Mack MacWray's clothing company was wildly successful until his smooth-talking partner, Lars Larson, disappeared with all the assets, leaving Mack with nothing but debts and shattered dreams. Devastated, he thinks he has nothing left to live for until, on the cliffs of a remote Mexican resort, he finds his wayward partner. After push literally comes to shove, Mack has a sudden revelation: Maybe he's not such a nice guy after all.
Mack returns to the States minus his moral compass and discovers a world of opportunity. Without the ball and chain of guilt and accountability, his success is all but guaranteed. He transforms himself from bankrupt loser to hard-nosed success story but at what cost? His wife wants the old Mack back; her best friend wants Mack in bed; Lars's widow wants money (or revenge); and Detective Jerry Pleasant wants some answers....
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"Espérame, por favor." Teddy handed the taxista a hundred-peso note. "Ahorita vengo."
The driver took the note, held it up to the light. "No problem, amigo. I wait for you."
Teddy got out of the cab, ran his hands down the front of his guayabera to smooth it, brushed the brim of his panama with his fingertips, and entered Plaza Flamingo, an indoor conglomeration of shops and restaurants thick with U.S. franchises. Why anyone would travel thousands of miles to eat a Big Mac or a Domino's pizza was a mystery to Teddy, but they did. There was even a Planet Hollywood.
Plaza Flamingo did an enormous amount of business during the winter and spring, when hundreds of thousands of U.S. tourists descended upon Cancún, but this time of year the tiendas were quiet, free from the jittery crowds of pallid vacationers. Teddy passed a jewelry store, a gift shop, and a Subway sandwich shop -- all with their gates open but few customers. He crossed the atrium with its chronically malfunctioning fountain. Today it was dry. Several people sat around its perimeter smoking cigarettes and speaking rapid Spanish. Strolling, window-shopping families from Mexico City or Mérida, spending a weekend in Cancún to escape the inland heat, dominated the sparsely populated corridors. At the moment, Teddy was the only non-Mexican in sight. He liked it that way.
The clerk at La Casa del Habano was cleaning the glass countertop with a blue rag, polishing with slow, circular strokes, a distant smile on his placid face.
"Buenos días," Teddy said.
The clerk looked up. "¡Buenos días! Señor Larson!" He folded the rag and put it away. "I have good news for you. We have just received a new shipment. You prefer the Espléndidos, no? One box?" He bobbed his round head, his slanted eyes disappearing as he smiled. Like many Mayans, he would not have looked out of place in Hong Kong. Or maybe he was Chinese. In Cancún, anything was possible.
"Sí, sí," Teddy said.
"No problem. I get them for you."
The clerk went into the humidor and climbed atop a short ladder. A few seconds later he came out with a cedar box of Cohiba Espléndidos, displaying it as if he had unearthed a great treasure.
"I see. Bueno." Teddy pulled a money clip from his pants pocket and peeled off eight five-hundred-peso notes while the clerk undertook the laborious process of handwriting a receipt. Mexican merchants took their receipts very seriously.
"I meet a friend of yours," the clerk said as he wrote. "He come into the store yesterday. No. Day before."
"Oh?" Teddy felt his heart speed up.
"He ask if I know you."
"What did you tell him?" He strained to keep his voice calm.
"I just say I know you."
Teddy turned and looked out through the glass storefront into the atrium. A woman with her teenage daughter, walking quickly. An old man with a broom. A young Mexican couple carrying several shopping bags. Teddy ran down a list of names in his mind. People to avoid. "What did he look like?"
"Like a tourist. American. He ask me do you come here much."
"What did you tell him?"
The clerk shrugged, smiling uncertainly. "I tell him you come here sometime."
Teddy kept his eyes on the shoppers. He tapped the box of cigars with a forefinger. "How many more of these you got? ¿Cuántas cajas?"
The clerk stopped writing. "Two, I think maybe."
"Bien. I'll take them." Teddy peeled more bills off his clip. He would have to avoid the area for a few weeks, stay on Isla. Whoever had been asking about him, he didn't want to run into them. "Anybody else comes in here looking for me, you tell them you don't know me. Like Pancho Villa. ¿Comprende?"
The clerk's face lost all expression. "Sí, señor."
Teddy watched the plaza traffic -- still no gringos -- as the clerk painstakingly amended the receipt, counted the money, gave him change, and loaded the cigars into a large plastic bag. Teddy pulled his panama low on his forehead and left the store on high alert. He walked directly to his waiting cab, took a quick look around, got in.
"Puerto Juárez, por favor." He looked back as the cab pulled out into traffic, but saw nothing unusual.
At 10:30 A.M., side one of the Enya tape ended. Paula MacWray's hand followed the wire from her headset down to the Walkman. She pressed the eject button with an oily forefinger, reversed the tape, then rolled over onto her back. Sun crashed through the lenses of her dark glasses as the music -- a slick New Age interpretation of Celtic rhythms -- filled her ears. She squeezed her eyes closed, reached down, and groped for her bottle of Corona. Left side? No, right. She caught the bottle by its neck and lifted it out of the ice bucket. Frigid droplets of water tracked across her belly. She tipped the bottle to her mouth and swallowed. The beer went down like a rope of sleet, sending a chill up the backs of her arms and down her sides.
Paula pushed the bottle back into the ice and felt around for her tube of sunscreen but could not seem to locate it. Damn. Where was Mack when she needed him? She sat up and opened her eyes. There, right under her elbow. She squeezed a scribble of white goo, hot with stored sunlight, onto her thighs. She began to rub it in, taking her time. The tropical sun was unforgiving. Most of the other people around the pool were under the long ramada on the south side, in the shade. Another half hour and she would be sufficiently baked to join them. She coated the tops of her thighs, her knees, her shins and feet, enjoying the sensation of hands kneading flesh. Mack should be doing this for her. Where was he? Three days in Cancún and she'd hardly seen him. Every morning he took off, saying something about "seeing the sights." He would put on his new hat, a long-billed fishing cap with Cancún embroidered on the front, and walk up Paseo Kukulcán. She wouldn't see him again until sunset.
Paula made sure to get a heavy layer of sunscreen on her inner thighs, on her belly, and under her breasts -- areas most susceptible to sunburn. The skimpy two-piece, purchased in the hotel swim shop that morning, revealed portions of her anatomy that had not seen sunlight in years. When her front side was completely coated, she let her arms fall to her sides and let the sun dig in.
Whatever Mack was doing with himself, he seemed to have regained his sense of purpose. Mexico had wiped off some of that hangdog look, and he was drinking less. On the downside, he hardly seemed to know she existed. They hadn't made love once since arriving in Cancún. Mack had entered a private world to which she was not invited -- and she wasn't sure she wanted an invitation. She hadn't come to Mexico to share Mack's private hell. She'd come here to relax.
Maybe Mack needed the alone time. Maybe by the time they returned home he would be able to see things more clearly. Maybe they both would.
"Stay back! Not so close."
"No problem." The cabbie sped up.
Mack ducked down in his seat. "No! Don't get so close. I don't want him to see us."
"Okay, no problem." The cabbie laughed.
"Don't lose them."
"Don't let him see us."
The cabbie sped up.
"No!" Mack opened his phrase book. "¡No santa sede!"
The cabbie giggled, but he seemed to get the message. "No problem."
Mack raised his head. Lars's cab was two cars ahead of them. Lars! It was like a dream, as if he had stepped into another reality. A bad knockoff of a Hitchcock movie. He had flown thousands of miles to this garish speck on the map and actually found him. Unbelievable.
A bank of low gray clouds had settled upon the horizon to the north. Lars's cab followed the Paseo Kukulcán traffic through the zona hotelera, past the Hyatt Caribe, the Sierra, and the less expensive Miramar, where he and Paula were staying. Blips of ocean appeared between hotel towers. Mack's first look at Cancún had reminded him of Las Vegas. Today it looked to him like a twisted Disneyland, sprawling resorts made of Lego blocks and sand. Mack figured Lars would be staying in one of the biggest, most garish hotels -- one of the places that looked like enormous Mayan pyramids -- but the cab continued past the Caracol district, through the Club de Golf, and over the Playa Linda bridge onto the mainland. Mack hadn't seen this part of the city. They passed a series of small hotels. At one point a bus cut between the two cabs and they almost lost Lars's cab when it turned north at an interchange. The cabbie, responding to Mack's shouted command, circled the bewildering intersection; they caught up with Lars on Avenida Bonampak, the downtown bypass. The buildings became smaller and shabbier, and the signs advertising U.S. products -- Burger King, Levi's, Coca-Cola -- were replaced by unfamiliar Mexican brands.
Lars's cab turned onto a wide boulevard. They headed northeast, following the shoreline. A few miles later it pulled over to the curb at a busy intersection, people everywhere. Lars got out of his cab.
"Go past them, then pull over," Mack said. He counted to five, then sat up and looked back just in time to see Lars, plastic bag in hand, disappearing into a covered passageway between two long, low buildings.
"Where are we?" Mack demanded, fumbling with a fistful of U.S. currency.
"Puerto Juárez," said the cabbie. "Where you take a boat."
Mack handed the cabby thirty dollars, probably too much, hopped out, and jogged back to the entrance into which Lars had disappeared. He found himself in a wide alley shaded by a twenty-foot-high peaked roof. He could see the ocean at the far end, but Lars had disappeared. Mack walked quickly toward the water, emerged into sunlight at the base of a long concrete pier. Vendors on each side offered him seashells, baseball caps, pastries, cheap jewelry. Mack wove his way through the gauntlet, shaking his head, smiling, avoiding eye contact. A few dozen people were crowded near the end of the pier, boarding an ungainly-looking two-decker ferry.
Mack stopped. Was Lars on board? He searched the boarding passengers for Lars's straw hat. There? He thought he'd caught a glimpse of pale straw on the upper deck. Feeling exposed, Mack backed up to the base of the pier. Two teenage girls passed nearby; Mack caught their attention. "Where does that boat go?" he asked, pointing. Two young men were untying the boat and stowing the loading ramp.
The girls stared at him, uncomprehending.
Mack tried again. "¿Dónde está...uh...boata?" The ferry moved away from the pier.
The girls giggled and edged away. Mack looked around, ran over to the nearest vendor, a man selling sunglasses and plush toys.
"Excuse me," Mack pointed urgently at the ferry. "¿Dónde? ¿Dónde?"
"You want teddy bear?"
"No. I just want to know where the boat goes."
"Isla Mujeres. Next one, thirty minutes. You got plenty time. You sure you don't want to buy some junk?"
Mack walked out onto the wharf. The boat was moving out to sea. He squinted at the horizon. He could see land. Isla Mujeres?
Mack looked at the speaker, a teenage boy, rail thin, showing a set of large, crowded teeth beneath a neatly trimmed mustache.
"You want to go fast way, or slow way?" He pointed down the beach to where several smaller craft -- low-slung wooden boats painted in bright primary colors -- were tied to a dock. "I get you there fast."
"To Isla Mujeres?"
"You wait for the big boat, it take an hour. Forty dollar I get you to Isla fast. Ten minute."
"Okay, guy. For you, thirty-five."
Teddy Larson used his time on the ferry to assess his fellow passengers. There were about fifty of them, but only a few who looked like Americans. Teddy wasn't too concerned about the Mexicans. The man asking about him at the cigar store had been American, according to the clerk. Lars moved around the upper deck, following the red wooden railing, looking at each passenger in turn, listening to their conversation. There were about a dozen non-Mexicans. Two German couples traveling together. Six of the passengers were Anglo women, paired off and standing close together. No surprise there. Isla de Mujeres, Island of Women, was a popular destination for lesbian couples. Teddy liked lesbians. He liked people that left him alone, that did not notice him. He'd spent a good chunk of his childhood fantasizing about being invisible. Maybe that was why he'd bought the condo on Isla.
The only passenger that concerned him was a heavyset middle-aged man wearing a Señor Frog T-shirt and a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap. Could be American. Could be the guy looking for him. He was hanging on the railing, staring down at the passing water. Teddy sidled up to him.
"Looks like we got some weather coming in," he said.
The man raised his head. "Eh?"
Teddy pointed to the north, to a bank of gray clouds. "Weather," he said.
The man squinted. "Oh, yeah."
"You staying on Isla?"
"Me? Hell no. Wife's idea." He made a head gesture toward a perky-looking forty-something woman a few yards down the rail. "She wants to see the turtles. They got some kind of turtle farm. Me, I'd rather sit in the pool and drink beer and look at babes. That's my idea of fun, eh? But she says we come all the way from Winnipeg, we're gonna see the sights."
Teddy allowed himself to relax. He had nothing to fear from a Canadian. All of his business deals had occurred in the United States. "The turtles are all right," he said.
The man grunted. "Maybe she's right," he muttered, turning a red-eyed gaze on Teddy. "I think I had too goddamn much fun last night."
"That's what you're here for, right?"
The man laughed. His laugh became a cough. He spat into the ocean. "That, and look at the goddamn turtles."
Teddy echoed the man's laugh and moved on toward the stern. He felt slightly ill himself. He did not like to be around so many people, especially on a boat. They were animals, milling around the narrow deck, hanging on the rail like a bunch of monkeys. Making him nervous. He climbed down to the more sheltered lower deck. Two women wearing mud-flap hairdos and long-sleeved cotton shirts sat on a bench near the front; the other long benches were empty. Teddy sat down in the back row and opened one of the cigar boxes. He clipped and lit a fresh Espléndido. The two women rotated their heads, turning laser glares upon him. Teddy smiled at them and saluted with his cigar. The two women put on wide-brimmed straw hats, tightened the draw cords beneath their chins, and joined the other passengers on the upper deck. Perfect. Teddy lost himself in a Havana cloud, feeling, for the moment, safe.
The crossing to Isla Mujeres -- no life preservers, the prow pointing skyward, slapping the waves with bone-jarring force, speed unknowable but certainly beyond what the tiny wooden craft had been designed for -- terrified Mack sufficiently to keep him from thinking too hard about what he was going to do once he caught up with Lars. He sat in the prow, gripping the gunnels as if his life depended on it, which it probably did. The Mexican kid grinned at him from the stern, sinewy arms gripping the handle of the oversize outboard motor, black hair wet with spray whipping in the wind. They passed the slower ferry two minutes after leaving the dock. Mack kept his face averted.
They nosed up to the ferry dock at Isla Mujeres twelve minutes after departing Puerto Juárez. Mack unclenched his fingers and stepped shakily out of the boat. He fished out two twenty-dollar bills.
"Sorry, guy, no change." The youth grinned at him.
"No problem," said Mack, relinquishing the twenties. He could see the slow ferry, still a half mile out. The thought of being ahead of Lars for once sent a cold thrill through his body. When Lars got off the ferry Mack would...what would he do? He wasn't sure. He supposed he would tail Lars, gather information, find out all he could, and then, when the moment came, he would confront him. He stood on the dock watching the ferry grow in size. When he could pick out the individual people standing on deck he moved off the dock onto the street and stood off to the side, behind a fruit cart. He pulled his cap low on his forehead and hugged himself and waited, his body vibrating, trying to imagine how Lars would react to seeing him.
As the ferry glided up to the dock, Teddy emerged from his reverie and entered a state of alertness. He waited, smoking and watching through the windows, until the other passengers had disembarked. The waterfront was crowded with vendors, taxis, and tourists. He looked for anything or anyone out of place but saw nothing he had not seen before. He left the cabin and stepped onto the dock, scanning. There, across the street, behind a fruit cart, wearing sunglasses and a long-billed cap, standing perfectly still. Everyone else was moving, doing things, going places -- but the one man stood still and watched. Teddy dropped his cigar into the water, walked quickly off the pier, and headed up Calle Morelos. The back of his neck crawled with the desire to look back, but he kept on moving. At Benito Juárez he turned left, passed the Tequila House and the Silver Factory, and ducked into a small shop. He backed into the shadows and waited, watching through the doorway. A few seconds later he saw Mack MacWray walk by, head swiveling rapidly.
Teddy let his breath hiss out through his nose. Mack! What the hell was Mack doing here?
"Can I help you?"
Teddy whirled, bringing his plastic bag full of cigar boxes around as if it were a shield. An Anglo woman wearing a long, heavily embroidered caftan stood with her hands clasped. He realized he was in a sort of hybrid art gallery/gift shop/jewelry store, one of several on the island. Brightly painted masks were displayed alongside porcelain necks loaded with necklaces. Soapstone and onyx carvings, mostly contemporary knockoffs of Mayan fertility dolls, perched on glass shelves. A long, glass-topped counter was loaded with coral and jet jewelry. The woman leaned toward him, smiling hard, lips compressed, head tilted, eyes bright.
"Just looking," Teddy said. He leaned out the doorway and looked to the left. Mack was out of sight, but it was likely that he would double back. Teddy jogged quickly back toward the piers. He followed the waterfront north for two blocks, turned up Calle Matamoros to the Hotel Caribe -- now converted to condos -- where Pepe, the wiry old Mayan who handled maintenance, landscaping, and building security, was filling a crack in the concrete steps leading into the lobby.
Pepe looked up as Teddy's shadow crossed his work. "B'días, Señor Larson."
"Morning, Pepe," Teddy said, looking up and down the avenue. "How's it going?" He stepped through and let the door close on Pepe's reply.
Safe. He let his shoulders drop, unclenched his hands. Mack! Of all the people he'd worried about running into, Mack was the least of them. What did the guy think he was going to do? Extradite him? Not likely. Teddy stood behind the door and watched the street through the tiny window. A handsome Mexican couple, laughing. Two women walking together. A taxi. A man pushing a cart full of mangoes and round watermelons. Teddy was about to head upstairs to his condo when Mack appeared, walking quickly toward the waterfront, the long bill of his cap swiveling from side to side, searching. Teddy backed away from the window.
Damn. Sooner or later Mack would catch up with him. The island was too small, and he was known to too many people. Mack would find him -- or Rita. She was probably out there now, roasting her tits at the beach. The woman was the color of burnt toast; she just couldn't get enough sun. Probably get skin cancer before she turned thirty, but what the hell. She looked incredible.
What to do about Mack? Teddy started up the stone staircase to his third-floor condo. He and Rita could take a boat over to Cuba, make it a cigar-buying expedition, lay low for a few days. She'd like that. Go over and blow some Cuban minds with her tits and tan. Mack would eventually give up and go home. Or maybe he wouldn't. What to do, what to do? Teddy reached the door to his condo and went inside.
"Reet? You here, babe?"
No answer, as expected. Teddy opened a Negra Modelo and fired up another Espléndido. He took his smoke and his beer out to the bedroom balcony overlooking the courtyard. He sat in his favorite chair and looked down at the wading pool and the fountain, three stories below. The cigar burned slowly. He began to sort things out in his mind.
Teddy Larson had realized from a very young age that human beings could be easily manipulated. This knowledge had made life, in some ways, very easy for him. He had charmed, lied, and cheated his way through high school, and a few weeks after his graduation he had withdrawn $9,000 from his mother's savings account and fled to Mexico. He'd made the nine grand last for six months, bumming around the Yucatán, a couple months in Belize with some aging hippies, and finally a stint as a tour guide in Cancún. Eventually the money had run out and he had been faced with a choice: find a way to get more money in Mexico, or return to the States and acquire it there. A brief stint in a Cancún jail due to a misunderstanding over a wallet he had found convinced Teddy that it was best to be a tourist in Mexico and a thief in the United States. He had returned to the Midwest and took a job selling electronics at a Circuit City in St. Paul. He was good at it. Nothing easier to sell than a magic black box with lots of buttons. He sold a hundred grand in his first month, during which time he made the acquaintance of a pair of rudderless young men named Danny and Sport. Teddy made some suggestions. Shortly thereafter he brokered the sale of a truckload of high-end stereo systems to a discounter in Milwaukee, then hauled ass back to the Yucatán.
Over the next few years he worked with Danny and Sport on several other projects, and when they got caught and went to jail, he found other young thieves searching for guidance. Most thieves, he quickly learned, are looking for a setup man. They want someone to tell them what to do. They are willing to assume the risk and do the deed but are weak on strategy: what to steal, when to steal it, and what to do with the goods afterward.
He had discovered within himself a talent for motivating, organizing, and for spinning dreams. Over the years his methods became more sophisticated, the dollar amounts somewhat higher, and his time abroad more extended. By the time he met Rita, he had moved on from manipulating thieves, who were all unreliable at best, to working directly with the businesspeople who produced the wealth. People like Mack MacWray.
For the past six years, Teddy and Rita had called Isla Mujeres home. Teddy was not a greedy man. A few hundred thousand in the bank was all he required to feel safe. As long as he had sunshine, seafood, cigars, and enough cash to cover his greens fees at the Club de Golf, he could think of himself as reasonably happy. He did not need a big hacienda or a sixty-foot yacht, and he did not need friends. Why should he spend time with people he didn't respect? And why respect people who allowed themselves to be exploited? Human beings were ugly, greedy, frightened, stupid herd animals. That was how Teddy saw them. The only person he had ever loved -- or whatever it was he felt for her -- was Rita. Rita knew him for who he was, and she liked him that way. They shared a few simple desires -- sex, sun, food, tobacco, and the desire to be left alone. Also, they each needed someone to occasionally confirm their existence. When Rita said good morning to him, Teddy took that as evidence that he was real.
They were a bit like drones, Teddy supposed, living out their years anonymously, asking only for comfort and safety. It was little enough to ask, but now his peace of mind was being threatened by one of the herd animals.
Mack MacWray? The guy had been nothing before they'd met. If not for Teddy, Mack would still be working for Linkway, slaving away at a dead-end job. Of course, things were probably a bit rough for him now, being stuck with all those loans, but that was part of life. He had given Mack months of drama and high living -- at least by Mack's standards. So what if it hadn't worked out? What had Mack expected? If a guy didn't have what it took, he was bound to get screwed. One thing for sure, somebody had to be the screwer and somebody had to be the screwee. A guy like Mack MacWray was born to bend over.
Teddy smiled, thinking about Mack the worker bee running around that ridiculous factory trying to get those orders out. Like it made a difference. Like it was really about product when all that mattered in the end was cash flow and who it flowed to. The guy just never got it, which was why he would always be a pawn and never a mover and shaker.
So why worry? Teddy smiled. What was he hiding from?
Mack bought a bottle of Superior and sat on a bench near the ferry dock. An hour of walking the streets of downtown Isla Mujeres had gotten him nowhere. Lars would show his face sooner or later, and Mack planned to be there. According to the Islander, a freebie guidebook he'd been handed at the ferry dock, Isla Mujeres was only five miles long and less than a mile wide, not big enough to swallow up a guy like Lars. Mack sat and watched, sipping beer, reading the guidebook in snatches. This end of the island was mostly beaches, hotels, and shopping. The south end was less developed. There were a few larger resorts, a turtle preserve, some Mayan ruins, and a lighthouse overlooking rocky, treacherous cliffs.
A ferry arrived, gave up its passengers, took on another load, and left for the mainland.
He read about Fermin Mundaca de Marechaja, the fabulously wealthy slave trader who settled on the island one hundred fifty years ago and went slowly mad. One could visit the ruins of his hacienda and read the inscription, carved by Mundaca himself, on his tombstone: as you are, i was. as i am, you will be.
Mack bought a second beer. People came and went, and then, like an apparition, he saw a panama hat gliding through a cluster of pedestrians and, beneath it, Lars, driving a turquoise-and-pink golf cart.
Mack abandoned his bench and ran to a cab, fumbling with his phrase book.
"¡Seguir! ¡Por favor!"
The cabbie turned to him. "You talk English?"
"Yes!" Mack was too agitated to be embarrassed. "You see the golf cart? Follow it. Only don't get too close."
The driver shrugged his assent and put the cab in gear.
The land rose as they approached the south end of the island. Palm trees and hibiscus were replaced by low shrubs, tufts of grass, and rocky outcroppings. At a sharp bend in the road the golf cart turned right onto a narrow, single-lane road leading toward a lighthouse. The cabbie pulled over.
"You want me to follow?"
"Where does it go?" Mack asked.
"El faro. Lighthouse. Ruins. People go to look. You could walk."
Mack paid his fare and proceeded on foot. The road, paved with sand and crushed white rock, led to a small complex of buildings: a battered adobe residence, a low shed, a thatched palapa, and the lighthouse itself -- an off-white, octagonal, forty-foot-high structure with several gaping skeletal sharks' jaws displayed at its base. Lars's golf cart stood parked a few yards away, but no Lars. Other than a small iguana sunning itself on a rock, he appeared to be alone. Where had Lars gone? To the lighthouse? He looked up but saw no one.
The low clouds that had been on the horizon now boiled over half the sky. Afternoon sun baked his back even as gusts of wind off the ocean chilled his front and threatened to dislodge his cap. Strange weather, he thought, but perhaps normal for this part of the world. Mack scanned his surroundings. He could see that he had almost run out of land. A couple hundred yards away, at the very tip of the island, he spotted a low structure of weathered stone blocks -- the Mayan ruins? He followed a footpath through a landscape of low shrubs, grasses, prickly pear cactus, and small piles of rock, half expecting Lars to rise up out of the vegetation at any moment. As he neared the end of the path, he slowed.
The ruins were smaller than he had imagined. What remained of Ixchel's temple was only about ten feet high and twenty or thirty feet long. The upper portions of the structure were constructed of carefully cut and fitted stone blocks, while the base was a concretion of irregular chunks of rubble, as if the temple had grown naturally from the underlying rock and was now being drawn inexorably back into the earth.
The temple was situated a few yards from the end of the island, where, instead of pulverized coral beaches, the land ended in a jagged precipice. The air vibrated with the roar of waves hitting the base of the cliffs eighty feet below. As Mack reached the ruins he heard another noise, a faint pok, like the sound of stone striking stone.
Circling the ruins, he saw Lars standing near the edge of the cliff. Mack watched Lars pick a golf ball from a yellow plastic bucket and balance it on a golf tee set into a green one-foot-square patch of artificial grass. He lined up his golf club and with a short, chopping swing hit it out over the water. Mack moved closer. He sat down on the remains of a wall at the edge of the ruin, fifteen feet from Lars, who was balancing another ball on his portable tee. Lars looked out over the sea as if searching for the flag, shook his head, leaned the driver against his hip, removed a cigar from his pocket, and fitted it into his mouth. Standing very close to the edge, he hunched over the cigar and lit it. Mack imagined rushing at him, pushing, feeling the texture of Lars's shirt as his palms struck home.
Lars stood smoking and looking out over the ocean. Wind fluttered his loose white cotton guayabera and the legs of his chartreuse knee-length shorts. His thick calves bore a pelt of curly blond hair. He wore a pair of huaraches on his surprisingly small feet.
Seconds passed. Lars gave a faint shrug. He wrapped his hands around the golf club and addressed the ball. He raised the club slowly, paused for a count of two at the top of his backswing, then chopped at the ball. Pok! The ball shot straight out, then cut sharply down and to the right. Lars leaned out over the edge. Holding his hat down on his head, he watched the ball vanish into the spume.
Mack raised his voice over the sound of the surf and said, "You bring that right wrist over the top some, you'll lose that slice."
Lars, still looking over the edge, nodded. "I believe you have a point there, amigo." He turned his face toward Mack and grinned. "Macanudo! What a surprise!" He did not seem at all surprised. "Damn, but it's good to see a familiar face. ¿Qué pasa? You doing okay?"
Lars had lost none of his power to charm. He really is glad to see me, Mack thought. He really does want to know how I'm doing. Lars could make anyone feel special.
Mack shook his head to clear it. "I'm doing lousy," he said. "Thanks to you."
Lars's grin became an embarrassed, self-effacing smile. "Oh. I guess I can understand you feeling that way." He produced another cigar from his pocket. "Cigar?"
Lars tossed it to him. "Keep it for later. It's a Cohiba. Not what they used to be, but still one of the best."
Mack looked at the cigar in his hand, wishing he hadn't caught it. He set it on the crumbling stone wall.
"That's Ixchel's temple you're sitting on, Macanudo. Goddess of creativity. When Córdoba landed here five hundred years ago, this end of the island was guarded by statues of Mayan goddesses. That's why he named it Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women."
"I read the guidebook," Mack said.
Lars coughed out a nervous laugh. "Course you did. Hey, I'm just trying to break the ice here, Mackie."
"Is that what you're doing? I thought maybe you were trying to charm me out of having your ass extradited back home."
Lars blinked and reddened as if he had been slapped. "Jeez, Mack, why would you want to do that?"
"Why do you think? Maybe because you destroyed my life? Left me broke and looking like a complete fool?" He gripped the crumbling stone, leaning into his words, trying to drive them into Lars's blinking blue eyes.
"Is that how you see it, Mackie?"
"It's got nothing to do with how I see it."
Lars squatted down and moved his portable golf tee a few inches closer to the edge. "We had a good thing going. You took out, what, a hundred grand in salary?"
"Yeah, and now I owe six times that to the bank. Not to mention what I owe my wife's parents, our vendors, and the good people who worked for us."
"Mackie, Mackie..." Lars shook his head, walked over, and took a seat on the ruined wall. They were facing the sea, six feet between them. Lars pointed up at the clouds. "Looks like we got a little squall coming in."
"That's the least of your worries," Mack said.
Lars smiled. Mack held himself rigid.
Lars said, "You don't have to pay any of them, you know. Why don't you just walk away?"
Mack felt a surge of fury threaten to lift him from his perch. "I can't believe you're saying that to me."
"Why?" Lars lifted his eyebrows. "Because you're better than me? I'm such an evil son of a bitch that I'd screw my own mother while you're a paragon of morality and virtue? I didn't beg you to do business with me, my friend. You wanted it just as bad as I did. The only difference is, I got out first."
Mack did not trust himself to reply.
"It's your choice, Mackie. You want to let the bank and everybody else push you around? Christ, Mack, they're just as guilty as you and me. Everybody was sucking off the same tit and now, let me guess, everybody's calling me the bad guy. Am I right? Hell yes, I'm right." Lars sucked his cigar, red cheeks hollowing.
"You are the bad guy," Mack said.
"That's okay. I can handle the karma. I'm like Popeye. I yam who I yam. You can't change who you are, Mackie. That's the one thing you don't want to do." He took a few more agitated puffs, stood, and set up another golf ball.
"I talked to a fellow name of Pleasant," Mack said.
Lars shivered visibly. "Jesus Christ," he said. "What did that asshole want?"
"He wants you."
"Yeah? Well, everybody wants something." He looked out over the ocean as if searching for the flag on a par three, then turned back to Mack. "All Pleasant ever wanted was to lay a hurt on me, and do you know why? Because he feels sorry for himself, that's why. I feel sorry for him, too. Stuck in his sorry little life."
"Maybe he's just a cop doing his job."
Lars laughed. "That's another way to look at it. But hell, if I spent all my time worrying about guys like Jerry Pleasant I wouldn't get a thing done now, would I? Look, the problem is, nobody seems to see the big picture. They think of Mac-Lar as a failed business. They hold us responsible. Mack, we didn't fail. It's companies like Mac-Lar that drive the economy. We made some moves, took some risks, and got the money flowing. We created jobs, developed products, made a real positive impact on the community. Just because we went belly-up doesn't make us a failure. Look at Montgomery Ward. They went bankrupt, kaput, but for a hundred and some years they were this huge success story. Only difference is, we didn't last quite as long. Even now we're keeping people working: the bankers, the lawyers -- even that carbuncle Jerry Pleasant. Wasn't for me he'd be directing traffic." He lined up the face of the driver with the ball. "Bring my top hand over more, you say?"
Lars shifted his grip, brought the club back, and swung. The ball sailed straight and true, rising above the horizon, seeming to disappear into the churning clouds.
"Damn!" He grinned. "For a guy doesn't golf anymore, you are one hell of an instructor."
Mack suppressed a spark of pleasure. "How much money do you have left?" he asked.
"Money?" Lars shrugged. "Maybe I spent it all."
"I figure you took about half a million."
"I wish!" Lars squatted down in front of Mack and balanced the golf club across his knees as if checking out the roll of a green. "Mack, I'm gonna be straight with you because I like you. Always did." He tipped his panama back, revealing a red stripe where the sweatband had gripped on his forehead. "Nobody's getting my money. Period. Finiquito. But that doesn't mean I'm not gonna help you out here. You don't have to let those guys push you around. Your cousin, Bob Seaman? Is he giving you a hard time now?"
Mack felt himself nod helplessly. Somehow Lars had taken control.
"Doesn't surprise me, that little weasel. You know how we got all those loans approved? No? I suppose you thought they were throwing all this money our way because we had a great business plan and a handful of purchase orders. Real world, Mack. We got the loans because your cousin Bobby had his eye on a new BMW. I kicked him back thirty. Called it a loan, actually. Of course, we both know he's never gonna pay it back, but I had him sign a note just in case. He was dumb enough to do it."
"What? You bribed Bob to give us the loan?"
"You got it, amigo. He loans us three hundred thou, I borrow him back thirty. Then I get their factoring division to come up with another two-twenty, based on the P.O.'s I brought in. Bob helped expedite that, too. By that time he was in too deep to say no. Of course, he figured we'd be good for it. You show a guy a little cash and he'll make himself believe anything. Lemme tell you a secret, Mack. You can buy just about anybody. Even people think they're not bribable, you show them enough money and they can't stop themselves. It's human nature." Lars used the golf club to help him stand up. "Whoo! Knees aren't what they used to be." He paced back and forth between Mack and the sky. Choppy gusts of wind tugged at their clothing. "It's a game, Mack. A guy like me gets the money moving, all that green swirling around, then boom! Everybody goes for it. You've still got Mac-Lar, right?"
"The bank's got it."
"But they need you. You're the man, Mack. You can start the tap flowing all over again. Just get your cousin to lend you the money and buy the company back from the bank. They'll not only have a shot at getting some of their original loan back, they'll also be booking a new loan. Of course, with that much debt you'll go bankrupt eventually, but the main thing is to get the cash flowing. Once it's coming in the door, you take care of yourself."
Mack blinked, stunned by the outrageousness of it.
Lars said, "You have to understand the way these guys think. They don't actually give a shit if you default. All they want is to look good. The money doesn't really matter."
"It matters to my in-laws. They're out more than a quarter million."
Lars shrugged. "Hey, I can't fix everybody's problems." He set up another golf ball.
"None of this gets to you, does it? You really don't feel bad about the people you've hurt?"
"I don't hurt people, Mack." Lars lined up his club. "I just create situations. I give people choices." He looked at Mack. "You've got a choice too, Mackie. Grab the gold ring or ride around in circles the rest of your life."
He brought the club back and swung at the ball, hitting it squarely just as a gust of wind came from behind and lifted his hat from his head. Off balance from the swing, Lars lunged toward the edge and shot out an arm, catching the hat by the brim. He laughed, balanced on one leg at the verge of a deadly drop, wind flapping his shorts, unafraid. Lars was teasing him, Mack realized, challenging him to act and knowing that he would not. Mack MacWray was not capable of revenge, or of saving his own business, or of any action requiring courage or commitment. He felt a deep sense of shame. He could no more grab the gold ring than he could throw himself off this precipice into the sea.
Lars shifted his weight, bringing his other foot back down -- then he disappeared.
The golf club clattered to the rock.
For an instant Mack did not understand what had happened. Lars had been there, smiling, golf club in hand -- and then he was gone, as if pulled over the edge by an invisible force. Only the sky and the sea, the sounds of wind and of surf remained. Mack replayed the last second, seeing it more clearly now. A rock had given way, the island eroding beneath him, and Lars had simply dropped.
Mack thought, Is this real? The golf club at the edge of the cliff was real. Did I push him? Did I do something without knowing it? No, he decided. He hadn't moved a muscle. He was glued to this ruin, devoid of volition. Was it possible that Lars had survived the fall? Not likely -- it was nearly a hundred feet down to the jagged rock.
Mack stood up, looked around. He was alone.
"Mack!" Lars's voice, coming over the edge. Mack approached the edge.
Lars was hanging on the face of the rock, his hands only inches below the edge, his eyes wide with terror.
"Gimme a hand, Mackie." White fingers gripped a narrow shelf. "C'mon, Mackie. I got a situation here."
He could reach over the edge and offer his hand. Lars could grab hold and climb up. It would be easy. Or he could offer him one end of the golf club. Either method would work.
Mack moved a few feet to the side to get a different view of Lars's predicament. One foot had caught a projection of stone, supporting most of his weight. The other hung free. Below, black rock chopped and slashed the waves.
Mack stepped back and looked up at the low gray sky. The cloud cover was nearly complete.
"Mack, c'mon, buddy. Quit fooling with me."
Mack picked up the golf club and looked again at Lars. He felt bright and hard and jagged inside.
"Mack, look, you want money? Whatever you want. I'm telling you."
Mack liked how artificial this felt, and yet how realistic. The man hanging there talking, begging him to do something, but the words splintered and lost meaning in the wind.
Mack looked Lars in the face: eyes round and blue as robins' eggs. Mack had never seen that expression on Lars: fear and disbelief, as if confronted by a ghost.
"I can't hang on, Mack. For Christ's sake, have a heart."
Mack did not reply. He stood and watched -- it only took another minute or two -- until Lars's fingers began to slip. Mack thought, Is this how Lars felt, looking down at me?
"Anything you want, Mack! It's yours!"
Mack did not move. Lars made a desperate grab, trying for a new grip, but his fingers tore on the sharp rock and he fell.
Thick and thin, hot and cold, hard and soft: Paula MacWray jolted awake. For a moment, disoriented, struck with fear, she raised her hands to protect herself. The sky had gone gray; wind raised goose bumps on her thighs. She sat up. A plastic cup scudded across the poolside tiles. The other bathers had left the pool. Her beer bottle floated empty in the ice bucket. She pulled the headphones off and climbed to her feet. What was happening? Where had the sun gone, and where was the wind coming from? She picked up her Walkman. How long ago had the tape ended? She wrapped her towel around her shoulders, shivered. With the sun obscured, she had no idea of the time. She put her feet into her flip-flops and shuffled toward their room, wondering what had awakened her.
Copyright © 2001 by Peter Hautman