ACAPULCO SUGAR is a 7-episode story serialized in the Mystery Ahead newsletter.
This page shows the episodes published so far.
The dead man’s face was contorted in agony.
“You think he had a heart attack?” Detective Emilia Cruz Encinos squatted on her heels and stared at the body of a middle-aged gringo curled into a fetal position on the floor. Well-groomed hands gripped knees and hugged them to the chest. The eyes were closed but the lips were pulled back in a frozen snarl.
“Or a stroke.” Her partner Rico Portillo leaned against the doorframe, notebook in hand. His bulk filled the space and blotted out the view of the hallway to the next room.
Emilia pointed to a tiny trickle of blood darkening one corner of the man’s mouth. “He bit his tongue.”
“Maybe epilepsy,” Rico offered. “A fatal seizure.”
Emilia looked up at Rico. “Did you get a name from the building manager?”
“Yes,” Rico said. “His name is Evan Frost.”
Emilia stood and took a few pictures of the dead man with her cell phone. “Why is that familiar?”
“Senator Evan Frost from Oklahoma.” Rico snapped his fingers at her. “Don’t you read the newspapers, chica? He’s always here to discuss bilateral counterdrug policies. They say he could be the next president of El Norte.”
“Not any more.” Emilia pulled her eyes away from the body and looked around. The bedroom had the impersonal yet elegant décor of a luxury hotel. Nothing was out of place except the rumpled bed linen.
This was a tidier death than most in Acapulco, where rival cartels were intent on killing each other and everyone else as fast and as violently as possible.
“He owned the apartment.” Rico crossed to the window and took in the expensive view of blue sky, white skyscrapers, and rolling ocean.
“He had money, then.”
“Should have spent it on doctors,” Rico said. “Those big seizures are bad. The guy suffered.”
“We won’t know if it was epilepsy until the autopsy. Could be a stroke. Or poison. Maybe somebody didn’t want him to be el presidente.” Emilia joined Rico to marvel at the view. The dead man’s apartment was on the seventh floor of the Torre Marquez, one of the most sought-after pieces of real estate in all of Acapulco.
“We’ll call the crime scene techs,” Rico said in resignation. He turned away from the window. “But I’ll bet you 200 pesos this isn’t a crime scene.”
“Probably a good thing,” Emilia said morosely. “Investigating the murder of a norteamericano politician could wipe out both our careers.”
Rico snorted. “You really think they’d let us investigate if it was murder? No, it would go up the food chain to somebody else.”
Emilia blew out her breath in frustration. It didn’t matter; from the looks of it, Frost had died of natural causes. Yet another case that would amount to nothing besides a dozen routine reports. No reason to investigate. No opportunity to show that the first female detective in Acapulco could do the job as well as her male colleagues.
“Not your fault,” Rico said, as if reading her mind. He took out his phone.
“Yeah,” Emilia said. She lifted a shoulder to indicate the low tones of agitated conversation filtering down the hall from the living room, along with muffled sobs and sniffles. “I’ll talk to them. You take the morgue guys when they get here.”
Rico nodded. “Deal.”
Emilia headed toward the living room. Rico had paid a high career price for partnering with her. The least Emilia could do in return was handle the parts of the job he didn’t like.
Crying women fell into that category.
“I found him like that,” the maid sniffled. She gripped one hand with the other as her mouth pinched with distress and tears trickled down her face. “When I came to clean.”
“What time was that?” Emilia prompted.
“She called the office at 11:00 am,” Señor Morelos supplied. “More than an hour ago. I called the police and came up to wait with her.”
“Did you touch him?”
“No, no.” The maid was aghast at the thought. “I only touched the telephone.”
Señor Morelos was the residential manager of Torre Marquez. He stood next to the maid, trying to mask his panic at the death of one of his most prominent tenants.
Emilia asked the routine questions but it was clear Morelos and the maid didn’t have more to share. Warning them that there could be additional questions about the dead man in the bedroom, she walked them to the open apartment door in time to see a woman come out of the hall elevator.
“Señorita Gomez,” Morelos said in dismay. “Señor Frost’s . . . err . . . companion.”
Emilia waited as Morelos spoke softly to the newcomer. The woman burst into tears. Emilia brought her into the apartment. Once on the living room sofa, the woman drew a shaky breath, then swiped at her eyes with a balled up tissue. She eventually offered Emilia her cédula identification card.
“Ava Gomez Lira,” Emilia read. She flipped open her notebook and jotted down the woman’s information, noting that they were the same age. They looked alike, too; both slim and fit, with big eyes, high cheekbones, and long dark hair pulled into sleek ponytails.
The resemblance ended there. Emilia wore loafers, skinny jeans, a black tee, and a khaki cotton blazer to hide her shoulder holster and handgun. Ava had on a floral dress that flared above her knees. High heeled sandals showed off toned calves and a recent pedicure. Her handbag sported a gold designer logo and the face of her watch was studded with diamonds.
“What was your relationship with the deceased?” Emilia asked as she handed back the identity card.
“Friends,” Ava said.
“Friends?” Emilia echoed doubtfully. “With an important government official from El Norte?”
Ava gave Emilia a shaky smile. “Evan called me his little Mexican sweetheart.”
“How did you meet?”
“Friends introduced us about six months ago.”
“An escort service?”
“It wasn’t like that.” Ava’s eyes filled and she dabbed at them with the tissue.
There were diamonds on her fingers, catching the morning sunlight as it streamed through the windows overlooking Acapulco Bay.
“All right.” Emilia looked away from the sparkling rings. “Tell me the last time you saw Senator Frost.”
“Last night.” There was no hesitation in Ava’s voice. “He flew in yesterday and we had dinner.” She reeled off the name of the restaurant and the time Frost had picked her up in a taxi; easy things to check if needed.
“Did you come back here with him after the restaurant?” Emilia asked. “Were you here last night?”
Ava searched for a dry spot on the tissue. “Evan sent me home in a taxi at midnight. He said his chief of staff was coming in very early today and he had to read something first. There was a meeting this morning. He was supposed to be done by the time I came at noon.”
“How did he seem?” Emilia asked. “Did he mention chest pains? Shortness of breath? Dizziness?”
“No, never,” Ava said. Her face crumpled again.
“What about drugs?” Emilia continued when Ava ran down. “Did he take medicines?”
Ava shook her head.
Emilia caught the other woman’s eye. “Pills to help him perform?”
“No.” Ava blushed. “We didn’t go to bed. We just talked.”
Emilia put down her pen, skeptical that Frost would have hauled all the way to Acapulco just to talk. “What about?”
“When I could visit him, instead of Evan having to come to Acapulco all the time.”
“You were planning to visit him in El Norte?”
Ava nodded. “He had to, um, you know, take care of some things first.”
Emilia frowned. “His work?”
“His wife,” Ava said tearfully. “We were going to get married.”
Before Emilia could ask another question, Rico shouted a greeting and lumbered down the hall to the open apartment door. Two morgue workers wrestled in a rusty gurney.
“Hey, Portillo,” one of them boomed. “I put money down on her quitting before three months, but I hear Cruz is still around.”
Rico hooked a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the sofa. “Still here.”
“You get her in the sack yet?” The gurney wheels squealed as the three men started down the hall.
“Nah,” Rico said. “Be like wrestling a bag of cats.”
“Can I go?” Ava asked.
“For now,” Emilia said. She skimmed over her jotted notes but didn’t have any more questions. They’d follow up on the restaurant, but there was no reason to doubt the woman’s story.
Emilia started to give Ava the spiel about the possibility of follow-up questions when laughing at some private joke, Detectives Castro and Gomez ambled in through the open apartment door like they owned the place. The two men, both dressed in grubby band tee shirts, ripped skinny jeans, and ponytails, made kissing sounds at the two women in lieu of a greeting.
Emilia’s blood pressure soared, but she managed to hustle Ava past them and into the elevator. Back in the apartment, she found Castro and Gomez cruising the living room. Castro, who was slightly younger, had a pair of expensive headphones around his neck. Gomez stroked a scraggly goatee.
“Lotta cocaína to buy this place,” Castro said to his partner. Gomez snorted with laughter and mimed using his little finger to stuff coke up his nose. Castro copied the gesture and the two men howled in mirth.
“What are you doing here?” Emilia demanded. “Portillo and I got the assignment.”
“Lieutenant Inocente sent us.” Castro jinked around the room, snapping his fingers at the spectacular view, white furniture, widescreen television, and built-in shelves studded with abstract glass objects. Gomez circled in his wake.
“Lieutenant Inocente sent you?” Emilia echoed. “Why?”
“This dead gringo is a big deal. He wanted another set of eyes on it. You know. In case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case it’s important.”
“So he sent you two?” Emilia asked furiously. This was hardly going up the food chain. More like sending babysitters. Castro and Gomez were the least competent detectives in the squadroom, there because of who they knew, not because of the job they could do.
It was hardly a secret. Look up por dedazo in the dictionary and their pictures would be there.
Castro stepped in front of Emilia. “How about giving me a little sugar, Cruz?” he asked. “Right here on this sofa. Be the best you ever had.”
“You go ahead without me, Castro,” Emilia shot back.
The gurney, its protest lowered an octave by the weight of Senator Frost’s body, groaned toward the door of the apartment as the morgue techs pushed. Rico followed, notebook in hand.
“Hey, Portillo,” Gomez called. “Lieutenant Inocente sent us.”
Rico’s face tightened as he exchanged glances with Emilia. He was senior to both Castro and Gomez.
There was a quick discussion about the lack of a crime scene and that Senator Frost had almost certainly died of natural causes. The morgue techs and their cargo went on their way. Castro and Gomez proceeded to check out the bedrooms and bathrooms to make sure their fellow detectives hadn’t overlooked a stray bullet hole or puddle of blood. The crime scene techs came and did a perfunctory dust for finger prints before hustling off to a double homicide in the El Roble neighborhood that would never be solved.
Frost might have been a big deal in El Norte, but right now he was a dead guy in his underwear stalling Emilia’s career.
“If this was murder,” Rico said. “The killer used an invisible technique.”
“At least he was tidy,” Emilia said. “Makes our job easier.”
They were in the bedroom. Once again, Emilia was struck by how clean it was. Only the rumpled bed linen showed that someone had once passed through.
Both detectives snapped on latex gloves and searched the room. There were clothes and toiletries but no books or files. Rico found a set of keys, which he tested on the front door. They fit.
“Where’s his paperwork?” Emilia asked.
Rico put the keys into an evidence bag. “What are you talking about?”
Emilia pivoted to take in the pristine room. “The girlfriend said Frost sent her home last night because his chief of staff was arriving very early this morning. They had stuff to do before some meeting . So where are his files or books or whatever?”
“Phone?” Rico pointed to the dresser and a cell phone plugged into a charger.
Emilia picked it up. The phone was getting a signal but the call log showed no calls in or out for more than 16 hours. She flipped open her notebook and compared numbers. “The last call was to the girlfriend, Ava Gomez,” she said. “He’s got a couple of news apps. That’s it.”
“Maybe he made up an excuse to get rid of her,” Rico suggested.
Emilia grinned. “Or maybe the wife was on the way.”
They both laughed and moved into the living room. The only reading material there was an entertainment magazine.
A wide marble-topped island separated the living room from the kitchen where white tiles and sleek cabinets reflected the light of a crystal chandelier. Emilia was sure no one had ever cooked in the gleaming space.
A lidded sugar bowl and creamer were centered on the marble. A bowl and spoon were in the drying rack next to the sink.
A box of corn flakes sat on the counter. Rico opened it and sniffed, wrinkling his nose. “You think he had cereal for breakfast?”
“Or before going to bed,” Emilia said with a shrug. “Gringos eat cereal all the time.”
“No wonder they’re all crazy,” Rico muttered.
Emilia opened cupboards and found the usual stuff. Four plates, four mugs, and a platter. Three bowls that matched the one in the drying rack. Pots and pans. Dish soap, sponges, spray cleaner. A roll of trash bags. Bottles of wine and liquor. Three cut glass tumblers. A matching pitcher that was heavier than it looked.
The refrigerator wielded milk, vodka, and mineral water.
“Nobody ever cooked in this kitchen,” Emilia said. “There’s no food besides the cereal and milk.”
“He probably wasn’t here that often.” Rico stripped off his gloves. “You know, this might turn out to be a decent day after all. We tidy up the details and we can go home without dodging any bullets or scraping bodies off the sidewalk.”
“For once,” Emilia said.
Rico closed the door behind them and Emilia helped him stretch PROHIBIDO EL PASO yellow crime scene tape across the door frame.
“Just in case,” Emilia said, parroting Gomez.
Rico laughed at her mimicry. “We’ll take it off after the autopsy,” he said. “Let’s go see if there are any other keys.”
They rode the elevator down to the fifth floor to find Señor Morelos in the property management office speaking to a woman. She was a gringa in her mid-40’s, probably the same age as the late Senator Frost, with a carefully made up face. Her hair was expertly dyed the color of ripe peaches.
Emilia was no fashionista but the woman’s silk suit and alligator pumps screamed money.
The rolling metal suitcase and matching briefcase screamed power.
Morelos introduced the two detectives to Mona Benton, chief of staff to Senator Frost. She’d just arrived from Washington, DC.
“It’s true, then,” Mona Benton said. The color drained from her face. “Evan is dead? How?”
“We’re very sorry for your loss,” Emilia said in English. She flipped open her notebook. “He appears to have died from a heart attack.”
“No.” Mona Benton pressed a hand to her cheek as if to staunch tears.
“We understood you were supposed to arrive much earlier in the day,” Emilia said. “Senator Frost had meetings scheduled here in Acapulco.”
Mona Benton swallowed hard. “My flight was delayed.”
“And your meeting?”
“Cancelled.” The woman looked from Emilia to Señor Morelos and back again. “Where is Evan’s phone? I’d like it.”
“All of his effects are in police custody until after the autopsy,” Emilia said.
Mona Benton swayed, then recovered herself. “Has anyone told Valerie? Mrs. Frost.”
Emilia glanced at Rico, who gave a slight shake of his head.
“Not as far as we know,” Emilia said.
Morelos looked petrified that he’d be asked to call.
“I can do it.” Mona Benton dropped her hand and squared her shoulders. “Then I’ll make arrangements to have his body flown home. But first, I’d like to see Evan. His body.”
“It’s been taken to the morgue,” Rico said. His English was passable but not as good as Emilia’s. “The body will be released to the family after the autopsy.” He glanced at the woman’s suitcase. “Until then, the apartment is designated a crime scene. We can’t allow you to go inside.”
“You said it was a heart attack,” Mona Benton shrilled.
“A precaution,” Emilia said. “Standard procedure.”
Morelos gave them the master key to Senator Frost’s apartment. Rico put it in an evidence bag.
Mona Benton asked Morelos to make her a hotel reservation.
The two detectives headed into the sunshine to the visitor parking in front of the gleaming hi-rise. Across the wide boulevard Miguel Alemán, blue water stretched to the horizon. An enormous white cruise ship was docked on the other side of the bay, dwarfing the ancient Fuerte San Diego fortress.
“So what do you think?” Rico said as he stretched the seat belt to fit around his belly. ”Who cancelled Frost’s meeting for him? I mean, if he didn’t show up, somebody would have called his phone, right? But there weren’t any recent calls. Just the girlfriend and that was a day ago.”
Emilia buckled her own belt as images fanned through her mind like a deck of cards. Ava Gomez in her flowered dress, soft and vulnerable, sobbing at the loss of her sugar daddy. Mona Benton, stiff and business-like, making plans to deal with the situation.
The lack of pre-meeting reading materials.
The lack of a meeting.
The lack of a crime.
The contorted face of the late Senator Frost, lying on the floor of the only bedroom in the apartment.
“Where do you think Mona Benton had been planning to stay?” Emilia asked.
The next morning Emilia and Rico flipped a coin and she won the dubious pleasure of attending the autopsy. She hated Acapulco’s morgue, with its constant overflow of unidentified bodies. More than a dozen passed through the squat cinderblock building every week, courtesy of the drug cartels and street gangs keeping Acapulco in a constant state of war.
The smell of disinfectant and death hit her as soon as Emilia entered. She showed her identification and was directed down the hall to an exam room.
The only positive thing about the morgue was Doctor Prade, the medical examiner. Wearing a wrinkled white lab coat over a plaid shirt and jeans, he waved her in. “Ah, Detective Cruz.”
“I’m here for Senator Frost’s autopsy.”
“He’s right here.” Prade indicated a sheeted body on the steel table in the middle of the room. “I was just going over the preliminary toxicology report.”
“Were there drugs in his system?” Emilia asked.
“No.” Prade led her to a long counter where he found a clipboard and a pair of reading glasses. “The only unusual thing was a trace amount of lead.”
“Lead?” Emilia wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. “Like from lead pipes?”
“It can be found in paint as well.”
“I doubt Senator Frost was eating paint,” Emilia said.
Prade put down the clipboard, called his assistant, and preparations started for the autopsy. Someone gave Emilia a surgical mask and she tied it on.
Prade’s assistant stripped the sheet from the body. Emilia was surprised at how different Frost looked lying peacefully on his back instead of curled in torment. He had strong facial features, wavy brown hair glazed with silver at the temples, and a muscular frame.
But the biggest surprise was the dark red mottling across his lower abdomen.
Prade prodded the cloudy splotches with a gloved hand. “Internal hemorrhaging.”
“We didn’t see it before,” Emilia said. “Burst appendix? Food poisoning?”
“We’ll know exactly when we open him up,” Prade said.
Shouting rang in the hallway, along with the slap of running footsteps. The exam room door banged open. Mona Benton strode in, accompanied by two tall gringos in suits and badges. A gaggle of morgue workers in their blue scrubs crowed in as well, all calling for Doctor Prade.
“Are you the medical examiner?” Mona Benton’s voice cut through the chaos like a knife.
“And you are?” Prade asked in return.
“I am Senator Frost’s chief of staff and these gentlemen are from the American Embassy in Mexico City,” she announced. “You have no authority to perform an autopsy. We have a writ signed by the Mexican government for the release of the senator’s body and transfer back to the United Stares for burial.”
She waved an embossed letter in front of Prade. When he took it, Mona Benton tugged the sheet over Senator Frost’s naked body, covering him to the waist. Before she stepped away, Emilia saw the woman gently touch his cheek with the back of her fingers, as if checking his temperature.
Prade handed the letter to Emilia. “I think we’re done here, Detective Cruz,” he said.
The paperwork to close out the so-called case didn’t take as long as expected, although it was still a waste of time. Rico filed the last report and leaned back in his desk chair. “I guess the only thing to do is go back to the Torre Marquez and give the building manager his key back.”
“And take down the crime scene tape,” Emilia reminded him.
“I’m in,” Castro called from the other side of the squadroom where he and Gomez were paying poker with matches for chips. “Me and Cruz got an appointment over there.”
“The only appointment you got, Castro,” Emilia muttered. “Is with my knee.”
Emilia and Rico met Castro and Gomez at the building and the four of them rode the elevator up to the seventh floor.
“You know, Cruz,” Castro said, edging closer to Emilia in the confined space. “I could make things a lot easier for you. A word to Lieutenant Inocente and you and Portillo here wouldn’t get so many crap cases.”
“I do a favor for you and you’ll do one for me?” Emilia crossed her arms.
Castro was so close she could smell nicotine on his breath. “Think about it,” he said. “All it would take is a little sugar.”
The elevator door slid open. Emilia shoved past Castro.
Rico stopped halfway down the hall. The crime scene tape across the entrance to Senator Frost’s apartment had been peeled away on one side. It hung down like sticky yellow fringe.
“I thought we took all the keys,” Emilia murmured.
Rico found the key from Señor Morelos, quietly fitted it into the lock, and silently turned the handle. The door swung wide.
Across the living room, on the kitchen side of the marble-topped island, Mona Benton froze in the act of emptying the sugar bowl into a plastic bag.
“Step away,” Rico said in English.
“I’m simply tidying up,” the woman said. She shook the last shiny grains of sugar into the bag and zipped it closed.
“Step away,” Rico said again.
“I knew it,” said Castro. “Cocaína.”
Emilia approached the island. “Senator Frost liked sugar with his corn flakes, didn’t he?” she asked Mona Benton in English.
“I don’t have to answer your questions,” the woman replied. Her hand rested on the bag of sugar.
“Three lead crystal glasses,” Emilia said slowly, her thoughts slotting details into place. “A matching pitcher. A set. Except one of the glasses was missing.”
“I expect Evan broke it,” Mona Benton said dismissively.
“The glass wasn’t just broken, was it, señora?” Emilia pressed. “You ground it up.”
Mona Benton clutched the bag more tightly. “This is sugar.”
“Some of it is,” Emilia agreed. “Enough to taste sweet.”
“I don’t have time for your theatrics,” Mona Benton said. “I have a flight to catch.”
“He was your lover,” Emilia ventured.
“How dare you,” Mona Benton said indignantly.
Rico edged closer to Emilia as if to protect her if Mona Benton struck her. “It was all right for him to cheat on his wife with you,” Emilia said. “But not when he cheated on you with his Mexican girlfriend.”
“You’re some simple provincial cop.” Mona Benton shook with righteous anger, her peach colored waves bobbing. “Evan was a United States senator. You know nothing about him.”
“There wasn’t any meeting yesterday morning,” Emilia went on, the words rushing to keep up with her thoughts. “He lied to his girlfriend about a meeting, but not that he was going to be free in the afternoon. You were supposed to come in early and when you did, he was going to dump you.”
“Conjecture,” Mona Benton hissed.
“You knew what he was going to do,” Emilia continued. “Came to Acapulco before he did. Got into the apartment with your own key. Knew his habits well enough to know when he’d eat the cereal and how much sugar he always put on top. Two spoonfuls? Three? Was that his usual bedtime snack?”
“I’m going now.” Still clutching the bag of sugar, Mona Benton tried to leave the kitchen.
Rico blocked her way and looked at Emilia. “She had to stop the autopsy, didn’t she?”
“If she didn’t,” Emilia said, switching to Spanish. “Prade would have found the cause of Frost’s internal bleeding.” She looked at the furious woman and again spoke in English. “He died in terrible agony, you know. His insides were probably shredded.”
“That’s just what the fool deserved,” Mona Benton spat. “I made him into the famous Senator Frost, anti-drug crusader. A presidential contender. He was going to throw it all away for some Mexican slut.”
Emilia pried the bag of sugar out of her hands. “We’ll need this for evidence, señora.”
Rico slapped on the handcuffs and parked the woman on the sofa to await a police van. Mona Benton sat straight, not meeting anyone’s eyes. The shaking stopped and defiance took its place.
Feeling shaky herself, Emilia sat on a stool at the island. The bag of white sugar sparkled in the late afternoon sun slanting through the windows.
Castro climbed onto the next stool. Emilia knew he and Gomez had missed the English-language exchange with Mona Benton; neither of them spoke anything but Spanish.
“Every case in this city boils down to the same thing, doesn’t it?” Castro said. He unzipped the plastic bag. “Cocaína. In this place, they should have been selling top grade stuff.”
Castro licked his index finger and dipped it into the bag. It came out coated in glittering granules.
Time slowed as Emilia watched Castro’s finger travel toward his mouth. She pictured him swallowing. The grains scraping their way down his gullet, tearing his stomach, ripping into his gut . . .
“It’s not enough to kill him,” Rico said into her ear.
“Don’t spoil the moment,” Emilia murmured.
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