Diablo Nights, Chapter 1
Emilia Cruz Encinos knew that she’d made a mistake. As Kurt Rucker parked in front of the store, she realized how big of a mistake it was.
Madre de Dios. Emilia’s heart pounded like a church bell simply at the sight of the place. She would never have asked Kurt to the wedding if she’d known the invitation would lead back to the scene of her first crime.
The store in Acapulco’s exclusive El Centro shopping district hadn’t changed much in 25 years, except to add an impressively uniformed security guard. As Emilia stared through the car window she remembered the scrolled grillwork protecting the windows and the handsome letters gilded onto the glass. The famous turquoise door stood open and she could see right into the interior of the store. A row of wrought iron chandeliers lit the long and narrow space. The very air seemed to glitter from the flecks of gold clinging to antique statues, the displays of religious medals, and a cabinet of glowing chalices. Even the bishop shopped at Villa de Refugio.
“When you suggested something religious, I asked around,” Kurt said as he pulled the keys out of the ignition of his SUV. “Everyone said to come here.”
“I don’t like the look of this place,” Emilia said, trying for nonchalance. The people who recommended stores to Kurt were not people who lived in concrete block houses without air conditioning. “My mother and Ernesto don’t need antiques or gold candlesticks.”
“I’m not turning up at your mother’s wedding with a gift from some neighborhood mercado,” Kurt warned her. “I’m meeting your entire family for the first time and I’m planning on making a hell of an impression.”
“Don’t worry,” Emilia said. “You will.”
Kurt laughed and she experienced that now-familiar jolt of surprise that he was a gringo with yellow hair and eyes the color of the ocean at La Quebrada. She didn’t know why that should surprise her any more; they’d been together almost six months. They’d met when the Palacio Réal, arguably Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, was the focus of her first big investigation as a police detective. Kurt managed the Palacio Réal, where his penthouse overlooked the ocean at Punta Diamante on the bay’s southeastern side. She’d spent the last ten weekends there.
He called it living together. Emilia wasn’t sure what she called it.
She still couldn’t shake a feeling of unreality about their relationship. She was an Acapulco beat cop who’d fought her way into the detective ranks and Kurt was a gringo who lived in a rarified world of foreign tourists and first class wealth. Emilia had told only a few people about Kurt and her forays to the penthouse at the Palacio Réal. She wasn’t exactly trying to hide the relationship; she just didn’t want to see her own concerns reflected in their reactions when people from the real world found out about the two of them.
Last weekend, when she’d invited him to her mother Sophia’s wedding, it had seemed like the perfect solution. Kurt would meet all the important people in her life. Everybody all at once. Over and done with.
With luck, there would be so much noise, excitement, and activity surrounding the happy couple that family and friends wouldn’t notice that Emilia’s date was blonde, a head taller than anyone else, spoke Spanish with a norteamericano accent, and carried himself with a self-assurance that was both commanding and magnetic. If anyone resented Kurt for being a gringo and behaved badly toward him, Emilia could say later that they’d been drunk. Sophia would be too busy being the bride to ask embarrassing questions. If she did, Emilia’s best friend Mercedes Sandoval would be there to help run interference.
But all week, as Sophia was even more forgetful than usual and intended bridegroom Ernesto looked like a dog kicked to the curb, Emilia had been having second thoughts. And now Kurt had brought her to the Villa de Refugio. It was an omen of disaster.
“Let’s go.” Kurt unlocked the car doors.
“No, I’m serious.” Emilia gripped his arm. “I’m not going in. This store is too expensive.”
Kurt raised his eyebrows. “We won’t get anything made out of solid gold, okay?”
“I mean it,” Emilia insisted. She forced her fingers to relax; they must have felt like a claw digging into him. “Let’s go someplace else. You can get them a nice crucifix or a little Virgin of Guadalupe statue and be done.”
Kurt shoved the car keys into his pocket and Emilia stared unhappily at the fluid movement of taut muscle under tanned skin. He was so different from Mexican men. Kurt was a former Marine in his country’s armed forces who’d fought in wars before deciding to go to college. He ran hotels for a living and competed in triathlons for fun. Even dressed as he was today, in board shorts, an untucked white button-down, and loafers without socks, he exuded confidence and authority. He knew how to both motivate and lead people, as evidenced by the way the Palacio Réal ran like a precision instrument. She’d learned a lot from him and knew she was a better police detective because of it.
“Is this about me coming to the wedding?” Kurt asked. “You afraid they’re going to give you a hard time? Pressure you about us getting married someday?”
“Madre de Dios,” Emilia exclaimed at the unexpected question and jerked her hand back. “Nobody’s talking about that.”
“Good to know,” Kurt said in a neutral voice. “I’m pretty sure that if I got down on one knee I’d feel the wind as you rushed out the door.”
“Look,” Emilia said, before they went down that road. Most days it felt as if she was already married–to the job. And most days she liked it that way. “Let’s go somewhere else to find a gift. Mama and Ernesto don’t need anything from this store.”
Kurt hit the button to relock the car. “Sure. Just tell me the real reason you don’t want to go in.”
“I told you.” Emilia tried to sound indignant. “I think it’s too expensive.”
Kurt gave her that steady, confident look that said he knew he would win any contest of wills. “What else?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emilia said loftily.
“I don’t believe you for a minute, Em. What’s going on?”
Madre de Dios. She should have known she couldn’t bluff. Kurt was the one person who always saw through her. Emilia slumped in her seat. “I stole something from that store.”
Emilia threw him an eye roll. “No, not recently. When I was little.”
Kurt nodded. “How little?”
“Six or seven, I guess.” Emilia swallowed hard. After her father died, she and her mother had lived with an aunt, uncle, and two cousins in a tiny apartment above her uncle’s car repair garage. Her male cousins were several years older and she’d grown up following them around Acapulco’s streets, learning to fight and steal and avoid the pimps and dealers.
“That was what, 25 years ago, Em?” Kurt sounded more teasing than shocked.
“My cousins and I had this thing we did,” Emilia said. She clasped her hands together in her lap. Her skin was café against her pale blue knit dress. It was the sort of thing she only wore on the weekends with Kurt, with her hair down instead of in its usual ponytail. She was nominally off duty, but still required to wear her gun and carry her badge. Both were hidden by her white cardigan. “They’d send me in first and I’d cry that I was lost and they’d come in and start yelling that our mother was all upset that I was lost and how great it was that they’d found me. We’d cry and make a lot of commotion. The shopkeepers would get wound up and in all the excitement Alvaro and Raul would pick up a candy bar or some gum. We’d run out and share the loot later.”
Kurt glanced out the windshield at Villa de Refugio’s elegant façade and the uniformed security guard. “This doesn’t look like the kind of store with stuff that would appeal to little kids.”
“They didn’t have a security guard then.”
“Still.” He looked at her expectantly.
“I wanted some of those chocolate coins.” Emilia said. Reluctance and shame wrapped around her. “You know the kind I mean? Chocolate in gold foil stamped to look like a coin.”
Kurt nodded. “I’ve had a few.”
“It was around Christmas time. I didn’t want toys or a doll. Only those chocolate coins.” Emilia found herself talking through a lump in her throat. “I thought about them all the time. I thought they were real gold. If I got some I could buy my mother a new brain so she would stop crying and forgetting things.”
“Tough times,” Kurt said.
Emilia drew in a deep breath. It had been years since she’d thought about this episode and it was oddly disturbing to have to confess it to Kurt. He was part of her life now; he had nothing to do with those hardscrabble years of her childhood when she was scared so much of the time. Her mother Sophia had been a teen with a toddler when Emilia’s father died, and Sophia’s mind had snapped. Emilia became both breadwinner and decision maker as soon as she was old enough. Ernesto Cruz, Sophia’s intended, had taken on some of Emilia’s role but he was also damaged goods.
“Even then, Alvaro always knew everything,” Emilia continued. “He was sure Villa de Refugio had the coins. He and Raul waited around the corner. I went in crying about being lost. I was pretty good at it and could really put on an act.”
“Did the store have the coins?”
“Yes. In a bowl on a glass display case by the cash register.” Someone walked by the car and a shadow fell across Emilia’s face. She’d almost forgotten that it was a sunshiny Sunday in the middle of the dry season.
“Then what happened?”
“A man came out from behind the counter. I guess it was the owner and he must have heard about our tricks because he grabbed me. Yelled that he was going to turn me over to the police and I’d never be seen again.” Emilia remembered exactly what he’d looked like; pencil-thin moustache, pomaded hair, and glasses that made his eyes look like those of a giant insect. He’d been eating onions and his breath in her face had tasted like fire. “He was furious. Kept shouting and shaking me really hard. I thought my head would fall off.”
“Poor Em,” Kurt said. He reached over the console and squeezed her hand.
“I screamed and Alvaro and Raul came in. They tried to pull me away but the owner wouldn’t let go and I was nearly torn in two. Everybody was hollering and fighting and the owner kept shouting for help. I was terrified that the police would come and get us all.”
“Alvaro threw down some firecrackers and Raul pulled over the display case. Por Dios, what a noise.” That was the most vivid part of the memory; the ear-popping sound of the firecrackers, a shattering crash like the end of the world, shards of glass flying everywhere. “The man let go. We got out and ran for three blocks before stopping.”
“But you managed to steal the chocolate,” Kurt said, still acting faintly amused.
“Yes,” Emilia lied and finally returned his hand squeeze. She remembered a little girl’s desperate lunge for the glittery things on the floor scattered amid the jagged bits of glass. The shock of what she’d later found clenched inside her bloody fist.
“Must have been a terrible disappointment to find out they were really chocolate,” Kurt said.
Emilia dredged up a convincing smile. “It was.”
Kurt leaned across the armrest and kissed her cheek. “Tell you what, Em. We’ll go in there and buy something that is at least double the value of a bag of chocolate coins. It’ll be our way of saying ‘sorry’ after all these years.”
“Face my demons, you mean,” Emilia said. There were so many. Childhood memories. Souvenirs of the cartel violence she’d survived as a cop. The secret she carried with her every day.
“That, too.” He kissed her again.
“You’re such a problem solver,” Emilia murmured. She put a hand on his cheek, so that his face lingered near hers, and breathed in the fresh scent of his skin before letting him go.
Kurt unlocked the car again and they got out. The security guard by the turquoise door nodded and stepped aside for them.
“Interesting that you and your cousins all became cops,” Kurt remarked as they walked into the store.
“Takes a thief to catch a thief,” Emilia replied.
Villa de Refugio was Acapulco’s premier Catholic store for good reason. The elegant space was equal parts book shop, jewelry bazaar, antiques store, and art gallery. And all of it was the highest quality, with prices to match.
Artwork hung on the far wall. The paintings weren’t ordinary copies of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, like in so many religious shops, but original oil paintings of the Virgin, Jesus on the cross, the Holy Family, and the archangel Michael. A long run of glass-topped counter on the right side of the store was bisected by the cash register. One segment of counter was lower than the rest and two red velvet upholstered chairs were pulled up to it for serious shoppers. The left side of the space was lined with floor to ceiling glass-fronted cabinets. Statues, books, boxes, and religious curios of every kind were arranged inside. Another cabinet held items reserved for churches and the clergy; vestments, candlesticks, those glowing chalices.
Besides the security guard, the only staff in the store were two salesgirls, identically dressed in gray skirts and vests, with white blouses and little red bow ties. No cranky men with bug eyes and bad breath.
“May I help you?” The salesgirl who approached them wore a name tag that read “Tifani.”
“We’re looking for a wedding gift,” Kurt said. “Something very tasteful.”
Tifani smiled. “Of course, señor. Perhaps a piece of artwork?”
“Nothing too big,” Emilia said hastily. Tifani had the hungry look of a salesperson in close proximity to a well-dressed gringo.
They spent time perusing the artwork on the far wall, all of which Emilia vetoed as being too large, too opulent, or too expensive.
The long wall of cabinets looked more promising and Tifani reluctantly followed Emilia and Kurt around as they studied the various pieces. The other salesgirl behind the cash register threw her colleague reassuring looks from time to time. Shadows flickered from the open doorway as people occasionally walked past but no other customers came in, which meant that Tifani could continually direct her attention at Emilia and Kurt.
He was tall enough to reach items from the topmost cabinet shelves and Emilia could almost hear Tifani hold her breath as Kurt took down and studied one item after another; an antique carved statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cross covered with silver milagro charms, a diorama the size of a paperback book depicting Jesus turning water into wine.
“What about this?” Kurt took a leather-bound book out of a matching leather box. Both looked worn by time and use. “An antique Bible.”
“Madre de Dios,” Emilia murmured. She looked over his shoulder as Kurt paged through it and found an inscription dated 1790. “Definitely not. This should be in a museum.”
Kurt found the price. “Ten thousand pesos.”
“I told you this place was too expensive.”
Tifani looked crestfallen as she watched Kurt replace the Bible in the cabinet.
Emilia wandered across the room to the glass-topped counters. Small items were tastefully arranged under the glass. Rows and rows of gold religious medals were pinned to cream satin pillows; everything from simple engraved crosses to Virgin of Guadalupe medallions as big as a plate. Crystal, wood, and precious metal rosaries were displayed in open boxes, each set curled in on itself, with the cross on top of the beads. Little rosary carrying cases were set out next to them, ranging from small brocade pouches to palm-sized enamel tins inset with the Virgin’s likeness or a vial of holy water.
Most rosaries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary but Villa de Refugio had rosaries dedicated to specific saints like Saint Joseph, the patron saint of families, or Saint Theresa who was known as the Little Flower. The most expensive rosaries were sets of sterling silver beads with matching silver pillbox cases embossed with the silhouette of the Sacred Heart. There weren’t any rosaries or cases made of gold.
“May I help you, señora?”
Emilia gave a start. The other salesgirl was standing behind the counter.
Her nametag read Lupita. “I can take out any rosary you’d like to see,” she said.
“No, thank you,” Emilia murmured. She tightened her grip on her shoulder bag and wandered around a bit more, noticing a row of framed pictures on the wall opposite the velvet chairs. All the pictures were of people standing by the signature turquoise door; a timeline of the famous who’d visited the store, dated by clothes long out of fashion. She recognized the owner who’d scared her all those years ago. He looked old and ordinary.
Twenty minutes later Kurt had narrowed his choices down to three different items: the antique statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a silver icon of Saint Luke done in the repujado punched metal technique, and a delicate clay tree of life depicting the life of Saint Francis with his animals surrounding him. Tifani had placed them all on the low glass counter and Emilia and Kurt sat down on the velvet chairs to decide.
“The Virgin is very nice, from a very old church in Guadalajara,” Tifani said encouragingly.
“It’s nice,” Kurt said. “But ubiquitous.”
Tifani smiled uncertainly. “A very special piece,” she said.
Kurt picked up the repujado icon. “What do you think, Em?”
“It’s beautiful, but I think it’s too fancy,” Emilia said. The silver was inlaid with seed pearls and what she hoped were crystals and not real jewels. It was stunning but she could hardly see it in their plain little house.
“You sure?” Kurt asked.
“Yes,” Emilia said honestly. “Don’t get that one. Word would get out that they had it and the house would become a magnet for burglars.”
“All right,” Kurt said and laid the work of repujado aside.
Emilia touched the tree of life. “I like this, too. But it’s so fragile and Ernesto isn’t the most careful person.” She visualized the knife grinder’s work-worn hands and the way he sat, elbows out, in his chair at the kitchen table waiting for Sophia to serve up his breakfast. “Maybe the Virgin is the safe choice.”
“Look, Em, I don’t want to sound godless,” Kurt said. “But everybody has a Virgin of Guadalupe in the house. It would hardly be special.”
With a jolt, Emilia realized that Kurt was nervous. She’d been so worried about others’ reactions that it hadn’t occurred to her that meeting her family and making a good impression were important to him. The thought made her feel happy and queasy at the same time.
“Wasn’t there an icon of Saint Jude?” she asked, turning around in her chair to peer at the shelves across the room. “He’s the patron saint of impossible causes. It would be fitting.”
“Em,” Kurt reproved her.
Tifani smiled desperately as if starting to see her sale slip away. “You like the saints, no?” she asked. “Saint Jude is very special, but we have some even more special items. Perhaps you’d like to see them.”
“For a wedding gift,” Kurt reiterated. “Something simple but elegant.”
Tifani slid over to her colleague. Emilia watched out of the corner of her eye as the two girls had an urgent conversation in low voices. Lupita disappeared through a doorway behind the cash register. She came back a moment later with a box decorated in the traditional rayada carved lacquer technique. It was the size of a loaf of bread and the bottom was fitted with a small drawer with a tiny gold knob.
“This is a most special and precious item,” Tifani said as she moved the other items aside and spread a velvet cloth over the glass-topped counter. Lupita placed the box reverently on the fabric. “A relic of the most holy martyr Padre Pro.”
Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. “Really? Padre Pro?”
“Who’s that?” Kurt asked.
“Padre Pro,” Emilia said, as her heart thumped. She was glad she was already sitting down. The rayada box was lacquered in blue and black with an etched design of crosses rather than the usual animal motifs. “He was a priest. A martyr of the Cristero War.”
Kurt frowned. “The what?”
“You’ve never heard of the Cristero War?” Emilia was surprised. Kurt had lived in Mexico for nearly three years and although she knew he wasn’t Catholic, it seemed inconceivable he had never heard of the religious upheaval that had taken place in the country during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
“No,” Kurt said.
Emilia got her heart rate under control as she considered how to explain it to him. “In the 1920s, the Church was deemed to have too much power,” she began. “The government tried to shut it down. Made it illegal for priests to wear their vestments. Placed quotas on the number of priests in each state. Eventually made it illegal for priests to even say Mass. Convents and churches were closed and the property confiscated.”
“Here?” Kurt sounded incredulous. “This is the most Catholic country I’ve ever been in. Are you sure?”
Emilia nodded. “We studied it in school. It went on for a long time. Priests and Catholics who wouldn’t renounce the church were arrested and executed. At first the protests were peaceful, but when the army started killing people there was an armed rebellion. Really tore the country apart.”
“And this Padre Pro was caught up in it?” Kurt lifted his chin at the enamel box.
“He was a Jesuit priest who defied the government ban on priests giving the sacraments and saying Mass,” Emilia explained. “He wore disguises. Used safe houses. Was a good actor, apparently, and had a lot of narrow escapes. He actually got famous as the priest the government couldn’t catch.”
“Until,” Kurt said leadingly.
Emilia nodded. “They trumped up charges and blamed him for an assassination attempt on a famous general. Someone turned him in. He was executed by a firing squad after forgiving the soldiers. Right before he was shot he spread his arms and shouted Viva Cristo Rey. He didn’t die immediately so a sergeant shot him point-blank in the head. The government publicized pictures of his execution. It was pretty gruesome.”
“They wanted to make an example out of him,” Kurt said.
“Exactly.” Emilia glanced at the lacquer box and at Lupita and Tifani hovering protectively around it. “But it backfired. Viva Cristo Rey became the Catholic rallying cry and the Cristero War really blew up after that.”
“So this Padre Pro is a saint?” Kurt said.
“I don’t think he’s officially a saint yet,” Emilia said. “But he’s famous to Mexican Catholics.”
Kurt looked up at Tifani. “Well, let’s see this relic of the famous Padre Pro.”
Tifani and Lupita exchanged glances, then Tifani carefully opened the shallow drawer set into the bottom of the box. “These are the letters verifying the authenticity of the relic,” she explained. “Please do not touch.”
She took out four letters, each encased in a glassine archival protector, and laid them on the velvet next to the box. Through the cloudy glassine, Emilia could see that two were folds of paper nearly crumbling with age. The other two were envelopes; one with a broken wax seal on the flap and the other relatively new with foxing on the corners.
“The relic of Padre Pro is genuine,” Lupita said softly. “The bodies of saints do not, how do you say, corrupt after death. The relic is proof of his true sainthood.”
Tifani slid the drawer closed and opened the lid of the box. She took out two pieces of styrofoam and set them aside. She reached back inside the box and drew out a small rectangular display case. Lupita whisked aside the now-empty enamel box and Tifani set the glass case on the velvet pad and turned it so that the front faced Emilia and Kurt.
The sides and top of the display case were made of clear glass. The wooden base was stained a dark mahogany and bore a small brass plaque with an inscription that read A Relic of the Most Holy Martyr Blessed Padre Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J. 1891-1927.
The back was decorated with a color picture of a priest in a bloody cassock lying with arms outstretched at the feet of an officer holding a sword and wearing a garish Napoleon-style uniform.
But it was the object inside the display case that took Emilia’s breath away. A long-lost relic of Padre Pro. Her life had come full circle.
Was she actually in the presence of something so holy? Was it proof he was a true saint? She started to make the sign of the cross.
“Damn,” Kurt said, his voice stinging like a bucket of cold water. “I don’t know much about saints and their bodies staying intact after death, but this is somebody’s finger, Em. And they didn’t lose it all that long ago.”
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I'm author Carmen Amato. I write romantic thrillers and the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat. More