Published: October 2021
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
An American tourist is murdered in a gay sauna in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Amanda Pennyworth, the American consul to that vacation resort, risks her career and her life to find the culprit. Amanda works with a junior officer of the Tourist Police in the search for suspects in the secretive underworld of this popular vacation spot. When a young Mexican boy is arrested by the impatient and brutal police chief on flimsy evidence, Amanda is convinced that it is a terrible mistake. But no one is willing to listen to her: certainly not the arrogant chief of police; not the boy’s parents who seem to blame her for the murder; and not the cynical American Ambassador who only wants to avoid an international incident. It’s up to her.
This is the second in a series of novels featuring the amateur sleuth, Amanda Pennyworth who finds, much to her surprise, that among her duties as consul for the United States is the dangerous pursuit of murderers.
Other books in the Amanda Pennyworth mystery series:
When Amanda Pennyworth began her assignment as American Consul in the beautiful resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, she had no inkling she would be called upon to solve the mysterious disappearance of a famous expat writer. However, when he vanishes—the victim of a kidnapping—Amanda is drawn into the desperate search to save his life. Negotiating the competing layers of Mexican police: the Federales, the local constabulary, and the tourist police, she is pulled deeper into what she realizes too late is a cunning and deadly plot.
Rodrigo slowly backed out from the utility closet, banging the mop hoisted over his shoulder against the door. Turning around, he tried twice to prop it against one of the stools next to the bar, but each time it fell onto the tile floor with a clatter. In his right hand, he carried a bucket of water, so full that it slopped over the edge when he set it down next to the counter.
“Watch what you’re doing, damn it!” Antonio cried, without looking over the ledge to measure the spill. “Did you inspect all the rooms?”
“Number 201 has still got has stuff in it. At least there are clothes on the hook and the towel is gone.”
“And the key hasn’t been turned back in either,” Antonio said as he glanced at the rack behind him. “So the guy must still be around. Have you checked everywhere?”
“Not yet. Just going to.”
“Well, get to it. He’s probably sleeping it off somewhere. Wake him up and get him out of here. We’re not running a fucking hotel!”
Antonio was tired and hot and anxious to close up. The temperature outside, even though it was after 2:00 in the morning had to be at least 90 degrees, and inside, give it even three or four more despite the fans that just blew the heat around like the hot breath of desire. He turned around again and reached up to the console behind him and switched off the music. The sudden quiet, as the steady disco beat died out, felt like relief from a throbbing headache he didn’t know he had. Then, touching a switch on the wall, he turned on the fluorescent lights. The red glow from the recessed overhead lamps that had disguised every fault and feature with a romantic blur dissolved into a flood of stark white exposing the dark, uneven floor, the blemished and cracked grey walls. The unforgiving glare was bright enough to wipe any illusions, and ended the allure of this palace of dingy dreams. Further on, there was the dark well of a staircase that led down to the level below. The steps behind him that led up to private rooms.
“Make sure you check in the sauna and steam area,” he shouted after Rodrigo, who was just disappearing around the curve in his descent.
Once on the basement level, Rodrigo walked across the dim corridor and stopped in front of the wooden enclosure of the sauna. He peered into the small glass window on the door, but the light was off and he could barely make out the shapes of the benches. Opening it up, the heat spilled out, sweeping over him. He could smell the combination of wood resin and sweat. But the room was empty.
He walked further on to the glass door of the steam room. Pulling it open, he entered the damp gloomy space, edged past the tile-covered bench on the right side, and then turned around a corner into the darkened back area. Condensation from the ceiling dribbled on his forehead and he wiped his eyes to get a better look. There was just enough light to see a shape stretched out on one of the side benches.
“Vamos, Amigo, estamos cerrados,” he said. And then repeated his words in English—louder this time. There was no response, so he moved closer. He could see now that the person was entirely naked, resting on a towel. He reached down and shook the man’s shoulder.
“Wake up!” he said. “Get up!”
There was still no response.
Then, with both hands, he seized the man’s dangling left arm and tried to pull him up. But the unexpected dead weight was so much that the man slipped onto the floor instead.
“Damn!” he shouted. “Damn! He’s dead drunk!”
Retracing his steps, he hurried halfway up the staircase where he paused and called out to Antonio:
“Found someone, but he’s drunk and I couldn’t wake him up. What should I do?”
“Fuck!” cried Antonio as he walked around the edge of the bar. “I’ll come down with you and together maybe we can carry him out. How big is he?”
“Couldn’t really tell. Just lying there on the floor. It’s dark you know.”
The two of them descended the stairs and Rodrigo switched on the overhead lights at that level.
“And when we’re done,” he added. “Make sure you mop the floor in there. God only knows what….”
Rodrigo held the door of the steam room and then propped it open with a rubber shim that had rested inconspicuously against the wall. Antonio waited for him and together they edged around to the dark alcove. The man was still lying on the floor.
“Is this how you found him?”
“Well, yes; not exactly. I mean, I tried to get him up, but couldn’t. He’s too heavy and out cold. That’s why I called you.”
“OK, then you grab his legs and I’ll take his shoulders and we can steer him out of here and onto one of the benches outside.”
“Damn, that’s a lot; dead weight,” Rodrigo groaned, hoisting his ankles.
“Stop complaining! I’ve got him, so just back up and don’t drop him….Come on, Amigo. Wake up and help us out a bit!”
They struggled, half dragging the naked body out of the steam room, but instead of putting him on one of the benches or the worn couch at the side of the sauna enclosure, they just left him lying on his back on the floor.
“OK, Amigo, wake up. Last call! We’re closed!” Antonio said, bending over and looking at the man’s face.
“Definitely an American or at least a foreigner. Get a towel, Rodrigo, and cover him up while I try to wake him.”
Antonio crouched down on his haunches and felt the man’s face. It was warm, but there was no reaction. He grasped an arm, raised it up and then let it drop.
Rodrigo returned with two towels and placed them over the man’s body.
“Do you think he’s dead?” he asked suddenly.
“How should I know? Don’t know how to tell,” Antonio answered. “He’s not cold. And not stiff.”
“Feel for his pulse. I seen them do it on television. Feel his neck. That’s what the detectives always do.”
Antonio put his fingers around the man’s neck and waited. “I don’t feel anything. How am I supposed to know?”
“Those TV detectives can always tell, right away.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a detective! I think I’m going to have to call the police.”
“That won’t be good for business if he’s dead. Do you think he stayed in the steam room too long?”
“Don’t be crazy; it’s not warm enough in there to wilt a flower. Probably just had a heart attack or something. But he’s awfully young for that.”
“Do you see those red marks on his throat? Looks like maybe he was strangled.”
“He seems dead, so I guess he was. But you’re an expert now?”
“Just what I seen on American shows. Bruises where you press down hard. I don’t know nothing.”
Antonio stood up and walked toward the staircase: “Stay there, Rodrigo, I’m going to call the Tourist Police. In case he moves, let me know.”
“He ain’t gonna’ move. For sure.”
Reaching the main floor, Antonio walked quickly around the bar and through the door in back leading into the small office that also fronted the entrance, where customers standing behind a wire grill, passed their money through and picked up keys to lockers or retiring rooms and a towel and plastic flip flops. It was also where he kept his cellphone. He dialed the number and a sleepy voice answered:
“Is Captain Morelos there?”
“No. Sorry. He’s been transferred to Oaxaca.”
“Then can I speak to whoever is there?”
“You can tell me what’s the problem. If I decide it’s important I’ll pass you on to anybody.”
“Listen. This is serious! I’m Antonio Lopez at the Olympiad sauna. We got a customer that we can’t seem to wake up. I think he might be dead.”
“Did you try his pulse? Maybe he’s just drunk.”
“More than that, I’m afraid. You need to send someone around. Right away. I got to close this place up.”
“OK, OK. I’ll see if anyone is here and I’ll send them over.”
“How about sending a doctor or maybe an ambulance too? So you can get him out of here.”
“We’ll see about that when we get there.”
The police car pulled up in front about a half hour later. A tired looking officer dressed in crumpled fatigues and a middle-aged woman wearing slacks and a sweatshirt and carrying a black bag—someone who might have been a doctor or the Medical Examiner but without a uniform—came through the open doorway, up the stairs, and rang the bell in the entrance alcove. Antonio buzzed them inside.
“I’m Captain Gonzalez,” said the officer, pushing into the entranceway. “Just happened to be on duty and about to go home when you called. This is Senora Sanchez.” He seemed peeved by the interruption to his day. “Where’s the body?”
“I don’t want no trouble; we never had no trouble here,” Antonio said, as he guided them to the staircase and then down into the basement level. He turned to look at them as they followed: “He hasn’t moved since we took him out of the steam room.”
“So you moved him?” the examiner shook her head as she was pulling on a pair of plastic gloves. “That’s not very smart. Shouldn’t have.” She walked over to the body and crouched down, placing her fingers along the artery of his neck. She picked up and flexed his limp arm and then noticed the blotches on his neck.
“Do you think you could shine a flashlight on these marks,” she asked the officer. I can’t be sure, and won’t know until I have him back at the station, but it looks like he was strangled. You can see some bruising. And not too long ago. No signs of rigor yet.”
Then standing and addressing Antonio: “Do you have any identification for him? He looks like a foreigner. Could be about 25 years old or so.”
“Use your pass key and go look in his room again, Rodrigo, bring his clothes and anything else you find in his room,” Antonio ordered.
“Just a minute,” interrupted the woman. “I’m coming with you. And you’re not going to touch anything, understand?”
“But I already have…awhile ago. And I don’t need the key; I left the door open.”
“Come along and be quiet,” she said.. “Just show me the room and then stay out of my way! Anything else you did to corrupt the crime scene?”
Rodrigo was about to answer but thought she would just accuse him again.
So the two climbed up the staircase to the upper landing in silence while Antonio and the officer remained below staring down at the body.
“I don’t want no trouble,” said Antonio, in a tone that sounded more like a question than an assertion. “We never have no trouble here.”
“Yes, you said that before. But looks like you’ve got a lot of trouble now. Not much else I can say right off. But certainly it looks like a murder, and a foreigner too. Can’t think of anything worse for you. We’ll have to close your place down for a few days… maybe a week or two. Tomorrow, I’ll send a team to look for fingerprints. And don’t be surprised if you find a few things out of order.”
“But Officer; how long? We have to clean the rooms!”
“You’re not listening very carefully. You need to think about how you can help us instead of mopping the floors. And when we’re done here tonight, I want you and your helper to lock up. And plan to stay shut until I tell you to. Don’t have to tell you not to touch anything. And you’ll have to come to the station of course… a lot of questions to answer…but later.”
Approaching the row of cubicles on the second floor above the bar, Rodrigo led the Medical Examiner to the open door of 201. He switched on the single bulb light inside, which cast a weak glow around the tiny space, and let her step in first because there was scarcely any room to turn around. She entered and sidled along the raised wooden platform bed that was covered in some sort of plastic material and a crumpled sheet. The wall abutting it was mirrored up to the ceiling. Toward the far end there was a small built-in table. On top of it was a plastic water bottle, and above, to the right was a wall hook with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt still hanging.
Taking both items of clothing down, she spread them out onto the platform and turned the pockets of the jeans inside out. Both in front were empty except for a few coins on the right side. Reaching underneath, she took a wallet out of the back right pocket. It was empty except for a vehicle insurance card. In the dim glare, she could make out the name “Jeremy Blackman” with an address in Los Angeles.
“Was the door to this cubicle unlocked when you came to check on him?”
“I don’t remember, Senora; what I mean is, I always use my key so I wouldn’t know if it was or wasn’t, would I?”
“Do you have some system of lock-boxes? Somewhere he might have put money, credit cards, a passport?”
“And did you did find the room key anywhere on the body?”
“No. I didn’t see that neither. It would have been on an elastic band. Guys put them on their wrist or ankle sometimes.”
“You’re sure it didn’t fall off when you carried him out of the steam room?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure, but I’ll go back and look again.”
The Medical Examiner gave him an exasperated look, but said nothing further. She backed out of the room and walked swiftly along the corridor and down the two flights of stairs back to where the body was stretched out on the floor. Rodrigo followed, staying carefully well behind her.
“I’ve got an I.D. for him, some sort of insurance card from Los Angeles, but it looks very likely that he was robbed,” she told Captain Gonzalez. “No cash, no credit cards, no passport. Whether that has anything to do with his death is, of course, for someone else to prove. And I looked, but there was no key inside the cubicle, as you can see, none on his wrist and there was nothing in his pockets. Maybe when you do a more thorough search, you’ll find it.” Addressing Antonio, she continued: “Did anyone turn in the key?”
“No Senora. Whoever did this I think has taken the key with him.”
“Perhaps. We don’t know that yet. Maybe it will turn up when we’ve done a more thorough search.”
“As for the cause of death,” she said, turning to the Captain Gonzalez, “I’ll have a report for you tomorrow sometime once you get the body back to my lab. And I’ll tell you definitively if it was murder or not. But it looks like it.”
“Thanks Senora,” the officer mumbled. “I’ll deliver the body as soon as I can get an ambulance here. In the meantime, can you give me the insurance card? If that’s him and he’s an American, I’ll have to notify the Consulate.
“Good luck with that!”
“You know as well as I do, what; she makes trouble.”
The officer turned to Antonio who had moved away from the body, recoiling as if it was contaminated: “I want a list of names: everyone who entered today and, if you can, the time that this person arrived.”
“I’m sorry Officer, but we don’t keep a list of names. This ain’t a hotel.”
“OK, then, passport numbers or ID numbers for any locals will do.”
“Might not be complete.”
“Aren’t you supposed to check everyone who enters? What kind of a place is this?”
Antonio took a step backwards and almost sat down abruptly onto one of the benches along the wall.
“I’m sorry, Sir, yes, we usually check ID’s for the age of the person. And we generally write down the ID number. But maybe if Rodrigo was at the window, he might have forgotten to. He’s not very careful sometimes. So you’ll have to ask him. But listen: we never had trouble, here. And we have to be discrete, you know.”
“Well, in this case, I think you’ve got considerable trouble….Hardly the time to be worried about anyone’s reputation. Do you remember him—the victim—when he arrived and if he was alone?”
“I think maybe I was the one who checked him in. I seem to remember there were two them: Americans, I think, about the same age… young anyway. So if they actually came together, then one of them has obviously left alone. I can’t tell you exactly when; probably Rodrigo checked him out. You know it’s very simple process. They just shove their towels and sheets into a hamper by the exit and return their shoes and keys. I’m not sure I’d remember anyone leaving specifically. Sometimes I just buzz them out without looking if I’m busy at the bar. But ask Rodrigo; maybe he….” Antonio was intentionally vague; not because he knew something and didn’t want to say, but he figured if he sounded unreliable, the policeman would stop asking him questions.
“Then I’ll want that list of those entries you have before I leave.”
“I’m not sure I should give it to you,” Antonio said, after a pause. A look of dread spread over his face. “People who come here don’t want to have their names known. It could cause terrible trouble for me if you investigate them. I’m sure you understand.”
Gonzalez scowled and took a step toward him: “That’s not my problem. If this is a murder, and I think it is, any one of your clients could be the killer. I need those ID numbers. You’re to give me list before I leave. I don’t give a damn about anonymous or about your business.”
He then turned his gaze to the assistant who was sitting on a bench down at the end of the corridor. Rodrigo looked up anxiously when the policeman approached.
“Do you remember two Americans? The person lying here and maybe a friend of his? Did you see them together or check the other one out?”
Rodrigo stood up and stared blankly for a minute:
“I never pay any attention to the guys here whether they’re American or not,” he said, backing up against the bench he had been sitting on.
“Never make eye contact, because if you do…. I just work here; I’m not one of them!”
“I don’t care what you are or aren’t. Just tell me, did you see them together?”
“Not that I remember. But I do know that one American left earlier because I had to ask him for his towel. He’d left it in the locker area and I certainly wasn’t going to get it for him. But he may not be the one you mean. We get lots of foreigners here.”
“So that man you remember didn’t have a room?”
“I guess not. I didn’t check his key. But that wouldn’t be unusual. If two guys came together why would each need a separate room? But then this isn’t a place where anyone wants to explain what they’re doing or why. So who knows?”
“Do you remember what time it was? Approximately?”
“I don’t know. Maybe around 11:00 or so. I usually go outside for a few minutes around that time. Get some fresh air. Could have been then or when I came back in.”
“So you really don’t know.”
“That’s right. I don’t pay no attention. I just do my job without looking. I don’t get paid to see things.”
Gonzalez stared at Rodrigo for a moment and then decided that he kept repeating himself because of nerves. And probably knew nothing more. But he would keep an ear open for anything suspicious about him just the same. He wasn’t sure he could trust anyone here. And the whole place…maybe the late hour…and a foreigner murdered! He could expect nothing but trouble.
About the Author
James Gilbert is the author of four published novels, two of them in the Amanda Pennyworth Mystery Series. Two of his short stories have been awarded prizes by the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story contest (2017 and 2021). In his previous academic career, he was Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland specializing in modern American cultural history. As a historian, he published eleven American History books in modern American culture on subjects ranging from Twentieth Century World’s Fairs to the conflict between science and religion. One of his publications was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.