An excerpt from Getaway, a thriller set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, by Lisa Brackmann (available May 1, 2012).
Michelle Mason tells herself she’s on vacation. A brief stay in the Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta. It’s a chance to figure out her next move after the unexpected death of her banker husband, who’s left behind a scandal and a pile of debt. The trip was already paid for, and it beats crashing in her sister’s spare room. When a good-looking man named Daniel approaches her on the beach, the margaritas have kicked in and she decides: why not?
But the date doesn’t go as either of them planned. An assault on Daniel in her hotel room, switched cell phones, and an encounter with a “friend” of Daniel’s named Gary gets Michelle enmeshed in a covert operation involving drug runners, goons, and venture capitalists. Michelle already knows she’s caught in a dangerous trap. But she quickly finds that running is not an option. If she’s not careful, she’ll end up buried in the town dump with the rest of the trash. Now she needs to fight smart if she wants to survive her vacation.
Michelle dropped the sarong she’d started to tie around her waist onto her lounge chair. Nobody cared what her thighs looked like.
Sand burned the soles of her feet as she walked down to the water. Look at these people, she thought. Foreigners, mostly. Like her. Older, a lot of them. Sagging, leathered skin, the ones who’d been here awhile. Pale tourists, big-bellied, pink-faced, glowing with sunburn. A family of locals—Mexicans anyway, who knew if they were really from here? Dark, short, and blocky, eating shrimp on a stick from the grill down the beach, giant bottles of Coke tucked in a Styrofoam cooler.
Out of shape. Lumpy. Flabby. Aging.
And her thighs weren’t bad, anyway.
She stood at the water’s edge, watching the rainbow parasail from the real-estate company lift a middle-aged woman into the soft blue sky, the motorboat gunning its engine and heading out into the bay, avoiding the banana boat undulating up and down as it hauled a load of college kids south toward Los Arcos. She watched them gripping the yellow tube with their knees, shrieking with laughter, several clutching beers, tanned and young and healthy.
They’d drink until they puked, screw each other till they passed out, go home and post about their awesome vacation on their Facebook pages.
She waded into the water until it was up to her hips. Warm as a bath, but the surf was pounding. She stood there trying to resist the pull as the receding waves sucked the sand out from under her feet.
After a while she’d had enough and went back to her lounger beneath the palapa. She tried to read her book. It was about a woman whose marriage had broken up, and she’d learned to bake bread. Bread and muffins. After about thirty pages, Michelle was willing to bet that the heroine would end up with the overly educated woodworker and not the stressed-out options trader.
“Ma’am? Can I get you something? Something to drink?”
The hotel waiter, dressed in a white guayabera and smudged white pants, stood above her, round, sweating, tray in hand. Nut-brown, gray-haired, creases marking his face like wrinkles in a crumpled shirt.
She thought about it. “A margarita, please.”
Why not? She didn’t need to be sober to follow this plot.
They’d already paid for the vacation. It still seemed like an extravagance. She and Tom were going to go together. A getaway. A celebration, he’d said.
She wondered what it was that he’d wanted to celebrate.
She must have fallen asleep for a while. That was sort of the point with these vacations. You partied at night. Got up earlier than you’d like. Grabbed your palapa while the sun was still low behind the eastern mountains, spread out your towel on your blue canvas chair, put on your sunblock, found your place in your novel. First cocktail at lunch, to wash down the greasy quesadillas brought out to you on a paper plate. Try to ignore the vendors selling jewelry, blankets, offering to braid your hair, massage your feet. At some point you’d close your eyes, tired as they were from reading in the shaded sunlight, irritated from the sunscreen sweated into them.
When she opened her eyes, it was late afternoon. She’d been dreaming, about something. About being too hot. About . . . what was it about? About somebody breathing in her ear. Leaning over, touching her shoulder. A man, but not Tom. Didn’t you forget? he’d asked. Didn’t you forget?
A few clouds had come in, but it was still hot, and the sun glared in her eyes. She blinked a few times. Then something blotted out the light.
A parasail, between the beach and the sun.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The parasail was its own small eclipse, dark against the sun. Now she could see it—the blood-red parachute, white letters glowing.
TOURISM KILLS! they spelled. In English.
Michelle blinked again and stood.
An atypical crowd had gathered on the beach. Elegantly dressed men and women—a wedding party, she thought at first. Waiters rushed to fill shot glasses with tequila. Photographers ringed the group, pointing their cameras at the parasail, which was heading back from the bay.
Now she could see the person in the harness. Even at this distance, he appeared huge, roughly as spherical as a balloon. As he descended, she saw that he wore a three-piece brown tweed suit and a red plaid tie.
She wished she had her camera. But it was locked up in the hotel’s safe—too valuable to risk leaving on the beach while she napped or waded.
The parasail crew—tattooed, in surfwear T-shirts and baggy trunks—kicked up sand as they staggered under the parasail rider’s weight, trying to guide him to his landing, and for a moment Michelle thought they would all collapse in a heap. But at the last second a third man dressed in a crisp linen suit stepped forward, bracing his hands against the fat man’s chest, pedaling backward until at last the body in motion came to rest.
The people in the crowd cheered and raised their glasses in a toast.
“That was different.”
The man next to her smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “What was it, exactly?”
“Arts festival. It’s running all this week.”
He was an American, or sounded like one. About her age. Tanned so dark that the creases around his eyes fanned out like tiger stripes.
“Should be interesting,” he said, “if you like that kind of stuff.”
He wore a pair of baggy swim trunks and a faded batik shirt. Gray flecked his hair and the stubble of his beard, but he was rangy trim. A fit fortyish.
“Do you?” she asked.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said with a shrug. “I mean, art, you hang it on a wall or put it on a pedestal. I’m not sure what this is.”
“Performance,” Michelle murmured.
By now a procession had formed around the fat man: the well-dressed crowd, the photographers, and a group of young musicians wearing matching T-shirts, singing “Paperback Writer” in perfect harmony. Together they set off down the beach, north toward the pier, laughing, drinking tequila. A brown dog followed in their wake.
“I was going to get a drink,” the man said. “Would you like to join me?”
His name was Daniel. “I live here part-time,” he explained. “Got a condo in Amapas.”
“Are you retired?” she asked.
He drew back, mock offended. “Wow. I hope I don’t look old enough to be retired.”
“Not at all,” she said. “But you never know what people’s situations are.”
“Well, I’m not loaded either,” he said with a grin. “I’m a pilot. The work is sort of freelance. So I have some flexibility about where I spend my time.”
They sat at a table under a palapa, on the sand. The sun wouldn’t set for another few hours; the restaurant staff had just begun to bring tables out to the beach for dinner. Michelle expected that the restaurant would not be full, even with the arts festival. Memorial Day weekend was the last gasp of tourist season in Puerto Vallarta, and it was still pretty quiet. Too hot this time of year. The crowds came earlier, for Easter and spring break, and later in the fall, after the rains.
“A pilot. For an airline?”
“No. Private company. We fly Gulfstreams and Citations mostly. Rentals.”
He scooped up guacamole with a chip, spooned salsa on top of that. “You know, businessmen who can’t afford their own but want to impress a client. Rich guys who want to get to a golf course or a football game in a hurry. That kind of thing.”
She nodded and sipped her margarita. They made good ones here. Not too sweet. You could taste the lime. “Sounds fun,” she said.
He smiled. “Works for me.”
The sun had moved behind a bank of clouds, illuminating them like a bright bulb in a shaded lamp.
“Check it out,” Daniel said.
She looked where he pointed. A pair of dolphins surfed at the crest of a wave. They leaped above its crest, plunged back into the water, caught the next swell, then shot up again, twisting in midair like a pair of dancers.
“Better than SeaWorld.”
She nodded. “It’s beautiful here.”
Daniel leaned back in his chair, took a final sip of his drink. “How long are you staying?”
“I’m not sure. My flight’s on Sunday. I might change it.”
She wasn’t sure why she said it. She had no real intention of changing her flight. It was just that when she thought about what was waiting for her in Los Angeles, it was easy to indulge in the fantasy of staying a little longer. Of never going back.
“Nothing pressing back home?”
He was looking at her in that way, sizing her up, what her intentions were, what she might be willing to do.
She shook her head.
“Are you retired?”
She laughed briefly. “I’m between things.”
He didn’t ask questions. Michelle wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She wasn’t ready to talk about any of it, certainly not to a stranger, but on the other hand one does like to be asked.
“This is a good place to be,” he said. “When you just want to relax and figure things out.”
Maybe that wasn’t such a bad answer.
He was a good-looking man, she thought, with sharp cheekbones and a firm jaw, sky-blue eyes that stood out against his black hair and dark tan. The gray in his hair, the crow’s-feet around his eyes, made him more attractive. To her anyway.
Otherwise he would have been too perfect.
Men like that could have anyone.
“Another margarita, ma’am? Sir?”
Daniel grinned. “I’m up for it if you are.”
She hesitated. This was her second of the day, and she hadn’t eaten much.
Losing control would be a bad idea.
“How would you feel about dinner?” she asked.
They had another drink so they could watch the sunset, ate some more guacamole to absorb the tequila. “There’s a restaurant not too far from here I like,” Daniel said.
“I’m not really dressed.” She’d only put on a gauzy white blouse over her bathing-suit top, wrapped the sarong around her hips.
“What you’re wearing is fine,” he said, giving her a quick, appreciative look. “It’s a casual place. Lots of people go there after the beach.”
The restaurant was a few blocks away, on a street that ran up from the beach and bordered a small plaza, where there were a number of restaurants that catered to tourists. Farther up the street were shops, mostly clothing stores and handicrafts: Huichol beadwork, hand-tooled leather, embroidered blouses. Michelle had walked up there the day before.
“There’s always lines out the door,” Daniel said. “It’s one of the only decent places to get Mexican food around here.”
They waited outside, by the open-air grill, where a woman made tortillas and a man tended meats.
He shrugged. “Well, I’m sure there are some places the locals go to that I don’t know about. Here in Zona Romántica—you can get better Mexican food in Los Angeles.”
Michelle nodded. “I’m from Los Angeles,” she mentioned.
“Oh, yeah? I love L.A. Where do you live?”
Of course, that wasn’t exactly true. The storage space with her things in it was in Torrance.
But she’d lived in Brentwood, before.
“Nice,” Daniel said. “Good weather, right, that close to the ocean?”
It was hot inside the restaurant, even with the fans, even though the front was open to let in whatever breezes there were. There weren’t any. The air was weighted down by heat and humidity, immobile.
Daniel recommended the tortilla soup. They both ordered a bowl. Had another round of margaritas. Mariachis played, whether anyone wanted them to or not.
The man who approached their table was soft-featured, in his thirties, wearing Dockers and a polo shirt.
Daniel shifted in his chair. “Ned, hey.” Something close to a frown creased his forehead.
“Man, I can’t believe I ran into you here. I was just, you know, on my way to the restaurant, and I saw you.”
“Yeah, well, we’re having dinner,” Daniel said.
Ned shuffled from one foot to the other, rubbed his hands together. “I don’t want to interrupt. But, look, I really need to talk to you. When you have a chance. Are you around, or… ?”
“Can you make it to the board meeting? We can talk then.”
“I guess… I’ll try… It’s just… kind of time-sensitive.” Ned looked around, eyes darting, still rubbing his hands. He reminded Michelle of the tweakers she used to know in high school. “Hey, you could come by the restaurant tomorrow night. I’ll hook you up. We’re running some great specials. Surf and turf. Got some good wines in, too.” He finally focused on Michelle. “You could bring your friend.”
“This is Michelle,” Daniel said. “From Los Angeles.”
“Oh, cool.” He extended his hand to her. She took it. Sweaty, not surprisingly. “My place is just down the street. The Lonely Bull.” He smiled at her for a moment and seemed to lose focus. “Hope you can make it.”
“I don’t know, man,” Daniel said. “I’ve got some stuff going on. Look, just give me a call tomorrow, okay?”
Ned nodded like a bobblehead doll. “Okay. Great. I’ll call you.”
“The board meeting?” Michelle asked after he’d left. “Are you in business together?”
Daniel snorted. “With Ned? No.”
By now their carnitas had arrived, along with another round of margaritas.
I’m getting pretty buzzed, she thought. She no longer cared.
“The board meeting, it’s just a bunch of us expats who get together on Fridays, at El Tiburón. We hang out, watch the sunset.” He stared at her. “Think you’ll be around?”
“Maybe,” she murmured. “Tiburón. Like the town in California?”
“Maybe.” He grinned. “It’s Spanish for ‘shark.’ ”
By the time they finished eating, it was almost eleven. Not that late, but after all the drinks and a day in the sun Michelle had to step carefully off the high curbs onto the cobblestones. That was the thing here—the curbs were not a uniform height, you couldn’t just assume you knew how to judge the distances.
“Whoa!” Daniel said, catching her elbow, steadying her.
Michelle giggled. “Glad I’m not wearing heels.”
Now they had reached her hotel, bypassing the open-air lobby and entering through the arches that bordered on the wide, cobblestone drive.
“Which way is your room?”
Through the courtyard, to the right, in the tower overlooking the beach. Watch for the slick terra-cotta tiles, the sand gritting underfoot. Wait for the elevator, and when it doesn’t come, climb the stairs to the fourth floor.
Michelle felt around in her sisal tote bag for her key, found the hard plastic wedge stamped with the room number, the key attached. Her hand closed around it.
She turned, her back to the door.
“Well,” she said.
He leaned down and kissed her. She tasted salt—from the drinks? From the ocean? She leaned into him, let her hand rest above the small of his back. He pressed against her, hard. She wrapped her leg around his, felt his hands on her ass, lifting her up.
“Wait,” she said. She showed him the key.
He grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask me in.”
The room was stifling. She’d turned the air conditioner off, out of habit. She switched it on, and the unit rattled to life. It smelled musty, like the spoiled damp of an old refrigerator. Still, with the sliding glass doors that led to the balcony left open, you could hear the ocean, catch a whiff of its brine.
Daniel stood and watched her, a dark silhouette.
“Come here,” he said.
By the time they’d made it to the bed, the air conditioner had chilled the room enough that Michelle was grateful for the warm breeze that blew in from the balcony.
“You have a beautiful body,” Daniel said, running a hand lightly over her belly.
“So do you.”
The words sounded stupid as soon as she said them. You don’t tell men they’re beautiful.
Daniel didn’t seem to mind. He looked pleased. “Gotta keep in shape for the things I enjoy.”
He had a nice body, he really did. Lean but not stringy. Energetic. She hadn’t been with anybody like him in a long time. Certainly not Tom, and she’d stayed faithful to Tom.
Tom with his big belly, his barrel chest. Twelve years older than her and not exactly a stud.
“Hey,” Daniel said. “Hey, what is it?”
She was crying, goddamn it. She rarely cried. She hated it.
“Hey.” He smoothed the hair around her face.
He was looking at her now, and she could tell what he was thinking: Great, I’m in bed with a crazy woman.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. Don’t… It’s stupid.”
“Listen, I mean, if you’re not into this…”
He tried but could not quite keep the irritation from his voice.
“I am. I’m sorry. It’s just . . .” She tried to smile. “I haven’t dated in a while. My husband… ”
“So… you’re married?” Now the irritation seemed mixed with curiosity.
No disapproval at least. Perhaps a calculation about whether this was worth it.
“No. Not anymore.”
“Oh.” Daniel rolled over onto his side, propped himself up on his elbow. “Yeah. It’s tough getting back into things after you split from somebody you’ve been with for a long time.”
“My husband died, actually.”
She enjoyed it in a way, getting the reaction, seeing the look on his face, the shock, the embarrassment.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
The way he said it, so simply, made her flush with guilt.
“No, don’t be, I really…” She wanted to reach out, wanting to touch him, to encourage him, but it felt so awkward, so phony.
“I want to,” she finally said. “It’s just a little hard.”
Daniel extended his hand, rested his palm on her cheek for a moment. “Look. We both had a lot to drink. This is all kind of intense. Maybe I should just go.”
This time she did reach out. “No. Stay. If you want.”
They tried again. But the energy that had gotten them into bed was gone now, dissipated, and after a few perfunctory thrusts Daniel stopped and mumbled, “I’m sorry. I’m really tired.”
“Don’t apologize.” She tried to smile. “You’ve been great. I haven’t.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
His face was dark above hers, but she thought his expression was kind.
She kissed him, slowly.
“Mmmm. That was nice,” he said.
After that they both fell asleep, not spooning but close together, Daniel’s hand resting on the hollow above her hip.
So many noises here. The familiar: unmuffled motorcycle, snatches of music, pounding surf. The unfamiliar: songbirds singing foreign tunes, parrots squawking, the toc-toc cry of geckos.
What woke her?
A muffled thud. A clatter. She blinked her eyes open. Two men, one entering from the balcony, the other crouched over the chair, Daniel’s shorts in his hand, her tote bag on the floor by his feet.
“Hey!” Daniel flung the sheet off, bolted out of bed.
Now Michelle saw they wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces. The second pulled something from his pocket, something dark that he gripped in his fist. For a moment Daniel froze as the man took two quick strides to him, raised the hand that clutched the black pistol, and smashed it against his temple. Daniel crumpled, as surely as if he’d been shot. It happened so quickly that Michelle didn’t scream; instead she gasped and clutched the sheet. The man with the gun turned to her. He was close to the bed. She could see that he wore dark clothes, a black T-shirt, jeans, and he took another step toward her. He had on a belt, woven brown and white leather; she could see it clearly in the light that leaked in from the balcony.
The buckle was a gun, and there were letters in the weave. She saw those as he tugged at the tongue of the belt to unbuckle it. “¡Pendejo!” the other man spit, gesturing toward the balcony. The man with the gun stared at her a moment longer before he turned and followed his companion out the sliding glass door, into the night.
There was a lot of blood.
Head wounds bleed a lot, Michelle thought vaguely. She’d read that somewhere. Or seen it on television. It didn’t mean that Daniel was dying. But by this time the blood had covered one side of his face, was dripping onto the tiled floor, and he was unconscious, moaning now and again. Michelle couldn’t decide what to do next. Clothes, she thought, I have to put on some clothes. And I have to call someone. And get a towel, for the blood. Which first? Phone. She wasn’t sure whom to call or how it worked, so she punched “zero” on the room phone, and finally a woman’s voice answered, asking a question. “A sus órdenes,” Michelle made out. “Help… I need help… in Room 452. I need a doctor.” “You are having an emergency?” “Yes. Someone’s hurt. They came in, and… Please, just send help.”
She grabbed a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, thinking, I’m putting on clothes, and this naked man is bleeding on my floor. I should be doing something for him, but I need to get dressed, don’t I? And it took only a minute or two, and by the time someone pounded on the door, she’d crouched down by Daniel, had covered him with a sheet, was pressing a towel to the bleeding gash on his scalp. No one needed to know she’d gotten dressed first.
Two hotel workers had come, men who handled luggage, patrolled the grounds. Seeing Michelle at the door holding a bloody towel, Daniel lying on the floor behind her, one immediately reached for his walkie-talkie.
The first set of police arrived just before the ambulance did.
“He’s not my husband,” Michelle tried to explain. “He’s a friend. Un amigo.” The blood had soaked the towel, had gotten all over her hand, and she wiped her hand on her shorts.
One of the policemen handed her a fresh towel. White, like the uniform he wore, white polo shirt and cargo shorts, black baseball cap.
The other policeman knelt down next to her. “Let me help you, señorita,” he said, taking the towel. “You can rest if you like.”
Suddenly she felt dizzy. “Thank you,” she said. Somehow she made it to the bed, her hand reaching blindly for the solidity of the mattress. She sat on the edge of the bed, watched the ambulance attendants arrive and tend to Daniel with a minimum of fuss, bandage his head and lift him onto a gurney.
By now he was conscious, somewhat. “Hey,” he said. “What…?”
“Where are they taking him?” Michelle asked the policeman.
“CMQ Hospital. Don’t worry. It’s a good place. He’ll be fine.”
Two more men arrived. “Judicial police,” the patrolman explained. “They can take the statement from you.”
The new policemen wore plainclothes. Polo shirt again and khakis on one, a madras plaid and Dockers on the other, ID and badges hung on lanyards.
One of the ambulance attendants asked her a question. It took a couple of times for her to understand.
“Su nombre,” she heard. He pointed at Daniel. His name.
“The family name?”
Of course she didn’t know.
The faces of the ambulance attendant and the policemen stayed studiously blank.
“So he is not your husband,” one of the new policemen stated, the one in khakis. “Or a boyfriend.”
“No.” Her face flamed red. “Just a friend.”
His partner lifted Daniel’s shorts off the floor, patted the pockets, and retrieved his wallet. The policeman in the khakis gave a little wave to the ambulance attendants, who bundled Daniel out the door.
He was younger than she was, the policeman, in his early thirties, she thought: tall and well built, with a relaxed, loose way of carrying himself. Something about his accent, the cadence of his speech, was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place what it was.
“Can you tell me what happened?” he asked.
There wasn’t much to tell, really. She skipped how she and Daniel had met. They’d had dinner. Come back to the hotel. Were sleeping.
“So these men,” he said when she’d finished. “Anything you can tell me, about how they looked? Were they tall? Short? If we showed you photos, could you identify them?”
“No.” She shook her head “No. They wore scarves across their faces. They were… I don’t know.” She tried to picture them, that moment when she saw them entering from the balcony. “One was skinny. Not very big at all. Short. The other, he wasn’t tall either, but he was stocky. Like a wrestler.”
The one who’d approached her bed.
“He had on a belt,” she said suddenly. “With a buckle shaped like a gun. And there were letters woven in it. ERO.”
“Guerrero?” the policeman asked.
“Maybe. Yes. I think so.”
He nodded. “Okay,” he said, standing up. “Sorry this has happened to you and your friend. It’s not so common in Vallarta, but it happens. If you give me contact information, I’ll let you know if anything comes up.”
“What’s Guerrero?” she asked.
“State next door. Lots of thieves come from there.”
The other plainclothes policeman nodded. “And narcos,” he said. “Always causing problems. Even now in Vallarta.”
After the policemen left, Michelle stayed where she was, sitting on the edge of the bed. Little piles of clothes lay scattered about, like the aftermath of a freeway car wreck. She could see the blood as well, the blood on the tiled floor. She’d gotten blood on her T-shirt and shorts, too.
What was she supposed to do now?
There was a knock on the door.
And naturally there was blood on her hands. She almost laughed at that. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and she still felt guilty.
“Señorita Mason?” It was a woman’s voice. “Can we come in?”
“Who is it?”
“Claudia, from the front desk.”
She thought she remembered a Claudia, but she couldn’t be sure. She got up, went to the door, put on the chain, and cracked it open.
A woman stood there, middle-aged and stout, wearing a blue shift that looked like a nurse’s uniform. Michelle recognized her. Behind her was a man she’d seen sitting at a stand resembling a portable bar up at the entrance to the hotel driveway, where taxis dropped off guests.
“We are here to help you,” the woman said.
Michelle nodded. “Okay.” She undid the chain. “Thank you.” It made sense, she thought, that they’d send someone. To clean up.
They came in. The man spotted the bloody towel on the floor. He picked it up and put it in a trash bag. He wore latex gloves, like you’d use to do dishes.
Michelle sat back down on the bed. She didn’t know what else to do.
The woman immediately squatted by Michelle and covered her hand with her own, which was dry and a little rough.
“This is terrible,” she said, “and we are so very sorry. These things should not happen in Vallarta.”
“Things like this happen everywhere,” Michelle murmured.
“I think we can move you to another room, right? A better room.”
Michelle thought about it. She stared at the heaps of clothing, the puddle of blood now drying in the refrigerated air.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. I don’t want to stay in this room anymore.”
They moved her to a suite in a newer wing, one with a separate bedroom and a bar, a wide balcony with wrought-iron furniture. She checked the balcony first thing. It could not be reached through another suite; there was no way to climb up to it that she could see.
After the woman from the front desk and the man from reception moved all her things, hung the clothes that had been in the closet, arranged her toothbrush, cosmetics, and moisturizers on the bathroom counter—after all that had been done, the offer of tea by the hotel staff turned down, Michelle stepped into the shower. Stood under the spray for a very long time.
When she got out, she slipped into the silk pajamas she’d packed, the sleeveless top and shorts. She considered having a whiskey from the minibar, thinking it might relax her, might help her sleep, but she already had the beginnings of a headache, so instead she took an Ambien. Tom’s prescription. Why let them go to waste?
She climbed into bed, closed her eyes. What replayed in her head was not the robbery, the assault, but Daniel’s face, over hers.
Maybe I should have gone to the hospital, Michelle thought as the drug began to take hold. Would that have been the right thing to do? But she barely knew Daniel, after all. Couldn’t even ask for him by name.
The breeze from the ocean billowed the gauzy curtains on the balcony. I should get up, she thought. I should close the door. But she was safe here, wasn’t she? And she was so tired, and the air smelled good.
She watched the curtains expand and contract, as though they were breathing.
Eventually her breaths slowed down to match, and then she slept.
“We hope you can stay a little longer, Ms. Mason.”
The woman behind the front desk, a different woman from the one last night, briefly rubbed her hands before composing herself. She was trim, perhaps Michelle’s age, carefully made up, with a gold necklace and gold earrings that looked to be a set. Even in the heat of the patio that served as the hotel lobby, only the faintest dewy perspiration dampened her forehead. Michelle was already dripping sweat.
“We are so sorry about what happened. We’d like for you to stay as our guest and enjoy yourself.”
Everyone was being very kind, Michelle thought. Probably they were worried about lawsuits.
The robbers had somehow gained access to a vacant room next to her old room, climbed from that balcony onto hers. Obviously the security was not what it should have been. If she were in America, she could probably sue.
But in Mexico? How did things work here? Would it be worth it to try?
“Right now I’m scheduled to leave on Sunday,” she said.
“Of course, of course. We could make an arrangement for you to stay here in the future, if you’d like to return. Or if you decide you’d like to stay a little longer, we can do that as well.”
“Thank you,” Michelle said. “I’ll think about it.”
Even with what had happened, it was tempting. Spending time on the beach, drinking margaritas on the hotel’s dime, sounded better than her current life in Los Angeles. Living in her sister’s spare room. Listening to Maggie’s fights with her boyfriend, to her son Ben’s tantrums. It was why she’d come on this vacation in the first place, to get away from all that for a few days.
A giggle rose in her throat as she walked up the stairs from the reception area to her tower. Maybe she just wouldn’t leave. See how long the hotel’s free room was good for. They hadn’t really said.
I’ll live off room service and peanuts from the minibar, she thought. Let my hair go gray, my thighs get fat, get a couple of cats and a Chihuahua. Fill the room with purchases from the beach vendors: loud serapes, wooden dolphin statuettes, flying Batman parachute toys, piled in stacks, all smelling vaguely of cat piss. Take her Chihuahua on walks down the Malecón. Maybe one of the cats, too.
She felt, for the first time in months, light. Unencumbered. Free.
The feeling wouldn’t last long, probably, but why not enjoy it?
Maybe I’ll take some pictures, she thought.
Get out the good camera. Wander around. See what caught her eye. She hadn’t done that in ages, hadn’t done it here at all, not even a few snapshots with her point-and-shoot, and she was a pretty decent photographer—or had been, once.
She decided to change out of the sundress and into some shorts and a tanktop. Better for taking photos, in case she needed to climb or crouch.
The hotel people hadn’t arranged things the way she would, naturally, and she had to hunt inside the wardrobe to figure out where they’d put her clothes.
Underwear on one shelf. Blouses and skirts neatly hung. Sandals lined in a row.
Including one pair that didn’t belong. A pair of Tevas, too big to fit her feet.
Hanging on the closet pole, a faded batik shirt.
She found the swim trunks on the shelf with her bathing suit and sarong.
Holding up the trunks, she felt a surge of irritation. How could they have forgotten his clothes? What was she supposed to do with them?
Maybe she’d give them to the beach vendors, to one of the Indian kids peddling garish magnets made in China.
It’s not right for me to feel this way, she thought. She should care—shouldn’t she?—about what had happened to him. Maybe he’d just needed stitches, maybe he was resting at home right now, or even back on the beach looking for some other tourist to fuck, but what if he’d been badly hurt? A skull fracture, bleeding in the brain, something like that.
But ever since Tom had died, she didn’t seem to feel the things she was supposed to feel.
And maybe it wasn’t so strange, not wanting to see Daniel, after what had happened. What did she know about him, really? Just that he was attractive, and after she’d taken him to her room, they’d been attacked.
It could have been a lot worse.
She shuddered thinking about it.
Just some clothes that he wasn’t going to miss. Not her problem.
There was a sudden burst of music. She flinched, almost flinging Daniel’s trunks in the air. What was that? Not the stereo from the beach bar, it was definitely inside the room. A rock song, something familiar. She finally recognized it as “Pretty Fly,” by the Offspring. Coming from inside her tote bag.
It was her iPhone. I’ve never used that ringtone, she thought. She grabbed it from her bag, hit ANSWER.
“Hey, Danny?” A male voice.
“No,” she said. “Who’s this?”
“Oh. Sorry. Wrong number.” The call ended.
She stared at the phone. The wallpaper on the screen was wrong—an ocean wave rather than the rows of mountains she used. A moment later it rang again. Ned G came up as the caller. Same ringtone.
“Hey,” the same male voice said. “This is Danny’s phone, right?”
She hadn’t thought it was Daniel’s phone. It looked exactly like her phone. It was a black iPhone, for chrissakes; they all looked pretty much alike.
“Who’s this?” she asked again.
“It’s Ned. So is Danny around?”
“No. He isn’t.”
“Oh.” A nervous chuckle. “Well, sorry to bug you. But, um… is this Danny’s number? Maybe my phone’s screwed up somehow.”
She stared at the iPhone. “I don’t know,” she said. She didn’t know what else to say.
“Okay,” the voice said. “But you know him, right?”
She hit disconnect before she could even think it through.
When she slid the bar to unlock the phone, enter passcode appeared on the screen. She didn’t use a passcode.
She had Daniel’s phone. So where was hers?
She tossed his phone on the bed. Used the hotel phone to make an international call and dialed her own number, waited for the ringtone she used for unidentified callers, the default marimba.
The call went directly to voicemail, and then she remembered that she’d turned it off to avoid roaming charges. To avoid calls from her attorney. From the creditor who’d somehow found the number.
“Oh, fuck,” she said.
“Leave a message,” her own voice said.
Beep. She hung up.
She tried to remember where she’d put the phone last night. It had been in her tote at the beach, she remembered that.
Where she’d found Daniel’s phone.
She checked the tote. Her phone wasn’t there.
Then she remembered: the tote, knocked over, its contents spilling out onto the floor. The man, going through Daniel’s shorts.
If she had Daniel’s phone, maybe Daniel had hers.
The phone rang again, and she lunged for it. “Hello?”
“Look, I’m really sorry to keep bugging you.” It was the man who’d called before—Ned. “But if Danny doesn’t want to talk to me, could I, like, leave a message or something? It’s kind of important.”
Ned. That was the man who’d come up to Daniel in the restaurant the previous night. Tweaker Ned. Daniel didn’t seem particularly happy to see him, but that didn’t mean they weren’t close, close enough at least for Ned to maybe know where Daniel lived.
“Is this Ned?”
“Yeah, it is.” He sounded relieved, like he was happy to have been recognized. “Who’s this?”
“Michelle. We met last night at the restaurant. I’m Daniel’s… Danny’s friend.”
“Great. So can you give Danny a message for me?”
“No, he….” How to put it? “He had a little accident last night. They took him to the hospital…. He….”
“Fuck. Shit. Really? What kind of accident?” It was more than concern in his voice, she thought. There was a distinct note of panic.
“A robbery. I mean, he’s okay,” she said, even though she didn’t know that for sure, “but he probably needed some stitches. And I ended up with his phone, and I think he has mine.”
“Oh, man,” Ned said. “Oh, man.”
“So I was wondering… do you know where he lives? Because I’d like to get this back to him.”
“No. No, I don’t know. I always just… you know, call him.”
“Great,” Michelle muttered. “Okay, thanks.”
Well, that was useless, she thought, hitting the red “disconnect” bar.
She couldn’t call Daniel’s contacts. Couldn’t access any information he might have on the phone.
Maybe she’d try the hospital.
“Discharged,” the woman at the hotel front desk said.
Michelle had asked her if she would make the call, in case the hospital receptionist didn’t speak good English.
“So it must not have been serious?”
The woman gave the suggestion of a shrug. “I think probably not.”
“Did they tell you… is there any way I can get a hold of him?”
As soon as she’d said it, she knew it was a waste of time. Hospitals weren’t going to give out that kind of information.
“They say if you want, you can leave a note with them. That he must come back in a week or so for removal of the stitches.”
A week. She couldn’t wait that long, could she? That would mean staying here till next weekend, at least.
Today was Friday.
Friday was when Daniel’s friends met. At El Tiburón. The Shark.
El Tiburón was one of a string of bars just north of the small cement pier at Los Muertos Beach, where people caught fishing charters and the water taxi south to villages like Yelapa. Like most of the beach bars, it had a palm-thatched roof, wood floors, and a wooden rail running along the front, where a few vendors quickly draped their serapes and blouses and sarongs to display to customers before a waiter shooed them away.
We hang out, watch the sunset, Daniel had told her.
One of his friends would know how to find him.
She’d brought his things, on the off chance that he’d be there. Stopped at one of the little stores by the pier to buy a tote bag to put them in. Her choices were Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara, their faces outlined in black against fluorescent shades of green, red, and yellow, stamped on woven plastic. She chose Che.
Now Michelle stood on the beach boardwalk a few yards from the rail, squinting into the darker bar. That group at the long table, was that the board meeting?
She climbed the three steps that led into the bar, stood there a moment. It must be that table, she thought. There were about a dozen people there, and she thought they mostly looked like Americans, or maybe Canadians. White people, mostly. One black woman, an Asian man, and a guy who might have been Mexican.
Mostly middle-aged or older. Ordinary.
Certainly not dangerous.
Stupid, she told herself, it was stupid to even think that way. What had happened in the hotel room, that was just a robbery. Not Daniel’s fault. Nothing involving any of these people.
“Miss? Would you like a table?”
“I… I’m looking for… There’s a group that meets here?”
The waiter, a young man tanned as dark as strong coffee, gestured at the long table she’d already noted.
She took a tentative step forward, toward the table. Stopped.
This is silly, she thought. Just get it over with.
“Here for the board meeting?”
The man who spoke was hollow-cheeked thin, with a whitestubbled beard. He wore a Clash T-shirt, collarbones protruding above where the neck had been cut out. A blurred tattoo ran down his shoulder, below the ripped-off sleeves.
“I’m… a friend of Daniel’s. Michelle.”
He might have been in his sixties, but he looked like he’d lived hard. “I’m Charlie.” He smiled, revealing yellow, channeled teeth, an obvious hole where a tooth should have been and a bridge wasn’t. “Danny’s coming tonight?”
“I’m not sure I…” She felt herself flush. “He got hurt last night, and I was wondering if…”
“Danny got hurt?” He sounded concerned.
“Is he okay?” a blond woman sitting across from him asked.
“I think so,” Michelle said, and then Charlie patted the empty chair next to him.
“Sorry, my dear, I didn’t mean to make you just stand there. You want something to drink?”
She sat. He seemed nice. Harmless at least. And he knew Daniel.
“Thanks. Yes, I would.”
“I wouldn’t have the margies here,” he confided. “They use Sprite.”
“Have the piña colada,” the blond woman said. “Two for one during happy hour.” She was large, on the far side of middle age, the blond an obvious dye job, wearing a Hawaiian shirt patterned with orange and white hibiscuses.
“Piña colada, I guess.”
Her smile, unlike Charlie’s, showed gleaming white teeth.
“Smoke?” Charlie asked.
“No, thank you.” Not surprising that he smoked. She could smell the cigarettes on him, layer upon layer of smoke on his T-shirt and shorts that no amount of washing would vanquish, on his index finger and thumb as well, browned and baked by burning tobacco.
Their drinks arrived, Michelle’s piña coladas coming in two large plastic cups. She sipped one. The rum cut through the sugar with a tang of kerosene.
“What happened to Danny?” Charlie asked.
“It was a robbery.”
“Oh, my God,” Vicky said with a gasp. “That’s terrible!”
“He’s okay,” Michelle said quickly. The more Vicky reacted, the less she wanted to talk about it. “But I have some of his things.”
Both Charlie and Vicky had Daniel’s cell number, but no land-line. No address.
“You know who I bet does?” Vicky said suddenly. “Gary. He told me he was stopping by tonight, and if he doesn’t, I can call him.”
“Great,” Michelle said. Maybe she’d get her phone back. That would make the evening worth it.
“Oh, Gary. He’s delightful,” Charlie muttered.
Vicky grabbed her wadded-up napkin and tossed it at him. “Now, come on,” she said. “Gary’s… a good person. He really likes to help people.”
“He’s not my sort,” Charlie said in an exaggerated whisper. “He golfs.”
Michelle smiled, for a moment forgetting that she didn’t want to be here.
She’d waited for almost an hour, listening to the blur of small talk around her and sipping her piña colada, when Vicky said, “Oh, here’s Gary.” She waved in the direction of a man who’d just come in. He wore a neat, expensive Lacoste shirt and khaki shorts, Ray-Bans pushed up onto his forehead.
“Well, hey there, Vicky,” Gary said. He made his way up to the table, next to Michelle, and gave her a long, thorough look. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Michelle wasn’t sure how old he was. He had a face that seemed out of balance, his cheeks and lips plump like a baby’s, the knowing eyes above peering out from wrinkled, puffy lids, all framed by blond curls.
He took her hand, gave it a little squeeze. “Can I get you a drink, Michelle? You look practically empty.”
He signaled to the waiter before she could say yes or no.
“Michelle’s a friend of Danny’s,” Vicky said. “Did you hear…?”
Gary found a chair and pulled it next to Michelle. “Oh, man, I sure did. So that was you in the hotel with him?”
She’d thought she was beyond embarrassment by now, but she wasn’t. She kept her voice level. “It was.”
“I’ll tell you, this town…” He shook his head, his bow lips curved in a little smile. “It’s getting kind of crazy here.”
“What happened to Danny?” an older woman a few seats away asked. Karen, or was it Kathy? Michelle had been introduced to too many people to keep track. She was thin, tanned almost as dark as the waiter, her hair in a long gray braid.
“Oh, well, the way I heard it, some narcos tried to rob him, cracked him on the head.” Gary spoke loudly, so that others sitting at the table could hear him, even over the blare of Steely Dan playing on the bar’s speakers.
“How do you know they were narcos?” the older woman asked, but no one paid attention.
“The narcos are out of control,” said a middle-aged man sitting two seats over. “Did you hear about what happened by Bucerías yesterday?”
Everyone started talking at once. A battle with machine guns and grenades, between drug gangs and police. Narcos incinerated in cars. Police ambushed at a crossroads in retaliation.
Michelle felt dizzy. She closed her eyes. Clutched her drink. Took another long sip through the plastic straw. Like a pineapple milkshake.
“Fucking Sinaloa cowboys,” someone said. “They ought to put an electric fence around that whole shithole state. Save us all a lot of trouble.”
“Guerrero,” Michelle said. “They were from Guerrero.”
“It’s just really sad.” Vicky’s eyes glistened. “I hate seeing this kind of thing happen in Vallarta.”
“If this were St. Louis, or New Orleans, no one would even blink,” Charlie said. “But here in paradise we expect everything to be perfect.”
“Oh, come on,” the Asian man said—American, Michelle amended, from his accent. “Machine guns? Grenade launchers?”
“I’m talking about a few robberies, not narcos killing each other.”
“This town depends on tourists and foreign residents. If crime gets out of control and people stop coming here, everyone is fucked. Right down to your favorite Babaloo on the beach selling shrimp on a stick.”
Michelle’s head hurt. Probably from all the cheap rum and sugar. She really wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep, even though the sun had barely set.
“Gary, Vicky tells me you might have Danny’s address,” she said.
Gary smiled, pushing his pillowy cheeks up to meet his puffy eyes. Like a debauched cherub, Michelle thought. “You want to check up on him? See how he’s doing?”
“No.” She pushed down the urge to snap off some hostile response. “I mean yes, but mainly I have some of his things. His phone. And I think he has mine.”
“Ah.” From his little smirk, she wondered if he believed her. He appeared to consider. “Well, I think I can help you out,” he finally said. “Anybody have a pen?”
He extracted a business card from his wallet and scribbled on its back. “This isn’t the exact address, but any cabdriver will be able to find it.” He held it out to her, fingertips brushing hers when she took it. “I wouldn’t go there tonight, though. I don’t think he’s home right now. Try him tomorrow.” The smirk again. “Not too early.”
She glanced at the front of the card. Plain black letters on white linen—nice design and good-quality paper.
Gary Wallace. Trinity Consulting. A cell-phone number. An e-mail address.
“Thanks.” She stood up, unsteady from the rum. “I’d better get going,” she said. “Thanks for the drinks.”
Vicky rose with her and gave her a hug. “This is a good place,” she said in Michelle’s ear. “Don’t let what happened spoil Vallarta for you.”
Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Brackmann
Lisa Brackmann has worked as a motion picture executive and an issues researcher in a presidential campaign. A southern California native, she currently lives in Venice, California, with her three cats. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger, was an Amazon Best Book of 2010.