7. criminal

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August, 2012

Dawn hadn't even broken when Ingrid drove out of the garage, en route to New York City. She dropped her abuelita with friends in Harlem, had a second breakfast with her third coffee and, at seven AM sharp, parked her car at the end of a bridge connecting Rikers Island to the borough of Queens. From there, she hopped on the bus shuttling visitors onto the island and followed the other passengers as they got off and headed for the registration building.

It took forever to have her ID verified, undergo the security check and fill out some paperwork so she could register as visitor. Then another shuttle trip followed, more security checks and more stale waiting until, finally, her name was called and she came face to face with Leon Ortega.

It was impossible for Ingrid to remember what she'd expected. But as she sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair across from this stranger in his dull inmate robes, Ingrid realised how much wishful thinking had been involved in the process.

For a split second, she thought he looked evil. Thought she could see murder in his eyes and blood on his skin.

Then she blinked once and dispelled the notion. It couldn't be. Abuelita's son couldn't be a murderer. He might not have been fully innocent, but he was not some vicious killer, either. The darkness in his eyes was just a manifestation of his lifelong suffering. And his skin – brown, like hers, except a much deeper hue – heavily tattooed rather than bloodied.

"Hello," she said, her voice small and her lips barely smiling. "I'm... My name is Ingrid." She lifted her hand into a tentative wave, rather than stretching it out for a handshake, unsure whether she was allowed to touch him.

His smouldering amber gaze made her shiver.

"I know." His baritone startled her. "It said in the letter."

Ingrid gulped. "Right. Well, um... then you know Sofia is very sorry she couldn't come see you herself, so I... I offered to come check up on you instead. So how... how are you?"

A half-shrug. "Well enough."

"You do... look good."

The faintest of smirks across his mouth. "I do?"

Ingrid straightened up in her seat. "Yes, abue – " She froze and cleared her throat. He frowned. "Sofia will be happy to hear."

"Were you going to say abuela just now?"

Ingrid blushed and stared down at her fidgeting fingers. He wouldn't hurt her if she offended his mother by mistake, would he? Not in there, he couldn't. Still, she would have felt much better telling the truth.

"Abuelita," she whispered. "Your mother, she... she suggested that I call her that. It's just a term of endearment."

"Why? What is she to you? Or you to her? I thought she was only supposed to be the cleaning lady."

Her head snapped up. His questions stoked the fire in her eyes.

"She's the housekeeper," Ingrid corrected, "and my friend. She's not... just the cleaning lady. I actually care for your mother, you know? She volunteered to stand in for my grandma after she learned I'd lost her as a child."

"I'm sorry," Leon said and sounded sincere.

"Don't mention it." She tugged on the hem of her skirt, briefly remembering how the guard had felt her up all over, including between her legs and into her bra. Ingrid pressed her thighs closer together. "Is there, um..." She wouldn't look up from her lap. "Anything you want me to tell your mother?"

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