“I do it to help,” says the thirty five year old police officer, as she sits across from me. “I’ve known these people all my life. They sometimes hear or experience weird things--so weird and out of the ordinary that even their own families, friends, and neighbors don’t believe them. And if those they trust don’t believe them, why would the police? So they don’t bother going to them. Instead, they come to me. They know I’ll listen. They know I’ll believe them. In the grand scheme of things, it might not be that big of a deal. But that’s alright. If I can, at the end of the day, say that I’ve helped just one person, helped them even just a little, then it’s all worth it.” As she brings the smoking cup of coffee to her lips, she laughs and adds: “Plus, it’s really, really fun.”
There is something very coquettish about her smile which makes me feel like a teenager again. As the morning sun hits her glossy black hair, braided into an elaborate ponytail that hangs over her left shoulder, I can see why people flock to her with their problems: her plumb lips, colored with a maroon lipstick that beautifully compliments her mocha skin, and wide, warm smile, evoke a sense of familiarity, and thus, safety. And yet, the rich hazel eyes have an almost bewitching effect: they seem to want to draw out my deepest, darkest secrets, not so that she may hold some leverage over me, but so that I may rid myself of the burden.
From the second she entered the Café Cola’O, dressed in a very casual t-shirt and shorts, I found myself unable to stop talking. Such is her gift: instantly you feel like you’ve known her all your life.
On a Saturday morning, the Café Cola’O, on Pier 2 of Old San Juan, is not very busy. This suits the both of us; I want to be able to catch all that she has to say and she hates crowds. We sit on shiny silver chairs just outside the café, underneath the green metal arch that holds the stylized cup of piping hot coffee with the name of the place. I offered to meet her in her native Añasco, but she insisted on making the two hour trip through winding highways, bordered by massive mountains, covered in wire mesh to prevent the not uncommon landslide, over old bridges overlooking even older rivers, to Old San Juan because she really loves her coffee and Café Cola’O is her favorite place to get it.
Immediately after ordering, she began to narrate the history of coffee on Puerto Rican soil with the passion and expertise of a true connoisseur. All joy instantly left her face when I told her it all tastes the same to me. Realizing that she did not have a fellow coffee lover as company, she dropped the subject with the obstinate air of the child that is told she can’t have that really nice candy bar calling out her name.
But Rosa recovers quickly and her face is full of expectation with a look that seems to say: “Now that the pleasantries are over, we can get to the real point.”
Naturally, I didn’t need to remind her what that point was. In fact, I never had to tell her at all. Two days prior to our meeting, I had called her precinct, trying to schedule an interview. Having gotten wind of her latest “peculiar little problem”, I wanted to find out more about this intrepid officer. When she finally answered the phone, it took her no more than five seconds to figure out why I was calling. With nothing but my name and my place of employment, she instantly knew what I wanted and why. She has not stopped impressing me since.
“Oh, please”, she says, waving away my compliments. “There’s nothing impressive about knowing there’s a dog in the house when you hear barking behind the front door. N-not that you’re a dog,” she adds, hastily. I vaguely detect hints of blushing.
I can’t help but laugh at the remark as the confident and professional air of the officer vanishes briefly, giving me a glimpse of the somewhat awkward woman beneath.
With my question about the alley, her masterful demeanor swiftly returns.
“El callejόn,” she repeats the words with a faraway look in her eyes.
The cobbled streets of Old San Juan, indeed the whole barrio, seem like a scene frozen in time. Only the dozens of modern cars, with their drivers talking on devices foreign to the original dwellers of the city, break up the illusion. Colorful and evocative of a bygone age, its buildings are works of art that, one supposes, when seen in the hot Puerto Rican sun, must have sparked the idea that perhaps such artistic edifices should be put to good use. Thus, the modern version of the town arose: a thriving tourist trap built upon the shoulders of its natives, full of shops and restaurants that very few of the people living in the surrounding area can actually afford. Instead, they come to admire their heritage or to make a living--street vendors, with their homemade foods, litter the town square, battling for space against the hundreds of pigeons that make the city their home.
Maria Peña is among one of these vendors—-an unassuming woman of seventy two, she has, personally, manned her sherbet cart on that square for over three decades. Monday through Saturday, rain or shine, you can find the short lady, dressed in bright blouses, her short, curly hair white as the marbled statues of the Plaza de Arma fountain, behind her small, silver cart, underneath the massive, rainbow umbrella and smelling as sweet as the homemade confections she peddles--fruity concoctions blended in her own kitchen with the help of her children and grandchildren.
She shoveled out the treat, molding it into perfect scoops, and served it in a fragile paper cup, a welcomed rush of soothing cold in the Caribbean heat, as I asked her about her repeated calls to the police.
“Nobody except Rosa believed me, you know,” said Peña. “I called and called, but they never came. They didn’t call me crazy, but they might as well have. I knew what I saw.”
The opinion of the officers who spoke with Mrs. Peña was unanimous: “I mean, how could you not notice an entire alley? They just don’t spring up over night.”
I must admit that even I was skeptical at first, but there was genuine concern, and fear, in Mrs. Peña’s demeanor when she spoke, in whispered tones, about her experience with the alley. Rosa, too, had noticed this when she talked to Mrs. Peña. Rosa’s mother, being a childhood friend of Maria, asked her daughter to help her old friend, for Mrs. Peña was going crazy about the whole affair, telling everyone about it.
“She was losing her mind,” says Rosa of her first meeting with Maria. “She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. Bags under her eyes. Yawning after every word. It was sad. And it wasn’t even the strangeness of the situation that was doing it. What was really bothering her was that nobody, nobody, believed her.”
And who could blame them? After all, it was a rather farfetched scenario.Rosa leaned in, readying her hands--she has a habit of gesticulating when she wants to make a point--and asked:”Do you climb any stairs where you work?”
I admitted that I did.
“How many steps are in those stairs?”
For almost ten years, I have climbed the steps leading to the bullpen of “El Boriken”, and, try as I might, I could not, for the life of me, answer her.
“What about this: Think of your childhood home. Presumably, you spent quite a few years there. Can you tell me if there were any lampposts on that street? And if so, how many?”
I thought of my two-story home, with its many arches, its light pink paint, the black, iron-wrought gates, and the massive mango tree in the backyard. The street and its lampposts, or lack thereof, were muddled in my memory, but Rosa’s point was clear.
“Do you understand now? A lot of us go our whole lives not seeing what’s right in front of our faces. So, was it possible that, after thirty years of working in the same place, she happened to notice a piece of the scenery for the first time? Sure. Was it probable?” She lifted her cup gently to her lips, and with a coy smile, said: “Eso es otro veinte pesos.”
Though Rosa had no reservations about Mrs. Peña’s story from the get go, I certainly did. It wasn’t until she started to describe the event that I really believed in her or, at the very least, believed that she believed.
“That day,” Peña recalls, “started out like all the others, I guess. Got up at five in the morning, even though people don’t really start coming to the plaza until nine or ten. Just a habit now, I guess. Been waking up before the roosters since I could walk. But, anyway. I made my coffee, got to have my coffee, woke up the grandkids. Around six, I usually head out. I live in Trujillo Alto, so it doesn’t take me too long to get to the plaza. Just another Wednesday. But I do remember something that made me feel strange. Going over the bridge (the Teodoro Moscoso, a bridge lined with Puerto Rican flags, connecting southern San Juan with Carolina) the clouds over the lake looked real scary, like a storm was coming. None of the flags on the bridge were moving either. Real creepy.”
The eeriness of that day, as Maria Peña soon found out, was just beginning. As she drove into the old fortified town, on the way to her usual spot, she saw it. Nestled between two rows of shops, restaurants, and apartments, barely noticeable, was an alley, winding up in sharp angles all the way to nowhere; for the alley, Maria observed, did not open up on the other side of the street nor did any roads lead to it. Curiously, none of the buildings that bordered it opened up to it, having no back or service doors to speak of. Up to that point, Maria had no cause for concern.
The matter was odd, yes, but nothing to be worried about. It was merely an unexpected break in her daily routine, a new potential topic for small talk. Or it would’ve been, had things not become much, much weirder.
Mrs. Peña parked her truck, opened the cart’s rainbow umbrella, took out her folding chair, and began her lonely vigil for customers alongside her little handheld radio. As she listened to the morning’s news, she could not help but think back on that strange alley. She looked around and, seeing not a living soul in sight, decided her cart was safe from potential thieves and made her way to the little alley.
Devoid of people, or even loitering pigeons and dogs, the lonely, narrow alley appeared far larger and more foreboding. Maria made her way up the steep alley, taking in each of its cobbled stones.
“It was so clean,” recalls Peña, as she walked to the end of the alley. “The stones were as old as those of any other road, all broken and stained black, but they were clean and smooth, almost as if no one had ever really walked on them.”
On her way back down the jagged path, she first saw the sight that would plague her for weeks on end. From the cracks between the cobbled, weathered stones, Maria heard a sound like a boiling kettle. Before long, bubbles of dark crimson oozed out of the ground and burst, filling the air with a heavy iron stench. As more and more of these bubbles emerged, the viscous red liquid began to flow down that desolate alley, like nearly unearthed lava carving out a path.
Screams that could’ve woken the dead rung out in that ancient city. Mrs. Peña ran as fast as her legs could carry her, not once looking back at the macabre alley. When she finally reached her cart, she got on her truck and headed home.
That day, she kept what she saw to herself. Her daughter and son-in-law asked her why she had returned so early, but the elderly lady gave no answer.
The following morning, though shaken up as she was, Maria got back on the saddle and headed to work.
“I had to know. I had to know if what I saw was real, you know. I thought maybe it was just rusty water. Or maybe I was seeing things. I don’t know. I just had to go back.”
When she returned, the same ghastly scene unfolded once more. There was no escaping it now: the thing was real.
So Maria Peña did what any of us would’ve done in her place--she told the people who she trusted the most. They ignored her.
“Threatened to take away her car keys,” says Kendra Peña, forty, about her mother. “I wanted to take her to a doctor. What was I supposed to do?”
Maria offered to take her daughter to the alley so she could see the thing for herself, but Kendra steadfastly refused. And then came the phone calls--dozens of calls to the San Juan Municipal Police, calls which were repeatedly ignored. At her wit’s end, Mrs. Peña tried one more approach.
“I went back with my daughter’s camera. If I couldn’t take people to the alley, maybe I could bring the alley to them.”
As if the whole situation was not already weird enough, Mrs. Peña now found that the alley was apparently camera shy. For an entire week she returned to that frightful spot, hoping to catch the walkway in the midst of its grotesque display, but she had no such luck.
Giving it up as a lost cause, she stopped bringing the camera and soon, just stopped going to the alley altogether. Days passed, and the strange alley continued to linger in her mind.
But just when she believed the whole affair to be behind her, a chance encounter brought it all back.
Maria had gotten back to work, taking pains to avoid the alley. As she sat at her usual spot, a certain gentleman approached her little cart. It was a regular customer, a favorite of hers in fact. The elderly lady began to blush when she told me about him:
“Alfonso coming by is always my favorite part of the day. I hadn’t seen him since the renovations on his house started.”
I remembered the occasion well, as I covered it at the time. Alfonso Soto, set designer of the Puerto Rican Theater, had returned from a brief stint on Broadway, a stint made even briefer by his unceremonious firing. A notorious prankster, it was this trickster spirit of his that lost him his prestigious position. At a rehearsal for a new show, he replaced the sound cue of a door shutting with that of a gunshot, giving the lead actor, a rather elderly woman who had, just weeks before, recovered from open heart surgery, a heart attack. Luckily, the lady survived but the managers of the production were none too pleased with Soto’s antics, the latest example of which almost proved fatal.
“A whole block got covered with huge barricades because of all the construction they were doing,” continued Peña. “Got dust everywhere. And oh boy, the noise!”
She further mentioned how she casually spoke of the alley to Soto, omitting the small detail of the flowing blood. But once more she was met with the usual dismissive attitude. This rebuttal brought all of the previous curiosity and anguish rushing back. Enter Rosa Vega.
I was eager to hear her explanation. Weeks had passed since I had first heard of the alley, or callejόn, from Mrs. Peña, months since that lady first saw the strange sight of the bleeding alley that led to nowhere. Dozens of people did I question, all with the same result: They couldn’t say for certain whether they had noticed the alley before or not. Repeated attempts to view the blood phenomenon with Mrs. Peña failed. So, as I sat across from Rosa that Saturday morning, I was quite curious to find out the truth behind the whole thing.
“So, where do you start with something like this? Are these the sort of ‘cases’ you normally handle?”
Rosa laughs. “I prefer to call them ‘peculiar problems’. ‘Cases’ sound too…fiction-y. I can’t tell you the last time I heard an actual detective call it a ‘case’. But yeah, this level of weird is what I deal with,’ she chuckles wistfully. “They’re weird and, more often than not, kinda silly. I prefer it that way. My apologies to Mr. Chandler, but a good mystery doesn’t always need a corpse. But to answer your first question, you start at the beginning.”
“The beginning. So, the alley popping up out of nowhere?”
Rosa nods as she sips her coffee as though she is tasting it for the first time. “El callejόn apareciendo de la nada. Obviously that doesn’t happen.”
“Then the alley had been there all along. Maria just failed to notice it?”
Her right eyebrow raises slowly, annoyance filling her face. “You want to tell the story?”
I make no comment.
“Good. No, the alley was a relatively new addition. In fact, it’s not an alley at all.”
“But I’ve seen it. Maria’s seen it. You’ve seen it. It is definitely an alley. Maria and I walked the whole length of it.”
“You’re half right. There is definitely something between the rows of buildings, but it’s not an alley. That part was easy to figure out. A quick trip to city hall, and a brief look at some construction plans was all it took.”
I can’t help but laugh at how simple the matter is when she explains it. Why I didn’t think to do that is beyond me. But now I was more confused than before.
“Wait, so the alley isn’t real?”
“Nope. There is no alley in any of the plans I saw.”
“So then what is it?”
“Let’s go back a bit. When Maria told me about seeing the alley, I was immediately suspicious. Sure, it was possible that she had just happened, after thirty years, to notice something new which is not that difficult to notice, but come on. Obviously, that wasn’t the case, but it immediately warranted a pretty good question: ‘How does an alley spring out of nowhere overnight? And then when I heard about the blood—-“
“How do you explain that? I never saw it ‘bleeding’.”
“Because you let the gazelle see you. I was the stealthy hunter. I told Maria to go into the alley and I filmed her doing so. As we both expected, nothing happened. But then I told Maria to go back the following day and, lo and behold, the rivers ran red with blood. So, it was a show. A performance. But for only one person.”
The more she explained, the murkier everything became. She saw my growing confusion, and smiled slyly. Suddenly, she plopped her leg on the table and she pointed to the bottom of her sandal. There was something dry, crusty, and red.
“Maria was right. There was something weird about the stone. And it was obvious from the second I looked at them: they hadn’t been walked on at all, though they appeared to be old and worn. That got me thinking. So, I stomped on one of the stones. And, voila!”
She wiggled her foot before removing it from the table. I was still uneasy about the dried blood, to say nothing of her foot so close to my leftover sandwich.
“Relax,” said Rosa, leaning back on her chair. “Pig’s blood. Had it checked. So, here we have an alley that’s not an alley, with stones that aren’t stones, and, on top of all that, it bleeds. For no other discernible purpose than to scare a sweet old lady. All of it seemed so juvenile and…theatrical.”
It was at that moment that the gears started turning. From the broad grin on her face, I could tell she knew it.
“There you go,” she said, holding up her coffee cup in a mock toast. “Told you it wasn’t that hard.”
“But it still doesn’t explain how it got there.”
“That was the one thing that bugged me. Until, that is, you helped clear it up.”
“Me? But we didn’t meet until--“
“Well, not you personally. One of your articles. See, there was no way that elaborate little set piece could’ve been built in secret. So how do you build something without anyone noticing?”
I almost want to slap my forehead when the epiphany hits me. “The reconstruction.”
I marvel at how easily this unassuming police officer managed to unravel a weird, seemingly random web. Satisfied that all questions have been answered, I thank her for her time and for allowing me to share her strange story. To close the interview, I ask what’s next for her.
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s a boy in Lares who thinks one of his customers is a vampire. Might so see what that’s all about,” she says in the most nonchalant manner.
Had the words been uttered by anyone else, I would’ve done a double take. But since its Rosa, I look forward to finding out how that “peculiar little problem” turns out. We say our goodbyes, but not before I suddenly remember one unanswered question. I shout after her as she walks down the pier, a little more crowded now than it was an hour ago.
“Why? Why go through all that trouble?” I ask as I finally catch up with her.
She laughs and begins to walk away. “’Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’ I certainly don’t.”
I watch her navigate the increasing throngs of people, all the while thinking about the strangest interview I have ever conducted.