Matteo thought first to probe the crime scene, the old raspa stand, for clues. After all, Concha had snuck around the base before, and had them all under watch at Franky Espada’s.
He donned a black AU hoodie and black sweatpants and shaded his face under an old Sea World beanie. A catch of his huge frame in the mirror crush his delusion of being invisible.
The raspa stand was gone. The walk up to the empty plot of land was eerily quiet — even the barks of neighborhood dogs seemed miles off. With the tips of his toes, he probed the ground looking for the trapdoor. The grass showed no evidence of a major scene taking place — no tire tracks or demolition debris. It reminded him of UFO and chupacabra abductions. Never left a trace.
His foot found something hollow and acoustic. There, in the shallow underground, was the entrance to his former prison.
With a forceful tug, the door swung open and the physics of the action threw Matteo back a step. He crouched and poked his head inside. Except for a table and a few physicals, nearly everything was gone, including the rope ladder.
Matteo checked whether the coast was clear over his shoulder. Kids were in class, parents at work, and grandparents glued to telenovelas. He lowered himself down by his arms and dropped.
The taste of the air inside surfaced a few uncomfortable memories. Into his bag went the discarded physicals. Aside from these items, there were only a few loose Magic cards strewn about and a stain of dry blood. His blood?
He approached the hallway to check out the bathroom, but was scared by the darkness. The trapdoor slammed, turning the lair into the blackest grave.
“Fuck,” he said to himself, attempting to maintain his composure with the sound of his own voice.
He pussyfooted in the direction of the table and dragged it towards the entrance. Wobbling under the weight of his bag, he stood on top of it and pushed against the trapdoor. A rustling, scraping sound. He pressed harder and daylight streamed in. A white feather floated down onto his face.
“Chingado, Chuy.” Chuy, the cockfighter, pecked at his hands with pure anger as he lifted himself up. He realized he’d forgotten that he might die any moment, for a moment.
“Alright, alright, tranquilo. Voy a traelo a la casa.” Chuy cocked his head to the side and decided to trust him. Matteo spotted a discarded milk crate from HEB at the curb and put the chicken inside.
::It’s her night behind the bar at Franky Espada’s.
“Wow, you have that stored in your calendar, huh? You’re priceless.”
::Que bueno! I hope you find her. Ella era muy guapa! I am looking at her .butt file.
Matteo rode out to Roosevelt Ave next, arriving with time before the happy hour tide was set to rise and wash the stools away from their orderly positions. A barback was prepping sodas, jamming metal CO2 cartridges into a tin and shaking it with force.
“Hey man, have you seen Concha around, lately?” Matteo spoke loud enough to know by the guy’s response that he was being ignored. The young man looked familiar… just not from Frank Espada’s.
The barback’s CO2 cartridge slipped out of his hand and he dropped the container on the bartop. He pulled the towel from his back pocket to dry the wet spot directly in front of Matteo.
“I’m just looking for Concha. She around?” asked Matteo.
“Concha,” he said with Spanish pronunciation, “She’s my friend. She bartends here.”
“No sabo nada de una concha…” said the barback.
“No, not concha like a shell, but Concha, como mujer,” Matteo started.
“Alright, then what about Sonia? About so tall, wears differents wigs.”
At that, the man became visibly uncomfortable. “No, no hay visto una mujer con ese nombre, ni un peluca rosa.”
“Listen, I’m not a stalker or anything. We just went to school together. I… She might be in some trouble, alright?” Matteo hated that he was delivering his words faster.
::Such a sweetie, you are. If you ask my opinion, though, it’s much hotter if you could put this man in his place. He is being very rude.
“No hablo Ingles.” The worker pulled a rag from his back pocket and polished a liquor bottle.
“Chingado, yes you do!”
“You just answered me perfectly! You understand everything I’m saying.”
“Maybe you should learn fucking Spanish, guero,” he whispered, “The boss here is white he knows everything you’re saying right now. Not real smart.” He sighed and poured Matteo a shot from the well whiskey.
“Tomatelo and get the fuck out of here. Entiendes?”
“I’m right aren’t I? Something is going on!”
Matteo squinted at him, took the shot and walked out to his bike. That hadn’t gone according to his plan at all. It was blazingly hot outside, too. And he realized where he knew the barback from — he’d handed the UV lamp to one of the Loteria organizers. Fucking Jorge. Fucking Dillo.
::Check her place. It’s not so far. You remember that night well, don’t you?
Matteo walked the bike over to Motel Cielo, up the same path he’d driven Concha on their first date not so long ago. He hovered at her unit’s window and found a peek through the edge of lopsided blinds. The place was empty.
A trucker came out of a nearby room smoking a cigarette and walked by Matteo, uninterested and unphased by the large man spying. The white of her calves shone bright in contrast to her dark, camouflage bulky shorts and flak jacket. She boarded a Mooner and glided off in the direction of the Lavaca port. He was pretty sure it wasn’t Concha in disguise.
He tried the door, but it had been rebuilt with a new lock that gave no give. He snooped around the Coke machine and then the area behind the building. The smell of boiling garbage choked him, testing his gag reflex. He got closer to the dumpster, mustering enough resolve to stand on a pylon to view the inside. Immediately, the body stuck out.
Julian Castro’s smiley doll eyes peeked out from behind a cum towel. He leaned in, collecting grime across his hoodie, and extended two fingers to grab the doll. It budged a little and then relented.
He pulled himself over the edge a little further, and then slipped, right into the pile of mystery towels. And of course he slipped in with a yelp, so his mouth was open.
He pulled a portable glowscreen viewer with multiple adapters from his pocket and plugged it into the doll. It had been wiped.
“Goddammit. Not a clue. Dead fucking end,” he growled. It had been ages since he heard himself truly growl.
He looked at the doll once more and pulled its string. Staticky silence.
Where was Concha? For that matter, where were Kaylee and Jorge and his mysteriously normal brother?
The urgency of death bit into his mind, again. He might die any moment, now, without warning. He might not see Concha ever again. He had to get synthetic malaria up and running on his own.