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“Well-paced and skillfully told, with an outstanding sense of place, an enjoyable main character, and entertaining supporting cast.... [Ainsley Walker] swept me off my feet.” -- Venus de Hilo, 5-star review“A delightful [series] – it will enchant you with exotic places and interesting characters.” -- Linda Osborn, 5-star reviewFor fans of Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich…. It’s hurricane season.An airplane en route to the States has just been forced to land on the island of Puerto Rico—and onboard is AINSLEY WALKER.Stranded in torrential rain, she is guided by another passenger towards a rickety plantation house in the island’s tropical interior, where she meets an elderly woman who has lost a precious family heirloom.It's a pearl brooch that had once belonged to an actual pirate of the Caribbean—and the old spinster needs Ainsley to find it ... fast.Soon she finds herself on another runaway adventure—one that propels her from wealthy art museums to abandoned sugar mills, from colonial-era cities to buried pirate chests on abandoned naval bases.Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, danger, the limits of her endurance—and the fact that things are never quite as they seem.From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post … …comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.Length: Approximately 68,000 words.Fourth in the series.
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The Puerto Rico PearlAn Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel MysteryBy J.A. Jernay
Approximately 68,000 words.Fourth in the series.
Copyright © 2012 by J.A. Jernay
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
ISBN (eBook edition): 978-0-9836852-4-1
Cover Design: Heather Kern at Popshop Studio
Ornament Markers: David Moratto
Ebook Design: MC Writing
Read what others are saying about the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series:
“Well-paced and skillfully told, with an outstanding sense of place, an enjoyable main character, and entertaining supporting cast… The Uruguay Amethyst swept me off my feet.”
—Venus de Hilo, Hawaii, 5-star review
“The Uruguay Amethyst is a delightful book – it will enchant you with exotic places and interesting characters.”
—Linda Osborn, 5-star review
“I recommend The American Turquoise to anyone… it is definitely worth the money.”
—J Bronder, 5-star review
“Vivid and exciting… The Argentina Rhodochrosite made me feel like I had just watched a great Travel Channel episode.”
“The writing is tight, I just love the main character… For anyone who has ever hoped for a whole new life, this is sheer fun… ”
The Puerto Rico Pearl
An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery
~ 1 ~
As the storm raging outside violently shook the airplane cabin, Ainsley Walker kept her eyes focused on the touchscreen embedded in the seat in front of her.
She was playing Gemcraft. The game was a simple test of memory. Her task was to match the ruby to the ruby, emerald to the emerald, opal to the opal. It was made for the lobotomized. A pigeon could’ve pecked its way to victory.
But it was keeping her mind off the disaster this flight had become.
First had been the medical emergency in the back row. Earlier in the flight, Ainsley had been seated next to a heavy woman who’d suffered what seemed to be a severe heart attack or stroke. Her skin had turned a sickly yellowish-gray and her eyeballs had rolled backwards in her head.
Ainsley had been asked to change seats, which is how she’d ended up here, in first class. Then the pilot had announced that the woman’s illness was forcing an unscheduled stop at San Juan International Airport.
In Puerto Rico.
Ainsley had nothing against stopping on that island, but there were two problems with this scenario.
One, Ainsley really wanted to get home. Her previous gemstone adventures had left her professionally fulfilled but feeling as worn out as a two-month-old kitchen sponge. She had begun dreaming of the simpler pleasures in life. Two nights in a row in the same bed. Making a ham-and-cheese omelet for breakfast. A pedicure.
Two, an enormous weather system raging just outside the skin of this airplane, Hurricane Hannah, was threatening to pounce on the island. That could screw up everything once they landed.
Ainsley matched the final pair of emeralds onscreen, entered her initials for fastest time, and shut off the game. She tightened her seatbelt and stared up to the bulkhead, thinking. Before she’d been drawn into the world of gemstone investigation, her home life had seemed empty and dull.
Now she understood the allure of an ordinary existence. Home. It would be good to get back.
A soft voice interrupted her thoughts. “Excuse me, but do you mind if we talk?”
Ainsley turned her head. The woman sitting next to her was about Ainsley’s age. The difference is that she was stunningly beautiful. She had been blessed with dark hair, glowing skin, a wide mouth, and almond-shaped eyes.
“What do you want to talk about?” said Ainsley.
“It doesn’t matter. I just get really nervous flying in bad weather and talking helps me forget.”
Ainsley could play along with that. “Sure, it helps me too. Where are you from?”
“New York. But my family is Puerto Rican.”
“So this is a homecoming?”
She smiled, an explosion of white teeth and lip gloss. “Oh my God. I haven’t been here in years. But being in Puerto Rico makes me so happy, even if it’s only for a few minutes.”
The woman had fixed Ainsley with her huge brown eyes, which were moistened at the edges. Ainsley felt her stomach sink. This woman wasn’t merely beautiful. She was stupendously, jaw-droppingly, quiveringly gorgeous. A perfect ten.
“Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” Ainsley replied.
“For talking to me,” she said. “My family raised me to believe that everyone is a friend. I’m Amaryllis.” She offered her hand.
Ainsley shook it. “I’m Ainsley Walker. Do you want to keep talking?”
“Do you have a husband?”
Ainsley didn’t especially want to go there. “Not really.”
“Why ‘not really’?”
Ainsley hemmed and hawed. “I don’t know where he is.”
Her seatmate’s beautiful forehead crinkled in a look of concern. “I’m kind of confused.”
“Me too. It’s complicated.”
Ainsley found herself starting to explain. How she referred to her ex-husband as The Legal Weasel. How she’d supported him all through his years in law school, after which he’d silently retreated backwards out of the marriage.
Eight months ago he’d totally disappeared. Ainsley didn’t have a clue as to his whereabouts. They were still technically married, but their relationship had become like one of those light-as-a-balloon wartime marriages in which husband and wife lose gradually lose track of one another’s whereabouts.
She hadn’t wanted that kind of marriage, but she hadn’t been in control. The Legal Weasel had held the reins. That was because she had cared more about the relationship than he had. It sounded contradictory but wasn’t. The person who cares less controls the relationship. Ainsley knew that now.
When she finished, Amaryllis was nodding. “I’m divorced.”
“He cheated. We Puerto Ricans aren’t supposed to lie to each other, but he didn’t care.”
That sounded painful, so Ainsley switched the subject. “So what do you do for a living?”
“Telecom sales.” She shrugged. “It’s a living. I didn’t have to work when I was married. What about you?”
Here it goes. Ainsley took a deep breath. “I’m a gemstone detective.”
It felt weird to speak the words out loud. Something in her still didn’t believe that she had managed to eke out a living this way lately. The high four-digit figure in her bank account proved otherwise.
Her seatmate’s face expressed shock—then excitement.
“That’s incredible!” she said. “Tell me, how did you get such a job?”
“You must know a lot about jewelry.”
Ainsley shrugged. She didn’t like tooting her own horn, but the answer to that question was an unqualified yes. She’d been obsessed with gemology as long as she could remember.
Suddenly Ainsley felt her stomach rise into her throat. The airplane had plunged again. This was going to be a rough landing. Amaryllis’s hand gripped hers on the armrest.
The pilot’s voice came onto the microphone. “Sorry for the turbulence, ladies and gentlemen. That was a little taste of what Hurricane Hannah has in store. Flight attendants, cross-check the doors for landing.”
A short few minutes later, Ainsley felt the wheels touch down on the tarmac. It was a gentle landing. As the airbus rolled to a stop, Amaryllis lifted her arms into the air and squealed with excitement.
Ainsley heard a few others do the same.
Her seatmate leaned over. “Natives always cheer when we land. It’s an island tradition.”
Then she touched Ainsley’s hand again. “Welcome to Puerto Rico. I just wish we could get off the plane for a few minutes.”
~ 2 ~
Ainsley looked out the window. She could see an ambulance waiting next to a set of mobile stairs. She heard a commotion behind her, then glimpsed the heavy woman on a gurney. She was being loaded into the ambulance. A minute later, it tore off.
Case closed. Ainsley waited for the doors to close, the airplane to back out. Nothing happened. Twenty minutes passed. There were signs of restlessness, small comments, conversation growing louder. The flight attendants wheeled the beverage cart down the aisle, hoping to bribe soda for peace.
“What do you think is happening?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know.”
Forty minutes passed. The passengers were becoming audibly disgruntled now. A man’s voice shouted about a passenger bill-of-rights.
At last the pilot’s voice came onto the system. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. As you know, this was supposed to be a temporary stop on our way to Miami. But Hurricane Hannah is arriving sooner than anticipated, and the authorities here at San Juan International have decided to close the airport.”
There was a loud outcry from everyone cabin.
“I hear you,” the pilot continued, “and I’ve just spent fifteen minutes arguing with traffic control. They are adamant. They’ve locked down the tarmac. We were the last flight in.”
Ainsley looked around. Other passengers were throwing their arms into the air. Some were swearing loudly.
“We understand that this is a massive inconvenience,” the captain was saying, “and please rest assured that this airline is going to make every effort to make your stay in San Juan pleasant. The gate agents are contacting hotels as we speak. We will get you more information just as soon as we have it. In the meantime, let’s begin to deplane.”
Ainsley looked at her seatmate. “You got your wish.”
Amaryllis was already on her telephone. “I know, it’s great, right? I should call my relatives. They are going to be surprised to see me.”
Ainsley gathered up her belongings and dumped them into her bag. Her spirits were murderously low. She felt like a garbage can.
A few minutes later, she was stumbling down the narrow extended gangplank, the thin floor creaking underfoot, the low ceiling mere inches above her head. She was also feeling dirty and sticky. She’d slept in her makeup, which was always a reliably lousy way to begin her day.
The only thing making her feel somewhat human right now was her favorite handbag, a white Marc Jacobs number with killer hardware, slung over her shoulder. It went everywhere with her.
The hallway emptied out into the terminal. The rest of the passengers were milling around with reddened eyes, pecking or barking angrily at their mobile phones. Two gate agents had phones cradled between their shoulders and ears, waving away the passengers who periodically assaulted them with questions.
This was going to be ugly, Ainsley guessed. Finding over two hundred hotel rooms in San Juan on an hour’s notice was probably a difficult assignment on a normal day. She imagined how much more difficult it would be under threat of an impending hurricane.
“This is going to take hours,” moaned a woman.
“If we’re sleeping here tonight,” said another, “I’m taking the best seats right now.” She dropped her bag and coat across the only three seats without armrests.
Outside the angry scrum, Ainsley found an open piece of railing and stared out the window at the tarmac. The sky was dark gray, even though it was only seven in the morning. The palm trees were bent like parentheses in the tropical gales.
The gate agent clicked onto the speaker. “Ladies and gentlemen of flight four-five-seven-zero from Buenos Aires, thank you for your patience. We are attempting to locate hotel rooms for each and every one of you. We will let you know as soon as those arrangements are made, so please be patient, and stay near the gate so that you do not miss our announcement.”
The gate agent began to repeat the announcement in Spanish. Ainsley looked over. The angry knot of passengers had relented slightly, backed away from the desk. Ainsley felt a little sorry for the gate agents. They were swinging torches against an angry mob.
This was looking grim.
Then Ainsley felt a hand on her forearm. It belonged to Amaryllis. “They’re never going to find enough hotel rooms for us before the hurricane hits,” she said.
“How do you know?”
“I just called my aunt and uncle. They live here in San Juan. They said that many of the hotel workers won’t leave their houses in bad weather. And country people check into the rooms too because their homes are too flimsy.”
“So what are you saying?”
“You should come with me.”
Ainsley lowered her eyes. “I really couldn’t do that.”
“No, you must. Please. Do you really want to spend the night on the floor of the terminal like most of these people?”
“Shouldn’t you ask them first?”
The beautiful woman looked at Ainsley as though she were stupid. “They’re family. We don’t even need to ask.”
“But I’m not—”
The seatmate put her hand on Ainsley’s forearm again. “You talked to me on the plane—talked like we had known each other for years. I like that. Come with me.” She paused. “I trust you, Ainsley.”
I trust you. Ainsley looked at her. The cynical part of her was wondering if perhaps this woman was a lesbian, that she was treating Ainsley’s vulnerability in this hurricane as a pickup opportunity, a piece of amazing sexual serendipity. That would explain the divorce too. Truth be told, if Ainsley were to cross over to the other side of the field, she couldn’t ask for a more gorgeous welcome.
But Ainsley didn’t think that was likely. Amaryllis just seemed to be the rarest of birds—an authentically warm and generous person.
Ainsley wasn’t used to this. After all, she’d grown up saddled with a grim Puritan heritage. A stepfather who had never offered more than a handshake. A Methodist aunt who spent an hour every morning in sober Bible study. A cousin so straight edge that he turned his nose up at beer-battered fish tacos.
She looked back at the agents’ desk. The angry scrum had surrounded it. She could hear the voices rising, could see the hackles raised, could feel the anger. This wasn’t going to end nicely.
Ainsley knew her answer. “Okay. Let’s go.”
The beautiful woman clapped. “Excellent. First I have to rent a car.” Then she beamed another blinding smile. “I can’t wait to introduce you to my family, Ainsley.”
That settled the question. This woman wasn’t a predator. She was just a living, breathing, walking piece of evidence for the existence of good karma.
~ 3 ~
The rainstorm began beating the windshield almost from the moment they left the airport.
The two women were parked on a congested freeway that, truth be told, felt a lot like any ordinary rush-hour highway back home.
In the passenger seat of the sedan, Ainsley sat hypnotized by the car’s windshield wipers as they performed their rhythmic dance. She listened to the tires slish through the deep puddles at intersections. She watched the arcs of water fling themselves out of the wheel wells on either side of the car like iridescent fish leaping out of buckets.
Amaryllis was at the wheel, talking excitedly. “I used to spend all my summers here with my relatives. Look, see those?” She pointed at a lagoon, on the other side of which rose a row of high-rise towers out of the dark grey mist. “That’s Condado. It’s where the tourists go, to the casinos, the clubs. The parties there are amazing.”
Ainsley nodded. She couldn’t see much more than vague shapes through the rain. “It feels a lot like America.”
“That’s because Puerto Rico is part of America,” said the woman. “This is a territory. They use the U.S. dollar. They drive all the same cars. Most of them speak English perfectly.”
“So what’s the difference, really?”
Amarylis thought about that. “I don’t know. Probably the tropical weather. They don’t really have political representation. But they don’t have to pay any taxes either.”
It sounded to Ainsley like Puerto Rico existed in a gray area—it wasn’t a U.S. state, but it wasn’t independent either. She guessed that there were benefits to being suspended in the middle.
Ahead, a group of people scurried across the overpass, holding jackets over their heads.
“The hurricane is supposed to hit at midnight,” said Amaryllis. “I wonder where all these people are going to be.”
Ainsley shook her head. “I’m wondering where we’re going to be.”
“That’s easy. We’ll be at my aunt and uncle’s house in Santurce. They have extra rooms.”
“The best neighborhood in San Juan.”
“The rich area?”
“No, but it’s the best.”
Her friend chewed on her lip. “I don’t know, Santurce just feels real. So full of color. You’ll see.”
Amaryllis turned off the freeway onto a moderately-sized city boulevard. Then she turned onto a narrow side street that led into a neighborhood, one whose history revealed itself in its three-quarters scale. There were older homes built of masonry in a vernacular style, small multifamily units constructed of stucco, narrow sidewalks, and tiny street-level tiendas. But the streets were mostly empty.
“Here we are,” said Amaryllis. “Parking is so easy today. Normally it takes fifteen minutes.”
She picked an open space along the curb, pulled in, and turned off the engine. “You don’t have an umbrella?”
“Me neither. Here, I took some magazines from the plane. Let’s use these. It’s the old-fashioned way.” She handed Ainsley an in-flight shopping catalog.
Holding the magazine over her head, Ainsley stepped out of the car. Even with a hurricane bearing down somewhere offshore, the climate felt blissful. Puerto Rico had the type of tropical ambience that made walking through rain fun.
She followed Amaryllis up the hilly street, hopping across puddles of water, avoiding overflowing sewer grates, leaping away from the runnels of water that cascaded down the steepest parts. Black cans overflowing with trash lay tipped over next to broken curbs. The decay was obvious, but Ainsley sensed that decades ago, Santurce had probably been a colorful place, the type of barrio about which people wrote fond memoirs.
The street levelled off, the concrete turned to cobblestones, and soon they had stumbled into a plaza. Bars and restaurants ringed the perimeter, their green wooden slatted doors closed and locked tightly against the weather.
“This is La Placita de Santurce,” said her guide. “And that is the mercado.”
In the center of the plaza stood a gorgeous two-story West Indian-style building, painted a deep eggplant, with elaborate cream trim and deep eaves, underneath which was a ring of countertops. Each one had a corrugated metal gate pulled down tightly across it. A high, wide doorway welcomed shoppers inside, but that was closed too.
“That’s a grocery store?” Ainsley said.
“Yes, but nobody will be there today. Do you need to use the bathroom?”
“I’ll be right back. Wait here.”
Amaryllis ran off towards a corner of the plaza. Ainsley found shelter underneath one of the eaves.
She was startled by the sound of rolling metal behind her. A man had just pulled up one of the open-air bars.
“Are you opening today?” she said.
“Of course,” he replied. He had a gap between his teeth when he smiled.
“But the hurricane?”
He waved it off. “We’ll be fine. This happens at least three times a year. The hurricane always teases us, then turns aside. Puerto Rico is like the girl who never gets asked to dance. It’s your first time to our island?”
He nodded. He reached under the counter and produced a tiny plastic cup. He filled it with a clear liquid, then used a pair of tweezers to drop three dark coffee beans into the cup. He handed it to her.
“Salud,” he said. “It’s Paloma. Welcome.”
Ainsley lifted the small cup to her nose. The liquor smelled like licorice. She wasn’t in the mood for drinking. It wasn’t even noon yet. But the first rule of travelling is to never refuse a gift.
She tilted the small cup backwards. She could taste the anise flavor, feel the burning as it scorched down her throat. It did leave a pleasant warming sensation in her belly.
“Did you like it?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’ll taste better the second time.” He filled up another small cup and handed it to Ainsley.
She drank it again and set down the cup. She could feel the liquor hitting her knees. “At least the hurricane is going to be more fun now.”
The bartender shook his head. “No hurricane. This island will be fine. Watch, you’ll see.”
Ainsley turned around and rested her elbows on the bar and gazed out at the small plaza. Raindrops bounced off the empty café tables. Four enormous bronze sculptures of avocados stood nearby.
“This plaza is very popular on Friday nights,” said the bartender. “You should come back tonight.”
Ainsley was about to answer when she saw Amaryllis approaching, her long legs moving aggressively across the plaza. This woman had the potential to be a real maneater.
“You making friends already?” she said.
Ainsley jerked a thumb at the bartender. “He says the hurricane isn’t going to hit the island.”
Amaryllis looked at the bartender, who lifted an eyebrow and hoisted a glass. “Mucho gusto,” she said.
“The pleasure is all mine,” he replied. Then he reached under the counter and produced another tiny plastic cup. He began to unscrew the bottle of anisette. “Please, join us.”
“Now?” said Amaryllis, glancing at the cup. “With that hurricane coming?”
“No hurricane. You’ll see.”
She took Ainsley by the arm and peeled her off the bar. “My aunt and uncle are expecting us.”
“Come back tonight,” said the bartender. “Friday night, La Placita. The best party on the island.”
“No one will be coming tonight,” said Amaryllis.
She steered Ainsley across the plaza. “You have to be more careful than that. The drinking can get out of control here.”
“You don’t know our reputation?”
Ainsley shrugged in ignorance. “No.”
“Nobody parties like a Puerto Rican. Nobody. Come on, it’s only one more block.”
Ainsley was still thinking about that as they walked up the street towards Amaryllis’ family’s house.
~ 4 ~
The rainfall had stopped, but heavy gray clouds still blanketed the sky.
Ainsley stood next to Amaryllis. Before them stood a modest home with a wide front porch. A knee-high basketball hoop in red, yellow, and blue stood against the fence in the front yard. A high wrought-iron fence surrounded the property. A hinged gate in the middle was the only point of entry.
In the yard, a man stood on a ladder against the side of the house. He was hammering sheets of plywood over the windows.
“Uncle Tomás!” shouted Amaryllis.
The man looked over, then smiled broadly. He stepped down the ladder and walked across his yard towards the gate. The wrinkles on his face indicated that he was about retirement age. He carried a heavy paunch in the front of his abdomen that suggested a lifetime of eating fried Caribbean food.
“Amaryllis, what a blessing,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
She nodded. “I know, right? There was a medical emergency onboard, and now the airport won’t let us leave.”
Her uncle opened the gate and they hugged each other.
“How long has it been?” he said.
“Three years,” said Amaryllis.
He shook his head disapprovingly. “I know, I know,” she said. “But I’ve been so busy with the job and the divorce. I was planning to visit soon anyways, I swear. Is Aunt Luisa home?”
He tilted his head towards the house. “She’s inside on the telephone. With Doña Pilar.”
Amaryllis opened her mouth in surprise. “That vieja is still alive?”
“Ninety-three years old.”
“Is she still living in that old plantation house? Out in Caguas?”
Uncle Tomás nodded. “She’ll never leave. She is there until she dies.” Then he noticed Ainsley. “Who is this?”
“My friend. She sat next to me on the airplane. She has no place to go either.”
Her uncle reached out, grasped Ainsley’s hand, then kissed her briefly on the cheek. “I am Tomás.”
She kissed his cheek in return. “Ainsley Walker.”
“You’ve never been to our island?”
“It’s my first time.”
“Usually it’s more pleasant than this,” he said, gesturing to the dark, stormy sky.
“I believe it,” she said.
The rain began to fall more heavily. Ainsley’s magazine was now a soggy mess in her left hand. He was still holding her right hand.
“That damned storm,” he said. “I’d be happier with blue skies and humidity. Let’s go inside.”
He let go of her hand. The handshake had lasted for ten seconds. At first Ainsley had thought that he was sweet on her. Now she was understanding a bit better. Puerto Ricans were totally kinesthetic.
The front door opened as they came up the front walk. Out stepped a small, heavy woman with reddish hands. Her head was tilted sideways, a mobile phone crooked between her ear and her shoulder. She was listening, occasionally nodding, humming, tossing out bits of Spanish slang.
To Ainsley’s eye, she seemed annoyed with the person on the other end of the phone. Peeved usually sounds peeved, no matter what language.
Finally the woman said goodbye. She ended the connection and threw the phone against the door. “Ay bendito.”
“Luisa, what’s wrong?” said Tomás.
“That woman has lost her mind.”
Her fists clenched. “That old woman needs to die. It would save everybody a lot of problems.”
Tomás quickly put his arm around his wife and changed the subject. “Look, Luisa, you remember my niece.”
Luisa’s mood changed. Her face brightened. “My favorite flower.”
The two women hugged each other for several seconds. Ainsley noticed that, even after separating, Amaryllis and Luisa continued touching each other, on the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waists.
“And her friend,” said Tomás. “Ainsley Walker.”
Twice now, Ainsley had been introduced as a friend. She was a bit surprised at this. Then that thought was almost literally squeezed out of her, as the aunt had wrapped her arms around Ainsley and was crushing her like an anaconda. This woman was a human-shaped piece of coiled muscle.
The aunt stepped back. She beamed at the two of them. “You two are such beautiful young women.”
Panting, Ainsley thanked her, but inside she felt a pang of regret. She really wasn’t that young any more. Her thirtieth birthday was only a few months away. And though she did know all the feminine beauty tricks, she also knew that she looked about as attractive as a grouper fish standing next to Amaryllis.
“Our electricity just went out,” said Luisa. “Let’s sit on the porch instead and wait for the news.”
They offered Ainsley a seat on a plastic lawn chair, which she accepted. On the other end of the porch, Tomás was stuffing a large group of dark tubers into a burlap sack.
Amaryllis leaned forward. “What are you doing, Uncle Tomás?”
“Well,” he said, “if the hurricane hits, we won’t have food shipments for a week. I had to go to the mercado at five in the morning. Before the crowds. Look.”
He tossed a tuber at Amaryllis. She handed it to Ainsley. It felt cool and rough to the touch.
“Yautia,” he said. “Could you hand me the quenepas?” He pointed to an array of fruits on the windowsill.
Ainsley was nearest to the window. “Which ones are those?”
“The green ones.”
A dreamy look had entered Amaryllis’ eyes. “They look exactly like I remember.”
Ainsley passed them across the porch. When she was finished, Aunt Luisa brought out a tray of four plastic cups. Inside each was a reddish-orange liquid. “Do you like acerola juice?”
“I don’t know,” said Ainsley, “I’ve never tried it.”
She accepted a cup and drank the liquid. It was tart but cool on her tongue and tasted a lot like the disks of vitamin C that she’d eaten as a child.
Aunt Luisa nodded, then sat down in her rocker with a sigh. She looked out at the soggy yard, at the raindrops bouncing against the cement beyond. “Can you believe Doña Pilar asked him to drive out to Caguas?” she said, hitching a thumb towards her husband. “Tonight? With a hurricane approaching?”
“What does she want?” said Amaryllis.
“To protect her windows. Her handyman isn’t answering her phone call. Now she wants Tomás to do it instead.” Luisa shook her head. “It’s an hour away on a good day. But today—who knows?”
Tomás cinched the sack of vegetables and joined the women. “That house is doomed anyways. A strong morning dew will collapse it.”
All of these people were strangers to Ainsley. She felt as if she were eavesdropping. This shouldn’t be any of her business.
Amaryllis noticed her discomfort. “Doña Pilar is a distant relative of my family. She lives on a very old plantation-style house up near the mountains.”
“We don’t like her,” said Luisa.
“Luisa,” said Tomás.
“Admit it, she’s terrible.”
Tomás took a softer approach. “The real problem, Ainsley, is that her house isn’t safe in a hurricane. But she won’t leave.”
Luisa sighed again. “It’s been in her family forever. She’ll never let go.”
“You don’t have to go tonight,” said Amaryllis.
“I don’t want him to,” said Luisa. “And now she’s complaining about something else.”
Luisa rolled her eyes. “Somebody stole something from her. I think she said it was a pearl brooch.”
That sounded about right, thought Ainsley. It was a very grandmotherly piece of jewelry. Nobody under the age of seventy voluntarily pinned brooches onto her blouse any more.
“She said it was very valuable,” said Luisa. “She said it was an heirloom with great historical meaning for Puerto Rico. She says a lot of things.”
A hand touched Ainsley on her forearm. It was Amaryllis. Her eyes were shining again. Ainsley knew what she was thinking.
“No,” said Ainsley.
“Because I want to get home.”
Amaryllis ignored her. “Aunt Luisa, I have an idea.”
“I think Ainsley should help Doña Pilar.”
~ 5 ~
At first, the aunt and uncle didn’t comprehend. Their eyes were light but curious, demanding explanation. Ainsley really didn’t want to give it to them. She was starting to regret this little jaunt.
“How can Ainsley help her?” said Luisa.
Amaryllis cleared her throat. “She is a gemstone detective.”
Ainsley lowered her head. It was still embarrassing to boast about her career. She found it hard to meet their eyes.
“Yes, it’s true,” she finally said. “I find lost gemstones.”
Tomás pulled up a plastic chair and sat down. He was leaning towards Ainsley with his elbows on his knees and his eyes staring at her. A pair of hands couldn’t have gripped her any harder.
“What type of gemstones do you find?” he asked.
“Whatever people ask me to find.”
She shrugged. “I just came from Argentina. I found a necklace for a famous soccer player.”
A screwdriver fell from Tomás’ fingers and clattered on the floor. “El Mono?”
His eyes were bugged out. “I just heard about that. It was on the radio.”
Ainsley nodded. Twenty-four hours earlier she had been in Buenos Aires, speaking to members of the Latin American media, describing the secrets of the guerra sucia that she had uncovered during her pursuit of Ovidio Angeletti’s rhodochrosite necklace. And she’d been headed back to the States when the flight had been diverted to San Juan.
“Very interesting,” said Luisa, sizing up her visitor with new eyes.
Amaryllis was surprised too. “El Mono?” she said. “You helped him?”
A wicked smile crept across her beautiful face. She leaned over and whispered: “My friend slept with him. She said he’s terrible in bed.”
Neither of those statements surprised Ainsley. But she didn’t want to talk about Argentina, or necklaces, or gemstones any more. She just wanted to get back home. A bed, an omelet, and a pedicure had been calling her.
Tomás had different plans. “I am going to take you to see Doña Pilar.”
Ainsley held up her hands. “No, I’m not here to work.”
He shook his head. “Escuchame. We will go together. I will hammer her boards to the windows. You will sit inside and discuss her missing pearl brooch. Make her feel better. She’ll probably fall asleep before you finish talking.”
Ainsley tried to figure out a respectful way to bow out. “You know, I don’t think she would want to talk. Look at me. I’m dirty and disgusting.”
“Look,” said Tomás, “you don’t have anything else to do. The airport is closed. You can’t even go to the beach.”
“And she has some money,” added Amarylis.
Ainsley was scrambling for excuses. “But what about the hurricane? It could hit while we’re on the road. Thank you, but it’s too dangerous.”
In response, Tomás reached over to a small transistor radio on the windowsill and snapped it on. It looked about half a century old. “This is my best friend when I’m working in the garden outside. Can you believe it still functions? It was my father’s.”
He twisted the tuning knob. Ainsley listened to the white noise issuing from the speaker. Finally he found a station. A staticky voice became audible.
Everybody leaned in, listening closely. Ainsley had good Spanish skills, but over the hammering rain and the shitty sound quality, she couldn’t understand very much at all.
A moment later, Tomás and Luisa suddenly threw their hands into the air and cried out. It was a happy sound.
“What did he say?” asked Ainsley.
“The hurricane is turning north,” said Amaryllis. “It’s heading towards the Bahamas.”
“It’s going to miss us,” said Luisa.
Ainsley thought about the bartender in La Placita de Santurce. He’d been right. Puerto Rico was the girl who never gets to dance.
“Wait, there’s more,” said Tomás. He was nearly pressing his ear to the radio. “The man says three to four days of heavy rains are expected. Heavy flooding anticipated in Carolina, Isla Verde, and San Juan International Airport.” He looked at Ainsley. “It’s closed until at least Tuesday.”
Ainsley felt her stomach plummet. That was four days away.
The beautiful seatmate from the airplane put her hand on Ainsley’s knee. “See, it’s like fate. You were meant to see Doña Pilar.”
Tomás jumped in. “At the very least, come see her property. It’s amazing. I can do my work, you can chat with her, and then we’ll come right back here tonight.”
Ainsley felt three pairs of eyes waiting for her response. All the doors had closed. She had been corralled.
She gave in. “Okay. I’ll talk to her.”
Tomás slapped Ainsley on the knee. “You’re a good girl. I could feel it. Let me call her and tell her that we’re coming.”
The others stepped inside. Ainsley sat alone on the porch, watching the raindrops again. It was barely eleven o’clock in the morning.
She sipped her fruit juice, thinking. Resisting the natural flow of events was futile. She had to ride the horse in the direction it wanted to go. And if this horse wanted to carry her through a Caribbean rainstorm towards a cranky woman who wanted to bitch about her missing pearl brooch, then so be it.
Tomás stepped out onto the porch again. “It’s all set. Doña Pilar wants to meet you. We should leave now, so we can return before the big rains tonight.”
Ainsley stood up, resigned to her fate. Amaryllis launched herself through the door and wrapped herself around Ainsley. When she pulled back, there were tears in her eyes. Ainsley was starting to sense that she was a highly emotional person.
“I knew that I could trust you,” said Amarylis.
Ainsley shrugged. “Thanks, but it’s not like I’m saving the world.”
“Tell me all about Doña Pilar when you come back tonight.”
On her way out of the house, Ainsley looked back. Amaryllis and her aunt had linked arms around one another’s waists. They were waving happily.
To Ainsley’s sensibility, this was an odd sendoff, especially for a stranger. After all, she was only leaving for a few hours. Soon she would be back, and soon after that she would be back on an airplane. Then she would be home.
But there was one thing she hadn’t counted on. An old saying.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
~ 6 ~
A half hour later, Ainsley was in the passenger seat of Tomás’ pickup truck. They were headed south.
She stared out the side window at the rain dancing across the freeway, towards the green hills cloaked in a silver veil of rain and mist.
Tomás drove easily. His left hand rested casually on the top of the steering wheel, his right hand hooked around a thermos. “These vaguadas are too much,” he said. “Even before this week, it’s been the wettest year in our history.”
“San Juan was always drier than the west side. It rains there constantly. And El Yunque too, of course—that mountain range is wetter than the ocean. But for us in the capital, all this rain is new.”
“What do you think it means?”
He shrugged. “I guess the climate is changing.”
Ainsley thought about that. It seemed reasonable. As the atmosphere worked to absorb excess carbon dioxide emissions during the last century, some parts of the world were growing drier, and other parts were growing wetter. San Juan was becoming one of the wet spots.
“So you should know something else about Doña Pilar,” Tomás said.
“You can’t speak English to her.”
“You speak some Spanish?”
Tomás nodded. “You’ll need more Spanish than that, though.”
Ainsley knew that he meant well, but Tomás had little idea of the struggles she’d just endured in South America, not only in bringing her Spanish up to speed but also in adjusting to the unusual idioms and usages found only in that region. In fact, Ainsley felt like she’d just emerged from a linguistic war.
By contrast, being here in Puerto Rico, where everyone spoke both a more familiar Spanish and good old American English, felt like slipping into a warm bath. But she didn’t want to sound cocky.
Instead, Ainsley just said, “Don’t worry, I’m good.”
“There is something else too,” he said. “I don’t like to be very direct about unpleasant things, but we don’t have much time.”
He looked uncomfortable. “Doña Pilar has… a reputation.”
Ainsley wasn’t surprised. Luisa had already said that nobody liked her. “Is it because she’s rich?”
“No, she’s not that rich.” He clenched his fingers around the steering wheel. “She thinks she’s Spanish.”
“You mean from España.”
“Yes, correct. I’ll give you an example.” He held out his arm. “Look at my skin. Would you call me white?”
Ainsley looked at him. He was tanned, olive-skinned, slightly swarthy.
“You’re a little darker.”
“Of course. We call this trigueño. Many Puerto Ricans look like this. But not Doña Pilar.” He laughed. “She’s whiter than milk and proud of it. Watch, you’ll see.”
“So how are you related?”
“Very distantly. There is no shared blood. She’s my wife’s great aunt. All the others between us have passed away. Now Luisa is the only family she has left.” He squinted ahead, trying to peer through the raindrops. “Here it is.”
He turned onto a four-lane surface street and drove the truck through a commercial area. Ainsley saw broken-down storefronts flashing past the window. Long-dead restaurants. Auto repair yards advertising with hand-painted signs and piles of tires in the weed-choked lots.
Then the commercial center gave way to a rural landscape, with more rolling hills. Tomás slowed the vehicle to navigate across a low-lying piece of road that had already flooded. She heard the water sloshing up against the undercarriage.
Then he accelerated again, and a few minutes later turned the truck onto a two-track dirt road. It was lined with tall silk cotton trees, their smooth, bare trunks at least forty meters high. Each was crowned with a spray of red branches at the top, like nature’s biggest matchsticks.
Beneath them, the truck bounced and jutted over the road.
“I see why you didn’t want to come out here,” said Ainsley.
“Doña Pilar won’t live anywhere else,” he said, “and there is nobody to take care of her. Look, do you see that tree?” He pointed at a branch with dangling seedpods. “Those are called women’s tongues because they always whisper as you pass by them. It sounds like gossip.”
Ainsley smiled at that one. Then the road careened around a bend, and she forgot all about women’s tongues, because Doña Pilar’s house came into view.
It looked like it had been lifted out of the nineteenth century. Ainsley guessed that it hadn’t seen a coat of paint in almost that long.
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