Police Inspector Alma Flores is thirty-eight years old. She stands near the podium this morning at the police briefing in the Moon Valley, Oregon precinct station. At the podium is Police Chief Earnest Badger who is soon to introduce the young FBI Agent that been assigned to Alma’s murder investigation.
Chief Badger is saying, “We have been able to keep quiet the details of this series of murders but, as you have all heard, this latest victim, Councilman Biggs, will bust this wide open in the press and, God help us, you can imagine what they’re going to say about charred dead men with their penises cut off. It’s going to turn this horror into a sniggering joke. We won’t have room to fart, excuse me, Alma, with the circus that’s going to come to Moon Valley.”
Inspector Alma Flores mutters, “I fart too,” to the amusement of Francisco, the young FBI Agent.
Chief Badger continues, gesturing at Alma, and saying, “Inspector Flores has done a…, a job putting this case together…”
Inspector Alma Flores mutters, “But…”
Chief Badger says, “But this is one hell of a case. And now with the murder of one of our prominent citizens… not just some Joe Blow fucker trolling for pussy, excuse me, Alma …”
Inspector Alma Flores mutters, “That’s OK, Chief, ‘trolling’ doesn’t offend me,” and she touches the back of her head where another headache is starting to gnaw.
Chief Badger continues, “We needed more resources: the resources of the FBI. And that leads me to introduce this gentleman here, FBI Agent Francisco Sancho Clave, (I got that right, right?), who will be taking over this investigation. And needless to say, I want full cooperation for him.”
Agent Francisco Sancho Clave steps up to the podium shyly with a fleeting smile, saying, “Gentlemen,” then he nods to Alma, “and Lady,” then he hesitates, “I look forward to working with you. This is a tough case. Unusual. Very unusual. Inspector Alma Flores has forwarded to me her work so far. Fine work,” he nods to Alma, “and I am most certainly not ‘taking over’ this investigation. It is going to take her… all our experience… intuition, I think, and the resources that I can access from the FBI. I know we all want this case solved quickly. Chief Badger is right. The press is going to make this harder, no doubt, not easier.”
Chief Badger reclaims the podium, impatiently asking, “Any questions? Full cooperation. I want this damn case closed,” then, Chief Badger asks again rhetorically, “No questions, right?”
Someone says under their breath, “Trick or treat, Chief?” and others chuckle.
Chief Badger growls, “Whoever said that, and this goes for us all: Halloween is going to be a flaming bag of shit on the steps of this department if we can’t do our job. Sorry, Alma,” but Alma has already left the briefing room. Agent Francisco Clave is following her eagerly.
Agent Francisco Clave says in earnest to Alma, “Wait, please. Inspector Flores. Inspector, (can I call you Alma?) I meant what I said back there. Your notes were good.”
Alma blinks through her headache, asking facetiously, “So, have you figured out who she is yet?”
Francisco asks, “So… yeah, I know, you think it is a woman, right? I saw that in your notes. A prostitute serial-killer? Not a male prostitute? Or some poor abused bastard in drag? A woman serial-killer would be extremely unusual, I’m sure you know.”
Alma says, “Well, so far I’m the only one who thinks a woman did it. Two of the dead guys had been arrested previously for soliciting. They were hetero, anyway. And the other victims were not overtly gay. I suppose they could have been heteros who were fooled by someone in drag… up to a point… maybe.”
Francisco chuckles, “Madam Butterfly?”
Alma asks, “Who? I don’t get it. Anyway, if the deal had been for oral sex…”
Francisco observes, “Yes, yes, that could explain the severed penises.”
Alma shrugs, “Maybe. Maybe at some point of realization maybe the macho ‘John’ gets outraged and hits the drag prostitute on the head. Just imagining. I think like that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the psycho’s plan to cut.. or bite… the penis?”
Francisco says, “Bite the penis? Ugh, could be. Too bad the victims were so charred.”
Francisco asks, “Is that your hypothesis?”
Alma sighed, “That’s what my hunch is.”
Francisco muses out loud to himself, “Hmm, all six were men… found burned to death in their vehicles but the vehicles show no sign of fire…”
Alma smacks her lips loudly, “And don’t forget that they all had their penises cut off. Maybe bitten off.”
Francisco grins and winces, “Hard to forget.”
Alma then says what Francisco is certain to be thinking, “So who would cut off a guy’s penis, kill him, burn him, and then place him back in his vehicle?”
Alma and Francisco arrive at the office which was turned over to Francisco, the desk now piled with the notes and files taken away from Alma’s castle of paperwork.
Francisco is saying, “What woman could do that?”
Alma says wryly, “Bite a guy’s penis off?”
Francisco winces and continues, “I mean, carry the charred body back. Why? Hmm. It’s like a ritual, you know. Psychotic revenge I wonder?”
Then Francisco asks Alma, “But what about the scribbled notes you found in two of the cases? They do seem to show crude directions to the crime scene.”
Alma says, “Maybe.”
Francisco asks, “But why a drawing? Why not get in the car and point the way?”
Alma grins, “Maybe penis-eater no speekah dah Eenglisch?”
Francisco shakes his head, “Alma, you are something else.”
Alma is thinking, “Francisco, you have nice hair. Too bad you are just a kid.”
Francisco catches the funny look that Alma is giving him and he speaks insecurely, “We’d better get busy,” and he is somehow defensive in Alma’s more experienced presence, adding canned macho, “The Agency is beating my ass to wrap this up, too,” then embarrassed he apologizes, “Sorry, Alma.”
Alma shrugs as she picks up a file and says, “That’s OK, I’ll go easy on your ass.”
Alma and Francisco then proceed to mull the facts and challenge each other’s conjectures for hours, sketching a plan of action.
In the mid-afternoon Alma suddenly says, “I’ll need to leave early today. I’ll make it up tomorrow. Something important I have to do.”
Francisco mumbles matter-of-factly as he studies a crime scene photograph, “Sure. I know.”
Alma asks, “What do you mean, ‘you know’?”
Francisco suddenly looks up, embarrassed, “Oh, Alma, I’m sorry. I, I was required to review your file before I showed up here. I’m sorry. I mean, I know about your daughter. I read about…your daughter… I’m sorry. Fuck me, I didn’t have to say anything just now.”
Alma lowers her eyes and purses her mouth and turns and leaves without attempting to speak. Hearing someone else talk about her daughter is the curse that unleashes the emotions which Alma otherwise confines. It is the difference between thinking of fire and being burned by fire.
Later that same evening, Alma is sitting at the hallway table that she has arranged as a shrine to her daughter. Alma still lives in the house where she and her daughter had lived with Alma’s mother. Alma sits gazing at the picture of the young daughter not a year old yet. Alma can hear, “Ma-ma. Ma-ma.” Alma is placing and arranging the colorful little candy confections made into the shapes of skulls, sweet little sugar skulls, calaveras, that she has concocted that afternoon for the celebration of the season of Los Dias de Los Muertos (Days of the Dead). She always at this occasion sees the words of her long-ago friend, Danielle Conte, who had her essay published in the Moon Valley Moonbeam:
Autumn has begun and the most celebrated and festive Mexican holiday, Dia de Los Muertos is near. We are reminded to celebrate our lives and mortality, to look at the past and future, all the while being present. We appreciate and acknowledge that life is sacred but death, “La Muerte”, is another rite of passage in our lives, no less sacred than life itself. Death too is alive. The inevitable is not to be feared or avoided; it is to be embraced and danced. Dance and sing now, side by side with Death.
Alma’s eyes dance in the reflection lying upon her daughter’s picture. Alma embraces the Domecq’s Presidente brandy, a drink mixable with tears. She lowers her head as if to butt through the veil of La Muerta.
Alma had been wild and she had been a single mom at sixteen. She had taken her daughter, Adoria, to the Moon Valley neighborhood celebration of Halloween, a holiday oddly just before Dia de Los Muertos. Alma’s mother had sewn for sweet little Adoria a very high quality costume at the request of Alma, despite her mother’s fear that the costume was scandalous. Alma wanted to dress Adoria as Julia Robert’s streetwalker character from Pretty Woman. Alma’s mother had even made a little red coat for Adoria like the one Julia Roberts famously wore in the movie.
All that night Alma had been drinking, partying, and clinging so hard to seventeen.
That night Adoria vanished, was taken, and never found.
Alma becomes aware of the tapping.
She realizes that it is evening already. The tapping seems to have come from her bedroom as if someone was tapping at her bedroom window.
Alma is startled as the tapping suddenly resumes insistently.
Alma rises from the hallway table shrine and as she passes into her bedroom she instinctively takes her service pistol from the nightstand. She does not turn on the bedroom light. The tapping ceases. Alma leans and peers out of the bedroom window into her yard.
Across the yard is the dim figure of a slender young woman. She has long hair and wears short tight provocative clothing. The young woman appears to be standing back waiting for Alma to appear.
Alma does not open the window. She calls out, “Who are you?”
The young woman begins to step toward the bedroom window.
Alma brandishes her pistol and cries out again, “Who are you!?”
The young woman gestures to her own throat and slowly shakes her head.
The bedroom window begins to fog up and Alma leans back startled. She can no longer see through her window. It is as if frost has descended.
Then, slowly, an unseen finger begins writing into the frosted pane the dark letters S-U-G-A-R S-K-U-L-L.
Alma hollers, “What do you want?”
She hears a baby crying, “Ma-ma! Ma-ma!”
Alma cries, “Adoria?!” and she yanks up the fogged bedroom window.
A skull face framed in long hair is staring up at her!
Alma suddenly jolts awake at the table shrine where she had nodded drunkenly into a troubled slumber. She now falls back heavily in the chair gasping. Her heart is pounding. She begins to sob uncontrollably.
Agent Francisco Sancho Clave answers his cell phone, “Hello. Alma, what… Whoa! What? OK, OK … What? Why? OK, sure. I can be there, no problem. Jeez, Alma, try to take it easy.”
Francisco arrives at Alma’s house and Alma is still agitated.
Francisco says, “Why are your eyes so puffy?”
Alma says, “Headache. Fucking migraine.”
She beckons Francisco into the hallway. Alma relates her nightmare. Francisco asks, “It was really that bad?”
Alma says, “It was really that real!”
Francisco sees the empty bottle of Domecq’s Presidente brandy and he narrows his eyes and he asks, “Well, Madam Presidente, you do know it wasn’t real, right?”
Alma snaps, “I’m not a fucking idiot, pardon me, Agent Clave. It’s this day, this holiday, this case, these fucking headaches… and now this fucking nightmare… I’ve been having nightmares about this case… but not like this one. I’m going to fucking pop! No wonder they took my case and gave it to you!” and Alma stifles a sob as she turns and strides down the hallway.
Francisco protests, “They didn’t take the case from you! I couldn’t do it without you!”
Now in her bedroom Alma stands before the same window of her nightmare and she wraps her arms around herself to keep from breaking up further.
Francisco starts down the hallway to follow her, saying, “I’m sorry. I, I was only joking to break the mood. I’m sorry.”
Francisco enters her bedroom uninvited and stands behind her and pleads, “Look, Alma, I am sorry. It was really insensitive and stupid of me to make that joke. Hey, I think you are a really sharp Inspector. Honestly. Please, listen. What if that wasn’t just a stress nightmare?”
Alma mutters, “What do you mean?”
Francisco continues, “What if it wasn’t a nightmare. What if it was your subconscious working on the case? I mean, let’s look at those dream images. Why couldn’t the… the slutty dream woman speak?”
Alma prompts him, “What are you getting at?”
Francisco shrugs, “I don’t know, I don’t know, but we can guess about the ‘Sugar Skull’ and the Day of the Dead holiday, and we can guess about, about, I’m sorry, Alma, we can guess why you heard ‘Ma-ma’ because of… well… but why couldn’t that dream woman speak, if she wasn’t the one saying ‘Ma-ma’?
Alma takes a step toward Francisco with watery eyes and muses to herself softly, “The slutty skeleton can’t speak… She’s mute…” and Alma’s watery eyes suddenly shine with a conclusion, “Those crude directions to the crime scene…,”
Francisco nods, “So maybe we’re looking for a mute prostitute? That’s a good hunch. We got nothing else. How hard can that be to follow up on…?”
Alma surprises Francisco with a hard kiss on the mouth. The brandy has lubricated Alma’s aggression but her tongue receives a passport from Francisco’s lips and then Francisco’s tongue rises to welcome hers. They both moan questioningly and then they both sigh together the surrender agreement.
They are pawing each other’s clothing off onto the floor. Alma pushes the now naked Francisco. He laughs in surprise and he bounces on the edge of the bed with his legs apart. Alma drops to her knees and strokes Francisco’s thighs. He exhales and his eyelids flutter as he tries to watch Alma’s face. She stretches her neck forward toward the peak of his youthful promise.
Alma whispers against this hot skin, “I am going to burn you down.”
Francisco, startled, asks, “What?”
Francisco then cries out to his God.
The next morning, Alma is at the wheel driving with Francisco. Francisco tries to think about the trail they are following, connecting the dots of the macabre murders. But Francisco cannot stop grinning. Alma is watching him from the corner of her eye. He turns to Alma and he tries to formulate his feelings, saying, “Alma, last night…last night…”
Alma interjects, “I ruined you for other women. I know. I know,” in mock remorse.
They both laugh and Francisco shakes his head vigorously, saying, “Whooo!”
They travel up and down Moon Valley, cruising in the locations of known prostitution, asking anyone who will speak with them, “Have you seen a mute hooker? A hooker who doesn’t talk?”
It is near evening when Alma and Francisco interview one young runaway boy who says to them, “Yeah. I seen a girl once and awhile who don’t talk. I say, like, ‘hi’ to her and she just smiles and nods. I say once, like, ‘I’m from Wyoming, where you from?’ and she just points down that old road there. She’s weird but she’s nice. What did she do?”
Alma and Francisco look at each other and then thank the boy, confirming, “That road right over there?”
Francisco says, “Its dark now. We can wait until morning, just stick around here.”
Alma says, “No, way. Get in.”
The road is an unlighted country road through the woods. They pass a couple of rusted farm gates but the road is mostly unkempt.
Francisco is looking at his cell phone GPS and muttering, “What road is this now? Does it even have a name?”
Alma suddenly says, “Look! A sign.”
Francisco says, “It’s a joke. It says ‘Not A Country Road’. Some kids’ joke.”
Alma laughs, “Look again, Batman. It says ‘Not A County Road’.”
Then they both see the shape of the old barn beyond the sign and the overgrown woods.
Alma and Francisco look at each other. Francisco says, “Let me guess…”
Alma drives slowly up to the old barn as rocks and fallen branches pop and crackle under their tires. The headlight high beams show the weathered siding so bleached, so warped that the boards look like ribs.
Alma leaves the engine running and the headlights illuminating the old barn.
Alma gives answer to the silently scowling Francisco, “Yes, let’s go inside the barn and look around.”
They both carry flashlights. Francisco unsnaps his shoulder holster.
Alma sniffs, “The hay that was left in here has turned into soil.”
Francisco says, “It smells ‘toasty’.”
There are only a few objects in the barn. The warped barn siding lets blades of light come slashing inside at all angles from the car’s headlights. There is a stained and peeling workbench against one wall and next to it a cabinet.
Alma says, “Let’s see what’s in that cabinet.”
Francisco says, “Probably a skunk.”
Alma says, “Hold your light on the door. I’ll open it,” and they both pose ready to jump back if some animal contests their intrusion.
Alma pulls on cabinet door open and it is loose on its corroded hinges. The cabinet door comes off in her hand. There is an exhalation of a musty mildew odor from dampness and lack of sunlight.
Francisco says, “Look. Under that rot. It looks like the edge of a box.”
The illuminated soil covering the rest of the box ripples with goose-bumps of dark insects and spiders. Alma’s hand hovers as she hesitates to reach inside and grasp the box to pull it up. Francisco takes off his jacket and uses his sleeves like oven mitts, saying, “One, two,” suddenly yelling, “THREE..,” as Alma gives a little involuntary scream, laughing, “Bastard”, and then Francisco yanks up the box. There is a spray of detritus as Francisco’s grip slips and the box slides a few feet away, the lid ajar. There is a sudden smell, a smell that darkest instinct whispers, “death”.
Alma and Francisco stop and stare at the box. They then start creeping toward the box. Alma nods at Francisco and she steadies her flashlight at the box. Francisco says, “Yeah, thanks…” as he lifts the lid away.
Alma covers her mouth and the beam of her light shudders.
Francisco drops the lid saying, “Oh, shit.”
There are skeletal remains of a small child wrapped in a plastic bag.
Francisco observes mechanically, “The head has been smashed, the jaw broken,” and then, “There are remains of clothing.”
Despite the mildew it can be seen that the remains of the child rest upon a little coat that was once red. Francisco hears Alma take a sharp breath and he looks up at her.
Alma’s eyes are wide in horror, her mouth is opening and closing. Francisco asks, “Alma?”
Alma grabs a handful of her own hair and she is sobbing, “Wake up, wake up, oh, no, God, no, no, I want to wake up.”
Francisco stands erect and barks, “Alma! Alma, what is wrong?”
Alma drops to her knees before Francisco can reach her and then she falls forward in a faint.
I am small. I am knee-high to dozens of knees. They are all wearing colorful costumes. I saw my Ma-ma go this way. I am near the fence. I see the face of a doggie. It is a hand-puppet. I am charmed. I reach for the bobbing doggie face. The doggie grabs my arm and is lifting me up quickly; it is a blur. I am lowered into a big bag. I smell candy. I start to cry. The bag rocks back and forth faster and faster. Then I am dropped onto a cushion. I hear a car engine for a long time.
The car engine stops. The bag is opened and I am lifted out. It is still dark inside the car. I am held up helplessly to a big face that I do not know. I am frightened and I cry. The big face is a man with eyes like my doll. His moustache is like a spider. His teeth are like a dog’s. As he smiles his breath is like a toilet. He says to me, “My little Sugar Skull.”
He lowers me in the darkness. He pushes something spongy and hard into my mouth, back and forth. I can’t breathe. I am choking. I bite down reflexively. I hear the man shout and I feel the blows to my head.
I am floating in a cloud of fireflies. I can hear and see but I cannot move, I cannot feel, I cannot cry. I am being laid upon my coat. Darkness crackles over me.
Alma awakens in the arms of Francisco, his face close to hers, worried, and he is saying, “Alma, Alma! Thank, God. Alma, you fainted and then you screamed.”
The remains of the child are identified not long afterward as Alma’s daughter Adoria.
It is unbelievable to everyone who hears the story. And the state-wide news media tells everyone over and over again. Alma is given an indefinite leave-of-absence with counseling. She walks among the living faces of people she knows with their wide-eyed incredulous stares and Alma hears whispers everywhere she goes. The living faces that will speak to Alma can say only how sorry they are. They can think only that Alma’s finding of her lost daughter in such a way, finding her daughter after twenty years, and the very idea of finding her daughter is at best a foreboding miracle.
There are other reasons whispered that she cannot hear.
Days later Alma enters Francisco’s office and says, “I want to look at mug shots.”
Francisco is surprised and says, “Alma! I thought you were planning the funeral. Haven’t they… released the… Adoria, haven’t they?”
Alma says simply, “Yes.”
Francisco studies Alma for sobriety and then says, “OhhhK. Nice to see you, too. What have you got on your mind?”
Alma answers, “I want to see pedophiles known to have been in this area.”
Francisco lowers his eyes and says delicately, “Alma, I can only imagine what you are feeling but what can you be looking for?”
Alma looks up and down the hallway and then pulls Francisco’s door shut. She leans toward him and says, “I saw that murderer’s face.”
Francisco’s heart sinks and he asks, “When you fainted? Alma, you inhaled God-knows-what mold dust. You were probably hallucinating.”
Alma says, “Come on. Please. For me, Francisco. What can we lose?”
Francisco stares into his future and then, convincing himself, he says, “Your nightmares have taken us this far…” and then he grins wryly, saying to himself, “Why stop now, Francisco?”
Then, for hour after hour that afternoon they use Francisco’s FBI programs to quickly search and cross-reference data profiles and mug-shots.
Suddenly, Alma shouts, “Wait! That one!”
Francisco is startled. He then asks, “Are you… sure?”
Alma is trembling and she is breathing fast and she says, “Those eyes.”
Francisco shrugs, “OK, let’s see… Helacio Candango… Posed as a young girl on the internet. Enticed a young boy to rendezvous… Showed up driving a cab and told the boy the young girl paid for the cab… Attacked the boy… The boy escaped… Helacio served twenty years… Here’s his last address… it’s in the hills of Moon Valley.”
Francisco looks up at Alma and pleads softly, “Don’t.”
Alma says, “I won’t. I have Adoria to put to rest, remember? But promise me, Francisco, that we’ll interview Mr. Candango as soon as I can come back to work.”
Francisco nods but frets, “I don’t know how we’ll justify it,” and then he adds reassuringly, “But we’ll think of something.”
This same night Alma stands before the secluded house of a Mr. Helacio Candango. The window shades are all drawn, suffocating any light on the inside that might escape. On the porch is a dim yellow illumination. She draws a deep resolve and then approaches the house. She climbs the porch steps and knocks upon the door. She stands away with both of her hands behind her back.
The door opens a dark fraction and then a gap wide enough for a face to wedge into.
It is that face.
Alma asks politely, “Mr. Candango?”
Helacio Candango is twenty years older than Alma’s vision of him. He is bald and paler, but those flat dark shark eyes remain.
Helacio mutters guardedly, “Who wants to know?”
Alma is now disembodied as she sees herself reply politely, “My name is Alma Flores.”
Helacio growls, “So what?” and he opens the door torso width.
Alma calmly answers, “I am looking for my daughter. Her name is Adoria. She is about a year old. Have you seen her?” and then she brings forward from behind her back the remains of the little red coat worn by her murdered child.
The shark eyes glimmer. Helacio growls, “I’m calling the cops,” and as he turns away shutting the door Alma flings the little red coat into the closing gap.
Alma remains before the closed door. If Helacio saw the little coat he is still not opening the door. Alma hears a gentle tapping from the inside of the shut door. She turns away and walks down the porch stairs.
As she reaches the road she hears the first scream from inside the house.
In response to the 911 call the police arrive twenty minutes later at the home of Mr. Helacio Candango to find Helacio Candango already dismembered alive, his body parts charred and twitching in a foul smelling heap, his severed head atop the pile of his remains with its mouth locked open in unspeakable agony.
Alma Flores is charged with the murder. In the truncated 911 call Mr. Candango had stated that an ‘Alma Flores is here harassing me’ before he was abruptly cut off. And then the police found the little red coat.
FBI Agent Francisco Sancho Clave reveals everything about his time with Alma. Everything. He begins to fear for his career.
The national news media is now howling with this perfect Halloween horror story.
Alma is lying on the hard thin mattress of her bunk in her cell. Her eyes are closed and weeping, her hand to her head enduring a severe migraine headache.
Suddenly she can see – Are my eyes open? Am I dreaming?
Above Alma is the beautiful face of a young woman with long hair who is leaning over. Alma knows it is Adoria.
The vision of Adoria speaks, saying, “Ma-ma, thank you. I have to go now. I have friends waiting.”
Then the vision of Adoria vanishes.
Inspector Alma Flores is convicted of the murder of Helacio Candango. The evidence was disjointed but it was compiled into a legal skeleton that pointed in Alma’s direction. The other murders could not be charged to Alma. The only evidence linking her to those cases was her involvement as the lead investigator.
Alma is given life imprisonment with a possibility of parole in twenty years.
It is twenty years later. The Parole Board prepares to hear Alma Flores. Weighing on their minds is the fact that no similar gruesome murders have taken place in those twenty years. They are not inclined to grant Alma Flores parole.
Alma sits before the Parole Board, knowing what the Parole Board is thinking.
Alma is asked if she wants to make a statement.
Calmly, Alma rises and says only, “I am already free.”
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