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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“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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