The story unbelievable; the outcome undeniable.
In a dank, cold, concrete cell I sit counting down the days, the weeks, the years that are now behind me by the new lines on the face that isn’t mine and the old memories of who I used to be.
Convicted of crimes I didn’t commit. Confused, alone, and resigned to dying in here. Nobody has ever believed me. Not the police officers who broke down my door and arrested me. Not the detectives who interrogated me. Not the prosecutors who tried me. Not even my own defense attorney.
Maybe you’ll be different.
Almost twenty years to the day, I was sitting at a table outside the bodega down the street from my flat when he approached me.
I had just ended a phone call I had been dreading having to make. You know the kind. You’re in a hurting pinch and you’ve exhausted all of the resources you prefer to go to, and all you have left are the ones, or the one in my case, that you know will weigh on you more than the worry you’re trying to climb out from under.
In my case it was my sister. We hadn’t been on speaking terms, at least non-yelling ones, for quite some time. But when a pinch is a pinch, go another inch, as our father liked to say when times were tougher than most.
I was deep. Twenty-five grand deep. And I knew reaching out to her was a stretch, but a stretch was all I had left. So stretch I did. It didn’t go as horribly as I had anticipated but it wasn’t smooth either. There would be strings attached, of course. Many, heavy strings I would need to really think on before taking her up on her offer. I knew there would be. And that’s okay, when you really want to be honest about it. Sometimes it’s the strings that pull you out of the quicksand.
What I needed the money for doesn’t really figure into this story as you’ll see soon enough. But at the time, I had no idea just how little it would end up figuring.
The man came over to my table after I hung up with my sister. He wore a finely tailored suit which I could clearly see was outside my income bracket. A double breasted, dark gray jacket and matching vest and slacks, with a dash of color in the mauve dress shirt underneath, and pocket square of Electric purple peaking out from the left breast pocket of his jacket.
“Hello. My name is Lucio.” he said as he took the seat across the table from mine. His steel gray eyes pierced me like cold daggers as they narrowed slightly before he continued. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I looked around a bit exaggeratedly, attempting to act out my displeasure with his assuming I welcomed his presence, and replied with a curt “Why?”
“Just curious. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I apologize, but it was rather loud.”
“Well, it’s really none of your business.”
Lucio leaned back in his chair as he casually glanced around; his eyes focused but not on anything in particular. “I know this. I just have a question for you, then I’ll be on my way.”
“Fine. Get it over with then get away from me.”
“Okay. Can I help you with your problem?”
Something about him sat wrong with me. I couldn’t quite explain what sat wrong, I just knew that something about him was wrong. Almost like he was drawn wrong. Something unsettling about his visage, like off-drawn characters in a dream on the verge of nightmare.
Could he possibly help me? I simply replied “no” and hoped that would end the discussion, and his intrusion in my already frustrated day. I was mistaken.
“Are you sure?” He leaned into the question as he leaned toward me. “You haven’t even asked how I think I could help you. Why would you turn down an offer so quickly?”
“Because. As far as I know, you’re either a plain old psychopath or some delusional psychopath. Either way, you’re probably a psychopath and I don’t like psychopaths.”
Lucio rested his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together. “You don’t have to like me for me to be able to help you.” His next words slithered out, deliberate, smooth, and entrancing. “That really would have nothing to do with it. You only have to decide that your sister’s… strings… are too numerous in number and deleterious in nature to outright reject any other remaining option.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll leave you my card. If you decide that you still need help and you can rise above your pride, use it.”
He tossed his card down on the table and just as quick as he had appeared, he was gone.
I carried Lucio’s card on the walk back to my flat, studying it and contemplating his offer often. What would I have to debase myself to in order to bend for my sister’s “generosity”? What would I have to do in return for Lucio’s? What would really happen if I chose neither?
Back at my flat, with all of my bargain sale furniture, none of which could be converted into enough cold hard cash to make any semblance of a dent in what was due, I was left still pondering the three options that lay before me. Take my sister’s offer and forever be beholden to her strings. Take Lucio’s offer, which I knew nothing about. Or do nothing and let fate take fate’s course.
The dark suspicion in my gut aside, I knew I really couldn’t make any true, final decision until I did know the devil in the details of Lucio’s offer. The devil in the details indeed.
I would call him, but not yet.
First I needed to drink. Eat. Sleep. Necessarily in that order, and assuredly the only things on the menu.
Tomorrow, I promised my self, I would call the number on Lucio’s card and arrange to hear what he had to say. Then, and only then, could a complete stock of the situation be evaluated and a final decision made.
Hunger was raging so I made myself two mustard, pickle, and salami sandwiches, soaked them down with a dram or three of Lagavulin, and after bingeing on tv for a few hours, drifted off to sleep on the couch.
In my dream, I was sitting on a stool beneath a palm frond roof, sipping on a delicious margarita; on the rocks, no salt, of course.
Down the bar from me sat Lucio, in a white linen shirt and beach pants. A brimmed, straw Fedora atop his slicked-back hair. Vintage Ray-Bans hid his eyes.
We didn’t acknowledge each other, but the unease of his presence was still the same. It was almost as if he was stalking me, in my dreams.
There’s no recollection of how long I slept that afternoon but at some point the knock at the door abruptly ended my Caribbean sojourn. Dreams of the tropical heat, the sound of lapping waves, and a beach bar somewhere in the West Indies, with a vacationing Lucio be damned.
Struggling to regain full consciousness, I yelled out to the annoyance on the other side of the door that I was on my way. Whoever it was had the courtesy to not pound on the door after my pronouncement. Thankfully. My head was already pounding and I hadn’t even had that much to drink before falling asleep.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes then peered through the security peephole. I was confused, and I’ll have to admit quite angry, to find Lucio standing on the other side. Not in some tropical get up, but the same suit from our brief encounter at the bodega. How did he find out where I lived? And why did he take it upon himself to come to me before I decided to call him?
Well, I guess I had decided, but there was always still time to change my mind. Plus, tracking me down and showing up at my door was pretty presumptuous, and quite disturbing. Not to mention reeking of desperation.
Nevertheless, I opened the door, leaving the chain in its hook so as to only allow Lucio to see two or three inches of my annoyed face. I had called the psychopathy correctly it now seemed, after all.
My anger rose to the surface, and I was sure it showed in my face. “What the hell do you want?”
“I was sure you hadn’t remembered me.”
“Yeah, I remember you, and I remember you leaving your card on the table and the ball in my court.”
“Yes, well, I don’t know… I just had some odd sense that you wanted to reach out to me. Like, how is it you would say… my ears were burning?” A peculiar grin spread across his face. “Won’t you let me in for a chat?”
“The better question is, how the hell did you find out where I live?”
“It wasn’t that hard, really. And to be fair, I wouldn’t be where I am in life if not for doing my full due diligence in prospective arrangements.” Lucio opens his jacket and turns around lifting it up to show that he doesn’t have any weapons; obvious ones at least. “See? I’m not carrying. I truly mean you no harm.”
Against my better judgment, I closed the door, unlatched the chain, and invited him in. Time was running out on the clock for me, and I was going to call him in the morning, anyway. But still… that nagging unease was raging back up in my gut. It could be related to him, or the matter of my overall situation. Either way, I had decided to hear him out. But how did he know?
He walked into the flat and did a short round-a-bout tour of my rather small abode, then turned back to me. I still hadn’t moved from the door, which I closed behind me, keeping my eyes on Lucio the whole time.
“From time to time, I find myself able to come to the aid of someone in real, honest, desperate need and if my terms are agreed to, which are always simple and defined, then I do. You appear to be just such a person.”
“You don’t even know why I–”
Lucio waves off my protest. “Such details are insignificant to me.” He pulled an envelope out of the inside pocket of his jacket and tossed it on the coffee table. “There’s twenty-five thousand dollars in that envelope. Enough to ease your worries.”
All I could do was stare down at it for what must have been a second or two.
“Go ahead and count it.” he said as his eyes glanced around the room. “I don’t mind. In fact, I’d be a little worried if you didn’t.”
I walked over to the coffee table and picked up the envelope. It was an inch thick and heavy. I opened it to find a stack of $100 bills. After loosely thumbing through it, I closed it and tossed it back down on the table.
Lucio just stood there looking at me intently, with those piercing, gray eyes. “All I ask in return is one item of my choosing.”
“Just one item? For twenty-five grand?” The suspicion in my voice quite apparent. Especially since there was no item that I possessed worth an equal exchange.
“Yes. You need the help, and you really don’t need someone just giving you something for nothing. That doesn’t really help anyone. This way I get to do my good deed, and you get to feel like you weren’t just taking a handout.”
My suspicion had eased a little, I had to admit. Turning more towards curiosity. “And that’s it?”
“A pretty simple proposition, isn’t it?”
“You don’t expect to be paid back with interest, sending one of your goons to break a kneecap or two if I miss a payment?”
Lucio chuckled at my cliché assumption. “No, sir. No goons to be had, or sent. No kneecaps to break.” He looked around the flat once more, seemingly to contemplate what he would take as his payment. “Just one item of my choosing, as I said, and the money is yours free and clear.”
“And I’ll never see you again?”
“Well, I guess that’s all relative, as it were.” Before I could grasp the meaning of his words, I noticed Lucio eyeing a cheap mirror on the wall which he momentarily called me over to with an inviting, “Come here.”
I walked over to stand beside Lucio as he gazed into the mirror. “That’s all you want? That cheap thing?” I asked.
He looked at me in the mirror rather than turning to face me directly and pointed. “That’s all I want.”
“Deal. It’s yours.” Deals can be so easily made, but I learned the hard way, you really need to read the fine print. If you can find it. Or at least pay more attention to the details. The devil’s in the details, remember?
But, I was coming out on the upper end of the deal, or so it seemed, so what did I care if he wanted to give me twenty-five grand for a crappy old thrift store mirror. I was in a pinch, and as far as I could tell at the time, I wouldn’t have to go the extra inch. That wouldn’t be the case if I took the strings that came with my sister’s help. Now though, I wish I had swallowed my pride.
Lucio shook my hand then made for the front door. As he walked away empty handed I called out. “Hey, aren’t you taking the mirror?”
He already had the door half way open. “No. The mirror isn’t what I wanted.”
That odd, he’s-all-drawn-wrong feeling hit me again.
Lucio pointed down at the envelope of freedom on my coffee table and said as he walked out the door, “Don’t spend that all in one place.” He shut the door behind him and was gone.
I plopped down on the couch and picked up the envelope again. I thumbed through it once more, actually giving myself some time to count it. I pulled it out, counting out stacks of a thousand at a time, placing them each on the table as I went along. There it all was. Twenty-five thousand dollars. Free and clear; tax free.
I felt pretty lucky as I climbed into bed. The worry of bodily harm no longer an issue. Not from Lucio, but from who I owed the money.
Tomorrow morning I would wake up, take the envelope and pay off my debt.
But as often is the case in reality… how does the saying go? The best laid plans of mice and men? Or maybe the one I should be thinking of is be careful what you wish for.
Sometime in the night, I was awoken by the sound of my front door being kicked in and then shouting. Splintering wood and shouting. Shouting. Shouting. Shouting.
Before I could jump out of bed, I was being pulled out of it, and onto the floor. Flashlights on the ends of automatic rifles were everywhere. I couldn’t see the faces of the intruders, but I could make out the S.W.A.T. emblazoned on the fronts of their uniforms.
I was flipped onto my stomach, handcuffed, and yanked up by my elbows. No matter how much I yelled at them for their reason to arrest me, they just moved along with their mission.
They did allow me to put on some pants and put a shirt over my head. At least I wasn’t going out naked, no matter how confused I still was.
Not even on the ride in the back of the patrol car was I given any answer for my violent encounter with the police. It wasn’t until I was placed in the interrogation room, with its two-way mirror… even to this day I can’t look into a mirror without nearly having a mental breakdown… that my new reality started to sink in.
As I sat there alone in the interrogation room, waiting for the detectives to come in and tell me what the hell was going on, hands still handcuffed and now to the ring in the center of the table, I happened to look up into the two-way mirror and came face-to-face with the horror of someone else’s face staring back at me.
It wasn’t my reflection returned to me, but Lucio’s.