I wish I could claim I accepted that date with Joaquín as a do-good ploy, but saving Tabitha Sánchez from an evil man’s clutches was no more a half-baked idea I cooked up along the road. Other aims occupied my mind in the beginning.
On my first outing with Joaquín Lobos—our local school principal and my occasional escort—in close to two months, I made sure we gassed up at the Copec station across the street from the Puerto Cignos police stationbefore heading out of town. Long legs first, I swung out of Joaquín’s SUV to chat with the guy who pumped for us, just in case the lieutenant might be watching from his office window.
Get real. If Marcos Serrano didn’t want me, then I didn’t want him either. Or shouldn’t. Did I really think I could make him jealous, anyway? I was pretty well resigned otherwise. He despised more than envied Joaquín.
But I did want Marcos to notice me there. I wanted him to believe that his standoffishness didn’t affect me in the least, that I enjoyed a perfectly marvelous life without him. Let him think anything but that his rejection at the Chilean Patagonia’s fabled Hanging Glacier two weeks before had spun me into an emotional nosedive from which I might never recover.
And perhaps deep-down I hoped he cared enough to barge over and demand that I not drive off on a date with Joaquín Lobos. But he didn’t appear. Shivering in the July cold, I slid back into the vehicle again.
“He’s not there, querida.” Joaquín flashed me a cat-like smirk as he turned onto the street toward the highway.
“What are you talking about?” Had he caught my last covert glance at the tenencia?
“Your hero, Serrano, of course.” His thin lips stretched over his teeth into a gorilla grin. “I figured that’s why you condescended to go out with me today. But I guess there must be something else going on in that devious little mind of yours, Constanza Belmar.”
“There’s always something going on in my mind, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with him or you.” I tried to sound casual, fishing around in my purse to hide the blood I felt surging through my temples. “Where’s he gone?” I asked idly. “Off to court again with another of your high school delinquents?”
“Not at all.” Joaquín chortled with glee. “Didn’t you hear, querida? It was even on the news last night. ‘Field Marshal’ Serrano’s off to save the world—the national fútbol team, I mean.”
“Oh. Sí, I knew he was considering it.” So he was going, complying with the strong urging of his superiors. If only he could stay long enough to tie up his cases here… “He’s very patriotic, Joaquín. Feels he owes it to the country, I guess.”
He sniffed. “Patriotic, baha! He’s out for the gold and the glory, same as the rest. Some guys are born under a lucky star. Silver spoon in his mouth.”
“They say cream rises to the top.”
He cleared his throat, adding a gagging gurgle at the end. “Well, good riddance, I say.”
“What are you so happy about?” I cooed. “He’ll still be working here part time. You haven’t gotten rid of him that easily.”
“Really?” He flexed his grip on the steering wheel, ran his tongue over his front teeth.
Perhaps I should’ve left him to his assumption that Marcos would be permanently re-posted closer to his new soccer responsibilities. But Marcos still led ongoing investigations into the April assault on American tycoon-turned-naturalist Douglas Greenfield and the murder/suicide of student Tomás Sandoval in May. No arrests had yet been made in connection with either crime, so maybe Joaquín, along with most of our sleepy Patagonian port town, was under the impression that both cases had reached a dead end. If he believed that Marcos would be absent from Puerto Cignos for extensive or indefinite periods, then maybe he and his gang of huemul poachers would be lulled into a false sense of security. While the cat was away, could the mice be lured out to play? Reckless overconfidence might be their downfall.
Or their golden opportunity. What if Marcos wasn’t here at the crucial moment? He’d been concerned about that himself.
“Well,” —Joaquín flicked a hand toward the windshield— “he’s gone for now at least. I saw him take off in the chopper this morning myself. Someone said he was catching a plane north out of Balmaceda. Job or no job here, he can hardly avoid traveling a lot, at least until the qualifying games finish in November.”
He flapped his hand at a highway sign as it zipped by. “So, nena…where are we headed? The glitz of the city?”
“Oh, Coyhaique’s too far today, I think. Aysén will be fine.”
“Why? We haven’t been out for ages. There’s a decent new movie playing, I hear, and a few more choices as far as night life in Coyhaique too.”
“You’re right about that, but—” I stuck my tongue in my cheek. “Aysén’s more convenient if you get another emergency land sale to deal with.”
“Fresca. You’re so considerate.” He made a face at me. “For your information, our land situation in Puyuhuapi is resolved for now. No need to fear it’ll disrupt another date.”
“All the…all the heirs agreed to sell, and there’s a clear title for the buyer?” Once again, I faked languid indifference. Not hard for me with Joaquín, but this time my yawn smothered a perked-up antenna.
“Er…sí, but the truth is, it’s on hold. We decided not to sell right now.”
Why not? Joaquín had said earlier that his cousin Pepe Pizarro finally agreed to the deal. Had he? Whether he had or not, the sale of the Lobos-Tempesta land could hardly have hinged on Pepe’s consent, written, verbal, or otherwise. No wrong-side-of-the-blanket relation would likely stand in Joaquín Lobos’s way.
Unless… Marcos and I hadn’t considered this idea before, but… What if the property in question wasn’t really Joaquín’s at all, but belonged to Pepe or his mother Evelyn, or even to Evelyn’s husband? If the huemul gang used it, they might have arranged it only through the Lastra-Pizarro brothers, with or without their parents’ permission or participation. Here, I was convinced, Joaquín’s uncle, Padre Josemaría Tempesta, somehow supplied the missing link. Maybe the old reprobate had even given his blessing to the entire illicit enterprise.
“Didn’t you already sign the papers?” I said. “That’s not too financially smart, Joaquín. You’ll have to pay a forfeit.”
Although Joaquín had been “talking” with his cousin earlier, I assumed that involved their huemul operation rather than the land deal. The possible sale had come up only after the financial reversal of the Swan Island fiasco. So why call this deal off now when it meant even more of a loss? Maybe the increased police vigilance on Swan forced them to keep their options open for an alternative base of operations. Ha. Little did they know Lieutenant Serrano and the carabineros had already been alerted to the huemul gang’s activities in Puyuhuapi. Apprehension was just a matter of time, while they collected the evidence.
Joaquín shrugged. “Oh, we’ll lose a bit on the pre-sale contract, but we’ll make it up eventually if we hang onto the land a little longer. Actually, we changed our mind because” —he lowered his voice conspiratorily— “you know what I found out that night of the naval reception?”
‘The reception you deemed so unimportant that you canceled our date?’ hung unspoken in his tone. I ignored the accusation. “I couldn’t imagine,” I said dryly.
“We were negotiating with the other party’s agent, a Sr. Álvarez. Turns out, so Armando—Captain García, remember—he told me, that Álvarez is acting for Jennifer Ashton-Hiltz. Mrs. Douglas Greenfield, Coni.”
I couldn’t help but gape, equally astounded. For once, Joaquín had my attention. I still hadn’t figured out how all these details fit together—the Lastra Pizarro family’s involvement, Padre Tempesta’s subtle hand in the scheme—but this new revelation suggested a certain logic in Joaquín’s hasty trip to Puyuhuapi the day after the naval reception. And a reason for Joaquín’s denial to Jennifer that he’d visited the village of Puyuhuapi that day.
The Greenfields already owned the north half of Swan Island. What was their interest in purchasing another land tract in Puyuhuapi? Did they suspect something concerning the huemul poaching up there? When Marcos checked into the Lobos-Tempesta sale last month, he either hadn’t learned who the agent Álvarez represented or might not have connected the name Ashton-Hiltz with Greenfield if he had heard it.
“Well, that is surprising,” I blurted. “But then again, maybe not… So then, you bailed on the sale? Why? What do you have against the Greenfields buying your land?”
I slowed my rapid-fire burst of questions with a surreptitious deep breath. Joaquín was obviously protecting his huemul interests from Douglas Greenfield’s environmental obsession. Perhaps he’d assumed the prospective buyer would invest from afar, an absentee landowner easily hoodwinked as he and his clan carried on with their little side business. Certainly not a nature fanatic who would inspect and intervene if he found out.
Swiping a finger through the steam on the window, I forced myself to sound more curious than suspicious. “I mean, I thought your family wanted to get rid of the property. The Greenfields seem big on investing in the area, and they’re good for the money, I imagine.” I winked at him and giggled. “You could probably even double-charge them and they wouldn’t bat an eye.”
He popped me back a salacious smile. “You’d have made a shrewd businesswoman, Coni Belmar. But haven’t you ever wondered why Greenfield’s investing so heavily here? A contact of mine says it’s because he’s got inside information about the location of the new hydroelectric dam.”
“Chu, people have talked about that for a decade now. You think it’s slated for Puyuhuapi and Greenfield’s trying to get in on the ground floor of the project?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. He buys up the land for a song, and then after the project details are announced, he makes millions in expropriation fees. Very clever.”
“Naturally you want to make those millions yourself.” I grinned.
“If they’re to be made, they might as well end up in my pocket as Greenfield’s, right?” He grunted, and then added with a cynical roll of his black-marble eyes, “And it was his wife doing the deal, remember. After meeting her the other day, I suspect she’s the business head in that duo. Comes across as an airhead, but she’s sharp as a—”
“That was you at the hotel in Puyuhuapi that day!” An irrepressible howl of laughter shot up from my belly and reverberated inside the car. My chest convulsed as I stuffed a fist to my mouth to choke back the snorts and snickers. “What, Doug and Jennifer walked in on your top-secret consultation with your hydro-dam informant and you didn’t want her to know who you were?”
“Something like that.” He tried to chuckle too, but his tight-lipped smile quavered. The reptilian eyes blinked nervously. “San Martín ducked out another door, and old Doug wandered in his usual daze and didn’t notice me. Probably thinking about his critters or whatever…so naïve. But the Mrs., now she’s another story. So clueless, she’s bright.”
While my brain worked on, efficient, unemotional, registering the tidbits of information Joaquín was leaking to me, my blood congealed and encased my heart in a shell of ice. My voice sounded remote in my ears as I asked, “San Martín? From the governor’s council in Coyhaique?”
“No, querida, but his son Diego. He’s my contact. We went to the U. in Puerto Montt together. You know him?”
My old flame, my first crush. Diego San Martín. Since the day he finished high school, I’d heard only the rarest morsels of news about him. And now this. What could he be mixed up in? Or was it just politics, as an aide to his father? Back when Diego and I dated, I’d only been vaguely aware of Don Mauricio San Martín’s government ties, but my mother’s comment in the recently recovered diary reminded me that Diego’s father was an affluent man…who actively promoted hydroelectric projects in the Region of Aysén.
I pinched my thigh, hard. Focus, girlfriend. “Sí, I think so,” I said coolly. “We went to school together too. He’s an Escuela Italia alumnus, Joaquín.”
“You don’t say.” He eyed me now as if he were performing mathematical calculations…