I pressed the bell beside the door frame for Room 112, but I could already see her. Through the open door, across the white-and-red candy-striped upholstery of the sitting room, beyond the glass table and iron chairs of the dining area, through the glass outer doors (which had been fastened open) and the white linen drapes rolling in the breeze between them, beyond the blue-and-white tiles of the balcony itself, Miss Corazón was out there, gazing up into the gathering storm.
Her arms were stiff at her sides, hands propped on the pink stone of the balcony wall. She seemed to be rocking back and forth, standing on one bare foot, the other foot lifted daintily with the tips of her toes brushing the floor. She was wearing a loose, white dress that barely covered her thighs and was trying to catch the wind and fly right off her. Dark red hair was wrapped in a maroon ribbon, which kept it from flying around too much. Her skin was like bronze, and there wasn’t enough of it to look at.
Sunlight angled onto the balcony from some precinct of sky still clear of cloud, but beyond the girl and the balcony wall was nothing but roiling shadow.
She didn’t respond to the bell, or didn’t hear it. I stepped into the room. The wind picked up, and a few droplets appeared on the tall windows to either side of the open doors. My hat was in my hand, but I didn’t remember putting it there.
There was a rolling tray just inside the door. The plates were covered by silver bonnets, but I assumed from the state of the flatware and napkins that the remains of breakfast were underneath. I stepped around it and set my hat in a candy-striped chair.
“Excuse me, Miss?” I said, a bit louder. There was a flash in the distance. I started counting in my head: one hurdy-gurdy, two hurdy-gurdy. The sky growled, shaking the entire hotel. Two hurdy-gurdies away. She had both her feet on the balcony tiles now, or at least the balls of them, leaning against the wall with her waist, her arms spread out in the shape of a Y. Another short sprinkle of rain rattled the windows. The flailing curtains had dark little dots on them.
I navigated through the sitting room, around the dining area, and stood at the open balcony door. Beyond the girl, the sea was not visible. A wall of rain had already swallowed Seaside Avenue and was creeping through the Red Beach neighborhood. A giant broom of water, wielded by some impassive storm god, brushing the seas up over civilization.
I rapped my knuckles on the frame of the balcony door.
She turned, smiling. Her face was an irresistible vision of pure joy and beauty. It might have been her warm Chayana features or the strangely insistent rainstorms that battered dry Costilla in recent days, but I was seized by an utterly irrational sense that I was in Rio de Cabra, a wild tropical cyclone bearing down on the jungly shore of the southern seas.
Déjà vu, I think they call it. I hadn’t been to Cabra in years, but I could almost smell the garlic, peppers, and roasting chickens that came within a dime of convincing me to stay there forever. And the ladies of the south, dark skin, intense brown eyes, full lips—hell, full everything—and that strong yet elegant nose of the ancient Chayantec nobility.
But, it was just a job in Rio de Cabra, and I had come home to San Caniche like a good boy. And, this was just a job with Samantha Corazón. Time to come home to my detective’s professionalism.
She must have sensed the shift in my thoughts. Her mouth lost a dash of the joy, but none of the beauty. “Don’t you love a storm, Mr. Finister?”
I stepped out onto the balcony into a light spray of warning rain. “I’m more concerned whether the storm loves me.”
She lifted one eyebrow, and again I had a weird sense of undue familiarity. She turned to face the west again with a gesture that said I had to join her at the wall if I wanted to talk. I did just that.
As I expected, the balconies spread below us were empty except here and there where hotel staff were gently laying potted plants on their sides to keep them from getting knocked over by the tempest.
The storm arced around us in a broad sweep, arms to either side like the claws of a great crayfish lumbering out of the waters. The wind picked up a bit, the girl’s dress whipping against my thigh. That reminded me that it was also whipping against her thighs, but I didn’t want to be too obvious about easing away.
“You left the door open for me?”
“No,” she said without looking. “I had the salmon omelet for breakfast, and wanted to let some air through.”
“How did you know I was me?”
Now, she looked at me. Again with the cocked eyebrow.
“Your photo has been in all the papers, Mr. Green Star. Even in Chayan.”
“Huh. So I’m international now.”
She shrugged and looked off into the darkness. Red Beach had been swallowed whole by the storm, and the wall of rain was sweeping up the hill toward the hotel. The upper edge of the clouds hung over us and, as I tried to think of a witty way to get the conversation going, the sun ran scared and we fell under a gray half-shadow. Night had come early.
“I want you to find the man who stole my inheritance.”
That would do. “Your inheritance was stolen? You seem like you’re doing well without it.”
“I didn’t say I wanted you to recover my inheritance, Mr. Finister. I’ve been successful enough on my own without it.”
I was a magnet for women made of steel. “May I ask how old you are, Miss Corazón?”
“I’m old enough to hire you in the state of Costilla.” That meant at least eighteen. But, I was less concerned with the legality of her offer of employment than how cold the trail might be. The fewer the years the better.
“That’s good to know, Miss Coraz—”
“If we’re going to work together, lets drop the Señor y Señorita. May I call you Marshall?”
“We’re not going to work together, Sam. I’m working, you’re paying. That’s how it goes.”
“So, you don’t need any of the information I’ve gathered so far? Suits me. You’ll get my General Cabayo when you find the man I’m looking for.”
This Chayana played hard. General Juan Cabayo’s pretty face was on the Chayano ten-grand note, worth about three thousand flag dollars. With Ricky casting doubt on my Green Star fee, moola like that dangling in my face was a bit much to resist. Imagine the cigars and whiskey sours it could buy. Or shots of primo tequila in a beach-side bar outside Cabra.
“Alright, partner, but let’s establish some boundaries.”
She put an elbow on the balcony wall and waited. The wind spun her ribbon-bound hair. The white dress glued itself to the side of her body.
I kept my eyes proper. “First, if we’re both going to be poking around, we do it separately. We can share our scoop, but we each do our own scooping. I don’t get close to clients.” The distance between us seemed suddenly meager against my point. The wind reached inside the left side of my blazer and pulled it halfway across that distance, nearly bursting the buttons.
“I didn’t ask to tag along.” She cocked her eyebrow.
“Sharing the scoop starts with you, since I just walked into the case today. You told my secretary you didn’t know the man you’re looking for, but you clearly know enough about him to think there’s a good chance of finding him, and finding him here in Costilla. So how about you cut the coy and stop parading your supposed General in front of me and just share your scoop. The whole scoop, and nothing but the scoop.”
“Fair enough, if you want to be tough about it,” she said. “Marshall.”
The storm slapped us sideways, a solid wet smack on our cheeks that stung like a prize-fighter’s hook. Palms fell like dominoes all around the balcony, fancy pastel pots cracking against the fancy blue tiles. We both nearly tumbled with the plants. She grabbed my elbow and I put my arm around her waist. We ran for the balcony doors. The pink wall of the hotel was already soaked when we got there, and so were we.
We came to a stop against the dining table, doubling over the glass top. We turned together and each grabbed a door. With a struggle and a bit of grunting, we shut them against each other. The drapes were pinched in the frame and plastered against the glass outside.
We leaned back against the table and caught our breath for a moment, the wind pounding against the doors like a vice cop serving a warrant on a drug den.
We looked at each other, gasping. Through the wet cloth of her dress, I saw more of her of her bronze skin than I ever thought I would. Or should. I shook my head clear and purposefully sought out my fedora to stare at, across the room, in a chair.
“Still love the storm?” I said.
She stopped panting long enough to sniff the air. “The fish smell is gone.”
I sneezed, and we both started laughing.