From under the overhang, a creature struggled. The predator hung on. I swam in closer. Religiously, a monstrous green eel guarded its prey. But the current was too strong. From the deep ridges of the coral, the powerful ocean current released the victim. Freed, it shot straight out. A large knuckled hand attached to a thick forearm swept by, brushing my leg. Vomit rose in my throat and spilled into my regulator. The moray’s tiny eye blinked.
Deeko’s was rockin’—a heavy down-beat blasting from the speakers. It was Saturday night, a few minutes to midnight, and the place was packed like a can of sardines. The dance was a dirty version of salsa with serious body contact. Crazy Toronto club? Sure, but even in a place like Kitchener, grind was everywhere.
Before leaving the restaurant with my tour group, I had asked the waiter where the club was. He’d waved in the direction of a building two doors down and winked conspiratorially. A wicked place like Toronto provided a thrill for the small town vacationers but not my dance partner. Brock Laval had been around the block more than once. His kind of thrill would be hooking up with bad-girl, Adie Sturm.
Let me set the record straight. Brock was wrong. I wasn’t really…bad. That was for my time off. I grinned. If I planned it right, there would be lots of that. I pushed Brock away. He lifted his arm to spin me clockwise and then counterclockwise. He was Hollywood attractive, a real hottie, but I had another man burned in my brain.
The way Brock rubbed his butt against mine reminded me to step it up. He was a client, not my next conquest, and definitely not my type. No matter how much I was tempted, I couldn’t walk off this dance floor. I’m a tour guide and it was up to me to make this trip outstanding even for players like Brock.
It was Deeko’s tonight. Tomorrow we’d be in Cozumel, Mexico for a bit of diving, drinking and a huge dose of Mexican culture. The perk was to travel and get paid for it. But the downside were the jerks in every tour group. If I could get them to happily connect, I’d be home free.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a willowy blonde bobbing up and down like a chicken in crisis. So far, she seemed to be having a good time. If she wasn’t, I’d be sure to hear about it sooner rather than later.
Irmgard, the petulant owner of Fleisher’s Travel, came from money. Short on brains and long on capital, she had bought the agency on impulse. Glancing over to the bar, I saw her eyes flit in my direction. My shoulders tensed but when I saw her focus on Brock, I relaxed. I should have known. Irmgard Fleischer was on the prowl and Brock was the next victim.
My partner pulled me in close and spoke into my ear, but the music drowned it all except for, “So-oo hot.” Did he mean he was hot? I frowned. The place was packed and most people were sweating up a storm. Or was he referring to me?
When he had booked, he told me about his friend in Cozumel who would join us for a dive. Did that mean a girl friend? But if this man was in love you wouldn’t have known it from the way he inserted his leg between mine, and moved suggestively. When the hem of my red dress rode up dangerously high, I twisted his hands away, jerked my skirt down and spun him around in front, rocking him from side to side. He looked over his shoulder and grinned admiringly at my maneuver.
I’m a martial artist. Although a light-weight—and take note I’m speaking about my build not my brain matter—I counteract my petite size by keeping fit. Don’t get me wrong, karate doesn’t depend on height or weight. It’s all about surprise and altering the opponent’s balance to take him down. But staying trim does help me move fast. In this case, there was no need to go ninja but Brock’s chance to lead was over.
At a nearby table, a sturdy mama in a leather dress scanned the dance floor frowning at the crowd before her beady browns lit on me. Mary Battrock was a technician for Spider Vac, a Canadian company dealing with central vacuums. Apparently, she did house calls to check out hoses and suction power. Right now, her evil stare could have zapped billions of dust mites in one sweep. I turned away but not fast enough.
“Adie Sturm!” shouting through the heavy downbeats of the music, her booming voice resounded miraculously loud and clear.
I pretended not to hear.
Three manly strides and she was in my face. Mary was a far cry from her saintly namesake.
“Adie Sturm!” she hissed, gripping my arm tightly to propel me away from Brock. “Geez Louise, lady. We need to talk. Your tour group is full of flippin’ losers! Especially that one.” She jerked her chin towards the bar where the object of her disgust stood.
Legs spread hip width, hands behind his back in an at-ease soldier stance, Larry T read military to me. I’d been surprised to hear he was a fire fighter. Built like a bulldozer, he was capable of carrying Mary from a burning building in a flash but from the look in his eyes, he would likely have charged straight to the nearest motel room.
“That redneck thinks he’s God’s gift.” With a thick index finger, she poked her significant cleavage. “Can’t take his eyes off these puppies. Where’d he learn his manners?”
I thought she was kind of over-reacting for someone whose pushups were so loaded, they could have been packed with NFL shoulder pads. Her chest rivaled Pamela Lee’s and then some.
“All of me is reserved.”
There was a story in this but I didn’t want to hear it. Sure, it was my job to make them happy but there were limits.
A shiny shaved head was all I could see of Larry as he headed onto the dance floor, zigzagging his way in and out of the crowd like a linebacker about to make a touchdown. Beers in both hands, he shoved through the dancers straight to us.
A wide grin stretched across his face. “Hiya, ladies!”
At least that’s what I think he said. With the music blasting so loud and my ears muffled, I could only guess.
“Wanna dance, babe?” His question was directed to Mary.
I don’t know why he bothered. It was obvious she had her back up.
Over the din Mary shouted, “No way!” and flipped him the finger.
The rest of her words were lost with a burst of lively salsa music, followed by the appearance of a statuesque blonde announcing the start of the show.
I motioned to Larry T and Mary to move back behind the yellow line where people gathered. They could stand and see the show, both of them a head taller than the average Torontonian. I wasn’t so lucky. I plopped down on the floor with some college girls seated cross-legged.
In a form-fitting pink sequined gown, our hostess majestically waved a gloved hand as she purred seductively into the microphone. “Good evening and welcome to our show. My name is Mimi.” Twisting her hips, she sauntered forward and back in a snappy salsa step. The audience broke out into applause and a man whooped loudly in anticipation.
Her heavily made-up eyes sparkled with excitement. “We have the very best dancers here tonight ready to perform the salsa. Should you be so inclined, they would appreciate tips.” At that, a pale boy in tight jeans sprang up and pushed a ten down the deep vee of her neckline.
After giving his cheek a quick tweak, she peered past the crowd and spotted the first performer. “Put your hands together to welcome the salacious Delilah. She has the moves you want to know better!”
A brunette with bouncy shoulder length hair, in a skin-tight blue satin mini dress shimmied her way across the floor. Unlike the hostess with the rather large chin, Delilah had delicate features and looked ultra-feminine. After gyrating seductively in a circuitous route before the audience, she stopped and blew kisses until a few bills were thrust into her garter. Then, with a big smile, she wiggled out as her replacement, a curvaceous auburn beauty, sashayed in. The audience hooted in appreciation.
At that point, I’d had enough. The mixture of heat and stale body odor was making me nauseous. Back up on my feet, I wove my way through the crowd to the washroom.
By the time I stepped out of the stall and to the mirror, the place was packed.
From above, a husky voice murmured close to my ear. “Nice dress.”
I looked up to the hostess from the show. “Thank you. My eyes flicked to the mirror nervously. “My hair’s a mess.”
“No-oo.” With a careful finger, Mimi swept aside a damp strand from my brow and checked me out. “You look lovely. Red is a great color on you.”
I was getting purely male vibes and it was weirding me out.
The blonde bent down to whisper in my ear. “Adie, relax. It’s me, Ronny.”
From my tour group? My jaw dropped. Cocking my head, I examined him closer. This guy in the four inch platforms was Ronald? A transvestite salsa dancer? “It’s really you?”
“Yup…part time job. Don’t worry, when the tour group meets me, I’ll look just like any other dude.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. If Irmgard got wind of this, she would be furious. She had little tolerance for those types. That’s what she’d say about Ronald if she found out. Being from a stringent religious background, Irmgard and her friends pretended gays did not exist.
“No, Adie, please call me Ronny,” he said in a husky voice. “My friends do.”
“You’ve put me in an awkward position.”
Ronny pressed his index finger over my lips and smiled. “No worries, sugar. I’m a lawyer. I know how to keep things confidential. By tomorrow morning’s departure, I’ll be a manly man in jeans and a t-shirt. No one will ever guess.”
San Miguel was baking under a cloudless February sky. Sweat trickled down into my cleavage. It was the start of a bad hair day but I wasn’t complaining. I’d take heat any day over ice pellets plummeting Southern Ontario. When active weather hit hard last night, we were lucky North Jet de-iced and left on schedule.
With the La Vida Hotel sign thrown in the back of the shuttle with the luggage, I climbed on board and sat next to the driver. A passenger list in hand, I counted heads and formed a circle with my forefinger and thumb to signal Roberto we were ready to roll.
Driving through San Miguel was a culture shock. A busy obstacle course of scooters, pedestrians and vintage Volkswagens competing for road space. Luckily, I wasn’t driving.
The bus passed the museum and headed down Rafael Melgar. Shops, jewelry stores and the landmarks of Las Palmaras and Pepe’s Grill lined up on the left with the view of the Caribbean and cruise ships on the right. The ferry pier was first before the major cruise ship hangout, Carlos’n Charlie’s. Though this town hummed once in a while, no one could call San Miguel a party place.
On the way south, we spotted road construction. We detoured around the Chedraui Plaza until the shuttle eventually made it back onto the main street.
For me, Cozumel and its only town, San Miguel, was like a second home. A curious mixture of Mayans, Mexicans and expats made up a population of seventy thousand. Situated on the Caribbean side of Mexico, the island was a laid-back paradise.
As Cozumel boasted the second largest coral reef in the world off the coast, most visitors and residents were divers. The island depended on tourism and did everything to build a positive image for the visitors. But not all had gone well. Hurricanes had struck repeatedly, destroying coral and flooding the town.
But the islanders were amazing. Residents had pulled together after the last big one and cleaned up the devastating mess left behind. Palms burnt by the salt from building-high waves had been replaced and today, along our route, one could note new condos and hotels springing up along Melgar.
With the shuttle parked at the entrance Roberto helped everyone out before he deposited the luggage in front of the La Vida. The soft ting of a text had me rummaging inside the pocket of my purse. I dug out my cell and looked.
It brought a smile to my lips and sent tingles to my core. The second text sent by D had me curious. I visualized brandy eyes in a handsome face. Before I could read the text, a tremendously powerful whiff of floral perfume assaulted my nostrils. Unpleasant didn’t describe it. It was like a giant Hyacinth garden in spring. Sweet, clingy sinus poison. Substantial hips pressed me back as Mary Battrock reached in to haul out a zebra print suitcase.
I threw my cell into my purse and grabbed the luggage from Roberto. Eyes averted, I rapidly pulled the case up to the door of the La Vida, hoping to escape.
“Adie, there’s something you need to do.” Mary’s square face was rosy with the heat and effort.
“Larry T. What a stupid name. As if there are any other Larry’s on this trip. That man’s a retard and ugly,” she growled. “I want you to make sure his room is as far away from mine as possible or I’ll have to do somethin’ I hadn’t ought to.”
The woman needed to seriously chill but what she said made sense. Avoiding trouble is smart. In this case, trouble was Mary Battrock.
Over six feet and built like a Sherman tank, Larry T was massive. In fact, everything about him spoke Iraq. He was seriously solid.
I’m kind of a fashionista and if ever a man looked wrong, this one did. First, the tan shirt tucked into belted dress pants with the practical black rent-a-cop-boots. It was as if he’d never been a civilian or worn regular clothes. I had to agree with Mary Battrock on this one. Second, the ridges and knobs on his shaved head were right off the space channel. A hat, or better yet, hair should have covered that landscape. And what was up with him? His curiously small eyes under bushy brows flitted around, inspecting everything and everyone.
Then there was the lust thing. It didn’t make sense. Why was Larry hitting on Battrock? The man wasn’t anywhere close to being a chick magnet but Mary was no Heidi Klum. Her square face held slinty brown eyes framed by thinly arched brows, a pert nose and blowfish lips—a mouth exaggerated and sadly misshapen by collagen injections. The beauty she had was in the wild expanse of auburn curls falling to her shoulders.
She wore high-end Walmutts. Accessories were a must this year but her jewelry was Halloween scary. A necklace resembling a collage of M&M candies was wound several times around her thick neck before it draped into the deep valley between white freckled breasts. The strappy green tent dress flowed loosely over rounded hips ending a few inches above the knees. By the size of her muscular biceps and calves, I guessed Mary worked out with heavy weights. I couldn’t get an accurate reading on her age by either her clothing or body but the lack of age lines drew my estimate closer to thirty rather than forty.
“Well?” Her voice grated on my ears.
“Sure, Mary. No problem. I’ll check it out,” I said soothingly.
Somewhat mollified, she turned to the bell hop and barked out an order before gesturing to the Samsonite suitcases a few feet away. Hurriedly, the trim man in the gray uniform maneuvered the pyramid of suitcases towards the elevator and waited for Mary Battrock at the doors.
I glanced around the lobby. Open air with marble flooring and a high ceiling. Impressive. Ornately painted Mayan figures bordered the trim. Gold paint edged the Romanesque pillars. To complement this theme, a gold lion statue sat majestically on a huge slab of cement. Water spurted out of his mouth into a shallow pond inhabited by a school of red-splotched koi.
Wicker couches with plush floral pillows and a few heavy cherry tables were arranged in a grouping near the stairs where a grey-haired couple sat engrossed in a conversation.
I glanced at the desk manager’s badge. “Buenos dias, Luis. I have reservations under the name Adie Sturm. Fleisher Travel.”
“Si. We have them.” He flipped a page of his ledger before handing over envelopes. “The room card keys are inside as requested. You can sign for them all.”
That was a relief. No time consuming personal information forms to fill out. I checked to make sure Larry T was not assigned a room close to the formidable Queen Mary. He was in 208. The room was far enough away, but as I ran my finger over the other names, I was not happy to see that Brock and Irmgard were my neighbors.
As I passed out the envelopes, I glimpsed an arched doorway framed with bright fuchsia bougainvillea opening to a free-form swimming pool. Alongside the sparkling blue water was a row of white chaise lounges and small resin tables topped by striped blue and white umbrellas. With a film of perspiration coating my skin, the swimming pool was looking more inviting by the second. It took an effort to pick up the chalk and list the schedule of events on the board next to the stairs. Done at last, I nodded to Luis and headed to the elevator, dragging my luggage.
Just as I pressed the floor button, Irmgard shoved her bag forward and stepped in. When she saw me, she looked relieved.
“Thank God you got us out of the usual front desk disaster. But honestly, Adie, you could have warned me. I had no idea this place would be so hot.” She glanced down to her armpit where a wet stain had appeared on her blouse.
“It’s the tropics. Mexico is like this. You haven’t had a winter vacation for a while, have you?”
“Too many deals.” Irmgard murmured, brushing her wispy blonde hair away from her forehead. “Some of us work for a living, Adie Sturm.”
Behind her, a tall lean man with a large blue suitcase squeezed in as I pressed the door button. When the elevator started up I noticed his steely eyes examining me. “Hey, hun. Nice hotel. Good choice.”
I don’t know if it’s me but I find endearments from strangers condescending. It takes away from the positive remark.
“Mm-mm. Glad you like it.” From what he’d told me, Daniel was a successful Toronto film editor. “The hotel’s close to town. Take a walk to the square. Lots of shops and restaurants.”
Daniel nodded. “Will do. Schedule says they’re getting ready for a carnival.”
“Yes, at the square you can…” Before I could say more, the elevator opened. Apparently, Daniel wasn’t that interested in my answer. With a parting grunt, he tugged on his suitcase and trekked down the corridor to the left. The numbers on the wall at the corner read 200-220. My room was 210. I tugged on my suitcase and started after him.
“Hey, Adie, wait,” Irmgard yelled out, as I headed down the corridor. “For dinner tonight, make sure I sit beside George Clooney.”
Irmgard rolled her eyes. “Duh. You’re oblivious to the sexiest man on our tour? What the hell is up with you? It’s as if you don’t notice men anymore.”
I picked up speed. The sooner I reached the sanctity of my room, the better. At the next corner, I pointed to the 211 plate above the oak door. “That’s your room.” The woman was in my face enough. Work is one thing but my personal life was strictly my business.
Irmgard was not a quitter when it came to digging up dirt. “Cat caught your tongue?” Strangely, at my silence she gave up. “Oh, well. Your celibacy is my gain. But,” she paused significantly, pointing her finger, “in case you’re reconsidering…don’t! Brock is mine. Remember who owns the agency, Adie Sturm, and it’s not you. ” She grinned happily, much like a dog eyeing a steak on a barbeque. “Besides, if you make this easy for me, there might be a bonus in it for you.”
She smirked. “I’ve got this gut feeling you wouldn’t mind a couple of weeks’ expense paid vacation right back here in sunny Cozumel…in, let’s say, March?”
A vision of those sensuous lips lowering slowly on mine made me tingle to my core.
“Deal?” Irmgard probed.
“I think I could help you out but you’ll have to do something, too.”
“Flirt with the guy. Wear something sexy?”
“I may not be gorgeous like you but I’ve got experience. You think I don’t know how to turn a man on? Just watch me.”
“Alright.” I grinned. “I’ll set the trap. You’ll need to snare him though. Let me think,” I said, mulling over the situation. “I’ve got it. How about if I seat you beside him for dinner?”
“And you’ll be a decent distance away?”
“Yup. And to make it easy, I’ll seat Battrock on his other side.”
“Great. That manatee will flounder in the wide open sea long enough for this barracuda to ease in and snap up some delicious Brock tuna.”
“Listen to me. Your big hook comes later at Moray’s Eel. It won’t be hard for you to move in for the kill. The trick is to make sure you impress him with your knowledge of cigars and tequila. He told me there’s nothing like a good cigar with a Don Julio. He thinks women who know cigars are cool.”
“You must be kiddin’? I don’t know dick about that.”
“Follow my lead and you’ll be laughing.”
“Okay.” Irmgard’s eyes darted like a cat spotting a mouse. If she’d had a tail it would have been swishing rapidly back and forth. “I’m counting on you.” She fumbled around in her purse before she turned back to me. “By the way do you know anything about him? What kind of work does he do?”
“He’s an accountant.”
“Oh, so not rich?”
I sighed. “You need money?”
Irmgard pursed her lips thoughtfully. “No, I guess not, but I like a guy that takes me to nice places.”
“This is long term?”
Muttering under her breath she turned back to the door and inserted the key card.
I didn’t think so. Relieved, I swung around the corner, to the door lettered 210. The plastic card pushed into the slot triggered a tiny green light near the handle. With an elbow nudge, the door opened wide enough for me to pull the suitcase into a mid-sized room.
The air conditioner had been turned off but the patio doors were open, causing the curtains to billow with the breeze. In the centre of the queen sized bed, a towel swan had been arranged to decorate the bed. I loved that about the hotels in Mexico. The maids tried so hard to make the room attractive and welcoming.
As I scanned the room, something caught my eye. Near the patio doors, a couch faced a coffee table. Nothing unusual about that but on the table top lay a small tissue-wrapped package. I was about to see what it was when hands gripped me from behind.