This Cold, This Bitter Cold / Luis Rodríguez

Perú Cantu took in the row of three-story flats in front of him like a wizened old eagle, through narrow eyelids, mouth opened. He focused on a weathered garage structure situated behind an apartment complex of more than 100-year old graystones in a  destitute section of Chicago’s Humboldt Park.
       The garage didn’t appear to house any humans, but Perú insisted this was the place. Squeaky knew this area belonged to mostly poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, not Mexicans, although perhaps in time since Mexicans were moving all over the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods.
     Squeaky and Perú entered the fenced yard from the alley through a mangled and unlocked rusted gate, an icy walkway leading up to family apartments. Perú turned toward the garage and knocked on the metal side door, bolted with heavy-duty locks. He kept knocking, for a good five minutes, before anyone stirred.
     «Let’s go, ‘mano,» Squeaky demanded.
     «No, esperate. I hear something,» Perú responded.
     Squeaky looked around for irate neighbors or, worse, irate gang members. Here they’d shoot first and not bother with questions.
     Finally the locks were undone with enough racket to wake the dead. A pretty black girl, about 20, with dirty blue robe wrapped tightly to protect against the cold, opened the door. Squeaky thought she looked pretty, but when she spoke it was with a harsh and irritated tone.
     «Whatchu want, man?» she spitted out.
     «It’s Perú—I came to see Lupillo,» Perú said, respectfully.
     A slurred accented voice from inside the garage yelled back.
     «Let them in, muñeca. I recognize who it is—it’s an old friend.»
      The girl didn’t look back. She hesitated a few seconds before unlocking the bolts. It was dark and dank in the garage. Squeaky thought he’d seen some messy abodes, but this one would make a rat puke. There was trash, dirty clothes, and burnt papers on the floor. A small metal sink to the side was piled with days-old unwashed dishes. Cockroaches didn’t even scramble as the two men entered. The one window was covered with plywood, making everything dark. Squeaky knew what this was—a hype’s den.
      The girl went to a leaning lamp and turned on the faint yellow light.
      A longhaired, leather-vested man stood up. He had been lying on a few blankets that had been thrown over a mattress on top of cinder blocks next to a small electric heater. Squeaky looked back at the girl and could now see the bags beneath her eyes, the drawn skin, the needle marks on her arms—she was still pretty, but it wouldn’t last long.
      The man was around Squeaky’s age, early 30s. He was a Mexican ranchero—what one would call a «cowboy» in the U.S., only he was a «Sinaloa Cowboy,» a drug dealer. Squeaky could tell from his diamond-studded belt buckle, now devoid of diamonds, his tight jean pants, and tightly-woven ranchero hat on the floor. He was also a heroin addict. His bare chest had an old, blurry tattoo, and the insides of both arms had collapsed veins and newly-punctured ones.
       Perú earlier told Squeaky that this guy once represented the interests of one of Mexico’s leading drug families as a hit man. His real name was Guadalupe Benítez. He called himself «Lupillo» after the famous Mexican narco-corrido singer.
     Years before, Perú related, Lupillo had a reputation with the women, the gangs, and even the police. But he was going down fast with the monkey on his back. Once formidable, somebody to fear, even respect, he was now a sliver of a man, broken, beaten. Mostly somebody to be amused by.
      Squeaky knew the type all too well.
      «Well, you found me . . . finally. You old dog, you actually got me now,» Lupillo muttered as he walked up to Perú for a sloppy hug.
      «Listen, I’m not going to burn you or anything,» Perú remarked, while gently pushing Lupillo away. «I’d just want you to talk to a friend of mine. About an old case. Don’t worry this won’t go anywhere. We only want to know what happened. You have my word—and you know Perú’s word is sacred—this won’t go beyond these walls.»
      «That’s okay, paisa, it doesn’t matter anymore, nothing does,» Lupillo said, falling back into the blankets, almost nodding out. Squeaky could now see the needle, rubber hose, cotton, and bloodstains on the blankets.
      «I know why you’re here,» he barely managed the words. Squeaky moved in close to hear what else he had to say. «I’m dead. I’m no good to anybody. But if what I know can help those paisasorale pues . . .»
      Lupillo stopped talking and hung his head to his chest, picking it up quickly, then letting it fall again. Perú and the girl pulled him up, and started walking him around so he wouldn’t pass out and overdose on all of them.
      It wasn’t going to be easy, Squeaky thought, but what this guy had to say meant the difference between freedom for four innocent Mexicans on death row… or their execution.
     Squeaky’s encounter with Lupillo was the culmination of a long and tiresome investigation that, until that day, had been going nowhere.
     The investigation began a month earlier, the morning after a wayward snowstorm hit Chicago, quickly obscuring the crests and summits of the city’s intense skyline. By 9 AM, the hardened drifts completely covered a small battered 1996 Honda Civic. Snow plows had already side-shoveled more snow onto the parked cars while clearing the street and salting the asphalt. Spackles of grime were mixed in with the newly-fallen morning flurries.
     Squeaky Amador gazed out onto the street from his upstairs apartment window to see how bad things had gotten. He saw that Simón Torres, the Puerto Rican caretaker of the laundry service below, had already cleared the sidewalk in front of the brown-brick building on North Avenue near Rockwell, a few blocks from Humboldt Park.
      The Honda belonged to Squeaky, who was half Mexican, half Puerto Rican, twice divorced, former Special Services officer during the Persian Gulf War, who worked as a private investigator for Luchinsky’s P.I. Services in nearby Wicker Park. Squeaky, in layered clothing, heavy-duty snow boots, beanie cap, black gloves, and wool-lined denim jacket, walked down three flights from his darkened apartment and out the door to ponder strategies in removing the fast freezing snow off the Honda.
      Simón—a hardy man with wiry face and darting glances—came out of the laundry and rattled off several phrases in Jibaro Spanish with a few laughs in-between. Squeaky understood most Puerto Ricans after living in Humboldt Park most of his life. But there were those, like Simón, from the island’s countryside, that Squeaky couldn’t make out what they said for the life of him. Plus the Mexican side of the family raised him. He knew that Mexicans and Puerto Ricans didn’t speak Spanish the same way, let alone use the same words: Puerto Ricans said habichuelas instead of frijoles; gua gua instead of camión. And when Puerto Ricans used pinché, it meant a hair brooch. For Mexicans, it meant you might have a fight on your hands.
     Instead of indicating his confusion, Squeaky nodded at Simón, smiled with his eyes only, as if he seemed to understand, while Simón walked back to his business, leaving more clipped words and chuckles in his stead.
     A shovel and broom lay against the laundry’s newly-tucked pointed brick wall. Squeaky grabbed the shovel and began tearing into the snow, making him even later than he already was for work.
     Stanley Luchinsky, the Polish-American, former Chicago police detective who ran the P.I. services, had implored Squeaky to be on time that morning. He was expecting some people from a university innocence project about an important murder case. Since the victims and perpetrators where Mexican Nationals, Stanley felt Squeaky was the man for the job. Squeaky had truly tried to make an exception that morning of his habitual tardiness, which he blamed on MRT—Mexi-Rican Time. The weather had other plans.
     Stanley’s office was on the 7th Floor of what was known as the Coyote Building on the five-point intersection of the highly gentrified, arts and music-oriented Wicker Park neighborhood. Once a poor Puerto Rican community—with warring factions of street gangs keeping life dangerously interesting—it was now a relatively quiet area, packed with white yuppies on the weekends entering and leaving newly-established eateries and various bars and music clubs up and down Milwaukee Avenue, the main drag of the WP.
     That morning Stanley sat behind his large wooden desk, waiting to hear from Squeaky. He had a graying crew-cut hair style, a 50s paunch, and a scar from a bullet wound on his neck from the time he was shot seven times some 20 years before when the Wicker Park gangs were going strong. He quit the police force after that incident, even though he had put in ten years of working murder and high-level drug cases. He felt he was set up by a few officers who didn’t like his intense scrutiny of corrupt police procedures, particularly against the Puerto Rican and Mexican neighbors surrounding the Wood Street police station.
     Stanley set up his own investigation agency. As a freelance crime investigator for various law firms and clients, Stanley could get better results, more money, but also greater notoriety, and therefore publicity. Stanley loved publicity.
     The time for Squeaky’s arrival had come and gone. Stanley cursed under his breath about his partner’s lateness as he anticipated his guests’ arrival. The blizzard of the night before, however, delayed everyone else as well—by the time Squeaky found a parking spot close to where Damen, Milwaukee, and North meet, the three representatives of the university law clinic were barely riding up the elevator to the 7th floor.
     «Sit down, Squeaky, I want you to meet Cheryl Williams and Burt Greenbaum,» Stanley said as soon as Squeaky entered his office. Cheryl and Burt were already seated in old wooden chairs in front of Stanley’s desk, next to an antique radiator making rattling noises as it heated up the room.
      «Glad to meet you, and sorry for the lateness—the snow . . . ,» Squeaky replied while taking off his beanie cap, gloves, and jacket. He grabbed a notepad from a smaller desk in the corner, his, and then pulled up another chair next to Stanley’s desk. Squeaky was handsome in a rugged way, dark skinned, with a well-shaven bald head and a mustache and goatee. He was well-built on a 5-by-9 frame, looking taller because of his street savvy and personal confidence. Stanley, despite his wariness over Squeaky’s lateness and sloppy work habits, had taken a liking to him from the first time they met.
      «Proceed,» Stanley gently ordered Mr. Greenbaum, who wore a bow tie and plaid suit jacket, appearing more like a flustered math professor than the famed criminal lawyer he was, involved in highly sensational murder convictions where the alleged perpetrators might actually be innocent.
      «Well, this case the police called the Milwaukee Avenue Massacre,» Burt related. «You may remember it from the newspapers, but let me run it down for you: About 10 years ago, in the Little Guerrero neighborhood just northeast of here on Milwaukee Avenue, there was a major shootout, apparently rooted in a bloody family feud from the old country. Six people were killed. The murderers were two guys who even chased and killed two people who tried to leave the apartment building where the shootings took place. The victims were members of the Avila and Flores families, who were at war with members of the Ramírez family, all from a small village in Mexico called ‘Rio Prieta.’ To make a long story short, four members of the Ramírez family were awakened from their sleep and arrested for the murders. In a strange and controversial court trial, the four were quickly convicted and sentenced to death row about ten years ago.»



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