THE LAGARTO STONE
Gordon N. McIntosh
Doug Sutherland lay face-up and spread-eagled, his fingers digging into the mattress. The room had stopped spinning, but the bed rocked under him like a boat at anchor. Uneasy, he listened. Sensing only his rapid breathing and the central heat, he stretched into Kelly’s territory and confirmed that he was alone. So what had dragged him from his stupor? As if in answer, his telephone rang.
Opening one eye, he peered into the darkness. The digital clock said 1:10. It had been thirty minutes since he’d crawled out of the cab that brought him home. He reached for the handset and knocked the phone to the floor. Groping around the carpet, he found it.
“Yeah? What?” His voice sounded like gravel in a steel drum.
“Mr. Sutherland? Jimmy here.” It was the doorman. “Sorry to keep calling, but you got a visitor.”
“She forget her key?” Kelly must have decided to come after all.
“It’s not Miss Matthews. It’s a guy.”
“Who the fu …” Sutherland muttered.
“You all right, sir?”
“No.” His throat felt hot, his tongue dry. Who the hell visits at this hour? “Tell him to go away.”
“He won’t leave. Some Latino.” Someone said something in the background. “Name’s Primo or something.”
Sutherland turned on the reading light and squinted toward the bathroom. He needed cold water and aspirin.
“Can you talk to him?” Jimmy said, a note of urgency in his voice. Or was it something else? Maybe fear?
“Gimme a minute.” He stood up and stumbled to the bathroom. He frowned at his bleary-eyed image in the mirror—five o’clock shadow, faded tan, eyes more red than blue. No photos please. He filled a glass with water, fumbled three aspirins from a bottle, and washed them down.
Returning to the phone, he said, “Put him on.”
“Buenas noches. Soy Javier, su primo.” It was the anxious voice of a young man.
Primo? Cousin? Sutherland was perplexed. “Sorry, wrong guy.” After midnight, still half in the bag, and some chico wanted to test his Spanish. He tried to concentrate, searching for the words. “I’m not your cousin. No soy su primo.”
“Sí, señor. My mother she is Isabela Castellano.”
The name stopped Sutherland. His own mother was a Castellano. She could have dozens of relatives with that name. But who cared? He’d seen her once in thirty years.
“Look, it’s late. Demasiado tarde, comprende? Come back tomorrow, okay?”
“Por favorrr,” the man begged. “Es muy importante.”
“Give me the doorman. El portero.” He heard some mumbled words and then Jimmy spoke again.
“This guy’s sick, Mr. Sutherland. Or hurt. What the? Jesus … blood …”
Suddenly, a sharp clatter forced Sutherland to jerk the phone from his ear. Had the doorman dropped his phone?
“Jimmy,” Sutherland shouted. No answer. “Shit.” He hung up and stared at the rumpled bed, tempted to fall back in. Instead, he dialed the lobby number. Busy. Should he call 9-1-1? What could he tell them?
Cursing, he grabbed his pants from the floor and struggled into them. He found his tuxedo jacket on the doorknob and pulled it on over his bare torso. After slipping on his loafers, he scooped his keys off the dresser and ran out of his apartment to the elevator. When the doors opened onto the lobby, no one was in sight. With the lights dimmed for the night, the large space felt like a mausoleum, its granite walls and marble floor cold as death itself. The only movement was a soft snowfall beyond the windows that spanned the front of the building.
The reception desk sat in the center of the rectangular lobby, opposite the entrance. Sutherland moved cautiously, approaching it from the side. First he saw the cowboy boots sticking out from behind the desk. Edging closer, he saw the jeans and then the body lying on its side. The legs were bent and pulled up into the belly. Long black hair stuck to the face, covering it. Blood-slicked hands clutched the stomach. If that was his visitor, he was having a bad night.
Behind the desk on the floor, he saw the blue uniform, the brass buttons and the ample gut. The face was as white as the marble tile, but there was no mistaking Jimmy, the doorman.
For a moment, Sutherland was dazed, standing in the darkened lobby with two bodies sprawled on the floor. But he was jarred alert when he realized that whoever did this might still be there. He glanced around, but didn’t see anyone else. Outside the window, the driveway was deserted. Whirling snow formed halos around the streetlights.
He called, “Jimmy?” His voice echoed from the granite walls. The doorman didn’t move. He was on his back, his eyes rolled upward and vacant. But there was no visible bleeding.
He studied the other man, Javier. His hands were clutched to his stomach. Blood seeped through his fingers, shiny in the dim light. Suddenly, his torso heaved, and his head snapped around to face Sutherland. His eyes were red and pained.
“Señor Sutherland?” His voice was weak and raspy, like glass shards scraping. He was young, no more than eighteen, with the round face and thick lips of an Olmec statue.
“Sí. Qué pasó?”
“Me pegaron un tiro.” He glanced at his stomach and lifted one hand to show where “they” shot him. Sutherland could only see a large, dark stain on the already stiffened shirt. Who were they? Had they shot the doorman as well?
He circled the desk and stepped over Jimmy while looking for the phone handset. He had to pull it from under the man’s leg where it had fallen. Dialing 9-1-1, he took a deep breath, trying to control his shaking. When the woman answered, he gave the address and said a man was dying and another might be dead. Jimmy certainly looked dead. There was no blood, but his eyes were blank, and drool trickled from his gaping mouth. Sutherland checked for his pulse, pressing on his neck where the artery should be. With so much flesh there, he couldn’t feel anything.
Then Jimmy belched, and his eyelids flickered. A second later, Javier groaned. Which one was he supposed to help?
“Señor!” The desperate cry and the blood decided for him. He sprung over to Javier and knelt by his shoulder.
“The ambulance is coming,” Sutherland said. “What can I do? Cómo puedo ayudarte?” He pushed the wet hair away from the boy’s face. Fear-filled eyes stared back.
“Mi bota. Quítemela.”
“Take off your boot?”
“Sí, la derecha.” The kid wanted his right boot removed. What for? A last wish to avoid dying with his boots on? There must be a better way to help the poor kid. The metallic odor of fresh blood and the spreading dark stain indicated a serious injury. But Sutherland’s only training for that much bleeding was a tourniquet.
Not knowing what else to do, Sutherland grabbed the right boot. Pulling it from side to side, he eased it off and was hit with a foul stench. “The other one? La otra?” he asked.
“No,” Javier wheezed. “Dentro.”
Sutherland held his breath and peered inside the boot. Nothing there but dark streaks on the lining where blood had run down Javier’s leg. “Nada,” he said.
“La …” The boy’s chest heaved. “La punta.” The point.
Sutherland reached into the toe of the boot, felt something moist wedged there, and pulled it out. It was a wad of paper inside a plastic wrapper. He held it so Javier could see it. “Éste?”
“Sííí.…” He exhaled. “Para usted. Muy importante.”
Sutherland heard Jimmy cough. He stood up, jammed the small package into his jacket pocket, and returned to the doorman. Jimmy stared at the ceiling. He was alive, thank God, but Sutherland doubted he knew where he was.
He heard sirens and rushed back to the boy. Javier’s eyes were squeezed shut, his face contorted in a grimace. He wasn’t going to make it.
Flashing lights lit up the driveway. A red-and-white ambulance from the Chicago Fire Department slid to a stop on the snow outside. Doors slammed, and two men hurried through the revolving door. Their rubber soles slapped against the marble floor as they approached.
Sutherland sat down with his back against the reception desk. He shivered and pulled his tuxedo jacket tighter, trying to ward off the drafts from outside. He hugged his knees and thought of his warm bed only twenty floors above him. If only he was there and this was only a dream.
The aspirins were losing to the cognacs Sutherland had downed three hours earlier. It seemed like the bass drum in his temples was playing background to the voices of the policemen around the reception desk. Maybe they were making sense of what just happened. He certainly couldn’t.
He sat on a bench in the alcove off the lobby with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. The lights had been turned up, and the glare wasn’t helping his headache. If only he could go back to bed. He heard footsteps approaching across the marble floor and looked up. It was the detective again, a stocky, red-faced blond in his thirties. His name was Dugan, Deegan, or something like that.
“Can’t we finish this tomorrow?” Sutherland said. Another icy gust from the door hit him. Why hadn’t he put on a shirt under his jacket?
“Just a couple more questions.” The detective sat across from him in a Barcelona chair. “If you never heard of this guy, why’d he ask for you?”
“He knew your name.”
“The phone book? I don’t know. Look, officer, I was asleep. Hell, I’m still asleep.” And half in the bag to boot. Better say as little as possible until he could think straight. “The doorman called. That’s all I know. Is Jimmy okay?” he asked.
“The doorman? Fainted is all. The kid’s bad though.” He looked down at his notebook. “No ID. What’d he say his name was?”
“Javier Castellano … I think.” He spelled it for him.
“Just a guess.” He stood and buttoned his jacket, as if that would make him respectable. “It’s after two. I gotta crash,” he said. “Call tomorrow if there’s anything else. Apartment 2001.”
The detective raised his hand. “Just a minute.”
“Aww, come on.”
“Was his boot off when you came downstairs?”
His boot? Sutherland vaguely remembered tugging on it, but the image was whirling in a blur of blood and contorted faces. “I might’ve pulled it off.”
“Why’d you do that?”
His stomach turned with a hint of nausea and he swallowed hard. “I think he asked me to.” Feeling another wave of queasiness, he held up his hand. “Sorry, gotta go. I don’t feel too good.” He hurried to the security gate leading to the elevators and opened it with his coded key fob. It closed behind him and locked.
Inside the elevator, Sutherland pushed the button for his floor and watched as the detective hustled toward him. His index finger was raised, indicating yet another question.. He was stopped at the security gate, unable to pass. His face reddened, and he grabbed the gate’s vertical bars. “You can’t! God dammit!”
As the cop rattled the gate, Sutherland said to himself, “Mañana. Everything will be better mañana.”