As the tourist season ramps up, Kristen Maroney, a shop owner in tropical Costa del Oro, is haunted by the fate of the innocent Adrian Petters, who has fallen into idle drunkenness because he can't find work. Small town Placencia has blacklisted him, tarring him with the same brush as they do his brother, a corrupt lawyer who has been convicted of real estate fraud.. Kristen finds Adrian a job, only to stumble upon a covert plot hatched by an unscrupulous corporation. The ruthless conglomerate plans to dump quantities of raw sewage into the Caribbean via the wastewater treatment plant that it has contracted to build, thus destroying the fragile coastal ecosystem. To discourage Kristen from interfering, and to punish her casino manager boyfriend, Adam, the company ensnares Adam in a money laundering scheme and kidnaps Kristen. Desperate to figure a way to stop the powerful corporate moguls, Kristen calls on her writer friend Liz, who is her next door neighbor and confidant. Liz's lover, an African woman named Arafat,has been forcibly removed to her native Chad, and Liz is herself in dire straights. ***************************
When Buster and I got to Liz’s house, her housekeeper Ana was nowhere to be found and Liz was stirring a pot of soup on the kitchen stove. Her skin looked grey, and she wore a cotton shirt dotted with food stains. The shirt was partially tucked into a pair of dowdy pull-on jeans that I wouldn't have thought Liz could own. But the house looked neat, and she’d managed to put together a pot of conch stew that smelled delicious. I’d brought two six packs of cold Antigua, just in case she’d forgotten the beer, which she had. I cracked open two bottles and Liz drank half of hers in one gulp.
She stopped stirring her pot, and picked up a wrinkled envelope from the kitchen table. From it she extracted a small, folded sheet of lined paper of the sort that school children use to practice writing. She unfolded the paper and showed me a heart drawn in pencil. Nothing else, just the heart.
“Youssouf came by again today," she said, referring to Arafat's uncle. "There’s no news, but I think he feels useful acting as a go-between for me and Arafat.”
“It must be a relief to get the heart?” I asked . “Would you be relieved to hear from Adam if someone in Africa were about to cut his penis off without benefit of anesthesia?” she snapped.
I said nothing, just got soup bowls and spoons from a cabinet and set the table on the veranda with its breathtaking view of the rainforest and the sea beyond.
In lieu of an apology Liz said, “So, there was a reason you wanted to see me last night, and it wasn’t my impeccable make-up."
I laughed. “If I were gay, I wouldn’t be coming over for your make up, love.”
“And if my grandmother had wheels she’s be a bicycle. What’s going on?”
“Well, you remember I told you a few nights ago that Adam had been working out with a hotel guest? Boxing, to be specific.”
“Well, it was true as far as it went. At least that how he explained his swollen hands and sprained wrist. But there were no bruises or marks anywhere else. He said they wore helmets and chest protectors, but still, it seemed odd. He works out with a punching bag in the gym and I’m wondering if he just went nuts all by himself.”
Liz opened two more bottles of beer and we sat on the veranda, where Buster took up his position of suppliant, head in Liz’s lap.
“And have you an explanation for such an event?”
“We'd fought that morning. After Ana talked about the CAGA* officials at the airport, I asked Adam what was going on. Our opposing schedules prevented us from speaking in person, at least right away, so I called him the next morning. We fought on the phone, and it was awful. He basically told me to buzz off.”
“That doesn’t sound like Adam.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know. He’s not himself; he’s tense and preoccupied. I didn’t want to make too much of it, but then I heard about the CAGA visitoors, and I wondered. Maybe he’s in some kind of trouble.”
“I have an unsettled feeling about the casino as well. I can’t think why, but it was on my mind before Arafat got kidnapped.
“I went on the internet to find out what CAGA actually does. Their job seems to be to keep casinos clear of vices that are illegal in the host country. As opposed to, say, off track betting and prostitution, which of course are legal here. More like drug dealing and the child sex trade. They publish standards and regulations, of course, but it’s mostly about technical stuff that the casinos are supposed to take care of themselves. Like honest slots, balanced roulette wheels, and properly weighted dice. When they intervene, it’s about issues that give the industry a bad name.”
“That train has left the station,” Liz muttered.
“Right. But I’m talking about problems like the cocaine dealing at the Blue Moon in San Jose last year. It was CAGA that caught that one. So, management paid its card dealers to snitch, which supposedly flushed the casino clean. I can’t help but think that some people worked both the snitching and the drug dealing, but never mind.”
“I would say that’s a good guess.” We sat in silence eating our stew for a while and then Liz took our bowls to the kitchen and came back with plates of rum cake, a bottle of wine, and glasses.
“The thing is, Adam said that CAGA is auditing his books," I finally said.. Yet, I didn’t find anything like that in their charter, nor in various newspaper articles that I found. There was one case where skimming was uncovered, but that was largely thanks to casino management. Why would CAGA want to see Adam's books?”
It was hard to think straight. I felt as though a butter churn were folding my thoughts over on themselves, so I stopped talking. Liz waited.
Adam's not much of a liar, so CAGA probably was vetting the financials. But why? Adam had a reputation as an ace business manager. He was careful about details; sometimes he even caught things the accountant missed. And then, suddenly, the sea breeze turned clammy on my skin. The only reason Adam wouldn’t tell me the whole truth was if he himself were involved. It didn’t seem possible, but there was no denying the sinking feeling in my stomach.
One thing about Liz, you should never ask her a question that you don’t want answered. So, counting on her forthrightness, I said, “Liz, I know you don’t know what’s going on, but please tell me, what do you suspect?”
She turned her level, blue-eyed gaze on me. “Well then, I suspect that dirty money has found its way into the casino.” Air whoosed from my lungs. I’d dealt with bad stuff before, but this was new. This wasn’t about a friend who’d gotten into a jam, this was about Adam, my sometimes thuggish, straight arrow, complicated honey bunch. I stared unseeingly at the view. I sipped the wine Liz and I had switched to with dessert, though I no longer noticed the bouquet or the perfect contours typical of a Chateau d’Yquem. At some point, Liz reached over and patted my hand. My throat tightened and tears dribbled down my cheeks. Then they rolled. I dabbed at them with a napkin and Liz handed me some tissues so I could blow my nose. At the sound of my honking, Buster nudged my arm with his wet nose. I looked at Liz, and she had welled up too, whether because of her own pain or mine, I wasn’t sure. I thought what a sorry picture the three of us made, a living tableau of an anti-paradise. _________________________________ * Caribbean Area Gaming Authority