1952 - 1991
Gus was fourth child in the family, and the only boy. He was sickly as a baby. Born six weeks premature in 1952, he suffered ear infections. His mother hadn’t been able to breastfeed him; she didn’t produce enough milk. He was collicky and had what seemed to be back-to-back ear infections. He had only been able to tolerate soy formula, and later when he’d been started on baby food, he threw up every time he was fed certain foods. He even broke out in hives a couple times shortly after being fed. After months of this, the doctors determined that he was allergic to a variety of food additives.
He didn’t start rolling over until he was nine months old. He couldn’t sit up on his own until he was twelve months. He didn’t crawl until sixteen months. And it was another four months before he began to walk.
His parents taught him the alphabet and the beginnings of reading and spelling, how to print his name and address, and a bit of simple arithmetic, mainly addition and subtraction. The idea was to prepare him for school, of course, but also they wanted to help him build some self-esteem. In this, they were successful; he was proud of the things he could do better than the other children in the neighborhood.
When he was sent to school shortly before his sixth birthday, he was as ready for learning more as he could be. But in the first week, he told his father that he’d been tripped and hit by another boy. Arturo Gonzalez went to the school to talk with the teacher and the principal that Friday.
On Monday, little Gustavo came home crying, shirt torn, eye blackened. He handed his dad a note from the school principal.
Dear Mr. Gonzalez;
Gustavo has been in a fight with the boy we spoke of on Friday. It is unclear who started it, but as fighting for any reason is against school policy, both boys have been suspended for three days.
We trust that you will have a discussion with Gustavo about conforming to appropriate behavioral standards while on school grounds. Continued failure to conform to this standard will result in further disciplinary action being taken.
The other boys’ parents have also been informed of the situation.
Arturo read the note again, shaking his head. From what he could see, that other boy was a straight-up bully. The only thing that would keep him away from his son was if the people at the school kept close watch or transferred one of them to a different class. But he knew that was unlikely; the school was more likely to insist that the boys learn to get along. Normally, Arturo might have agreed, or at least pretended to agree. But the school system didn’t normally care so much if a Latino child had problems. Just as they didn’t care so much if Negro kids had problems. More and more, they schools seemed inclined to just pass them from one grade to the next, just to get them through and out of their hair, and hope they didn’t disrupt classes too much. And if they did, there was always the option of suspension or expulsion.
Gustavo loved his classes; he was a quick learner, which the teachers in each successive grade attributed to his desire to make up for his lack of physical prowess. He did poorly in gym class for two years, and was usually the last chosen for team sports. But he managed to slide through with a passing grade anyway.
That summer after second grade, there was an unexpected addition to the family. Arturo and Marta Rivera had adopted a baby girl. They told Gustavo that Maria was his cousin, and that it was his responsibility to look after her as she grew. Seven-year-old Gustavo nodded solemnly in acceptance.
Gus was well on his way to becoming a lackluster student by the third grade. But his teacher that year, Mr. Milner, quickly realized what the problem was. Gus lacked the physical abilities of his classmates, which affected his self-esteem. The teacher sent a note home with Gustavo requesting a parent-teacher conference.
Three days later, they adults spoke of the boy’s physical shortcomings. Mr. Milner understood very well, having seen similar difficulties in his long teaching career. He told them he thought Gus would do well to take martial arts lessons.
At first, both parents objected; they were perfectly happy that their son was not a rough boy always looking for trouble. But Milner spoke eloquently of how he’d seen far too many children like Gustavo become bitter as they grew up, disgusted with themselves for being weak and easy prey for the bullies and other assorted troublemakers. He convinced them to let Gus try it out, and gave them the phone number of a friend who taught karate. Gus, for his part, seemed enthusiastic as he always was when there was a possibility to learn something new.
They made an appointment to visit the dojo that Saturday afternoon for a tour and interview. The instructor met them, Gus, his parents, and little Maria, at the front door; he was there early specifically for that meeting, having spoken with Milner even before Milner had requested the conference with Gus’s parents. The little girl was wide-eyed and quiet throughout, seeming to be paying attention to everything.
Master Kline showed them the training floor with all the equipment, explaining how it was all used to develop into a skillful martial artist. He also told them that karate was designed specifically so its’ practitioners weren’t hurt when they were forced to fight because they learned how to use their opponent’s strength against them, but also to use only necessary force to stop the attack while doing as little harm as possible.
When Gus’ parents, especially his mother, seemed skeptical about their little boy being able to learn something like karate, Master Kline pulled out his ace in the hole. He took them past the honor wall, where they saw photos of former students and glass cases with trophies matching the names under those pictures. When they asked what the point was, he took them into his office. When they were seated, he opened a file cabinet drawer and took out a few folders, passing them over to the Riveras. He asked them to look at the first sheet in each folder, then look at the last sheet.
After the first few folders, Arturo set them aside. He had seen enough, and his wife, Gloria, had nodded her agreement. They discussed starting dates and costs, and were surprised to learn that there was a little-known scholarship program that would pay for most of Gus’ lessons up to and including his earning a brown belt.
In response to the look on their faces, Master Kline said, “This program was set up specifically for low-income children. There’s another dojo, on the lower East Side, for those kids who are already strong. Here, we specialize in boys and girls who have problems with physical abilities. That’s why I showed you those awards and these folders, so you would see that we actually do turn out champions.
“Gus’ teacher, Mr. Milner, has been my friend for many years. Ever since I got ths dojo started, he’s been sending kids to me. Kids just like Gus here, who might otherwise fall through the cracks and come to no good even if they managed to survive to adulthood.”
Arturo and Gloria signed the papers, and Master Kline thanked them, shook their hands, and then shook Gus’ hand, welcoming him into the class. He gave them a copy of the papers they’d signed, and told them that the next beginner class would start the following Saturday afternoon, and that classes were conducted on Wednesdays as well. He invited them all down during the week to observe how the class was conducted.
Gustavo liked the karate classes almost as soon as he started. He got the hang of the exercises quickly, even though at first he was tired out afterwards until he built up strength and stamina. He didn’t exactly bulk up, but he showed clear improvement in coordination and balance. By the time he finished his first year, he’d already earned an orange belt, which surprised everyone except the sensei. Master Kline had seen it happen many times, even with kids as young and weak as Gustavo.
He hadn’t had many problems with the bully after third grade, when he was able to dodge any blows the boy tried to throw at him. The last time had been in fifth grade, when the boy over-extended his reach and fell on the sidewalk outside the school, breaking his hand as he landed. The scream could be heard half a mile away.
Gustavo got in trouble, of course. His father was just barely able to keep him out of the Juvenile Detention Center, even with the dozen or so witnesses to the incident; not just other kids, but a couple teachers and crossing guards as well, stating that the boy had tried several times to hit Gus and missed and fell over his own feet. Gus had not once swung back, merely dodged the blows.
During that time, Maria became what some call sickly. Around two years old, she still wasn’t able to walk and had trouble standing up, even holding on to something. Doctors discovered that one of her legs was growing faster than the other. So was one of her arms. She also had sciatica, causing pain all along the sciatic nerve from her lower back down her short leg; and scoliosis, a heightened curvature of the spine. A steel plate was implanted on her hip, and the Riveras were told that it would have to be replaced every couple years until she was grown. Then they discovered that her sight wasn’t developing as it should, and that she’d need glasses all her life. And at age four, she started having grand mal epileptic seizures and had to be put on drugs to control them.
By the time he got to junior high school, seventh grade, Gustavo was a brown belt and well into training for the black. His physique had changed more from maturing than from his training; his build was still slim, but he was no longer the sickly child he had started out as. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Universe material and never would be; but he was fit enough to hold his own in just about any situation that came up with other kids. He’d earned his first degree black belt by the time he started high school, and had just passed the test for second degree the day before graduation.
Maria, too, had grown, and insisted on going to the dojo to watch her cousin practice. She’d raised such a fuss that Arturo and Marta had reluctantly consented to let her go as long as she listened to her older cousin. Maria agreed; by that time she’d come to adore Gustavo and value the time she was able to spend with him, just as he had come to love his little cousin, who was his cheerleader in all things.
She’d wanted to take the karate class herself. Although she qualified otherwise due to her disabilities, the rules of the program were that only one child from a household could qualify for the scholarship. The Rivera family couldn’t afford to pay for the class themselves. On the back porch of their third-floor apartment, Gus began to teach Maria a little of what he’d learned.
After high school, Gus decided to join the Air Force. The recruiter commended him for the decision, telling him that he was too smart to be a ground-pounder in the Army or Marines, or even a sea-going bellhop in the Navy or Coast Guard. This was after he’d taken the battery of tests needed for military service. He might have gotten a big ego boost, but his karate had stood him in good stead. Pride was acceptable, but don’t let it be the controlling factor; many martial arts practitioners had been defeated simply because they didn’t think they could be beaten.
When he’d left, Maria became uncontrollable. No She refused to do her school work or her household chores. She began staying out all hours of the night and skipping school. After much talk and many tears, Arturo and Marta Rivera agreed to send Maria to the Greer School in upstate Millbrook, New York. Gustavo didn’t find out about it until he came home on leave from basic training. He was not happy, and argued with his parents for two days before leaving early for his next duty station.
But all did not go as he had planned in the Air Force. Pilot training was ruled out when it was discovered that Gus didn’t have 20-20 vision or better. So he was given a choice between electronics technician school or going in to the Military Police.
After completing his training, he found himself stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City. He rarely had any duties beyond guard duty at one of the gate entrances or patrolling the base. In his six years there, he was assigned to base perimeter patrol, gate-keeping, and twice to stockade duty, watching over the airmen who had gotten in trouble enough to be locked up.
He thought it odd that, of all the airmen in his unit, he was the only one who hadn’t been sent to Viet Nam or anywhere else overseas. But he never questioned it. He just accepted that that was the way it was. Then the war was over, and it seemed he’d never go anywhere in his job specialty while he was in the service.
He’d been promoted on finishing basic training, and twice more while stationed at Tinker. Both times were for meritorious performance of duties in tracking down airmen who had fled after being involved in drunken violence with civilians in O.K. City. He’d found one in a bar watching strippers dance on stage; the other he’d tracked to Memphis, where the airman had been arrested for fighting with a Marine stationed at the big air base in Millington. But when his time was up, he didn’t re-enlist. Instead, he applied for a variety of police and investigative jobs. His six years as an MP stood him in good stead wherever he applied, giving him a choice of where he wanted to work, and for whom.
Just as he was about to accept a position in Florida, he received word that his cousin Maria had come back to NYC after she’d turned eighteen. She’d gone to see her aunt and adoptive mother. Gus’ mother. They’d gotten into an argument, and the elderly woman had kicked her out of the apartment.
Nobody ever told Gus what the argument had been about; but apparently it had been bad enough that Maria decided to leave town without telling anyone. Gus wasn’t happy about that, but he knew that Maria was headstrong, while his mother could be imperious. He hoped his cousin would stay in touch with him, but he decided he wouldn’t hold his breath waiting for her to call.
Gus accepted a position with the New York City Police Department, reasoning that it would let him be close to family, in case any word of his cousin was passed up the grapevine.
As an NYPD junior officer in Queens, he distinguished himself with his strict attention to details. He was soon given the nickname “Sherlock”, after the 19th-century detective in the novels and the old black-and-white movies who solved cases by finding small details and fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. He also developed a reputation for working better alone, and because he was so good, the Department allowed it, as long as he continued solving crimes.
In his spare time, he searched for Maria, finally tracking her down through the rumor mill. She’d been living in the general area where she’d been sent to school in Poughkeepsie, about eighty miles or so up the Hudson River from NYC. He decided to take a week’s vacation and go to see her.
He rang the buzzer next to the entrance of 210 Main Street, a four-story split building with a driveway under a walkway between the two halves. A voice came over the intercom crackling with static and breaking up slightly from the bad connection.
“Who is it?”
Gustavo asked in turn, “Are you Maria Montalvo?”
“Who wants to know?”
“It’s Gus, Maria. Can I come up?”
“Gus? Gus who?”
“Your cousin, Gustavo Rivera.”
A buzzer sounded, and he grabbed the handle and pulled. He quickly found the elevator, an old Otis passenger lift. He pushed the up button and waited for it to arrive. When it opened, a petite, lightly dusky girl with a big afro-style head of curly black hair stood there staring at him. Then she threw herself at him, her arms going around his shoulders with more strength that a woman her size could possibly have. She held him for a few minutes as he put his arms around her and squeezed hard enough to take her breath away. They just stood there, holding each other, as a couple other people walking by gazing at them curiously.
They let go of their holds almost simultaneously and stepped back, gazing at each other silently.
Maria broke the silence first. “How did you find me?”
Gus smiled. “It’s a long story, cuz. You got any Bustello here?”
She laughed. “It’s the only coffee I drink. Come on up and I’ll make some.”
She led him onto the elevator and took him up to apartment 4-G. She put the key in the lock and turned, but found it unlocked. “Damn, I came running out so fast I forgot to lock it.” She giggled at herself. “See what you did to me, Gus?”
They went inside. Maria made sure to lock the door, then added, “Sientate, por favor. I’ll go make the coffee.”
Instead of sitting, Gustavo walked around the living room, checking out his cousins’ décor. He stopped to admire a print of a bullfight on one wall, above the sofa. He’d moved to an eight-by-ten photo of Maria in a soft light, giving her a sculpted appearance, when she re-entered the room.
“That’s my graduation picture. Imagine that; I actually finished high school. Can you believe it?”
Gus smiled. “How many times when we were growing up did I tell you that you can do whatever you set your mind to do? Of course you finished, Maria. I never doubted you would.”
Maria smiled warmly. “You’re the only one, Gus. Muchas gracias.” She sat down on one end of the couch under the bullfighter print, patted the space next to her. Gus sat down, just inside an arms’ length.
“The coffee will take a few minutes,” Maria said. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. I’m just glad I found you. You know you were always my favorite cousin, right?”
“Yeah, I know. So how did you find me?”
“Mostly from rumors. Friend of a friend of a friend. This one saw you there, another saw you here, another saw you somewhere else. That kind of thing. But finally I went to Tio Matias and asked him if he knew where you might have gone. You know he always knew things nobody thought he could know. And nobody could ever figure out how.”
Maria smiled wistfully. “He was my favorite uncle. Mucho better than Tio Eduardo.”
“Sí, prima, yo sé. He’s un cabron grande. Anyway, Matias is the one who told me what really happened. I know because I asked mi madre. She was muy furioso, telling me it’s none of my business, that nobody was supposed to know, but she verified what he said. He told me about you being adopted, and nobody knows who your real mother is. He said he knows, but if he told me, there would be muchas problemas in the family. But he also told me you were here. He even had the address. I don’t know how. I’m a cop down in the City, and I couldn’t find anything past that group home you were in and the school you went to.”
“Yeah, I told Tia I wanted to come home, that I’m tired of living in this little place and I miss the City. She said something about how I always think I’m so special but that I’m not the only pinche puta in the family. Can you believe that? She actually called me a fuckin’ whore, Gus. And she said the other whore came from the same place I did. But I have no idea what she meant by that.”
“Me neither, chica. Matias wouldn’t tell me either. But you know I still love ya, cousin, and Matias said to give you his love too.”
“Gracias. Who else knows where I am?”
“As far as I know, only me and Matias. I won’t tell anyone else if you don’t want me to.”
She smiled warmly. “That works for me, primo.”
They talked a while longer, reminiscing about their childhood days when Gus had appointed himself Marias’ protector from the other kids who would pick on her. His karate lessons came in handy, and he taught her a little self-defense as well, just enough to handle the neighborhood roughnecks who thought it was so much fun to hassle a skinny little girl with one leg enough shorter than the other that she limped all the time.
He noticed that she didn’t limp as much now, and was happy for her.
As it grew on toward evening, she said, “I haven’t gone shopping yet, but we could go around to the restaurant on Market, about a block away.”
Gus stayed the night, sleeping on the couch when they both got so tired they couldn’t keep their eyes open. They spent a lot of time with each other, catching up, going to movies, walking or driving around. On the last morning, after a big breakfast, he gave her his phone number and made her promise to call if she needed anything. He told her he’d come visit again soon, and maybe stay a few days next time. They walked out to his car together. He gathered her up in his arms and hugged her tight, then opened the door and got in, turned the key, and drove off, leaving her with tears running down her face, happy to have reunited and sad that he was leaving so soon.
Gustavo made a name for himself in the New York Police Department. He solved cases that seemed to baffle his fellow officers, who didn’t understand how he did it working without a partner. But his rate of success brought him to the attention of the New York field office of the FBI.
After an interview, he was offered a position with the Bureau. He accepted. They sent him to Quantico, Virginia, for training, after which he was transferred back to New York City, the same branch office that had recruited him. Again he distinguished himself by solving cases alone, without consulting his assigned partner. He was reprimanded for it, but his record of arrests came to the attention of Martin Rothman, director of special operations in the agency’s home office in Washington.
Rothman gave him the rare opportunity to work without a partner, but with the caveat that he’d better produce results. So it was that Gustavo Rivera became a lone wolf within the Bureau, able to choose his own assignments, in spite of the rules against such things.
Then came that serendipitous stumble into another special operation ran by Marty Rothman: the wide-ranging investigation being conducted by Special Agent Charlie Richardson...