★ ★ ★ ★


If the Fates Allow

Lou had been a bail fugitive recovery agent for almost ten years, since taking early retirement from the police force at fifty-one after surviving a bullet in his shoulder during an arrest.  It was just before dawn on Christmas morning, and he’d been sitting across from the rundown apartment building since the previous evening.  He poured more coffee from his thermos into the custom-designed travel mug his son had given him for Christmas the year before that had “Bad Ass Bounty Hunter” stenciled on its side.  He snorted a chuckle as he read the words, and muttered, “Bad ass, my ass.”

Lou knew there would be no in-person exchange of Christmas gifts with his son’s family upcoming.  Even if the fugitive apprehension he was waiting on was successful, it was a three hundred-mile drive from Visalia back to Los Angeles where Felipe Martinez had skipped bail, and his son lived on the other side of the country.  Besides, Lou hadn’t been invited out this year anyway because it was his ex-wife’s turn.

He took a sip of the cold coffee and studied the same curtained front window and front door of the ground floor apartment at the far end of the building that he’d been watching since arriving.  A stiff breeze momentarily lifted the wreath on the front door and jiggled the string of colored Christmas lights around the window.  Those lights had remained glowing throughout the night, but the ones inside the apartment had blinked off around eleven.  In all the time he’d been there, he’d seen no one go in or out of the apartment.

Lou glanced at his watch: not quite six.  “Come on,” his said to himself.  “Show.” 

The plan he’d hoped to execute was to pick up Felipe while he was leaving or going into the apartment and avoid making a scene in front of his grandfather and sister.  If Felipe was in the area, Lou figured Christmas Eve was the likeliest time for that to happen.  But, he had a warrant he would use if needed.  He’d given himself until seven o’clock to do that.

Gang-related graffiti covered a good portion of the reachable space on the apartment building, as was the case on most of the walls in the neighborhood.  A dented blue pick-up truck vaguely resembling the one Felipe was supposed to use sat parked at the curb just down from the apartment’s front door, but Lou had checked the license plates and they didn’t belong to him.  Lou knew that didn’t mean anything.  A train rumbled into the station a few blocks away.  He listened while it made its stop and then pulled out of the station again heading north.  Lou nodded, knowing that Felipe would have time to walk home from the station before seven if he was on that train. 

He took another sip of coffee and absent-mindedly fingered through his jacket the scar that had been left by the bullet.  He thought some more about the job change he was considering.  A buddy who was also an ex-cop had told Lou he could go to work for him if he wanted as a shopping mall security guard when the new year started.  The pay would be a lot less, but so would the risks and dangers.   A few years of guard work plus the increased amount of Social Security he could take might be enough to augment his half pension from the police department.  He calculated again his take if he could find Felipe and bring him back.  The loaded firearm plus narcotics for distribution charge carried a $50,000 bail, so his 15% cut would be seventy-five hundred.  Not bad, even if it did turn out to be his last rodeo.

He lifted the background sheet the bail bondsman had given him off the passenger sheet and studied the photograph of Felipe again, although he’d already committed all details of it to memory: twenty-two years old, short, slight, shaved head, snake tattoo up the right side of his neck to just below his ear, surly grimace.  Last documented time that he’d still lived at the address was about three years ago.  Mother had been incarcerated for years.  Father unknown.  Longtime MS 13 gang member.  Prior arrest dropped for possession of drug paraphernalia.  Hadn’t shown up at his court hearing earlier that week.  Lou looked from the photograph to the apartment and shook his head.  The light gray streak above the rooftops and tangle of telephone wires had begun to widen.

The street remained deserted for the next hour, but Lou waited until a few minutes after seven to holster his pistol, fold the warrant and background sheet into his jacket pocket along with his cell phone, and hoist his big frame out of the car.  The air was cool, tart, and a ribbon of tule fog crept toward him in the wash of early morning light.  He was stiff from sitting all night, so he twisted his trunk back and forth a few times before crossing the street to the apartment.  He listened at the door and heard nothing, saw no movement through the crack in the curtains.  He took one deep breath and rang the bell.  Lou waited a long moment, and when there was no response, he rang it again longer and pounded on the door with his fist.  He heard shuffling inside, and then the door opened several inches, and an old man appeared in the gap wearing a plaid bathrobe and brown slippers.  He was tiny, almost waif-like, with wisps of disheveled gray hair against his dark skull.  His eyes danced with worry and confusion.

Lou cleared his throat and asked, “Are you Felipe Martinez’s grandfather?”

The old man nodded.

“Is he here?”

The old man’s lower lip began to tremble as he shook his head.

“Have you seen him recently?”

The head shaking continued, and Lou took the warrant out of his pocket.  He unfolded it and held it up in front of the old man’s face.  “I have a warrant to search your apartment for him.  If you won’t let me in, I have the authority to forcibly enter.”

The old man’s frown deepened.  He said, “No understand.”

“He’s a fugitive of the court.  He skipped bail.  I’ve been hired to return him to Los Angeles.”

“No esta aqui.  No here.”

“I need to determine that myself.”

The old man’s eyes blinked rapidly and the trembling in his lips had become more pronounced, but he stepped back and opened the door further.  Lou stepped through it into a front room that was cramped and drab, but clean and well-kept.  An artificial Christmas tree stood tilted slightly in one corner with a handful of wrapped gifts beneath it, and a miniature manger scene had been arranged on a small table in front of the curtained window.  A couch and armchair were covered with stiff, clear plastic, and a large framed picture of the Virgin Mary hung over the couch.  A girl of about fifteen came into the room from the darkened hallway beyond it; the pajamas she wore were of a different plaid pattern, and her dark hair was tied up in a knot on top of her hair.  The resemblance to Felipe was clear.  Her eyes moved from Lou to the old man.

“Grandpa,” she said.  “Que pasa?”

The old man said something to her in Spanish, then the sister looked back at Lou and said, “He’s not here.”

Lou said, “Have you seen him?”

She scowled.  “Of course not.”

“Well, I need to look around.  Be sure.”

A choking sound came from the old man, and then he stood hunched over sobbing, his thin shoulders shaking beneath the robe.  The sister hurried to his side and wrapped an arm around him.  “Esta bien, Grandpa.  It’s okay.” 

Lou walked past her into the darkened hallway, flipped a switch on the wall, and the space became flooded in yellow light: two small bedrooms on either side separated by a bathroom.    Lou searched each quickly, then did the same with the front room and the kitchen.  The sister glared hard at him when he passed.  All the windows had been locked and weren’t big enough for a person to crawl through, anyway.

Lou returned to his spot in front of the two of them.  The old man’s crying had continued, but quieted, his eyes lowered.  The sister’s jaws were set tight and she continued to stare at Lou through narrowed eyes.

He met her stare with a lingering one of his own, then said, “Tell me what you know about your brother’s whereabouts.”

“You won’t find him anywhere.”

“What you mean?”

 “You won’t find him because he’s dead.”  Her words came out in almost a hiss.  “Shot on a corner a couple of blocks away.  We didn’t even know he was back in town.  Yesterday afternoon.  Detective who came here thinks it was a drug deal gone bad.”

Lou felt his eyebrows knit.  He took the information sheet out of his pocket and opened it so the photograph faced them.  The old man looked up at it, too.  “This him?”  Lou said.  “This your Felipe Martinez.”

She nodded.  The old man did, too, then began crying harder. 

Lou said, “Listen, I need some proof.”

The sister went into the kitchen.  Lou watched her take a business card off the refrigerator that was held with a magnet.  She brought it back, handed it to Lou, and said, “This is the detective who came and told us.  He said he’d be in touch and that we could contact him if we had information or questions.  Call him.”

Lou nodded slowly.  A name and identifying information connected to the Visalia Police Department was on the front of the card, and a cell phone number was scribbled on the other side.  He looked back at the sister and said, “I’ll just step outside.”

As Lou expected, the detective wasn’t working Christmas morning when he called the station but picked up right away at his cell phone number.  He confirmed the death, the probable drug and gang connection, and said he supposed the word just hadn’t gotten through the channels to Lou yet because of the holiday.  Lou thanked him, put his cell phone back in his pocket, and looked out into the street.  The tule fog had filled it and a muffled orb of sun was just visible above it.  A flush had spread through him.  He pursed his lips and went back inside.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Lou said.  He handed the card to the daughter.  “I really am.”

They both nodded.  The sister’s eyes had welled with tears, too, and she wiped at them with the heel of her hand.  Somewhere in the building, there was the faint sound of Christmas music playing, and the smell of something being fried: sausage or chorizo.

“I’m sorry for having bothered you.”  Lou spoke softly.  “Especially so soon afterward…and on Christmas.”  He nodded once.  “Thank you.  I’ll leave you be, then.”

The old man pointed at Lou’s jacket and said, “I have?”

Lou frowned as the old man spoke rapidly to the sister in Spanish.  When he’d finished, she looked at Lou and paused before saying, “He wants to know if he can have the picture.  We haven’t seen Felipe in almost four years, and we only have a few photos of him from when he was a little boy.”

Lou looked back and forth between them, considering.  He supposed there was some sort of regulation prohibiting him from sharing that sheet, but he suddenly didn’t care.  He took it out and reached it towards the old man.  As the grandfather took it, he closed his hands around Lou’s and said, “Gracias.  Thank you.”

Lou nodded and watched him cross the small room, fold the sheet like a greeting card so that the photograph faced outward, and stand it next to the manger scene.  They all stared at it while a cackle of laughter erupted from an adjacent apartment followed by a siren passing nearby.  Lou waited until it had died away to open the front door, close it quietly behind him, and cross the street through the blanket of fog to his car.

After he climbed inside, he took off his holster and slid it under his seat but didn’t start the engine.  Instead, he sat very still looking out at the fog and thought.  He realized that his son was only a few years older than Felipe had been and felt an immediate need to speak to him.  He took his phone out of his pocket and tapped out the number.  He knew they might be in the middle of opening Christmas presents, but Lou just wanted to hear his voice.  The jolt of need was overwhelming.  He’d tell his son that he was going to quit and take the security guard job.  He’d tell him he wished they could be together.  He’d tell him he loved and missed him.

His son sounded pleased when he answered, “Dad?”

Lou steadied himself before speaking.  As evenly as he could, he said, “Hey, there.  Merry Christmas.”

William Cass has had over 150 short stories published in a variety of literary magazines including december, Briar Cliff Review, and The Boiler.  His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April, 2020.  He was a recent finalist in the short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.


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