Denny “Stonecold” Mercer slipped out of his trenchcoat, damp from the showers of some little-known tropical capital, and hung it neatly over a bamboo chair. He removed his battered, “if this hat could talk, the stories it could tell” fedora and tossed it on the rack in the corner. All without taking his eyes off the woman on the bed: dark-skinned, exotic, of primordial, pre-whiteman breeding.

He’d completed his mission, against improbable odds, and brought home the bacon, squeal and all. He brushed the pleats on the front of his khakis, then undid the tricky knife/camera/buckle and let them fall to the floor. She was looking at him, ancient eyes staring out from the hard young body. He moved across to her, sat on the bed, checking around for snares, eye-holes, or listening devices. He reached to touch her soft, mounded breast and she sighed and rose towards him. “Aren’t you going to turn off the television?” Lluvia moaned softly.

So he turned off the television and tossed a yellow towel over the lamp. And once again sat down beside Lluvia, old eyes in a young body in an obscure tropical capital. Slowly, shyly, she reached up to him. And in the moment her soft hands touched his face he felt a shift inside himself, a deep, tectonic psychic shift, two worlds grinding into accommodation. Here he was. He eased down beside her, drinking in her touch and diving deep into a world where there was just no need to be anybody but himself.

She didn’t much like the looks on Tuan’s face as he viewed the screen of a “VIP” computer in the Presidents’ Lounge. Yes, THOSE Presidents in the Houston airport. He glanced at her, blank, and said, “There’s only one file here, Mei.”

“There should be at least six shots. Things got a little confused there, but…”

“It’s a video.”

That set her back. How could that be? Well, one thing to do. “Let’s have a look.”

He started to shuffle his chair to one side, but she perched on his knee with an arm around his neck and peered at the screen as he clicked the file. There was the usual bevy of idiot Window’s questions and kvetching, then Media Player opened on a close-up on the face of Aphra Alisandra.


Tuan turned up the volume. Aphra, looking into the camera in a mixture of faux embarrassment and possibly semi-valid sincerity, said, “Hey, Chinatown. Hope you’re not in Mexico watching this in a holding cell. Yeah, I took your camera. Beat Townsend to it by a nanometer. Sorry, kiddo. mayancalendargirls.comBut I really need this stuff and I’m not into chasing down that yacht asshole. Thanks for everything and maybe I can return the favor some day. Give me about a six month lead with this shit, okay? Then some day you’ll get an email from “Black Adder”. Respond and I’ll send you your stuff, is that cool? I figure you’re not going to be back up to speed in academia before then, anyway. And I’m going to see if I can make some of your troubles in Mexico go away. Good luck. Hope it works out with the little Flip. I thought he was pretty cute, actually. I mean, you know, considering. I’d nab him myself, but I don’t do short. Or smart. Hasta la vista, baby.”

They both stared at the screen until Tuan moved to shut it down before it repeated. They both sat, MeiMei leaning her head on his. “I gotta admit, she’s kind of cool,” she said. “For a back-stabbing, amoral bitch.”

Tuan nodded absently, obviously lost in thought. Finally he said, “Do you think she can really sort out Mexico for you?”

“I really doubt it. I told you who that asshole is.”

“Then there’s the Old Assholes Network, Mexico Chapter.”

“I don’t know. I really want to know what’s on that thing. Think maybe hypnosis might help? Recovered memories?”

“Aren’t those always about sex abuse by parents and satanic cults?”

“You know what? I’m actually not too keen to get back to work right away. I’ve always been a workaholic but…” she turned to kiss his brow. “I never had any reason to goof off before.”

“An excuse for procrastination and laziness. Few men could aspire to a higher calling.”

“So what’s this O.B. place like?”

“Ocean Beach? You’ll love it. It’s got a special beach for dogs.”

“You’d enjoy Seattle, too. Until it starts raining.”

Tuan reached into his carry-on and pulled out two boarding passes. “Two first class to SeaTac,” he said. “I figured you’d want to touch base with your family.”

MeiMei turned in his lap to hug his neck. And whisper in his ear. “I agree with that bitch on one thing: I hope this works out, too.”

“It has to,” he said. “We already did the honeymoon.”

She was a hundred yards outside the reef, and pushing deeper with every dive. She felt slow and awkward with the strap-back SCUBA fins, but was getting some serious depth. Between recover spells, lying still on the surface with her hands and legs pointing downward, her mind and oxygen metabolism slowed with the meditation Royal had taught her years ago on Roatan. She started to ramp up another hyper-ventilation cycle and series of breath packs and there they were, like she’d known they would be. Knew they would be.That’s the way it was now, for some reason.

Bruto was there first, rocketing past her in his coarse way, shouldering her roughly aside. Her heart jumped. They’d come for her then, and they came to her now!

mayancalendargirls.comShe felt Pinoccio bump her feet, two other bodies slide along her legs, then Caruso made a pass at her waist as she shifted to an upright position, her head up as she laughed and whooped. When Bruto barged back through she caught his muzzle with cupped hands and he dragged her ten yards before diving and shaking her off. By the time she was back to the surface, Chido and Xochil had both nosed by, spinning her around.

Caruso nuzzled his beak into her crotch and she reached down to lean her hands over it. He reacted with a powerful ripple of his frame, powering him into what would have been a surface-clearing leap if she hadn’t been leaning on his nose. She shot up out of the water, balancing on him like the cross stroke of a “T”, then sailing off to splashdown with a happy yelp.

Okay, fellahs, she thought to them, let’s get down and get rowdy. It didn’t hit her right away, not until she was back on shore meeting Gareth and Kenny at the Paraiso, but she felt nothing sexual with the streaking black beasts. Not even a tingle. It had all been like rough-housing with her brothers, or playing co-ed basketball at college. One of the guys. And her guys had come through, had her back.

She lay on her back in the water, with her head lolling back, looking up at the sky. Waiting for one of those scamps to bump by her butt with a fin. And suddenly, out of nowhere, she remembered lying like that on top of an ancient pyramid. And feeling the body, seeing the face, of a man who wanted to offer her heart to the Gods.

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One’s moving away from you on a road that only leads one place, the other one you’ve been chasing for weeks is coming toward you. Which signal do you follow? Eenie, meenie, mo, catch a negress by the toe.

No decision at all, Aphra decided. She’d felt the slight buzz of her tracker and pulled it out for a look. Ought to keep the thing tucked in my thong, she thought, let that vibration do some good. She read the little touchscreen, frowning, then broke into a shit-scarfing grin. Her little sender was heading straight towards her, and at a really good rate of speed, sending steadily now, not the little dribbles it had doled out to her for day after hair-tearing day.

Almost as frustrating as trying to vet that ditzoid Curtsy on what happened to her raid. Goldilocks in the back seat now, you could almost smell her brain burning while she tried to put her junque back together. Or as together as she ever had it. And her pet MayaBoy just sitting there, staring out the window like he’d never been in a car before. She almost thought of Ganzo’s take on travel as “like a little boy”, but not quite: there was that solemn gravity about him. But pretty well just along for the ride.

All she really had was that the boat was long gone, there were pictures of the jade skull but God knew where they were, and that MeiMei was last seen being dragged off naked by some goons. Well, that little chinadoll could take care of herself.

And since the sender in the camera seemed to be coming out of the cold, she evidentially had. Unless somebody else had it now. In which case they would have to be spoken to. The slim Detonix .380 she’d brought incountry inside a lead-lined radio/clock had been under her seat all the way and she was almost wishing there would be somebody to shoot up. She was fed up with this whole gig. She took one more look at the screen, the green dot coming right toward the Chetumal lagoon, and grinned again. “Yeah, baby. Come on to Mama.”

The Navy chopper zoomed in low over the lagoon and hovered over the military pier for two minutes before skipping sideways to set down beside the municipal dock, where several fishermen gave it dirty looks and unappreciative hand gestures. Aphra stood at the edge of the dock, looking for all the world like a tourist, one hand in her stylish Biaggio purse–handy to the grip of the pistol and a few other devices she lumped into the “rotten surprises” category–the other holding up a little digital camera, taking pictures of the nifty little helicopter sitting on pontoons in the middle of a self-created storm like a tempest in a washing machine. She moved the camera away from her eye to admire her shot, thus scanning the read-out identifying its position in the Mexican armed forces and Jane’s abstracts… and a taint of DEA. Hmmph, she sniffed as she resumed “shooting” to conceal her face behind the camera: honkies in the woodpile.

The slick white MacDouglas popped back up and skittered sideways to land on the city pier. And she saw why it had hit the water first, the big, finned, black pod she’d seen between the floats was now revealed as a kayak, bobbing in the water with a guy paddling it in towards the boarding float. He had a hat brim to big to see his face, but looked Mexican. And she got a piece of the picture, right there. Her cute little transponder had been paddling south for three weeks! She just hated these third world scenes.

But wait, who’s crawling out of the helicopter now? Well, on the side toward her, some clown wearing a trench coat. Seriously, a trenchcoat in the tropics. And a Bogart hat to go with it. Now handing out a cute little señorita… whoa, there! What was her name? Yullia or something. Worked in the damn museum. Aphra was getting that feeling.

Looking under the aircraft, she could see a man’s legs on the other side, then a pair of female calves. Something familiar about them, too. Got a feeling…

Then the aircraft just hopped straight up in the air, but leaned towards her a little. She saw the pilot giving her the eye, and a thumbs-up of approval. So glad I pass your checklist, sucker. Then she looked down at the passengers and couldn’t decide whether to do some sitcom double-take or whip out the pistol. MeiMei fucking Chiang and Townsend fucking Hardley, standing there staring at her!

She pointed the camera and took advantage of the fact that it could actually take a picture when it wanted to. This was a keeper moment, for absolutely sure.

She wanted to hold a cool pose until her quarry and nemesis walked up to her, but she heard the door of the Bora fly open like there’d been a bomb inside and the pitter patter of feet running toward her. No need to make the obvious guess: Ms. Mayflower also started running toward her, and now both deserters from her crack commando team were yelling and squealing like sorority girls at homecoming.

But she was paying attention only to Townsend Hardley, stalking up the pier towards her like a gunslinger coming after the blackhat and not amused. She had her gun and whatnot, but Christ only knew what he was packing. Probably some button he could push and she’d get taken out by a hotty-seeking missile fired from an NSA death star. She stood and waited for him, while Lluvia and Denny’s eyes were ponging back and forth from the laughing/crying/hugging girls to the classic showdown poses of their mysterious coffeehouse chum and the Grace Jones lookalike over there. Who also drew the incurious gaze of Ganzo, sliding out of the car and taking it all in.

Not to mention Tuan, who had tied up the kayak and come up the ladder to see the two spies stop and eye each other with a palpable truculence. What went through his head was; Draw, podnah. He saw a simmer that was quite likely to get ugly and realized who Aphra must be. He looked at MeiMei, jerked his head toward the embattled beeatch in question, and got a confirmatory nod. Combined with a touch of trepidation. He knew she had the camera, snapped into one of his waterproof gadget boxes, in the little kangaroo pouch around her waist. And that she’d been pretty clear about not surrendering it to anybody at all. He walked over to the two snoops and tipped his floppy sunhat.

“Hi. I’m Tuan, but you can call me OB. Hope everything’s okay here?”

Town ignored him, but Aphra pulled her dagger-stare away and actually smiled at him. “Oh, yeah, the Flipster. I think I got it now. She made it back to you, you grabbed your canoe there and headed south. I’m not as clear on how you hitched a ride here, but we got time, right? Glad to see the Doc’s OK, by the way. We were worried about her.”

Tuan nodded empathetically and she could read his unspoken attitude even through the semi-Asian inscrutability. Along the lines of: Yeah, sure, you lying niggah ho who obviously had a bug on her all this time and is just interested in getting your hands on the jade. It was nice to be understood sometimes.

Meanwhile, the lying, etc. had been doing some fast thinking. Along the lines of: Gonna be a bitch getting into Belize with Curtsy not having identification and Ganzo, near as I can tell, not even having an identity. But here’s my main man with a chauffeured government helicopter. She looked back at Townsend, who was obviously pissed, hostile, and–whether he knew it or not–hurt. Kind of touching, actually. Despite all the weirdness, and him being on the wrong side of the sexual fence, she had a hard time not feeling a certain fondness for the guy. She looked him right in the eye, spread her hands in a disarming/apologetic way, and said, “Look, we should get along.”

He stared at her, apparently entertaining mixed emotions, and she motioned for him to walk beside her as she strolled towards the far side of the pier. He fought it out, then followed her. Whatever the hell else she was, she was still The Key.

She topped at the edge of the dock, peered down into the murky water. Said, “Hear me out, okay? I know where it is. The skull.”

She took in Town’s netural expression saw it wasn’t just a studied mask: he really didn’t know, did he? He had MeiMei, but didn’t know what it was all about. “What you’re after, right? What we’re both playing for.”

“If you say so.”

She smirked knowingly. “Fine, play it that way. But you got any questions, ask the good “Doctora” there, would she like to hook back up with the talking skull.”

Townsend turned on his heel, went and did just that. When he came back to Aphra he had to turn twice to motion MeiMei to wait where she was and not run after him.

“Okay. You know where it is.”

“That’s right. I got a trace on it.” She pulled out her receiver and held it up. “‘HomerBoy’ here’s all over it. And you didn’t get to sneak in and diddle this one.”

“Didn’t have to. I tumbled the one you’re holding. All cc direct to me.”

“Nice try, whiteboy. We all virgin on this end, dig. So you wanna play? Or you want me to go cop the real goodies on my own?”

Townsend seemed to have frozen up, running the parameters and trying to rule out his own feelings. She stepped closer to him, gave him a little of the eyes. “Listen here. She trusts me. Well, more than she trusts you, anyway. Maybe we can both get what the fuck we’re after and look good, huh? Or maybe one of us can get well and leave the other one SOL. All’s fair, and all that shamizzle. But why can’t we be buddies?”

She looked up at him, a portrait of inner conflict and incredulity. She laughed and tapped his upper arm with her open palm. “Look, I figured out you didn’t know about my mama and your daddy. So that’s all cool. Sorry to kick you out of bed. Oh, and I did the math.”

She left it hanging, but could see he knew what she meant.

“There’s almost no chance we’re related.”

“Great,” he finally said. “Peachy keen. I feel better already.”

“But look ahere. Maybe whoever put you on this knew about our folks? Didn’t happen to mention it to you?”

Townsend glared at her some more, then looked away down the lagoon. He seemed to suddenly unclench, looked back at her and said, “Oh, it’s even more humiliating than that. My old man says they probably picked me for my looks and my way with women.”

She stared at him and broke into a big, wide laugh. “Way with women? So much for their grade of intelligence. And you think that’s humiliating? Listen, I got looks and have my way with women. And the last thing I feel about it is humiliated.”

“Well good for you.”

Aphra waved it off, smiling at him earnestly. “I just think we could be friends. Who knows what sides we’ll be on for the next gig? Meanwhile, I got off on talking with you. We should do lunch.”

“You mean we can still be friends?”

“Oh, no.” She got it then, and almost felt like patting his cheek, giving him a hug. “I get it. Well, that’s extremely flattering. But it wouldn’t work out. We have some pretty big differences. I mean, you’re Baptist and I’m Rastafarian.”

She saw a trace of smile and stepped closer to him. “Let me tell you something else, sugar. I like you. And I liked you even when you were dicking me. Not a common occurrence. So maybe you can take a little ego from the fact that a stone cold dyke finds you attractive.”

“Whoopee. Can you send me a letter for my commendation file?” He stopped and looked down, kicked a scuzzy lead weight into the water. “But yeah. Buddies. Let’s do lunch. I’ll buy.”

She beamed at him, and meant it. “We’ll dutch it. I don’t have many men friends.” Don’t have many friends, period, come to that. “But first let’s scamper up there to the Godfather’s and see can we get to the bottom of this shit.”

He thought it over, then nodded, He stuck out his hand for a truce shake, but when she reached for it, he jerked his hand up and smoothed his hair.

She laughed and moved past him, towards the helicopter. “Too little, too late, homeboy. That copticopter got your hair so blown out, you might need to borrow my pick.”

The pilot had wound down the big Pratt Whitney turboshaft and stood beside the cockpit door, staring blissfully at this little gathering of international pulchritude. When Town asked him about heading for inland Belize he grinned and said, “Totally illegal and a violation of international law and airspace sovereignty. When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as I can herd all these cats. Mind lifting us all?”

“Of course not, I can’t stand being in small spaces packed full of beautiful women.” He seemed reluctant to add, “But we won’t all fit. I’d suggest leaving all the men here.”

“Don’t count me,” Denny said. “I got paid as soon as Ms. Chiang made that phone call.”

He moved off towards the land end of the dock, where a fairly large crowd had gathered; fishermen scowling, joggers ogling, and tourists snapping pictures. Aphra noted the way Lluvia had brightened when he said he wasn’t leaving (and that he was getting paid) and the way she held his elbow as they said adios and walked away. When the Mexican girl passed her she winked broadly and said, “Did I say you could do better than that Luis fool, or didn’t I?”

She slinked up to the helicopter, whose rotors were starting a slow, lazy rotation, and nodded at Tuan when he offered her a hand into the cabin. He’d heard most of Curtsy’s blurted and fragmentary tale and smiled as he handed her up over the pontoons to the deck. “Why are you the only one of these Angels that doesn’t show up naked?”

“Oh, she does naked when it suits her,” Townsend griped from inside. “She’s just not as upfront about it.”

The pilot looked over his shoulder and got a better load of Aphra. “Does she want to sit up front?” he asked innocently. “Much better view.”

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MeiMei estimated she’d have about thirty seconds to talk to her father before the line was overwhelmed, so she blurted out an apology and incredibly lame alibi. She heard herself say, “I didn’t want you to worry,” and caught Tuan’s headshake and half-smile. What’s to worry about having your only daughter chased on the high seas by murdering booty bandits, harried by gunboats and having unprotected sex with a strange man?

She turned to Denny and said, “My father says thank you. He knew your guesses would be correct.” She frowned slightly and covered the phone with her hand to say, “Is that something about that football pool craziness?”

Denny placed his palms together under his chin and bowed from the waist. “Tell him it was the least I could do in service of a true master.”

MeiMei started to say something about that silliness but her head jerked as she heard the upstairs phone–the ivory-yellowed Princess sitting amidst the dark, carved/lacquered dynasty pit of her parent’s bedroom–pick up. She braced herself for the gusher of shrill Mandarin endearments and scoldings that blasted into her ear. She loudly blurted out, “Duì bù qi, MuMu,” and leaned back to ride it out. She was sorry she couldn’t meet her father’s eyes and do the long-suffering eyeball roll they’d been working on since she could talk, but she knew he was seeing her do it.

At last she tried another old ploy, pitching her voice below the slipstream of her mother’s ejaculations and speaking quickly in English. “I’m fine, Daddy. I’ll call every day until Mom settles down. Oh, I met a great guy. I hope you can meet him.”

“I will guess,” the co-champion Guest Guesser of Washington State said over the tenuous connection of electron-bouncing satellites. “Narcotics king? Pirate of Mediterranean? Ancient stone warrior?”

“Very funny, Dad. He’s a doctor of…”

The tirade of relief/blame came to a halt so suddenly she thought the line had gone dead. Then her mother purred, “He a doctor?”

Among the pantheon of attributes of the Chinese race, few rank higher than Increased Offspring and Filial Obedience.

MeiMei clicked the phone shut and handed it back to Denny with a grateful smile. Behind him and the Sonny Crocket stand-in she saw a pretty Mexican girl who a guy in Mexican Marine fatigues and flight jacket was trying to chat up and getting conspicuously nowhere. She turned back to Denny and said, “Say, think my friend and I could hitch a ride back to Kansas?”

Denny looked around: the Gilligan shacks on the Caye, the clear water of the lagoon lapping the piles of the swaying dock, the screaming green of Tobacco, the lines of tiny isles running out in both directions, creating a false horizon between the profound blue of the Caribbean and the unfounded blue of the sky. He looked back at her and said, “You sure?”

MeiMei was having a hard time concentrating, rather than staring out the windows as the helicopter wafted along the reef. leaning slightly to starboard to give a better view.

Denny hadn’t paid enough attention, on the flight out, to Lluvia’s thrilled reaction to her first flight. He’d been more interesting in jabbering at Townsend, asking question the spy found inane and sharing nuggets of detecting experience whose wisdom had reduced Town to a hair away from throwing him out into the sea.

But on the trip back, he leaned forward, tapped the pilot’s shoulder and asked if he could fly lower and slower so Lluvia could enjoy the scenery. Lluvia had rewarded him with a melting smile and the pilot had enthusiastically welcomed her into the front seat to better enjoy the incredible view of the water and stunning proximity of one damned cool pilot.

But there were questions to be answered and MeiMei wasn’t dissuaded by her difficulty in getting anywhere with her interrogation. Denny had no idea how she’d been located and didn’t want anybody to know that; Townsend was professionally reluctant to reveal his methods and gizmos. And didn’t want to tip his hand by being extremely inquisitive as to what had made this pretty, slight, seemingly innocuous Asian woman important to Aphra Alisander and therefore the GOP. That would wait until they landed. At which point he’d have her detained for questioning if he had to. He’d had it right up to his dreamy blue eyes with not knowing what he was involved in.

Tuan had been uncharacteristically silent, just holding MeiMei’s hand as she drilled queries at the two snoops and got nothing out of it but frustration.

He’d given up on figuring it out, other than the obvious role of surveillance devices and a pretty good idea where they were concealed, and his usual curiosity was bubbling up in the thrumming frame of the copter.

He leaned up to ask the pilot, “Why doesn’t this thing have tail rotors?”

The pilot, striking out bigtime with Lluvia, was proud to spiel his machine. “Not required. Channels draft to side thrusters. I direct if here.” He touched a bluntly military joystick control. “This is a beautiful ship, MacDonald Douglas 902 Explorer. We have six of them, patrol for narcos“.

Well, more for illegal immigrants from Cuba lately, but that wasn’t very glamorous and he didn’t like the smug looks and even snickers when he told Americans that the Mexican armed forces were patrolling to keep out wetbacks from poorer countries.

“Do the thrusters create any ground effect when close to objects?” Tuan asked. “If you are heeled over on landing, for instance?”

The pilot was delighted to discover he had a passenger who actually knew something about aerodynamics and would sit still for him rattling on about it. Tuan listened, nodding and absorbing while MeiMei fretted at her inability to get straight responses on how these two jocks had turned her up. She wouldn’t have been all that shocked to learn they were delivering her to Ronchel’s yacht’s helipad, but had made her peace with that risk.

Townsend meditated on how he could turn his possession of the hotly-sought Dr. Chiang into something he could take home wagging his tail and Denny kept his eyes fixed on Lluvia’s face as she drank in the beauty and exciting swoop of the littoral terrain below. She gawked out the window like a child and at times would turn to him and point something out below, her eyes shining. Denny had decided that whatever this McChopper had cost, it was well worth it to keep that light shining.

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“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, mayancalendargirls.comjumped 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?
“Why not?”

“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.”

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