The Halloweenish Mystery Thrill Ride is speeding up. Today my guest is Carmen Amato. Can't afford to go on a trip to Mexico? Pick up one of her books. Sure, you will have to deal with some murder and mayhem, but what's a vacation without a little mystery?
Lorne, thanks so much for the invitation. My mystery series featuring Emilia Cruz, the first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force, is set in Mexico. One of the upcoming novels in the series, SHATTERED SIESTA, is built around the notion of Santa Muerte, the cult figure that is known as the Skeleton Saint, the Boney Lady, and the Death Saint.
And what better time to talk about this strange and powerful cult figure—reported by many to be the patron saint of the violent Mexican drug cartels—than the season of Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Worship of Santa Muerte is one of the fastest growing religious phenomena in the Western Hemisphere, despite the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the practice. There is a set of rituals, prayers, offerings, and colors connected with Santa Muerte, and spiritualism and magic are woven into the worship as well.
But instead of talking, let me share an excerpt from SHATTERED SIESTA, which will be released in late 2015. It follows the first three novels in the series; CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS. All three books are available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.
“Young guy,” Detective Emilia Cruz said. “His throat is slit.” She’d seen enough dead bodies to know that the man in the tent had only been dead a few hours.
“Even I can see that.” Senior detective Franco Silvio held open the tent flap to let in the light and encourage the stink to float out as he squatted by the entrance. The early October morning sun seemed to thicken the smell of death in the fabric-bound space.
“He didn’t put up a fight.” Emilia held up her latex-gloved hands as she knelt by the body to indicate that she’d found nothing in the pockets. “No identification except the El Machete tattoo. No signs of a struggle. Like he just laid there and let someone cut his throat.”
“He was asleep,” Silvio said. “Or passed out.”
“Probably,” Emilia agreed.
The body lay on top of an old sleeping bag, clad in faded jeans and a black tee shirt with some sort of logo on it. The feet were bare but looked to be the same size as a pair of nearby cross trainers. The head was nearly severed from the body and blood had pooled and then congealed under the body.
“Needle tracks?” Silvio asked.
“I can’t tell.” Emilia backed herself toward the tent flap and Silvio moved to the side. The tent was small, just big enough for two people and their camping gear. Or one dead body and a strange collection of souvenirs.
“Let’s get him out.” Silvio took her place inside the tent, grabbed the bottom edge of the sleeping bag and eased it out of the tent, the body sliding along as if on a stretcher.
Seagulls screamed overhead and the waves lapped at the shore only a few sandy yards away as Silvio straightened up. Emilia stripped off her latex gloves, her palms sweating despite the fact that it wasn’t that warm yet.
The victim looked even worse in the bright sunlight, although neither detective saw any indications he’d been a junkie. The break between the lolling head and the supine body was a clean, deliberate slash. The distinctive design on the inside of the right arm marking the man as a member of the El Machete gang was a good quality tattoo with thick greenish lines. He would have been a powerful man; even in death his arms were weighted with muscle and his hands looked powerful.
“Doesn’t really look like a camper,” Emilia observed.
Silvio’s cell phone rang and he punched a button and put the phone to his ear. The senior detective was a big man with a face that betrayed his years as a boxer. His hair was a gray crew cut and he wore his invariable uniform of white tee shirt, jeans, and shoulder holster hidden by a khaki bomber jacket.
Emilia took pictures of the face and body with her cell phone as Silvio gave the crime scene techs directions from the run-down hotel near the road. When she’d snapped enough of the body, she walked towards the water’s edge, then turned and snapped a few more pictures of the tent and a grove of scrubby pines and rusty seagrass that separated the beach from the road. The sand was rippled but there was nothing useful; an overnight storm had scoured away the killer’s footsteps.
There were a few makeshift tents further along the beach, a stretch of desolate sand ringed with rocks on the inland side that made it less attractive to Acapulco’s mainstream tourists. The surfers who’d called to report the body had been a young gringo couple with bad Spanish made worse by what Emilia was fairly sure was their own drug use. They’d probably found the body in the tent while looking to score drugs from the motley assortment of surfers, junkies, vagrants and penniless adventurers who often camped out on this lonely strip of beach near Coyuca Lagoon, a few miles northwest of Acapulco. There weren’t many actual residents, just a vagrant population that would be hard to locate and question. They got all the information they were likely to get out of the couple, warned them to stay in the area and to call if they remembered anything else. They wouldn’t. Emilia had encountered that sort of tourist before.
She knew Silvio didn’t want the case and he had a point. Coyuca Lagoon was outside what was normally the Acapulco police department’s jurisdiction. But the new lieutenant now running the detectives squadroom had decided that they’d respond to any and all calls that came in. This was despite the fact that they still hadn’t replaced the two detectives lost a few months ago in a drug smuggling bust. Emilia and Silvio had a dozen open cases already and hiking out to Coyuca Lagoon wasn’t going to help them close any of them.
Silvio pocketed his cell phone and clumped across the sand to Emilia. “Found the hotel but couldn’t find the beach behind it,” he growled. “Like nobody’s ever been out of the fucking city before.”
Emilia glanced at her watch. They’d only been there about 40 minutes, which was a relatively short time. The crime scene technicians often took an hour or more. Or didn’t come at all, tying up detectives’ time waiting for a body to be collected and the crime scene at least dusted for fingerprints. All the detectives had learned to carry latex gloves and plastic zip-lock bags in their pockets so they could handle any evidence they came across.
The crime scene technicians weren’t lazy or incompetent. They were simply overloaded with work.
They had a shit job, Emilia reflected as she watched two men carrying heavy cases approach the tent from the edge of the pine grove. Crime scene techs earned little more than an ordinary beat cop—less than half what a detective earned—and had to handle dead bodies all day, much of the time in the hot sun. Yet they faced the same dangers as the rest of the cops in Mexico; all of them lived as perpetual targets of drug cartels determined to break down civil authority. Emilia often wondered which side was winning.
“Cleaner than most,” the lead tech said appreciatively as he dumped his case down beside the body lying on its blood-soaked sleeping bag.
“Looks like a dead junkie,’ Silvio said. “Killed by some surfer for his stash. But it isn’t.”
“Why not?” the tech asked.
Emilia held open the flap. “You’ll see.”
She crawled into the tent ahead of the tech, trying to keep from getting any more sand in her loafers or embedded in the knees of her jeans. The tech came in after her. He got all the way in before suddenly stopping and rearing back on his heels.
“Madre de Dios,” he exclaimed, his face working with fear.
“Tell me about it,” Emilia said.
An altar to the dead, similar to an ofrenda commemorating the Day of the Dead, had been created against the tent wall opposite the body. A plank as long as Emilia’s arm held the offerings. A shriveled bouquet of marigolds, the traditional Day of the Dead flower, was crushed next to a bottle of cheap tequila and a trio of thick white candles wrapped in black gauze, the most deadly color in Santa Muerte’s arsenal of ritual. A few peso coins were scattered across the plank as well and Emilia saw a half-smoked cigar, long cold.
But it was the frayed poster-sized banner decorated with the image of Santa Muerte that caused a shiver to run down Emilia’s spine, the same as when she’d first seen the image. It was pinned to the tent canvas and depicted the Death Saint as a skeleton in a long black hooded robe. One bony hand held a scythe like a religious Grim Reaper and the other held out a globe to indicate Santa Muerte’s mastery over the earth.
“And look at this.” Emilia nearly had to snap her fingers to get the tech’s attention as he gazed, slack-jawed at the banner. “What do you make of all these broken pieces?”
Several muerto skeleton figurines, common items on Day of the Dead altars, were nearly hidden under the wilted marigolds. On a traditional ofrenda, the figurines might represent something related to the deceased, like their occupation, hobby, or pet.
But these muertos were simple male figures. Each was broken cleanly and deliberately in several places, with clean slashes through the thick papier maché. The heads were all severed, with a red substance like lipstick outlining the gash.
The scene, with Santa Muerte leering down from the gently billowing canvas tent wall, was a strange parody of a traditional ofrenda. But a Day of the Dead altar was meant to attract and celebrate the spirits of the deceased. This strange altar devoted to Santa Muerte was made to punish them.
The tech turned to Emilia, his eyes bulging in terror. Sweat dripped down his forehead. “I’m not touching this shit,” he said. “Do what you want with it but I’m not touching it.”
Lorne, thanks so much for hosting me and asking about the books. Your readers are invited to join my mailing list to get updates on the Emilia Cruz series, as well as a free copy of “The Beast,” the first story in MADE IN ACAPULCO: The Emilia Cruz Stories, which is available on Amazon. “The Beast” explains how Emilia fought her way into the detectives squadroom in the first place and introduces readers to the whole series. Go to http://carmenamato.net/get-beast-free-story/ to sign up for the free story and Happy Reading to all!
In addition to political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Carmen Amato is the author of the Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, including Cliff Diver, Hat Dance and the collection of short stories Made in Acapulco. Originally from New York, Carmen’s experiences living in Mexico and Central America drive the authenticity and drama of her thriller and mystery novels. Her Emilia Cruz series pits the first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force against Mexico’s drug war and culture of machismo.
See why Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp wrote: “For pure entertainment and a gripping story likely resulting in nail biting, read Carmen Amato's addictive prose. She knows this territory like a jaguar!”