“And this is our bedroom,” Emilia Cruz Encinos said. She opened the door and led her mother Sophia Encinos into the cool and lofty room high above the Pacific Ocean.
Sophia tentatively walked a few steps over the threshold, followed by her husband, Ernesto Cruz. She stopped and the vague smile she normally wore faded from her face, to be replaced by an equally vague frown, as if she knew she should be worried but couldn’t remember why. Ernesto stayed by his wife but his mouth dropped open; no doubt this was the most opulent home he’d ever seen.
“There’s a bathroom, right through there.” Emilia gestured to the ensuite door, wondering when her mother was finally going to say something.
Neither Sophia nor Ernesto moved.
“I put up my old crucifix, Mama,” Emilia went on. She pointed to the small talavera pottery cross on the wall above the king-sized bed covered with a white matelassé spread. “Do you remember it?”
Sophia pressed a hand to her mouth. Not even 50 years old, she was still a beautiful woman, with the same long dark hair, high cheekbones, and smooth skin as her daughter. Her eyes slid past the huge bed to take in the built-in closets and large dressers, the seating area with plush upholstered furniture; and the gently rippling full-length linen draperies. Ernesto stared around open-mouthed.
Emilia felt her stomach tighten and she smoothed nervous palms down the front of the sleeveless teal linen dress she’d bought for the occasion. Although she had lived with Kurt for well over six months, this was Sophia and Ernesto’s first visit to the penthouse apartment. Emilia had expected disapproval for being unmarried and living in sin with a gringo but so far the reaction was stunned silence at the décor and architecture.
Kurt Rucker came to stand beside her, his blonde hair glinting silver as the late afternoon sun streamed through the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. “You have a real future as a tour guide, you know,” he murmured.
Emilia sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder in response. Sophia and Ernesto stopped talking as they’d walked into the lobby of the Palacio Réal, Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, which Kurt managed. Not a word in the elevator up to the penthouse or as they’d toured the living and dining rooms, and now finally, the master bedroom.
Sometimes it was easier to be a police detective investigating Acapulco’s daily death toll than a dutiful daughter.
“Sophia, would you like to see the ocean from here?” Kurt asked.
Sophia turned to look at him, her mouth curved again into the vague smile.
“The sliding doors lead to the balcony, just like in the living room,” Kurt said smoothly. “We can walk all the way around the apartment.”
“It is very high up, no?” Ernesto found his voice at last.
“We’ll be all right,” Kurt said. He gave Emilia’s hand a subtle squeeze then crossed the room to open the glass door, muscular and confident in khakis, loafers, and a white polo with the Palacio Réal crest.
Emilia ushered Sophia and Ernesto forward, feeling like an overdressed dog herding sheep. Once over the threshold both stopped, seemingly bewildered by the soaring sight of cobalt sky and aqua ocean.
“I think this side of the apartment has the best view,” Kurt said. He gently took Sophia’s elbow and guided her to the waist-high stucco wall encircling the wide balcony. Emilia watched as Ernesto followed his wife, gawking at the teak chaise lounges and cobalt glazed pots full of geraniums and trailing greenery.
As they leaned on the wall, Kurt pointed out the hotel attractions spread out below them: the huge two-level Pasodoble Bar, the secluded beach, the fleet of hotel boats anchored at the private marina, and the floating dock anchored out in the bay. A special Saturday afternoon buffet was being set up on the dock. They watched as staff wearing the Palacio Real’s trademark blue floral shirts and khaki shorts unloaded hampers and coolers from two motorboats, the distant figures rising and falling as the dock rode the ocean current.
Emilia glanced at her mother, wondering what was going on inside Sophia’s head. Although Sophia had lived her entire life in Acapulco, Emilia knew she’d never been in a luxury hotel like the Palacio Réal, an architectural marvel hammered out of the cliffs above Puerto Marques, the famous bay-within-a-bay on the southeastern tip of Acapulco. The hotel guests they’d passed in the lobby on the way to the penthouse elevator were hardly the ordinary Mexicans that Sophia encountered in her central Acapulco neighborhood. For the most part, guests at the Palacio Réal were gringo diplomats, rock stars, filmmakers, and business executives enjoying one of the world’s most exclusive getaway destinations.
As if noticing her daughter for the first time, Sophia turned to Emilia, her long dark hair and floral dress fluttering in the breeze. “Isn’t this apartment very expensive?” Sophia asked.
“The apartment is part of my salary, Sophia,” Kurt said.
“They pay you to live here, Carlos?” Sophia had called him Carlos ever since meeting Kurt months ago.
“In a way,” Kurt said.
“It’s far from school for Emilia.” Sophia gave him one of her blank smiles and turned to look at the ocean again.
Emilia looked helplessly at Kurt.
“You have a very nice home,” Ernesto said formally, as if to bridge the awkward moment. “I hope you and Señor Carlos are happy here.”
“Thank you, Ernesto,” Emilia said gratefully. Her mother’s husband was a weathered man who often seemed as emotionally damaged as his wife, but now and then he surprised Emilia with his acuity.
“Shall we go inside for la comida?” Kurt asked. “I hope you two are hungry. Emilia spent all morning in the kitchen.
Sophia’s smile widened into genuine amusement. “Emilia cooked?” she asked.
Emilia’s hopes rose. The kitchen had always been a comfortable spot for Sophia. “Come on, Mama. I’ll show you what I’ve made.”
They walked around the balcony to the other side of the apartment. Kurt turned on a soccer game for himself and Ernesto while Emilia showed her mother into the gleaming kitchen with its stainless steel countertops, glossy Italian cabinetry, and commercial-grade range.
Sophia looked pleased and impressed. She opened cabinet doors and drawers and investigated the dishes and flatware. Emilia popped the main course into the oven, found the ingredients for her appetizer, and bumped the refrigerator closed with her hip.
“I made things ahead of time,” Emilia said. “All I have to do is fry the flores de calabaza. I used a recipe Tía Lourdes gave me.”
Earlier that morning Emilia had removed the woody stems and stamens from the sturdy yellow squash blossoms, then rinsed them in salt water. They were dry now, and ready to be fried. As Sophia watched, Emilia poured oil into a skillet and turned on the heat. Blue flame jetted around the burner ring under the pan.
“Lourdes?” Sophia sniffed. She sat at the table and watched Emilia stuff cheese cubes inside each flower, coat them in beaten egg white, and roll in breadcrumbs. “Why did you ask her? Lourdes knows nothing. Doesn’t even know how to put salt on a jitomate.”
At the stove, Emilia looked over her shoulder at her mother. “Tía Lourdes makes wonderful flor de calabaza guisada. Don’t you remember?”
She flicked water off her fingertips to test the oil; a sizzle and pop assured her the pan was hot enough. Emilia carefully eased the breaded blossoms into the pan. The aroma of frying cheese and garlic filled the air.
“Lourdes was never nice to me, you know,” Sophia muttered.
“How can you say that?” Emilia exclaimed. “Tía Lourdes is your sister-in-law. We lived with her and Tío Raul for years and they were the kindest people on earth.”
When Emilia’s father, the original Ernesto Cruz, died in a car accident with his wealthy employer, his 19-year-old widow Sophia had a nervous breakdown. Ernesto’s brother Raul and his wife Lourdes took in the bereft woman and her child. Emilia grew up in a cramped apartment above Raul’s car repair garage with her aunt and uncle, their sons Ramon and Alvaro, and a mother who lived in perpetual twilight.
When Emilia became a cop a dozen years ago, she rented a small house for herself and her mother. She’d woken one morning just over a year ago to find a strange man in the kitchen and her mother declaring that this Ernesto Cruz was the same husband she’d lost years ago. Sophia and Ernesto were married now, but Emilia knew her mother had merged the two men in her mind and nothing could convince her otherwise.
Her mother sniffed. “Raul was nice. But Lourdes never understood.”
“Understood what, Mama?” Emilia asked. She looked away from the hot oil and crisping breadcrumbs, very curious about the implication of Sophia’s words. “What didn’t Tía Lourdes understand, Mama?”
Sophia drifted over to the bank of glossy cabinets. She opened a drawer and took out a handful of flatware. Two forks, three spoons. A steak knife.
“Did you and Tía Lourdes―.” A spit of hot oil landed on Emilia’s hand before she could finish the thought. She gave a start, wiped her hand on a kitchen towel, and flipped the blossoms. The tops were a perfect golden crust.
When she looked again at her mother, Sophia was at the table, pressing the sharp tip of the steak knife against the heel of her left hand. “Mama!” Emilia exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
Sophia thrust the knife away and it clattered on the table, now littered with the other flatware as well. “You’re always so abrupt, Emilia,” Sophia scolded. “So rough.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Emilia said. “But you scared me. You shouldn’t play with knives.”
Sophia’s unlined forehead creased in a frown. “Are they nice to you here, Emilia?”
“What? Nice?” Emilia wasn’t ready for the abrupt shift in conversation.
“Are they nice to you?” Sophia seemed serious.
“Mama, this is my home.” Emilia laid paper towels on a plate. “Do you remember Mercedes Sandoval? My friend the dancer? She loves it here.”
Sophia nodded, eyes shining. Mercedes was still a local celebrity in the eyes of Sophia and other older women in the barrio.
When Emilia was small, her mother and Tía Lourdes had watched Mercedes and her late husband win ballroom dancing competitions on television, exclaiming over Mercedes’s opulent costumes and her handsome husband’s powerful moves. When he died, Mercedes had moved back home, to the same neighborhood in Acapulco where Sophia and Ernesto lived, to eke out a living as a dance instructor. She was older than Emilia but as tough, both mentally and physically. Outside of her partner Franco Silvio and Kurt, there wasn’t anybody Emilia would rather have behind her in a bar fight.
“Mercedes was here,” Emilia went on, knowing that her friend’s opinion would carry weight with Sophia. “Had dinner in the restaurant. Even met the head concierge, Christine. And Jacques, the head chef.”
Sophia flounced out of the chair, her floral dress swirling around her bare legs, and came to the stove. She peered into the frying pan. “Did you turn them over?”
“Yes,” Emilia said. “They’re done.”
“Very nice, Emilia.” Sophia watched as Emilia lifted the fried flores de calabaza out of the skillet and onto the paper towels. “Just like I taught you.”
Emilia bit her lip as she arranged the appetizer on small plates. Apparently, their conversation about Tía Lourdes had never happened.
Dinner was awkward.
Ernesto plowed through the squash blossoms and tackled Emilia’s tuna steaks, rice, and tangy tamarindo sauce with gusto. Sophia barely ate, her attention on the dramatic view of the Pacific coast on the other side of the glass doors. Seated opposite Emilia, with the crystal chandelier turning his blonde hair to silver, Kurt tried to keep the conversation going. Only Emilia chimed in. Eventually they both fell silent.
Kurt cleared his throat. “Perhaps we’d like some music,” he said.
Anything to fill the silence. “Yes, please,” Emilia said.
Kurt rose from the table and went into the living room to turn on the stereo. Emilia watched him walk by. She never tired of his athletic grace or the confidence which he wore like a second skin.
The Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Rhapsody in Blue soared around them. Kurt turned down the volume and came back to the table. The music was soft but the rhythm was energizing. Emilia smiled her thanks and Kurt winked at her.
“Your tortillas are very fresh, Emilia,” Ernesto said. “Very good with the flavor of the tamarindo.”
Emilia grinned at him gratefully. He bobbed his head at her and took another tortilla from the serving basket.
“Are you still working for the police?” Ernesto asked.
Emilia nodded. “Of course, Ernesto. Why do you ask?”
He gestured with his fork at the expensively appointed room, the hand holding it scarred and weathered from years of sharpening knives and tools against a grinding wheel. “I thought maybe you didn’t need to work anymore,” he said.
“Emilia’s doing important things,” Kurt said. “She was even asked to help select a new lieutenant.”
“Yes?” Ernesto looked impressed.
“I just got to ask some questions,” Emilia said. She didn’t want to make her role seem more important than it was, or reveal that she was part of the interview panel because of a deal she and Silvio had struck with Acapulco’s crooked chief of police. “Lieutenant Baez is from Mexico City.”
“Like me,” Ernesto said.
“Yes,” Sophia said, bringing her attention back to the table. “Where all the museums are. And the president.”
Emilia felt herself relax a bit; they were finally having a conversation. “Actually, I have something from work for you,” she said. She went to the buffet, picked up two packs of playing cards, and spread out one set on the table.
Sophia fingered the cards. Each bore the likeness of a woman, with name and vital statistics underneath. The other side asked for help finding the woman and gave a phone number to call. “These are pretty, Emilia.”
“They’re cards to help find the missing, Mama,” Emilia said. “I thought you could give them out when you go to the market. Ernesto, you could give them to customers who come to get their knives sharpened.”
She’d kept a record of women missing from the Acapulco area for the last few years. Las Perdidas—the Lost Ones―had nothing in common except that no one else had the time to look for them. Emilia constantly combed police reports, news stories, and morgue records, but she was rarely able to close a case. The cards were the brainchild of the new operations coordinator for Acapulco’s all-female patrol unit, a job Emilia once held, and the unit passed them out on every shift.
“I know this one.” Sophia held up a card with the photograph of a stunning teen with short black hair and china doll features.
“That’s Lila Jimenez Lata, Mama,” Emilia said. “Berta’s granddaughter. You know Berta from church. I’ve been looking for Lila ever since she ran away.”
Kurt helped her clear the dishes as Sophia and Ernesto looked through the cards.
“You just have to get through dessert and the ride into the city,” Kurt said as he put the plates in the kitchen sink.
“I feel as if I’ve run a marathon,” Emilia confessed.
Kurt pulled her into a hug. “The next time they come it will be easier. Remember, this was a lot for her to take in all at once.”
They brought out coffee and dessert. Sophia sat up straight when she saw the cake topped with whipped cream and dusted with cocoa.
Emilia grinned at her mother’s reaction. “It’s pastel de tres leches, mama. Chocolate pastel de tres leches. I wanted to surprise you.”
Sophia watched Emilia slice the cake and clapped her hands when Kurt set a slice in front of her. “The only person I ever knew to make it chocolate was la señora,” Sophia said happily. “Did you get the recipe from her?”
Emilia smiled. “Who is that, Mama?”
“La señora,” Sophia said impatiently. “She was very good to us, you know.”
Ernesto paused with his fork in mid-air and looked blankly at his wife.
Emilia took a deep breath. “Tell us about this señora, Mama.”
“We lived with her and her husband when you were a baby,” Sophia said, as if explaining to a child. “Ernesto drove the car for el señor. We lived in the little house and they lived in the big house on the hill.”
It was a story Emilia had heard before. She gave Ernesto a reassuring nod and he began to eat again. “You never told me very much about the family, Mama,” Emilia said. “I don’t even know their name.”
“We had a wonderful life there, didn’t we?” Sophia said to Ernesto. She didn’t wait for a reply as her eyes grew unfocused, as if she saw something in the far distance. “Lots of parties at the big house. We went sometimes, just like we belonged there. But chauffeurs aren’t supposed to do that, she said afterwards.”
“After the accident, you mean?” Emilia asked.
“Yes. When the bad times started.”
“Whatever happened to la señora, Mama?” Emilia had never heard anything about the widow of her father’s employer, only that she’d forced Sophia and Emilia to leave immediately after the accident that took both husbands. No doubt the house was needed for a new chauffeur, but Emilia had heard Tía Lourdes say that la señora blamed the fatal accident on the close relationship between employer and chauffeur. Her husband had chosen to sit in front rather than in back seat as was the norm. He might have survived the front-end collision if he’d been in the back.
“There were swings in the yard where you played, Emilia,” Sophia said, as if Emilia hadn’t asked a question. “Your hair was straight and his was curly. People laughed because you looked so different.”
“Whose hair was curly, Mama?” Emilia asked.
“The little boy.” Sophia sipped her coffee.
“The family had a little boy?” Emilia sampled her cake. “You never told me that. What was his name?”
Sophia set her cup back in the saucer with a jerk. “How would I know?”
“You just said I played with―.”
“I told you not to do that, Emilia,” Sophia snapped. She shoved her chair away from the table and ran into the living room. Suddenly the Acapulco Philharmonic blasted at full volume.
Ernesto dropped his fork. Emilia blinked, totally taken by surprise.
Kurt held up a hand. “Em, let me.”
He went into the living room. A moment later, the music quieted.
Ernesto finished his cake and Emilia served him another slice.
From where Emilia was sitting in the dining room, the Philharmonic made it impossible to hear any conversation from the other room. Emilia ate a bite of cake, sad and tense at the same time.
Kurt and Sophia came back to the table as if nothing had happened. They looked at the Las Perdidas cards and ate Emilia’s cake and finally it was time to take Sophia and Ernesto home.
Sophia was surprisingly animated in the backseat of Kurt’s SUV as they drove along the coast road. While the scenic drive was a daily routine for Emilia, Sophia rarely left her own neighborhood in central Acapulco. Watching the ribbon of road unwind in the twilight between ocean and mountain was a rare treat.
Emilia didn’t say much, but let Sophia and Ernesto enjoy the ride. Kurt drove skillfully as the sun sank ahead of them, painting the sky with swaths of orange and pink.
At the small house in central Acapulco, Emilia got out of the car.
“Have a good day at school tomorrow, niña,” Sophia said. She kissed her daughter and headed for the door.
Ernesto took Emilia’s hand and gave her a clumsy peck on the cheek before jerking his head at Sophia, now out of earshot.
“I think she’s getting better,” he said.
Sleep wouldn’t come. Emilia flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling. The sliding glass doors were open and shadows from the softly billowing curtains danced across the ceiling. Moonlight gilded that side of the room, leaving the bed shrouded in darkness. The penthouse was quiet, save for the distant churn of the ocean and Kurt’s even breathing.
The visit kept replaying in her mind. Sophia pressing the knife point against her hand. Sophia rushing out because she couldn’t remember the name of some long-ago playmate. Anger at Tía Lourdes over nothing.
Emilia had seen both criminals and snitches deliberately misunderstand questions or try to redirect a conversation. But her mother was neither dishonest nor disingenuous. No, this was just how her mother was now and would forever be.
Sophia had once been clever and funny, as well as beautiful, according to Tía Lourdes. Emilia wished, not for the first time, that she’d been able to know that girl, if only for a minute. She let out her breath in a deep sigh that went all the way up to the tall ceiling.
“What’s the matter?” Kurt asked sleepily.
Emilia turned her head. “Did I wake you up? I’m sorry.”
“Contrary to popular belief,” he yawned. “I don’t always fall asleep immediately afterwards.”
Emilia gave a soft chuckle and rolled onto her side to face him. “Good to know.”
He grinned, teeth flashing white in the dark, and pulled her close. “What’s going on?”
“Just thinking about my mother and Ernesto.”
“They seem content with each other,” Kurt said. “What was it that he said? She’s getting better.”
“Poor Ernesto.” Emilia sighed again. Her bare feet found Kurt’s under the covers. “He’ll learn. Mama is always going to be the way she is.”
“The important thing is that she’s happy, Em,” Kurt said quietly. “And she’s happy that you’re happy.”
“It’s not that.” Emilia hesitated, loath to give voice to her thoughts.
“What’s really bothering you, Em?”
“What if it happens to me?” Emilia whispered. “What if I lose my mind, too?”
“You’re worried that it’s genetic?”
“Your mother suffered a nervous breakdown because of a terrible trauma,” Kurt pointed out. “When she lost your father. That’s not a genetic event.”
“But maybe I’ve inherited her weakness,” Emilia said. “Something traumatic could happen to me. I’m a cop in the middle of a drug war. Work is one trauma after another. I could have a nervous breakdown, too.”
“Your first partner died in the line of duty,” Kurt said. “You’ve been shot. You killed a man before he killed you. That’s trauma, by anyone’s definition. Yet you’ve worked your way through all of it.”
“Still . . .”
“I think you’ve developed some impressive coping techniques,” Kurt said. “You just need to recognize them.”
“I cry a lot,” Emilia said ruefully.
Kurt’s arms tightened around her. “Didn’t you once tell me that when you were little you wanted to buy your mother a new brain so she’d stop crying?”
“When I was really little.” Emilia nodded. “But after awhile she stopped crying and she’s been like this ever since.”
“There you go,” Kurt said. “As long as you can still cry, you’ll be all right.”
Emilia felt herself relax, warmed by his body and the common sense in his words. As a cop surrounded by danger and corruption, she often wept out of frustration, anger, grief, or sheer fear. Each time she cried herself dry, picked up the pieces, and kept going.
“You’re pretty smart,” Emilia murmured into his shoulder.
“I have my moments,” Kurt said.
“No.” She pulled back to see his face. “These are our moments. Our moments.”
Kurt smiled again. “I like the sound of that.”
Emilia traced the line of his jaw. “You know, sometimes when we’re together, I feel as if nothing really bad could ever happen. You make me so strong that I’m untouchable. Unbreakable.”
He moved against her and it was a long time before they slept.