As the tourist season ramps up, Kristen Maroney, a shop owner in the Guatemalan coastal village of Cahuita, is haunted by the fate of the innocent Adrian Petters, who has fallen into idle drunkenness because he can't find work. Small town Cahuita 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 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 to help her sort through the tangle.
*************************** The third night, Kristen called Liz after dinner to ask if she could come by. Liz’s voice sounded off, but she said yes, and offered dessert: coconut pudding topped with fresh pineapple. Kristen had been eating healthily at The Beachcomber and she was ripe for a treat, so he and Diego made their way over with a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to accompany the pudding. It was a pricy wine that she’d been saving for who-knows-what, and she knew that Liz had a weakness for it. Liz had been forlorn since Bernice’s disaffection and Kristen wanted to do something for her. Though Liz never complained, the sadness was always there, in her unfocused gaze and her lack of enthusiasm for her usual pleasures. Diego charged up the stairs to her veranda, despite his bad leg. Kristen didn’t eat much meat, so when he smelled whatever it was that Ana had grilled that evening, he became a skillful tripod, scrabbling up the steps in a crab-like dance. And indeed, Liz had saved pork scraps for him.
When Kristen saw Liz’s face, she struggled to keep the alarm off her own. Her lips and cheeks seemed to have stiffened into a bizarre caricature of her usual autumnal beauty, and her eyes were red from crying. Neither she nor Ana would meet Kristen’s eyes, and Diego stood looking back and forth between them as if at a tennis match. For a moment Kristen tried to join the charade and act as if everything were okay.
“You spoil my dog, Liz,” she managed. “What I give him pales in comparison.”
“I expect he’ll forgive you.” She sketched a smile that didn’t make it to her eyes. “How are you doing with your grandmother?”
“A thrill a minute. She landed on Adam for not inviting her to a boxing workout with a hotel guest. I won’t tell you exactly what she said.”
Ana chuckled. “It’s not hard to guess. Your Gram has the libido of a teenager.” She poured the wine and distributed dishes of pudding. They ate and drank in silence. Diego licked the plate that had held his scraps.
“Ana,” Kristen said finally, “forgive me, but there’s something I need to talk to Liz about.”
“What’s so private? It’s about what’s going on at the casino, right? I mean, that’s all people in town are talking about.”
Kristen didn’t bite. She wanted to know what was going on with Liz, and, as for her own problems, maybe people were talking and maybe they weren’t, but in any case, gossip wasn’t the issue. “Please,” she said. Ana picked up her pudding dish and wine glass, glared at them for a beat, and then flounced into the kitchen.
“She’ll get over it,” Liz said.
“I hate to hurt her feelings, but I don’t want to feed the rumor mill.”
“I know.” She waited. Liz never pressed, and rarely did she open what she suspected would be a serious conversation. She didn’t need to, because her air of expectation was palpable, even as she sat with quietly folded hands.
“Liz, what’s wrong?” Kristen asked.
“Never mind,” Liz replied in a way that told Kristen the subject was off limits. “Let’s talk about you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Kristen said.
“No, I’m not,” Liz replied. “You wanted to talk to me?”
Kristen could see that whatever was troubling Liz, she wasn't going to talk about it. So she said, “Well, you remember I told you that Adam had been working out with a hotel guest? Boxing, to be specific.”
“It was true as far as it went. At least that’s how he explained his swollen hands and his sprained wrist. But he had no bruises or marks anywhere else. He said they wore helmets and chest protectors, but still, it seemed odd. He often works out with a punching bag in the gym, and I’m wondering if this time he just went nuts, all by himself.”
Liz refilled their wine glasses. “And have you an explanation for such an event?” she asked.
Kristen took a big sip. “We had a major row that morning. After Ana talked about CAGA* officials showing up at the airport, I asked Adam what was going on. Our conflicting schedules prevented us from speaking in person, 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 visit, and now I wonder. Maybe he’s in trouble or something.”
"I have an unsettled feeling about the casino as well. I can’t think why, but it’s been on my mind.”
Kristen waited to see if there was more, but Liz sketched a rolling motion with her hand, meaning that she should continue. “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 are of course 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. Like honest slots, balanced roulette wheels, and properly weighted dice. When they intervene, it’s about issues that give the industry a bad name.”
“As if that ship hadn’t sailed,” Liz muttered. She got up to clear their plates and got some fresh mango slices and more pudding from the kitchen.
“Right,” Kristen said when she returned. “But I’m talking about problems like the cocaine dealing at the Blue Moon in Guatemala City last year. It was CAGA* that caught that one. Management paid their card dealers to snitch on the drug pushers, which worked, and they supposedly flushed the casino clean. I can’t help but think that some people worked both the snitching and the drugs, but never mind.”
“I would say that’s a good guess.” Liz said.
“The thing is, Adam said CAGA* is auditing his books. And I didn’t find anything like that in their charter or in the newspaper articles that I read. There was one case where skimming was uncovered, but that was largely thanks to casino management. Why would CAGA* want to see his books?”
It was hard for Kristen to think straight. Nothing came through clearly; it was as though a butter churn were folding her thoughts over on top of one another. Dazed, she fell mute. Adam didn’t usually lie, so CAGA* probably was vetting the financials. But why? He had a reputation as a good business manager. He was careful about details. He made his goals. Sometimes he even caught things the accountant missed. Suddenly, the ocean breeze felt clammy on Kristen’s face. The only situation in which Adam wouldn’t tell her the whole story would be one where he himself was involved. It didn’t seem possible, but there was no denying the sinking feeling in her stomach.
One thing about Liz, no one should ever ask her a question that they didn’t want answered. So, counting on her forthrightness, Kristen said, “Putting aside that you don’t know what’s going on, what do you suspect?”
Liz turned her level, blue-eyed gaze on Kristen. “Well then, I suspect that dirty money has found its way into the casino.”
Kristen felt the air whoosh from her lungs. She’d dealt with bad stuff before, but this was different. This wasn’t about a friend who’d gotten into a jam, this was about Adam, her sometimes thuggish, straight arrow, complicated honey bunch. She stared out at the view from Liz’s veranda. She sipped the leftover wine, though she no longer noticed the perfect contours of the Chateau d’Yquem. At some point, Liz reached over and patted her hand. Her throat tightened, and tears dribbled down her cheeks. Then they more than dribbled. She dabbed at them with a napkin and Liz handed her some tissues, so she could blow her nose. At the sound of her honking, Diego put his paw on her knee and whined. When she looked at Liz, her friend had welled up too, whether because of her own troubles or Kristen’s, the latter wasn’t sure. She thought what a sorry picture the three of them made, a sort of tableau. Anti-paradise in the tropics. __________________________________ * The Caribbean Area Gaming Authority