“You see?” Lluvia asked proudly. She swept her hand around, offering the view from the upper deck of La Flota. “It’s not on earth, it’s on sea.”
“Sí, sí,” Denny said, looking up the malecon at the State government buildings and the accoutrements in the park. When you’re right, you’re right.”
There was a slight breeze off the lagoon, alleviating the heat he felt so intensely because of his moronic insistence of keeping the trenchcoat on. This was his first foreign assignment and he meant to look the part. Besides, Seattle people feel naked outside their raincoats.
She sat, poured Lala half and half into her Americano (chosen instead of her usual sweet cappuccinos and lattes as a tribute to her companion) and motioned him to take the other chair. She handed him the cream and sipped from her cup, almost sighing with pleasure. This was how it should be, she was thinking. In a nice place like this, with a nice-looking, interesting man who treated like something other than furniture or a potential love doll. Having foreign coffee drinks. She felt sophisticated, not a common feeling for her. Who doesn’t long to be a chica de Bond?
There was only one other person on the deck, another gringo. Long odds on that. A handsome blonde who looked like a movie star. In The Picture, was the way she felt. She didn’t realize it yet, but she had at that point totally and permanently lost interest in Luis.
At the water end of the deck, Townsend had given them a cursory scan when they came up the ladder. Pretty girl, looks nice and fun. Guy an obvious dumbass from the sticks. I mean, a trench coat? In Mexico? He turned his attention back to the boats at the Co-op dock and wishing that turkey would hurry up and show. He was already fifteen minutes late.
At the shore end, Denny was basking in the interest and general approval rating of Lluvia: the only place he generally ran into pretty women hanging on his words was in his nouveau-rich fantasy life. Continuing to speak fluent Chandler/Gumshoese, he grilled the dame over the lowdown on this Luis mug. “So he takes her to this Cobá thing and she never comes back. Nobody had any questions about that?”
“Yes. Well, only I. And he never answered. I was very preoccupied about her and nobody would say anything. I called the office at Cobá and they wouldn’t say one word to me. Even the Director called them and they are saying nothing. Something is going here. Not right.”
“Well getting to the bottom of not right stuff is what I do for a living, honey. Has anything, anything at all, come up about Dr. Chiang since she left with him?”
“Bueno…. Ah, there was a woman who came to look for her. I talked about that and she said she was going to Cobá to look at Dra. Chiang, but she never arrived there. I thought that was a strange thing.”
“A Mexican woman?”
“Uy, al contrario. Sorry, I mean to say, no. In no case was she Mexican. An American, I think. But she had a strange accents. She was very negra, a black American woman.”
“Really. Did she look like police? Scientist? Reporter?”
“She looked like a movie star. Like Iman or Beyonce or some person of that form. Beautiful, but I don’t know…. Dangerous, like a big cat in the circo.
Badda bing! A chair scraped at the other of the deck and the men’s wear model sitting there got up and came back towards them, threading along the narrow space between the chairs on the starboard side and the handrail to port. He smiled and nodded. “Hi, I’m Town Hardley. You’re American, right? May I join you?”
Lluvia blinked, trying to take him all in. Thinking of Brad Pitt, Keifer Southerland, Gael Garcia. Denny paused. He was starting to get really fond of having Lluvia’s undivided attention and like most males, had the sneaking feeling that if Town was around female attention would be hard to come by.
But Town gave them the hometown ballplayer grin and said, “Hope you don’t mind. I just heard somebody speaking English for a change and she mentioned Beyonce and well, I’m a fan, so I thought I’d come over and say hi.”
Within five minutes of joining them at the table Town was enjoying a half-hearted rapport with Denny and a warm display from Lluvia. And had the conversation firmly routed back to the black woman and the good Dr. Chiang’s mysterious non-whereabouts.
“Why would this doctor go to Cobá in the first place?”
“I don’t know. But it was something about an artifact there. Maybe something from our collection, but before I came to the work here. I’m from Merida and they sent me here directly from the Autonimo.”
“She didn’t say anything about it?”
“I heard Luis say he would show her the placa. That could mean a plaque or badge. But on the phone to Cobá I heard him call it a calavera. That means, you know a cranio.”
“Skull,” Town offered.
“That. A skull. I think they didn’t want him to see it, but he got authorization out of Mexico and took her there anyway.”
“Quite a mystery,” Townsend offered.
“There is no doubt. A disappearing woman, a skull, a guilty bureaucrat. I would buy the ticket and the popcorns, definitively.”
“Everything’s a mystery, kid,” Denny said out of the corner of his mouth. “Until it’s marked solved.”
Townsend nodded appreciatively at that bit of hard-boiled wisdom, thinking, Christ did this guy fall off the turnip truck last night, or this morning? Wonder if he’s “packing” a “roscoe”? He said, “So you’re trying to find her? An investigator?”
“I’m just interested in the Doc. She’s a noted authority, you know.” Which Denny knew because Lluvia had told him on the way over. He saw her glance at him, catching the discrepancy from what he had told her. She seemed to take it as part of the mystique.
“Well, I’m kind of interested in finding somebody, too.”
“And we know who, don’t we?” Denny was not always as stupid as he seemed and had tumbled to the sheer lack of idle co-incidence. “You’re looking for her, too, aren’t you? Tracing her.”
“What? Tracing who?”
“MeiMei Chiang. We’re colleagues, aren’t we? Same line of grift. More like competitors at the moment. You’ve been playing us pretty cute, but you slipped up.”
“Oh, really?” Townsend said. Rhyming it with “chilly”. Can you believe this dickhead?
“Yep.” He turned to Lluvia who was practically gaping, trying to follow the plot without a scorecard. “Hey, doll, does this guy look like a Beyonce fan to you?”
She studied Town seriously. Chiin, que gringo bonito. Then said, “I think all men would be fans of Beyonce.”
“Well, then, amigo. Can you tell me this?” Denny paused while Townsend smoldered. “Name me the title of a single Beyonce song?”
That pissed Townsend off more than anything he’d run into in years. More like, ratcheted up his frustration. Without visibly gritting his teeth, he said, “Okay, you got me, Mr. Intercontintental Op. The black bitch pulled a one-nighter on me, then ripped me off for some important stuff and took off. I’ve got to get it back. So I’m after her ass.”
Lluvia nodded to herself. Yes, this looked like the kind of man who would be in bed with a woman like that. She’d buy the popcorns to watch that, too. In a heartbeat.
“Okay, look. Don’t ask me how I know this, okay?” Denny gave an overacted, “just between us pros” take that Town felt like slapping off his face. “But I think she found Dr. Chiang and is trying to rip her off, too. This thing is big. Like treasure, okay? Maybe. And I can’t say anything more than that. But if you help me out here a little…”
Denny was so practiced and fluent at producing fantasies for his own amusement that lying to others was a sort of performance art for him. He wasn’t as good at it as he thought, but lies work best when people are really motivated to believe them.
“So here’s my proposition. “We team up, pool what we’ve got, go find these broads, turn ’em up and sort ’em out.”
Oh yeah, I’m going to pool info and work with this clown. “You sure turned me over there, pal. You’re some sort of pro, huh?”
Denny pulled out a wallet and produced a rather fancy laminated document with gold seal and goony picture, making sure Lluvia saw it. Townsend took it, but butterfingered. “Whoops, sorry.”
He ducked his head under the table, hand coming out of his pocket with what he thought of as his “Phaser”, and scanned the license as he emerged from under the narrow table. Handed the card back to Denny saying, “Wow, Washington.”
“Washington State,” Denny corrected.
As Denny chattered toughly about the “case”, Townsend flitted his fingers across the keys of his reader, looking at everything they had on this yo-yo Which wasn’t much, but certainly established just who exactly was the chump here. Wrong Washington, asshole, Townsend thought. On the other hand, he did seem to have some big chunks of this. And wasn’t about to just give them up.
“So where do you think Dr. Chiang is?” Denny asked. Neutral, baseline question, like that course he took in San Francisco had trained him.
Townsend paused, apparently deep in thought, actually scanning data on Mercer. And coming to a conclusion. Namely, What the hell? He just couldn’t come up with a reason why this guy would pose any threat or problem. So he smiled and said, “Okay, let’s share. She’s might be heading down the Cayes in a rowboat.”
A bit of a leap, but whatever or whoever was at the other end of that electronic connection was of extreme interest to Aphra Alisander. Unless she’d dumped the bug on some old salt trying to row a dingy to Brazil or something.
“Belize?” Denny wasn’t Miss South Carolina, exactly. He knew what it was and where it was. Another country, for one thing. He just didn’t know jack about it other than that. He looked at Lluvia. “If I go to Belize can you come along? Keep helping and translating?”
Something he caught in her expression gave him pause. “Wait, how many people in Belize speak English?”
She wasn’t sure if he was serious or playing some gringo game that was over her head. She said, “They all do.”
“It’s the official language,” Townsend said, his heavily neutral tone a rebuke in itself.
“Oh. Well, great. How do we get there?”
“The bus runs south from the same station you arrived,” Lluvia told him.
“But probably doesn’t run out the reef?” Townsend looked at her a second and gave it a shot. “Is there any sort of town out on the Cayes?”
“Well, Cayo Tobaco has some hotels, maybe a bar. Docks.”
Ah. He’d seen some docks on the satellite shots from GoogleEarth, but had figured they were all just places fishermen tied up because he’d seen no buildings. He now figured they were thatched-roof shacks in under the palms, a good assumption. They almost had to be heading there. They couldn’t have three weeks of supplies in whatever they were rowing and definitely hadn’t hit any towns on the way. He looked at Lluvia again, not an unpleasant place to look.
“How could I get there?”
Dangerous Den Mercer, fedora crammed back on his head and machete clenched in his pearly whites, jumped off the wing float of the long-snouted Grumman Widgeon into waist deep water. Kicking aside a crocodile, and holding the pesky Artifact over his head, he waded up the beach towards an adoring Chinese beauty tied to a palm tree by four unsavory pirates bent on plundering her. They glared at Denny truculently and went for their side arms. Denny…
“Seaplanes aren’t legal there.”
He was wrenched from his vision by Lluvia’s comment. Damn, no seaplanes?
“I think they outlawed them because narcos were using them so much. You understand, trafficants of drugs.”
“Shut down flight on the whole coast so U.S. junkies can pay more for their dope,” Denny scoffed, further pissing off Townsend, who’d been with the DEA for a year and was probably going back with them after this fiasco got closed out.
Lluvia turned to look at the rows of boats moored south of the municipal dock and waved her hand. “It’s illegal to go over in boats, too. But the fishermen do it all the time.”
Townsend looked at his watch. “I’d been hoping for something a little more efficient,” he said, then looked up at a shifting of the hull and feet on the ladder. “And hey, this must be the guy now.”