Feb 26 2013 6:45pm
Evil in All Its Disguises by Hilary Davidson is the third Lily Moore mystery and is set in Acapulco (available March 5, 2013)
When travel writer Lily Moore joins a group of journalists for an all-expenses-paid press junket to Acapulco, she expects sun, sand, and margaritas. Instead, she finds that the Mexican city, once the playground of Hollywood stars, is a place of faded glamour and rising crime. Even the luxurious Hotel Cerón, isolated from the rest of the town, seems disturbing.
Skye McDermott, another journalist on the trip, asks Lily for help with an article she’s working on about fraud and corruption in the hotel industry. But she also lets slip that she’s deeply upset at a lover who jilted her, and she plans to exact her revenge by exposing his company’s illegal activities.
When Skye disappears suddenly, Lily suspects her friend is in grave danger. Too late, she realizes that she has been maneuvered into the role of bait in a vicious, vengeful plot. Faced with unthinkable choices, Lily must summon all her strength to survive, confront the past she’s still running from, and save other lives.
The snake had coiled itself halfway around my ankle by the time I spotted it. Cool and smooth against my skin, it inched across my sandaled foot, turning its head back and upward to meet my gaze. Its slender body was striped with red and yellow and blackish brown. Even though its eyes were all but invisible in its glossy dark head, I was sure it was regarding me with pure defiance.
“Welcome to Acapulco, Miss Moore.” The hotel clerk’s voice echoed from far, far away. “Is this your first time here?”
I wanted to answer him—it was my first time in Acapulco, not Mexico—but my tongue had gone sandpaper-dry and my teeth were grinding together. A soft noise escaped from the back of my throat.
The clerk didn’t notice. “You will enjoy your stay at the Hotel Cerón very much, I promise you.”
The snake gave an excited shiver, and then abandoned its perch atop my foot, slithering toward the shadows under the reception desk.
Stepping back several paces, I took a deep breath that didn’t quite fill the pit in my chest. “That snake isn’t poisonous, right?”
“What snake?” The clerk’s buoyant mood instantly deflated. “Where?”
“Under your desk.”
The clerk took a couple of steps back and looked down. The whites of his eyes were startling against his deep tan. The reception desk was a tall wooden counter carved into a series of archways that wouldn’t have been out of place in a church; the openings were fitted with wrought-iron grates. The snake was weaving its way through the slits in the metal, as if on an obstacle course. Briefly, it lifted its head and flicked its tongue, seemingly pleased at being the center of attention. When the clerk screamed, a bellman came running in, and I backed away some more. When I looked at the floor again, the snake was gone.
I stared at the tiles, holding my breath and waiting for it to reappear. The clerk and the bellman were on the floor, hunting under the desk and cursing in rapid-fire Spanish. The only word I caught was venonoso— poisonous—which wasn’t reassuring. I looked around the lobby. The Hotel Cerón had seemed so charming as I’d strolled in five minutes earlier. There were antique wooden tables with clawed feet and chairs with elaborately carved backs fitted between plush white sofas. The room was dolled up like a Technicolor film set from the 1950s, with its pink tile floor, turquoise pillows, and silver vases holding long-stemmed fragrant pink flowers. Scattered around the walls and on the squared-off columns was a series of black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars who’d famously made this Mexican resort town their playground. There was a print of my idol, Ava Gardner, who’d brought Frank Sinatra to Acapulco on vacation. I also noticed a shot of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd, who’d gotten married at a local villa. The retro atmosphere had immediately made me feel at home, until the snake decided to give me a personal welcome.
“Do not worry, Miss Moore. We will find the snake,” the clerk said. The bellman was stretched on the floor, peering under the reception desk.
“I’m sure you will.”
“It is very common to see snakes and lizards here, you understand. Even in the water, there are snakes.”
“Lovely.” I wasn’t phobic about snakes, but I preferred them behind glass, as they were at the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. “I guess it’s too late for me to get back on the plane?”
Behind me, someone said, “Lily?”
I turned and saw Skye McDermott standing by a pillar. She was blonder and thinner than she’d been when I’d last met up with her, but her heart-shaped face and wide-set gray-blue eyes were instantly recognizable. Now that her hair was platinum, she looked more like Jean Harlow than ever, though her features—eyebrows full, not tweezed into a thin 1930s line, and lips glossy, not painted into a bow—were modern. If Harlow were making movies today, she’d be a dead ringer for Skye.
“I had no idea you were on this trip!” I was thrilled to see her. We’d traveled together countless times over the years, and even though I rarely saw her outside of press junkets, she was the best travel companion I could ask for.
“It’s good to see you, Lily.” Her voice was thin, and it quavered on my name. As I went toward her, I noticed her skin was red and blotchy, as if she’d just been running. Up close, her eyes were swollen. Still, she gave me a smile and pulled me into a hug. Skye’s shoulder blades cut through the delicate black silk of her dress, making her seem terribly fragile. Barely five foot two, she was wearing four-inch heels that made her almost the same height as me in my low-heeled sandals.
“What’s wrong?” I pulled back gingerly, untangling myself from the long, flapperlike strand of reddish orange beads she was wearing. Up close, I could see how heavy her makeup was. She looked gorgeous but exhausted, with purplish half-moons under her eyes that no concealer could cover; I knew, because I’d tried to cover up plenty in my time.
“Nothing. Just, um, allergies. They’re awful here.” She smiled at me, but I wasn’t convinced. Skye had a definite flair for the dramatic, but she wasn’t someone who walked around weeping. She was usually gregarious and irreverent, and an incorrigible flirt. “What were you saying about a snake?” she asked, swiftly changing the subject.
“One wanted to get to know me better.” I looked at the tiles again, but they were serpent-free. “I don’t know where it crawled off to, so keep your eyes peeled. I didn’t see its fangs, but the clerk thinks it’s dangerous.”
“Ugh. There are creepy-crawly things all over the place here,” Skye said. “You’d think the humidity would get rid of them, but the only thing that kills is humans.”
“Your luggage is already in your suite, Miss Moore.” The clerk slid a small envelope across the counter. I retrieved it, stepping lightly near the desk. The number 527 was scrawled on the front; tucked inside were a pair of electronic key cards.
“If you will go upstairs, a waiter will bring your dinner to you,” he added. “The kitchen will have everything ready in less than half an hour.”
“But how do they . . . ?”
“Steak, medium rare. Grilled root vegetables. Champagne. Crème brûlée,” the clerk recited. If someone had asked me to name a few of my favorite foods, those would all be on the list. “Miss Denny Chiu arranged for everything for you.”
That cleared up the mystery. Denny was the public relations person who’d organized the trip, and she knew me well. Before I left my apartment in Barcelona, she’d sent me a travel pillow; when I’d arrived at my friend Jesse’s place in New York, I found Denny had couriered over a margarita-mixing kit, complete with a pair of cobalt-rimmed glasses from Mexico. Journalists tended to be spoiled on press trips, but this was above and beyond. Before I could say a word, Skye made a gasping, choking sound and burst into tears.
I put my hand on her shoulder, and Skye got herself under control quickly. “Sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Don’t apologize.” I rubbed her back, like I used to do for my sister when she was sick, feeling the familiar anxiety welling up inside me.
“I’ve been . . .” She shook her head, brushing her fingertips across her cheekbones. “Things have been so awful, Lily.”
“Do you want to come up to my room to talk?”
She took a shuddering breath. “Would you . . . would you mind coming with me to the bar instead?”
It was close to eight, and the thought of dinner was more appealing than a cocktail. But Skye was distraught and I couldn’t say no. “Sure. We can have a drink and talk.”
“It’s this way.” Skye put her arm around my shoulders, leading me under an archway and along an empty hallway decked out with bright blue tiles and gilded moldings.
“Do you want to tell me what made you cry back there?” I asked her once we were out of the clerk’s earshot.
“It’s just . . . this is going to take a while to explain.”
“Should I guess? Either you and Ryan are back together, and you’re trying to figure out how to leave him again, or else you’re dating someone new and he’s making your life hell.”
“Wow.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “You know me pretty well, don’t you, Lily?”
Skye had been engaged to a wealthy hedge-fund manager back when I’d been engaged to a man named Martin Sklar, but neither proposal had resulted in a trip down the aisle. Maybe that was part of the reason Skye and I had bonded so well. We both had strange push-pull dynamics in our personal lives that left us perennially uprooted. No wonder we’d become travel writers.
“So, which is it?”
“Ryan and I will always be close, but I’m never going to marry him,” Skye said, leading me up a short set of steps. “It’s hard, because he’s such a great guy, and he’d be such an incredible dad.” Her voice was wistful. “But his dream is to get a house in Connecticut and have four kids and a dog and a white picket fence. The thought makes me feel like I’m being smothered. But the worst part is, every other man I meet is such a rat.”
“They aren’t all rodents,” I said, thinking of a man I knew in New York, a cop named Bruxton. He was part pit bull, but I hadn’t detected any rattiness in him.
“Well, the ones I meet definitely are. The latest one takes the cake for being a total bastard. Then I end up crying on Ryan’s shoulder, because even though we’re not together anymore, he’s still my best friend. The times we’ve gotten back together never work out. I feel so guilty, because he usually dumps whatever poor girl he’s seeing, and I keep breaking his heart.”
It was my turn to give Skye a sidelong glance. When she described her ex, he sounded like a cross between a hopelessly devoted lapdog and a limp dishrag. I’d met Ryan only once, a couple of years earlier, at a convention of the Society of American Travel Writers in Germany. He’d struck me as shy but intelligent, with old-fashioned manners that made me like him. We’d had dinner together one night with a group of journalists and their partners in Dresden, and I remembered Skye ridiculing Ryan for wearing jeans and looking schlumpy. You’d never know how much money he makes, would you? she’d asked everyone at the table, embarrassing us all into silence.
There was an odd kind of intimacy you developed from traveling with other journalists. People revealed a great deal about themselves on the road; taken out of their element, they bonded with strangers quickly, revealing secrets their closest friends back home didn’t know. But road-friendships often didn’t translate into real-life ones. That dinner in Germany was the only time I’d had a meal with Skye and Ryan together.
“Here we are.” Skye pushed open a wrought-iron door filled with panes of opaque red glass.
My stomach rumbled slightly. “Have you had dinner?”
“I can’t even look at food these days.”
“I noticed you’re a bit—”
“Emaciated,” she filled in. “I’ve been kind of sick the past couple of months.”
“I’m so sorry. Is it . . .” Is it serious? I wanted to ask, but Skye gave a sharp little laugh.
“Don’t worry, Lily, it’s not contagious.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“I’m fine. My doctor says a lot of it is stress-induced.”
As we entered the bar, the host gave us an extravagant nod—almost a bow—and unfurled his arm to indicate that we could pick any seats we wanted. It was a polite but unnecessary gesture, since the place was empty except for its staff.
The Hotel Cerón’s bar was a study in scarlet and black. There were tall wrought-iron gates acting like privacy screens, with crimson and fuchsia flowers climbing through them. The room had an upper level that was dominated by a bar counter covered in mirrored tiles; on the wall behind it, jutting out between bottles of tequila and mezcal, was a giant, genderless face. Its features, shaped in plaster, were human, but the way its eyes popped in opposite directions and its mouth, filled with pointed teeth, opened in a scream startled me.
Skye must have noticed me staring, because she said, “That’s copied from the ruins of Xochipala. Have you been there?”
“No. Is it nearby?”
“It’s in the same state as Acapulco, but it’s a pain in the ass to get to. It was looted decades ago, but there’s still some interesting stuff there.”
She was quiet while I looked around. The carved wooden tables and ocelot-patterned upholstered chairs around the bar were elegantly tame. The floor at the center of the room was cut open into a smooth oval, guarded by an elaborate, waist-high iron railing. A sweeping staircase led to the level below, which had glittering tiles that I took for a dance floor. There were a few uniformed employees moving about, their footsteps echoing in what felt like a movie set.
“Are we under quarantine?” I asked. “Where is everyone?”
“You don’t miss much, do you?” Skye’s teasing tone evaporated. “It’s quiet as a tomb here. Want to sit on the balcony? I know it’s ninety degrees out there and drizzling, but it’s the only way to get any privacy.” I gave her a curious look, and she gave me a tight smile that didn’t quite fit her face. “Plus, that’s the only place you can smoke.”
“Does that mean you’ve quit?”
“That’s great. Is it going to bother you if I smoke?” I asked.
“No, don’t be silly. It’s fine.”
We abandoned the air-conditioned comfort of the bar to sit outdoors, and the hot, clammy air draped itself around me like a shroud. It felt as if I’d walked into a tightly enclosed space, instead of an open, empty one. A waiter trailed after us, lighting a citronella candle as we took our seats. Our table was shielded from the rain by a giant umbrella with a golden, tasseled fringe that must have looked absurdly gaudy in daylight. The waiter offered us menus, lit my cigarette, and took our order, returning a couple of minutes later with a pomegranate margarita for me and an orange juice for Skye.
“So,” I said, exhaling smoke, “are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
Skye’s eyes were on the table. “It’s a long story.”
“You mentioned that already.” I scanned her face, noticing her mouth quiver, as if tears were building up inside her again. I looked away, wanting to give her space in which to compose herself. “The view from this place must be incredible during the day,” I said, staring into the distance. The sun was completely gone, and the sky was an unrelieved expanse of flat blackness, with clouds crowding out the stars that should have been peering down at us. The fronds of towering palm trees rustled as they moved, stirred by salty gusts of ocean breeze that seemed to be the only relief from the merciless humidity. I could hear the water, even if I couldn’t see it. The cliffs, caught in shadow, were pitch-black, a jagged silhouette framed by fiery torches. The streaks of vivid orange flames matched the beads around Skye’s neck; their colors were as vivid outside, by candlelight, as they were indoors.
“It’s a dead hotel in a dying destination.” Skye’s tone was harsh. “Do you mind if I steal a cigarette?”
“No, but didn’t you just tell me you quit?”
“I’m under way too much stress right now,” she answered. “Anyway, tomorrow’s another day.” That made her sound like a peroxided Scarlett O’Hara, but I don’t think she realized it; my love of old movies wasn’t something Skye shared. She waved the waiter over for a light while I watched her, perplexed by the strangeness of her demeanor. She took a long, deep drag and closed her eyes, sighing as she exhaled.
“Can I ask you something?” she said. “You know how we were just talking about staying in touch with exes? I was wondering if you and Martin Sklar ever—”
“We don’t talk.” My voice was as flat as the starless sky.
“Because he’s in Southeast Asia?”
“From what I’ve heard, he’s been there a lot lately. Something about negotiating to open a hotel in Burma or Myanmar or whatever you’re supposed to call it these days.”
Martin cozying up to a regime to get a hotel concession? That figured. Nothing my ex did really surprised me, though hearing about his unethical exploits made me angry at myself for how much I’d been willing to overlook when we were together.
“I couldn’t really care less about what he does,” I said.
Skye took another long drag from her cigarette. For the first time, I realized she was nervous. She watched me with an intent expression that made me feel like I was under a magnifying glass. Her mouth shifted into a grin now and then, as if a pair of tiny fishhooks tugged each corner into place, but her eyes betrayed the effort; they were caught somewhere between worry and hope. “You two always seemed like such a great couple.” Her voice was tentative, almost wary. I didn’t respond, and she went on. “You’re both so glamorous. Seeing the two of you together was like watching a movie.”
“Sometimes it felt like a movie, but I didn’t like the way the script was going.”
“So you two really are through?”
“Any particular reason you’re asking, Skye?”
The only light was from the candle on the table and the ambient glow of the bar’s interior, but I was certain she blushed. “I was thinking you and Martin have broken up before and gotten back together,” she mumbled.
“That’s not going to happen this time.”
“Someone told me you hand-addressed your wedding invitations and were taking them to the post office, when you suddenly threw them in the garbage and flew off to Spain instead.”
“That sounds like something Ava Gardner would have done.” The truth was, I’d tossed a stack of save-the-date cards, not wedding invitations. Not that Skye needed to know. “You seem awfully interested in Martin.”
She took her time answering. Cigarettes were useful props; you could disguise confusion or annoyance or any other reaction with a long, thoughtful drag. I’d done that myself, enough times to recognize when someone else attempted it. “I guess, in a way, I am.”
I examined her more closely. There was tension behind her facade. It was knotted around her eyes and mouth, and I saw it in her hands as she reached for another cigarette and lit it with the first. I was about to ask, “Why on earth would you be interested in Martin?” but I immediately thought of a reason: she was involved with him. My mind teetered for a moment, bracing for an agonized revelation, before catching its balance. I don’t really care, I thought, surprising myself. I wasn’t trying to be the bigger person. If they were together, I hoped they were both heart-wrenchingly miserable.
“I feel like my whole life has fallen apart. I haven’t . . .” Skye’s voice trailed off and she inhaled smoke, staring out at the dark cliffs. The flames of the torches were losing their fight against the rain.
Her words hung in the air between us as I waited for an explanation that didn’t come. “You mentioned being sick,” I said cautiously. “What else is wrong?”
She gave me a searching look, her face pinched with worry. Applause erupted from the cliffs, and Skye took advantage of the distraction. “You know what’s funny? People say there’s never been a death here from cliff diving. Just wait until you see them in action. It’s impossible to believe.”
The spectacle on the cliffs wasn’t half as interesting to me as whatever had gotten under Skye’s skin. She was normally a cheerful chatterbox; it was unnerving to see her so subdued. “What’s going on with you, Skye? Why did you start crying in the lobby?”
“That . . . that was just me being an idiot. I’ve been seeing this guy for months, and I really thought he was The One, but he’s a bastard. He’s just . . . evil. There’s no other word for it. I’m ashamed I didn’t see it before, you know? I should’ve known something was wrong when he said we had to keep our relationship under wraps. What kind of guy does that?”
“Is he married?”
She shook her head. “No, just seriously screwed up in the head.”
Martin and I had agreed to keep things quiet when we’d first started dating, but that had been a mutual decision, inspired—on my side—by fear of being taken for a gold digger and paranoia about reporters dredging up my past. Before I could form a question, Skye started speaking again.
“The thing is, I know how to get even with him.” She stopped fidgeting and looked me in the eye. “I’m going to destroy him professionally, and he’ll never even see it coming.”
“Skye, no matter how much you hate him right now, nothing good is going to come from taking revenge.”
“This isn’t about revenge. This is about righting wrongs. Illegal wrongs, Lily. I can deal with my hurt feelings, but he can’t be allowed to keep on doing the things he does.”
“Have you gotten the police involved?”
“There’s no point. This is too big. I know I’m right about what’s going on, but...” She exhaled furiously. She sounded as if she were replaying an argument in her head. “When I try to get to the bottom of things, the truth keeps slipping away. I can’t get the hard proof I need. Sometimes, I think if I were a real journalist, instead of a fluffy travel writer, I’d have done it already. I’m going to write a feature about—”
She stopped speaking as a man stepped out onto the balcony. In the golden half-light of the bar, I could see he was tall and broad-shouldered, with tanned skin and curly black hair, but the shadows obscured his features. He wore a dark suit with a white shirt that was open at the neck. As he walked by, he nodded at us then stood at the edge of the balcony for a moment. The breeze carried the scent of his cologne, musky and enticing but a touch too heavily applied.
“Good evening, ladies.” His English was accented. He passed us again and went back inside. Had he heard us speaking? When I looked at Skye, she was glaring after him with narrowed eyes.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Listen to me, Lily. You don’t want to know that guy.”
“Okay, what were you saying about working on a story?”
“I’m not sure I can tell you.” Skye crushed her cigarette and pulled an iPhone out of her bag.
“You don’t really think I’m going to steal your story, do you?”
Her platinum hair gleamed as she shook her head. “No, no, no. Of course not, Lily. If anything, you’re the person who could help me with the story.”
“How?” I was mystified and more than slightly exasperated.
“Here, take a look at this.” She reached into her bag and handed me a paperback book that I immediately recognized as Frakker’s Mexico.
“I have this book with me, Skye. I work for them, remember?”
“Just look at it, okay?” She stood. “I just need to call m— uh, someone. I can’t explain right now, but I’ll be able to soon.” She hurried toward the door, leaving her bag behind on a chair.
Someone? I thought. She’d been about to say a name but she’d pulled back at the last second.
“I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” she called over her shoulder. “Be careful.”
Before I could say anything, she was through the door and inside the bar. There was a huge cheer from the cliffs. I got to my feet but couldn’t see anything from that vantage point, except the fading glow of the torchlights. That sight didn’t pique my curiosity the way Skye had. I looked back at the bar, but she was already gone.
I polished off my margarita while I waited for Skye to return. Another cliff diver must have jumped, because there was more wild cheering. It was surreal, sitting in a bar so close to the spectacle, yet being removed from the action. Ironically, I could picture the divers thanks to the promotional video clips that Denny Chiu, the public relations executive who’d lured me to Acapulco, had sent my way. I’d been fascinated by the fearless way the men hurled themselves off a narrow ledge. For a split second, they seemed to swoop forward, arms high and torsos arced, defying gravity before plunging into the abyss below. Having seen the sunny highlights on film, I wondered if I’d be disappointed in person, watching under a gray drizzle. That was so often the case in real life.
“Another pomegranate margarita, señora?” asked the waiter.
I looked at my watch. It had been at least twenty minutes since Skye had handed the book to me and gone off to make her phone call. The Frakker’s guide had asterisks drawn in the margins next to a few hotels; from what little I’d read by candlelight, there was nothing special about the properties. “No, thank you.”
“You did not care for it?” he asked. He was in his mid-fifties, with neatly combed and pomaded iron gray hair and dark brows.
“It was very good. I’m just a little tired.” That was an understatement. Denny had flown me from Barcelona to New York the day before, so I’d spent two days traveling and was seriously road-weary and jet-lagged.
He smiled. “It is only nine o’clock! The night has not even started.”
“I’ve heard Acapulco is one of those towns that never sleeps.”
“Oh, we sleep, but only at afternoon siesta. When you are in Acapulco, you should do as the natives do.”
“When my friend comes back, will you tell her that I went to my room—number 527—and that I have her purse?” I felt bad about leaving—I imagined Skye coming back to the table just after I left—but I was hungry, exhausted, and more than slightly annoyed that she’d dragged me to the bar only to abandon me there.
Retracing my steps back to the lobby, I found it silent. The clerk looked bored as he pecked at his computer, and I wondered if the snake had been captured and escorted off the premises. I headed toward the elevators, turning from the broad expanse of the lobby down a narrow corridor with a high ceiling. The hallway’s walls were populated with black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars. I recognized a bare-chested Johnny Weismuller and a bare-legged John Wayne. Next to them was a shot of Tyrone Power, who had filmed Captain from Castile in Acapulco. I stared at that photo; Martin Sklar looked a lot like him, and the resemblance had been the first thing that had attracted me to him. It was only as I stared at the picture that I started to wonder how the hell Skye knew where Martin was.
My mind churned with bits of our conversation. He’s in Southeast Asia, she’d said. Something about negotiating to open a hotel in Burma or Myanmar or whatever you’re supposed to call it these days.
I’d dated Martin for two years, and we’d stayed in touch for a year after we broke up. While I hadn’t spoken to him in eight months, there were some things about him that I didn’t believe had changed. One was that Martin, who wasn’t exactly trustworthy himself, didn’t put his faith in other people. Anyone who’d read about Martin could have figured out that he was at a major art show at certain times of the year—Maastricht in mid-March, Art Basel Miami Beach in early December—because he attended a handful of those annually. But Myanmar? That wasn’t just an educated guess. When we’d first started seeing each other, Martin kept quiet about his itinerary; later, I found out that he feared I’d inadvertently tell someone and spoil whatever he was planning. My ex was nothing if not paranoid. The fact that Skye knew where he was made me wonder how well she knew him.
When I stepped into the elevator, Skye’s voice kept reverberating in my head, distracting me so much that I pressed the wrong button. The thing is, I know how to get even with him. I’m going to destroy him professionally, and he’ll never even see it coming. . . . This isn’t about revenge. This is about righting wrongs. Illegal wrongs, Lily. I can deal with my hurt feelings, but he can’t be allowed to keep on doing the things he does.
That made something twist inside me. Could Skye have been talking about Martin? If anyone had cause to want revenge on him, it was me. He’d plotted against my sister, Claudia, and I knew he’d wanted to have her killed back when he believed she was blackmailing him. His plans never came to pass, but that awful impulse was something I’d never be able to forgive him for. For weeks after my sister’s funeral, I’d wanted revenge on Martin, even though he wasn’t responsible for what had actually happened to Claudia. I’d lain awake many nights, visualizing what I’d do to get even. But as I crawled out of the pit of despair, I left my fantasies of vengeance behind. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but a survival mechanism. Moving forward in my life meant shedding the dark regrets in my past.
When the elevator doors opened, I stepped out before remembering that the fourth floor wasn’t the one I wanted. It was dark and silent, and I backed into the elevator, wondering why all the lights were off. Did the hotel have so few guests that an entire floor was empty? As the doors slid shut and the elevator chugged upward again, my thoughts returned to Martin. My ex was amoral and ruthless, but it had taken me a long time to see that. In retrospect, I realized I’d been willfully blind, ignoring what was in front of me. Maybe poor Skye caught on faster than I had. You don’t even know that they were involved, whispered a voice in the back of my brain. Even so, I wondered what Martin had done to Skye to make her hate him so deeply.
On the fifth floor, I stepped out of the elevator and turned down the hallway, finding my room at the end of a long, curving corridor. Room was a misnomer; when I unlocked the door, I found a grand suite that was perhaps a grade below El Presidente levels, but only by a hair. The foyer had a circular table in its center, bearing a massive floral display that I had to inch around to avoid it poking me in the eye. A short hallway opened into an expansive living room with a high, molded ceiling. Someone had pulled the heavy drapes almost closed, but I could still make out floor-to-ceiling windows. I stepped forward, setting both my bag and Skye’s on a table, and slipped out of my shoes. All of the lights were burning bright, jolting the vivid colors of the room to life. Whoever had decorated this room lived by the motto “more is more.” Scarlet and tangerine and yellow and chartreuse rioted together from one end of the room to the other, all screaming for attention.
The phone rang before I got any further. “Miss Moore, we have your dinner ready. May we bring it to you?” A minute later, the doorbell rang, and a trio of waiters bearing covered silver trays and a matching ice bucket came into the room. They marched through the living room and into the dining room.
“This will only take a moment to set up,” one said. “Thank you, Miss Moore.”
I decided to keep exploring while they laid the meal out. Stepping through another doorway, I found the bedroom. My carry-on bag stood against a wall; I’d almost forgotten that a bellman had disappeared with it when I’d arrived at the Hotel Cerón. The bedroom wasn’t as aggressively colorful as the living room, but it did boast a bedspread that was the same shade of red as a chili pepper. Lying against a pillow was a white envelope with the words FOR MISS LILY MOORE written in a calligraphic style on the front.
As I reached for it, a champagne cork popped, making my head turn, and I noticed a framed photograph on the wall. It was a portrait of Ava Gardner. I stopped suddenly and stared, disconcerted. The other art I’d seen in the suite were bright paintings of Mexican landscapes; this black-and-white shot seemed very much out of place. I stared around the room, realizing that there was a shot of Ava with Frank Sinatra, and another that was a publicity still of Ava wearing a leopard-print bathing suit and posing on a leopard-skin rug. The presence of the shots didn’t feel accidental; it was hard to imagine that they weren’t deliberate choices made by someone who knew of my admiration for Ava Gardner. Had Denny asked the hotel to redecorate my room? She was detail-oriented, but this felt like overkill.
“Everything is ready. Thank you, Miss Moore!” called a waiter. I hurried out of the bedroom, because I’d left my purse in the living room, but the front door was already closing. The fact they hadn’t waited for a tip was startling, but the smell emanating from the red-walled dining room distracted me from everything else. On the oval dining table, they’d laid out salad, steak, and vegetables on white china plates with Hotel Cerón emblazoned on the edge; the crème brûlée sat in a blue ramekin, and an open bottle of champagne chilled in a silver ice bucket. I took a sip from the glass they’d poured for me and shook my head. Most of the time, travel writing was a job like any other, but there were days I wished I could live at a hotel forever.
I sat down and took a bite of the steak. It was cooked to medium-rare perfection, even if it was slathered in a gravy it could have done without. Someone in the kitchen clearly had a heavy hand with sauces, because the salad was drenched in dressing, and there was even a creamy relish atop the grilled vegetables. I scraped off as much as I could, and I was halfway through the main course when a booming sound from the hallway made me freeze. Someone was banging on a door and yelling. I went to the foyer, silent as a ghost and glad I’d already abandoned my shoes. Through the peephole, I could see a large man. His back was to me; the door across the hall was the one he was attacking. He wore jeans and a black shirt, and his shoulder-length dark hair was shaggy.
“Skye!” he bellowed, hitting the door again, knocking the side of his balled fist against it as if he were hammering a nail. “Skye!”
Copyright © 2013 Hilary Davidson
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Hilary Davidson won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel for The Damage Done. That book also earned a Crimespree Award and was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards. Davidson’s widely acclaimed short stories have been featured in publications from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to Thuglit and in many anthologies. A Toronto-born travel journalist and the author of eighteen nonfiction books, she has lived in New York City since October 2001.