“A Soul Defiled – A Bailey Crane Mystery” is the fifth and final book in the ‘Bailey Crane Mystery Series’ – a relatively short book written on the Sea of Cortez. As I lazily and leisurely lolled on my condo deck watching the sailboats, jet skis, yachts, and all the diversions upon the sea, I saw a Mexican beach hawker of lovely serapes walking toward the old port of Rocky Point. It was late in the afternoon, and the hawker seemed weary from his day’s labors along Sandy Beach. Walking all day up and down the long stretch of beach with a heavy load of serapes draped over his shoulder had taken its toll. My guess was that he was making his final trek toward home as the sun was closing on the western horizon. He would occasionally stop by a couple or a group sunbathing on the sand to present his wares, and, disappointed with no sale, wander wearily onward toward the port and home.
My mind would not let go the thoughts on this common daily scene along the lovely coastline, and the thoughts extended themselves into Book 5 of the Bailey Crane Series. Here then is an excerpt from “A Soul Defiled – A Bailey Crane Mystery.”
Along the coast of Pueblo del Mar the tide was out. Volcanic rock splotches of tide pools were visible between the beach, sand bars, and cobalt sea. Creeping wider up the distant horizon to meet the blue sky was a streak of soft mauve elegance, reaching west to east as far as the eye could see. The sun was setting out around the bend near Bahia del Pelicano. There were sea gulls at water’s edge, some standing in stoic poses, others airborne, diving for food just off the sand bars. Minus a rare storm day, it was a scene recorded each day on this majestic stretch of beach on The Sea of Cortez.
Along the shell strewn sandy beach a lone hawker was making his final stroll east toward the old port. There was weariness in his strides, his bronze lined face a sheen of sweat. The unsold colorful serapes were draped over his left shoulder and his downcast eyes only surveyed the short space in front of him. A dog barked and some children squealed in a predominantly American inhabited resort just seventy-five yards north of the hawker’s path, giving him a momentary pause in his steady gait. He thought of his grandchildren, about their play area in the cluttered space of dust, gravel, and junk behind his sheet metal shanty. They, like their fathers and mothers before them, would never know the resort life. In his brief thoughts it did not matter. His family led a simple and meager existence but they were happy. There was love and there was God. The daily routines had basic rituals and they found humble joy and pleasure in their sharing.
Only a few people now hovered over the tide pools to check out a hermit crab, a baby squid, or a dead sting ray, to collect sea glass and an occasional shell. These were people the hawker had already approached more than once, and he no longer cared so much about a possible sale. Dinero controlled much of his life lately, but the day had been long. He only wanted to be home, to share his meager earnings of the day with family and to sip a cerveza.
When he fell to the sand on his knees Fernando Cervantes thought for a brief moment he had gone down from a sharp chest cramp. His unsold serapes were involuntarily flung outward onto the beach. He felt liquid flowing through his fingers, saw the liquid when he pulled his hand from his left rib cage. He saw that it was his blood. As he collapsed on his side in the sand, his life presented itself to him in a few gasping breaths. As he slowly rolled onto his back, his half-closed eyes looked upward toward a diminishing blue sky. There was so much he wanted to tell Father Umberto, so much he yet wished to share with his family, but all he could weakly mutter in his last moment was, “Mi Dios, por favor me perdona para he pecado!
Clusters of sea gulls gathered near the lifeless body of Fernando Cervantes, indifferent, unimpeded in their ageless habits.
The colors of sunset cast an eerie surreal hue on the beach tableau.
“It’s so good to be back. Does it get any better than this?” in the fog of memory, I wondered how many times this question had been muttered by me.
“Well, Bailey-dear, guess we could be sitting and sipping on a veranda in Malibu. But it wouldn’t be the same, somehow … too phony, maybe, and too far outside our reality. No, my short answer, it does not get any better than this.” Wendy could always add a special dimension to one of my comments.
We smiled and watched some shrimp boats returning to the old port after a night of dip netting. It was another cloudless soft blue day, the sun deliciously warm. For ‘sun people’ Pueblo del Mar was near perfect. There was seldom a gray day, rarely any rain. Most of the time there was a prevailing breeze, and, at times, some strong winds. The magnificent quality of this particular morning was the norm for Pueblo del Mar, the quality that made the decision easy for us to buy our lovely condo here on the Sea of Cortez. Not an expert by any stretch, but the gorgeous weather must have something to do with the latitude and longitude of this area of Mexico.
My name is Bailey Crane, once a business owner and part-time ‘crime fighter’ with the Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department. The ‘crime fighter’ label is used in an attempt to bolster my aging ego. Still active, still feeling young and vital, the body has lost a few vital cells, but I’m still sweating out the toxins with daily workouts, still carry a six foot frame and weigh just south of two hundred pounds. There are some hitches in my ‘getiup,’ some sags here and there, but I’ve got my hair, my teeth, and my totally unbiased wife tells me I still have the good looks of that ‘Sound of Music’ guy, Christopher Plummer. Do I have a great support system, or what!
My activities have slowed considerably in semi-retirement. Wendy, my bride, a former police lady herself, decided — well, we decided — that it was time to ease back the throttle and smell some of those proverbial roses. A good choice! We’ve traveled, done cruises, and have thoroughly enjoyed life in the slow lane. Is my previous life missed? Truth is, it is missed, which might be quite natural, like, any vocational interest that gets in the blood. It is not missed enough to ever consider going back. Wendy and I have created a life style that is very comfortable. Having sold my business, with some IRA’s, and modest investments, we are able to live reasonably well.
Wendy still carries in body and soul all the beauty that drew me to her twenty odd years ago. There is still no gray in her tresses, and her face has no wrinkles … except for the slight lines at the corner of her eyes, which only adds to her Andie McDowell loveliness. And, guess what? I still sneak my peaks at her curves when she disrobes in the evening and dons her night gown or pajamas. Wendy came along when my personal life was in crisis, a gift from God. The one sure and unalterable truth is that our bond, our love, will last our lifetimes and, with faithful assurance, into eternity.
“Anything particular you want to do today, dear lady?” The question was asked dutifully and with her negative response hopefully anticipated. My desire was to stay clad in my red swim trunks, my exotic shirt, and thongs.
“Absolutely nothing,” Wendy dipped her head and gave me a smile. “You would pout all day if I had an agenda for you.” She paused, got up to clear the patio table. “You want more tea? More cereal, toast, anything?”
“I’m good. Let’s just sit and soak up this sea and sun for awhile. Maybe we’ll go poolside later or wander the beach … you can collect some sea glass and shells. Maybe we’ll find an old Spanish doubloon … as if!” Repositioning my swivel chair, placing my feet on the deck railing, I raised my empty cup. “On second thought, I’ll have another chamomile while you’re up.”
A few hours later, after a swim and beach walk, we were back on our deck. Wendy was reading while I dozed on the chaise lounge.
The kitchen telephone ringing through the screen door broke into my repose. Wendy marked her book and went inside to answer the call. “It’s Tom Horner, for you,” she yelled.
Tom Horner was a longtime friend and he was on the Board of our Mar y Sol Home Owners Association.
Dulled by the slumber time and the day’s laziness, I rose slowly and went inside.
“What’s up, Tom?” seating myself at the kitchen table.
“Hi, Bailey. When did you get in?” Tom’s voice had a deep resonant quality.
“Late yesterday afternoon.”
“Good trip down?”
“Traffic was light, smooth sailing.”
“Going to be here for awhile this visit?” Tom seemed to be dancing around the reason for his call.
“Wendy and I are here for a long stay. There is nothing on our calendar. Is there a problem, Tom?”
“Are you busy right now, Bailey?’”
“Just a little sweaty from the sun and beach. You want to visit?”
“Yes, if it’s good for you. Can you meet me at Tinker’s in fifteen minutes? I’ll buy you a beer, and you can come as you are.”
“Can’t we visit here?” Tinkers was a short walk of five minutes, but, still…
“We can, but it would be better if we talked off premises.”
Tom now had my interest. Something very newsworthy was in the air. “See you in fifteen!”
Changing from thongs to tennies I told Wendy of the short, cryptic phone conversation and left. Since Wendy had not been mentioned in the invitation, she was just as glad to have some time for chores in our neglected condo unit.
Tom Horner was an old friend and likely the biggest reason we had chosen Mar y Sol as our seaside retirement site. Tom and wife Gladys had moved to Pueblo del Mar five years ago and had been among the first residents in Mar y Sol. They had invited us down on several occasions, and we very quickly determined that this was where we wanted to be at some point in time. That point in time had come one year ago. Wendy and I were now considering full time residency. When the American developers had completed the condo project and all units were sold, an HOA board was established to represent the owners’ interests. Tom had been a unanimous choice for president.
The big burly guy was sitting at a small corner table when I arrived at Tinkers. Dressed a bit more formally, Tom wore pale blue Bermudas and a gold colored button-down shirt. His deeply tanned face and body was in sharp contrast with his recently groomed white hair. Although aging had brought a more rotund torso, he was still a handsome guy. He had always reminded me of Tom Selleck, one of my favorite actors.
Tom stood. We gave ‘buddy hugs,’ and sat. A frosty Corona was immediately placed in front of me.
Tinkers was a local ex-pat bar and eatery, owned and operated by Tinker Davidson, a former US auto racer of some notoriety. The restaurant and lounge sat between two high-rise condo developments about one hundred yards from the sea. The outside of the rectangular building was constructed of stone and stucco, with a thatched roof. No one could miss the place with its big vertical lettered sign just off the entrance. Inside, there was an understated ambiance, with a cozy corner mahogany bar with subdued lighting and comfortable seating, designed for the nostalgic, romantic souls. The back bar had a beautiful wall-length smoked mirror with gold edging, and the enticing area was pleasantly set apart from the spacious dining room with three large pots of exotic plants. Tinker had put a lot of thought in the design, and his place was one of the most popular in Pueblo del Mar for both the ex-pats and the locals.
“You’re looking fit, Tommy. How’s Gladys?” We were sitting next to one of those big potted plants.
“She’s good, Bailey. We’re both good. Back at you: you’re looking fit as well. Wendy sounded chipper on the phone. She okay?” My good friend had that aura about him. Something was eating at him big time.
“Yeah, she’s fine …” I downed some Corona. “Okay, Tom, enough of our soft shoe. What’s going on, big guy?”
“You heard anything about anything?” he asked.
“Just got here, buddy. I know nada. Give!”
There was some soft and soothing Spanish guitar music coming from a CD in the bar area. Tom glanced around the room. There were a few scattered patrons seated some distance away from us. They would not be able to hear our conversation. Tom could talk without worry. My interest was now at a high level.
“It’s a hell of a way to greet you back, pal, but I’ve got to talk to somebody outside the Mar y Sol inner circle. So, sorry about that.” Tom took a long draw from his own Corona bottle and continued. “Mar y Sol has some problems, Bailey. You know Mitchell Probst, our HOA treasurer?”
“Yeah, I know him. Not well, but I’ve seen him around. He’s got one of the beach villas.”
“Well, he’s a big part of our problem. He was found murdered in his beach villa this morning. The body of a serape hawker was found on the beach late yesterday afternoon, just a few yards from Mitchell’s villa …”
“Jesus! Wendy and I show up and strange karma tags along. You said, ‘a big part of our problem.’ There’s more? Don’t know if I’m ready for this my first day back to ‘Pueblo.’”
“I know, it’s a bummer … sorry, pal. We’ve got some issues on the HOA board. There are things not adding up. The accounting system is fouled up and there’s money we can’t locate, apparently some missing ledgers. Mitchell was not the most popular board member and he had been acting strange the last few days before his murder. Look, I know the economy is bad; our tourist business has fallen off; the media has been unfair to us. But, even with all that, there is something going on that is not right. And, Bailey, I’m telling you even if you wouldn’t ask: I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Are we being embezzled? Is there corruption on the board? Was Mitchell stealing from us? Or, did he discover something that got him killed? Are the murders of Mitchell and the hawker connected? Did a stray bullet kill the hawker? Your police chief friend, Ernie, has been here with his investigators and is working the case. He has this information I’m giving you. Does he know you’re in town?”
“No, don’t believe so … I haven’t contacted him yet. He knew we were coming this week.”
Ernesto Villar was the police chief of Pueblo del Mar. We had become good friends years ago while working together on an Arizona/Mexico connected case. We had maintained an ongoing relationship, visiting while on our trips to ‘Pueblo,’ via quick phone calls just to say hello and chat, and via correspondence on police-related matters.
“It’s a question I’m reluctant to ask, Bailey, but can you help me out? Maybe, do a little low-key prowling and prying? I want no strain on our friendship, but I’m at a loss on who to trust and with whom to talk. If I’m asking too much just tell me and that’ll be the end of it. There is nothing that will ever impair our friendship.” His mellow voice carried with it sincerity and desperation.
How could I turn down such a lovable Selleck-type?
“Hey, you’re my buddy! Gotta help if I can. I’ll squeeze it in between the fun and sun, I’m a bit rusty, Tommy, but I’ll do what I can. You can fill me in on how the HOA works. It’s all ‘Greek’ to me. Maybe Ernie has some answers. I’ll talk to him right away. You’ll need to supply me with names, files, maybe, and other information as needed. Is there anything else more specific you can tell me? The other board members? Are they all here at the moment?”
Tom thought for a moment. “No, but they will all be here in two days. There’s a board meeting on Saturday. Jarrett Egan, Peter and Jan Simpson, and I are the only full-time board member residents. Mitchell was full-time. The other members get down usually on a monthly basis, or, even, less frequently. You know them all, but I’ll give you their vitae. Specifics? Just don’t have any specifics, Bailey. Guess I’ve been too lax, but, generally, other than tenants bitching and moaning about one thing or another, answering some general management questions, there’s just not a lot of my involvement. Mitchell carried most of the load, being the man who handled the money. We all monitored management and maintenance as much as possible, and we had confidence in our management. All seemed to be going smoothly. Our general manager, Jimmy Millard … you know him — is a really pleasant guy but he can be a bit rigid and pushy at times. The board has had no big problems with him. I’m basically clueless, Bailey, feeling somewhat idiotic about this whole thing.” Tom shrugged and downed more cerveza.
“Okay, I’ll get a running start at this tomorrow. For now, try to relax. We will have one more of these frosty goodies, go home to our ladies, and, we can come back here for dinner … if you and Gladys are free.”