Leaning against the worn stone façade, Zeph watched Debra sit down at an outdoor café table. He was certain she wouldn’t notice him amongst all the hustle and bustle of Plaza Major. There were plenty of other tourists around. Plus, he had donned a Panama hat and mirrored aviator sunglasses. Sunglasses that he, more often than occasional, removed to polish. It was an excuse for him to admire his own reflection rather than a nervous habit. Tourist police stood a mere twenty yards away but they seemed more preoccupied with catching up than watching for pick-pockets.
Zeph was surprised at how difficult it was for him to remain casual, despite the easy plan. He pulled out his mobile phone to check the time and fingered the two little bags in his pocket.
Party boys always know how to find party toys. No matter the country. Thinking this two days prior, the plan emerged like a gift. Like he didn’t even have to think about it. He canceled his dinner date with Debra claiming to have food poisoning. He didn’t want to be seen with her moments before she died.
Surrounded by symbolism in Oaxaca, a part of him would have really liked to bash Debra’s head in, grab the money and run. But that was a fantasy. And far too messy. How would he get rid of a body here?
Beaches, he reflected again. Another reason why beaches are superior. Ob-v. Especially shark-infested ones.
He fiddled with the second button of his short-sleeved shirt. Open or closed? He used the reflective coating of his sunglasses to gaze at himself.
As he released the button to expose the glistening dip of his chest between his tan and well-formed pecs, the waiter brought Debra her drink. It was a tall, frilly concoction with ice, an umbrella, and a long straw. It didn’t seem like something Debra would usually order but “when in Rome” and all that, Zeph supposed. It suited her upgraded, middle-aged, rich woman look: a freshly dyed auburn bob with long bangs, oversized black sunglasses, Gucci silk pantsuit replete with a flowered neck scarf tied in a big bow, very high heels, and a trio of gold bangle bracelets on her left arm. She still looked like Debra, but far more luxurious.
To steady his excitement, he ran through his plan again: Once he drugged her drink, he’d help her back to her room, help himself to her funds and then help her to her next “adventure.” Hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on her hotel door, he figured he had at least a day, maybe two, before housekeeping got suspicious. Plenty of time to get down to Saint Barts on a fake passport. And, if he did get nicked and questioned, he’d tell the cops that she picked him up for a bit of fun and then kicked him out before turning to the lines of cocaine he would delicately stage for her overdose death.
He practiced under his breath, adding the phrase “greedy bitch” for color. The effect it had on him was intoxicating. Like taking a shot of mescal.
Zeph glanced sidelong at the tourist cops standing near the edge of the plaza. They appeared to be talking about personal matters, one officer gesticulating while the other laughed. The gesticulating officer gave a little thrust of his hips as a punch line.
Such an easy plan, thought Zeph, ready to take the next step. And all the better to do it right under two dumb tourist cop noses.
He wove between an adult family of Canadian tourists taking photos down the line of shops bordering the plaza. Their bulky frames would provide excellent cover for his little operation. Debra was making this too easy for him, choosing to sit at a table in the plaza. Now he just needed her to be distracted.
Pick up your phone, he thought furiously, not realizing he was muttering the phrase under his breath. Like a miracle, she did, setting her drink down on the table and scrolling through who knows what.
Wending his way through the crowd, he glanced over his shoulder at the cops, still bullshitting about their personal lives. Fiddling in his pocket, he grasped the smaller of the two packets, flicked the seam open with his finger and withdrew a little pill. In his hotel room last night, he’d practiced concealing techniques, nestling it in the web of his ring finger and palm. All he needed to do was walk by, pretend to trip or bump into someone and drop the Mexican version of a roofie into her cocktail. As he took the final steps toward the café table, a small line of sweat began to bead on his upper lip.
This was the most difficult part of the plan. Once the drop was accomplished, he’d be on Easy Street.
* * *
Yanity stood at the base of the totem pole and stared at the raven at the top. The breeze from the Salish Sea caressed his worried face. He could scarcely believe the events of the past few days. So much had happened. So little within his control. Between the trees coming down, the rupture in the earth, and that mudslide that killed a man… What was his name? It had been in the papers. Trump? And Yanity knew those trees didn’t come down by accident. Oh, no.
He had helped carve this totem when he was just a boy, his uncles and great uncles teaching him the tradition, showing him how to turn cedar into meaning. Talking about his grandfather’s passing as they created his memorial pole, they swapped sweat and stories one-by-one until the pole took its final shape.
Yanity had said that he would leave the fate of the land up to the courts, but was that really the best course of action? Was that the only way to pursue justice? He had other ideas, too but would they even work? Had he waited too long? Could this be enough? Would it ever be enough? What wasn’t he considering?
He stood there, stolid, his feet rooted to the ground like the cedar pole once was, gazing at it and wondering if he was doing the right thing.
* * *
As Zeph neared Debra’s table, his heart trembled with excitement. He thumbed the tiny pill nestled between his ring and middle finger in his right hand and looked for someone to bump into.
Why, in God’s name, was there suddenly no one on this side of the plaza?
He was grateful that Debra, her back to him, was still scrolling through her phone. He could hear the Canadian family behind him, cajoling as they took group photos.
The only people walking toward him were a small Oaxacan girl and her mother. The tiny girl, in pigtails, licked an ice cream cone as she walked hand in hand with her mother, the melting strawberry pink running down her wrist and forearm. This wasn’t ideal, it could bring a little too much attention, but he had already come this far and didn’t want to turn back now.
Just three more steps.
His timing was impeccable. Bumping into the little girl, he knocked her ice cream cone out of her hand and jutted into the café table. The little girl began to wail and as heads turned to look at her, out shot Zeph’s hand over Debra’s drink.
Even though the pill was far too small to make a sound, Zeph, stealthy operative that he was, imagined it did. He grabbed the table for good measure, and proud of his improv, kept his face away from Debra as he pretended to steady himself. Startled, she clutched her phone close to her chest and picked up her beverage as if she was afraid this clumsy man would topple the entire ensemble. After a shake of her head, as if to relieve herself of this annoying interruption, she returned to her mobile and cocktail.
So far, so good. He exhaled in relief. She hadn’t recognized him.
The mother tried to console her crying daughter. Zeph, careful to keep his face turned away from Debra, straitened up to give an apologetic mea culpa. Since he ruined the little girl’s treat, he could buy her a new one at the helado stand on the other side of the plaza. Now he had an excuse to stay in visual contact, monitoring Debra, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and escort her back to her hotel room. As long as she didn’t recognize his voice, this could all still work.
He opened his mouth, nervous to speak.
But when he turned to the mother and little girl, he was surprised to find that one of the Canadians had already approached them. A young woman, tall and strong like the two brothers flanking her, had knelt and was talking softly to the little girl in Spanish. The little girl’s tear-stained face was nodding, already agreeing to join the young woman for a new ice cream at the stand across the plaza, her mother patting the back of her pigtailed head in comfort.
Zeph was stunned. So much for that plan. Now what?
The adult brothers, identical twins in matching Team Canada hockey jerseys, set Zeph with steely gazes.
Shit. Definitely more attention than I wanted.
Zeph held his hands up in plea and swallowed hard, unsure of what to say. He had watched his fair share of spy movies in his life. He tried to recall one, any one, that might give him guidance here.
He drew a blank. The two men maintained steady eye contact.
“Whad’ja drop in her drink?” asked one, thrusting his chin out in a reverse nod and crossing his enormous arms.
Debra, who had been taking a long sip through the straw, whipped her head around and looked up at the three men. She froze, holding her drink in front of her and then, very slowly, moved it away from her to set it back on the table. From his periphery, Zeph could tell that she was shaken.
“What?” asked Zeph, failing to disguise his voice. The beads of sweat formed on his upper lip again. “Nothing, man. I just stumbled, bumped into the little girl on accident.” He held his hands up in a plea as he took a step back.
“Zeph?” Debra asked. Her tone was careful yet incredulous, indicating she was very, very angry.
“That was no accident,” continued the other brother, taking a step toward Zeph. “You ran into that little girl on purpose. My brother saw you drop something in that nice lady’s drink. What was it?” He matched his brother in tone and posture.
The beads of sweat coalesced on Zeph’s upper lip. He thought frantically. He was strong, very strong, but no match for two hockey playing brothers who had more than double his weight between the two of them.
Play it cool. Play it cool. No problemo. You can talk yourself out of this. Somehow. Even if Debra is angry.
He could feel her fuming beside him like a volcano ready to blow. Taking a quick, deep breath, he tried to soothe himself.
“Listen, guys,” said Zeph, “I don’t know what you think you saw, but…” his voice trailed off as he noticed the tourist cops turn their attention toward the scene unfolding and start to saunter over.
It was too much. He was going to have to bail. Panicked, he took two steps backward and turned on his heel to run, but before he could take his first step, one of the brothers tackled him, pinning him to the ground right under Debra’s table. She yelped and jumped to her feet.
As Zeph squirmed and wriggled under the weight of the Canadian, he realized all might not be lost. Debra’s designer handbag was lying open, just inches from him. He had a clear view inside. Grunting and struggling against the weight of the brother on top of him, Zeph heard the other brother address Debra.
“Are you okay?” he asked, “You seem a bit unsteady.”
“Don’t touch me. I’m fine.” Zeph heard Debra’s terse voice and glimpsed her jerking her arm away from the kind gesture.
“It’s okay. My brother is on the Junior National Hockey team. He’ll keep ‘em there. Look, the tourist cops are almost here. They can take over and you can make a statement.”
“I don’t want to make a statement. I want to leave,” said Debra, reaching down to grab her handbag. Rising, she lost her balance. The brother caught her arm.
“Woah, there,” he said, steadying her and nodding toward her stiletto heels. “Those things are awfully dangerous on these cobble stones.”
“I said ‘DON’T TOUCH ME!’” In one swift motion, Debra shoved him and executed an expert right hook. Her fist collided with his nose, an immediate spray of blood covering the red and white emblem of the maple leaf on his jersey like a Jackson Pollack painting.
Her handbag fell to the ground and the contents spilled out just as the tourist cops, running and pushing looky-loos out of the way, arrived. Splayed for everyone to see, Zeph’s bag of cocaine sat amongst a large roll of cash, two passports, and a tube of Chanel Rouge Allure lipstick.
Debra’s face went white. “That’s not mine,” she stammered, her oversized sunglasses askance as an officer twisted her left arm behind her back, the delicate gold bangles tinkling in weak protest.
“THAT’S NOT MINE!” she screamed as the officer slammed her face into the café table, knocking her sunglasses and cocktail onto the cobblestone below. Seconds later, the two tourist cops slapped handcuffs on Zeph and Debra, continuing to press their faces hard onto the surfaces below them. Sirens sang in the distance as everyone breathed heavy with exertion under the watchful, growing crowd.
“You fucking bastard,” hissed Debra, spitting on Zeph’s dirty and battered face.
The tourist cops gave each other a knowing look.
“Americanos,” they muttered in unison.