A Prescription for Murder (#3)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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A Prescription for Murder

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “A Prescription for Murder” click here

Part 5: The Seminar

 

The Valium she had taken to get to sleep reached it’s tranquilizing limit at 4 a.m. and Karen awakened abruptly, wide-eyed and acutely conscious.  She staggered to the bathroom to throw cold water on her face and to look for an analgesic in the medicine cabinet.  She found nothing.

When she flushed the toilet, the pipes clanged and groaned, voicing a resentment about being put to work so early. Now she had disturbed the whole house.  She cursed the pipes as she crossed the east-facing room.  Her head was throbbing and she considered taking more Valium.  Instead she sat on a window seat and looked at the awesome star-filled sky, trying to concentrate on something else beside her pain as a way to alleviate it.  “No wonder, ” she whispered, “the Mayans were so fascinated with it.  It must have been their television set.  What did they call their constellations?”  She tried to trace the outlines of Draco and Orion and Cassiopeia but could find none of them. Then the sky lightened in the east, and thousand after thousand, the stars went out. Venus, she remembered having read recently in the horoscope section of the morning paper, had gone behind the sun. She could not name the other planets that held the light longer than the stars.

She wet a washcloth, wrung it out, closed the draperies to shut out the morning, and lay upon her bed, pressing the wet cloth against her forehead.  She could count on her fingers the number of times she had had a migraine headache in her life. This, she told herself, was worse than all the others combined.

The pain put her beyond thinking about motivations and results. She had been caught in someone’s trap.  There were no mistakes or coincidences.  Someone had deliberately written the prescription.  The questions now were who and why and what was going to happen to her in the future; and she had no way to answer them.

She barely heard gentle rapping on her door.  “Yes?” she called.

Marc opened the door a crack so that he could whisper, “May I come in?”

“Of course.” She sat up, lifted the mosquito netting and placed it behind her. She pushed the light button on her watch to see the time.  9 a.m. “I must have fallen back to sleep,” she said.

Marc sat beside her.  “I’ve been a bit of a shit,” he said.  “I don’t know about the prescription and at this point it’s academic.  I miss Aggie…”  He sighed deeply.  “None of us is allowed to leave, so why don’t we make a concerted effort to be pleasant.  Being convivial in Agnes’ name is something she would appreciate more than flowers or prayers.  I’ll do my best to entertain you   with my exciting tales of investing in the soybean market, or how I was thrown-out of art school, or learned to swim as a boy.  Come on downstairs later and join the rest of us for this seminar we’re committed to give… not in grief or anxiety, but just in some happy memories of a wonderful lady.”

She pretended that his words were curative. “You’re right, of course.  Here I was feeling sorry for myself while Agnes is in the morgue.  What funeral arrangements have you made?”

“I’m going to keep it very low key… for only a select group.  It would look damned suspicious to the public if I were seen mourning with a guest in my house who was suspected of giving Agnes the medicine that killed her.” He suddenly put his arm around her and pulled her shoulder to his. Softly, he whispered, “They’d suspect us of being in cahoots.”

“Yes.”  She pulled away to reach for a tissue on her night stand.  “That’s what people would think.  What did the Medical Examiner declare as the cause of death?”

“Medical Misadventure. But because a technician found evidence in her stomach contents of  more than the prescribed dose, it was not considered necessary to try to establish blame for the nature of the medication.  In short, even if you had ordered arsenic, she took more than you had ordered and contributed thereby to her own demise.”  He looked around.  “May I open the drapes?”

Karen guessed that he wanted her to see him clearly. For some reason she thought of the expression, “All cats are grey in the dark.”  This pedigree animal wanted to be admired and he needed light for that.  “Go right ahead,” she said, and waited for the light to flood the room so that she could say, “How handsome you look in those Western togs!  Blue is definitely your color.”

“Well, thank you, Doctor,” he sighed.  “The blue is only temporary.  I’ll be wearing all black tomorrow.” He returned to her bed.  His profile was silhouetted against the morning light.  He must have used a lotion of some kind, she thought.  His skin had a radiance and the morning light gave a haloed effect to the outline. A curl had come loose from the herd. It jumped like a maverick down to his eyebrow.  Using his middle and ring fingers, he corralled it back into place. “Charmides,” she said. “You look like Charmides. If your blonde hair were a little longer you could wear – what is that metal band they wear called?”

“A fila,” he answered, pleased by the reference.

Ruiz’s insistence that she maintain a humble attitude had given her an advantage.  She could stare at Marc and smile slightly without incurring a negative response. “I feel so terrible about this,” she intoned. “You didn’t say… what plans have you made for the funeral?”

“She’ll be cremated.  I’ll explain: Agnes’s father died here twenty years ago.  She came back from school in Texas to care for him. He had malaria. We were married here at that time. She got her degree and then, when the old man died, she had his remains cremated. His ashes are in Phoenix now.  So I’m going to forgo the cemetery plot business.  I have no intention of being laid to rest down here, and I’d just as soon have her with me when I return to Arizona.  But please… let’s not dwell on how or why she died.  In Mexico it is not a crime to make an honest mistake.”

Karen stifled the urge to scream again that she had made no mistake, honest or otherwise. “Who will be coming?” she said pleasantly.

“Ramona and Dan and some guests who had been invited before the incident with Agnes. I don’t know if you noticed any of those ‘Robles for Governor’ billboards, but he and his wife and a few other people will be here. Dan’s got a great deal that these folks are interested in; and in deference to him and Ramona, I’d like to act like a friendly host while they talk business.”

“All right.  I’ll bathe and dress and be down for lunch, anyway.” As soon as he left, she ducked under the mosquito netting and went back to sleep.

It was after noon when Karen went into the shower stall and let the cold water beat down on her face. She wanted to punish herself for being so stupid.

The hacienda Beagle, Karen learned, had a big screen television set that could show DVD presentations in a small auditorium setting.  At east thirty people could sit and watch a film that Compañero Investments, LLC, of Colorado offered in conjunction with the chosen topic. This particular DVD was devoted to the production of coffee in Nicaragua.

Six people, including a candidate for Governor and his wife, had been invited to watch the pitch. Karen was introduced to them.  She smiled and hoped that she’d never see any one of them again. Absenting herself from the pre-presentation chatter, she walked into the dining room and saw that the table was lavishly set for nine. The tenth, at the Mistress’s chair, was empty. A bowl of flowers was placed where her dinner service would have been.  A scratching noise and the movement of light made her look at the window.  A lizard was crawling up the screen.  Tony had followed her into the dining room.  “Miguel!” he called, “Obtener el palo!”

From the kitchen area, Miguel answered, “Sí, Don Antonio.”

“The stick?” Karen asked.

“Yes, all manner of crawly things love to get their exercise on the screens.  We have a long stick with a hook that one of the servants uses to knock them off.  Rarely do they climb up to the second floor or the attic.”

Karen glanced at the place cards.  “Ignacio Robles, the candidate, is seated to the right of Marc. Estella Robles is seated to his left.”

“Yes, Marc likes to sit amongst the powerful.  Listen! I think the old boy is making a speech.”

She turned towards the auditorium to hear Robles speak in that ‘politician’s humble-bragging’ voice, “How could I say, ‘No’?  I’m running on the People’s platform.  Mexico has suffered for too long from class distinctions.  We need to become a meritocracy. Then my future son-in-law will be a leader of men as well as a healer of men.”  The little group cheered him.

“What does he mean?”

“Miguel is supposed to marry his only daughter Constanza. Miguel is a medical student – that’s what the ‘healer’ referred to.”

Dan Duran announced the start of the presentation. Tony put his arm around her. “You ready for the big pitch?”

“I’ll sit in the back and observe the rest of you.”

An unctuous voice-over informed everyone how difficult it was to remove the shell of a coffee bean. It wasn’t like a peanut… no…  or a lima bean.  A coffee bean was encased in what in the metallic world would be the equivalent of carbon steel.  A farmer was shown emptying a bucket of red cherry like hard beans into a contraption that peeled the shell off them. The green beans were then carried along a conveyor belt while Indian women picked out those unfortunate beans that had survived the shelling process.  Sometimes these beans would be run through again; but mostly they would become beans of a lesser quality coffee since they’d be roasted with part of their shells on.

The map of Nicaragua was shown along with pictures of aging Daniel Ortega, the President for Life.  Lake Managua, which had once been considered the logical place for the transoceanic canal was shown in all its beauty.

The movie ended and Dan Duran gave his spiel.  “There had been talk of creating a new canal – one wide enough to handle oil tankers and other immense cargo ships that cannot now go through the Panama Canal.  China was interested; land prices rose.  But then the Chinese thought it seemed a whole lot cheaper to deal directly with Canada what with the Keystone Pipeline trouble.  Why risk the volcanism of the Ring of Fire?

“Suddenly land values fell. In a communist country, we can say, ‘So what?’ Well, in that ‘What’ was money, and Nicaragua needed money.  The administrators, like most of us, had expected a windfall and had spent accordingly.  And now it was time to pay the piper.  They called the best advertising agency in New York and ordered an international campaign for a new brand of Nicaraguan coffee.  Preciosa.  I cannot lie to you.  It’s the same old stuff that you saw the farmer dump into the peeling machine.  Yes, they do plan to introduce a new fertilizer developed through United Nations’ grants.  But getting a piece of Preciosa before it hits the market will make a person richer than the finest Nicaraguan coffee on the market.  And they do produce great coffee… rich in flavor, full bodied, with a scent that rivals heaven.  We don’t see it much in the states, because it’s well…  Nicaraguan!”  This last remark got a good laugh from the small audience.

As they began to talk about shares in Preciosa’s parent company, Karen studied their interactions.  Tony seemed to have changed.  He had gone from boyish sailor and pinochle player to the consummate shill. Marc, princely in his late-afternoon garb – white sharkskin trousers, navy blue double breasted jacket with polished brass buttons and a paisley cravat puffing out perfectly at the open collar of his white shirt.  He walked differently, she noticed.  She tried to identify the gait.  It wasn’t a swagger or a lope or a swish, certainly, but was rather processional. Yes, he walked as if going from point A to point B were a matter of state significance. Several times Estella Robles snapped open her fan – a dramatic gesture – and hiding behind its tasseled shield, she’d sneak a hateful look at Marc. What, Karen wondered, could that have been all about? Louisa was helping Miguel to serve.  She walked around with a tray of champagne glasses.  She, too, had a strange reaction to Marc.  She lowered her eyes when she approached him.  She approached Tony with a impish controlled grin and he would wink at her as he reached for a glass.  Louisa brought the tray back to Karen.  “Do me a favor,” Karen asked, “and tell Tony that I have a terrible headache and don’t care to have dinner tonight. I’ll go out and get some air.”  Louisa assured her that she’d convey the message, and Karen left the room.  No one noticed her departure, so interesting was the thought of becoming a coffee magnate.

The afternoon sun was setting behind the hacienda, creating a mysterious roseate Purkinje effect.  She decided to walk around the gardens, but she left the house through the foyer, took particular notice of the old lady’s portrait which, now that she got a closer look at it, was competently done.  She went down the veranda steps and then crossed the front lawn to one of the two alleyways that led to the rear.

She passed the closed garages and stopped to check the shelf on which inner tubes were stored. There were inner tubes for bicycles, for several wheel barrows, and some for the tires of farm equipment.  She sighed.  Maybe the Jeep had no other tube, after all.  She came to what looked like a big cuckoo clock mounted on a pole that she hadn’t noticed before.  It had a pitched roof and a front door instead of a numbered face.  She opened the door and found laminated sheets that detailed the layout of the gardens.  There were four sheets to a set, held together by a ring. She took one of the sets, closed the door, and, using the sheets as a guide, went through the garden.

Section One was dedicated to Plantas Tropicales Comestibles. She recognized on sight bamboo, breadfruit, coconut, sugar cane, wild figs, the tops of wild yam, taro, papaya – with its fruits hanging from the center tree trunk like so many paps or breasts – a mango tree, and manioc. She came to a pool in which wild rice and cattails grew along the banks and, in the water, lilies of various kinds.  She consulted the guide and was stunned to see Blue Egyptian lotus, the water lily “Nymphaea caerulea” that was the single most used symbol in Egyptian tomb art and was also, chemically related to Viagra. There were lotus plants that had edible roots all known in  Indian yogic lore… the padme.  But so many Egyptian Blue? Were they cultivating them, growing them for a purpose other than academic?  She knew the Egyptians ate them for their aphrodisiac qualities.  Well, this was interesting!  And then a coconut suddenly dropped from the tree and scared her.  She jumped away from the pond and got back onto the path.

Cardiologists were well aware of many plants consumed for their sexual properties.  Often they were consumed detrimentally to the heart. She checked the scientific names of some of the plants..  Chlorophytum borivilianum commonly called “safed musli”  was there.  So was Mondia whitei of the Periplocaceae family.  Maca was there as were names that were unfamiliar to her: E. longifolia Jack; Satureja khuzestanica.  She recognized the family Aralaceae, of which Panax ginseng belonged, and Pausinystalia yohimbe of the family Rubiaceae.  There were so many!  She tried to match the name with some of the unfamiliar plants, but it was beginning to get dark.  What was this garden all about?  A few common plants like banana, vanilla, and cacao and even a avocado tree were there, mostly, she thought, to provide shade for some of the plants that didn’t like direct sun.  She was startled by hearing her name called.

“Doctor Karen,” José called.  “Are you out here?  It’s time for dinner.”

“I asked Louisa to convey my apologies.  I’m not particularly hungry.  It’s that migraine I’m having.”

“She told Don Marco, but he insists that you join everyone for dinner even if you try only the desert. They’re waiting on you.”

Karen found her place at the table.  The thought that she might be poisoned entered her mind. She looked around the room.  The ugly dinner “menu” paintings were gone.  In their place were a variety of seascapes, one more weird then another.  The waves weren’t behaving as waves… or something else was wrong.  She couldn’t tell. The artist wasn’t so much inept as he was bizarre.

She nibbled at some bread and declined the appetizer and entree. Finally, as coffee was served, she excused herself and said, “I think I need some air.  We’re approaching the “media luna” that seems to be so famous south of the Rio Grande.  I’d like to see it from the beach.” Her exit was barely acknowledged.

It was dark now, but the night was clear and all the stars had returned. Someone turned on the outdoor lights that were bright for only the moment it took for hundreds of flying insects to dim them. Only the fireflies were uninterested.  She wanted to be able to think, to find some reason that might account for the events – from the invitation to the present.  Walking on the beach with the sand between her toes might help her “find out who she was” as Agnes had promised.

She walked past the cars that were parked in front  0of the house.  One SUV had a distinct logo on its door with the name, “Robles, International.” Its plates were Quintana Roo. She had seen the logo on the Robles’ billboards.   She wished that she had been more gracious especially since it wouldn’t have hurt to know someone in power socially.  After coffee they’d no doubt convene again in the drawing room for an after dinner drink.  She wondered if she should linger for a few minutes and then return.  A hundred feet ahead stood the now-closed wrought-iron gates that read the rear view of “Cabeza de Vaca.”  Before she could make a decision, the old gate keeper saw her coming and without needing to be asked had opened the gates for her.  She continued through, thanking him as she passed.

Steps led down to the beach that was alive with small scurrying crabs.  She sat on the steps and studied the meaningless traffic. She did not hear Ruiz approach.

“What?” he laughed.  “You don’t care about coffee?”

“No,” she said, moving over to let him sit down beside her. “Any news?”

“Let’s not talk shop.  People are investing in Nicaraguan coffee. The sea is calm.  A few million stars are trying to compete with your eyes. Where the hell is the moon?” He stretched his neck looking around.

“The new moon rises at dawn.  The full moon rises at sundown.  The half-moon rises at midnight. Et cetera, et cctera. When will I be free to go home?”

“I didn’t know that about the moon.  I’ll have to remember that.  It might come in useful.  As to your leaving… not yet. Just continue to be your sweet humble self.  As it stands now Marc is not pressing for any criminal charges.  If saying that you might have made an error gets you out of Mexico without the usual sturm und drang, concede the possibility.  You’ll likely have plenty of fighting to do when he brings charges of malpractice against you in Phoenix.”

“Have you heard that he intends to do that?” She did not question that Marc intended to sue, but only to learn whether Ruiz had heard anything specific about Marc’s plans.

“No. But this whole production had to have certain aims.  What they all are, I don’t know yet. Assuming the prescription was faked, the claim on your insurance policy isn’t opportunistic. It had to be premeditated. This is not a simple case. Marc Celine is a very slick guy.  He’s good looking… maybe not as handsome as I… but he does present himself well.  And yes, he’s got brains…  he might not be as bright as I, but who is?” He was seeking a response from Karen and she did not disappoint.  She reached up and tussled his hair.  He grinned.  “I’m a cop and in some places you just assaulted me.”

“Did it feel good?” she asked in a straightforward tone and he laughed.

“Touché,” he said, and continued his analysis of Marc Celine. “What he does have in abundance – that I have zero of –  are connections… powerful ones.  He gets away with things that would put the average man behind bars. A few times he was close to being charged with some serious crimes… assault, fraud, rape… and he simply wriggled out of trouble.  He is, what’s the expression, ‘as slippery as a watermelon seed.'”

“I can’t figure out the marital relationship.  I don’t think they even liked each other.  He tends to speak disparagingly of her.  She made a veiled death threat.  There’s some kind of connection between him and Clara – maybe one that involves that baby she has. And what about Estella Robles and Marc?  She would sneak looks of positive loathing at him.  To hate that much usually signifies that the opposite was once true.  Marc and Estella?  Am I wrong about this?”

“Was she carrying a big fancy fan?”

“Yes.  So? Am I wrong about Marc and Estella Robles?”

“Probably not.”

“I found so many plants that had aphrodisiac properties.  Was that one of their businesses?”

“They do have an herbal medicine business.  They raise the plants on a farm farther inland.  Import a lot too.  Mostly from Brazil. The sex stuff is probably included.”

“What does Marc intend to do with Clara now?”

“Agnes had apparently decided to donate the estate and its entire collection to the University, but such negotiations take time and on the first day of discussion, she got sick. No endowment papers were executed which means that Marc inherits her property and collects a large sum on her life insurance policy. And let’s not forget your medical malpractice insurance.”

“Do you never answer a question?”

“Only in matters of amour,” he flicked her nose with his finger.  “I’m the detective.  I ask. You answer.”

“How much will he get from Agnes’ insurance?  Surely you heard.”

“In American dollars, her policy will pay him 3 million.  That’s what I heard down at headquarters. I have no reason to doubt the sum.”  He sighed,  “You see, I can cooperate.”

“Let’s test that hypothesis. I want to go back to Paolo and Clara’s house.  Something was not right there. I still can’t figure out why Clara had to come with us when we went to the pharmacy.  She cared for Paolo. Yet she left that old woman alone there to care for the baby and the hot compresses and to give him fluids, just to come with us for no reason.”

“I don’t think you should investigate. You may learn more than you can handle.”

Karen grew angry.  “That’s nonsense.  You represent the interest of the prosecution.  I have no one.  If I had any sense I’d hire an attorney or at least a private detective.  So don’t make vague Orphic pronouncements…. oracular warnings and riddles.  I need to know what and who I’m up against.”

“I don’t want to be the one to tell you anything.  As you say, I’m working for the other side.  But I know that Clara is in town tonight, entertaining a gentleman who would like nothing better than to disrupt the seminar.  She’ll get paid to do that.  So the old woman is alone with the baby.  If you want to talk to her, now would be the time.”

“Will you take me?” Karen put her hand on his wrist.  Suddenly he put his other hand over hers and held it down.  Then he raised his hand to his lips, removed his top hand and kissed her fingers.  “What are you doing?” she quietly asked.

Chihuahua! Can’t a man kiss the hand of a pretty woman without being subjected to an interrogation?” He stood up.  “It was spontaneous.  If I had thought about it I wouldn’t have done it.  Happy?”

“I’m not angry… I was just curious.”

As they drove in Ruiz’s pickup truck, she asked, “When you said that Clara was paid to entertain a gentleman who could have disrupted the presentation tonight, did that mean that a dissatisfied customer might otherwise show up and cause a scene?”

“What do I know about financial matters?”

“You know a scam when you see one, and this coffee thing doesn’t sit right.  I just sense it.  Serving champagne to people before you ask them to buy stocks…   I remember visiting a Buddhist Temple in Taiwan and being invited along with a few colleagues to have tea with the master. They served us tea in these tiny cups.  I swear they spiked the stuff.  A few little cups and I was definitely feeling high. The master made a pitch about the temple needing money so badly for their medical outreach programs and other charitable works.  I had just started to feel generous when I got an emergency call and had to leave; but a few of my colleagues wound up giving the master a small fortune.”

“What were you doing in Taiwan?”

“Attending a conference in Kaohsiung. The emergency was a waiter who had fainted.”

They drove to Clara’s house.  “I’ll wait here for you.  Listen,” he said confidentially, “You know that Marc thinks of himself as an artist… a painter.  Ask her to tell you about the breast painting.”

“Breast painting? This is crazy,” Karen said, getting out of the pickup.

As she stood in the doorway of the little house, the woman called to her in Spanish.  “Come in.  Thank you for the food.  I know you are the one who sent it so don’t tell me Don Antonio did that all on his own.”

“You’re quite welcome.  I’m so sorry Paolo died.  It was a terrible wound.”

“Did you come here to take the baby?”

“Why… No!  I had no such intention!”

“What do you want?”

“I’m told that I’ll understand the entire situation more if I learn about a certain breast painting that Marc Celine did.  Can you help me by telling me about that painting?”

The woman snickered.  “Don Marco, the artist.”  She pointed to the hammock.  “That’s his baby, you know.  My Paolo loved Clara, but he was dirt to her.  Then when she got pregnant at the hacienda and wouldn’t agree to an abortion, Don Marco threw her out.  Paolo came and fixed this little house for her.  He put these tiles on the floor… and fixed the roof. He had the carpenter build that bed.  He bought a real mattress for it.  Just for her.  Marc had other women.  Many women.”

“Estella Robles?”

“Hah! She was the one before Clara. Clara thought she was very important because he cut off Estella for her.  I don’t know what he’s got that makes the ladies throw themselves at him. Yes, he’s handsome. But he’s just a good looking man.  No soul.  Or I should say a black soul. Anthony is no better.  He uses Louisa. Now the two girls think that since the wives are dead, they’ll be able to marry the Celine brothers.”

“Tell me about the painting.”

“Tsch!” The old woman pretended to spit on the floor. “Clara’s belly grew bigger and bigger.  Paolo couldn’t afford to put her in the hospital but she delivered the baby here with me and another woman… a midwife.  Then Paolo took the baby to the hospital to have drops put in his eyes and to have blood removed for some kind of test.”

“DNA?” Karen asked.

“Yes. DNA. When the baby was not yet a month old Don Marco and Don Antonio returned for one of those meetings they have at The Beagle.  Marc called for Clara and told her more lies and had her bring the baby to the hacienda.  He began to paint her naked.  As the hours passed her breasts grew bigger and bigger with milk.  The baby was crying.  Hungry.  He would not let her feed it.  He wanted to paint her big breasts with milk leaking out of them. The baby cried and cried until José went into Marc’s office… where he was painting… and took him to a woman who was feeding her own child and let her feed the baby.”  She yawned.  “It’s nap time.”

“Where is the painting now?” Karen asked.

“God knows. Ask Him.”

Karen returned to the car.  “Nice guy.  So Paolo got a DNA sample of the baby and no doubt also obtained one secretly from Marc so that they could prove paternity.”

“Yes.  Marc should have paid some kind of child support.”  Ruiz began to drive.

“Did he ever give her any money?”

“You are an inquisitive woman.  And the funny thing is that you ask the right questions.  Most women ask all the emotional questions. ‘Did he love her? Did she love him?'”

“That’s not an answer.”

“All right… the rumor is that Marc occasionally hired Paolo to bring ancient Mayan pottery out of the Peten.  Ten days or so ago he sent him to pick up some artifacts near the Uaxactun ruins.  It was a set up.  Paolo was supposed to be killed in Guatemala. He made it home instead.”

“Stolen antiquities?  That’s not misdemeanor stuff. What is going on with these people?”

“In these parts dealing in stolen antiquities is worse than being a serial killer.  But every time anyone’s ever started an investigation into Marc’s activities, it fades away… as Yankees say, ‘into the Mexican mist of corruption.'”

“That’s an ‘all-purpose’ excuse for the major crimes. It doesn’t answer why Clara didn’t stay to take care of Paolo.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she feared being killed.  Marc would not have let Paolo talk to anyone about his stolen antiquities’ trade.  There were probably guys watching… making sure he didn’t talk.  She might have become afraid when she supposed that they saw you and Marc. These are dangerous people.”  He stopped at an intersection and looked at her. “Karina, I’m not a fool.  Yes, I verified your professional status.  I have to do that. You’re a smart woman. You can see that this prescription scam was well thought out.  But by whom? You can’t tell friend from enemy.  Be careful.  Talk to no one.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“I’m going to follow through on a hunch I’ve got.  I’ll talk to you more again when I know more.  Meanwhile I want you to follow my instructions.  As soon as you receive permission to leave Mexico, go.  Go down to Belize City.  Fly home from there.  Do you understand?”

“Yes. I got that message.  I’ll remove myself from the jurisdiction as soon as possible.”

“And call me when you get home. Listen… I want you to fly out of Belize because flights are often delayed because of bad weather, and I’d just as soon have you stuck in Belize waiting…” He wrote his private phone number on the back of his card and gave it to her.  “And remember.  Normally I sleep at night.”

Karen returned to the house and quietly went upstairs.  Louisa was sitting at the vanity in her bedroom.  The girl jumped up and apologized.  “I was just fixing my make-up,” she said, hastily pushing some of Karen’s cosmetics into the drawer.

“Your eyes look red.  Have you been crying?” Karen asked.

“A little… and a little allergy, too.”

Karen went to her purse and got out a common brand of eye-drops that could be purchased anywhere.  “Let me put drops in your eyes and the red will go away and your eyes will stop itching.”  She motioned for her to sit on the edge of the bed near a lamp.  “I have to hold the dropper carefully so that it doesn’t touch the eye or an eyelash.  This keeps it sterile.”  Expertly she dropped the liquid into Louisa’s eyes.  Louisa blinked and accepted the tissue Karen handed her.

“Thank you,” she said, blotting her eyes with a tissue. “My eyes feel better already.”

“Would you be upset if I asked you a very personal question?”

“No, not at all.  I suppose you want to know about the crush I have on Tony.  He doesn’t take me seriously, I assure you.  For what I do for him, he pays me well.  I have no complaints.”

“No. It wasn’t about you.  It was about Clara and a painting that Marc did of her.”

“Marc and his ambitions to be another Renoir.  He painted most of the woman he slept with.”

“Where does he keep the paintings?”

“They’re hidden upstairs in the attic. I hope the roof hasn’t leaked any water onto them.  Some of them were in watercolor.”

“Will you take me up to show me?” Karen asked.  “I’m trying to figure out what kind of man Marc is.  I’m told the painting will help me to understand him.”

She snorted. “Humh. Talk to a priest when you want to learn about the devil!  Well…  I can’t show you anything now. I’m still on duty for the Seminar. I came up here on a bathroom break and because Marc said something that hurt my feelings.”  She stood up and curtsied to Karen. “I’m needed to prepare the guest rooms in case any of them decide to spend the night.  I doubt that they will because of Doña Agnes’ death.  But I have to stand by just in case.”

Karen decided not to inquire about Marc’s hurtful remark. “Tomorrow then?  When the house is quiet?”

“Yes.  All right.  I’ll get the keys from José and take you up… but not if Marc and Tony are home.”

Despite the coffee seminar, the house was supposed to be in mourning, yet the servants were giddy with Miguel’s news.  The kitchen staff, the gardeners, the chambermaid Louisa, and even José, the major domo, were laughing and joking about it.  Miguel Nuñez had asked Constanza Robles to marry him and she had accepted. Who would ever have supposed that the only daughter of Ignacio Robles, one of the richest men in Quintana Roo, would marry a young man – from a poor family of nine children, who was handsome and smart – of course – but clearly a member of a low economic class and had native Indian blood in him.

Miguel worked only part-time at the hacienda.  He was still a student, but one destined, according to his professors, to have a brilliant career in medicine. Robles, himself, had announced the engagement before the investment opportunity seminar began and after the presentation, he added, “In the event some people think that I am not a man of the people, this addition to my family should change their minds.”  Someone notified the newspapers and by morning the local press had followed up the announcement with photographs of the couple – in separate frames, of course.  Apparently they did not spend much time together in public.

 

Part 6: A Memorable Memorial Service.

 

A memorial service, by invitation only, was held at The Beagle on Monday evening. The same auditorium in which the seminar had been held was now put to use as a kind of chapel. Karen had spent the day in bed, trying to read. It was felt, understandably, that given the circumstances of Agnes’s death, she should privately pay her respects before the others arrived and then retreat to her bedroom or the beach.

Tony Celine came to her bedroom to escort her downstairs.  “I spent the whole damned day putting together a tribute DVD to Agnes.  Digging out old photos.  I’m no John Ford.  Promise you won’t laugh.”

“I promise.”

“I don’t know what the hell went on here or at that drug store while we were away, but I’m damned if I’m going to let you go downstairs alone.”  It was not the ringing endorsement of her innocence that she would have liked to hear, but, she reasoned, it was probably safer to have a large, important man on her arm in case one of the invitees arrived early.

The big screen endlessly repeated Tony’s DVD of Agnes’s life, verifying, unfortunately, the suspicion that she had been a skinny, homely child and teenager, as she had been a slim but somewhat awkward member of Phoenix society. Between prep school and college graduation, however, she had gained an enormous amount of weight.

Tony, as narrator, explained that Agnes had stayed home for several years to take care of her father. Ice cream and a few other sweets were the only things that the elderly man would eat and he insisted that Agnes eat them with him.  He was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and thought that every meal was a birthday party. “Obviously, during those years she put on quite a lot of weight. Though nearly emaciated as a prep school graduate, here she is, at graduation from the University of Texas, still heavy.”  Indeed, Karen could see her waddle across the stage to receive her diploma in a gown that was never meant to camouflage the rolls of fat that must have cascaded down her body.  There were photographs of Agnes and Marc as bride and groom: he, broomstick thin, and she, outweighing him by a few hundred pounds. It was not possible to determine where the wedding had taken place; but Karen, using a woman’s eye for such things, considered her gown to be tasteless and ill-fitting. “The seams,” she whispered to Tony, “must have been steel-reinforced.”  In the wedding portrait, Agnes’s eyes were like slits that her facial fat seemed to be enveloping.  Tony’s voice-over narration gave the wedding year as 1995.  She had become Karen’s patient in 2001.  The change in size would surprise everyone who had not known her then, or at least had not remembered her from those pre-Karen days. The second revelation was a photograph of Agnes holding her infant son. Tony’s voice dropped to a reverent whisper as he announced that the baby had died of a rare blood disease when he was only four months old; and thereafter Agnes would refer to herself as “childless.”  She had told Karen about her baby perhaps because it was impossible to conceal the differences between breasts that had once produced milk from breasts that had remained in a virginal state.

Tony asked, “Did you know that she and Marc had a son?”

“Yes… of course. I saw that the subject distressed her and did not probe for a cause of death.”

“It was leukemia,” Tony whispered.  “Damned shame. She never got pregnant again, at least as far as I know.”

Counting from the time of death, it was with astonishing quickness that the funeral service had taken place.  Agnes Celine’s ashes, apparently as soon as they cooled. were placed in the most expensive urn the Tulum Funeral Parlor sold.  It was a pale blue ceramic urn, reminiscent of Wedgewood except that the parts that would have been cream, were actual sterling silver.  Tony gestured with a sweeping bow. “My brother did well to get such an exceptional container.  To paraphrase The Bard, ‘No dress that she ever wore in life became her half as well as the urn that clothed her in death.'” He touched Karen’s elbow.  “Where would you like me to escort you… upstairs or to the beach?”

“First, upstairs so that I can change my shoes, and then the beach.”

They walked together to the beach and, as Karen sat down on the steps that led down to the sand, he said, “I hate to leave you alone like this, but I’ve got to get back and help my brother with the shindig.”

“I’ll be fine,” Karen said.  “You go on.”  As he walked away she thought that for a man who could paraphrase Shakespeare he was a tad inarticulate when he referred to the memorial service as “a shindig.”  She could not, however, escape the notion that there was more behind the reference than simply a poor choice of words.  An attitude?  She sighed.  One more thing that didn’t make sense.

She had nothing to do for the next few hours but to think and to observe.  Thinking defeated her.  She therefore observed.  All the movement was on the beach.  A few crabs ran through the foam. Bubbles burst and sank into the sand.  As the water withdrew little eddies formed around shells that had gotten stuck on the shore.  Everything was quiet except for the ships that passed. There was no wind, not even a breeze; and then the hypnotic lapping of seawater water onto the sand captured her attention and lulled her into a dream-like state.  She suddenly roused herself and checked her watch.  Two hours had passed since she sat down.  She remembered the artwork in the attic and wished that everyone would leave so that she could see it.

She looked back at The Beagle.  The gates were open but the cars were still parked in front of the house.  She could see them only by lamplight. The moon was still waiting for its celestial cue.

She thought of the old Zen story about the man who went to live in a strange country where no one spoke his language and everyone seemed reverent and happy.  He wanted desperately to know what it was that made them happy but not until he finally met a man who could speak to him in his own language did he dare to ask.  “What is it that you worship that makes you all so happy?” he asked.  And the man smiled, looked up, raised his arm and with his finger pointed to the moon.  And the curious man dropped to his knees and said, “Oh Hand with beautiful finger! Oh, gently curving nail and soft pink cuticle…”

She made herself comfortable on the steps, prepared to wait there alone for the half- moon to rise.

The cars began to drive out of the gates.  One after another, they followed each other as in funeral procession.  When the last car left, she got up, brushed the sand from her dress, and walked back to the hacienda.  As she walked through the front door, Ruiz’s pickup truck pulled into the driveway.  He beeped the horn and Karen stood in the doorway and waited for him.

Ruiz had been drinking and when he suddenly braked, the car skidded about five feet before stopping.  “Doctor Breiton,” he called, slurring his words, “you’re just the person I want to see, but don’t ask me any questions. I can’t talk about it yet.”

Tony Celine came into the foyer.  “Why don’t you show our good detective the DVD we prepared about Agnes.  Then, he can come and join us in the drawing room.  All the other guests are gone.”

Karen led Ruiz into the auditorium. Tony flicked on the DVD player and then left them alone.  Ruiz restlessly watched the images, squirming in his tipsy condition and saying nothing until the fat photographs of Agnes appeared on screen.  “Caramba!” he shouted.  “Is that Agnes?”  And he began to recite a prayer. “Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia,” and began to laugh.

When the video ended, they went into the drawing room.  “Beautiful urn,” he said to Marc.  “My compliments.” Karen rolled her eyes.  She poked him with her elbow.

“So,” Juan announced, “Karina is wearing sandals…  ‘How beautiful thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter.’  I’m not as drunk as I look.  I can still recite the Bible.” As he sat on the couch he steadied himself with a sweaty hand that left its imprint on the polished glass surface of the coffee table.  “What I mean is… Karen is not dressed for a funeral.  I guess they were afraid that she would drool all over Agnes Celine’s beautiful urn – having caused the ashes to be put there.”

Dan Duran stood up.  “You’ve probably already had enough to drink, but under the circumstances, I think I ought to ask if you’d like another?  So, what’ll it be?”

In Spanish, Ruiz said, “Two Dos Equis, one for the doctor and one for me.”

Dan nodded to José who went back into the kitchen.  Miguel immediately entered the drawing room carrying a tray with napkins, two bottles of beer and two tall conical beer glasses.

Ramona Duran tried to change the direction of the troublesome line of speech.  “Miquel Nuñez, here, our very own Miguel, is going to marry Constanza Robles. Think of it!”

Ruiz answered Ramona but looked directly at Miguel who was serving the beer. “Tell him that he is taking the first step in ruining his life.”

“You can tell him that, yourself,” Ramona replied, “since he’s standing right in front of you.”

“Yes,” Ruiz said, continuing to look at Miguel. “Don’t be a fool and marry into a rich girl’s family. You have much… your career, your family, your friends, and your honor and dignity.  Marry a rich girl and you will lose everything. They will take it all away from you.”

Miguel answered, offended. “What you’re saying is terrible.  Constanza is a wonderful girl. Her parents have accepted me.  Her mother says I am a perfect choice and her father even talked to my professors about me. He wanted to be sure I was right for Constanza.”

“You are a fool!” Ruiz said with disgust.  “Sit down, here… on the floor across from me… from the coffee table.”  Miguel sat down.

Karen looked worried.  Juan had had too much to drink. “You be you,” he said to Miguel, “I’ll be the rich man.  You have brains, career, friends, family. But no money.   I got all that you’ve got… the brains and the looks, but I got more… social position and I got money.  I’m important.  You’re not.  You’re nobody.”  His voice grew threatening. “But you soiled my daughter and destroyed my hope for a brilliant marriage for her.

“So this is the deal. You took my daughter, and I destroy you.  You don’t get anything else of mine and I get everything that you have.” Miguel affected an injured but tolerant look. He began to get up.  Juan held out a hand, indicating that he should sit down again.  Juan softly asked, “Do you think I want your peasant family attending my Cinco de Mayo fiesta?  Sitting down at the dinner table with my friends and relatives?  Diamonds on our fingers and dirt under your parents’ fingernails. Do you think my family and I are going to come to your house for dinner?  With the cucaraches on the floor? Think about that.

“People will think you’re rich because you married a rich girl.  Your brothers will ask you to lend them money.  But you have no money.  Your friends will ask to let them drive that Jaguar you sometimes drive.  But you don’t possess the keys to that Jaguar.”  He paused to sip beer from the tall glass.  “There’s a big football game on TV.  Are your friends allowed to come to the big hacienda and drink beer and eat tacos, watching the game?  No. There will be no room in my house for the bums you call your friends.”  He began to snicker.

Miguel said, “I’m putting up with your nonsense because you’re drunk.  Tomorrow you can apologize.”

“You like football?” Juan asked. “Who you gonna play with or go to games with?  You already alienated your family and friends.  They think you prefer your imaginary rich friends to them.  I say imaginary because you won’t have any high-bred friends.  None of them will take you to their clubs or invite you on their yachts. Soon your wife – who is probably a very nice girl but a very spoiled girl – will grow tired of you. You, your family, your race will be insulted.  You will be unable to study.  Good. Drop out.  They want you back in the barrios where you belong – not being privy to the health problems they and their friends have.”  He sipped his beer, spilling it on his shirt. “For Christmas they’ll give you a gold watch.  Show it to me before you pawn it.” Miguel said nothing but got up and began to walk to the door. Ruiz looked at Karen.  “Am I wrong?”

“Juan…   It doesn’t always have to end badly.” She looked at him. “But you’re not wrong.”

Marc abruptly stood. “I hope,” he said, “that this diatribe was not given for my benefit.  My dear wife may have had more money than I, but I was not some impoverished peasant!” Everyone looked around, stunned to think that Marc could have imagined that Juan’s little speech had anything to do with anyone except Miguel.

Ramona Duran signaled the end of the incident.  “It’s bedtime, everyone!” She turned to Marc.  “You should ask José to drive Detective Ruiz home.  A drunken cop!  What next?”

Karen stood up and held out her hand.  “Give me your car keys,” she said to Ruiz. “I’ll drive you and your truck home and José can follow in the Lincoln – if that meets with Marc’s approval.”

“Yes,” Marc snapped.  “Just get him out of here.”

As Karen adjusted the seat in Juan’s truck, she said, “You can’t possibly be as stupidly drunk as you’re acting.”

“You are innocent and I can prove it,” Juan said, trying not to slur his words.  “And for the record, I am pretty damned drunk. But I’m not ready to tell you the good news yet.”

“Try to be sober when you tell me.”

“This is an evil place,” Juan mumbled.

“I’m going to be shown Marc’s artwork, tomorrow, I hope.”

Juan suddenly sat up straight.  “Who’s showing you?”

“Louisa. There apparently are many pictures that he painted.  Every woman he slept with was immortalized in oil or watercolor.”

“As long as it is Louisa, the women will be identified.  She knows most of them. Write down their names if you can.”

Miquel had returned to the kitchen, angry and insulted.  “A cop dares to talk to me that way,” he groused.  “This is no time to start trouble, but when Constanza and I are married and the election is over, her parents will have his ass.”

The cook sympathized.  “On this night of all nights.  Señor Robles makes the announcement of your engagement to his daughter and everyone is happy; and then this drunk has to end the evening on such a note!  And so soon after Doña Agnes’s death.  Disgraceful!”

There had been little time to prepare a proper wake; and the refreshments served were the left-overs from the coffee investment seminar.  Few visitors had cared to linger over the food which was quickly discarded. While the servants tidied the kitchen, Marc and Tony went into Marc’s office, and Ramona and Dan went to bed.  After putting the DVD room in order, Louisa went upstairs.  She had turned down the beds, but since no one had stayed, she returned to the rooms to restore the bedspreads.

The chef had changed from his uniform to his civilian clothes and gave a final look to the kitchen before he left to go home. On the steps outside, he nodded to José and Karen who had just returned. Louisa was coming downstairs and Miguel, as his final chore, had taken glass cleaner and a roll of paper towels into the drawing room to clean the surfaces that had been soiled by Juan’s sweaty hands.  He had not seen Karen and José.  “Louisa!” he called.  “Did you get the key to the attic?” Karen had started up the stairs.  She stopped to listen.

José stood in the drawing room’s doorway.  He curtly asked Miguel, “Why are you interested in the attic?”

Miguel stammered in confusion.  “I was told by somebody… I don’t remember who… that there was a nice portrait of Señora Robles there.  I just wanted to see it.”

“There once was a portrait of her, but as far as you’re concerned, it was destroyed.  And when you want to see something in this house, you ask me… not Louisa.”

At midnight Miguel drove his motorcycle to the garden behind the Robles’ hacienda. He turned off the engine and walked the cycle the last fifty meters and entered the garden at the rear gate.  Constanza Robles was waiting for him.  He slid sideways through an opening in the gates and immediately Constanza was in his arms.  He carried her to several bales of hay she had placed there as a bed.  “Your father made the announcement tonight,” Miguel breathlessly said. “He says that he’s a man of the people and he opposes class distinctions.  What a guy! We are so lucky!” He paused to consider Constanza’s pregnancy.  “Did you get sick this morning?”

“Yes, it was awful for about an hour, but nobody saw me. When I felt better I started looking through a bride’s book to pick out a gown.”

“Has he called the church yet?”

“Yes.  He left a message for the Rector to call him to see what Saturdays are open in November, after the election.  A lot depends on whether he wins.  He thinks he definitely will win, but that means he’ll have endless meetings, making party-member appointments, and so on and on. Still, he promised me a Saturday morning – if possible.  He says not to tell anyone until he’s sure about the date.  Oh, and because of all the election excitement, he says we’ll have a smaller reception than we had originally wanted. He prefers that the reception be held at the hacienda for just the families, or else a bunch of drunken politicians will come and try to talk to him about getting jobs.”

Miguel did not tell her what Juan Ruiz-Montoya had said.  But there was something disturbing about the downsizing of the wedding and reception.  At the seminar, Robles spoke about the wedding, but he had smiled at Miguel the way politicians fake a smile when they look at slobbering babies. And, aside from Señora Robles’ personal request that he locate a vile portrait of her that Marc had painted because, she had said, Marc wanted to blackmail her husband for some reason, nobody in the Robles family or circle of friends had ever contacted him.  Yes, Ruiz was obnoxious.  Was he also wrong? The hazy doubts Miguel had been having gathered into a threatening suspicion.  And judging from José’s response, the portrait was still in the attic. He put aside thoughts of the portrait. Costanza was in his arms and he loved her beyond considerations of family and friends.

They made love for more than hour and would have lingered beyond that accept that a light went on in the hacienda’s second floor.  She pulled away from him. “They may be checking on me,” she said.  “I have to go!”

“Why won’t they let you spend time with me?  We’re supposed to be engaged!”

Constanza didn’t answer. She brushed the hay from her dress and began to run towards the house.

“Wait!” he called. “Give your mother a message.  That painting she was interested in was destroyed.  She’ll understand.”