I tried my best to ignore Bruce’s knee, but it kept going up and down like a pump that was sucking the life out of him.
The coffee table in front of him was covered with paper towels where he’d spilled the water I’d given him. He leaned back on the sofa before he did more damage. The way his hands were shaking, it was a good thing I hadn’t offered him anything hot.
Bruce Froberg was in his late forties and good-looking. The problem that had brought him to consult a private investigator was his 27-year old wife, Cindy, who had disappeared from their home sometime during the morning of March third. It was now the sixth.
“What makes you think your wife has been kidnapped?”
“All the money was withdrawn from our joint account the morning she disappeared. That was the day after my pay cheque had been deposited. It can’t be a coincidence.”
I decided that honesty was the best policy. “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like a kidnapping to me.”
“No! You don’t understand. I found a note, and she would never have taken the money unless she was coerced. Kidnapping is the only thing that makes sense.”
He handed me a folded, letter-sized piece of paper. He hadn’t thought to wear gloves, of course.
We have kidnapped Cindy. We will not harm her as long as you do not contact the police and you pay our ransom. We will contact you with the details.
The note was printed. I looked at it carefully and saw tiny, almost-invisible yellow dots on the paper.
“Do you have a colour printer at home?”
He looked puzzled by my question. “Yes.” Most people don’t know that their printer’s serial number is encoded on the document as faint dots. I had a bad feeling that the code would match his printer. I’ve never heard of a kidnapper relying on the victim to create their ransom note for them.
“Doesn’t it seem strange you haven’t heard from them yet? Especially after she withdrew all the money from your bank account.”
“She was forced! She must have been! Please, isn’t there something you can do?”
He seemed legitimate. I wasn’t getting any creepy stalker vibes from him.
“The first thing we should do is call the police.”
“No! They said they’d kill her if I do. I want you to act as my agent when they call.”
“Try to stay calm. The note doesn’t say anything about killing her.”
In fact, the note’s language seemed off to me. Most people would have said kidnapped your wife, not kidnapped Cindy. Using her name indicated familiarity, or possibly a desire to avoid the phrase your wife. Neither option was good for Bruce.
There was always a possibility that he’d gotten rid of her and was using me as an alibi by making it look like she’d been abducted. My gut, however, said he was one of those men who dearly loved his wife. Either that or he was a great actor.
“All right, I’ll need a letter of authorization so I can talk to your bank.” He didn’t hesitate to write one for me by hand.
We finished up the details of our contract, and I showed him out. Then I headed for his bank.
* * *
Bruce had been a customer for a long time, and the manager was anxious to cooperate. At first, Bruce had offered to come with me, but I didn’t want him getting freaked out by whatever I discovered. I suspected that this affair was not going to turn out the way he thought.
As a courtesy, the bank manager let me see the surveillance videos of Cindyʼs visit. To me she certainly looked nervous, which was to be expected, but she never looked anywhere other than at the floor or the teller. A person under duress would also be under surveillance by her abductors, and someone who knows that they are being watched almost always glances toward their watcher at least once. My feeling that something was hinky about Cindy Froberg was growing. That was too bad. Bruce seemed like a great guy.
She left the bank with three thousand dollars in cash and a bank draft for another sixty-two and change.
My next step was to phone every airline that flew out of Calgary International. I was hampered by having no idea whether she was travelling alone, or where she might have gone. It required cunning.
“Hi. My mother left a few days ago on holiday, and I need to know where she went.”
“Do you know the flight number?”
“No, she didn’t tell anybody in case her office tried to get hold of her. It’s been, like, three years since she had a vacation. I’m not even sure she took this airline.”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“Please. She left her heart medication on her night table. I have to send it to her or she’ll die.” I was proud of the quiver in my voice.
“Don’t worry. A local pharmacy can phone her doctor to confirm her prescription and get it filled where ever she is.”
“But she can’t,” I said, projecting as much desperation as possible. “She’s in this research study, and the pills aren’t available yet. Please.”
“All right. Just one moment.” This was the fifth airline I’d called, and I was getting thoroughly sick of listening to elevator music while on hold. I expected another “I’m sorry, I don’t have a passenger by that name listed.”
“I found her. Her destination is listed as Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Did you say she’s on vacation?”
“Her ticket is one-way. Are you sure…”
I interrupted the man with profuse thanks as befit a worried daughter and hung up.
As far as I was concerned the case was solved. I called my client and asked if Cindy had a passport. She did, but when he looked it was missing. Despite the obvious evidence he still thought she’d been coerced into taking it. His faith in his wife was touching, and I was not going to enjoy watching his bubble burst.
More phone calls and e-mails failed to turn up a Cindy Froberg at any of the hotels or resorts in the area. Bruce refused to allow me to contact the Mexican police unless I was sure that I knew exactly where she was. If we wanted to learn more I would have to go to Mexico.
He didn’t even blink at paying the expenses. He actually loved his wife.
Poor me. I was going on a field trip.
* * *
Mi hermanita Kali had driven me to the airport when I left and she picked me up when I got back.
The end-of-case celebration included thick steaks, my travel stories, chocolate mousse, and a bottle of aged ron from the duty-free shop.
“How did you like Mexico?” she asked as I grilled the steaks. Kali was handling the salad, dressing, and potatoes. The latter were in the oven, gently baking to perfection. She’d picked up plenty of sour cream, and our bacon bits were so real they were probably still rooting for truffles. The chives came fresh from my herb garden in the living room.
“It was interesting. My client is satisfied if not happy.”
“Interesting as in quaint and pleasant, or as in bone-freezing terror?”
“A bit of both, with sex, an international bank swindle, and Colombian cartels thrown in.”
She stopped shaking the jar containing the dressing, and waited for me to tell my story.
* * *
Puerto Vallarta is lovely in the spring. The bougainvilleas are in bloom and their fragrance drifting on the vagrant breezes tends to catch visitors unaware. The weather is not yet hot enough to scorch bare feet on the beach sand. The winter tourists are fleeing back to their more temperate abodes leaving plenty of vacancies for those of hardier dispositions.
It’s the perfect place to stay if you have been kidnapped.
With my backpack slung over one shoulder, I found the airport’s security office. I was in luck. There was a gorgeous young man behind the counter. When he looked up his eyes widened as if he recognized me. It was my first time in Mexico, so that was unusual to say the least.
* * *
“He was probably just flirting,” Kali said.
“Who’s telling this story? You’ll spoil the foreshadowing.”
* * *
“Hello,” I said in Spanish, “I’m investigating the disappearance of this woman.” I showed him a picture of Cindy, as well as my private investigator credentials. Although I wasn’t licensed in Mexico, I hoped they would at least buy me a little professional courtesy. “She flew in on the third of March.”
He treated me with the utmost respect and didn’t even glance at my credentials.
“Of course, señorita,” he said. “Would you like to see our surveillance videos?”
I thought he wanted to feel important and macho by helping a female investigator from a foreign country. He immediately led me to their surveillance office.
* * *
“That’s more than a little weird,” Kali said. “I thought you would need a warrant or something to see that kind of thing?”
“Normally, yes. At the time I thought he was just being nice.”
“At the time?”
“Shush, you’ll spoil the story.”
* * *
He took great pride in showing me his skill in handling the computer system. It only took him a few moments to find her coming out of the arrival gate, collecting her luggage, and buying a taxi ticket. The camera outside caught the license number of the cab. He printed the image for me, as well as a blow-up of the frame best showing the driver who got out to help her with her bags.
At no time did I see anybody with her. Nor was she paying much attention to her surroundings. She definitely didn’t look frightened. If anything, she looked relaxed and eager.
In short, there was still no evidence of a kidnapping, and mounting evidence against it. Things were not looking good for my client’s marriage.
My new friend, Ramón, was so helpful that he insisted on escorting me to the taxi booth. That turned out to be more useful than you’d think. On the way, he chased away several men who offered me a ride, but who were only trying to sell condo time-shares to tourists. Just in case I needed any further help he also gave me the contact information for his cousin who was a municipal police comandante.
Another odd thing was he seemed nervous, even as he offered to show me the sights in their lovely city when I had time. Ramón was entirely yummy looking, and I accepted. My only regret was that I couldn’t drag him off to a hotel room right away. He smelled good.
* * *
“You didn’t,” Kali said. “You slept with literally the first man you spoke to in Mexico? Damn, hermanita.”
“I’ve given up feeling guilty about what my libido wants. Apart from not doing anything excessively dangerous, that is.”
“If you say so.”
* * *
The man at the taxi booth remembered la señorita hermosa from several days before, mostly because her destination was Boca de Tomatlan which is the furthest south you can go by road along the coast. It’s a small village whose big claim to fame is that you can get a water taxi to the other coastal villages further south. It wasn’t a tourist destination.
He identified the driver in the photo. When I offered him a small “service fee” to have dispatch call the taxi for a pick up, Ramón grabbed his hand before he could take my money and shook his head at the man. I had the distinct feeling that I was missing something. No knight’s armour was that shiny and I didn’t think I was being subtle about wanting to end up in bed with him later. It wasn’t like he had to try to impress me further.
Dispatch said the driver would be there within half an hour. While I waited, I got a recommendation for a good, relatively cheap hotel where, of course, the taxi guy’s nephew worked. It was already after noon so I doubted I’d be lucky enough to locate Cindy that day.
Now that I knew where I’d be staying, I also confirmed a date with Ramón for that evening. Apart from dinner, I wondered how many sights we’d see outside my hotel room.
I’d leave that entirely to him.
* * *
“Good afternoon, señorita,” the driver said as he got out of the taxi to help me with my minimal luggage.
I handed him my prepaid ticket. “Buenos días. Llévame al Holiday Inn Express.”
He finally looked at me, and when he got to my face he stared. I thought maybe my Spanish was rusty and he hadn’t understood, but instead of being puzzled he only became more respectful. Fawning would be a better term.
What the heck, I decided to go with it. If he thought I was a VIP it might help my investigation. He gallantly helped me into the back seat of the taxi, and we headed for the hotel.
“I’m looking for a woman you picked up a few days ago,” I said, still in Spanish. “She was headed for Boca de Tomatlan.” I passed him the picture I had of Cindy. That was a mistake. There was a blaring horn as we almost side-swiped another car while his attention was distracted.
“I remember,” he said. “She gave me extra to stop at a bank on the way and to wait while she did some business.” I saw him sneak one hand from the wheel and wipe it on his trouser leg. His eyes kept shifting from the road to the rear view mirror. He’d see me looking at him and immediately shift his attention back to the road.
“Banco de Finanzas, near Boulevard Francisco Medina Ascencio.”
“I drove her to Boca where she took a water taxi.”
“Did she ask you to do anything else for her?”
“Good. You have done well.” I relaxed in the back seat, and watched the scenery as we drove the rest of the way to the hotel in silence.
When we arrived he insisted on carrying my backpack to the front desk for me. I tried to look like I expected it. He had a quick, whispered conference with the desk clerk who was also nervous afterwards. I couldn’t hear most of what he said, but I thought I heard “ella es la rana dorada.” That made no sense. I’m a golden frog?
* * *
Kali stiffened. “Holy shit, he thought you were La Rana Dorada?”
“What, you’ve heard of her?”
“Hell, yes! No wonder they were terrified of you! Do you have any idea who she is?”
* * *
I thanked my driver and slipped him a twenty-dollar bill as a tip. That was probably about four times what he usually got, but I wanted him to remember that helping me had its rewards in case I needed him later. Besides, it all went on my expense account.
When I asked for an economy room the clerk profusely apologized. Mysteriously, all the economy rooms were booked, but he would be happy to upgrade me to a luxury room for no additional charge. The constant VIP treatment was making me nervous.
I had no idea who they thought I was, and I couldn’t ask anybody without blowing my cover, so I went with the flow and ignored the whole thing.
The room was indeed luxurious, and my first act was to explore the bath tub. At six Ramón arrived to take me to dinner. Bravos was a nice restaurant in the south end of the city where I had the braised lamb shank on gnocchi, which was excellent.
He was quiet as he drove me back to the hotel. Again he seemed nervous, like he was about to put the moves on the president’s daughter.
I succeeded in getting him over his shyness. As predicted, we spent the entire night sightseeing in my room. Ramón was a good testimonial for why Latin lovers are in high demand.
* * *
Kali snorted. “From what I’ve heard of them, you got lucky.”
I smiled in remembrance. “Oh, you’d better believe it.”
She put her forefinger in her mouth and made gagging sounds.
* * *
The next morning a minor earthquake woke me at an annoyingly early hour. Ramón was trying to put his trousers on while sitting on the edge of the bed. I rolled over and grunted into my pillow.
“I apologize, chiquita,” he said as he leaned over to kiss me. “It is time for me to go to work. Perhaps you will be free this evening?”
I forced myself to wake up enough to consider his offer.
“I’d like that, but don’t know if I’ll be here. It depends on how my investigation goes. I’ll call you if I’m available.”
I was aware of how trite that sounded, but we’d talked about this last night. To be even more trite, we were ships passing in the night. He was fun and charming, but we either hooked up again or we didn’t.
“I look forward to it,” he said. I never saw him again.
Now that I was awake there was no point in putting off getting out of bed. I had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then went to find a taxi.
It took a while to dicker with the driver. In Mexico the taxi fares aren’t metered. Instead, they are set by convention and most are negotiable. The fare to Boca de Tomatlan wasn’t small.
Boca was pretty much what you’d expect from a coastal Mexican village. It was situated where the highway turned inland, so the main business was serving the people along the coast who didn’t connect with a road.
Captain Garcia was taking a well-deserved break when I found him. His water taxi ran on a schedule rather than continuously, so he had a fair amount of the day off unless there was maintenance to be done. For once, I was being treated like a normal person.
I bought him a drink and showed him the photo of Cindy. He recognized her immediately. Not from her initial arrival, but because he saw her almost every day on his runs.
“I took her to a villa about 15 minutes down the coast from Cabo Corrientes. Almost every time I pass by she is either swimming naked in the ocean with her boyfriend, or they are making love on the beach. Their displays offend some of my passengers.” From his grin, I suspected that the captain did not share their sense of moral outrage.
“Can you take me there? I don’t doubt your word, but my employer will want photographic proof of her presence.”
The captain made a big production of miming how big an imposition that would be, then got to the heart of the matter.
“It costs a lot to run my boat, and it would be difficult to do for just one passenger.”
“What if we took a smaller boat? I’m sure there must be some for rent, and of course I would pay you for your time and trouble.”
Again I was treated to bad acting. I put a hundred-dollar bill on the table between us which instantly vapourized his anguish.
“I have a nephew who owns a boat. Maybe he will let us use it.”
The nephew was willing, for a cut of his uncle’s payment, to let us use his boat. For some reason I expected something like a three-metre boat with an outboard motor. Instead, it was 12 metres long with three huge outboard motors. On the side it said Cigarette. It didn’t plough the seas; it skipped over them with the bow pointed upward while I hung on, and tried not to imagine what would happen if we hit a wave and flipped. The engines roared and we would have needed bullhorns to talk to each other.
Half an hour later Captain Garcia slowed the boat, and we puttered quietly past a twenty-metre long beach at the base of a low cliff. We were far enough out from shore that we wouldn’t disturb the inhabitants unless they actually looked up and saw us.
The boat’s binoculars made the on-shore activities clear. A naked, bronzed man with a thoroughly impressive body and no tan lines was languidly wading ashore as Cindy came down the stone steps from the house. She was carrying two drinks and wore nothing but sunglasses and a pair of flip-flops. Her long blonde hair fluttered behind her as she handed her boy toy one of the glasses.
My phone has a good camera, but I’d recently bought something better for surveillance work. The 40X zoom was worth every penny as I recorded about ten minutes of video. Cindy, her long blonde hair fluttering behind her as she handed him a glass, as they sat on a beach towel and sipped, as they put down their glasses and started kissing, and as they got serious. I recorded several good shots of the man’s face as he turned around over her stretched out body. She looked like she was having a lot of fun. I’d have been envious if it wasn’t for my recent adventure with Ramón.
I didn’t bother to record the whole performance. Bruce didn’t need, and probably didn’t want, that much detail.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said, and the captain started the engines to take us back. He gave the couple a final glance and opened up the throttle. This time I scrunched down in my seat to avoid whiplash.
* * *
It was well after dark by the time I got back to my hotel room. I ordered room service to make up for my missed dinner, then composed a tactful text message to Bruce asking him what he wanted me to do now that this wasn’t a kidnapping case.
Captain Garcia and his nephew had identified the boy toy as Carlos Rodriguez. He was a well-known beach bum who cultivated an air of romance to catch the attention of women like Cindy. I included a single photo from that day’s shoot: one that tried to straddle the fine line between obvious proof of her infidelity and not tearing his heart out.
It wouldn’t have surprised me if I didn’t hear back for a day or two. I could imagine the shock it would be to him, and if it was me I’d have taken a while to start thinking rationally again. Instead, he texted me back within the hour. He’d found his own evidence after I’d left for Mexico.
“C stole 300K from invest acct meant for kids uni. Recover if possible. Leave her there.”
The poor guy was thinking of his children while his wife lived it up on the beach with 370,000 dollars of his money. As far as I knew, Bruce’s only crime was being over 25 and marrying a bitch.
The situation offended my sense of fairness, and I intended to do something about it. The question was what I could do, given that I had no legal standing in Mexico, almost no contacts, and had no real idea how their banking system worked.
Maybe I could run some kind of scam and get her to take the money out of the bank, but no obvious plans for that presented themselves to me. Besides, it would probably leave me with an outstanding international arrest warrant. That would be awkward. I’d been in a similar position before and preferred not to do it again. I’d have to sleep on it.
I was tempted to call Ramón, but I’d need more sleep than I’d gotten last time we’d had a pyjamaless party.
The next morning I called my one remaining contact to see what he could offer.
“Comandante Vasquez,” said a deep, important-sounding voice.
“Good day, Comandante,” I said in Spanish, “your cousin Ramón gave me your number, and said I should call if I needed any help. My name is Veronica Chandler.”
“Of course Señorita—Chandler.” Again, he sounded a lot more respectful than I’d expect of a busy police commander getting a call from some random chica his cousin had hooked up with. The pause before my name sounded like he didn’t believe that my name was real either. Here we go again.
“There is a woman living in a house about four kilometres south of Cabo Corrientes. She stole a considerable amount of money from my client, and he would like it back. Do you have any suggestions as to how we might do that?”
“Do you know where the money is now?”
“In the Banco de Finanzas.”
“What is her name?”
“Do you wish the woman—detained?” he said very softly. His tone of voice suggested he wasn’t talking about a legal arrest.
I had to tread carefully. “No, that won’t be necessary. As long as the money is returned she can live her life as she pleases.”
“You are most generous, Señorita. I shall make inquiries. Do you have a number where you can be reached?”
I gave him the number of the hotel and my room number. I wasn’t going to sit and wait, so I changed and told the desk clerk that I’d be in the swimming pool in case I got a call.
Two hours later one of the staff approached me with a telephone on a silver tray. I didn’t think they actually did that except in movies.
“This is Comandante Vasquez. I have made arrangements for you to receive your money. Would a bank draft be acceptable? If not, the manager can have it in cash, but not before tomorrow. He apologizes for the delay.”
I was stunned. Getting the money out of Cindy’s hands wasn’t anything I would have bet on five minutes ago. I wondered how many corners he’d cut to do it, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Certainly, Comandante. A draft would be perfect. Thank you.”
“I can pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bank if you wish. Let’s say twenty minutes, if that is convenient.”
“I’ll be ready.”
It was almost exactly twenty minutes later that there was a knock on my hotel room door. I’d just gotten out of the shower and managed to dress in the other set of clothes I’d brought with me. When I answered the door, he slipped in as if he didn’t want to be seen.
“I hope that I am not early,” he said.
“Not at all. You didn’t have to pick me up. I could have called a taxi.”
He drew a folded piece of paper from his pocket.
“That wouldn’t be wise. I am only the comandante of one delegación, you understand. I might not have been able to protect you if you had been seen by others.”
I was about to ask him what the hell he was talking about when he opened the paper. It was a wanted poster much like ones you see on TV.
The woman looking back at me from the picture almost looked like she could be my twin, although her hair was considerably different. Her name was Teresa Maria Gacha Ochoa. She was 23, just two years older than me, and she was wanted for multiple counts of murder, extortion, and assault. All of her alleged crimes involved elaborate and creative forms of torture. She was closely affiliated with a major Colombian drug cartel, and her sweet young face, combined with the pleasure she took in her job, had earned her the nickname La Rana Dorada—The Golden Frog.
Oh, crap. It was pure luck that I hadn’t been picked up by immigration or the Federales when I entered the country.
* * *
“I told you so,” Kali said as she took the potatoes out of the oven. “From what I’ve heard, that woman started killing professionally when she was fourteen. She even scares the other cartel enforcers.”
* * *
I’d learned Spanish from Kali and her parents. It hadn’t seemed significant until now, but I it meant I spoke with a Colombian accent. No wonder these people thought I was a cartel assassin and were giving me tons of respect. If I didn’t play this right I would be in big trouble. I’d allowed them to believe I was someone else without understanding the consequences, so I wasn’t going to be able to explain this as mistaken identity now.
From what Kali had told me of life in Colombia, the cartels had an exceedingly short fuse for any act that even faintly hinted at disrespect. A gringa taking advantage of their reputation would land me in a big, deep pit of pain that I would never get out of.
The only way to survive this was to keep playing the part, and to get the hell out of the country as soon as possible.
It was almost noon. The timing would be tight.
“I’ll need to check out before we go.”
It took all of five minutes for me to pack, and another five minutes to check out. Vasquez drove to the bank with lights and siren, which wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. At least it made us immune to traffic stops.
While he drove I checked my phone. There were some flights out at 3:00 and miracle of miracles, there was an available seat. I booked it and hoped nothing would hold me up.
Out of curiosity I also looked up Golden Frogs. They live in the rain-forest of Western Colombia. The females are larger than the males, and have enough poison on their skin to kill twenty adult humans.
* * *
The bank manager was terrified of us and handled the details himself. I didn’t want to know what he thought I’d do to him if he didn’t cooperate. Cindy’s account was closed, and the full amount issued to me as a bank draft. He made it clear that there were no service charges.
“Do you want to leave a message for the account holder?”
There was no way that my client’s name was Colombian, and giving it would blow my cover. My real name wouldn’t mean anything to her either.
“Just tell her who I am,” I said, trying to sound like a psychopathic cartel assassin. Whatever they sound like. “She should understand.”
“Comandante,” I said as we left the bank, “there is one more favour you could do for me. I need a ride to the airport. My flight to Bogotá leaves at three.”
“Of course, señorita. It would be my pleasure.”
Again, I let him drive with lights and siren. After a while he spoke diffidently.
“Señorita, I was wondering if I could ask you for a small favour?”
“Go on,” I said. “I’m feeling generous.”
“I am, as you know, the comandante of a delegación. As such, I could be useful to your friends, as I have been useful to you. I would be grateful if you would mention me to them when you get home.”
And so the other shoe dropped. He wanted a position in “my” cartel. At least he had guts, given the reputation of La Rana Dorada. I hoped that the smile I gave him was as cruel and evil as it should be.
“You have been most useful. I see no reason why we should not work together in the future.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him smiling to himself.
* * *
I had him drop me off outside the main terminal, but I insisted he not accompany me. After all, it wouldn’t be good for our future business dealings to draw attention to himself in my company. Besides, the airport was Federales territory where he would have no jurisdiction. He agreed with my logic and left me at the entrance.
Puerto Vallarta airport is perfect for the con I was pulling on him. International flights depart from a separate building with access by a long, curved walkway. He couldn’t see which flight I was taking without actually being with me.
I went to the WestJet check-in for my flight to Calgary. My first thought was to send a message to the Federales, telling them to keep an eye on Vasquez. Unfortunately, I would likely have to explain my involvement to them, and that would probably cause them to view me unfavourably as well as drawing attention to our bank scam.
I briefly wondered if I could have done this legally, but even if Mexico had an extradition arrangement with Canada it would take time and paperwork to charge Cindy with theft. If she had caught any hint of it she’d have been in the wind. It was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
After check-in, I bought a bottle of 12-year old Jav’s ron at the duty-free shop. I felt like I deserved it.
* * *
“The rest you know, since you picked me up,” I said as Kali finished her steak. As the story-teller, I had fallen behind.
The Mexican affair had been a nice, normal case. I didn’t have to deal with any literally inhuman monsters, or any uncanny events. I like nice, normal cases. They’re normal. Normal is good.
Between us, we finished off the bottle of ron. Or rather, it finished us off. By then, Kali found it hilarious that I’d been mistaken for a cartel assassin. Both of us were acting silly but not stupid, so we might have been under the legal limit for driving. Theoretically, Kali could have driven home.
Under no circumstances was that going to happen. Kali’s parents had died in a car crash, and although alcohol hadn’t been involved, we had a zero-tolerance pact between us for driving after drinking. Around one a.m. I crawled into bed, and Kali crashed on my sofa.
My cat, Yoko Geri, showed what he thought of me going away without him by abandoning our bed to curl up with Kali. Damn it, I’d been looking forward all week to him purring me to sleep. Just because she’d fed him while I was gone didn’t mean that he had the right to be fickle.
Tomorrow I would give the bank draft to my client and get paid. Maybe I’d be up in time for lunch.
* * *
It was wonderful while it lasted. There was an endless, deserted expanse of white, Mexican sand, warm sun, and a soft blanket on the beach. The air smelled of the sea and tropical flowers. Ramón was glorious and there was a complete lack of any clothing. The waves were warm, Ramón’s beautiful, brown eyes gazed longingly into my own sort of hazel ones. He tasted of salt.
The forest fire kept distracting us from more important things.
I opened my eyes. The glowing numbers on my alarm clock said 5:17, a number I prefer to associate with thoughts of supper. The rum had partially worn off, but I was still groggy from lack of sleep. It took a few seconds for my brain to fully acknowledge that there was a burning stench in the air.
The blankets went one way, and I went the other. As soon as my bare feet hit the carpet I crouched down to get below the smoke layer, just as we were taught in school. How the hell could a brick and concrete building be on fire? Why weren’t the fancy new smoke detectors that had been installed only a month ago making a frantic racket?
I crawled toward my bedroom door where my bath robe was hanging. I hadn’t bothered with my pyjamas when I went to bed, and if we ended up outside I wanted to be wearing something more than a deeply concerned expression. The weather wasn’t that warm.
An angry and muffled meow came from my bed. Yoko must have seen the error of his ways sometime during the night, and left his other woman. I’d grab him once I was robed and had assessed the situation.
There was almost no light in my room, but by the red glow of the numbers on my alarm clock I could see vague shadows in front of me at the foot of my bed. They looked suspiciously like a pair of feet that were blocking my way to the door. My eyes followed the shadows up the dark mass to a quiet blue flame hovering in midair. It moved, becoming brighter for a moment. There was a sound of someone exhaling, and the pungent burning smell became more intense and caught in my throat. The smell wasn’t tobacco.
It was brimstone.
I scurried backward, crab-walking with my butt almost on the floor, until my head hit the night table. The lamp on top teetered and fell to the carpet. I felt the lamp shade brush by my hair as it went past, narrowly missing my head. The crunch of a breaking light bulb was close and immediate.
Adrenaline poured through my system again. I chose to interpret it as anger rather than fear. A male voice with a distinctive lisp familiar to a previous generation of movie-goers spoke in the darkness.
“Nice reflexes, doll, but you should put something on. You look cold.”
I knew that voice. There were no unnatural urges, and I fought down my instinctive panic. It was far too late for modesty, so I stood up, pushed past the figure, and put on the robe that was hanging on the door. I tied the belt by touch, viciously yanking the ends as I did so. I would have a hell of a time getting it undone later, but that was the least of my worries.
I found the wall switch without much trouble and flicked it upward with a satisfying snap. The result was painfully bright, and I couldn’t help blinking several times. It didn’t make any difference to what I saw, which was exactly what I was hoping I wouldn’t.
Humphrey Bogart, circa 1941, stood in my bedroom, dressed in a well-tailored, three-piece, pin-stripe suit. He’d tossed his fedora over the post at the bottom of my bed.
I really liked normal cases. None of them involved Sam Spade showing up in my bedroom at oh dark seventeen. Especially considering what the bastard had done to me the last time we’d met.
He waved the sulphurous cigarette at me in greeting, and took another puff. How do you even smoke sulphur? The stench tickled my throat, and I made a great effort not to cough. I’d be damned before I’d let him make me cough.
“Put that out. You’ll stink up the whole apartment.”
“Whatever you say, toots.” The cigarette vanished as if it had never existed. The smell did not go with it.
On the bed I saw movement where Yoko Geri was trying to escape from the blankets. He’d be safer where he was.
Bogart only had about nine centimetres on me. He was from an earlier era when leading men didn’t have to be tall. I reared up to my full height of 163 centimetres and folded my arms across my marginally adequate chest. I was hoping to convey angry authority rather than fear.
“What are you doing here? We had a deal that you wouldn’t answer a summons in North America for the next hundred years.” To my irritation, he sat on the end of my bed. At least he missed sitting on Yoko.
“We do, babe,” he said, waving his hand as if he still held the cigarette. “Nobody summoned me. I came to see you on my own nickel.”
“I don’t care why you’re here. Get out of my apartment right now.”
He leaned back like he was posing for a cheesecake photograph. Even Bogart’s quirky smile was ruggedly handsome. That didn’t help my state of mind at all.
Would it be better for me to stay in the bedroom, and hope that he ignored Kali? Or should I wake her up, and hope that two slightly drunk brains were better than one in figuring out what to do about this?
“Sorry, doll. No can do. I need your help.”
I gave up. Ignoring his statement, I went out into the living room. Bogart got up, grabbed his fedora, and sauntered after me.
Kali was fast asleep on the sofa in a borrowed pair of my pyjamas. My spare blankets were tucked around her. Her long, black hair was tied back in a pony tail, and it curled across her breast like a sleeping kitten. I sat beside her and shook her gently. She made sleepy noises.
“Time to get up?”
“No, but we have a visitor.”
“That’s nice,” she said, rolling over.
“Kali, wake up! There’s a problem!”
She groaned and opened her eyes. It took her a while to focus on the scene illuminated by the light coming from the bedroom. I watched her eyes track from me to our visitor. She sniffed, and I could see her try to process.
Her brain engaged. She bolted upright, the blanket clutched to her chin.
“Prince Sitri of Hell? Yeah.”
I turned to the demon, who was studying my original Maltese Falcon poster on the wall.
“Would you please stop looking like Bogart, and doing the 1940s dialogue? It’s creepy.”
He actually looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry, I thought it would make you feel more comfortable.”
Sitri turned to mist and solidified again. He was now a normal human. He looked a bit like he could be David Tennantʼs hotter brother and…
“Put some clothes on!” I yelled. As befit a lust demon, he had a body that just wouldn’t quit. That was another complication I didn’t need right now. He did his dissolve-and-solidify trick again, this time appearing in form-fitting jeans, and a tight military-green t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a Scottish long sword above the stencilled words “front toward enemy.” That was marginally better. I tried not to look at him.
My psychologist, Trinity MacMillan, had been working with me for the past several months to help me get over my last meeting with Sitri. I strongly suspected she didn’t actually believe what I’d told her, but at least she believed that I experienced it as real and was willing to go with that.
I checked in with my brain, and it seemed to be working more or less normally. I didn’t feel any weird sexual urges. Weird for me, anyway.
There was no reason to sit in the shadows, so I turned on the living room light. When I turned around, Sitri was holding out his hand to Kali.
“Hi, I don’t think we’ve met,” he said. “I’m Sitri.” She stared up at him like a caged squirrel looks at a starving wolverine. He slowly withdrew his hand.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her.
“Okay,” she said, never taking her eyes off him.
“Look at me.”
She turned to face me without hesitation. If she was feeling anything abnormal toward him it didn’t show on her face. For now, it looked like he wasn’t doing anything perverted to either of our brains.
Enough of the small talk.
“What do you want?” I was tired, mildly drunk and had a demon in my living room. It’s possible that I may have sounded somewhat cranky.
He was looking at me with a boyish grin. It slowly faded as I failed to be either charmed or impressed, and he became serious.
“I want to hire you.”
“In the middle of the night? You must be joking.”
“Not at all. Somebody is getting in my way. I need you to find out who.”
“You want to hire a private investigator? Seriously?”
“Yes, I do. Seriously.”
“This isn’t some revenge thing for the Blakeway affair is it?”
“Why would I want revenge? We both got what we wanted last time we met.”
“So this doesn’t involve souls and Faustian bargains?”
He looked like I was correcting him on the use of the proper fork at his first formal dinner.
“Why, do you think it should?”
“Don’t give me that crap. You have a lot of gall showing up here after what you did to me.” I let my anger build to counteract my fear.
He didn’t try to deny it. Instead, he looked—ashamed?
“I’m sorry. I know you’ve been having a difficult time dealing with the effect I had on you. It—I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.”
“You are telling me that you can control it?”
He looked unhappy, which had to be an act. “Yes. I’m sorry. I forgot it was on. Normally, I’m nothing like that. I’m so sorry.”
Being anywhere near him still scared me, but I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me no matter who he was. I got up in his face.
“If you even think of pulling that shit again, on either of us, we’re done. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
He looked like a little boy whose puppy I’d run over. I wasn’t about to buy it as sincere, but I accepted his apology for now.
“Fine.” I let some of my anger seep away. It didn’t cost me anything to be more polite while we found out what he actually wanted. As long as he didn’t want us to become best friends. That wasn’t going to happen.
“What do you mean ‘getting in your way’?” Kali said. That was my girl. It meant she’d gotten over the worst of her panic and was thinking more-or-less clearly. Now it was two against one.
He tried to sit on the sofa by Kali, but I beat him to it. Instead, he had to sit by himself across the coffee table from us in my comfy chair.
“Okay, so this is the thing,” he said, leaning forward. Both of us instinctively leaned back. “Six weeks ago a magician in Oslo summoned me. I thought, hey, I’m not busy. I’ll go play. I was delayed, and when I arrived he was dead. The same thing happened again a few days later in Tokyo, then again three weeks ago in Tbilisi.”
“Where?” The name didn’t sound familiar.
“It’s the capital of Georgia,” Kali said.
“Isn’t that Atlanta?” I said before thinking. “Or is it Augusta?” Kali gave me a get with it look. “Oh, the country Georgia. Right.” I turned back to Sitri.
“You actually get summoned every week or so? I didn’t know there were so many magicians in the world who were that desperate to get laid.”
“It’s been getting busier lately, now that Midland has synchronized with Downland.”
I sighed. One of the many problems I’d discovered in dealing with demons is that, even when you understand all the words, you feel like a six-year old at an astrophysics conference. They seem to assume that you know a lot of things that you don’t.
“What are you talking about?”
He paused and got a look on his face I recognized from my conversation with the demon Beleth over a year ago.
“Let me guess,” I said. “It’s complicated.”
He shrugged and leaned back in the chair.
“Yeah, it is. The short answer is that the time rate has been slowing in your universe for a long time, and now it’s synchronized with ours.”
“Why would our…” Kali said. “Never mind. Go on.”
“Anyway, nobody’s ever killed a summoner like this before, and I knew I’d need somebody I could trust in this world to figure this out. There was only one name on the list—you. I killed three weeks being a tourist in your world and then came to see you.”
Heaven save me from incompetent amateurs during an investigation.
“Why didn’t you come as soon as it happened? The first 24 hours after a homicide are critical.”
Again with the look.
“It’s a bit embarrassing. You could say that I needed to become sober first.”
“You were drinking?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Then why would you have to…? Never mind. We’ll add that to the list of questions for later. What exactly do you want me to do? Not that I’m going to agree to anything without a lot more explanation.”
“I need you to find out what’s happening to my summoners, and who’s doing it.”
“Is that all? You don’t want me to stop the killer too?”
“If they were able to delay me from appearing in your world, I doubt that you would be able to stop them. I’ll take care of that when the time comes. I hope.”
I considered my options. Of course, I could refuse but I had no idea what the consequences would be. Going to the police was pointless. Not only were the three victims in widely separated jurisdictions, but explaining how they were related would be a problem. The various national police services wouldn’t listen to an outsider. It would be worse if I told them that a demon was the common denominator among the cases.
For better or worse, my involvement in three other affairs involving demons meant I was likely the only demon-savvy investigator on Earth. Lana Reviere in England was another possibility, but she didn’t have as much experience as I did. As he said, there was one name on the list.
Oh, happiness and joy. I’d better add that to my resume so I can get more cases involving the paranormal. Just what I need. It’s not as if I enjoy normal cases or anything.
“Fine. I’ll take the case on one condition. If the killer is a human, then I get full jurisdiction over his or her punishment.”
“That’s unlikely, but okay. If the killer isn’t human then they’re mine.”
I had a nasty feeling that I’d regret this. I looked at Kali. She looked thoughtful, then nodded slightly. So be it.
“Fair enough. Now, about my fee…”
“One thousand dollars an hour plus expenses,” Kali interrupted. “Thirty-thousand dollars in advance as a retainer.” What she’d just asked for was ten times my normal rate.
He didn’t even blink. “No problem. When do you want it?”
I yawned as I looked at the kitchen clock. It wasn’t yet six a.m.
“No earlier than this afternoon. You’re leaving now, and we’re going back to sleep.”
“I was hoping…”
“This isn’t open to negotiation.”
He looked slightly disappointed. Too bad.
“Okay, I’ll see you in about six hours. Will Canadian dollars be acceptable?”
“Perfectly,” I said, and he was gone. We watched the seat of my comfy chair as it slowly adjusted to having no weight on it. Kali and I looked at each other.
“Is he gone?”
“Probably. It’s not like we can do anything about it if he isn’t.”
“I hope that neither of us regrets this,” she said, then yawned. It was contagious.
“The only thing I regret right now is being awake.”
I got up and went back to my bedroom. Yoko Geri had given up trying to get out of the blankets by the time I untangled him. He gave me an annoyed chirp when his head appeared, but he decided to stay in bed with me anyway. I hoped we’d get to sleep in.
I already regretted accepting the case. Regardless of what happened this afternoon, this was probably going to be an extremely long day.
I tried my best to ignore Bruce’s knee, but it kept going up and down like a pump that was sucking the life out of him.