A Scent of Diamonds
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by Dorothy Ann Skarles
Description: Tyla Winters never imagined a simple language tour to Mexico would lead to a cloak-and-dagger job. A former co-worker asks her to keep two prayer books hidden from her traveling companions. That is, before he was shot by the Mexican Federales. Turns out the prayer books may hold the key to creating superb artificial diamonds. Unfortunately, shadowy individuals are on her trail and Tyla quickly realizes her life is in danger, but who can she trust?
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2006
eBookwise Release Date: March 2008
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [401 KB]
Reading time: 257-360 min.
Tyla Winters dawdled along behind her fellow tourists following the colorful tiles that led from shop to shop in the famous pottery town of Tlaquepaque. A rectangular complex of restaurants, cantinas and shops surrounded a park with a public market that had the distinction of being one of Mexico's foremost centers for both bad and good witchcraft.
There were so many things to see and choices to make among the native crafts for Tyla's first trip to Mexico, a buying tour combined with one of those opportunities to practice Spanish, offered through the University of San Francisco. It was only when enough students didn't sign up that the trip was advertised in the travel section of the Chronicle.
She started to examine a wide-eyed owl made from pottery when a sudden surreptitious movement caught her attention. Near a cafe with several, occupied, outdoor tables, a man taller than most Mexicans zigzagged a path between and along the sides of two buildings. A huge sombrero hid most of his face and he wore the common, loose, dun-colored pants and shirt of a poor Indian field hand. Something about the way he turned his head to look across the square seemed familiar. Tyla surmised it was probably the combination of the man's stride and the way he held his rigid jaw that somehow reminded her of Keith.
"A smell of fear, that's what it is." Tyla heard Heartland Jones. At five feet nine, and a hundred and fifty pounds dripping wet, he had a surprisingly deep, resonant voice as he walked up to her, diverting her attention. A thin man in his late thirties, with dark hair and an intelligent face with piercing brown eyes. He owned the renowned jewelry store, Esteban's, and was one of the boring rich. He was considered a prize catch by San Francisco society. "People see the Federales and are overwhelmed with fear," he continued. "It permeates the air. Can't you feel it?" He walked over to a three-foot urn.
"Yes, I can." Tyla noted Heartland's scowl was fixed on the inside of the burnt clay. "But I'm determined not to let it dampen my trip."
Heartland stretched his hand downward feeling the urn's bottom. "It's as if everyone acknowledges the sinister side of that kind of law but they do nothing about it." He straighten up and moved to another piece of pottery. "The people are afraid to confront their anxieties in a positive way."
"You mean like going about their own business, putting on a brave face, or like whistling past a graveyard?"
Heartland shrugged. "Somewhat. But here, real human beings can and do wreak havoc. The Federales have a way of undermining the belief in a basically good and safe world."
"Yes, I suppose," Tyla said grudgingly. She had also noticed how the sight of the military police could bring an instant kind of unease and wariness to the Mexican people.
She looked around to see the bouncing Hurley twins examining several pairs of earrings displayed on a board. As she decided to join them, she turned in time to spot two Federales in brown uniforms across the square propel their way through a crowd while holding rifles. One of the men struck and pushed a slender boy down in his path, a wild cry of pain coming from the boy's throat, his basket of small items scattering.
"Look at that!" Heartland pointed a finger. "There is a perfect example."
"How terrible," Tyla said. It was as if the men in brown uniforms were removing a disagreeable insect from their path. "I wonder what's going on?"
Heartland shrugged. "Probably after some fugitive. The boy got in the way."
"But why doesn't someone help him?" Tyla watched the boy pick up his articles and put them back in his basket. "He could be hurt."
"My dear Tyla," Heartland made a half-turn and held out his hand, "Here, the people wouldn't dare."
Yes, the military police were frightening, Tyla thought. People saw them, and stood stark still or crossed the square to avoid them. She suddenly remembered the suspicious looking man with the huge sombrero and wondered if he was the one the Federales were after. She quickly glanced back at the cafe but the man had disappeared.
As she and Heartland caught up with the twins and Millie Avery standing in front of a building, Tyla heard their guide, Carlos, say, "Notice the wall with the jagged pieces of colored glass on top. At one time this was a great hacienda. The wall, like many in Mexico, protects both the estate and people inside. Now, the hacienda is used by the prefecto of police." He moved on, the tour group following, to another display of pottery on the sidewalk.
There were eight of them this Thursday. They had suffered through the heat of mid-morning twisting among a network of people shopping for bargains, each of them hoping to find unusual buys to give as presents or to use in their own homes.
A small chuckle escaped Tyla's throat as she thought of the very obscene piece of red clay she had bought earlier--a man seated with his legs slightly curved around and holding a club in his left hand. Between his legs and sticking straight up, his other hand held his penis, which was about the size of a Corona cigar. The many unusual pieces she bought to sell in her San Francisco shop had to be both rare and distinctive items and she knew just the customer that would buy the racy piece of pottery. Too bad she didn't understand the vendor when he tried to tell her what the clay man was called.
"Señorita. You buy?"
"What?" Tyla said feeling a tug on her skirt.
"I fix all hurts for five pesos."
Tyla turned around, and saw the boy who had been swatted like a fly on the pavement, and was glad he didn't seem any worse for his abuse. As the youthful face looked up at her, she judged him to be about eight years old. His lips curved into a wide smile showing even, white teeth, and his large, brown eyes sparkled. In his hand, he held out what looked to be a bent arm made of straw with a thin piece of leather tied on one end of a doubled-up fist.
"My amulets, they have mucho grande magic. Make many miracles." He held the arm closer to her face. "You wear around neck. Very good. Very helpful. It will heal all hurts."
"Muchas gracias." Tyla smiled. She noticed his basket filled with curious shapes of straw that resembled parts of the body. "But my arm does not hurt."
"Perhaps the señorita's feet hurt," he said, dropping the arm in the basket and taking out a foot. "Keep many blisters away."
Tyla laughed and shook her head. "Sorry. No blisters, either."
"A doll," he said, dropping the foot and picking out an unusual toy shaped like a silly, pretty girl. "A beautiful doll with red hair like beautiful lady. Only four pesos. Give you mucho luck."
Tyla saw the hopeful look on the boy's face as he held out the figure made from stockings, stuffed with straw. The neck, arms, waist and legs were tied with white strings to give it a shape. A red stocking wig cut in strips flowed down over the shoulders.
"I can see she is very beautiful," Tyla said, taking the doll from him and holding it out in front of her. "And her hair curls up loosely at the ends much like my own."
"Si." The boy grinned. "And she has blue buttons for eyes, same as the señorita's."
Tyla laughed. "Yes, she does, doesn't she?"
"Tres pesos. Very good buy." He held up three fingers.
"Well..." Tyla hesitated. "She does have bright red hair and blue eyes..."
"Beautiful doll for beautiful lady ... no?"
Tyla smiled. "Okay, three pesos it is."
"Muchas gracias." The boy grinned back, dropping the money in his basket.
She put the doll in her soft leather bag and continued to lag behind Heartland and the others, going past the many arcades and patios was like going to a carnival. She enjoyed peering into the windows of the shops and stopping now and then to watch the glass blowers and pottery makers at work.
As Tyla was about to enter a basket shop, she heard Victory Eden's voice call out. She stopped and looked up.
"Tyla! Come see." Victory stood with one hand shading her eyes, the sunshine silhouetting a slim figure through her slipless dress. Flecks of gold filtered through strands of blond hair piled high on her head.
Tyla waved and noticed how far behind she had loitered. As usual, the college hunk, Charley Wright, and his new wife were way ahead of the group.
"Nice stuff, all kinds of earrings and necklaces," Victory yelled, waving back. Her breasts were revealed clearly beneath the sheer fabric of her dress.
"All right, I'm coming." Tyla turned from the shop and made a quick detour around some sidewalk wicker obstacles. In her haste to catch up with Victory, she scooted around a four-foot wicker donkey only to step in front of two racing German shepherds. Tyla's body tensed as the dogs stopped to stare at her. The next instant, she felt the jarring impact of a masculine body spin her around so violently that she rocked on her feet.
"What the hell!" Boomed a deep, low, angry voice.
"Sorry," Tyla said, grabbing for the donkey's head to steady herself. She noticed a face creased in anger.
"Lady, will you move it! You're blocking my way!" A hand gripped her shoulder digging into her flesh.
"Look out!" Tyla yelled, spinning off balance. Her body rolled across the donkey's back.
"Get out of the way!" He plunged ahead, his hand on her backside.
"You jerk!" Tyla spun around to glare at him, one end of her wrap-around skirt catching on the donkey's tail revealing the striped, tiger panties she wore. "Now, look what you have done!" She tried to pull on the open flap while his glance shifted to her tanned, bare legs.
"For Christ's sake. Here!" He gripped his fingers around the caught end of her skirt and pulled. "Why in the hell don't you watch where you're going!"
"Me! Why didn't you watch where you were going!" Tyla snapped, feeling flustered. She pulled at her skirt to cover all her vital parts. "Of all the stupid, inconsiderate..."
He threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, so it's my fault. I didn't see you. Now will you get out of my way?" He stepped sideways so quickly, his foot came down on her right toe.
"Ouch, you klutz!" Tyla jerked her foot back. Her face contorted at the quick pain.
"Sorry?" That snarl didn't sound as if he was sorry. She straightened up to her full five foot eight and glared at him. She saw black curly hair and a strong face. He was over six feet tall, with the lean muscular body of a man who kept himself in good physical condition. His gray suit fit as if it had been tailor made in a very expensive shop.
Cold, angry brown eyes suddenly scanned Tyla's countenance. He looked at her with such intensity it made her feel awkward.
Tyla glanced at the dogs and then back at the man. She indicated a clear path with her hand as she stepped to the side. "There! Go!" she snapped.
Within a split second, she witnessed his eyes go from a blink, to a scowl, to astonishment. His face so instantly taking on a glaze-like porcelain expression, Tyla wasn't sure if she noticed anything at all. He now wore a kind of shell that was both translucent and hard, like an oriental mask.
Not pausing to say anymore, he abruptly swept past her, darting down Tlaquepaque's busy square, pushing tourist's aside, the dogs dashing after him.
Victory's hand paused on Tyla's arm. "I saw that. Are you all right?"
"Yes. Just barely." Tyla wiggled her foot, her toe still hurting. "The man's a menace! His size twelve really did a number on my toe." Her hands once more adjusted her skirt. Then she made a fuss pushing strands of hair away from her face.
"Where do you suppose he came from?" Victory asked, almost panting like a dog in heat. She turned her head toward the stranger already fading into the crowd.
"Who knows," Tyla snapped. She recognized the familiar man-chasing gleam in Victory's eyes.
"I wish a klutz like that would run into me--size twelve's and all." Victory said in her purring voice. A warm smile clung to her face as if something was left over from Christmas. "What a morsel!"
"You think so? I hardly noticed," Tyla lied.
"How very odd," Heartland Jones said, walking up to them. "I wonder what that man is doing with guard dogs? Rabies here can be quite a problem." His face filled with disapproval. "I hope the Mexican consul has certified their papers."
"Oh, never mind the dogs," Victory said. "Did you see that determined look on his face. I bet he's in some kind of passionate huff."
"I'd say more of a high dudgeon," Heartland said. "Did you see how he darted across the square without any concern for the people he was trampling on? He acted just like the Federales."
"Surely not," Victory said. Her nipples against her dress were taut, rising with each breath. "I'd say he was intense. Really intense, but oh, so cute." Her gaze fixed on a crowd of people where she had last seen the disappearing figure.
"Good God! The man is just a man," Heartland snapped. "You're being ridiculous."
"Oh, really," Victory said, her voice rising. She gave Heartland a withering look until he seemed to squirm.
Heartland's chin went up. "Dirty looks do not become you."
"Esteban is jealous." Victory's voice once more turned into a purr and she looked at Tyla. "Really green-eyed, isn't he?"
"Must you be so blatant?" Heartland's voice took on a pained tone.
"Now, now, mustn't lose your temper." Victory wiggled her index finger.
"Humph!" Heartland grunted.
"Oh, sweet handsome Esteban," Victory teased. "Such bad humor. My, my..." She gave a low laugh followed by a provocative smile. "And such disapproval for another handsome devil. My, my..."
Tyla watched indulgently with a tinge of awe at Victory's favorite sport of baiting men.
"How many times must I tell you not to call me Esteban?" Heartland growled in bad temper. He fixed offended eyes on Victory's face.
"You know, if you weren't so jealous you wouldn't talk to me like that." Victory gave him a coy look.
"Jealous. I should say not!" Heartland's face expressed shock.
"But Esteban, you act jealous," Victory said.
"Will you cease?" Heartland scowled, giving Victory a piercing look. "I prefer not to be called by the name of my jewelry establishment."
"You mean Daddy's establishment, don't you?" Victory teased.
"No, I don't!" Heartland snapped. "It's a family thing, and I am the heir."
"That may be," Victory said, "but I don't see you working there very often."
"Are you calling me a slacker?" Heartland's face took on a tinge of red. Slackers don't get degrees in gemology. A certified gemologist, if you please!"
"Oh, well, then, if you insist, Heartland." Victory's lips went into a pout. "But I thought you told me Esteban was your name." She slipped her arm through his in a cozy manner.
"It is," Heartland answered, reproachfully. "But it is my middle name by tradition."
Tyla looked at Heartland. "You mean like a father's name passed on to a son?"
"Yes. But to be more correct, I got saddled with my mother's family name."
Tyla momentarily blocked Heartland's path by avoiding a huge horse made from pottery. "Isn't Esteban Spanish for Steven," she asked.
"It is, but I prefer Stephan," Heartland corrected.
"Steven, Stephan, what's the difference?" Victory gave a little shrug.
"I like Stephan!"
"Oh, poop." Victory said brushing a hand through her blond hair as her other hand let go of Heartland's arm. A tinkling kind of laugh trailed behind her as she went to catch up with the rest of their tour group. Her sheer dress clung to her skin, her perked-up bottom accentuated by the tightness.
Heartland turned toward Tyla in a kind of feeble defiance. "We may as well join her. I don't like the looks of all these police ... with or without guns ready ... There's bound to be trouble."
Tyla glanced around nervously. The men in uniform did make her feel a kind of constrained apprehension. She took a step to follow Heartland when she saw something move in the shadows of a nearby doorway. It was the man with the sombrero. He was coming out from behind a tourist bus. For some reason he made her stiffen, and immediately she searched for the police, but they were moving toward the other end of the block.
She watched the man for some minutes as he hastened in and out of doorways, casting frantic glances over his shoulder. As the man approached her, he looked up and his face showed clearly for one split second under the brim of the sombrero, but she recognized that strong MacClusky face.
Tyla drew in her breath. She couldn't believe her eyes. It was Keith's brother, Tom ... Tom MacClusky. And by his movements, she knew he was in trouble! My God, what was he doing here? Was he still working undercover? She bit her lower lip.
He was probably still with Select Inter Service, she thought. A branch of the C.I.A. that concerned itself with problems within governments. A trouble-shooting agency known by the code-name "SIS." Tyla saw the police again and trembled. Tom, here, of all places. She hadn't seen him for a year. Not since Keith, her fiancé, was killed. She stepped off the curb to cross the square. Several tourists passed her, their voices raised in laughter. In her hurry, she felt the blood rush to her head, her temples throbbed. She had to talk to him. Try to help him. Find out ... Tom looked her way and gave a slight shake of his head, an expression of alarm on his face.
My God, yes, she was about to do something crazy. Frightened now, Tyla scanned the crowd. In her need to talk to the man who had almost been her brother-in-law, she had been about to expose him to the Federales. No wonder SIS asked her to retire. She made a terrible agent. She turned her steps to the side and once again made her way behind Heartland and the guide, Carlos, their small tour group stopping now to view the town's candy makers.
Tyla glanced at the brown, caramel-colored sweets displayed on neat, cloth-covered tables. They looked like lumps of hard, brown sugar. Three or four bees buzzed and flew over the candy as if looking for a place to land. A sweet sugar smell came to her nostrils. She barely paid attention to any of it.
All she could think of was the pleading glance she had seen in Tom's eyes warning her of danger. It made her throat tighten and she could feel terror seep up into her body, a growing knot in her stomach. Why hadn't she realized sooner that the man wearing the sombrero was Tom? After all, he had the same swift movements, the same broad cheeks and determined look she had always noticed in his brother's eyes. Now, the Federales were after Tom. She hoped with all her heart she hadn't made some stupid mistake when she rushed toward him.
Seeing Tom looking so desperate, Tyla knew he must be in great danger. There would be no escape and no mercy if caught and thrown into a Mexican jail. She felt terrified for him and was afraid she might still do something silly that would give him away.
People pushed in a circle around Tyla to see the candy made from cactus. A few more busy bees swarmed and buzzed over the large hunks that oozed with wetness. The humming sounded loud, harsh and frightening.
With a glance, Tyla searched the adobe buildings across the square. The muscles of her stomach tensed. Tom was part of a massive and complex agency that was beyond ordinary procedures. She herself had been a rookie agent before Keith's brutal death. But what was it they preached? Be prepared for unexpected coincidences, no matter how strained; be ready to conceal reactions. She hoped she had succeeded. Tyla glanced around again. Seeing nothing, she felt a sigh of relief. Whatever Tom was doing here, it must be important.
As they followed their guide, Carlos, toward the picturesque church, Tyla looked at the other members of her tour party. They were all hot and tired trying to keep cool by straw fans given to them by a proprietor of a basket shop. The women in the group struggled with their purchases, purses, and the fans that they carried.
Millie Avery, her purple-reddish hair now all wildly disarranged from the heat Tyla noticed, had given up all together and was sitting on a marble bench with Heartland Stephan Jones. The teen twins, Blossom and Francine Hurley, wearing identical short shorts and halter tops were making a fuss over a burro heavily laden with wood, while Charley Wright argued with a vendor over the price of a gold, Mexican coin. His wife, Maxine, stood in the sun shading her eyes, a bored expression on her face.
Water, coming from somewhere, dribbled out of a great pipe onto the street and down hill in the dirty cobblestone gutter. The smell of feces made the air repulsive. A fruit vendor, wearing only tight trousers, bent down to wash his knife as the water formed a rivulet about a foot wide and six inches deep.
Tyla shuddered. She must remember never to buy a piece of watermelon from a vendor.
"I love to watch their muscles ripple. They're so ... so machismo." Victory said.
Tyla turned to see Victory devouring the fruit vendor with undisguised interest. A tall, dark, good-looking man with a self-satisfied expression on his face. "Yes, well ... he does look as if he's catered to."
Victory drew in a succulent breath. "Who needs candy when you could just eat him?"
Listening to Victory speak so outlandishly always tickled Tyla's ridiculous side that gave in to amusement. The woman did have a way of turning Tyla's thoughts away from Tom MacClusky. "Well, he certainly is handsome," Tyla couldn't help saying. "And he looks like he knows it. I bet he has twelve kids, a wife, and a sweet young mistress or two hidden somewhere in a back room."
"Hmm, think so?" Victory purred. She licked her lips. "But what a handsome devil to have in the bedroom. I'd set up housekeeping with him any day."
"You might be sorry." Tyla smiled. "Remember, Mexican men are not brought up to be domestics. They don't wash dishes, do laundry or dust."
"Who cares." Victory rolled her eyes. "Just look at all that sexual prowess, physical strength, and adventurousness that could be mine."
"Oh, no," Tyla pretended to wail. "I think we'd better get away from here before you lose your senses altogether. Time to forget el macho, I see Carlos is getting antsy."
"Come, come, señores, señoras." Carlos' voice filled the air. He made lifting gestures with his hands. "It is time to see our famous church."
Amid low groans, all of them managed to again follow Carlos. The church of Tlaquepaque was the last stop in the tour of the famous pottery town. As they reached the end of the square, loud, angry voices drew Tyla's attention. Two Federales lunged forward through the mass of tourists like possessed animals. They crashed into people and carts, throwing aside everything and everyone in their path. Tyla felt herself a bundle of nerves once more and her stomach churned. The Federales' presence meant trouble, questions.
The men stopped in front of Carlos, and said something to him in Spanish. She watched Carlos shake his head. He talked another minute and then turned to the group.
"He asked if we saw anyone suspicious. A man running. Perhaps wearing a big sombrero. A bandido ... a ladron, a thief," translated Carlos.
For an interminable moment, Tyla wondered if Tom had been spotted by anyone in the group. She watched them all look at one another and then shake their heads, denying that they had seen anything amiss. Her breathing didn't become normal until their group was inside the church listening to Carlos cite its history.
Tyla could feel her anxiety start to ease with the quietness and peacefulness of her surroundings. It made her feel as if Tom would be all right. Surely, with his experience getting out of tight corners, he'd be able to elude the Federales.
Permeating the air was an atmosphere musty with age and tradition. Blossom and Francine milled about, studying the icons, giggling, admiring and comparing. They seemed to be oblivious to the rest of the gathering. The odor of candle wax filtered the air as a Mexican woman lit three wicks and silently read from a small prayer book. The young boy who had sold her the stuffed doll was making an earnest request to his saint. Beside him, his basket filled with odd colorful straw items sat on the floor.
Suddenly, men in brown uniforms were entering several church doors at once, shouting orders.
Tyla startled, turned. She saw the man with two dogs. He was only about ten feet away from her. He had a very unyielding expression on his face as he argued with a bull of a man in uniform, exploding in Spanish. Several guards with guns drawn ran down the aisles between the pews.
Tyla knew now that even a church wouldn't be safe for Tom.