It’s hard to pinpoint when a story begins. Who knows when that butterfly flapped its wings, churning up the atmosphere enough to send a new tangle of events careening your way? If I had to choose, I’d say this story started early last fall when, for some reason, I woke up feeling unusually good. Not that I normally wake up feeling depressed. As a matter of fact, I’ve learned to keep myself in a fairly tight band—not too low, not too high—and take each day as it comes, and above all, not look for trouble.
But that particular morning there was something about the light suffusing my bedroom and the happy chatter of a gang of unruly crows out in the Doug firs. Or it could have been that the Trail Blazers had dismantled the Lakers in a home basketball game the night before. I’m from L.A., but when I moved up here to Oregon, I left my allegiances behind. Better for a clean start, I figured. As I stretched myself awake, Archie, my Australian shepherd, eyed me from his mat in the corner, his soft whimpers a not-so-subtle request for me to get out of bed, and his big, coppery eyes promising a good day. Of course, for Arch, every day was good.
After feeding him, I ground some coffee beans and loaded my espresso machine. I drew a double shot, added milk I’d steamed to a froth, and carried the cappuccino out to the side porch. The sun was blood-red through the firs and already busy dispatching the last tendrils of fog lurking in the valley. The sky promised that dazzling clarity peculiar to cloudless days in the Northwest, and the outlines and contours out on the horizon were already turning from violet to blues and greens.
It was a Thursday and I was heading to Caffeine Central, which is what I called my law office in the Old Town section of Portland, because it used to house a coffee shop by that name. I spent some Thursdays and most Fridays there giving legal advice to the down-and-out. It was a far cry and a welcome diversion from my one-man law practice here in Dundee, a town of eight thousand that lies twenty-five miles south of Portland in the heart of the Oregon wine country.
Normally my office was a forty-five-minute commute from Dundee, but traffic on the I-5 suddenly congealed on the edge of Portland, affording me a leisurely view of Mt. Hood to the east. Floating on a low cloud bank, the massive white cone was beautiful, to be sure. But it seemed to wink at me that morning, as if to say “I’m an active volcano, too, a Trojan horse less than seventy miles from the heart of your city.”
It wasn’t until I parked in my designated slot that I noticed the graffiti two stories up on the Caffeine Central building, on the side that faces a vacant lot. Stenciled in large black letters, the words ZERO TOLERANCE were enclosed in a red circle. A red diagonal line cut across the words, the universal symbol of rejection. Below the image the tagger had stenciled K209 in red letters against a black diamond, a nickname or moniker of some kind. The image sat at least fifteen feet off the ground, suggesting the tagger had either used a ladder or managed to hang down from the roof somehow. I walked around to the back of the building, but of course there was no sign of a ladder. Nothing of value is left sitting around in the city. The other side of the building was jammed against an equally old six-story structure that had once been a tannery and now housed luxury loft apartments. The gap between the two walls was too narrow for anyone to have used it to work their way up to the roof.
K209 must stand for human fly, I decided.
I stood back, looked at the piece again, and chuckled. I was no fan of spray can vandalism, and judging from the dearth of graffiti around town, Portland’s strict zero tolerance policy on graffiti seemed to be working. But I had to admit that the kid who did this had verve—to say nothing of athletic ability.
I walked away wondering how he’d managed it.
I had a light schedule that day and had just wrapped up my last appointment when Hernando Mendoza called. A friend and business associate, Nando also owned the building that housed Caffeine Central. That wasn’t an altogether easy arrangement, since he was notoriously tight with a buck, but he made up for it by being the best friend a person could have.
“Calvin,” he began, “how was the do-gooder business today?” “Just great, but it got kind of chilly this afternoon. I thought you were going to send someone over to look at the furnace? It hasn’t figured out how to fix itself yet.”
He gave me his patented basso profondo laugh. “Actually, I did send someone over, and we are, uh, awaiting parts.”
“By raft from China? It’s been a month, Nando.”
“Okay. I will check on it. Tell you what, why don’t you join me for dinner tonight? It will be my treat.”
Nando was tightfisted in his business dealings but generous in his personal life, and he didn’t skimp on food…or clothes, or cars, or jewelry, come to think of it. I accepted his offer, and we met at a Cuban restaurant in Northeast called Pambiche. It was housed in a turn-of-the-century Victorian landmark, painted canary yellow and turquoise with fuchsia trim and a swirling, eye-popping three story mural on a side wall. Hardly what the Victorians had in mind, but very much in line with buildings in Havana, or so Nando had told me. He arrived shortly after me, but it took him a good five minutes to work his way through the outside and inside tables before reaching me. The Cuban community in Portland was small and tight-knit, and Nando knew them all. The man could work a crowd.
An imposing figure at six feet four with thick shoulders and an ample girth, Nando wore a long-sleeved black silk shirt buttoned at the neck, cream-colored slacks, and hand-tooled Italian loafers with woven tops. But what people remembered most about my Cuban friend was his incandescent smile and thick, arching brows that moved up and down above a set of dark, expressive eyes.
He greeted me and crunched my hand. “Ah, the smells in this place remind me of home. I am so hungry I could eat two horses.” After advising me on what to order, Nando started off by complaining about problems with his janitorial business and the low billable hours at his private detective agency. An avowed capitalist, he had rowed a boat of his own making from Cuba to the Florida Keys when he was a young man. His PI firm tended to cut corners and play fast and loose with the law, which didn’t sit well with the Portland Police Bureau. That’s where I frequently came in, and my legal work on Nando’s behalf hadn’t won me many friends among Portland’s finest, either. It was a bit of a Faustian bargain on my part.
When I told him about the graffiti on the building, he said, “Ah, those punks with their cans of paint. American kids have no respect for private property. I will find someone to remove it.”
I shrugged. “Might be pricey.”
His eyebrows dipped and a couple of vertical creases appeared on his forehead. “Then I will leave it there.”
“The city won’t like that. You could get fined for not remov- ing it.”
“Fined? Surely you are joking, Calvin. It is my property.” “It may be, but once the graffiti has been reported, you’ll have ten days to remove it, or they’ll issue you a ticket.”
Nando rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Es loco. Always the hand in my pocket. Okay, okay, I will take care of it.”
Our dinners arrived, and Nando speared a jumbo prawn in the mojo sauce on his plate, took a bite. “Madre mía. Qué rico.” He closed his eyes. “These camarones could have been cooked by my grandmother.” I could only nod in agreement since I was chewing a bite of red snapper bathed in a piquant sauce done up with West Indian spices.
Nando opened his eyes and smiled broadly. “I have something to tell you, Calvin.”
That phrase usually signaled an incoming financial zinger. “I can’t afford another rent increase,” I shot back preemptively.
He laughed, and his eyes lit up. “No, no. This isn’t about money. I have met someone.”
I rested my fork on my plate and leaned forward. After all, despite Nando’s reputation as a ladies’ man, he was the prototype of a confirmed bachelor. “You have?”
“Yes. Her name is Claudia Borrego. I met her at a salsa club.” He paused for a moment as if savoring the memory. “At first it was just her dancing. She is a magnificent salsa dancer. But then I got to know her.” He shook his head in reverence. “She is wonderful.” He fished a photo from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. Caught in a dramatic salsa move, she and Nando faced each other, their eyes locked together. Claudia’s back was arched with an arm and leg extended behind her in dramatic fashion. Framed in flowing black hair, her head was tilted up, exposing a finely sculpted face, large almond-shaped eyes, and voluptuous lips.
“She’s beautiful, Nando. How long has this been going on?” He smiled so broadly I swear it increased the light in the room. “Oh, a month or so. Long enough to know she is the love of my heart. We have already begun to talk about the engagement. I am shopping for a suitable diamond ring.”
I sat back and looked at my friend. Hyperbole was his stock in trade, and I loved him for it, but it was clear he was genuinely smitten by this Claudia Borrego. “I can’t wait to meet her.” I told him. And I meant it. The woman who could reel in Hernando Mendoza must be some woman, indeed.
Later that night I took Archie for a walk along the Willamette River, which divides the city east from west. The river caught the light of the buildings and the bridges in perfect reflection until a breeze kicked up. I zipped up my jacket and pulled my hood up as the lights on the water began to tremble. I kept thinking about that starstruck look in Nando’s eyes as he talked about Claudia. I was happy that he’d finally found someone, and Claudia sounded like a jewel. At the same time, a fragment of concern nagged at me like a splinter under my fingernail. I knew Nando would fall in love the way he did everything else—with total commitment and reckless abandon.
Claudia Borrego now held my friend’s heart in her hands. I hoped she’d treat it with care.