Hat Dance, Chapter 1

“I never thought we’d be able to close down the casino,” Emilia Cruz Encinos said. “Much less do it in only three months.”

Kurt Rucker poured them both more wine from the bottle of Monte Xanic cabernet. “Three months isn’t exactly fast, Em,” he said.

“Maybe not in El Norte,” Emilia observed. “But that’s lightning fast in Mexico. Especially when we’re talking about the El Pharaoh. It’s an Acapulco institution.”

“May it never regain its glory.” Kurt raised his glass and Emilia touched her own to it. The crystal chimed, Kurt drank, and the flame of the candle on their table flickered, sending shadows across the restaurant’s brocade walls and creating a momentary halo over his yellow hair. Emilia drank her wine with a surge of incredulity that she was here in this elegant place, with a gringo man in a suit and tie, celebrating an event she was sure would never happen.

“Another toast,” Kurt said. “To you, Em. The smartest detective in Acapulco. Rico would be proud.”

“I hope so.” Emilia smiled over the rim of her glass but the mention of her dead partner brought a lump to her throat. Rico and another detective had been killed during an investigation into dirty cops and drug smuggling that had led to the money laundering case against the El Pharaoh casino. The squadroom was far lonelier now without Rico’s good humor and the over-protective attitude that she’d once found so annoying. He hadn’t been replaced and his empty desk was a constant reminder of her loss.

“How’s Silvio holding up?” Kurt asked. “You obviously haven’t strangled each other yet.”

Emilia put her glass back on the table. “He came through,” she admitted. “Walked into El Pharaoh yesterday morning as if he owned the place, showed the closure order and got the files out before the manager really understood what was happening. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff we took out of there. Spreadsheets, money orders, employee records. Boxes and boxes of dollars, pesos, euros, you name it. Half of that money is probably fake.”

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Kurt said. “But you and Silvio make a good team. Brains and brawn.”

“Franco Silvio is not my partner,” Emilia reminded him, waggling a finger for emphasis. “He’s a pendejo who makes me nuts.”

Kurt laughed.

“As soon as Lt. Rufino gets organized we’ll get some replacements,” she went on. “After everything that’s happened, they owe me a real partner.”

“I know.” Kurt slid his hand over hers, stilling it against the white linen tablecloth. He had a tan but her skin was still a deeper café tone than his. “Dessert?”

Emilia looked guiltily at her empty plate. The El Tigre was a fancy restaurant, a close rival to the restaurant at the Palacio Réal, Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel which Kurt managed. If she’d been to more places like this she might have known that ‘fancy’ meant minute portions. Despite it being a Saturday, she’d been at work that morning, wrestling the boxes of evidence from the El Pharaoh into some sort of order, then spent the afternoon in a kickboxing training session with uniformed cops in the basement gym of the central police administration building. By the time she’d washed up, pulled her hair into its usual high ponytail, dressed in her one nice skinny black dress and driven across Acapulco to the Palacio Réal to meet Kurt, her stomach had been growling. Her elegant dinner of broiled corvina topped with caviar and accompanied by a dab of asparagus puree had hardly filled her up.

Kurt leaned forward. “Maybe we should just see what they’ve got.”

Emilia raised her eyebrows at him. “You never eat dessert,” she said. A marathon runner and triathlete, Kurt was always in training. Not only did he look different than any other man she’d ever been with, he didn’t even eat like the men she knew.

“I just ate a piece of chicken the size of a peanut,” he whispered and squeezed her hand. Emilia grinned. A moment later the waiter had cleared the table, wheeled over the dessert cart, complimented their choices and served them coffee.

They traded bites of Emilia’s chocolate cake and Kurt’s flan. Kurt stirred cream into his coffee and put down his spoon, taking a moment to align it with the edge of the table as if needing time to gather his thoughts. “Now that the El Pharaoh is closed,” he said. “How about a vacation?”

Emilia blinked as she stirred her own coffee. “A vacation? On Monday we start on all the crap we hauled out of there yesterday.”

Kurt opened his mouth to reply, but his attention slid away from Emilia and towards the front of the dimly lit restaurant. Emilia half turned and followed his gaze.

“Local celebrity?” Kurt asked.

“It’s the mayor’s security detail,” Emilia murmured.

Six burly men in dark suits and earpieces fanned out as the owner of the El Tigre stepped towards the door. Kurt had introduced Emilia to him, a dapper Spaniard named Jorge Serverio who had bowed over Emilia’s hand and complimented Kurt on finding the most beautiful woman in Acapulco. Serverio owned several high-end restaurants in Acapulco. Kurt knew him from meetings of businesses supporting the local tourist industry.

Emilia watched as Carlota Montoya Perez walked into the restaurant, followed by a dark figure obscured by the security detail and Serverio’s effusive gestures of welcome. Carlota gave a tinkling laugh and everyone in the elegant restaurant pretended they weren’t watching Acapulco’s enormously popular and photogenic mayor.

Emilia swung around in her seat to again face Kurt across the table. There was a 100-peso piece of chocolate cake on her plate, a gorgeous man across from her, and every expectation that the night would end with a shower together in his apartment before she left the Palacio Réal and headed home. The mayor’s choices of restaurant and dinner companion were none of Emilia’s business even if her previous encounters with Carlota had left Emilia torn; captivated by the woman’s dynamism yet repulsed by her political machinations.

“Have you ever been to Belize?” Kurt asked.

Emilia pronged some cake. “No. Why do you ask?”

“I’ve been offered a job there,” Kurt said.

“A job in Belize?” Emilia actually felt her heart stutter. The fork slid out of her hand, spraying cake crumbs and clattering over her dessert dish. It ended up in her lap. Emilia hastily plucked the fork off her dress and grabbed her napkin. She scrubbed at the fabric, glad of a reason not to say anything for a minute or two.

They’d only been dating seriously for a few weeks, the relationship paced by the time constraints imposed by competing work schedules as well as Emilia’s innate caution. The ever-present feeling of unreality at finding herself dating—and sleeping with—a gringo meant that she’d told no one about him, not her mother or her cousins and certainly not any of the other detectives at work. Despite strong mutual attraction, Emilia still wasn’t sure she belonged with Kurt. He lived in a world of wealth and advantage she only touched when she was with him. Tonight, for example.

Kurt pushed aside his empty flan dish. “Em, this was all set in motion months ago, long before we ever connected. Some headhunter in London got in touch, asked if they could represent me. They’re always trolling for good talent and tracking who’s who in the hospitality industry.”

Emilia stopped scrubbing her dress. It wasn’t stained. She put her napkin on the table. “You want to leave Acapulco?” she asked.

“When they called, I’d been in Acapulco nearly two years, longer than I’ve stayed anywhere since high school,” Kurt said. His tone was one of explanation, not apology. “So I said, sure, let’s see what else is out there. They sent me a few proposals that weren’t worth the effort but this one is–.” He paused. “Well, it’s pretty good and I think I need to look into it.”

“Kurt Rucker! Looking both dashing and serious tonight!”

Kurt stood and Emilia realized that Carlota had stopped by their table. The mayor, whom many considered the most exciting and enigmatic politician in the entire state of Guerrero, was a striking woman whose age could be anything from 25 to 50 years old. Jet black hair brushed her shoulders and framed the well-known face. As before when she’d encountered Carlota, Emilia was struck by how she looked just like those famous billboards. Both in person and on a poster Carlota projected a vibrancy that was at once amazingly attractive and disturbingly forceful. Tonight she wore a white silk pantsuit, her nails were blood-red, and her escort was Victor Obregon Sosa, head of the police union for the state.

“Jorge Serverio.” Carlota fluttered her hand at the restaurant owner who’d obviously been leading Carlota and Obregon to their table. “You didn’t tell me that Kurt Rucker was dining here this evening. I’ve been trying to get him for my Olympic Committee.” She arched her perfect brows at Kurt. “You’re a difficult man to pin down, Señor Rucker.”

Kurt gave a tiny formal bow. “My apologies, señora.” He spread his hands. “I’m sure my schedule will be opening up.”

“Have you met Victor?” Carlota lowered one shoulder so that Kurt could connect with Obregon.

Emilia marveled at Kurt’s cool composure as he shook hands with the man that Emilia was sure had been involved in the drug smuggling mess that had gotten Rico killed. She had no proof, just her gut instinct. And Obregon knew it. Their last encounter some months ago had staked out the distance between them.

She stood up, too, twitching the tight black dress as Kurt introduced her. Serverio gave her another warm smile. Obregon nodded. Carlota pretended to be pleased to see Emilia and gave her the mandatory ladies cheek kiss as if they were peers or even friends.

“You’re looking lovely tonight, Detective Cruz.” Carlota’s eyes flickered from Kurt to Emilia but otherwise hid her curiosity well. Neither did she give any indication that Emilia had once turned down an offer to work in her administration.

“Thank you, señora.”

“And making quite another splash,” Carlota said with that famous billboard smile. “I heard that you were the driver behind the El Pharaoh investigation. Keeping Acapulco honest. I’m pleased. It played very well in the international press this morning.”

Which is the only thing that matters, isn’t it? Emilia hushed her thoughts before they turned into words. She managed a tight smile in return. “That’s good news, señora.”

“Lt. Rufino has started his tenure as chief of detectives with a bang.” Obregon had dark hair slicked back from a high forehead and angular cheekbones that spoke of a thick indio bloodline. Emilia had only ever seen him wear black and tonight was no exception: black suit, black silk shirt, striated black linen tie. There was a slight bulge under his left arm and he exuded an aura of power and entitlement that matched Carlota’s own.

“I guess that depends if you’re a gambler or not,” Emilia replied. Carlota in white and Obregon in black. The queen and king of opposing chess pieces.

Carlota laughed, tossing her head to see who was watching her. Serverio chuckled thinly then checked his watch.

“Chief Salazar really made a case for Rufino,” Obregon said. “All the way from Mexico City. Now I see that he’s hit the ground running.”

It was on the tip of Emilia’s tongue to say that the investigation into money laundering at the El Pharaoh had been under way for over two months before Lt. Nelson Rufino Herrera ever stepped foot inside the detectives squadroom. But again she stopped herself. There was something insidious behind Obregon’s words, something Emilia didn’t quite understand, and it made her reluctant to be seen as either for or against her new lieutenant.

“Lt. Rufino is settling in,” Emilia said neutrally.

“The squadroom must be taking bets,” Obregon went on. “Silvio’s probably offering ten to one that he won’t last a year.”

Emilia didn’t react.

The corner of Obregon’s mouth twitched upwards in a half-smile that let Emilia know that he understood her discomfort with his questions. “The union will be very interested to see what Rufino’s got in his bag of tricks. No doubt he has a lot to teach us.”

“Victor,” Carlota broke in, now obviously bored. “Can’t you see that Detective Cruz has other things on her mind tonight?”

“Of course,” Obregon said smoothly.

Carlota said something to Kurt and he said something to bridge what might have become an awkward moment and then Serverio said that the mayor’s table was ready.

“Enjoy your dinner,” Emilia heard herself say and the little group moved off. Carlota and Obregon made a striking couple and heads turned as Serverio seated them in a semi-private alcove. Carlota’s security detail settled into a table at the back of the restaurant.

Kurt held her chair as Emilia sat back down. “Madre de Dios,” she hissed as Kurt took his own seat. “Do you think they’re dating?”

“The mayor has not confided in me, Em.”

Emilia grinned. “Are you really going to be on Carlota’s Olympic Committee?”

“God, no,” Kurt said with a grimace. “A summer Olympics in Acapulco? I just find it easier to tell her no over the phone than in person.”

Emilia shook her head and ate some cake.

“What was Victor Obregon up to?” Kurt asked. Although this was the first time the two men had met, Kurt was well versed in Emilia’s experiences with the union boss. “Why is he so interested in your new lieutenant?”

“I’m not sure,” Emilia said. In addition to Obregon’s interest in Lt. Rufino, his reference to Acapulco Chief of Police Enrique Salazar Robelo had surprised her; she’d never been sure of the nature of the relationship between the two senior police officials. They could be friends or foes. “Maybe they don’t like each other or Salazar didn’t consult the union when he brought in Lt. Rufino,” she speculated. “But whatever it is, I don’t want to be caught in the middle of it.”

The waiter glided by with fresh coffee. After Kurt added cream and stirred, he reached across the table again and caught up Emilia’s hand. “I don’t want you in the middle of their mess, either. So take a break. Come to Belize with me for a week. We can check out this hotel together. Help me decide if I want to manage an eco-lodge or not.”

“Is it a good job?” Emilia asked.

Kurt nodded. “They’re offering me 25 percent above my current salary. An actual house on the property, not just an apartment. And a new car.”

Madre de Dios,” Emilia said, stunned. He was talking about a small fortune, plus a free house and car. Kurt already made a hundred times what she did, enough to travel anywhere he liked and buy the latest electronics. He didn’t pay any rent or utilities for his small apartment on the fifth floor of the Palacio Réal and ate most of his meals at the hotel for free. The money he made paid for a nice car and expensive clothes like the perfectly tailored gray suit he had on right now. Emilia’s entire outfit was worth less than just his silk tie. Tonight’s dinner would cost him more than she made in a month and he probably wouldn’t think twice about it. Spend that much tomorrow, too, if he felt like it.

Emilia swallowed hard. “That’s a lot.”

“It is if money’s the most important thing,” Kurt said with a shrug.

“Isn’t it?” Emilia asked. She and her mother had been so poor that Emilia had spent much of her childhood selling guava candy to tourists and she knew she carried the scars of too many days spent frightened and hungry in the hot sun.

Kurt leaned forward, his coffee forgotten and his ocean-colored eyes bright with intensity. “What should be the most important thing, Em? Let’s talk about that.”

The perfect evening was sliding away and so was Kurt. She should have known it wouldn’t last, that their time together, punctuated by the guilty pleasure of half a dozen episodes of phenomenal sex in his apartment at the Palacio Réal, was never going to be anything more than something to look back upon with wistful longing. Kurt was an athletic, exciting lover but more importantly he was a fully formed adult with a range of life experiences she’d never encountered before. He opened her mind to new ways of thinking about her job, leadership, connecting with people.

He was confident about what he wanted from her and had pushed fast for a level of intimacy that was new and scary. Faced with the unknown coming at her hard and fast, Emilia had simply sidestepped, never staying the night or making promises. He knew what she was doing–she wasn’t that clever–and so he would simply move on. Find a better life that didn’t include a skittish girlfriend and having to speak Spanish all the time. He was from New York, a former Marine in his country’s armed forces who had fought in wars and lived in a dozen other places before making hotel management his career. There was nothing holding him to Acapulco and she’d jumped into his arms without thinking about that aspect of his life at all.

“I can’t help you make a decision,” Emilia said sadly. “If that’s what you’re asking.”

“I’m asking you to come to Belize for a couple of days.” Kurt’s voice wasn’t loud but it had lost its usual ease.

“This isn’t a good time.” Emilia slumped back in her seat. “All this paperwork from the El Pharaoh bust. And there’s my mother . . .” She let her voice trail off.

Kurt searched her face. Emilia looked away. She could just see Obregon’s jacketed elbow. The rest of the union chief and all of the mayor were hidden by the curved wall of the alcove where they were sitting. In the far corner, the members of Carlota’s security detail were engrossed in their own dinners.

“Right,” Kurt said. He tossed down his napkin, caught the waiter’s eye and mimed writing a check.

When the financial transaction was over Kurt stood and pulled out Emilia’s chair for her. They made their way to the entrance where Serverio again embraced Kurt and kissed Emilia’s hand. “And how is it, Kurt, that you managed to have this beautiful woman consent to be seen in public with you?” Serverio asked.

He was charming and Emilia couldn’t help but smile even as she wondered if his attitude would have been different if Kurt had introduced her at the beginning of the evening as Detective Emilia Cruz. Many people had a bad reaction when they found out she was a police officer.

“One of my luckier days,” Kurt said to Serverio.

“And your dinner was satisfactory?”

“Dinner was exceptional, Jorge,” Kurt said. “Both the service and the food.”

“Good, good,” Serverio said. “So now you are in need of some entertainment, no? The Hotel Soledad has a very nice evening show. I know because they take business away from me.” He checked his watch and smiled. “If you hurry you can catch it now. Or join me at the Polo Lounge. I always split my evenings between my two restaurants.”

“What do you say, Em?” Kurt asked. “A little music? Or drinks at the Polo Lounge?”

“Maybe just a stroll,” Emilia said.

The two men shook hands again and Kurt and Emilia walked out.

They were in the old part of Acapulco, a few streets south of the modern downtown area where a white ring of hotels and condos encircled the most picturesque bay in the world. The El Tigre restaurant fronted a small street near the famous Plaza las Glorietas in which tourists gathered several times a day to watch the famous divers hurl themselves off the cliffs at La Quebrada and plunge into the rock-strewn water below. The building which housed El Tigre had been renovated to accommodate the restaurant. The result was a blend of traditional Spanish architecture and modern glass panels that allowed for a stunning view of the cliffs.

Emilia clutched her Sunday purse with both hands as they slowly walked through El Tigre’s front courtyard. The space was set up as an outdoor bar, the décor leaning heavily on bamboo, fairy lights and potted palms in giant talavera pots. A soundtrack of popular guitar music was a pleasant accompaniment to the happy chatter of the dozen or so people sitting at the bar. They crossed the courtyard but once down the stone steps that led to the street, Emilia could take the tension no longer. She stopped walking and stood her ground on the uneven sidewalk. “Are we over?” she asked.

“Over?” Kurt echoed. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re restless. You want to get out of Acapulco,” Emilia said. “You said so yourself.”

“I said I’ve been in Acapulco longer than anyplace else.”

The lights of El Tigre’s courtyard were behind them and Kurt’s face was lost in shadow. The evening traffic was light. A car sped through the intersection half a block away. The growl of its engine faded quickly.

“You also told the manager that the food was excellent,” Emilia said.

“It was excellent,” Kurt said. The quiet confidence that always surrounded him, and which Emilia so admired, was accentuated by the deliberate way he said the three words. “There just wasn’t enough of it. What are you getting at?”

“I live here,” Emilia blurted, like an idiot who didn’t have any experience waiting out witnesses or interrogating a suspect or tricking someone into an admission of guilt. “I’m not going anywhere. So if you’re heading off to Belize, let me know now. I’m an adult, not some estupida chica who needs you to string her–.”

A noise like a freight train crashed through her words and an invisible wave walloped the air. Emilia instinctively threw out her hands to break her fall as the sidewalk heaved beneath her feet. Suddenly Kurt’s arm was across her shoulders, pushing her head down and curling her against the pavement. His body shielded hers as heat raged around them and debris rained down. Emilia choked as the air filled with smoke and dust. Bile surged into her throat, tasting unpleasantly of overpriced caviar.


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