At ten o’clock the next morning, accompanied by Leslie with her mini-cam hidden in her bag, the new X Dames surfing champion Marcia Hobgood wandered into the office of Sayulita Development Company and asked to speak with Ruben Dario. Dario had gone to Puerto Vallarta, according to snarky, self-important Violeta, sexy young high-heeled office manager, and so they met with Wally Townsend instead. Lucy knocked back a fresh carrot, celery, and ginger juice while waiting in El Juicy Internet Café across the street, watching. Lucy had sent an email to Slope Tweed at seven am, before her surfing lesson with Marcia commenced. She’d ridden six waist-high waves, done a couple of decent bottom turns, and even shuffled up and tried a little nose-riding. Now it was down to business.
Fifteen minutes after entering the office, the two women emerged with Townsend. He was around fifty, a heavy-set white guy with a permanent terra cotta tan, thinning slicked-back hair, and a taste for gaudy Hawaiian shirts. He’d been around all week, but seemed a marginal character, the resident gringo knucklehead in the plot as it developed thus far. Now they were going to use him.
The three of them climbed into a red SUV and drove off. Lucy jumped onto her borrowed-from-the-hotel, fat-tired beach bicycle and followed them up the street, eating dust all the way. They went halfway around the plaza, turned right, and headed down a narrow side street jammed with parked cars. Three blocks later they stopped. Lucy caught up to them just as Townsend unlocked a gate and they stepped into a property hidden behind a high white wall.
They went in. She waited a minute, then approached the gate. It let into a lush, beautifully-landscaped yard, with myriad fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and small fountains. Flowing water and birds made sweet, soothing sounds, and butterflies fluttered amidst the flowers. A stone path led through the secret glade to a charming little one-storey white stucco house with a red tile roof and a small covered verandah: a tiny jewel of a dwelling, in perfect condition. The lushly-planted grounds extended around both sides of the building, and seemed to go on beyond it for quite a ways. Lucy had a quick look around the yard, then dodged out the gate as Townsend emerged from the house with Marcia and Leslie. Lucy jumped on her bike, waited, then followed them back down the road. They returned to the realty office and after a few moments the two women came out. They gathered at the internet café.
Leslie started. “I don’t think Townsend was in on it, since he seems so utterly amazed at his own good fortune that he can hardly contain himself.”
“In on what? What do you mean?” Lucy asked.
“That was Sandra Darwin’s house,” Marcia said grimly. “She had just recently bought it, in partnership with Dario and Townsend. And now they’re going to tear down that beautiful house and rip up all those trees and flowers and build a three-story 14-unit condominium project on the site. Townsend thought maybe I wanted to put my 25 grand in prize money as a ten per cent deposit on a pre-build price of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a two-bedroom unit, possibly with a territorial view. He’s sure I’ll be able to double my money once they get the plans in place and start marketing the units. Even better I don’t take the money across the border I don’t pay taxes. Yadda yadda yadda. It was an offer I could refuse.”
Lucy considered things. “I guess the question is where did Sandra fit into this deal? I know she was concerned about her living situation, but how was she involved?” she said. “We need to find out who was the seller and what were the terms.”
“I asked Townsend already,” Marcia said. “Just playing curious, you know? He said the seller had requested that they not reveal his name.”
“Did he say why?”
“He said it was a matter of privacy.”
“Hmm,” said Lucy. “I think he’s full of shit. Well, listen girls, I’m going to ride back up there and sniff around a bit, OK? I’ll see you back at the suite later.” They headed off to the beach while Lucy jumped on her bike and rode up to the property.
She went past the house, turned at the next corner, bounced down a bumpy little alley, and turned again. She rolled a few yards down the street, to where she would be directly behind the house—and here she discovered another pretty little house of about the same vintage, only this one did not have a wall around it. Instead, in a somewhat scruffy yard chickens pecked at the dirt, a trio of fat brown goats ate weeds, a single cow stood still, lines of laundry fluttered in the faint breeze, and three small boys dashed about underfoot. A Mexican woman roughly Lucy’s age was taking shirts and underwear down from one of the clotheslines. Lucy approached. “Buenas Dias,” she said.
“Hola,” said the woman, and gave her a smile. “How are you?” she said in lightly- accented English.
“You speak English?” Lucy said, a little surprised.
“Yes. I have been studying it with my friend, but she is–” she stopped, and her face fell.
“Your friend? You mean–” Intuiting, Lucy looked past her, and past her house, to where her yard flowed, unfenced, into what was clearly the back yard of the house beyond. Sandra’s house.
“Si. Yes. Sandra. I teach her Spanish, she teach me English. We were–like sisters. Friends for many years.” She stopped again, obviously overcome.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “I just met her and…I am trying to find out something about what happened to her. Do you know who owns the house she lived in?”
“The owner? Yes but of course. It is my father who owns that house and this, where I live with my family.”
“Your father. Is he here? Could I speak with him?”
“He is fishing, like he is every day. He will be back in–” she looked up at the sun. “One hour more, maybe two.”
“Does he speak English?”
“No but I will help you talk with him. And my husband who is with him also speaks English a little bit like me.”
“I seem to forget my Spanish as fast I learn it,” Lucy said. “But I keep trying.”
“No problem, Miss–”
“Lucy. Lucy Ripken.”
“And I am Mariela Pastor.” They shook hands.
“Muchas Gracias, Mariela. See you later.”
Lucy found Terry and Leslie sitting in a coffee shop on the plaza, fending off the chattery advances of a couple of shave-headed, ear-ringed, nipple-ringed, tongue-pierced, and heavily-tattooed aging Dutch hippie men. They shooed the Dutchmen away and Lucy gave them the latest news. They then gave her theirs: they were scheming to turn the thing into a two hour reality-based movie of the week, and Leslie thought she and Bobby might even get one of the broadcast networks to bite, if they could push the Outside Network into a second slot by guaranteeing them syndication rights if the series followed. The story was weird enough, she figured, in its evolution from reality-based womens’ sports competition to real life murder mystery. If that’s what it was. They sat for a minute, watching the tourists and locals wander by, mulling the decidedly strange, post-postmodern nature of what they were doing: investigating a crime while making a movie out of the investigation. Or was it a documentary at this point? A docudrama?
Then back into action. Lucy took Leslie and her mini-cam with her on the second trip to Mariela’s house, where she found her in the company of two men, a slender, well-built white-haired guy who looked to be pushing seventy, and a heavyset man of forty or so, with longish hair and a bandito’s mustache. They sat on the porch steps gutting fish at high speed, and throwing the innards to a pair of small black dogs, who caught and gulped them down as fast as the men could throw them. Unable to resist, Leslie turned on the camcorder and started shooting.
The men stood, wiping their hands on blood-stained t-shirts and ragged cut-offs. Lucy and Mariela did the introductions, and Lucy then explained that they wanted to film the discussion. Leslie kept filming. The men—Mariela’s father was Jose Luis Gonzalez, and her husband was Pancho Pastor—wanted to know why. Lucy hesitated, and chose to be blunt. She explained, in English, that they were not sure that Sandra had died by accident and so they were looking into any reasons anyone would have to do her harm, and wanted to make a record of everything they discovered. Mariela quickly translated for her father, who said something back rapidly in Spanish. When he stopped, Mariela said, “You mean to say that you think someone caused her to die, yes? This is what my father asks.”
“Yes,” said Lucy. “That is what I think is possible.”
“Why do you think this?” Mariela asked, and then turned to her father and spoke briefly. Her father, Senor Jose Luis Gonzalez, had seemed a taciturn man to that point. But now, with a determined look on his face, he began speaking, and as he worked his way into his argument he grew more animated and excited. Clearly he was getting something serious off his chest. It took him five minutes, a non-stop tirade. And then he fell silent and sat down, exhausted.
“He says many things, Lucy,” Mariela said. “My father and my uncle Leon helped their father, my grandfather, built these two houses, and Leon lived there in the house behind our house for most of his life. He never married so after he died five years ago, we rented it out. Sandra was our first and only tenant, and lived there these five years. We became friends because she was a very good gardener. So when she came to us with a proposal to buy the house and land we were happy to think about it. It turned out that she did not have the money to buy it, but she had found some partners to finance it for her. We made a deal with them that we would sell them the house and lot for a good price, but only with the condition that Sandra is able to stay there for as long as she. We did not want to sell the place to any other person. This is what Sandra asked for. When she wants to go, we told them, we will need the money and you can do your project. They said that was fine. They paid a down payment of fifty thousand dollars, with the rest of the money—two hundred thousand dollars US—they were going to pay when Sandra left.” Her eyes filled with tears. “But then she died in the surfing contest–”
“Her rights to the place go to her family, or back to you, right?”
“No, they go to the partners. That was part of it. We never imagined her dying. We hardly even talked about this part of the contract. She was only twenty-seven years old.”
Her husband finally spoke, in heavily-accented English. “That cabron Ruben Dario and his American partners plan to rip all the trees out and tear the house down and make some big ugly condos over there, and sell them all. They are planning to start this summer. We get a lot of money that we don’t need and they are going to ruin that land forever. I have seen what development brings. Our street will never be the same.”
“Well Lucy, I guess we’ve got our motive,” Leslie said, her voice tinged with sadness as they trudged back down the road a few moments later. “And I’ve got some more great footage.”
“But how are we ever going to be able to prove anything? How can we nail these guys?”
“I think you should get that Tweed character on this. I bet there’s an email trail. These days there’s always an email trail.”
Back at the internet café, Lucy logged on and discovered that Slope Tweed had sent her an email with a link to his other website, firstname.lastname@example.org. She went there and had a look. The site offered internet services, no details beyond that. There was a photo of Tweed on the street in the East Village. He looked like Homer Simpson in black hipster clothes. Lucy sent him an email: Hi Slope. Lucy R here. Saw your site. Mickey says you can find things out. The company is Sayulita Development Company, website Sayulitaforsale.com. Any email from anyone there, especially a guy called Ruben Dario but also Wally Townsend, to someone called Judy Leggett, JudyLegs@Yoohoo.com; any email between any of them and SanDar@mns.com. If you could cover the last month that would be great. Do your best. We think these people are guilty of murder. Also PLEASE do what you have to do to make this email completely go away at both ends. Thanks Lucy Ripken.