funny?” Gonzalo asked.
Maldonado opened his mouth, hesitated, then spoke.
“I haven’t seen Vega in months and to tell you the truth, I hope I never see him again.”
“Why? You get into an argument with him?”
Maldonado smiled again. He shook his head, but Gonzalo wanted an answer.
“Vega’s missing, but he was supposed to be here,” Gonzalo said. Maldonado shrugged and motioned for the officers to follow him. They went around the side of the slaughterhouse to a cinder block barn in back that had a roof raised up on aluminum pipes. There were several goats, cows and a sheep. In a pen off to one side there were five or six pigs. Nearby, there was a rabbit hutch with only two rabbits, and a chicken coop. The chickens walked freely about the area.
“See that sheep?” Maldonado asked. “That sheep is going next week to a man in Santurce. He runs two restaurants and three hotels with restaurants and last year he bought eighteen thousand dollars worth of meat here. If I want him to do the same or better this year, he needs a sheep – somebody’s wedding, I think.”
“He’s shaking you down?” Hector asked.
“Shaking down? I don’t know what that is. This is business. Every year I give away a lot of meat, the best steaks, a whole pig, a goat, whatever. Then next year these people give me their business again.”
“And what does this have to do with Vega?” Gonzalo asked.
“Vega? Every time he comes here to inspect, he finds something wrong. He said he saw roaches one time in the yard with the chickens. I told him, “Chickens eat roaches.” He said he’d give me a fine anyway. That cost me a pig. Another time it was flies in the barn. I told him every barn has flies. In the end, I gave him a stack of steaks that filled his car trunk. Vega? If he never comes back, I’ll be happy.”
“But I thought you said this was just the price of doing business?” Hector put in.
“If he was giving me orders for meat, then it would be business. This is just robbing me.”
The last few sentences, Maldonado had jabbed with his forefinger for emphasis. He was angry, and though Gonzalo had been prepared to just ask and take Maldonado’s word about not seeing Vega, he was now beginning to think the missing inspector had pushed the bribery a little too far.
“Mind if we take a look around?” the sheriff asked.
“What? You think I killed him? Maybe I chopped him up?”
Gonzalo looked away, a sign that Maldonado should think whatever he wanted about the request.
“Look all you want,” Maldonado said. “But I have to cut that cow up before I can go home.”
Back inside the slaughterhouse, the bandsaw worker was sweeping up bloodied sawdust. The sweeper was using a cleaver to go through ribs on a butcher block. Near him there was a table covered with ice chips and a huge slab of meat – half a hog, Gonzalo guessed. He wondered about this. If Maldonado did kill Vega, there was all the equipment here to turn even a large man like Vega into bite sized pieces or ground beef. He tried to clear the thought from his head. His wife shopped here on special occasions.
“You want to split up?” Hector asked. Gonzalo shook his head.
“If we think Maldonado might be a killer, we stay together.”
“Do we think he did it?”
“Hell if I know, but I’m not about to be surprised on this one.”
Gonzalo’s first stop was the refrigerated room where meats were kept that were going to be sold directly from Maldonado’s store. Plenty of meat there, none of it ground up, all of it in recognizable cuts. Hector stood outside the freezer as Gonzalo went in to check all the slabs dangling from hooks and the shelves that lined the walls. The killing area with its drains, pulleys and a table full of sharp things had no Vega in it. Maldonado had finished with the cow which was in two parts, skinned and swaying from a rafter. He was hosing the blood toward the drains.
“Where are the organs?” Gonzalo said. They hadn’t been in the freezer or refrigerator.
“Behind you,” Maldonado said, using his chin to point.
Gonzalo turned and found buckets of only God knew what. He put a hand to his mouth which had instantly watered in a wave of nausea that threatened to overcome him.
“Maybe you want to check outside,” Maldonado said. Gonzalo nodded his agreement and went out.
The field behind the carneceria was used as pasture by the animals Maldonado was going to slaughter in days to come. There was no sign of Vega in any of it. When Gonzalo came back in, Maldonado’s workers had left and Maldonado was waiting, his arms folded across his chest.
“Anything else?” he asked.
Gonzalo couldn’t think of much to ask. He’d have to call up Vega’s supervisor and say the man hadn’t made it as far as Angustias.
“Talk to Diaz if you think someone killed this guy,” Maldonado said as Gonzalo and Hector were getting into their car.
“Francisco Diaz. I think Vega is bad, but Diaz hates him.” Maldonado drew a finger across his throat.
Francisco Diaz had a small farm on the fringe of Angustias, maybe ten acres, but he worked the land to feed his family. His wife had died the year before, and Gonzalo knew the man had troubles getting his children to school on time. It was a life being held together with much hard work.
“Why would Maldonado point us in this direction?” Hector asked as they made their way to Diaz’s farm.
“Good question,” Gonzalo answered. He thought a moment, working out the problem out loud for Hector’s benefit. “I think he’s innocent, but if he’s guilty of something, then deflecting my attention away from himself is smart. If he is innocent, then it could be that he wants Diaz to suffer for some reason.”
“Or maybe he wants to deflect us from whoever really killed this Vega guy, right?” Hector asked.
“Could be. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. All we have right now is the possibility that Vega came to town and something went wrong with his visit here. I thought it might involve Maldonado because that’s the lead I was given to follow. Now I’ve been given another lead…”
“From someone who might hate Diaz for all we know.”
“Maybe. But let’s talk to Diaz and see what comes from it.”
Diaz was out on his land with a hoe, clearing weeds and vines from around some corn plants. He rested, leaning against the hoe for a moment, as the officers approached him. He was as tall as Gonzalo, but thin – sinewy. The veins of his forearms stood out. The stubble on his jaw made his face look dirty.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are my kids okay?”
Diaz had only three children, but Gonzalo got the impression he didn’t always remember their names and birth dates and wasn’t always sure where they were or what they were doing.
“They’re fine,” Gonzalo said. “They’re playing out in front of the house. We just have a couple of questions.”
Diaz nodded and went back to killing the unwanted plants with short, firm strokes.
“We need to talk to you about Leonardo Vega.”
Francisco stopped his work and leaned against the hoe again.
“Vega? What about him?” He started up his work again, and Gonzalo could tell he was trying to avoid eye contact.
“Have you seen him today?”
Diaz showed the weeds no mercy.
Gonzalo reached out and touched him on the shoulder. Diaz stopped again.
“I need you to think about this. Have you seen him?”
“I don’t need to think about it. I haven’t seen him in months. Maybe a year.” The words came out through clenched teeth. If Francisco Diaz didn’t kill Leonardo Vega, it wasn’t because of a lack of desire. “Now, I’ve got work to do,” Diaz said, and he got back to it.
“People say you hate him,” Gonzalo threw out. Francisco Diaz stopped hoeing, wiped his brow, and took his time before answering.
“When Beatrice got sick…” He blinked several times and cleared his throat. “When Beatrice got sick, the doctor’s said there was a chance they could do something for her. Chemotherapy. But it wasn’t covered. You understand? We had to pay cash. Very expensive.” Diaz held Gonzalo’s gaze a few moments before continuing. He clearly wanted the story to stay with the sheriff.
“Very expensive, but it was okay. The day the doctor said this, I had almost a hundred cows; paid for; mine. I rented land, cheap, for grazing. I could take all those cows to market, get a good price and pay for the medicine.” Diaz gestured to Gonzalo making sure the officer understood the story up to that point. Gonzalo nodded.
“Then Vega came. He did an inspection; he looked around. He said he needed a thousand dollars. This was more than usual, but it didn’t matter. I told him the truth. I told him I didn’t have it. I told him all about Beatrice, her sickness, her medicine. I told him I could get him double the money in six months, but I couldn’t spare even fifty cents to buy myself a beer.”
“And what did Vega say?” Gonzalo asked.
“He said it was okay. He said he understood.”
Gonzalo’s face showed that he didn’t see the problem. Diaz smiled. Here came the clincher.
“The next day, when I come back from seeing Beatrice in the hospital, there’s a note nailed to the door. The federal government found that my cows had a disease; they took them, all of them, to be destroyed before the disease spread. They left a bill for the cost of transportation and for the incineration of the bodies.”
“He can do that?” Gonzalo asked.
“Do you see any cows?” was Diaz’s answer. “On every page, Leonardo Vega signed and he initialed.” Diaz tilted his head slightly to see if the sheriff was paying attention. Gonzalo nodded.
“Leonardo Vega killed my wife. Leonardo Vega killed the mother of my children. Leonardo Vega killed everything that made my life worth anything. You tell me he’s missing, I say ‘good.’ You say he’s dead, I say ‘bravo’ to whoever did it. You find the body, I’ll go to Colmado Ruiz and have a drink to celebrate.”
This was a hard case. Working it meant accusing honest men of doing bad things. Gonzalo sucked in some air before speaking again.
“Mind if we take a look around?”
“For what? You think I killed him or something? You think I’m hiding him somewhere here?”
“Well, I have to ask,” Gonzalo said.
“No you don’t. Save your energy. He’s not worth it.”
Gonzalo let the words hang in the air a moment before renewing his request for permission to search the property.
“Get off my land,” Diaz said without looking up.
“You heard me.”
The officers got back into their squad car and sat there for a minute watching the children play.
“What do you think?” Hector asked. “Looks pretty suspicious, no?”
“You can’t jump to any conclusions just because someone won’t let you do a search,” Gonzalo said. He put the car in gear and drove to a nearby store.
Colmado Ruiz was run by Raul Ruiz, who made it his business to provide his neighbors with bread, milk, beer, cigarettes, a place to play pool or watch a baseball game. He also served as a conduit for much of the gossip within a two-mile radius. He was alone in the store watching a variety show on the TV that sat on a wooden platform bolted to the wall.
“Oops, the police,” he said as the officers came in; he held up his hands in the sign of surrender and smiled. Gonzalo could tell he had had a beer or two too many already.
“We need to talk to you about this big guy, a meat inspector named Leonardo…”
“Vega.” Ruiz spat out the name.
“You know him?”
Ruiz shrugged to say that knowing Vega was no great honor.
“What do you need to know about him?”
“Well, can you think of anyone who would be interested in hurting him?”
“I can think of a lot of people who fit that description. Why? Did he get hurt?” He smiled.
“How about Francisco Diaz?”
Ruiz’s smile faded. He got up and went behind his checkout counter, pulling out a notebook. He flipped a few pages, then looked up.
“He owes me one hundred and thirty one dollars,” he said.
“That’s not what interests me,” Gonzalo said.
“Of course not. It’s my money.”
“I need to know if he hates this guy Vega enough to hurt him.”
Ruiz pursed his lips as though he’d bitten into a lemon. “Is Vega dead?”
“Why? Do you think Diaz might have killed him?”
“He has that thing you people talk about.”
“No, no. Diaz is a farmer. All he has are machetes and pitchforks. Vega has a gun. That other thing.” He snapped his fingers in the air as though summoning the word to come to him. It did. “Motive,” he said.
“I heard about that.”
“Well then? You should be talking to him, no?”
“Anybody else with a motive?”
“Just about every farmer with any animals has been harassed by him. Just about every store that sells meat. Vega threatened to have my license pulled because I tried to charge him for his beer.”
“How can he do that?”
“What he can’t do legally, he gets friends to do – other inspectors working for other agencies. Somebody he knows always has jurisdiction depending on what your business is. Believe me, Gonzalo, you’re wasting your time. A lot of people hate him.”
“Did anybody like him?” Hector asked. The question was put out there flippantly, but it caught Ruiz off guard and it was clear he had to think of his answer before he decided that it was best to say nothing. He wiped down the counter a bit.
“What?” Gonzalo asked.
“Nothing.” He continued wiping, but Gonzalo didn’t go anywhere or take his eyes off the storekeeper, and Ruiz couldn’t take the scrutiny.
“It’s gossip,” he said. Much of what he said during the course of a normal day was gossip, so the warning signaled that the next bit of information was something he wasn’t proud to know or share. “Sandra Rivera. That’s all I’m going to say.”
“What about her?” Gonzalo asked, but Ruiz just looked at him and held his stare. There was no more information coming from him.
“Who is Sandra Rivera?” Hector asked back in the car. Gonzalo was trying to train Hector to know everyone in Angustias, and Hector was a quick study, but Sandra didn’t often come into town – her farm supplied most of her needs. Sandra was a small woman, quiet and pretty, but also quite shy.
“She’s a widow,” Gonzalo said. He hadn’t turned the car on yet. He looked at his young deputy and hesitated before saying more. “Her husband committed suicide a few years ago.”
“Are we going to go see her?”
It was a good question. Gonzalo didn’t want to knock on Sandra Rivera’s door. If she was seeking solace in the arms of Leonardo Vega, that was her business. If she wasn’t, an official visit might make it seem like she was doing something wrong. He would like to have spared the widow’s reputation if he could. He couldn’t.
Sandra Rivera lived on a small farm at the edges of the town. A milk cow, a couple acres of coffee, a garden and some chickens were the extent of her holdings. Nothing for Leonardo Vega to be concerned with. Still, that didn’t seem to stop Vega in other situations. He put the car in gear and headed for the Rivera farm.
Sandra was sitting on an overturned bucket outside her small home, a broom in her hands. She wore a brown gingham dress and work boots; her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Gonzalo parked in front, told Hector to stay in the car, and crossed the fifteen feet from car to her. He noted a small pile of leaves that had been gathered together.
Sandra looked at him. Her chin was bruised near her lip, and there was a welt forming under her left eye. A little blood had dried at her left nostril.
“How can I help you?” She smiled a small smile.
“Who did all that to you?” Gonzalo asked. He pointed to her bruised eye.
“Why?” The question wasn’t coy. Instead, it sounded like she couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in her problems, even a sheriff.
“Because whoever did this to you should be arrested before they do it again to you or anyone else.”
“Oh. He won’t be doing this to me again.” Sandra stood up and started walking around the side of the house toward the field behind; Gonzalo followed.
“But we should think of others,” Gonzalo said. There was a small fire smoldering – leaves and grass.
“You don’t have to worry about others either,” Sandra said over her shoulder.
There, next to the back door of the house, was Leonardo Vega. He was sitting up against the back wall of the house. He was shirtless, and his pants were open; his hands were palm up on his lap, his head was hanging, blood had dripped from his scalp to his belly. He was as dead as he could be, but Gonzalo checked for a pulse anyway. There was a wood handle hatchet laying next to him with blood on it. He stood up and went over to Sandra who was tending the fire, stoking it with a stick.
“Every six months,” she said. “Every six months he came here. It started when Pablo died. He told me the same thing he used to tell Pablo every inspection – ‘you have to pay or I’ll take the farm away.’ We had cows then; cows, goats, chickens. The first time he fined us, it was nine hundred dollars. We tried to fight it, but the arbitrator enforced it.”
“So you paid?” Gonzalo asked. Sandra didn’t stop working the fire.
“I didn’t have cash,” she said, then she stopped and looked at Gonzalo.
“He raped you?”
“Not today,” Sandra said.
“You killed him?”
“Self defense?” Gonzalo asked, but it was more a statement than a question. Sandra shrugged. That was something for the police and lawyers to decide. Not her. Her words were simpler.
“Somebody had to do it,” she said. “He was a real bastard.”