CheeseburgerBrown.com CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
Free Stories Books About the Author Frequently Asked Questions Articles & Essays Shop Blog

Sandy is a Spider
A prequel novelette from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS AMAZON KINDLE E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY
Sandy is a Spider, a novelette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity, mild violence, and some adult situations. Reader discretion is advised.

CHAPTER 1

Halfway up the irregular and eroded southern face of the Nohoch Mul pyramid at Coba, Ryan waited, crouching in the shade of a pile of rubble as he wiped the lenses of his binoculars. The jungle was a rolling carpet of mossy bracken on every side, a wavering cloud of heat causing the furthest trees to scintillate in his vision.

He checked the binoculars, spotted her. He still had a moment to get ready.

Ryan opened a tin canteen and poured water carefully over himself, creating blobby triangles on his chest and back. He spilled enough into his short, strawberry blonde hair to run down his neck and cause his forehead to drip as if sweat-soaked.

He lay back against the pile of rubble with his legs splayed out before him in an attitude bereft of dignity. He began to breathe heavily, working himself into a wheezing, plaintive pant.

He checked his watch.

Sandy staggered up to Ryan's ledge, eyes on the stones as she bent over to catch her breath. A fjord-like birthmark stained her right cheek. Without seeing him she craned her head up and gazed toward the summit of the pyramid, a frown of grim determination tightening her lips. She straightened and secured two long brunette braids behind a kerchief, wiped clean her glasses, and then resumed the climb.

Ryan was in the midst of working up the air necessary to pant even louder when Sandy stumbled on the next riser. She pinwheeled backward, threatening to overturn and plummet down the stone steps to the jungle floor.

Ryan caught her.

"Oh my God," she squeaked.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Thank you," she said.

Ryan let go of Sandy and shuffled backward to lean against the pile of rubble again, mopping at his brow ineffectually with the loose front of his sopping polo shirt. "You almost gave me a heart attack," he said. "And I was sitting here worrying about that anyway."

"I'm sorry," said Sandy quickly. She crossed her arms, hugging her own biceps absently. The sun winked off a simple silver crucifix hanging between breasts which were heavy for her slight frame, her back self-consciously curved to minimize their prominence.

"Don't be sorry," said Ryan. "I'm glad I was here, thank Jesus. Otherwise -- sheesh. Could've been a nasty fall."

"Sheesh is right," agreed Sandy. "Thanks again."

She smiled awkwardly and started to turn back to the steep stone risers. Ryan coughed.

"I hate asking this, but you wouldn't happen to have any water, would you?" He was good at being sheepish. He looked down, shrugged, spread his hands. "I thought I'd be a hero and get right up to the top easy as pie, but it turns out I'm in worse shape than I thought. I'm just dyin' here."

"Sure, yeah," said Sandy, fumbling at her canteen, expertly concealing the right side of her face. "Okay."

Ryan drank swiftly, but was careful to leave some in the bottom. He gasped in exultation as he handed the canteen back, wiping his mouth with his wet forearm. "Thanks a lot," he said. "I'm afraid there isn't much left. I feel terrible."

"I'm sure it'll be enough for me," said Sandy amicably, hearing it slosh. "Don't worry about it."

"That's very nice of you," said Ryan.

"No problem."

Ryan picked up his knapsack and binoculars. "Well, I'm ready. Let's beat this pyramid. Um, unless you're planning on sprinting -- I don't want to hold you back."

Sandy smiled uncertainly, then shrugged. "No, I don't mind. Let's go."

They took in concert the next series of narrow, crumbling risers slaves of the Maya had erected centuries before, hacked free from the jungle by the grad students of archaeologists only in the last decade. The climb was steep and the feeble, moist breeze was heavy -- reluctant to refresh, an air like hot breath.

As they proceeded Ryan measured Sandy's pace and then gradually exceeded it. After a few minutes he paused and looked back apologetically. "I'm rushing you."

"No," breathed Sandy, waving dismissively. "Keep going. It's good for me."

"Well, okay," he conceded.

He pressed the pace faster for the final push to the summit, ultimately having to hoist her up to the top platform with a firm, steady grip. They were both too winded to speak. They leaned against the walls of a tiny, broken temple. Sandy unscrewed the top of her canteen and offered it to Ryan.

"I couldn't," he said, shaking his head. "You drink it. It's yours."

"I feel bad."

"Don't," said Ryan. "I'll live. Drink. I insist."

She drank. "I left you a little," she said, handing him the canteen.

He emptied it, and then offered his hand to shake after wiping the perspiration off on his shorts. "My name's Ryan Billing. It's good to meet you."

"Sandy," said Sandy, taking his hand.

Ryan smiled. Sandy smiled too. The game was on.


CHAPTER 2

Ensenada de Arcos Iris Villas & Resort stood on the southern coast of Quintana Roo, nestled in a shallow cove protected from the ocean's worst by the trailing edge of Cozumel's coral wall. The buildings all followed a common faux-Maya style, complete with frescoes of pictographic warriors dancing around pyramids. The walls were white stucco, the metal roofs covered in bales of decorative thatch.

Every room had a slowly turning ceiling fan, lending the establishment a common, lazy beat of throbbing air.

This slow rhythm was desecrated by Ryan as he attempted to juggle a beach bag, a roll of towels and a fold of clothes while fishing around for the key to his tiny villa. Playing to a unique but precise tempo, Ryan dropped two thirds of his bounty and stumbled just as Sandy rounded the corner.

"Damn it!"

Without turning around he gathered up nearly everything and then appealed over his shoulder for help with his key. Sandy picked up the key and unlocked the door to Ryan's room. "Fanks," he said, a towel in his mouth. Then he looked up. "Hey -- ith you."

Sandy smiled, turning away the birthmarked side of her face. "Hi again," she said. "Are you okay there?"

Ryan walked inside as he replied, leaving Sandy dangling at the entrance, crossing her arms over her navy blue bathing suit. Ryan dumped his beach bag and towels on the sofa. "I got it now, thanks Sandy. That's two I owe you now, isn't it?"

"Oh, not really."

"You can come in, never you mind," he said firmly, which caused Sandy to take a step or two into the hall of the compact, two-storey guest villa nearly identical to her own. "But seriously," continued Ryan, "you have to let me make it up to you. First the water, now this. And since we're both here at Arcos Iris the least you can do is to let me buy you dinner."

Sandy blushed. "That's really not --"

"No no, I insist. You can't leave me feeling obliged to you like this. It isn't right."

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to."

"Listen, if you're travelling with somebody they're absolutely invited, too. Any friend of yours I'd be happy to buy dinner for. Let me do this, Sandy. You gave me your last drop of water -- you have to let me make right. Fair is fair, isn't it? I mean, come on: isn't it?"

"Well, yeah, fair is fair..."

"So let's do it. We can meet right outside here, on the walkway. Say...six o'clock?" Ryan grinned and opened his arms in appeal.

Sandy giggled despite herself. "Six is okay, I guess. Just outside here...?" She pointed vaguely behind her.

Ryan nodded, then waited patiently. Sandy hovered nervously and then looked down. "Okay well I guess I should go," she said. "I was going to have a shower and stuff."

"Until six then, Sandy," said Ryan warmly, eyes still on her, brow open.

Sandy coloured under his scrutiny, smiled again, made a false start left and then turned right and shuffled out into the sun again, closing the door gently behind her. "Sorry," she mumbled about something.

Ryan waited a moment, then relaxed. "This one's going to be easy," he chuckled aloud, sinking into the sofa and propping his feet up on the matching Guatemalan-quilted ottoman. "...So easy."

* * *

CHAPTER 3

Sandy and Ryan were led to a table by the patio-lantern guilded edge of the Yum Caax Restaurant, the only non-buffet option offered to guests of Ensenada de Arcos Iris Villas & Resort. The centrepiece of the space was an intimidating statue of a fierce warrior with what looked like a cat's head crouching on top of his human face. The warrior appeared to be carved from dark wood but was, in fact, fabricated from fibreglass.

"Who's that?" Sandy asked.

"Yum Caax," replied Ryan breezily, pulling out her chair for her. "A god of the hunt."

"He doesn't look very happy." Sandy sat down. "Thanks."

"Hunting requires focus, I imagine." Ryan took his seat and then appraised his companion across the candle-lit table. Her long chestnut chair was down, pushed casually behind her shoulders; she wore a yellow dress, chaste but fitted. "You look ravishing, Sandy. Will anyone else be joining us?"

"Um, no," she smiled hesitantly, touching her glasses. "Just me. Disappointed?"

"Absolutely not."

They dawdled over their menus, Ryan staring fixedly at the pages while Sandy glanced up and down, anxious to seize the next cue for how to proceed. The names of the dishes failed to mean anything to her. Her gaze flicked across the beach, hanging on a couple walking hand in hand, their pants rolled up out of reach of the sussurussing surf.

She turned back to see Ryan watching her. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" he said.

"What is?"

"There's nothing like a tropical sunset."

"That's so true," she agreed readily. The sun had sunk behind a bank of thick, sagging cumulus clouds, illuminating them from within with a ruddy, golden glow. "This is the first time I've ever been to Mexico."

"Me too."

"Really?"

"Oh yes. I won this trip -- or earned it, I suppose. It's a reward for performance from the office; also, their not-so-subtle way of forcing me to take a vacation. And I'm glad they did." He looked at Sandy warmly. "What about you, Sandy? What brings you to Quintana Roo?"

Sandy covered the birthmark on her right cheek as she looked down. "Oh, my family just thought I could use a rest. You know: things get crazy sometimes."

"You have a stressful job?"

"Not really. I'm just a teller. A bank teller, I mean. But I've been on a leave of absence, um, looking after my husband. He was very ill."

"But you've come alone? He's not well enough to travel?"

"He passed away, actually."

"Oh sweet Jesus, I'm so sorry," said Ryan, reaching across the table and touching her hand. "I didn't mean to open a painful subject. Forgive me, Sandy."

"Nevermind. I'm sorry."

"Never be sorry," he said lightly. "Girls who are both kind and pretty have no cause. Do you mind if I select a wine for us?"

"I'm not pretty. Um. Go ahead, about the wine. Um, thanks."

Ryan chose a Chilean Merlot which arrived promptly. He swirled a dollop in the bottom of his glass, sniffed it. "Very nice," he told the waiter, giving the nod to fill the lady's glass and then his own.

Sandy played with the stem of her glass, watching ruby reflections from the wine slide on the tablecloth. "So...what kind of work do you do?"

"I work in adoption, actually -- arranging connections between orphaned children and prospective parents. I don't want to go on and on about it, but let me just say it's very rewarding work. I wouldn't trade it for the world. Every day is another chance to touch someone's life for the better."

"That's a wonderful thing to do," said Sandy. "God -- my job makes no difference for anybody. I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to be replaced by one of those new automated tellers any day now."

"What's an automated teller?" asked Ryan, folding his hands and leaning forward with frank fascination.

Sandy blushed at his interest. "Oh, it's just a stupid thing -- a machine that gives out cash. They have an experimental one at our branch and it's always broken."

"Maybe I've seen them, never paid attention."

"They say they'll be everywhere soon."

"Isn't that something? You can't stop the future, can you? Back in New York they're moving all of us over to computers now. You'd think the office would be quieter without all those typewriters, but it's just as loud -- with people swearing at their computers."

Sandy laughed. "I bet. We're moving to computers, too, at the bank. It's such a headache. Did you say you work in New York?"

"Yes. Our offices are in Manhattan."

"Wow," said Sandy. "I've never been to New York."

"It's a spectacular city," Ryan assured her. "Where are you from, Sandy?"

"Just a little place called Sackville. Outside of Halifax."

"That's in Nova Scotia, right? In Canada?"

"That's right."

"Beautiful country up there."

"Oh yes."

They sipped their wine and were considering entrees when a young, sun-burned couple approached their table. "Mr. Billing!" said the woman, smiling. "We were just going back to our villa and we saw you and thought we'd say hi. And thank you."

Ryan stood up. "Why don't you join us for a glass of wine? This is Sandy, a fellow Canadian. Sandy, these are the Cuthbertsons, from Ontario."

"We don't want to interrupt your dinner," said the man, offering Sandy his hand to shake. He was muscular, and filled with a certain anxious energy that caused him to continually shift his weight from one foot to the other.

"Nonsense," said Ryan. "I've been helping out Kate and Jules with an adoption situation, Sandy. I know I'm on vacation but -- well, I just couldn't help it. They've had such a run of bad luck."

"We really appreciate everything you've done," gushed Kate. "I've been on the phone with my mother all afternoon, and so we should have that certified cheque ready for you by tomorrow."

Ryan nodded. "The important thing is that we've started processing the application. I had the papers you signed couriered off to New York this morning."

"This is so exciting," said Kate.

"Why don't you sit down?" Ryan invited again, reaching for a spare chair.

"No no," said Jules, shaking his head. "Enjoy your dinner. We'll talk tomorrow."

"It was nice to meet you, Sandra," added Kate.

"Have a nice night," said Sandy. As the couple departed she said to Ryan, "They seem nice."

"I'm expediting their adoption process, putting it through our own private screeners. It costs a bit more, but it'll save them a lot of hassle in the end. They're trying so desperately to build a family -- I just couldn't leave them hanging. It's my job, after all."

"That's very kind of you," said Sandy. "It must be amazing to be able to help people like that."

"It makes me feel good as a Christian," agreed Ryan earnestly.

Sandy touched her crucifix absently. "Do you have kids?"

"You know, it's funny," said Ryan, eyes cast out over the darkening water. "I spend all my time helping people put happy families together, but I don't have one of my own." He turned back and shrugged. "I suppose I'm a bit of a workaholic. I never seem to find the time to meet someone."

"That's too bad," said Sandy.

"Let's not brood," he interrupted, raising his hand. "We're having a nice dinner. We're in paradise. Aren't we supposed to leave our problems back home? In fact, I propose a toast."

Sandy picked up her glass and held it aloft, watching him expectantly.

"To new friends, and helping make dreams come true," pronounced Ryan seriously.

"To new friends," echoed Sandy. They drank.

After dinner they took the meandering way back to the villas, walking along the beach and then among the fragrant gardens tended by elusive Maya in matching polo shirts who bowed out of sight at the sound of Ryan and Sandy's footfalls on the flagstones, keeping to the shadows like faeries.

"I think there's somebody in the bushes," whispered Sandy.

"Don't worry. He probably works here."

"Do you speak Spanish?"

"Yes, but they don't."

"What do they speak?"

"Mayan."

At the walkway between the rows of villas they slackened their pace. "I had a really nice time tonight, Ryan," she said, swinging her purse distractedly.

"I think that's the first time you've said my name, Sandy."

He could feel her blush, even in the dark. "I guess we're even now, huh?"

"I'm still in your debt, for your fine company tonight," said Ryan breezily. "I'm not trying to push anything on you, but -- you know, I'm around. If you ever need a friend, I mean."

"That's very nice of you."

"As a matter of fact I'm thinking about taking a tour to see the ruins at Xcaret tomorrow. Have you already been?"

"I haven't, actually."

"Well, think about it. You know where I'll be. But there's no pressure: you're on vacation -- do whatever suits you best."

"Thanks, Ryan."

He bowed courteously and then turned toward the walkway to his villa. Suddenly remembering something Sandy wrenched open her purse and fished around inside. "I still have your key!" she called.

Ryan paused. "Ah, yes. I'd been wondering where I left it."

"I'm sorry. I guess I just wasn't thinking, earlier, when I had it in my hand. I'm so stupid. I hope I didn't cause you a big problem."

"Not at all. The front desk loaned me a spare."

Ryan waited patiently until Sandy stepped closer and held out the key. He took it gingerly, allowing their fingers to briefly meet. Sandy shivered, then looked around awkwardly. "So, goodnight I guess. Thanks again. And sorry about the key."

"Goodnight, dear Sandy. And God bless."

Sandy waved, hid behind her hair, and scurried up the walkway to her own villa. Ryan watched her go, a smirk flickering across his lips an instant before he turned on heel and sauntered home.

After a brief lull six short Maya materialized from the shrubbery and resumed sweeping the walk.

* * *

CHAPTER 4

A squadron of locals worked with machetes to push back the jungle from the western fringe of the ruins at Xcaret. Though the day was overcast the heat was intense, their copper bodies glistening with sweat. The ring and chop of their labour echoed off the stone buildings, melding with the rhythmic yawn of surf against the beach.

Sandy and Ryan sauntered down the length of the Maya ballcourt, an open field of fat tropical grasses framed by tall murals of winning athletes dancing and losing athletes being ceremoniously decapitated. High above the reach of the tallest man were narrow vertical hoops set into the walls.

"How could anyone get a ball through that?" wondered Sandy.

"A stone ball, no less," added Ryan.

"They must have been amazing athletes."

"I'd be amazing, too, if my head were at stake."

They strolled to the beach, a crescent of white sand at the mouth of a small inlet that looked across the water to Cozumel, a hazy smear on the grey horizon. Ryan suggested they go for a swim and, before Sandy could voice her hesitation, he peeled off his shirt and shorts and sprinted down to the waves in a red Speedo. "Hey!" called Sandy, "wait up."

Ryan dove in and swam a ways, then stood up on a sandbar and turned back to the beach. Sandy arranged her clothes in a neat pile with her sandals and glasses and then waded in after him, hugging her arms over her chest. "The water's nice," she admitted.

"What?"

"I said the water's nice!"

"Come on out here. I can't hear you."

Ryan smoothed his strawberry blonde hair off his forehead as he waited, squinting against the glare. He was aware of his own tanned skin, the definition of his firm muscles, his casually confident pose -- he let himself be watched by her as he pretended to scan the sky. Just as Sandy was about to gain her footing on the rise Ryan jumped off the far side into the deeper water, gesturing at her to follow. She sighed and then started easing herself in.

"You need to make a splash," called Ryan. "What's the ocean without splashing?"

"I'm just getting used to it."

"Come on!"

He disappeared beneath the waves, and then suddenly emerged right beside her. He put his arm around her waist and threw her off balance, crashing sideways into the turquoise water. Despite herself she shrieked like a schoolgirl, then sputtered on flying spume, then broke into a fit of giggles.

"That's the smile I want to see," grinned Ryan.

"You devil!" she laughed, kicking water at him.

A pasty-fleshed fat couple in matching wide-brimmed straw hats sat on the beach observing them sadly. On the breeze they could just make out the woman's simpering grumble, "Why don't we have fun like that anymore, Kev?"

"I think I'm hungry," noted Kev.

Ryan and Sandy both cracked up, then resumed splashing and tackling one another, wiping the salt from their eyes and panting for want of dry breath. "Okay, okay," begged Sandy, holding up her hands in defense; "I yield -- you win the splash-off."

As they waded back to shore Sandy lifted her arms to push her long brown hair out of her face, her breasts thrust forth to strain against her blue bathing suit. While Ryan was able to admire this sight on the sly Kev was surprised out of his observations by a harsh slap on his doughy shoulder from his wife. "What are you? Twelve?" she wanted to know.

On the microbus back to Arcos Iris Ryan was quiet. Both of them were sitting on towels because their bathing suits had soaked through their shorts. Sandy shifted uncomfortably. After a number of false starts she managed to ask, "What are you doing for dinner tonight?" and then added, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry."

"Oh?" blinked Ryan, looking away from the jungle scrolling past the window. "Forgive me, Sandy, I was preoccupied. What did you say?"

"Is there something on your mind?"

"It's nothing that should trouble you. It's my own problem to deal with." He waved dismissively, tried to smile. "In fact, I'm afraid that's what I'll be spending my supper hour taking care of today."

"What is it, Ryan?"

He pursed his lips. "I shouldn't be telling you this..."

"I'm sorry," she interjected. "Nevermind."

"It's Jules and Kate," continued Ryan, letting his shoulders fall. "They weren't able to come up with the full amount to secure a private screening, for their adoption. I'm a little bit torn up about having to give them the bad news."

"Oh God," said Sandy, pained. "I thought everything was all arranged for them."

"It was, it is," nodded Ryan. "But my office called this morning -- the Cuthbertsons are technically foreigners, so an additional international handling fee applies." He shook his head morosely. "It's just that kind of red tape I'm trying to spare them, but it always seems to come back tenfold."

Sandy sighed. The microbus bumped along. The windows streaked as the clouds released a light rain. "Um," she said after a moment, "how much are they short?"

"Almost a thousand dollars."

"Oh dear," said Sandy.

The rain came down harder, the windshield a swirling miasma of distorted road punctuated by the ineffectual tick-tock of a single loose wiper. The driver opened his window and reached around to dab at the windshield with a dirty handkerchief.

"I can give it to them."

Ryan blinked. "What's that?"

"I can give them the thousand dollars," Sandy repeated.

"Oh no Sandy --"

"Why not? You're always telling me how rewarding it is to help people. Let me feel that. Let me do this for them. They seem like such nice people."

"But Sandy, it's an awful lot of money..."

"I can afford it. If pride's the issue just don't tell them where it came from. Tell them it's anonymous or whatever. I don't need their thanks -- I just want to know that I've done what I can for some people who deserve some help. How could I look at myself in the mirror otherwise?" She touched Ryan's shoulder. "Do you know what I mean?"

It was Ryan's turn to sigh. He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "I really can't let you do that. It isn't your problem, Sandy."

"No," she agreed, "but it's my solution. And -- you know what -- you can't stop me. If I have to I'll give it to them myself."

Ryan turned to face her squarely, searching her watery green eyes for a long moment. Sandy blushed, and was about to squirm or stammer when Ryan smiled and said, "God bless you, Sandy. You've got to be the sweetest, most unselfish woman I've ever met."

Sandy looked at her lap. Ryan gently touched her chin and turned her face upward again. "Don't look down. Don't be embarrassed. I only wish more people had your heart...what a world we would have. Can you imagine?"

Sandy smiled, then frowned as the microbus jostled roughly. "Apesadumbrado!" called the driver apologetically. Everyone aboard took a firmer hold of the sides of their seats, cringing against the sharp hammering sounding from the roof as the rain opened up into a wicked storm.

"Will cash be okay? I only have traveller's cheques."

Ryan nodded. "Cash will be fine."

For the remainder of the ride back to Arcos Iris they held hands, like grade school kids.

* * *

CHAPTER 5

Come evening the throbbing heart of Ensenada de Arcos Iris Villas & Resort was the Disco Kukulkan, a doughnut-shaped dancefloor with a full service bar at its core below a crow's nest for the DJ emblazoned with a neon outline of a stylized feathered snake. The disco had a faux-thatch roof and its support columns were encased in imitation wood fibreglass. On the north side it connected to a hot tub and to the south lay the beach.

The sun was setting, a fading bronze eye behind a veil of grey atmosphere. Out over the water ribbons of rain dragged behind the swiftly moving clouds.

"Fugging hurricane," swore Lorenzo quietly.

"You think it's going to turn inland, boss?" asked the bartender, a pale Caribbean black from the Bahamas with freckles on his cheeks.

Lorenzo shook his head. "Probably not, mang, but I want all the equipment under plastic yust in case the wind decides to blow some rain in at us, jou know?"

"No problem, boss."

Lorenzo nodded curtly and continued making his rounds, inspecting a display of liquor bottles and then asking for a cable to be duct-taped down so no one would trip. He shot the cuff of his white suit jacket and consulted his Rolex. "Disco opens in five minutes, people. Les be ready. The guests have been stuck in their rooms all fugging day, and they're going to want to have some fun, jou know?"

The wide-hipped Maya girls tucked their inky black hair into neat buns and smoothed their blouses after strapping on their change belts. The DJ lay down his first vinyl selects and queued up some tight, buzzing New Wave from England. The coloured patio-lanterns around the periphery of the disco came on, and then the lights at the bottom of the hot tub.

The first guests began to wander over. "You think the weather's going to hold?" asked a rich old bird from Miami.

"It's going to be a beautiful night, Senora Penworth," smiled Lorenzo, nodding brightly.

An old, heavily jowled man with tufts of white hair sticking out of his ears ambled up, winded from the journey from his villa. "Give me the usual, huh? A table where I can see the young girls dance but isn't too far from the john."

"Right this way, Senor Coriander."

Drinks were dispensed, hands shaken, shoulders clapped. As the disco filled Lorenzo wandered over to lean on the bar, surveying the unfolding evening and smoothing down his thick black mustache. He took a moment to examine his own fingernails critically and when he looked up Ryan Billing was strolling casually up to order himself a little something. "Senor Billing," Lorenzo greeted him quietly.

"Lo," said Ryan with a polite nod. "How's it looking?"

Lorenzo glanced at the darkening sky. "I think we'll be hokay tonight. Tomorrow might be shit again though, jou know? I've got Marcus glued to the fugging radio."

Ryan took his drink from the Bahamian bartender and sipped at it, brushing invisible crumbs from the front of his silk shirt. "You seen Wendell around lately?"

Lorenzo gave Ryan a hard look. "Wendell's out, mang."

"What do you mean, 'out'? He's retiring? Did he strike gold with that Italian broad?"

"Wendell's gone, mang. Forget about him."

"Why the tight lips all of a sudden?" Ryan leaned in closer. "Did something happen to him, Lo?"

Lorenzo frowned, chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment. "Jou running something now, mang?"

Ryan shrugged. "Sure. I have a few things going on."

Lorenzo looked around and then pulled Ryan closer by the shoulder. "Jou might want to think about taking a breather, Senor Billing. Jou know? Listen to my advice to jou: take a vacation, mang. Take it now."

Ryan chuckled dismissively. "What are you talking about, you crazy spic?"

Lorenzo's green-flecked eyes bore down on Ryan. He whispered, "There's heat."

Ryan rolled his eyes. "The hell there is. I already paid Gonzales this month. I talked to him last night. There's nothing going on -- nothing here, nothing in Cancun, either."

"There's fugging heat, mang. Are jou listening to me?"

"You don't think Gonzales would know if something were going down?"

"It's not police."

"So what kind of heat is it supposed to be?"

Lorenzo looked around again, straightened his jacket. "Cut and run, Ryan. I'm fugging telling jou, as a friend. Cut and run tonight. Come back in sis months, jou know?"

"Six months?" Ryan frowned, his brow furrowed. He hissed, "What the fuck is this about, Lo?"

But Lorenzo would say no more. He nodded at someone over Ryan's head and flashed his pearly whites. "Jou having a good time?" he called.

Ryan stared for a moment longer but Lorenzo turned his back to him and wandered into the crowd, shaking hands, patting backs, exchanging pleasantries in a powerful voice over the increasingly loud music. He yelled up at the DJ: "Don't turn on the dancefloor lights until the place is full, mang -- it looks pathetic."

"Sorry, boss."

Ryan shook his head and turned away from the bar. He immediately spotted Sandy making her way toward the disco and smiled. He waved for the bartender's attention. "Give me a white wine too, will you?"

"No problem, sir."

He met her under the patio-lanterns, holding aloft a frosted glass of wine for her. She self-consciously brushed at her floral-print dress and tucked her hair behind her shoulders. "I'm so glad you came," he told her.

"I wouldn't leave you hanging," said Sandy brightly. "Did you think I would?"

"No. Not you, Sandy, no."

He kissed her hand and gave her the wine. She looked around the rapidly filling dancefloor and bopped her hips experimentally in rhythm to the music. "I think I want to have a fun time tonight," she said, biting her lip. "I think it's been years since I had a fun time."

"Would you care to dance?"

She pushed her empty glass at him. "I want another drink first, okay?"

When they got to the dancefloor Sandy moved with a new kind of abandon, pressing herself playfully against Ryan and, for the first time, showing no nervousness about the irregular pink birthmark that stained the right side of her face. She flung her head from side to side to the beat, laughing and fishing through the flashing colour and shadow of the disco's pulsing lights to find his hand.

When they broke for another round of drinks she squeezed Ryan's bicep and whispered into his ear, "I think I'm drunk. And I think I want to tell you something. Can I?"

"Anything," he said.

"I think I'm falling for you, Ryan Billing. Does that scare you?"

"No."

"I'm glad."

He took both of her hands. "I think you're wonderful, Sandy. If I haven't said so before it is only out of respect for your grief."

She shook her head. "I got used to the idea of Anthony being gone a long time before he went. It was slow. It...we didn't have much, anymore, in the last few years -- between us, I mean. He lived in a world of pain. The cancer, you know."

"I'm so sorry, dear Sandy."

She pursed her lips grimly. "It's been almost a year. Everyone tells me I have to move on. And, do you know what? In the past few days I've started to feel for the first time that maybe I can." Her tone changed suddenly, and she buried her face in Ryan's neck. "But I'm afraid."

"Afraid of what?" he asked tenderly, speaking right into her small, perfectly shaped ear.

She looked up again. "Afraid that somebody as amazing as you could never fall for somebody like me, I guess."

"Whatever do you mean?"

"You're so together and so confident -- you're sophisticated, and I'm not. You live in New York City, and I live in the backwoods. You do something that actually matters for a living, and I just do what I'm told."

He looked her in the eyes and sighed. "You are kind and honest and beautiful, Sandy. I can't believe I've been lucky enough to meet someone like you."

"I'm not beautiful," she said, dropping his hand to touch her own face.

"You are," he affirmed earnestly, putting his hands on her surprisingly muscular shoulders. "I think you must be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

"Then why do you look so sad?"

Ryan turned away. "Let's take a walk."

The short, squat shadows of Maya labourers pulled rakes across the beach, combing it free of seaweed and discarded straws and empty bottles of lotion. They quietly made way for Ryan and Sandy as they sauntered along the water's edge, the thump of the Disco Kukulkan's music becoming tinny and muted as they drew further away.

"I had a call from New York this morning," said Ryan carefully. "And it's looking like I might not have a job to come back to."

"Oh my God, Ryan," said Sandy. "What happened?"

He sighed. "We've been taken over by another agency. A much bigger one. Nothing is for sure yet, but it looks like they're going to be moving in their own staff, offering the rest of us layoff packages."

"Jesus," said Sandy.

"I think they waited until I was gone to announce it. I think they knew it would crush me."

Sandy squeezed his hand. "Oh Ryan, what will you do?"

"Honestly, I don't know. I've been a fool. I put everything into my job. It was my life. And now that it might be gone, what can I do? Go back to an apartment I can't afford and scan the classifieds?"

"I'm sure you could get another job, couldn't you?"

He shrugged. "Sure. Yes. Of course you're right. I'm just feeling overwhelmed right now."

"That's understandable."

"The whole idea of going back to New York sickens me."

They walked in silence for a spell, their feet just out of the reach of the foam washing in at the fringes of each wave of black water. Up ahead another squadron of Maya caretakers retreated from their path like shy Oompah-Loompahs.

"Maybe you don't have to go back to New York," said Sandy.

"What's that?"

"I'm sorry."

"What?"

Sandy took a breath. "I don't suppose you'd be bored enough to want to see Sackville. I mean, my place is small, but..." She coughed. "But you'd be welcome," she concluded lamely.

"Sandy, I couldn't ask that of you."

"But instead you could ask that I give you up forever at the end of this week?"

"Sometimes a week is all we get."

"If you don't want to come, just say so."

"That's not it at all."

"Forget I mentioned anything."

"I won't." Ryan stopped walking and turned to face her in the dark, hands on her shoulders which shook ever so slightly. "I won't ever be able to forget your kindness, your compassion, your trust. I don't want to."

"What do you want?"

He stepped back from her, looked out across the dark ocean. "What do I want? Sandy, I want you all to myself. I want to go wherever you go. I want to hold your hand and never let go. I want to forget everything that's ever happened to me and start my life brand new, starting tonight."

There was no sound except the raking and the surf.

"...Sandy?"

Ryan turned around. Sandy was still standing there, shoulders quaking. He heard a muffled sob. He took a step closer and then hesitated. "Sandy?" he called gingerly.

She pushed her hair out of her face. "Let's do what we want," she said, voice trembling. "Why shouldn't we?"

"I'm afraid."

"Why?"

"This is too perfect. I don't want to ruin --"

"You think too much."

Sandy stepped forward, put her arms around Ryan, and kissed him. She felt his lips melt against her mouth, his body relax. They pushed closer into each other, uncaring when a wave washed over their ankles and turned the sand beneath their feet to mud.

The Maya combed the beach around them, their eyes courteously downcast.

Later, back on the walkway Ryan glanced up at his villa, squeezing Sandy's hand. "Would you care for a night cap?" he asked with uncharacteristic nervousness.

"Let's go to my place," countered Sandy. She giggled. "Come on."

Once inside her villa Sandy seated Ryan on the sofa and tended to the kitchenette, pouring out two glasses of rum over ice. He noted the pillow and sheet shoved to one end of the sofa. "Do you sleep down here?" he asked.

"Um, yeah," she replied, handing him his drink. "It's cooler."

The ceiling fan cut the air above their heads rhythmically. Sandy turned down the lights. Ryan sipped his drink appreciatively, watching her move around the room. She locked the front door. She kicked off her shoes. She pulled her dress over her head and stood before him in her underwear, hands on her hips, regarding him with one finely arched eyebrow cocked. "Finish your drink," she advised.

"Jesus Christ," said Ryan, doing as he was told.

Sandy pushed aside the ottoman with a grunt and then knelt on the tiled floor at Ryan's knees. She watched him with a saucy smirk as she unhitched her brassiere and let it drop away, then traced tickling circles on his thigh through the thin fabric of his slacks.

Ryan drained his glass and put it aside, smacking his lips and furrowing his brow. "This is strong stuff..." he mumbled.

"So am I," said Sandy.

"I feel a bit dizzy," he confessed.

"That's okay."

"Okay..."

She looked into his face expectantly. Ryan reached out to touch her, his hand heavy and clumsy. He frowned, then blinked and withdrew his hand to rub his eyes. "...Damn," he whispered weakly.

Sandy nodded.

And Ryan remembered nothing more.

* * *

CHAPTER 6

Ryan awoke in the dark.

His head was pounding. His mouth was cottony and his throat filled with a noxious taste. He detected a musky, masculine smell to the air.

He tried to move but found that he could not.

His wrists, ankles, shoulders and waist were bound with what felt like tightly wrapped fabric. He was suspended, face up, at a forty-five degree angle. With experimentation he discovered he could swing faintly side to side by scooching his hips. He could not swing very far, however. He might, with persistence, be able to rock himself to sleep.

As his mind defogged he noticed a feeble light growing from his left. Through the scintillating grain of dark blindness he began to detect the fuzzy vertice where two walls met a ceiling. White stucco walls.

Outside, the sun was rising. The tropical sky turned pink and caused the white stucco walls to faintly glow. He heard the familiar chirping insects and cooing birds of the jungle, and he thought for a moment that he was back in his villa at Arcos Iris...somehow, inexplicably bound.

Then he remembered Sandy. What had happened to Sandy?

Something behind him shifted and made a vaguely animal sound. Ryan gasped. He tried to turn his head but could not. He shuddered and felt a cold sweat rise across his shoulders. His heart raced. He wondered what he was trapped with. Was it free, or also bound?

Whatever it was, the next thing it did was pass gas.

Shaking, Ryan's eyes darted across the white stucco ceiling as the pink glow dissipated into real morning sunlight -- orange and harsh. His eyes watered and he shut them, the afterimages crawling in rhythm with his throbbing headache.

Someone or something urinated loudly into a plastic container, like the sound of a wet zipper.

Ryan opened his eyes again, his skin crawling and his breath shallow. He craned his head back as far as it would go and saw a confusion of strips of white fabric radiating from a hub with dangling pulleys. He pushed his head forward while twisting and saw that on the floor directly beneath his buttocks was a plastic receptacle.

He startled at the muffled sound of a typewriter. It sounded like it was downstairs. It clattered purposefully for a few minutes and then silence returned. Ryan fought to keep his breathing from running away from him as his mind raced, trying to understand what kind of a prisoner he was.

With a lurch he backtracked and realized fully that he was just that: a prisoner. He was not in any way haphazardly tangled, but rather he had been methodically caught and caged.

Footfalls sounded nearby. The door to the room Ryan was in opened, and someone in bare feet padded in, the skin of their soles faintly sticking to the cool tiles. He smelled cigarette smoke.

His torturer, perhaps? Ryan tried desperately not to void his bladder.

After a moment the barefoot person walked around the room, and Ryan heard one of the plastic containers being emptied into another vat and replaced, followed by the shuffling of papers. Then the person walked around to the front of Ryan, eyes cast down into an open cardboard dossier.

"...Sandy?" croaked Ryan feebly, blinking.

She wore a dirty pair of khaki shorts he had not seen before and a careless white T-shirt bearing a faded image of Mickey Mouse. Her hair was pulled up into a loose bun. Her glasses were gone, as was her crucifix. And her birthmark.

She didn't look up. "Sandy, what's happening?" he whispered hoarsely, eyes wide.

Sandy drew on her cigarette absently and looked up from the dossier, her face expressionless. "Angus Craig Llewelyn, born nine April nineteen fifty-seven, Spaulding, Illinois, USA," she said quietly and crisply. She closed the dossier and stuck it under her arm, then looked into his eyes.

"Who's that?" breathed Ryan.

She slapped him. Quick and hard, across the left cheek.

He changed tacks. "What the fuck are you?"

"Angry," said Sandy.

She walked out of his view again and a second later he was roughly rotated in his fabric creche, spun about to face the interior of the villa bedroom. He saw his own cocoon-like reflection in the grey face of the television. And he was not alone: two other men hung suspended in the far corners. Both were oriented to face him, and gagged.

"Wendell!"

Wendell nodded his head slightly and mumbled something. Ryan didn't recognize the other guy who just stared back at him listlessly.

Sandy pointed toward the floor and Ryan buried his chin in his chest to see down over his body. A series of photographs and folders were artistically arrayed by his feet. The photographs were of women. Ryan recognized all of them. "Fuck," he said.

"Fuck indeed," agreed Sandy, smoking.

"So you know who I am...so what?" grunted Ryan. "I didn't force anybody to do anything. Each of those women --"

"Each of those women," interrupted Sandy sharply, "was plied out of their life savings by you, pretending to be a man. We're not here to debate it. We're here to end it."

Ryan tried to say something but couldn't manage.

"Am I going to kill you?" she asked, looking out the window. "Is that what you're wondering?"

Ryan stared at her.

She put out her cigarette in an ashtray shaped like a Maya calendar on the TV stand. She licked her lips and sighed. "The answer is no. There will be no more death."

Ryan gulped. "No more?"

Sandy turned back toward him, strode close, leaned into his face. "Wasn't my sister's life enough? Ask Wendell. He's been spending some serious time thinking about how she killed herself after he left her holding the bag for a quarter of a million in debt. Or ask Juan, here. He murdered a girl when she threatened to turn him in. He did it with a champagne bottle. Knocked her little head right in. Didn't you, Juan? Just pulped her up and moved on to the next mark."

Juan made no comment.

"I never killed anybody," swore Ryan.

"Who cares?" declared Sandy with a fierce snort. "You ruin lives. You're going to pay." She stepped back into the middle of the room and surveyed the three suspended men and the arrays of evidence at the feet of each. "I'm just doing my little bit for justice," she said with a cold smile.

"What's going to happen to me, Sandy? What the fuck is this?"

She ignored him, gathering up a few items from the bureau including Ryan's wallet and the little green book in which he wrote the access codes to his Caymen Islands accounts.

"You're robbing me?"

"Always keep your eye on your keys," said Sandy.

Next she opened the mini-bar and extracted three plastic sacks of juice -- apple-flavoured Capri Sun. She placed one each of the chests of the bound men and carefully angled the little plastic straws in reach of their lips after moving aside their gags. She paused beside Ryan. "I'll be back in a bit to collect the garbage. I'll bring you your gag then, Mr. Llewelyn. Don't you fret."

Then she turned on heel and left, closing the door behind her.

After a moment Ryan turned toward Wendell, who was busy working on his sack of juice. "Wendell? Wendell! This is so crazy. I feel like I'm going crazy. God. Jesus. This is so fucked up."

Wendell paused and considered the question. "Shut the fuck up, Billing," he spat, and then went back to his juice.

"What are we going to do?"

Wendell ignored him. When he was finished his juice he expertly knocked it aside with his chin, made a face of sublime concentration, and then dropped a long log of faeces into the plastic container beneath him.

Ryan looked away, disgusted. With a start of surprise he saw that Juan was grinning at him. "At lunch we get diet-shakes, guy," Juan cooed in a disconcerting, sing-song voice. He added, "When the shadow from the lamp gets to my toes, it's time for lunch, guy."

"How long have you been here?" asked Ryan, his voice flattened by horror.

"Don't get him talking," muttered Wendell darkly. "Oh Christ, just don't."

"Forever and a day!" cried Juan liltingly. "I was a little boy in this web, playing and laughing and kissing my mother's sweet round tit!"

"Shut up!" hissed Wendell. "If we make noise nobody gets lunch. Billing -- you fucking moron."

"Shit," said Ryan. Juan continued to shout. "He's insane," decided Ryan. "This is all insane. Oh my God. How long is she going to keep us here?"

"Shut the fuck up," repeated Wendell wearily.

"I received my first communion right there by the dresser!" announced Juan enthusiastically. He twisted in his bindings and his sack of juice dropped off his chest. Juan began to sob.

"Oh, God," moaned Ryan.

"Shut up! Shut up!"

The morning wore on. The sunsplash from the window crawled across the floor, dimming as clouds rolled in. Thunder growled in the distance. Ryan closed his eyes and tried not to cry.

* * *

CHAPTER 7

Sandy's name wasn't Sandy. Sandy had been her sister. But Sandy would not utter her own name until her mission was complete, so she did not bother to correct Lorenzo as they ordered drinks in the Ensenada de Arcos Iris' main pavilion lounge. They sat on tall stools beside the wide, rain spattered windows. "This one is on the house, Sandy, hokay?" said Lorenzo, motioning her hand away from signing for the tab.

"You don't need to butter me up, Lo," said Sandy. "You've already done your part. I don't have any complaints."

"So let me buy jou a drink anyway. Maybe yust because I'm impressed. Maybe yust because I wish I had the cohones to even think about doing something crazy like that."

"You think I'm crazy?"

Lorenzo preened his mustache craftily. "Anyone who does anything out of the ordinary is crazy. I'm fugging crazy, jou're fugging crazy. Those guys you got, they're fugging crazy, too. Otherwise they'd make a living like regular peoples. So let me buy jou a drink, lady -- one crazy to another, jou know?"

"Very well," said Sandy.

Lorenzo held out his glass and Sandy tinked hers against it. "Here's to being fugging crazy," he said, and drained his drink.

Sandy emptied her glass as well and slammed it down on the bar dramatically. For the first time in weeks she felt like herself, safe to regain her confident posture and to wear her comfortably careless clothes -- faded khaki slacks and a well-worn sweater. She pressed out her cigarette in a glass ashtray. "Well, that's it. I'm going home. The federales are on their way?"

"I can call Inspector Herrera again, if jou want."

"No, that's fine. I'm sure they'll be here soon enough. And I should get moving before my flight gets cancelled by the hurricane." She slipped off her stool, put a canvas bag over her shoulder, and picked up the lead of a single wheeled suitcase with a typewriter case strapped to its top.

Lorenzo brushed the arms of his white suit meticulously, then looked up at Sandy and regarded her significantly. He opened his mouth but said nothing.

Sandy smiled. Lorenzo smiled back.

She reached into her canvas bag and pulled out a manilla envelope. Lorenzo took it courteously, blew open the end with a suave cough and peered inside without removing the contents.

"The negatives are in there, too," said Sandy.

"Very well," agreed Lorenzo, closing the envelope. He walked over to the lounge's fireplace and placed the envelope gingerly in the hearth. Then he straightened, put his hands behind his back, and rocked back and forth on his heels as he watched it burn.

"Thank you for your cooperation in this matter," said Sandy gravely.

"Right back at jou," said Lorenzo with a sly wink. "...Sandy."

Sandy's taxi to Cancun was waiting for her under the portico beyond the lobby, a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle with checkered doors. The driver put her suitcase under the hood and Sandy tossed her canvas bag into the backseat. He gunned the cheerfully popping engine and the car emerged into an opaque grey deluge of rain.

Crawling along Arcos Iris' curving driveway they passed four police cruisers and two black cars. Sandy craned her head to watch them proceed to the hotel. "Thank you, Inspector Herrera," she whispered.

"Que?" said the driver, leaning in close to the windshield in hope of a better view.

"Nada, nada."

Fifteen minutes later they came to a screeching halt just shy of a tangle of twisted vehicles on the coastal highway -- a pickup truck, a microbus, and two Beetles. The truck had been full of people standing in the tailgate and now they were spread across the road. The top of one of the Beetles appeared to have been torn off, along with pieces of its occupants. The fierce rain diluted red pools of blood into pink puddles.

Sandy screamed, and so did the driver.

A tall palm ripped from its roots and crashed down into the middle of the scene, leaves shredding off into the wind. Clots of dirt spattered against Sandy's taxicab, and the driver screamed again. "Hesus Dolce! I'm sorry senorita, but I'm going back to the hotel, hokay hokay?"

They turned around, passing an ambulance on their way back west. They buzzed back to the driveway of Arcos Iris and entered a maelstrom of rain, mud and small objects buffeting the car from all direction, disorienting the driver and causing him to rear-end one of the police cruisers parked in front of the main pavilion. "Hesus Dolce!"

Smashed pieces of plastic flew into the air and were instantly torn away laterally by a gust. A chair with a floral print cushion tumbled through the portico next, knocking over a soaking federale.

Sandy jumped out of the Beetle. The hood was crushed -- her luggage jammed within.

"Get the fug inside!" bellowed Lorenzo, grabbing her arm.

"There are people hurt out there!" she yelled, stumbling into the lobby. There was crowd of frightened guests gathered there and they collectively screeched as one of the tall windows overlooking the interior of the resort was shattered by a flying fibreglass statue of Yum Caax.

"Welcome to Mexico," grumbled Lorenzo darkly, hauling Sandy to her feet.

At the tail of another influx of terrified guests came a cadre of federales marching tightly around Ryan, Wendell and Juan, who were sopping and handcuffed. A rotund, red-faced man in a brown suit strode over to Lorenzo. "What's the most structurally sound building in the complex?"

"Jou're in it, Inspector," said Lorenzo.

Just then the eastern edge of the ceiling crumbled with a grating, ripping sound, exposing racing clouds and a sky filled with flying objects. A bale of thatched grass burst apart, raining down into the lobby. People fled toward the outer walls, falling over one another on the suddenly rainslick floor.

Sandy spotted Jules kneeling on the floor next to Kate. "What happened?" she yelled over the din.

"I think I broke my leg," said Kate, wincing.

Sandy helped Jules pick his young wife up and then ushered them both into the shelter of an alcove by the front desk. She was about to run back toward Lorenzo when the roof above her peeled open with a roar, a trunk of two old crossed palms looming over her as they tumbled.

"Sandy!" yelled Lorenzo.

She was suddenly propelled sideways by a harsh force on her right side, then knocked roughly to the floor to slide up against a wall. A display of day-trip brochures broke loose and fell on her, releasing a flurry of glossy full-colour spreads through the lobby.

The trees struck the floor with a bone-shaking double thud.

Sandy looked up. Ryan was on the ground beside her, breathing hard. He had pushed her clear. He had saved her life.

They exchanged a long look a split second before the federales caught up with the action, jumping over the broken, fallen palms in the middle of the lobby and clustering around Ryan. They jerked him roughly to his feet and dragged him away. One of the officers dropped down one knee and tossed the brochure display box off Sandy. "Senorita?"

"I'm okay," she said, staring after Ryan.

The guests remained huddled there in the much abused lobby of Ensenada de Arcos Iris Villas & Resort for another half hour as the winds gradually diminished and the rain ceased to fall like sheets of bullets. The storm was moving up the coast, carrying on its ball of destruction in more westerly locales. The federales radioed for an ambulance for Kate Cuthbertson, then loaded the shackled prisoners into the cruisers and sped away, lights flashing. After that the only sound was dripping water and the panicked breathing of a woman with an anxiety disorder whose puffer was empty.

"Well," said Lorenzo sadly, surveying the lobby as he played with his mustache. "I'm totally fugged."

Sandy patted him on the shoulder of his stained and frayed white suit. "Take heart, Lo. You're crazy. You'll figure something out."

"Yeah, jou're right," he sighed. "Crazy to build a resort where fugging hurricanes come. Hey, Senor Coriander, where's your club at, mang?"

The old man with shoots of white hair in his ears was sitting with a small group of seniors drying themselves off with little sauna towels. "Eh? Toronto, Lo."

"Do jou get any hurricanes hup there?"

"Never," said the old man.

"Thas it," declared Lorenzo, raising his chin. "I'm moving to Toronto on fugging Monday, mang."

CHAPTER 8

In a small apartment in Montreal, Justine opened a package of Mexican newspapers and scanned the headlines, flipping through the pages impatiently: Excelsior, Epoca, Reforma.

At last she found it: a narrow column running down the left-hand side of El Heraldo. She strained her Spanish to get through it: three men arraigned on charges of fraud and theft after being collared by a foreign vigilante who anonymously provided the authorities with carefully detailed dossiers of evidence of their years of conning.

She tasted the word: "Vigilante!"

The article went on to mention how one of the men, Harold Nowalsky a.k.a. Wendell Nowers a.k.a. Winston Fetchings, was even connected to the suicide of a Quebecoise woman despondent after she lost everything to him. Justine put the newspaper aside and poured herself a glass of red wine.

She speculated about how unfulfilled she would feel to return to the office next week, swirling the wine in her glass and smelling it. "Vigilante," she said again, languorously.

Then she cried a bit. She cried because it was all over. For two years she had been bent upon this quest to right the wrong of her sister's death, and now she was thinking about whether she'd take the metro or a taxi to work. Now she was reduced to wondering how long her Mexican tan would last under the dull orb of Canada's winter sun.

She felt small and big, all at the same time -- destined and useless, driven and aimless, important and irrelevant. Incorrectly filed.

She was startled out of her reverie by the ringing telephone. "Hello-bonjour?"

"Justine Schalen, please."

"May I ask what it's regarding?"

"I'd like to talk to her about our mutual friend Sandy."

She held the phone away from her ear, startled. She licked her lips, slowly brought the phone back to her face. "I'm afraid I don't know anyone by that name."

A pause. "This is Ryan Billing."

Her breath caught. "What do you want?" she said at last.

"I just wanted to talk to you."

"Aren't you supposed to be in a Mexican prison?"

"No -- well, I'm here actually."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm in Montreal," said Ryan. "I'm at a payphone at, uh, Saint Laurent and Prince Albert. I was wondering...if you'd come meet me here. There's a bar. Do you know Chou-chou?"

"Why would I want to meet you?"

"I just want to talk. Can't we do that? I just want --"

"I don't have anything to say to you."

"Look, I came all this way. To find you. Please, Sandy, just hear me out."

"No. Goodbye, Mr. Llewelyn."

"Wait -- no, no. Please. Don't hang up on me. You changed my life, Sandy -- please!"

Justine sighed. She got halfway to replacing the phone on the cradle and then, with a sour swallow, brought it back to her mouth. "How did you find me?"

"Your bag. Crushed in the taxi. I found it. And I just had to see you again, if for nothing else than just to tell you what an impact you've made on me as a person. You've changed me, Sandy."

"There. You've told me. We have no further business."

"I wanted to say thank you."

"So say it."

"Thank you."

"Great. You're done. Never contact me again or so help me I'll have Surete Quebec on you so fast..." She trailed off, pushed her chestnut hair out of her face, glanced around for the cigarettes she'd already quit. "Are you still there?"

"I'm still here."

"So go already."

A pause. "I can't hang up without telling you that I love you, Sandy. I don't care if you never think of me again, but I want you to know for just a single second that I've totally fucking fallen in love with you. You're the most amazing thing that's ever hit me, and I don't want to let that go. I will if I have to, but I don't want to. So at least you know. Do you understand? You fucking rewrote me. Do with that whatever you will. I promise to leave you alone now."

"Ryan..."

"What, Sandy?"

She bit her lip and swore under her breath. "Listen, I'll meet you for a drink, okay? One drink. At Chou-chou. Around people. Okay? But that's it."

"Okay. Okay, great. Oh, thank you, Sandy. You won't regret it."

"Fifteen minutes," she said and hung up.

When she arrived at Chou-chou she stamped the snow off her boots and then took a tour around the place, pushing through the crowd, feeling unreal. Ryan was nowhere to be found. She sidled up to the bar and described him for the bartender, who shrugged and shook his head. She bummed a cigarette and smoked it while she stared at the door, then stepped out and wandered into the intersection of St. Laurent and Prince Albert. She looked around but could not see a payphone anywhere.

Justine couldn't make any sense of the situation until she got back home to find her apartment stripped bare. Every item: every scrap of clothing, furniture and electronic equipment was gone leaving nothing but dents in the carpet.

There was a note in the middle of the floor. It read: Fair is fair -- love, Ryan.

The vigilante sat down slowly, shook her head, and then laughed and laughed and laughed.

Fin.


ALTERNATIVE FORMATS
AMAZON KINDLE E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY

CONNECTED STORIES
Boldly Gone | Night Flight Mike | The Secret Mathematic

IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.
CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah CheeseburgerBrown.com
Free Stories Books About the Author Frequently Asked Questions Articles & Essays Shop Blog
CHEESEBURGERBROWN.COM © 2012 HEMMING MEDIA, PUBLISHER; ALL RIGHTS RESERVED - Legal Details | Privacy | Site Map