By Lazarus Trubman
The signs of the accident were still visible on this often-abandoned little street, with old slump-block houses and dilapidated mobile homes on both sides and well-used tires scattered everywhere unconsciously. Beyond the cracked sidewalk and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass, there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!
“Conchita Moreno? Name’s Ben De Luca. I’m your defense counselor provided by the state, which means that you don’t need to pay me and still get pretty darn good representation,” said a tall, slightly overweight man of thirty. “Let’s begin with a general question so to speak: how have you been treated so far?”
Conchita glanced at the man from under her dark, thinly trimmed eyebrows: he was the only one who walked into her cell knocking first. Prematurely balding, with a face shaved to a light radiance, he expressed nothing but unhidden curiosity. She decided to keep it short:
“Like a fucking princess.”
“Glad to hear that,” said Ben, opening her file to the first page and making sure that the guard was still outside the open door. “The charges against you and your boyfriend are heavy and not easily defensible, but I’ll try my best. Murder, for starters, attempt to escape the scene of the accident, some property damage. Your boyfriend, by the way, would’ve been in even deeper shit, so to speak, because he was driving under the heaviest influence of alcohol… Is he your boyfriend or husband? And let me forestall your obvious question: it makes a huge difference – from my point of view so to speak.”
His constant repetition of ‘so to speak’ bothered Conchita a bit, but not to a point where she would ignore him completely. Her lower lip was broken, she was all bruised, and the one on the left side of her neck hurt like hell!
“He’s my husband,” she whispered. “If a marriage in Las Vegas is considered legitimate.”
“It is, as a matter of fact!” said Ben. “I, myself, once drove to Las Vegas with a young woman. Was in love up to my ears so to speak, but it was meant not to happen: while I was getting a bite of food and some coffee inside the gas station, she was making out with a trucker of all people, and in his truck of all places! God was obviously watching over me,” he paused before asking, “Would it be safe to assume that your marriage happened about two years ago?”
“More like three months – we got married right after my baby Gabriela was born,” said Conchita, trying desperately to recall what had happened at that deserted part of town three days ago, but her memory only saved bits and pieces, which she couldn’t put together as a whole picture. She wasn’t driving – that she remembered very clearly. Danny was. The baby was in the car seat facing the rear of the van and surrounded by boxes filled with clothes, magazines and some kitchen utensils, which she deemed necessary in their address-less living.
“So, you had a baby out of wedlock so to speak?” asked Ben taking now a much closer look at his client. She was obviously a city girl, had a kind of a body that stops men of all ages in their tracks, and a face worth considering. City or not, Ben thought inopportunely, she was very attractive, which made him somewhat uncomfortable; ridiculously attractive.
“We did so to speak,” said Conchita with a fleeting smile on her face. “He was a great lover, you know; could keep me sleepless all night long. Once, and that’s when I got pregnant because we ran out of condoms, he kept pounding me way beyond breakfast time!”
“He’s still alive,” said Ben, hopelessly drowning in her dark shiny eyes. “Your husband so to speak… Not caught yet, but undoubtedly hurt, so his days of running are practically numbered,” he wanted to look away, but couldn’t, as though rooted to the ground by a poisonous rattlesnake somewhere in the desert. “You’re probably annoyed listening to all of this, understandably annoyed, but the sooner…”
“Alive?” Conchita interrupted unceremoniously. “This can’t be: I saw him hitting the windshield so hard that it cracked like a fucking egg! This just can’t be!” she repeated in a suddenly angry voice, but there and then regained her casual, “tell it to someone who gives a shit” appearance and measured him from tip to toe. “I see what you’re trying to do here, Mr. Free Defense! You just want me to confess to something I haven’t done, so you can mark it as your solved case…”
Ben couldn’t take it any longer.
“He escaped, Conchita! By the time police got to the scene of the accident, he was gone!” he unlatched his suitcase and got out a pen and a few sheets of white paper. “Here, just write down the truth, nothing but the plain, unvarnished truth. And please remember: there is no one in the whole world to help you but me.”
“And what would you like in return, my pussy?” asked Conchita, invitingly spreading her legs. “Here it is, baby, sweet as raw honey, but I am warning you: you better be good or you’ll never get it again, you hear?” she closed and spread her legs a few times in a row and laughed. “Oh, my god, you blushed! That really turns me on!”
For a moment there, Ben felt at a loss, but took himself in hand and said, barely keeping his eyes away from Conchita’s legs:
“I understand you perfectly, just don’t make it difficult for me to do my job, because, as impossible and crazy as it seems to you, you might still be charged with murder of your own child, and from that perspective…”
“I don’t remember,” Conchita interrupted again, her legs now shut for good. “All I see is the smashed windshield and all I hear is my baby’s endless cry and my own fucking screaming!”
“OK, then,” said Ben latching firmly the lock of his suitcase. “I’ll be leaving now, and you just keep on trying: your memory is young and hopefully still uncluttered so to speak. I’ll make sure that lunch is delivered to your cell promptly, so nothing will interrupt your thinking. See you soon.”
Her appointed defense counselor seemed a thoroughly decent fellow, thought Conchita as soon as the door closed with a familiar click, probably from a well-to-do family, clean, groomed and unmarried. He seemed just, no doubt, desperately just, just out of an almost inborn conviction that justice exists, even in such a fucked-up place like the United States of America. She actually liked him; he wasn’t the lying kind, which she couldn’t say about any other man who ever appeared in her life before. His hopeless attempts to keep away from her legs made her smile…
“Your lunch, ma’am,” a guard interrupted Conchita’s thinking. “Rice, chicken and three pieces of bread – as suggested by your defense counselor,” he unloaded the tray and left.
Ben Cooper’s suggestion that she might need three pieces of bread made her smile again. She ate a little, listening to humdrum noises outside of her cell. At the same time, she thought, he probably knew a great deal about the law, so she should really try to recall as many details of the accident as she possibly could…
“How’s the food, ma’am?”
The guard appeared in the door opening much sooner than she expected. He was a tall, skinny guy, with a sharp Adam’s apple, and what was on his mind was written on his face in bald capital letters. “I’ll be glad to arrange more – I love it when a woman eats well…”
“Shut your fucking mouth!” said Conchita leaning back against the wall and spreading her legs as wide apart as possible. “You’re talking too much!”
The guard shut the door and made it to the bed in two long steps, but that was as far as he went: her stretched out foot plunged into his groin, he bent in two and fell on the floor writhing with pain. She hit the same spot again, which rendered him unconscious, unhooked the bunch of keys off his belt, and left the cell locking the door from the outside. Her escape had been discovered an hour later, too late for a successful hunt.
A month passed.
As he was getting a file ready for his next hearing, Ben looked out the window, where the same boring view of the Arizona desert hadn’t changed in centuries, and thought again about Conchita. Where was she now? All attempts to find her failed miserably, as if she vanished into thin air. The case was assigned to Detective Jose Martinez, his high school buddy. Jose promised to keep him informed as to how the case was progressing.
Ben’s phone rang: unknown caller.
“Ben De Luca,” he answered having suddenly a bad presentiment.
“Howdy, Ben De Luca, miss me yet?” asked Conchita in a low sexy voice. “Sorry for leaving you without saying good-bye.”
“They’ll catch you, Conchita, they always do,” said Ben glancing at the door. “And this time you’d need a big shot defense attorney, because I’ll be way out of your league…”
“You’ll always be in my league, counselor,” Conchita interrupted. “We’re bound for life, honey!”
“What do you mean, we? You’re a fugitive from justice, a criminal, for God’s sake!”
“OK, then my pussy and your dick: my pussy is not a criminal, is she?”
“Oh, come on, Conchita, be serious, tell me where you are – and I’ll pick you up…” Ben couldn’t finish - his other line beeped: Jose! “What will it be, huh?” he asked, but she wasn’t there any longer. He switched to Jose.
“What’s so urgent, you located my client?”
“Not exactly,” said Jose, “but I checked again the scene of the accident, and there is a small shrine now at the foot of the concrete block wall with burnt out candles, dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears…oh, and there is one word of graffiti written in red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!”
“And you’re thinking that Conchita has something to do with it? She’s smarter than that…”
“I’ve no doubts she is, but she’s also a mother who lost her only child, and she’s fucking pissed!”
“She won’t come, Jose, it’s too risky.”
“Well, risky or not, but I asked my thirteen-year-old niece Hannah, who lives nor far from the shrine, to text me if she sees anything suspicious – just in case…”
“You’re risking your niece’s life?”
“She’s there anyway, man, and Conchita will never suspect anything!”
“This conversation never happened!” Ben was really beside himself.
“I’ll call you if the broad shows up,” promised Jose and was gone.
Three days later an automobile pulled up and parked beside the concrete wall. The driver opened the door, but did not get out of the car. Although her face was in shadow, it was easy to tell that she was sad. There was something about how she turned away from the sun and rested the weight of her hands on the steering wheel, something about her silent composure that caused Hannah to sigh. She watched the driver lean out of the car and stretch her hand towards one of the burned-out candles.
Making sure that she is not seen in the rear-view mirror, Hannah began hurriedly texting Jose, keeping an eye on the still parked car: “There’s a woman in the car next to the wall!” “Did she get out?” “No, she just sits there.” “You did great, honey! Text me if she leaves” “I will, Uncle Jose.” “And if she leaves, I would need to know in which direction, OK?”
As soon as Hannah turned off her phone, the car door opened, and the woman, wearing black shorts, black t-shirt and a black hat, got out, glanced around suspiciously and placed a brand-new teddy bear on top of the soggy ones. Then she crossed herself twice and raised her hands up in the sky. Hannah wanted to see her face, and because she couldn’t bear such uncertainty, she moved across the street in order to have a better view. It was the saddest face she ever saw! She couldn’t see the tears, but the expression on the woman’s face told Hannah that she was crying. Suddenly the woman looked up, and their eyes met. Hannah wanted to run, but couldn’t take her eyes away from the woman’s tear-stained face.
“Drive away, ma’am!” she yelled. “Drive away!”
Within moments, the woman jumped in the car and took off in the direction of the airport, filling the street with light-brown desert dust.
Jose braked next to his niece about ten minutes later, asked without getting out of his truck: “How long ago?”
“Not that long,” said Hannah, “maybe ten minutes.”
“Downtown…she was crying, Uncle Jose.”
“She probably feels guilty,” said Jose texting his partner at the same time. “Her daughter was killed in an accident that happened here a month ago, and she might know something about the accident.”
“So, you won’t harm her, right?”
“Of course, I won’t, honey! Go home now, I’ll talk to you soon.”
Driving away from the shrine, Jose dialed Ben’s number and said without a greeting: “She came. Dropped a new teddy bear and took off.”
“Did your niece…”
“She did, but I was a few minutes late.”
“How’s your niece doing?” asked Ben. “It was quite stressful for her, wasn’t it?”
“It was, and she did great actually: pointed us in the right direction.”
“Are you following her as we speak?”
“Collins is: he might’ve even gotten her by now,” Jose paused, thought about saying something about Ben’s stubborn belief in Conchita’s smartness, but let it go.
The rest of the day Ben wasn’t himself. Thoughts, one scarier than the next, kept coming and going away. Then Michelle called. They haven’t seen each other for more than a week, which had never happened before.
“What’s going on, baby?” she asked, obviously pissed. “You don’t call, you don’t text? And please spare me the fucking “I had a very busy week” crap! It’s gotten suddenly very old, you know…”
“But I did have a busy week, Michelle…”
“Oh, and we haven’t fucked since last century!”
“I’ll make it up to you…”
“How about right now? Dinner at “Tony’s” and we fuck afterwards.”
“I need to take a quick shower and change,” said Ben: there wasn’t really an escape plan in the offing. “7:30?”
“7:30 it is, and you better be ready to perform, Benjamin!”
All the way to “Tony’s”, an Italian establishment frequented by professionals and business people, Ben couldn’t stop thinking about Conchita, her carelessness in particular: what was she doing at the shrine in the middle of the day? But there and then interrupted himself: who is he really to judge her? It’s been weeks now since he abandoned any attempts to figure out the reason for her escape. After familiarizing himself with the case, he became certain that she wasn’t at fault, and the hand of the law wouldn’t descent upon her shoulder: at least he felt that he would be able to defend her successfully.
The place was a buzzing bee-hive, but Michelle always had a table reserved for them: one of Tony’s cousins married her sister.
“I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your favorite bourbon,” she said. “A double actually.”
Ben thanked her.
“Tony told me that the veal tonight is out of this world, so I ordered for both of us.”
“Veal’s great,” Ben agreed and was about to try his bourbon when his phone rang. He knew who that was without looking at the screen.
“It’s work, believe me,” he said intercepting Michelle’s questionable gaze. “I’ll take it outside,” and before she said another word, answered the line, “I hope it’s urgent, Jose!”
“You’re probably dying to know why I disabled your fucking guard, aren’t you?” asked Conchita. “
“To escape – why else?”
“That, too, but mainly because he would’ve raped me, simply raped me and walked away unpunished!”
“So, it was a spontaneous decision?”
“To defend myself? You bet it was!”
“And you ran away because the law would’ve been on his side regardless?”
“No, because I rendered your pervert unconscious, and yes, because your fucking law sucks!”
“It does actually, but it’s better than no law at all,” While talking, Ben kept glancing at the front door; then asked, “Who built the shrine?”
“A couple of Mexicans I went to high school with.”
“Call me tomorrow, if you can: I’m not comfortable talking to you right now.”
Back at the table, Ben apologized in a sincere tone of voice:
“It was Jose Martinez: he’s helping me with one of my clients…”
“The veal just arrived,” interrupted Michelle, ignoring his apology. “Some Parmesan cheese on your pasta?”
“Yes, please,” said Ben after a sip of bourbon, then his phone rang again.
“Ignore it,” said Michelle, “or I’ll break her legs!”
Good luck with that, Ben wanted to say, but an entirely different phrase came out of his mouth: “It’s Jose again, look!”
“Five minutes – or I walk!” warned Michelle.
“Has anything exciting happened that prompted you to dial my number?” asked Ben, glad actually that it wasn’t Conchita again.
“Nah, just a quick question: have you talked to Conchita recently?”
“I want you to text me as soon as she calls again or I’ll make sure you never try another case in your life!” Jose interrupted and disconnected the line.
“How’s the famous detective?” asked Michelle. “Still single and cooking for himself?”
“Such a good-looking guy?”
“I asked him once and he said, “As soon I find someone who cooks like my mother, she looks like my father!”
She laughed shortly, and they ate in silence.
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Michelle after the veal was consumed and the waiter refilled their glasses. “No fucking tonight: you seem too preoccupied, but tomorrow I’m cooking an early dinner at my place just for the two of us…”
“Early is good…”
“And you won’t get home by Sunday night – take my word for it,” she stood up and walked away, nodding to someone at the adjacent table.
Thanks to bourbon, Ben fell asleep fast and slept through the night, keeping his cellphone on the empty side of his bed. What was he hoping for? They more or less agreed that Conchita won’t call him until tomorrow, but her actions so far were completely unexplainable and, yes, spontaneous. She hadn’t though. He slept in, cooked himself an omelet and had a Bloody Mary. Felt strange and somewhat uneasy, didn’t know why. Close to midday he thought about taking a drive to the lake and feed a couple of dinner rolls to the swans, but the screen of his phone lit up.
“Where you glad to hear my voice yesterday, Ben De Luca?” asked Conchita in an unusually quiet voice. “I sure was.”
“More than you know,” said Ben. “Your timing was a bit off though.”
“What was that again? Sorry, but the reception over here sucks.”
“And where is that, if I may ask?”
“You may of course: in your backyard.”
Ben looked at the glassy back door - and there she stood, wearing black shorts, black t-shirt and a black cap. He hadn’t moved. The desire to unlock the back door fought a bloody war with the irrepressible one to dial Jose’s number, and Jose lost. As soon as Conchita walked in, she locked her hands around his neck.
“Are you sure the neighbors didn’t see you?” asked Ben, his lips suddenly dry as desert.
Conchita kept looking into his eyes, with her hands up now, and moments later, all clothes, destroyed by kissing, became ridiculous, a lie made of cotton and silk, which suddenly wasn’t so easy to take off, although to do so was demanded by the decorum of passion.
“I don’t give a fuck about your neighbors!” she said while Ben, engaged apparently casually in operations that betrayed his knowledge of ladies’ underwear and yet would have come to nothing without her mocking aid, thought to himself in sober solitude that he knew it would be completely different from the way it always was. He was excited, very in fact. A neighbor’s dog barked in front of his house, then the sun broke through the window and lit up the ceiling, and the ceiling lit up the living-room, as he, naked and unashamed, felt her unfamiliar body; with her eyes now closed, she read his smile with her fingers from his unfamiliar lips. Not to know one another to a degree that went beyond all possibility of knowing one another was beautiful!
It was almost four in the afternoon, when Conchita said, stroking the hair on his chest:
“I must go now, counselor, have unfinished business to attend to.”
“And what would that be?” asked Ben, still a bit short of breathing.
“A necessary one,” she kissed his eyes and his chin. “I’ll be as invisible as a ghost, I promise.”
“Any business of yours might take you away from me forever.”
“It might, counselor, but that’s the risk I’m willing to take,” she stood up and began putting her clothes back on, glancing at him with a soft smile, turning around for the last time before locking the three buttons of her light-brown bra.
“Why don’t you wait until it gets dark?” Ben tried for the last time. “I might even drive you…” he couldn’t finish: she pressed her lips against his and left through the back door, and he couldn’t stop her.
Feeling suddenly sleepy, Ben made himself a cup of coffee. After his second cup he was awake, as though he had slept, and not tired at all. What he was sure about: their lovemaking, the words they said to one another, will never be forgotten. Even though she was gone, he didn’t feel alone. Her hand was still on his chest, his legs interlaced with hers. As if she never left. He recalled suddenly how Conchita admitted when they let one another go for a short while: “Not bad for a white boy.” “I’m a fourth generation Italian, ma’am,” he replied. “And that’s a fact.” “It is, huh?” “Don’t speak much Italian unfortunately…” “As long as you fuck me like that, I don’t need you to speak much of any language, baby,” she interrupted. He couldn’t tell that he was in love, but seemed unsure that he wasn’t.
He spent the evening watching some basketball, ignoring Michelle’s persistent calls. She was out of his life not knowing that yet. The game was over, he sat on the couch with his eyes closed, imagining Conchita’s smiley face and her unbelievably soft body; their sex, every moment of it, every touch. She could’ve been asleep now, he thought, and sleep is the most distant country there is; he didn’t think this, but felt: as long as she was asleep, she wasn’t in danger.
It was almost ten o’clock, when he decided to go out for a drink, afraid suddenly to fall asleep himself; while he was awake, everything was still present, in front of his eyes. He didn’t need to drive his car: the night bar was within walking distance from his house. It was still pretty busy. He occupied a chair at the end of the counter, ordered a whiskey and looked around: casual people, truckers, taxi drivers, workmen; a few retirees. One of the truckers kept spitting on the scratched tiled floor, which hadn’t been cleaned for a while. Suddenly he felt like having a cigarette and asked a workman next to him for one and the matches, and was given one, but instead of matches, all that was held out to him, in a cracked oily fist, was a lighter, a little flame for this first cigarette in a long time that he decided to have in this dimly lit bar, nothing else. He thanked the back of the man’s head.
The only face in this bar that watched him from time to time was his own in the mirror behind bottles, a round face without glasses and a slightly bald head. He didn’t know what there was about it that appealed to women. Only the two bright-blue eyes – they were looking out of the mirror as though they were really there in the mirror – were such that he recognized himself in them. His phone was silent, and he prayed that Conchita was really asleep and out of danger.
He left the bar close to midnight.
Awakened at eight o’clock as usual on Sunday, Ben checked his phone for messages and missed calls: none. Feeling somewhat disappointed, he had his first cup of coffee glancing at the front page of the newspaper. Half an hour later, as he was already into yesterday’s NBA scores, his phone rang.
“I found him, honey,” said Conchita, “and the motherfucker is practically unscratched!”
That’s what Ben was afraid of.
“Please, Conchita, listen to me,” he said, feeling suddenly more responsible for this practically unknown woman than he ever felt for anyone else in his life. “Don’t do anything we both might regret later. Let the authorities handle your husband, and I’ll make sure…”
“You were so sweet yesterday, counselor,” Conchita interrupted softly. “The sweetest man I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few…”
“And you were the sweetest woman I’ve ever had, but please don’t interrupt me…”
“I must go now, Benny…can I call you Benny? I love the sound of it.”
“Yes, yes, just tell me where the motherfucker is, and I’ll have Detective Martinez and his partner there in a heartbeat! Aside from being a detective…”
“May I say something, Benny?”
“My husband must be punished, and I’ll make sure that he is punished. After that, he can be judged by a jury and defended by a lawyer…”
“He’ll be put away for a long time, Conchita: I’m a lawyer, you should trust me…”
“Wait for my call, Benny…no matter how long it might take! And remember: we’re bound for life.”
Conchita clicked the phone off and glanced at the second floor of the “Motel 6” on the southwest side of town. She rented a room here almost two years ago, when she had just met Danny. She knew he’d be here. She also remembered now the accident, how it happened, and how it could’ve been avoided. She saw the truck, she warned him; he saw the truck, but didn’t brake – he had the right of way. It was even possible that he stepped on the gas, to show he was sure. She couldn’t remember that anymore. She screamed as soon as she knew that it was too late to change anything…
His room was the last one on the second floor. She unlocked the door using a couple of thin hair clips, walked in and stopped: Danny lay across the bed in his underwear, sound asleep. She looked around: empty cans of Coors all over the floor, a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich, already dry. Her first inclination was to hit him in his sleep, but she really wanted to see his eyes before two pairs of scissors pierce them with ease.
“Wake up, motherfucker!” she said standing next to the bed.
“Conchita?” exclaimed Danny rubbing his eyes as if this was a dream. “You’re alive, baby!”
“I am,” said Conchita, keeping her hands behind her back. “But Gabriela is dead thanks to you!”
“I know, baby…”
“Why didn’t you save her, Danny? You had a chance. All you had to do was listen to me…”
“I screwed up, OK? It all happened so fast…”
“Faster than this?” asked Conchita and plunged two pair of trimming scissors into his eyes, pulled her hair clips out of the lock on her way out and ran away, ignoring his screaming.
Apart from the fact that the door was left unlocked and the light in the room switched on, Jose found no trace of her; the room key was nowhere to be found, which remained inexplicable…
A year passed.
Global warming was at its highest, at least that’s what ran through Ben’s mind as he entered his downtown office located a short but torturous walk from the parking lot. He checked his morning messages and began preparations for the upcoming appointment with a new client. Then his phone sang. When he unlocked the screen, he saw a picture of a baby boy, who resembled no one else but him, Benjamin De Luca, leaving him in no doubt of who the father of the newborn was.
Reading the short note under the picture, he felt as if his heart missed a beat:
“Isn’t he adorable, counselor?”