Rick Sage rides his Harley down Mexico's Baja peninsula to the desert-by-the-blue-sea oasis of La Paz, a peaceful place with incredible sunsets.
Needing a rest from investigating big-city crime, he finds love and refuge beneath orange trees and lipstick-red bougainvillea.
When his girl friend, Antiay, is murdered, turning his sunsets to blood red, Sage rides his rumbling Harley along the Cardon cactus lined highway, crossing the peninsula from the Sea of Cortez to Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast.
Uncovering a scorpions' nest of high-stakes crime infesting the peaceful façade of La Paz, he also begins to unravel Antiay's involvement and her not-so-innocent secret past.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Murdoch Hughes has lived his adult life along the West Coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. However if he were to call a place home it would be Seattle, walking her misty streets at night with the ghosts of her past, while sipping the dark espresso of her present, and scenting the seaweed and cedar dreams of the area's long Native American history.
He lived for six years on Unalaska Island, in the Aleutian Islands, working as a fisherman and a marine engineer. Then he sailed for two years with his wife Jan on their thirty-two foot sailboat, Hunter Star, down the Pacific Coast and into the Sea of Cortez, exploring the many islands and coves of Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Swallowing the anchor and moving ashore, they lived for four more years in the beautiful, peaceful city of La Paz, near the tip of the Baja peninsula. It was there he wrote his two Baja and Mexico based Rick Sage Mysteries: Murder In La Paz, and Death Mask of the Jaguar.
Murdoch is presently living and writing in the Seattle area.
"FIFTY-SEVEN," I SHOUTED, watching Antiay's naked body submerge and resurface as she turned to begin lap fifty-eight. I was counting laps for her as she swam a hundred in the pool, but I was having a hard time keeping track, being mesmerized by her body sliding through blue water with the wake closing over the tan lines on her buttocks. And those turns...with the quick flashes of places I had spent the afternoon sliding in and along and through. It was enough to make a guy write poetry, although the lines I came up with wouldn't make it past a congressional censor. What the heck, this is Mexico. "Fifty-uh-eight," I stammered. Censors be damned. This was pure poetry.
It had been a wonderful siesta. We had carried the mattress out to the deck overlooking the pool, surrounded on three sides by an arbor of purple, pink, and red bougainvillea; with roses, jasmine, and honeysuckle tossed in, and topped off with newly ripened grapes we'd picked and fed each other during breaks. If there is a heaven it's got to be—
"Sixty-nine," I called out, a little late on the turn.
Antiay stopped and swam toward me, laughing. "Rick, since when does sixty-nine come after fifty-eight?" She slapped the water, and cool spray splashed me.
"It's the only number I could think of."
"That's okay. It's a good number to end on. There's no way I'm doing a hundred today; you wore me out. Besides, it's late and I have to go."
I jumped up, dove in with a tight turn and swam back to her. She threw her arms around my neck, and as we kissed I released my grip on the edge of the pool and we slid under together.
She came up laughing. "Rick, I love you," she said, her eyes twinkling. "But you're making it awful hard to leave."
"Yes, I know. I'm always the last one out of the movie theater, and I love reading trilogies because they last so long. And you, I just can't get enough of."
She boosted herself up on the side of the pool. "I'm sorry Rick, I hate to go, too. But I have to meet someone and I don't want to be late." She stood up, grabbed the bath towel from the deck chair and dried herself. The sun was low in the sky and it was already starting to cool off. She wrapped the first towel around her, picked up a second and hung her head over, drying her long blond hair.
I watched. "Yeah well, that's another thing. We've known each other for months and I still don't know that much about you. I mean, I know you, but I don't know how you became you. I'm supposed to be a detective, so how do you imagine that makes me feel? You won't tell me who you're going to see? Maybe it's some other guy."
"Why, you are a detective, aren't you? This afternoon was just a warm-up. I'm really quite excited and I can't wait to get to that big, beautiful hunk of man I'm going to meet."
I leaped out of the pool and went for her. "We detectives have ways of dealing with people like you," I said as she made like a tamer of wild beasts, stretching her towel out to snap me. I feinted, she missed, and I took her in my arms. We were both laughing, but the sounds faded to smiles as we responded to each other once again. We kissed, but she pushed herself away, her eyes sad.
"Rick, I'm sorry. I'll tell you everything, but it has to be when I'm ready. It's very difficult, for me as much as it is for you. I'm still not over it...I...I have to work it out in my own way. But soon, I promise you, soon." She pulled me close and kissed me again, her lips seasoned with the taste of her tears.
"I'm sorry, Antiay," I said, leaning back so I could see her blue eyes. "I promised no questions. It's the bad habits of a private detective. I guess I don't know when I've got it made. Go ahead and punch me in the nose."
She smiled. "No, I wouldn't do that. It's battered enough. I love this nose," and she kissed it as I wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I really do have to get dressed."
"Okay hon, I'll see you later." I pulled on my jeans as she disappeared into the house. Then I walked to the poolside bar and mixed myself a Cuba Libre.
I was sipping it by the pool when she appeared in the doorway for an instant and waved. "Goodbye, Rick. I'm late. I'll see you for dinner."
"Don't say goodbye, say hasta luego," I replied, but she was already gone. "Never, ever say goodbye," I whispered to the honeysuckle and the blood-red bougainvillea.
I WAS IN an extremely good mood as I parked my Harley near the restaurant where we planned to have dinner. Walking the two blocks to Antiay's apartment, I whistled part of a Mexican love song that kept replaying in my mind.
We'd had a full afternoon of great sex, and soon we'd be eating lobsters as we rubbed knees and watched the boats riding at anchor in La Paz harbor. What more could a man desire? Ah, Mexico. Beautiful, sweet Mexico.
Her apartment was really just a room in an old rundown hotel, and I'd been trying to get her to move in with me. But she valued her independence and, to tell the truth, so did I. Besides, though the room was cheap, it was adequate, and on her hourly wage as an English teacher she couldn't afford anything else. It was obvious she'd once had plenty of money because poverty didn't affect her like it does someone who's endured it for years. It was freedom and "being on her own," she said she valued most right now. Her beautiful, blue eyes lit up when she talked about her freedom, and I knew she'd escaped from some oppressive situation, though she never wanted to talk about her past. I figured it was a bad marriage, but she never said and I tried not to ask. Besides, the timing was perfect. Right now we both wanted to live and love in the present.
I noticed the unmarked police car parked next to the Exquisito hot dog stand, where every night, Alberto, the sleepy vendor, staked out the corner in front of the hotel. Working two or three jobs to support a large family, he grabbed what winks he could, nodding off between customers. The aroma got to me and I thought about grabbing a quick dog for an appetizer. I glanced back at the police car. It was a white Ford with a two-way radio antenna, and something about the way it had been hastily parked aroused the detective in me. I sensed something was wrong and my stomach churned. The two stories of hotel rooms were built around an inner courtyard, and I hurried past the unoccupied check-in desk, looking up at Antiay's second-story room.
My heart skipped and I felt dizzy when I saw her open door and the manager standing on the mezzanine next to it, staring down at me horror-stricken, like he'd seen something terrible.
I took the stairs two at a time and ran to the open doorway. The manager grabbed my arm as he shouted, "No, Señor, no!"
I shook him off and stepped into the doorway, where two cops standing inside blocked me. I pushed past, handing them my wallet. I guess they decided it would be more interesting to watch my reaction than it would be to try to stop me.
I felt sick, but I tried to act cool, like the professional I was supposed to be. I even tried to pretend it was just another crime scene.
But the cool melted when I saw the body. She was face down on the bed. Not exactly face down...because when I pushed aside her blonde hair, there was no face.
One of the cops shouted something in Spanish that was probably their version of some cop thing like, don't touch the evidence, but they needn't have bothered. I stumbled backward. My hand found the telephone and dialed Freddy's number all by itself.
"Freddy, it's me Rick," I said into the mouthpiece when I heard his voice. "Listen! I need your help...I'm at Antiay's apartment...she's been shot...she's dead...get over here right away, will you? I need an interpreter."
He muttered something about "hanging in there," and I mumbled back, "Yeah, I'll try—gracias."
I hung up the damn phone. Slammed it down, without meaning to, and the loud bang startled me. My brain was sending my body confused signals. I felt weak and my muscles were over-compensating or something. Sweat streamed off me, but I felt cold as a margarita. My dry lips tasted the salt of tears.
I had to get a hold of myself. I'd seen dead bodies before, and besides, the body wasn't her. The body was just another murder victim—an object, like an expensive piece of broken furniture.
Involuntarily, I glanced again at the corpse on the bed, hoping it wouldn't be there.
It was there all right, and my stomach churned buttermilk. My legs stumbled weak-kneed to the open window and I puked my guts out. I heard the cops laughing behind me, and I wanted to choke them, but instead I clutched the windowsill, retching some more, struggling to understand what was happening.
This was a nightmare. Time seemed all out of whack. Could it have been less than two hours since we'd been together? How could it be that Antiay and I, now, were Antiay and I, then? We were supposed to be having dinner right now. This couldn't be us.
Vomit dripped down my chin and the detective in me started to take over. Oh yeah, always the damn detective. I wanted it all to be a mistake, but stumbling to the window to puke, I'd noticed the silver bracelet I'd given her...on the wrist dangling from the left side of the blood-soaked mattress.
Someone handed me a rag and I wiped my mouth. But I had no strength. The cool breeze felt good. Maybe if I closed my eyes...no, that was bad—the red was too much like blood. I stared through a dying palm tree outside the window. Stall, stall. You need time to recover. It's just another dead body. Forget her, she's not here. There'll be time for pain later. Think of something else. Anything. What am I doing here? Jesus I'm tired. Yeah, that's for sure...real tired.
A tired private eye, lately of Los Angeles. I was especially tired of murder, which is why I moved here. A nice quiet little town. A perfect place to do nothing but spend time in the sun, reading and maybe writing again. Scribble poems and sip margaritas by the pool. Let old wounds heal. Get a tan for the first time in my life, because in my line, florescent tubes are as close as you come to the light of day. The alley cat's last howl just before dawn is your sweet goodnight...Oh God! Antiay!
I mentally shook myself. Don't think about it! Put one thought in front of the other and keep moving....
Yeah I was tired. Tired of the color red. Blood red. Most people don't know blood comes in shades. Seeping onto a white shirt from a lung shot, it's bright red. But before the victim in death's landscape stops jiggling, the red begins to darken until, say the body isn't found for three days, the blood dries to almost a dark brown. In the bad light of cheap hotels anyway.
I call it "still life in a pool," as in pool of blood, but it'll never be hung in some mansion of the rich and bored. That's because they paint their own bloody landscapes. Only with a different medium. They're painted in the rainbow light of crystal chandeliers, and the canvas is the plushest carpet money can buy.
But dead is dead, and I was tired of the rich, too. They're always shocked when reality intrudes on their fantasies. Very shocked indeed when I'm the reality; two hundred pounds of muscle well-packed on a six-foot three-inch frame, holding a chrome-plated forty-five cannon in one hand and dangling a set of chrome-plated handcuffs in the other. It's funny, because you could see the process in their faces. Like a cartoon double take. One second reality hits, and the next second they're trying to turn it back into fantasy. The handcuffs become Tiffany bracelets, and I'm the butler and would I please get this mess cleaned up. There's a good tip in it for me.
Sure it's a cliché, but I couldn't resist telling them, with a smile, "There are some things money can't buy."
One day I realized even my sense of humor was getting jaded. So I came down here to La Paz, a quiet Mexican town near the tip of Baja, because some jerk told me it was too small for big-time crime. Yeah sure! Tell that to the blonde in the still life in a pool. The blonde who just an hour ago washed off my hot scent in a cold shower, took a swim and walked out my front door, forever. Like an unfinished poem.
Murder doesn't rhyme for me.
Strange the things that run through your mind at a time like this. Like poetry—
"Are you all right Rick?"
"Rick, are you okay, mi amigo?"
Like blood-red sunsets—
"Rick, hey, snap out of it, amigo, this is—"
"Leave me alone," I snarled. I didn't want to snap out of it...to turn away from the window...from that dying palm tree out there swaying in the last gasp of tonight's Coromuel, the dry southerly wind blowing the heat off this desert town by the sea. Blowing like the breeze from the fly-specked ceiling fan drying blood which once flowed beneath soft skin. Blood-red, like the haze descending over me....
"Rick! This is serious shit here! These are federales...very serious federales!" the voice hissed in my ear. "They want some answers, and they want them now!"
The far-away voice I was hearing belonged to my friend, Fast Freddy. And that meant this wasn't some bad dream. Real life is scarier than dreams and much bloodier. It takes years before you no longer puke. Tonight was the first time in a long time for me, and not wanting it on their spit-shined boots, the federales had backed off to give me some time to recover in the cool breeze of the Coromuel.
But now the dogs were snarling—backed up by machine-gun questions in Spanish, directed at my pal, who had the unlucky job of Mexican interpreter to a gringo murder suspect. Their questions were directed to Freddy, but aimed at a bull's-eye they'd already painted on me.
"They want to know why you killed her." Fast Freddy interpreted, a tremble developing in his usually Kahlua-smooth voice, as he edged away from me.
I couldn't blame him for wanting some distance between us. Don't stand under a tree in a lightning storm is damned sound advice. Still, this tree had weathered a lot of storms.
Cops were cops, though, even nasty ones like these two brutes. I knew from experience, when a cop goes for the jugular—it means they smell blood. I had to show them some red meat other than my own or I was headed for a grungy cell. In this country, there's no revolving-door system. It's easy enough to get thrown in, but you pay hell getting out. They call it Napoleonic justice. Guilty until proven innocent. Once arrested, that is.
So I stood tall and gave them my Very-Important-Gringo look. Insulted, mad as hell, and upset at the death of a close friend. I'd seen the movie dozens of times. I had to play Bogart under interrogation. I looked them in the eye and coolly spoke to Freddy.
"Tell them I didn't kill her. That we were close friends, and I am a close friend of the governor. In fact, I was with him tonight while this crime was taking place, and he will vouch for me. Tell them also that the governor will be unhappy if they waste time arresting a friend when they should be looking for the murderer. Tell them I won't leave town because I want to find the killer more than they do. Tell them I am very upset and tired, but I know nothing about this crime, so I would like to go home and rest. If they wish, I will make a statement tomorrow. Tell them to arrest me or let me go."
A moment of silence passed as Fast Freddy placed his bet. But when he finally interpreted my speech the tremble in his voice was gone and it sounded like pure, sweet, Don Pedro Kahlua once again. I knew then I had at least a draw, which was as good as a win.
When Freddy finished, there was a pause as the dogs pulled back from my throat. They exchanged a glance and a shrug before the one on my right growled. But in English this time, tricky fellow.
"Okay Señor, you go for now. Do not leave town please. We may wish to speak with you more."
"Bueno." I shrugged and walked out the door. Fast Freddy followed saying, "Muy amable, muy amable, gracias," to the officers as he passed.
Muy amable means very kind in Spanish. I didn't argue the point, but very kind was not the way I'd describe those guys. And very kind was definitely not how they were going to treat me if they made a point of contacting the governor right away. I was banking on the lateness of the hour and the reluctance of the policiá to disturb a high official who might be drunk in front of his satellite TV. But it was a gamble. High officials don't like to be surprised by cold, hard facts in the morning, either. Particularly if that cold, hard fact was a corpse with an international incident tag on her toe.
So Freddy and I two-stepped down the exit stairs and out the door while I counted the lies and half-lies I'd told the federales, and schemed how I could juggle them all into some kind of story that might hold together better than a soggy taco.
Freddy jogged beside me as I headed to the Malecón, the stone-wall street along the beach, where I knew one of the few working pay phones in La Paz was located. He knew we needed to put some space between us and the federales. Freddy was quick about things like that. But if he'd known our freedom depended on someone at the governor's Palace putting through a late night call from a gringo, he'd have booked town, not stopping this side of Los Angeles. Luckily he didn't ask.