Murphy’s Law of the Jungle

All Rights Reserved ©


Lexie Murphy and her family get caught up in a criminal investigation while vacationing in Mexico. Can they set the record straight and see the whole family home safely, or will everything go as wrong as it usually does for them? After all, the Murphy family is nothing if not subject to Murphy's Law.

Mystery / Humor
Age Rating:

NaNo Rough Draft - Needs Edits

There are times when I consider changing my last name. I swear to you, having “Murphy” as your last name is as good as being cursed. It’s the whole Murphy’s Law thing--anything that can go wrong will go wrong. That law is the guiding force behind my entire life story. You want proof? Let me tell you how this family vacation is going.

Everything started going downhill the second we got to the airport. Dad asked everyone to wait on the sidewalk by the luggage while he parked the car. Naturally, we followed through for all of about 30 seconds. Mom got sick and had to bolt for the bathroom. Uncle Ray thought better of each of us just carrying our own luggage and went to find a luggage cart. Aunt Carrie-Lou went to check on Mom, my cousin Tina decided to go see what was taking Uncle Ray so long, and Grandpa Steele decided he’d better smoke while he could and shuffled off to the nearest trash can with an ash tray on top.

So, when Dad jogged up, I was the only one standing with the luggage.

“What happened, Lexie? I told everyone to wait here!”

“Did you really think that would work, Dad? This is the Murphy family you’re talking about. Grandpa Steele is over there having a smoke, Mom’s sick, Aunt Carrie-Lou is with her, Uncle Ray went to look for a luggage rack, and Tina went to look for Uncle Ray. In what world would this not happen?”

“There’s no need to be so sarcastic, Lexie, we’re going on vacation. This is supposed to be fun.”

“There is nothing fun about airports. At all. To me, they’re equivalent to the third circle of-”


“Can we just get everyone together and go?”

“Just calm down. We’ll get it together. Go get your grandfather. I think I see Ray coming with the cart now.”

I sighed and strode over to where Grandpa Steele was puffing on the dregs of his second cigarette. “C’mon, Pop. We need to go. Dad and Uncle Ray are loading up the luggage cart now.”

“All right, babe. Just let me finish this cigarette.”

I had to force myself to keep a straight face because he was pretty much just sucking on the filter at that point. I watched as he took his time stubbing out the two embers left clinging to the filter and giggled.

“You nervous about the flight or something, Pop?”

“I joined the Navy and not the Air Force for a reason. I can swim a hell of a lot better than I can fly. I’m not Superman. I don’t know why we can’t just go on a cruise.”

“Mom said something about wanting more time to tour and see the sights.”

“Hmph. Seems like a greater chance of picking up Montezuma’s Revenge if you ask me.”

I laughed so hard I just about choked and shook my head. “Come on, Pop. Let’s go.”

The chaos only increased as we attempted to check in with the automated kiosks that normal people have no problems with. Sometimes I think that my Mom is a mutant, like the X-Men, but her mutant power is sending any electronic thing she touches on the fritz. It doesn’t matter what she does, she can follow directions to the letter, and electronics will still break down on her. I’ve come to accept this as a rule of the universe. Mom has yet to accept that she needs to just let others handle the electronics for her. So, incidents like this are a source of constant frustration for her.

I sighed. “Can’t we just go check in at the counter?”

“This is supposed to be faster,” Dad huffed, snatching the printed check-in information from Mom.

I sucked in a breath and winced, knowing that had been the wrong move for Dad to make. Mom’s nostrils flared with indignant rage, and her eyes narrowed like a Doberman going in for the kill.

“Don’t snatch things from me, Frank. You know how I hate it when you get snatchy with me! I was following the directions exactly. The machine just isn’t cooperating.”

Dad shook his head. “I don’t know how this happens every damn time, Liz.”

I rolled my eyes, snatched the papers from Dad, even though I knew it would piss him off and marched over to the check-in counter. I only have so much tolerance for bickering shenanigans in the face of swiftly-approaching boarding times. I could feel Dad’s frustrated glare on the back of my neck as I smiled at the attendant working the counter.

“Hi, we need to check in, and your kiosk seems to be malfunctioning.” See, I can be smooth. I didn’t implicate mom’s mutant power in the issue at all. If I appear to be calm, trust me, I’m not. I’m just sleepy and ready to be in a position to take a nap before I blow up on somebody.

“All right, hon, how many in your traveling party?”

“Seven, ma’am. Thanks.” I picked invisible lint off my “I’m Sorry for What I Said When You Tried to Wake Me Up” t-shirt as the woman clicked away at the computer. Dad came up and nudged me aside, always the helmsman in spite of my minor mutinies.

“And what is your last name,” the attendant asked, a little surprised when she looked up and saw Dad standing in the spot I’d occupied before.

“Murphy,” Dad responded with a sort of grim pride that only a member of the family would truly understand.

If it wasn’t obvious before, I’m not really the world’s biggest fan of air travel. I despise airports, and the way that most people’s brains turn to cold, lumpy, useless oatmeal as soon as they step through the automatic doors into the air-conditioned chaos. Something about the way people go absolutely whacko and mindless in airports makes me want to break things. I also have a problem with the way people seem to think it’s just fine to cut short people off without warning.

I’m not the only one who gets pissed off about getting cut off by bigger people, either. It makes my Mom even angrier than it makes me, and she’s about five times as scary as I am when she gets on the warpath. She’s perfected being frightening over the course of her 30 years of teaching high school English. She has long since perfected the “I will rip your soul out through your nostrils if you don’t stop that right now,” face. Of course, I gave her a lot of practice with that face when I was a kid, too. I wasn’t exactly an angel, but those are other stories for another time.

Right now, I just want us all to make it to the gate without one of us going ballistic on someone. God knows we don’t want to get into a confrontation with airport cops. Going through security is bad enough without awkward, explosive incidents. Don’t get me wrong; I realize that the security procedures are necessary. I remember 9/11.

I just wish the security procedures weren’t quite so stressful, especially when you’re traveling in a group of seven and you end up getting separated due to idiotic underwire issues. It took me eight minutes and a pat-down to clear security even though I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Naturally, the rest of the family was outraged and horrified by the holdup. We ended up being the last people to board the plane, and got dirty looks from everyone and his brother as we made our way down the aisle to our seats near the back of the plane.

Aunt Carrie-Lou went deathly pale the moment the engines started, and she gripped my hand hard enough to pulverize every bone in it. I winced, but I didn’t pull away, and attempted to be as soothing as I could under the circumstances. It didn’t help very much. The fact that Aunt Carrie-Lou had the window seat didn’t help much. She spent the majority of the flight pulling up the window shade just enough to see that we were, in fact, flying through and above cloud banks. Every time she looked out the window, she slammed the shade shut seconds later, turning progressively greener under her freckles every time she did it.

By the time we reached Atlanta, she was a phosphorescent shade of puce, and my hand was purple and numb. Grandpa Steele didn’t look much better off than Aunt Carrie-Lou, and he made a beeline for a smoking area the second we were off the plane. Part of me couldn’t blame him. The flight had been pure hell filled with screaming children and turbulence that only occurred any time I got up and went to the bathroom.

By the time we landed in Cancun, everyone but Mom, Dad, and Tina looked as if they’d been through Hell and back. I certainly felt that way. I caught a rough stroke of luck and got stuck sitting between a guy with killer BO and an ill pregnant lady. The poor woman only made it to the toilet about half the times she started retching with overwhelming “morning” sickness, and the bags provided on the airplane were too few and far between to really help her situation. Stinky marinated in sweat and leaned unnecessarily against my shoulder for the entire flight. I wanted to run down the aisle screaming the second we touched down in Mexico, and that was before we had to go through customs and baggage claim. As if that weren’t enough of an ordeal by itself, our taxi driver scared the bejesus out of our entire family. Some of us cussed. Some of us prayed, but we were all grateful as hell when the cab stopped and we were able to pile out onto the sidewalk, all feeling blessed that we were still alive.

The atmosphere inside the all-inclusive resort was decidedly more chipper than it had been on the cab ride over, and the entire family breathed a collective sigh of relief after we checked in and got unpacked without further incident. Any time we can manage not to have an incident is a good time because we seem to have a supernatural talent for attracting weird, inexplicable, and borderline surreal incidents.

One of the most fundamental things you should probably know about me is that I’m nosy. I’m not talking casual nosy, either. I’m deeply driven by morbid curiosity against my better judgment level nosy. I eavesdrop, and not as a casual hobby. The astonishing ability to mind everybody’s business but my own is a genetic trait I inherited from both sides of the family. Both the Murphy side and the Steeles have an uncanny talent for picking up on information people would rather we didn’t. We’re generally intelligent, curious, resourceful, and we don’t know when to quit.

That last thing is usually what gets us, me to be more specific, eyeballs-deep in the kind of shit that can’t possibly be any kind of good. I’m a dyed in the wool insomniac, and I spend a lot of time that I should be sleeping either on the internet, messaging my best friend on Facebook messenger, and doing some unabashed spying on friends, neighbors, and whoever happens to present himself. On the first night we spent in the all-inclusive resort, it was actually Tina I ended up spying on. I couldn’t resist when I heard the muffled click of her closing the door of the adjoining room over my parents’ soft snores.

I slipped dad’s room key out of his wallet and crept to the door, flip-flops in hand. I cracked the door open just enough to see her heading for the bank of elevators at the end of the hall. Once she was in, I slipped out of mom and dad’s room and slunk down the hall to the stairwell. At each landing, I poked my head out and checked which floor was lit up on the display for Tina’s elevator. It didn’t take me long to realize that she was headed for the ground floor, and probably the hot tub.

I wonder what she’s doing slipping out to the hot tub at one in the morning, I thought. I’m 18. Tina is 25. I probably shouldn’t be lurking around spying on her, but I honestly don’t think I can help it. I’m incapable of resisting the pull of secrets, mysteries, gossip, and information that could generally be considered ammunition. You never know when you might need information like that.

Yeah, I’m one of those people who operates heavily on “just in case” and “what-if” trains of thought.

Anticipating Tina’s destination, I didn’t wait for her elevator to hit the lobby. I slipped out onto the softly lit pool deck. Not thinking about the array of tropical fauna that could be lurking in the beautifully landscaped stand of palm trees and shrubs near the hot tub, I snuck into the bushes and sat down tower what Tina’s nocturnal hot tub visit was all about. Gnats buzzed and nipped at my ears. The mosquitoes didn’t wait long to join in and start eating me alive. I slapped and batted at them as quietly as I could while I watched Tina slip out of the lobby and make a beeline for the hot tub.

It took me a minute to realize she was crying in spite of our gorgeous surroundings. I was momentarily overwhelmed by confusion, and then I felt terrible that I was intruding on such a private moment without her knowledge. Guilt washed through me in a hot, nauseating wave. I wasn’t supposed to be witnessing this moment. No one was supposed to be witnessing it. Tina is more like a sister to me than a cousin, and I felt like a terrible person for spying on what was obviously supposed to be a private moment of vulnerability.

I needed to change positions because my butt and feet were both starting to go numb from sitting cross-legged and deathly still for just a little too long. I put my hand out, hoping to be able to shift my weight silently, but I touched something fuzzy and couldn’t clap my hand over my mouth fast enough to stop the yelp that spilled out.

Tina screamed and leapt out of the hot tub while I tried to get my breathing under control. She grabbed her smartphone and switched on the flashlight as I scrambled out of the bushes.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Tina hissed, scrubbing the back of her hand across her face. “What the hell are you doing hiding in the bushes, Lexie? Why are you even awake?!”

“Shh,” I waved my hands at her, straining to hear what initially sounded like squeaking in the bushes.

“Don’t you shush me,” Tina snapped. “You just scared me half to death!”

“Shush for real,” I grumbled. “Just for a second, anyway. I think I hear it.” I pulled my own iPhone out of my back pocket and flicked my flashlight app on, making sure my phone was still firmly in airplane mode while I was at it. I’d be dead meat if I incurred international roaming charges on vacation. I swept the light back and forth until I spotted two points of light reflected back at me.

Meow. It was the tiniest, most pitiful sound I’d ever heard anything make in my life. I moved a little closer and saw a coal-black kitten with wide green eyes staring back at me. Tina stomped up beside me and groaned. “Oh, for the love of GOD, Lexie. Don’t even think about it. We’re on vacation.”

“But look at it,” I pleaded. “Its precious! It has your eyes.”

“It probably has about a zillion parasites and God knows what other infectious diseases, too,” Tina argued. “This is Mexico. It’s not likely anybody can afford actual veterinary care for the cat, so you can’t take it to a shelter.”

“Aw, come on! Look at that precious little face,” I whined. “All it needs is a little love.”

“Uh-uh, little bit. I’m not getting involved in this, and you don’t need to either. If you keep interacting with the cat, you’re going to get attached, and it’s not like you can smuggle the damn thing back home in your suitcase! Besides, your mom’s allergic. I love animals just as much as you do, but you need to walk away from this one for your own good.” Tina was staring me down, arms crossed, dripping wet, her brow furrowed in consternation.

“Aw, come on,” I wheedled. “What would it actually hurt if we got it some water, or milk, or a little something to eat? I know we can’t keep it, but it can’t hurt our karma to help it out while we’re here.”

“Oh. My. God,” Tina groaned. “Fine. We’ll smuggle it back and forth between rooms, and worse come to worst, we can hide it out on the balconies. The balcony is solid stucco with pretty high side walls, so it can’t fall off. If they find it, we have NO IDEA how it got there, okay?”

I suppressed a gleeful squeal, gave her a quick, somewhat soggy hug, and scooped the kitten up and cuddling it to my chest. “You’re the best, Teeny!”

“I don’t know why I always let you suck me into this kind of crap,” Tina grumbled. “Let’s get back to the rooms before somebody wakes up to pee and notices we’re gone.”

“Here,” I said, thrusting the kitten at Tina. “Hide it in your towel so we can get it upstairs without being seen.”

Tina narrowed her eyes at me as she took the kitten and gently tucked it inside the towel, making sure it could breathe without any of the hotel staff seeing it. “I just think it’s funny how you’re the one who wants to help the kitten, but I’m the one who has to smuggle it upstairs.”

“I don’t have a bathing suit or a towel, or I’d do it myself,” I retorted. “As it is, the only way this makes sense is if you’re the one carrying the towel upstairs.”

“I hate it when you’re right,” Tina groaned, stroking the kitten’s head for a moment before cuddling it against her chest, swaddled in fluffy beach towel.

We hurried back to the lobby doors and both had to stifle startled screams when we almost bumped into a burly guy with salt and pepper hair who was on his way out. He scowled at us for a moment before side-stepping around us and heading for the beach without so much as an “excuse me” or a “beg your pardon.” Tina and I both wrinkled our noses at his apparent rudeness as we scurried across the lobby to the elevators.

“That was weird,” I murmured.

“Rude,” Tina huffed. “The word you’re looking for is rude. It’s like he wasn’t expecting anyone to be up and about, and he got pissed when we just happened across each other.”

“I wonder why he was so pissed to see people,” I mused aloud.

“I’m thinking it’s probably best if we resist the urge to find out,” Tina murmured. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he won’t mention us being up at 2:00 AM to anyone in the family.

“Yeah,” I agreed, nodding mostly to appease Tina. Both of us knew better. After sneaking back into our adjoining rooms, we both slipped out onto our respective balconies, which were close enough we could pass things back and forth.

“This is dumb,” Tina hissed.

“Probably,” I agreed. “But I’ve got to know what he’s up to. Why would he be so pissed to bump into random people in a hotel lobby if he’s not up to something?”

“Beats me,” Tina whispered. We both squinted through the darkness and spotted him pacing around the pool deck, almost like he was checking to make sure he wasn’t being observed.

“We should get as low as possible and just peek over the edge of the balcony while we watch him, so he doesn’t spot us,” I hissed.

“You do realize this is probably nothing, right? The guy’s probably just out for a late-night smoke or something.”

“Mm-hmm.” It was the most sarcastic sound I’d made for the entire trip so far. I reached through the partially open sliding glass door and grabbed my duffel-bag sized purse.

“What’re you getting out of that monstrosity?” Tina’s voice was barely audible to me.

“The mini-binoculars Rick got me for the Snowball Derby last year.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Tina grumbled.

“I know,” I chuckled, “But you love me anyway.”

Tina grunted and I could feel her rolling her eyes, even though it was too dark for me to see it clearly. I brought the mini-binoculars up to my eyes and peeked over the edge of the balcony’s side wall. It took me a second to spot the surly guy we’d bumped into downstairs. He was checking his surroundings with a furtive air, and disturbing regularity.

“He’s definitely up to something,” I whispered. “He’s scouring his surroundings to make sure we’re gone.”

“Give me the binoculars,’ Tina hissed. “I’ve got a better angle on him from this balcony.”

I stared at her for a second. “There’s literally maybe a difference of three feet between me and you right now.”

“Just shut up and hand me the binoculars, goober,” Tina commanded. I handed them over.

“Pass me the kitten if you’re going to watch the rude guy,” I murmured.

“Deal,” Tina agreed.

She extracted the little black purring ball of fluff from her beach towel, cradled it in her hands, and passed it to me with the utmost care. She’s just as much of a sucker for helpless animals as I am, if not more so, in spite of her sometimes gruff demeanor. Really, it’s all bluster. Tina is genuinely a great person. She’s honest, although too honest at times. She doesn’t sugar-coat anything for anybody, but she’s gutsy, loyal, and fierce. There’s nobody in the world that I’d rather have my back than Tina. The only other person in the world that I trust and rely on as much as I do Tina is my best friend Rick Moore.

Rick is smart, brave, resourceful, and as loyal at Tina, measure for measure. He’s also handsome, funny, and charming enough that it scares me sometimes. I’m pretty sure I love him, but I have no earthly idea what to do about it. I don’t think I’m really his type, and I’m not the kind of girl who’s going to spend years chasing after somebody to no avail. As Tina quietly observed the man we’d bumped into and I stroked the kitten’s downy-soft fur, I wished he was in Mexico with us.

“Shit,” Tina whispered, “This is getting interesting.”

“What’s he doing now?” I scratched under the kitten’s chin as I waited for her to answer me.

“He just tipped over one of the big flower pots and got some kind of package out of the loose soil, but I can’t tell what it is,” Tina murmured. I could tell by her voice that she was straining to see it better.

I got my phone out for a second and took a screen shot of the time. I saved the screen shot to my notes app and jotted down a quick chronicle of everything we’d seen up to that point. I hit the power button on my phone to lock it and turn the dull glow of the screen off.

“Can you tell anything about the package?”

“It’s about the size of a softball, but rectangular. It’s wrapped in brown paper and packing tape, but that’s all I can tell about it for now,” Tina sighed.

“What’s he doing now?” My gut instinct and my imagination held hands and skipped down the same what-if path together. What if we just stumbled across a dead drop for drugs or something? How deep of a pile of shit are we going to be in if that guy is still here tomorrow?

“He’s out on the beach and headed toward the wrecked place next door that doesn’t look like it ever recovered from a hurricane or something that hit it,” came Tina’s reply.

“Grumpy asshole digs package out of potted flowers and takes it into an abandoned building,” I murmured, “If that’s not suspicious, I don’t know what is.”

“I’m going to have to agree with you there,” Tina whispered. “The only question now is what the hell do we do with this crazy information now that we have it?”

“Nothing…at least for now,” I sighed.

“What? Why? This is crazy suspicious and I feel like we should definitely clue somebody in, even if it is just the family,” Tina hissed.

“Don’t you remember how rude and unhelpful the authorities, all the adults in my life were, the last time I got myself in some crap this deep? We don’t have nearly enough hard evidence to tell anyone anything yet, Tina. I know I’m never the one to say something like this, but we’re on vacation. Maybe we should just mind our own business for once?”

“I wish that logic worked,” Tina sighed. “Unfortunately, this is way beyond a minding our own business kind of situation. We just saw something that’s probably considered shady, at the very least, and I feel like it’s heavier than that. We have to clue the family in, at the very least.”

“No,” I shook my head furiously. “We don’t have enough evidence to clue anybody in yet. We don’t know anything for certain, much less have any proof to back up our snooping with.”

“That settles it, then,” Tina’s whisper was grim.

“What’s settled?” I yawned.

“We’re just going to have to get some hard evidence to back up what we saw tonight. Go catch some shut-eye while you can. We’ve got things to do tomorrow, and tomorrow night. Keep the kitten hidden as well as you can, and I’ll help as much as I’m able. If our parents or the hotel staff find it…there’s nothing we can do about that.”

I nodded and stifled a yawn that made my eyes water. “Night, Teeny. Thanks for having my back, as usual.”

“Yeah, kid. Always,” Tina yawned, too, and passed my binoculars back to me. “If we’re not telling our parents any of this until we have some more solid evidence, you should probably bring Rick into the loop…just in case.”

Neither of us had to remind the other of what the just in case meant. Just in case we get arrested. Just in case we disappear. Just in case we get dead. There were plenty of unsavory options I’d have preferred not to think about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop thinking about them as I grabbed a hand towel out of the bathroom and hijacked the unused soap dish, filling it with water for the kitten. I took the hand towel and water dish and nestled them behind a large terra cotta pot in the corner that held tropical flowers. I hid both between the pot and the corner of the balcony, well out of the line of sight. I kissed the top of the kitten’s head, snuggled it close for a moment, and deposited it on the towel behind the flower pot.

Before I went to sleep, I checked our hall for any room service plates waiting to be picked up, and found a few scraps of meat to smuggle back to the kitten. Once I knew it was safely settled in for the night with a good meal, I washed my face and hands in the bathroom, crawled into bed, made sure my phone was connected to resort wi-fi, but not cellular data, and sent Rick a Facebook message to catch him up on the situation Tina and I had witnessed. It was barely coherent, but I figured I could clear things up in the morning if he had questions. I plugged my phone in to charge and instantly fell into the oblivion only utter exhaustion can bring.

I woke to my mom shaking me insistently. Her voice sounded as exhausted as I felt.

“For the love of God, Lexie,” she moaned. “Use some nose spray! You’re snoring and you sound as bad as your Grandpa Steele. That shouldn’t even be humanly possible, but you’re somehow managing.”

I took the Afrin she was thrusting in my face, shot two blasts up each nostril, and buried my face in my pillow, promptly going back to sleep. Some time later, my dad’s voice pierced the deep, peaceful fog of sleep.

“You going to waste and entire day of vacation in bed asleep, Lexie?”

“Yes,” I grunted into the pillow. “That’s my idea of vacation, Dad, sleeping as long as I want.”

“Enjoy it today, I guess,” Dad grumbled. I could tell by his tone that he’d have preferred me to be up and about, interacting with people. “We have sightseeing plans and excursions booked for tomorrow, so you won’t be able to sleep in then.”

“Sounds good,” I mumbled, taking a moment to wipe sleep induced drool off my cheek with the back of my hand. Snoop hard, sleep hard, I thought to myself. I would have grinned ironically if I’d had the energy.

I heard a knock at the door, and then I heard Tina’s voice. I was too sleepy to make out what she was saying until she flopped down on my bed.

“Mom suggested that the sleepyheads take one room, and the people who are up and at ’em congregating in the other so we don’t all get on each other’s nerves today.”

“Good idea,” I slurred, willingly embracing the lure of recovery sleep from our late night, until I heard a quiet meow just after Mom and Dad let themselves out of the room. I dragged myself out of bed and opened the balcony door to retrieve the precious ball of fluff and refill its water dish.

When I slipped back inside with the kitten, Tina yawned and shook her head. “I’m surprised it’s still here. How is Midnight today, anyway?”

“Midnight?” I cocked my head and frowned, but only for a second. “The name’s perfect, and the adorable ball of feline fluff is happy as a clam.” I snuggled the kitten for a moment before setting it down beside Tina on the bed and striding into the bathroom to fill the water dish.

When I returned, Tina was stroking the kitten and cooing at it with the standard amount of incoherent sappiness. “And to think you were worried about me getting too attached?” I grinned at her. “You’re just as much of a sucker as I am.”

“When it comes to animals? Yeah. I can’t argue with that.”

“I guess this means we’ve got two major problems on our hands.” I yawned and stretched so hard I got a momentary back spasm.

“Yup,” Tina nodded. “Problem one? Big Surly Guy and his mysterious package.”

I nodded my agreement. “Problem two? How are we going to take this kitten home with us? We both know neither one of us is prepared to leave it here, even after just one night of taking care of it.”

My phone dinged with a Facebook messenger notification and I cringed. I knew it was probably Rick, and he was more than likely going to tear me a new one for finding more crazy crap to get into when he’s not close enough to pull my butt out of the fire. I swiped the screen and did the touch ID to unlock my phone with a sigh.

“Rick?” Tina asked.

“Yep,” I nodded, wincing at the all-caps reprimand awaiting me.

HOW DO YOU ALWAYS MANAGE TO GET CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF CRAZY SHIT LIKE THIS, LEXIE?! Jesus H. Christ. You’re certifiably insane. You’re going to give me a heart attack someday. You’re in over your head in another freaking country, and I can’t get off work to help you, much less afford a plane ticket. Why the hell did you even feel the need to tell me this when you know I can’t get to you?

I winced and Tina cocked a curious eyebrow at me. “He mad?”

“Very,” I nodded. “He’s angry at me for snooping and for telling him what’s going on because he has no way of getting to me.”

“I figured he wouldn’t be too amused about the situation, but someone besides us needs to know the full situation until we tell the adults. You never know if things are going to go sideways or not, and I know Rick will do whatever he can to make sure you’re taken care of, even if he can’t be here himself.” Tina shrugged.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “He’s the best, even when he’s mad at me.”

Tina chuckled and rolled her eyes. “You guys have the weirdest relationship ever.”

“How so?” I murmured the question, not really wanting to talk about it.

“You’re closer than most couples ever get, but you refuse to date each other. What’s up with that?” Her eyes were sharp and laser-focused.

“I don’t know,” I gave an uncomfortable shrug. “I don’t appear to be his type, for one thing. He’s got a bad habit of dating slutty airheads, and I don’t see the point in initiating a relationship beyond what we already have when he’s already working, and I’m moving away for college in the fall.”

“So, low hanging fruit issues on his end and commitment issues on yours…got it,” Tina frowned, shaking her head.

“If we’re going to have heavy emotional conversations, are you going to tell me what you were crying about last night?” I almost felt bad for asking, but I was dying to know what could possibly have her so upset. Tina was rock-solid and usually kept her emotions pretty well in check.

“My douche-canoe soon-to-be-ex-fiancé is cheating on me with two different girls, at least. And those are just the ones I’ve got solid proof about,” Tina growled. “If I didn’t adore his mother, I’d run over him with an eighteen-wheeler.”

“Shit, Teeny,” I whispered, wishing I hadn’t asked. “That’s awful.” I gave her a fierce hug.

“I’d rather find out now than after the wedding, so you could call it a blessing in disguise,” Tina sighed.

I shoved a hand through my hair, trying to tamp down the emotional awkwardness my question elicited. “Have you told Aunt Carrie-Lou and Uncle Ray yet?”

“No,” Tina shook her head vehemently. “I want us to have a good vacation, and this news will just upset them. At least the wedding is far enough out they can probably get their deposits back on everything.”

“I see what you mean,” I groaned. “At the same time, though, it sucks to have to suffer through vacation without telling them about it. You don’t always have to be the strongest woman in the room, you know? It’s okay to not be okay about something like this.”

“I’m not going to let him hurt me like that,” Tina growled. “Yeah, it sucks finding out that he’s a lying, cheating sack of shit, but I’m a big girl. I can handle this just fine. Mistakes like Eliot only exist for two reasons: to teach lessons and make you stronger. He’s served his purpose by showing his true colors. Now I’m free to move on to someone better.”

I let out a low whistle and assessed her with new eyes. “You’re right, Teeny. I think it’s amazing you can be so strong, and you give me something to aspire to.”

“You aspire to over-zealous day drinking, subjecting yourself to killer workouts from hell, and being the literal queen of sarcastic commentary?” Tina’s tone was self-deprecating and a little depressed.

“Hey,” I chastised. “You’re a stone cold badass and I love you for it. You can keep the workouts, but the day drinking and sarcasm don’t sound bad to me. All my favorite people are sarcastic, including you and Rick.”

Suddenly, we heard our parents’ conversation next door get a little louder, as it always did when they were about to part ways for a little while.

“Hide Midnight,” Tina hissed, plopping the kitten in my arms. “I’ll distract your mom and dad long enough for you to get the cat hidden on the balcony and get back in here.” I bolted for the sliding glass door, wrenched it open, ran out and stashed the cat along with its full water dish, sprinted back into the room, shut the balcony door, and flopped down on my bed, pulling out my phone and trying to quiet my ragged breathing.

I heard Tina talking to mom and dad as she walked out in the hall to go back next door and I decided to message Rick back.

I promise I don’t get into these crazy situations on purpose. They just…find me, and I’m sorry I stressed you out by telling you. I just wanted someone to know what’s up until we have enough information to clue in our parents and the local authorities.

I chewed on my bottom lip while I waited for him to answer me. I saw the dreaded thought bubble with the ellipsis inside it pop up several times, stop, and restart before he finally sent a terse response.

You’re certifiably insane. Be safe, dumbass.

I snorted and rolled my eyes.

You’re so sweet. Love you, too! #sarcasm

Rick sent me the middle finger emoji accompanied by a cheesy smiley face, and I couldn’t help laughing. Mom and dad strolled into the room and Dad smirked.

“Nice to see you’re finally awake, sleepyhead. The day’s wasting away.” Dad has this spectacular way of adding a particular tone to things when he’s trying to elicit a certain response. This time the tone clearly said, “I don’t want to sound judgmental, but you’re here on my dime for your graduation trip and you’re wasting it being lazy and sleeping when you could be experiencing the world outside the hotel room.” I rolled my eyes.

“Don’t needle her, Frank,” Mom huffed. “You know good and well that hardly ever works.” She shot me an encouraging smile. “We’re about to change and head down to the pool if you want to join us,” Mom coaxed.

They both had the same exact goal in mind, but each approached things differently. Dad is as good-hearted as they come, and so is Mom. They both do things purely out of concern for the people they care about, but they do them differently. Mom is polite, polished, and well-practiced in a political vein from having thrived for 30 years in the public school system. Dad is a straight-forward, salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense type thanks to his time in the Navy and then afterward as a CE for IBM for 35 years.

Mom is good at wading through social situations while being politically correct and managing not to offend anyone. Dad’s polite and charming, but he doesn’t waste time on unnecessary bullshit or put on airs. He is what he is and you can like it or lump it. Dad doesn’t care what people think of him, and I love that about him. One day we’ll break mom of caring what people think about her, or of being upset by what people think of us, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. Doing good, being good, and looking good in the public eye have always mattered to Mom. That’s where we tend to clash from time to time.

“Sure,” I nodded and grinned. “I’ll never turn down a swim unless it’s too cold.” I dug my bathing suit out of my suitcase and headed to the bathroom to change into it. “Let me know when everybody’s decent and I can come out,” I called through the door.

“Will do,” Mom called through the door. I had a knot in my stomach that had been there since Tina and I started spying on the burly butthole the night before. Part of me wanted to spill my guts to my parents about everything we’d seen and wash my hands of the whole ordeal. The bigger part of me knew that without some hard evidence to back up my claims, they were going to think I let my imagination run away with me. I’d get the good old “you’ve seen too many Hitchcock movies and read too many mystery novels” speech from them. Without solid proof, I might as well be the girl who cried wolf, all because I have a history of having a wild imagination.

I know what I saw, though, and so does Tina. We’re going to get plenty of photos and evidence to back up what we saw before we tell our parents or any kind of authority figure, for that matter.

“Let’s head to the pool and get some good out of this vacation,” Dad called. I let myself out of the bathroom, grabbed my beach towel, and followed mom and dad out into the hall. An uncomfortable lump formed in my throat when I saw the guy from the previous night heading up the hall toward us. The knot in my stomach tightened, and I got one of those sickly hot flashes that’s the first warning signs you get when the drizzling shits are going to hit you. I silently cursed my cramping, nervous stomach and followed mom and dad without making eye contact with the guy.

Nothing to see here, guy. I’m just a random teenager off in my own little world. I didn’t see anything, I thought. Except that I did…

“Are Tina, Aunt Carrie-Lou, and Uncle Ray going swimming, too?”

“Well, of course they are! It’s a family trip. The point of it is to enjoy the vacation together,” Mom chirped. Only someone in the family would catch the unspoken undercurrent in her voice. We are on vacation. People are supposed to enjoy themselves on vacation. So, we are—by God—going to have fun, or else.

If I’m being honest, none of us are all that good at the whole vacation thing. How can an entire family be bad at vacationing, you ask? Let me explain. We all love snorkeling and excursions to neat ruins, but any time there’s down time, things tend to from zero to insane in 2.5 seconds. Why?

Personally, I think we all have varying degrees of ADHD and it presents differently for each of us. I’m inattentive, but I can hyper-focus with the incentives of interest and urgency. I sometimes have trouble shifting my attention from one thing to another, and I’m almost completely incapable of multitasking. Disastrous things happen when I try to multitask.

Dad is a strange mix of hyperactive and hyper-focused. Mom transcends hyper-focused and goes into the laser-focused range. Mom and dad are both workaholics, but it’s made them a good living and a good life for me. Aunt Carrie-Lou is a fun-loving mixture of hyperactive and inattentive. Uncle Ray is so laid-back I can’t tell if he’s ADHD or not. Tina is the only one in the group who might not be ADHD. If she were, though, she’d be in Mom’s bracket of hyper-focused.

My stomach was still a quivering, knotted-up mess when we got to the pool, and I got the feeling my nerves were going to have me running to the bathroom more than I’d like. I tossed my beach towel on a lounge chair beside mom’s and dove in the deep end of the pool, bobbing up beside Tina a few seconds later.

“Big and creepy passed me in the hall outside our rooms,” I murmured where only she could hear me.

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Tina shot back.

“Can’t,” I shook my head. “He definitely recognized me, judging by the diarrhea-inducing glare he shot me when I walked by him.”

“That’s not good, but we can play it cool. The only reason he has to be suspicious is we happened to pass him last night. He has no reason to think we saw anything or know anything.” Tina’s voice was barely audible and deadly calm. She and Mom have this special way of setting reality straight about how things are going to go. More often than not, that works better for them than it does for the rest of us.

I blew out a sigh and shook my head. “Let’s just do our best to enjoy the rest of today.”

“Yeah,” Tina agreed. “The fact that we’ve probably stumbled across a drug trafficking ring is basically insignificant. It’s just a blip on the radar of an otherwise spectacular vacation.”

“Mm-hmm. If we keep going this way, we might just convince ourselves of that. I’m going to swim some laps and try to burn off some of this anxiety.”

I glided through the water, dodging other resort guests without splashing them, but still burning as much excess energy as possible. I wanted to run down the beach screaming and not look back until I heard the guy with the potted plant package was gone for good. We should just let it go, my gut told me. Unfortunately for my gut, my brain was already fixated, and Tina’s seemed to be, too. At least I knew she had my back, and if things went sideways I probably wouldn’t die alone.

I fought the nervous laughter that clawed its way up my throat, holding it in until I went underwater, so people wouldn’t stare at me and wonder why I was laughing hysterically for no apparent reason like some kind of psycho. I resurfaced, took a deep breath, and dove back to the bottom of the pool, enjoying the calm, cocoon-like feel of the water pressing in on me. It was a warm, silky, aquatic hug that helped ease my anxiety levels significantly. Logically, that makes no sense. Pressure shouldn’t relieve pressure, but somehow it works.

We played in the pool for a good couple of hours, trying to have a relaxing day of recuperation before we went on any excursions. It might have been working for the adults, but it wasn’t doing much for me. I don’t think it was working for Tina, either. She had two major stressors to wrangle with, whereas I was only wrestling with the package guy situation. While we were playing in the pool, Grandpa Steele was oscillating between smoking and getting to know the resort staff. Every time we saw him, he was interacting with one of the locals, getting people to take pictures of him with the people he was befriending. While we all saved our snapshots for the sights, Pop was more concerned with the people he met.

I can’t fathom what it’s like to be a genuine people person the way Grandpa Steele is. I can pass for socially functional most of the time, but sometimes people exhaust me beyond belief and I get antisocial until I feel emotionally recharged enough to deal with people again. I’m what you might call a high-functioning weirdo. I’m sure you already figured that out, though. I mean, what kind of normal person witnesses someone digging a package out of a flower pot in a resort and waltzing off with it without freaking out and alerting the authorities? Me. I’m that strange individual who would rather endanger herself to get tangible proof of something like that than alert the authorities and risk looking like a jackass with an overactive imagination.

By the time everyone was ready to get out of the pool and get ready for dinner, I felt drained and it felt good. I suppressed a yawn.

“I don’t know if I want dinner or a nap more.” I said through another yawn.

“Food,” Tina replied. “Food and then a good night’s sleep.”

“We should go to bed early and get plenty of sleep before tomorrow’s excursion,” I murmured with a nod of agreement.

“Are y’all excited about tomorrow’s plans,” Aunt Carrie-Lou asked, her eyes dancing with excitement. “I can’t wait to see the cultural shows I read about in the brochure!”

“I’m most excited about the Mayan ruins,” Mom interjected. She’d double-majored in History and English when she was in college, and you could see her love of history shining in her eyes and vibrating in her energy. She was like a tuning fork that had just been struck, humming with excitement.

“I’m pretty excited for tomorrow’s excursions, but I’m most excited for deep-sea fishing day after tomorrow,” Dad chimed in. “I think that’s going to be the most fun Ray, Pop, and I have on this trip.”

I couldn’t chime in with the thing I was most excited about because no one but Tina knew about the precious kitten she and I smuggled upstairs the night before. I was hell-bent and determined that I was going to find a way to take it home with me. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it, but I’d find a way. I had to.

I’ve had three core ambitions for as long as I can remember. First and foremost, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and if you count blogging I’ve achieved that. Second, I’ve always wanted to be a private investigator, and if you count my past shenanigans and this situation with package guy, I’d say I’m well on my way to that goal. Third, I’ve always wanted to start a no-kill animal rescue/shelter. I think I could do it, too. There would only be one problem that I can see there. I get way too attached way too quickly. I’d love to be able to foster animals until they find forever families, but I know deep down that every time one got adopted, I’d be heartbroken at the thought of never seeing it again. I’d want to keep them all to myself forever, and that wouldn’t be very fair to anybody. Still, I figure I can improve a few animal lives in my time, and Midnight is going to be one of them.

While we were all getting cleaned up and ready for dinner, I sent Tina a Facebook message.

I think we need to bring Pop into the loop on Midnight. He has his own room, he’s as soft-hearted as we are, and there’d be a lot less of a chance of our parents stumbling out onto HIS balcony and accidentally discovering our furry friend.

She answered almost instantly.

Definitely something to consider. We’ll talk about it after dinner if we manage to catch a minute alone where our parents don’t have a chance of overhearing us.

I grinned, locked my phone, and set to work on blow-drying my hair. My sandy-brown hair is long, fine, and thick all at once, and trying to blow-dry it feels like it takes forever. I got it half-dried and gave up, throwing it up in a messy bun to keep the wet hair off my neck.

“What’s supposed to be for dinner tonight in the dining room?” I asked mom because she’s always the one who checks.

“A variety of tacos. They’re going to have beef, chicken, fish, and shrimp tacos, so we probably need to remind them of your shellfish allergy again, just to be sure,” Mom said.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Most people who don’t have food allergies don’t know just how careful they need to be when handling food for people with allergies. I hope it’s not a huge hassle.”

“The staff here seems to be pretty attentive and careful,” Dad reassured us. “I’m sure that everything will be fine if we just remind them about the allergy.”

I’m what you might call a problem child. I have a life-threatening shellfish allergy, and I’m from Bay Minette, Alabama. People eat a lot of seafood on the Gulf Coast. Everywhere we go, I have to make sure people don’t accidentally make me sick. I have to carry an epi-pen with me everywhere I go, just in case. It’s a pain in the butt for me, and what really bothers me is that it’s an inconvenience for the people around me. Dad, Pop, Uncle Ray, Aunt Carrie-Lou, and Tina all love seafood, but their options for eating it are severely limited when I’m with them. Mom is the only other one with a shellfish allergy, but hers isn’t as severe as mine.

“Do you have your epi-pen?” Mom always reminds me because I tend to be pretty forgetful as a general rule. You’d think with the fact that my allergy could potentially kill me, I’d be on top of that situation, but that’s not the case. I’m so scatterbrained I’d lose my head if it weren’t attached.

I patted my pocket and felt the pen. “Yeah,” I nodded. “We’re good to go.”

For people who don’t have life-threatening food allergies, it’s kind of hard to understand people like me. Every time I sit down to the dinner table I have to deal with the anxiety that comes with the fear of potentially getting sick or dying because someone wasn’t quite careful enough. I get a little neurotic about it sometimes, especially in new places where people don’t know me or fully understand the scope of my allergy. I should probably be on some kind of medication, but I’m high-functioning enough to manage without it.

When we headed out into the hall, I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. No big, scary, pissed-off guy was lurking in the hallway this time. Mom shot me a sidelong glance.

“What’s wrong, Lexie?”

“Just the usual food-related anxiety,” I forced a reassuring smile.

“The resort staff was pretty careful last night,” Dad pointed out. “There’s no reason to be afraid that they won’t be as careful tonight.”

“Food allergies come with food-related anxiety, honey,” Mom chastised. “It’s not something you can really help, no matter how careful people are. There’s always the fear that someone will be careless. It’s happened before, and there’s nothing to say it won’t happen again.”

“It’s not a big deal,” I shrugged. “I’m sure everything will be great.”

Dad patted my shoulder and gave me a quick hug as we stepped into the elevator. “We’ll remind them and make sure they’re careful about your allergy,” he reassured me. “We’re on vacation. We can all relax because it’s not like something bad is going to happen.”

And that, my friends, is exactly how you put the kiss of death on your vacation. Saying that is as good as guaranteeing that things are going to go terribly wrong, one way or another. When you make statements like that, the universe takes it as a challenge, especially if your last name is Murphy.

We met the rest of the family at one of the larger dining room tables. “Is everybody enjoying our vacation so far?” Dad asked.

We all clamored over each other to reassure him that we were, in fact, having a blast. I wondered if anyone besides me picked up on how quiet and tired Tina’s reassurance sounded. Since no one asked her about it, I assumed I was the only one to pick up on it because I already knew the situation. We took longer to finish our meal than most of the other families in the dining room because we all love to talk, and the dinner table is a great place to do just that. The longer it stretched on, the more I wished it would hurry up and end so Tina and I could sneak away and investigate the decrepit former resort we saw big and creepy take the package to the night before. I had a feeling that if we didn’t hurry, the evidence would disappear and no one would ever believe us about what we saw.

By the time we left the dining room, I couldn’t do anything but yawn. When we got back to the room, I flopped down on the bed and pulled out my phone to send Tina a message on Facebook Messenger.

Maybe we should just go to sleep and forget everything about last night?

I stifled another yawn as she answered me.

Take a nap. I’ll sneak in via the balcony and wake you up when it’s time to go investigate.

That sounded like a reasonable compromise to me.

Sounds good. See you later.

I tapped my way back to my messages list and clicked Rick’s name.

I miss you. Wish you were here.

After I sent it, I locked my phone, put it on charge, and fell asleep wondering how long Tina would wait before she came to get me.

I woke to pitch dark and Tina’s hand clamped over my mouth, just in case I mumbled or yelped anything as I startled awake. It took me a minute and several deep breaths through my nose to calm my heart rate and orient myself. We had a plan to carry out, and I wanted to get it out of the way. My heart stuttered and Tina laid flat on the floor between my bed and the wall when Dad let out a loud snore and started mumbling in his sleep. For a few moments, all I could hear was the sound of my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. For as much as I like to snoop and sneak, I’m actually a total chicken with overly-violent adrenal responses when I get scared. I breathed deep to calm myself again, realizing that we weren’t caught red-handed. Dad just appeared to be having a particularly vivid dream. I arranged the pillows under my comforter so it would look like I was still in bed asleep if one of my parents woke up to go to the bathroom in a sleepy haze. If they woke up more alert, Tina and I were just going to be screwed, and probably grounded for life before vacation was even over.

Once I had the pseudo-me made of pillows and comforter situated, I unplugged my phone from the charger, stuck it in my back pocket, and Tina and I started our slow, silent crawling journey to the hotel room door. I snuck Dad’s room key out of his wallet on the dresser and stuck it in the opposite back pocket of the one the phone was in because I knew a phone could mess the key up in close contact. We managed to sneak out of the room without incident and opted for the stairwell instead of the elevators because the stairwells are generally less-traveled than the elevators.

“I so thought we were dead meat when Dad started talking in his sleep,” I whispered, wincing as the sound echoed strangely in the stairwell.

“Me, too,” Tina agreed. “My heart’s still kind of pounding, and we’re not out of the woods yet.”

“Not by a long shot,” was my grim reply.

“If your mom wakes up to pee and gives your bed a second glance, our asses are grass.” We reached the ground floor and cracked the door slightly to check the lobby for the big guy from the night before. As soon as we saw the coast was clear, we scurried from the stairs to the door that leads out to the pool deck, praying we wouldn’t be noticed.

“I really hope we don’t bump into that guy,” I whispered as we snuck out into the heaviness of a 90-degree night at 100% humidity. It was like trying to breathe cream of chicken soup, and it might have bothered someone who wasn’t used to sucking in hot, humidity-ridden air for the majority of the year. The things that mess my breathing up are cold, low humidity, and my exertion-induced asthma.

I felt the surge of adrenaline jolt through my body as we slunk through the shadows with Tina naturally taking the leadership role. She was older, braver, and in a lot better shape for ass-kicking, should it become necessary. I followed closely, swatting at mosquitoes the whole way. I don’t think either of us really breathed easy until we were picking our way up the battered stairs of the ruined resort we’d seen the guy take the package into the day before. When we got to the top step and I saw a dark, gaping opening where doors used to be, I put on the brakes and grabbed the back of Tina’s shirt, pulling her to a stop, too.

“Hold up a second,” I hissed. “What, exactly, is our plan from this point forward? What happens if we get in here and stumble on the pissed off guy from yesterday, or bump into someone who’s here to pick up whatever in the hell that package was? What are we going to do? Me? I’m probably going to have a heart attack and die on the spot, if we’re being honest.”

Tina blew out an annoyed sigh. “If we run into somebody in here, the plan is to hide until they leave, if at all possible. If that isn’t possible, throw one of these random bricks at something vulnerable and run like hell until we’re safely back in our rooms. How does that sound?”

“Okay, good,” I muttered, picking up a brick, just to be on the safe side. “I’m totally fine with crushing a random stranger’s genitals with a brick to save my own life.”

“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?” Tina’s voice was a strange mix of annoyed and amused, and she strode forward, pulling me with her because I couldn’t seem to make my hand let go of her shirt. In my head, I was trying to convince myself that it’d be fine if I let go of her shirt. My adrenal glands weren’t convinced, though.

My adrenal glands wanted us to turn around, go the hell back to the hotel rooms and forget we ever saw anything.

“Come on, chicken little,” Tina murmured. “Let’s get this over with.”

I took a deep breath and stifled a groan. “Yeah. Get it over with. Let’s do it.”

We pressed forward in unison, our steps cautious as we used the little moonlight available from the waning crescent moon to pick our way around the debris that still lay scattered across the foundation. I tried to ignore the scenarios running rampant in my head because if I paid them attention, I was going to have an anxiety attack. I was worrying about everything from stepping on a rusty nail and getting lockjaw to getting shot in the head for trespassing on a drug ring’s dead drop site.

“I’m having a lot of trouble seeing, but I don’t think it’s safe to use the flashlight app on either of our phones. It’d be way too easy to spot us if anyone’s watching the site,” Tina muttered.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “This is problematic. I can’t see jack shit, but if anybody was watching the place, I’m sure they’d already have headed us off. Sure, the sound of the waves breaking on the beach covers our whispering pretty well, but anybody with eyes on this place would surely have picked out the exceptionally pale ‘gringas’ stumbling around in the dark.”

“Keep a hold of my shirt,” Tina ordered. “My night vision is better than yours and my eyes are starting to adjust pretty well. If you stay close and move with me, everything should be fine.”

“I’m glad you actually want me to hold on because I can’t seem to let go. I don’t think I could do it if I wanted to.”

“And you don’t want to,” Tina chuckled.

“Exactly.” I blew out a sigh. “This place is huge. Where the hell do we even start looking?”

Tina stopped and I couldn’t put on the brakes fast enough to keep from bumping into her back.

“I don’t think we’re going to have to look far,” Tina’s tone was ironic, to say the least. “I literally just tripped over a box full of little packages like the one we saw the guy dig out of the flower pot last night.”

I leaned around her and squinted down at the slightly darker mass in the floor, which was barely distinguishable from the other shades of darkness and shadow in the ruined building. “All right,” I whispered, “What’s the plan? Where are we going from here?”

“I’m taking one of the packages so we can hand it over to the cops as evidence. Once I have one in my hand, we’re going to snap a quick picture of the box full of packages, pray nobody sees the flash and comes to investigate, and then we’re hauling ass back to the resort. We’ll catch our breath in that little landscaped stand of palms and bushes where you found midnight, make sure no one saw us, and we’ll sneak in the side entrance and head back up to our rooms. I’ll hide the package under my bed, and we clue our parents and Pop in about the situation after we get back from the excursion tomorrow. They’ll know what to do.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” I groaned. “We are the stupidest people I know.”

“I’ve got the package,” Tina whispered. “Now, snap the picture and we’re going to run like hell.”

I did a blasphemous mixture of cussing and praying, opened my phone’s camera app, and snapped the picture. The flash practically blinded me, so when I turned around and bolted, I was following Tina purely by the sound of her footfalls. All I could see was bright green squiggles obscuring my field of vision as we burst back out into the humid night air, running on a wing and a prayer.

Dear God, please don’t let me fall, die, or get caught, I prayed as I followed the sound of Tina’s feet striking the foundation of the ruined resort with blistering speed. I heard her pace quicken on the stairs and then hit the sand. I sped up and leapt, hoping I’d clear the stairs and hit sand. When I did, I staggered, lost my balance, and rolled into the surf. I held my phone up on pure instinct, keeping it dry just by sheer miracle.

My vision was starting to clear. I clawed my way back upright and scrambled after Tina, gritting my teeth and cringing at the horrible squeaking sound sand makes when you run on it. I hate that sound. It makes my teeth hurt and my spine tense up. My chest is getting tight and my throat is burning as I push myself, doing my best to try to catch up to Tina. She’s athletic; I’m asthmatic. I pushed through the painful constriction and wheezed my way into the landscaped garden that separated the resorts. I doubled over, trying to breathe deep while I resisted the overwhelming urge to throw up.

Tina pulled me down into the bushes beside her and covered my mouth. “Shhh. I don’t know if we were seen. Catch your breath as quietly as you can while I take a quick look around. You need to use your inhaler when you get back in your room.”

Tina pushed up into a crouch, and I had to squash a random stab of misplaced, unwelcome envy at how athletic and graceful she was. She was a natural gymnast, and a hell of a softball player. She kicks ass and I’m the proverbial geek squad.

“No activity,” Tina whispered. “Let’s get the hell back upstairs. Follow me and stay in the trees until we’re to the side door.”

“Mmkay,” I wheezed. “Let’s do it. I’m over this shit for one night.”

By the time we made it back up to our rooms the wheezing had subsided, but the tension in my chest and back still lingered. My anxiety levels had every nerve in my body pulled taut enough I thought they’d snap as we let ourselves back into our respective rooms. I almost collapsed with relief when I discovered that both my parents were still sound asleep. I grabbed my pajamas out of my suitcase, along with my inhaler out of my purse. I slipped into the bathroom, shut the door, and took a couple puffs of my inhaler. I turned the shower on low and cool, and did a fast rinse-off, hoping the noise wouldn’t wake Mom and Dad. If it did, I’d make some kind of excuse, probably Montezuma’s Revenge.

Fortunately for me, they were both in the middle of heavy R.E.M. cycles of sleep and I didn’t disturb them. I got on Facebook Messenger and sent the picture to both Rick and Tina before plugging my phone in and lying down. I checked the time on my phone, and it said 3:30 AM. I wondered if I’d be able to get any more sleep before my parents woke up and we headed out for our excursion. The answer to that question was a surprising yes. Once the adrenaline burned its way out of my system, I was dead to the world.

Mom and Dad played hell getting me out of bed the next morning, too.

“Did you stay up all night playing on your phone or what?” Dad snapped in frustration.

“I had diarrhea all night,” I mumbled as I rolled out of bed and grabbed an outfit out of my suitcase.

“I told you not to get ice in your soda at dinner last night, honey,” Mom chastised. “It’s not filtered. I knew it was going to give you Montezuma’s Revenge.”

“I know I should have listened,” I yawned as I shuffled into the bathroom and got ready to face the day. I hoped that the excursion would be a really enjoyable diversion, and would take my mind off the task facing Tina and me when we got back. We are in such deep shit, I thought. We’re both going to be grounded forever, if our parents don’t kill us when we clue them in to what we’ve been up to. I shuddered, washed my face with cold water, and couldn’t wait to get to breakfast and have a cup of coffee. Without caffeine, I don’t think I’d be a functional human being.

One hurried breakfast later, we boarded a bus and headed for what was reputed to be the most gorgeous cultural park in the Mayan Riviera. I think it’s best for everyone involved if I leave the park’s name out of things. It’s neater that way, and more legal, too. Just know that they have gorgeous flamingoes, and they’re supposed to have one of the most successful orchid houses in the area, too. The bus ride was long and unfortunately hot because the bus was a slightly outdated model with those useless air conditioning nozzles by the windows. Saying that we began the day in a sweat-drenched, sluggish mood would be an understatement.

One of the first things on our collective family to-do list at the park was snorkeling in their underground river system. It was a hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and even my mom was willing to set aside her aversion to caves for the chance to cool off some. When I say that my Mom has an aversion to caves, I’m not talking about mild dislike. We took a field trip to DeSoto Caverns when I was in intermediate school, and Mom hated just about every claustrophobic minute of it, especially when they turned out the lights and we experienced total darkness. For the record, I didn’t love the total darkness part, either. I thought it sucked, but the rocks were pretty darn cool.

We made short work of changing into the bathing suits we’d brought with us in our respective locker rooms. I think we were all desperate to get in the water, so we didn’t waste any time getting ready. We’re from the Alabama Gulf Coast and we deal with hot and humid all the time. If it’s so hot we can barely stand it, it’s just too damn hot out.

We were all stunned to find that Pop changed faster than all of us, got geared up with mask, snorkel, and fins, and was the first one in the water. We had to scramble to catch up with him. It was crazy, and it only got crazier from there. We rushed to catch up to him, but we weren’t entirely quick enough, at first. He swam into a rock and nicked his forehead on it before we could get to him. We all exchanged confused glances. We knew he had to leave his glasses in a locker, but we didn’t think his vision without them was quite that bad.

It happened twice more before we looked cloessely enough to figure out what was going on. We all just about died when we got him to pause long enough to look at us. Not only was his mask leaking and filling with water, both his hearing aids were floating in it. They were bobbing around and obscuring his vision. We couldn’t help laughing but it wasn’t malicious. It was just so cute and confusing all at once. We couldn’t quite figure out why he didn’t just leave them in the locker. We chalked it up to it being too ungodly hot for anybody to think straight and worked out a strategy to make the rest of our snorkeling excursion through the underground river more enjoyable. We formed a “V” shape and swam point around him to keep him from bumping into anymore rocks as we worked our way through the rest of the excursion. The water was blissfully cool, and the shade of the cave was like a holy respite from the heat above ground. We enjoyed watching the aquatic life glide around under the crystal clear water’s surface. I saw an eel or two that made me nervous, and a couple of barracudas that made me even more nervous as we floated along in the underground river. At one point I could have sworn I saw what almost looked like the outline of a sunken chest in a darker, deeper shaft of cavern that opened under the water’s surface. I couldn’t help wondering about sunken treasure.

Logically, I knew it was highly unlikely. The place we were visiting was a highly developed national park. Surely scuba divers had explored every humanly accessible inch of the cave system. It only made sense. The thought that there was probably little to no real mystery or adventure left in the world, much less the park, depressed me a little. I pushed the feeling aside, deciding I didn’t have time to be sad on vacation. I focused instead on the rock formations, the colorful fish, and the relaxing feel of snorkeling surrounded by my family. We may drive each other absolutely and completely 100% insane a lot of the time, but I adore my family. There’s not another family like ours anywhere in the world. They are special and lovable and endearing, even when we drive each other up the wall. We don’t get along all the time, or even most of the time. We’re far from perfect, but there’s nobody in the world I’d rather spend my time with. /Only one thing’s missing,/ I thought. My chest ached a little. I felt hollow without Rick being there to support me and have my back. I know nobody has my back the way my family does, but nobody has my back the way /he/ does, either. There’s something special and different about the way Rick and I are together, and it honestly scares the hell out of me most of the time. I hate how much I need him because it makes me feel even more vulnerable and weak than I already do on a day-to-day basis.

The snorkeling excursion ended far too quickly for my liking, but we exited the cave refreshed. We got dried off and changed and were instantly sapped of any strength we’d gained from the refreshing snorkel the second we stepped out of the respective locker rooms and into the heat of the day. Dad, Pop, and Uncle Ray told us to have a good rest of the day and took the noon bus back to our resort to get some rest in anticipation of their deep sea fishing excursion that was scheduled for the next day. Aunt Carrie-Lou, Tina, Mom, and I were left up to our own devices, which is always interesting, but generally a terrible idea.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Tina exclaimed. “This is freaking ridiculous! I’m going to find a really cold drink and a hammock in the shade. I’ll catch up with you guys a little later on.”

Aunt Carrie-Lou looked like she wanted to argue for a second, and even opened her mouth to do it, but thought better of it at the last second and swallowed whatever she had been about to say. Instead, she gave Tina a supportive smile and nod. “All right, sweetheart. Enjoy yourself! We’ll catch up with you a little later. We’re going to see if we can get a cold drink before we try to find the orchid greenhouse they have here.”

“It’s supposed to be absolutely spectacular,” Mom chimed in, her eyes shining with childlike excitement. My mom appreciates natural beauty like nobody I know. I think she should write for some kind of Home and Garden magazine now that she’s retired from teaching English. Her skill level at describing things blows me away, and I think she would make a killing as a writer for that sort of magazine. I could see her writing for a literary magazine, too. I can even envision her working as an editor for a publishing company of some kind. The one thing I can’t picture is mom /not/ working. She’s been one of the most hardworking people I know for as long as I can remember.

Tina gave a slightly forced smile, waved, and headed for the cabana bar down by the beach. My heart ached for her.

“Okay, what’s up,” Mom frowned at Aunt Carrie-Lou. “I thought this vacation was supposed to be about us enjoying things a family.”

“I think Eliot’s cheating on Tina,” Aunt Carrie-Lou sighed. “I don’t know if she’s heard what I have, but if she has, I don’t blame her for wanting to be alone. I’d want to be alone if there were a gajillion rumors flying around about my fiance being a nasty man-whore.”

Mom’s entire demeanor crumpled and the excited light seeped out of her eyes, replaced by a mixture of horror, revulsion, and sympathy for Tina. “Oh my GOD, Care! That’s terrible! Have you seen any kind of evidence to back the rumors up? What if it’s just talk? What if it isn’t? What the hell are you going to do? What if she doesn’t know? How the sam hell are you going to tell her?”

Mom sounded like she was a few seconds away from a full-blown panic attack, and Aunt Carrie-Lou just shook her head. “I’m definitely not saying anything to her while we’re on vacation. If she hasn’t heard the rumors and she’s just in some kind of weird mood, I don’t want to ruin the vacation for her. If she has heard...she’ll come to me and tell me when she’s ready, and we’ll figure out a plan from there.”

“She knows,” I blurted, wanting to allay some of their fears. “But don’t let on that I told you. She doesn’t want to ruin anybody’s vacation, which is why she’s not talking about it.”

“That greasy-assed little weasel better hope I don’t get my hands on him when we get back,” Aunt Carrie-Lou growled. “I’ll snap that little shit in half and put him in the garbage where he belongs for hurting my baby girl. If his mamma wasn’t such a sweetheart, I’d turn Ray, Frank, and ALL their brothers loose on him. I hope the nasty, cheating cretin gets crabs from whoever it is he’s whoring around with.”

“Carrie-Lou!” Mom’s voice was horrified and chastising all at once. “Just because he’s a trashy, macho jerk doesn’t mean we have to wish sexually transmitted diseases on least not out loud. Somebody might hear you.”

Aunt Carrie-Lou cocked a challenging eyebrow at Mom. “Just who in the hell are we worried about possibly hearing me, Liz? We’re on vacation in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. It’s not like anyone we know is here to be nosy and eavesdrop on us! Hell, what are the chances of us running up on anybody we know here?”

“You just never know,” Mom sighed. “I just think it’s best if we keep our composure until we’re sure nobody’s going to overhear us.”

Aunt Carrie-Lou snorted and rolled her eyes, but nodded to signal that she was conceding this round to Mom’s prim and proper preferences. “It’s hotter than the hinges on Hell out here, girls. Let’s see if we can find a cold soda somewhere in the park.”

“Why don’t we go to the cabana bar where Tina went? I’m sure they probably have cold drinks there,” Mom suggested.

“I don’t think we should,” I asserted. “I think Tina really wanted to be away from us for a while, and I don’t blame her. There’s a cantina not to far from here, according to the map. I’m sure they’ve got sodas and we can get one there while still letting Tina have her privacy,” I suggested.

Mom and Aunt Carrie-Lou nodded in unison. “That’s not a bad idea,” Mom agreed.

“Let’s go,” Aunt Carrie-Lou huffed. “I’m melting out here. I’m going to die of heat stroke if I don’t get my hands on a cold drink soon.”

Mom and I nodded in unison, and I set out to lead the way to the restaurant, since I had the map. The three of us were sweating and wheezing by the time we reached the open-air restaurant. Aunt Carrie-Lou and I both swore under our breath, and I guessed she’d been hoping the same thing as I was. I hoped the restaurant would be enclosed and nicely air conditioned, but there’s no such luck if you’re a Murphy.

Actually we get our utterly strange luck from both sides, Murphy and Steele. I think the Murphy name just amplifies things, sometimes. We shuffled into the cantina and got in line for lunch, even though none of us wanted food. The only thing we wanted was a cold drink, and that ended up being a problem when we got to the head of the line and the wouldn’t sell us a drink without also selling us food.

“What do you mean you can’t sell just a drink?” Mom narrowed her eyes at the girl behind the counter. “We’re too hot to eat. Buying food right now would be wasteful. All. We. Want. Is. A. Cold. Drink.”

The girl behind the counter shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, ma’am, it’s park policy to only sell drinks WITH meals in the cantina. If you wanted a drink without food, you could have gone to the cabana bar on the beach.”

I sucked in a breath, knowing that the tone the girl took was a mistake. It’s NEVER a good idea to cop an attitude with my mom. She spent a 30-year career not taking shit off teenagers with attitudes. I cut a sideways look at Aunt Carrie-Lou and we locked eyes. We both knew what was about to happen. Shit was about to get /real/ and it was going to be BAD.

“This is ridiculous,” Mom snapped, “And I don’t appreciate your attitude, young lady. My money is just as good as anybody else’s, and I think I ought to be able to purchase a drink without a meal. It’s really just a matter of simple math, isn’t it? All you have to do is subtract the cost of the food from the combo and that’ll tell you how much to charge for a drink.”

“Frankly, I don’t care if you feel park policies are ridiculous, ma’am. I’m also excellent at math, but I’m still not going to violate policy to sell you a drink without a meal. If you want a drink without a meal, you’re welcome to go get one at the cabana bar. As it is, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the cantina. There are people behind you in line who are waiting to purchase /meals/.”

For a minute, Mom looked like her head might explode. A second later she blew out a breath, forced a smile, and we trekked back out into the blistering sunlight.

“This is horse shit,” Mom muttered.

“There has to be more than one place in this whole park to get a cold drink without having to buy food, too,” Aunt Carrie-Lou agreed with a sharp nod.

“So, what the hell do we do now,” I huffed. “If we go to the bar, Tina’s going to think I blabbed and we’re stalking her to make sure she’s handling things okay.”

“We’ll look like we’re being nosy,” Aunt Carrie-Lou sighed.

We all knew that nosy is our collective default state, and there was no arguing with the fact that it would look like we were spying on Tina even if we really weren’t.

“Let’s look at the map,” Mom grumbled. “There’s got to be another place somewhere in this park that we can buy just a cold drink besides the cabana bar. It doesn’t make sense for a park this big to only have one place you can buy a cold soda without having to buy food just to throw it away. I can’t abide that kind of wastefulness when there are so many starving people in the world.”

I was so hot I was getting dizzy and nauseated as we studied the map and tried to figure out a plan of action.

“Why don’t we just go ahead and try to find the orchid house?” This suggestion came from Mom. “Once we get there, we can ask a park employee with less of a bitchy attitude where we can get a cold drink without food besides the cabana bar.”

Aunt Carrie and I nodded our agreement, and the three of us stared at the map and studied the signs posted at the corner of the walking path we happened to be on. We thought we had things figured out, so we forged ahead along the path with the sign that pointed the way to the orchid house. We all came to a screeching halt when that path lead to the mouth of a cave that sounded disturbingly active with bat life. We paused and took out the map, studying it closer.

“There’s got to be a way to get there without having to walk through a cave filled with live bats,” Mom groaned.

“I’m sure there is,“Aunt Carrie agreed. “Maybe we’re not reading the map quite right. There absolutely has to be some other path that won’t force us to walk through there to get to the orchid greenhouse.”

“Yeah,” I nodded my agreement. “Let’s go back to the croosroads and study the map a little better.” I thought I might throw up from the heat, but I fought the urge as we strode back to the crossroads to re-evaluate the map and path situation. I wiped sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand to keep it from running in my eyes as we checked the map and started out on the path again. We kept our eyes peeled for side roads, more signs, or any chance at all to avoid the bat-filled cave, but we didn’t see one.

“I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this,” I groaned. “I think we’re going to end up having to walk through there.”

“The hell you say,” Mom and Aunt Carrie snapped in unison.

“Not happening,” Aunt Carrie growled.

“You couldn’t drag me in there if my life depended on it,” mom groaned.

“All right,” I sighed. “Let’s back up, regroup, and try this all over again.”

We trudged back to the starting point and glared at the signs pointing the way. “I swear to god, it feels like they’ve got pygmies screwing with the signs to confuse people and get them lost,” I growled.

We scoured the map. We followed the orchid house sign again, thinking we had surely missed something. There had to be a way to circumvent the cave and not walk through it. Unfortunately, we appeared to be very wrong because we once again ended up at the cave with no other options available to us.

“Well,” Mom huffed, “I’m not going in that damn cave. It’s not happening. Let’s go back and try again. Maybe we’re not looking at the sign right or something.”

When we got back to the crossroads, we stared at the signs and all the well-marked stone paths that were the only obvious options, according to the map. There was, however, an unmarked, narrow dirt path that the three of us eyeballed in contemplative silence before one of us finally worked up the guts to say what we were all thinking.

“I think we should try going that way,” Aunt Carrie insisted.

“I don’t see that path on the map,” I cautioned. “If it’s not on the map, we probably shouldn’t be using it.”

“That path looks like it’s been used solely by goats and other small animals. There’s no proof people even go through there.”

“Yeah, but I’m willing to be it goes around that stupid cave full of bats,” Aunt Carrie argued.

“That settles that, then,” Mom announced.

“Yep.” Aunt Carrie was in determined bulldozer mode.

“Let’s do it,” I sighed. “Whatever’s down this path couldn’t possibly be worse than a cave full of live, wild bats.”

For the record, the universe generally takes stupid statements like that as some kind of challenge, so I wouldn’t advise firing off at the mouth the way I tend to. I just have a way about me, and sometimes I rub the universe the wrong way. It’s the same with people. You either really like me, or really hate me, and there’s no in-between, and people’s feelings about me generally fluctuate on a day-to-day basis, depending on what dumb thing I’ve said or done. Sometimes it has to do with what I haven’t done. Either way, I tend to elicit a strong reaction.

I tried to ignore the fact that we could hear tom-tom drums playing in the distance. By the way things were sounding, I expected a ripped guy in a loin cloth to come swinging by on a vine at any given moment as we forged our way through the dirt path. I could hear jaguar calls in the distance, and remembered there being something on the map about some kind of jaguar island in the middle of the river. The longer we followed the seldom-used dirt path, the more I couldn’t help thinking that we were probably complete idiots. The what-if part of my brain started really building up a head of steam when we happened across a tiny building with a thatch roof and a crude red cross painted on the side of it. My brain started screaming at me that we weren’t supposed to be there, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to go anywhere without mom and Aunt Carrie.

Mom was immediately drawn to the building, and she walked up to peer in the windows.

“I’m guessing this is the park’s first aid building. There’s bound to be something cold to drink in there. Like a bottled water. They’ve got to have bottled water in a first aid building, right? It only makes sense.”

Aunt Carrie and I stared at her as she pushed up on her tip-toes and pressed her nose to the grimy window-pane, trying to get a good look at what was inside the building.

“Help me look,” she snapped. “If we don’t find something cold to drink soon, we’re probably all going to die of a heat stroke or something.”

“Liz, I think we can get a cold drink at the cabana bar like the girl at the cantina said. I’m getting a feeling we’re not supposed to be here and maybe we should leave.”

“If you would just help me find a damn cold drink, we could leave and get to the orchid house,” Mom argued. She was in laser-focused mode, and she missed the edge of fear in Aunt Carrie’s voice. I walked up to the window, pretending to help mom look so I could say I didn’t see anything and we should leave.

“Liz, I really think we should go,” Aunt Carrie pressed.

“Dammit, we’ll go when I’m sure they don’t have a cold drink in this first aid hut!” /Heat stroke,/ I thought. /She’s having a freaking heat stroke for sure./

“TIME. TO. GO!” Aunt Carrie shouted.

“WHAT?!” Mom yelled, spinning around in an indignant rage until she saw our current situation. For one thing, Aunt Carrie was running like hell and leaving us for dead because we didn’t listen to her. For another, there was an honest-to-god medicine man in full ceremonial dress staring my mom down from about a foot away. The guy had a feather headdress, face paint, and an elaborate collar that fanned out over his shoulders with feathers, beads, and decorative shells. His tanned and toned chest was bare to the elements, and he was wearing an ACTUAL loincloth. I shit you not, I promise. He had feathers and seashells around his ankles, and a smoking cup of incense in his hand. All I could think was that we were about to be human sacrifices, but I was too scared to move or say anything.

Mom, bless her little problem-solving heart, decided to ask him for directions. “Hello, sir,” she cajoled in a sugary-sweet tone. “I’m sorry, but we’re lost...obviously. Can you tell us how to get to the orchid house from here?”

I stood there, sweating bullets as he stared at mom with obsidian eyes and an expressionless face. /Holy shit, we’re going to die,” was the only thing my brain could seem to think. Then things got even worse, which I wasn’t aware was even possible. He answered Mom, but not in English or Spanish. He answered her in a language I didn’t recognize, but if I had to make a wild guess, I’d have said it was ancient Mayan. Then, and only then, did Mom decide it was time for us to run like hell. She grabbed my by my wrist and started dragging me up the path behind her at a blistering pace. As short as our legs are, we shouldn’t have been able to run that fast, but fear will do amazing things for you. It’s a powerful motivator. Mom kicked it into overdrive and I struggled to keep up. Worse than that, my foot caught on something lying on my side of the dirt path and sent me tumbling face-first onto the ground. I turned to see what I assumed was the root that had tripped me, but I let out a blood-curdling howl of fear when I realized it was an arm, which was connected to a body, and that body wasn’t moving, even though I just kicked the shit out of its arm when I tripped over it.

Even in the 110-degree heat, I felt a sudden chil rip down my spine. “Mamma,” I screamed. “W-w-wait for me! I tripped on somebody’s arm and f-f-fell!” I was trying hard not to hyperventilate, but it wasn’t really working. I could hear my blood rushing and roaring in my ears, and my vision got murky. I was pretty sure I was going to throw up as little black dots of pure panic danced in front of my eyes and I got dizzy and weak.

“We’ll notify park personnel after we get the hell out of this damn jungle,” Mom growled, snatching me to my feet. “Just put one foot in front of the other as fast as you can until we get the hell out of here,” Mom commanded.

I was unsteady on my feet, shaking, but I drew strength from her steely grip on my forearm. I was definitely hyperventilating and starting to get a definite asthma attack-type wheeze going when we burst out of the jungle next to the stables where they were putting on some kind of equestrian show that would have been lovely if I weren’t having a minor nervous breakdown at that moment. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelled horse shit in 110-degree heat, but when that smell wafted over and hit me in the face like a sledgehammer of stink, that was it. I doubled over and threw up in the dirt beside the corral until there was nothing left in me but ragged dry heaves. I still felt like holy hell. I knew, deep in my bones, that I’d literally tripped over a dead body in that jungle, and I thought I might die if I didn’t get the damn death cooties off me as quickly as possible.

Aunt Carrie came over to check on me, and Mom explained the situation. “What?!” Aunt Carrie stared at us like we were completely insane. “I cannot have heard what I think you just said.”

She grabbed us both by the arm and dragged us inside the greenhouse that stood across from the horse corral and stables. It took us a second to realize it was the fabled orchid house we’d been trying to find our way to for well over an hour. We paused and looked around for a moment in sheer disappointment. There was ONE bloom in that entire stinking orchid house. Mom glared at the single orchid bloom like it was a venomous snake. “I ought to snap that son of a bitch in half and stomp on it,” Mom growled. “I can’t BELIEVE we wasted so much of our day and got lost trying to find this piece of shit greenhouse with one sorry-assed bloom in it!”

“Whoa, time out,” Aunt Carrie Lou said. “Let’s get back to what you were trying to tell me before we came in here. It sounded like you said Lexie tripped over a dead body on your way here, but I know that can’t be what the hell you just said to me.”

I started retching again at the mere mention of tripping over the dead body. I shuddered and tried to shake the death cooties off. Aunt Carrie paused and stared at me.

“I’m afraid that’s exactly what I just said to you,” Mom sighed. She and Aunt Carrie both grabbed one of my arms and tried to calm my spastic movements.

“Everybody just calm down,” Aunt Carrie muttered. “Are you absolutely sure it was a /dead/ body and not just a passed-out body, maybe? Heat stroke? Fainted? Something like that?”

I shook my head with a violent vigor. “Not alive. It was the wrong color to be alive.”

Another shudder ripped through me and I retched again.

“She’s right, Carrie,” Mom sighed. “The body was discolored. It had that pallid green-ish, nobody’s home look to it.”

My knees turned to jell-o at Mom’s all-too-accurate description, and I sat down hard on the greenhouse floor. “I tripped over a dead person. A FREAKING DEAD PERSON’S ARM TOUCHED MY FOOT!” I was headed swiftly in the direction of hyperventilating again.

“Calm down, sweetie,” Aunt Carrie soothed. “Breathe. Cup your hands over your mouth and nose and breathe deep a few times. Breathing in the carbon dioxide will ease the hyperventilation.”

I tried it and gagged because my breath still smelled like bile from throwing up earlier. “I feel like that would probably have worked better if I hadn’t thrown up recently.” I shuddered and rested my head on my knees.

“We need to find some kind of park staff and notify them about what happened,” Mom said.

“I’m going to sit right here for the time being,” I sighed. “I don’t really feel up to walking right now. If the park staff want me to make a statement, they can come talk to me in here.”

“I’ll stay with her if you want to go get them,” Aunt Carrie offered.

“Sounds good,” Mom nodded.

My throat felt raw, and like it had a massive fist-sized lump of ice hung in it. I leaned my head back against the greenhouse wall and let out a shuddering breath before meeting Aunt Carrie’s gaze.

“I really, really want this to be a nightmare. I want to wake up and know that I’ve only ever touched one dead body in my life, and never, ever add to that number. The last dead person I came into contact with was enough to scar me for life. I don’t even want to think about this one. I want this not to be real,” I groaned.

“That makes two of us,” Aunt Carrie agreed. “The last time was...dark and messed up in ways I’d prefer not to think about ever again.”

“What’s wrong with me?” I knew I was whining, but I couldn’t stop. “Why am I a dead body magnet?”

“Just because you’ve stumbled across two dead bodies in the past three years doesn’t mean you’re a dead body magnet.”

I couldn’t seem to verbalize a response without being bitchy, so I just stared at her for a minute.

“It’s a little weird, I’ll give you that much,” she murmured. “But two dead bodies does not a pattern make.”

I scrubbed my hands over my face in frustration. “It kind of does, if you think about it,” I groaned.

“I’m /trying/ to be positive and supportive,” she argued. “And it would be nice if you’d just cooperate and try to look at the bright side.”

“What, exactly, is the bright side to literally tripping over a dead body in the middle of the jungle in a tourist attraction park in Mexico?”

Aunt Carrie opened her mouth, thought for a minute, and then snapped it shut. “Granted, I can’t think of anything right now, but I’m sure we’ll find something to be grateful for before this day is over. It could always be worse.”

“I can’t believe you just said that out loud,” I groaned.

She sucked in a breath and grimaced. “Yeah...I didn’t really think that one through, I guess.”

“You better knock on wood or something,” I sighed. “If you don’t, I have a feeling we’re all going to regret that statement before today is over.”

“I’m afraid you’re probably right about that,” Aunt Carrie sighed.

It was that moment Mom chose to return with some extremely anxious-looking park employees. The one that stepped forward and crouched in front of me was a breathtakingly beautiful woman in her mid-thirties who could have been a Salma Hayek clone with kind caramel-colored eyes.

“Hi, Miss Murphy. My name is Teresa, and I’m a manager here in the park. Can you recount for me, in your own words, what happened?”

I explained about us trying to avoid the cave full of bats, deciding on the dirt path as an alternate route, finding the first aid hut, getting the living shit scared out of us by the medicine man, and our hasty retreat that led me to trip over the arm of a dead body that was lying partially across the dirt path. Teresa paled a little under her well-maintained bronze tan, and gave a grave nod as I concluded the explanation.

“I hate to ask this of you,” she sighed, “But could you please show us where this all happened?”

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to,” I groaned, “But I guess I can, if it’ll help.”

Teresa nodded, gave me an encouraging smile, and helped me to my feet. I could still feel my stomach knotting and roiling with revulsion at the thought of going back and seeing the body again. I felt like it was a terrible idea. I didn’t want to. I hadn’t seen any details the first time around, and I didn’t really want to push my luck with round two. I hated the idea, actually. Still, I did as I was asked because I knew it was the right thing to do. That didn’t mean I had to like it. I led them back to the part of the path where I tripped, and where part of someone’s arm still lay across the path. I didn’t want to see what was attached to the arm. I didn’t want to know anything, but morbid curiosity had me in its clutches, as always.

I was torn between the urge to run far, far away and never come back, and the slightly stronger urge to find out what happened to that person lying in the underbrush off that narrow dirt path that wasn’t even on the park map. I wondered so many things, and I felt a sudden attachment to the body, and the questions burned my insides until I couldn’t hold them in anymore. I had tripped over that arm. I felt a sudden responsibility to the person attached to that arm. There were things that I absolutely had to know.

“Is it a man or a woman?” The question popped out before I could stop it, and I felt crude for asking. Still, I couldn’t help it. We’d collided, and I felt like I had to find out everything possible about them. “I’m sorry to ask,” I blurted. “I know it must sound rude,’s just...I literally tripped over this person and I feel like I owe it to him or her to know these things.”

“It appears to be a man,” Teresa said. “Late forties or early fifties with salt and pepper hair. Big guy. Broad shoulders. Burly. That’s all I can tell, though, because he’s face-down. The park will notify the authorities and I’m sure they’ll want to speak with you, but I see no reason why you all can’t try to enjoy yourselves in the meantime. I will remain with you until you speak with the authorities. My boss will let us know when they arrive. What can we do to improve your experience?”

“I’d like to know if there’s anywhere we can buy a cold bottled water, aside from the cabana bar on the beach,” Mom piped up beside me.

“Of course, ma’am,” Teresa gave a gracious nod. “I will see to it that you get as much cold bottled water as you’d like, compliments of the park. Is there anything else I can do to improve your day?”

“No offense intended or anything, but I’d really like to get the hell away from the dead body now, if that’s okay.” I blew out a sigh and suppressed a shudder. “Tripping over it...over him was bad enough. I don’t want to just hover hear like some ghoulish creeper.”

“I’m with you on that one,” Aunt Carrie sighed. “I know we were going to try to give Tina some space and alone time to deal with things, but I feel like we should find her and update her on the current situation.”

“It couldn’t hurt,” I shrugged. “Just remember that you know nothing about the Eliot situation. I didn’t say anything or confirm anything. You didn’t hear anything. Nobody knows anything.”

“We get the picture,” Mom sighed. “Let’s just find her and tell her what happened.”

“Let’s start at the cabana bar and work from there,” Aunt Carrie suggested.

Teresa stood, politely observing us and doing her best to hide how weirded out she was by the situation in general, and also that specific conversation. Aunt Carrie saw Teresa’s confused expression and took it upon herself to explain about Eliot being a slimy, cheating weasel, and my having confirmed that Tina knew about it, but Tina didn’t know that anybody besides the two of us knew.

“I don’t quite understand,” Teresa murmured. “Why don’t you want her to know that you know her fiancé is a scumbag?”

“She doesn’t want to ruin anybody’s vacation with business about calling off the wedding or anything,” I explained.

“You tripped over a dead body...I think vacation is already effectively ruined. I don’t see how telling her you already know could do more to ruin your vacation than that.”

“I guess you’ve got a pretty good point, there,” I sighed. “If tripping over a dead body doesn’t manage to ruin the family vacation, I don’t really know what does.”

“Exactly,” Teresa nodded.

Part of me was comforted by her presence, and part of me was annoyed that she’d be following us around everywhere and observing us until the police arrived to examine the body and question us. Mom must have sensed my feelings because she shot me a sideways glance that clearly told me to behave as we started to make our way back to the cabana bar. Aunt Carrie also shot me a look, but her look confirmed that she tended more toward sharing my feelings of annoyance at the supposed need for observation of our family until the local authorities’ arrival. To me, that indicated an insulting level of suspicion toward us, and I guessed Aunt Carrie felt the same way I did. It’s funny how that goes in families sometimes. I’m a lot like Aunt Carrie and Tina’s nearly my mom’s carbon copy. Grandma Steele always said that’s how we know God has a sense of humor. I don’t know about all that because sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it really isn’t.

When we got to the cabana bar, Teresa got us several ice-cold bottled waters, compliments of the park, and we looked around for Tina. She wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of the bar, and it took us a few minutes to locate her. She was lounging in a hammock in a deeply shaded area, and set apart from the majority of the people occupying the hammocks. It was obvious that she’d wanted to be alone, and we were about to rain on her parade in more ways than one. She looked up and frowned when we entered her line of vision.

“Something’s wrong.” She stated it as a fact as her gaze shifted back and forth between me, Mom, and Aunt Carrie. Her brow furrowed when her eyes registered the odd man out in the group. Teresa didn’t belong, and that only confirmed Tina’s suspicions. “What is it? Is Grandpa Steele okay?”

“It’s not your Grandfather!” Mom and Aunt Carrie exclaimed it in unison.

“Pop’s fine,” I reassured her.

“So, what the hell’s going on?” Tina sat up straddle of the hammock and studied us with crossed arms and a confused scowl.

“We kind of got a little lost in the jungle here in the park, had a close encounter with a medicine man who scared the living shit out of us, and Lexie tripped over a dead body while trying to get away from the medicine man,” Aunt Carrie explained.

Tina busted out laughing. “You’re joking, right?”

Mom, Aunt Carrie, Teresa, and I all shook our heads no in unison. “Unfortunately, no,” I sighed. “We’re completely serious.”

This news only succeeded in making Tina laugh even harder than she had when she thought we were joking and trying to lighten the mood. She laughed so hard that tears rolled down her cheeks and she had trouble catching her breath.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I know that somebody is dead, and that’s not funny, but the way you explained it is freaking hysterical. Plus, this would NEVER happen to anybody besides you three.” Tina started laughing even harder, shaking her head. “Only a Murphy could get lost in the jungle in the middle of a park in Mexico, run up on a Medicine Man, and then trip over a dead body while running /away/ from the medicine man. It’s like something out of a movie plot, not real life.”

Finally, she was able to get her laughter under control, and wiped the tears off her cheeks with the back of her hand.

“The whole thing is completely nuts,” I sighed.

“You can say that again,” Tina agreed. “Has anyone identified the body? Have the police been called?”

The only thing currently known about the body is that it is a middle-aged caucasian man,” Teresa replied. “And yes, the police have been called. I’m sure they’ll want to speak with you all when they arrive.”

“And that’s why park management stationed you with us, to make it easy for the authorities to find us and ask their questions when they arrive, correct?”

“It sounds a little...crass when you put it that way, but yes,” Teresa confirmed.

I could see Mom, Aunt Carrie, and Tina all fighting not to bristle at the implication there. We were suspects until notified otherwise, and none of us were happy about it. Tina proceeded to ignore Teresa as her big sister instincts kicked into overdrive. She looked me up and down with a concerned frown.

“Now, when you say you tripped over a dead body, do you mean in you made physical contact with a dead body?”

I nodded, feeling sick to my stomach at the memory.

“Jesus, Lexie,” Tina sighed and climbed out of the hammock to pull me into a fierce hug. “Are you okay?”

“Hell no,” I shook my head violently. “I swear to God, it’s like I can feel the bad juju radiating from the foot that caught on the dead body’s arm. It’s making my skin crawl.”

Tina hugged me a little tighter, and I hugged her back. “Well, none of us did anything wrong, so I’m sure they’ll let us go after we speak to the authorities and you can take a nice, hot shower to wash the bad juju off, okay?” She was staring Teresa down over my shoulder the whole time she was talking to me, and I knew that because I could see Mom making apologetic faces behind Tina’s back. Aunt Carrie was fidgeting. I could see the reality of the situation starting to hit her because she doesn’t even have the remotest semblance of a poker face. If it comes to mind, it shows on her face. She was made of nervous energy, and I could see mom picking up on her spooked horse attitude, too.

“If we’re going to be stuck here a while, we should find something interesting to do,” I suggested. Everyone nodded, even though Teresa had figured out we were ignoring her to the best of our ability because she made us feel awkward and a little threatened. On top of that, she was way too pretty, and it was a little unnerving.

Mom, ever the diplomat in the group, forced a smile at Teresa. “Do you have any suggestions for us? You must be pretty well in the loop on everything going on in the park right now, right?”

Teresa smiled and almost preened at Mom’s well-placed diplomacy. “Of course I am! There are several shows being performed in the park at the moment. I highly recommend the traditional Mayan aerial acrobatics show.”

“That sounds excellent,” Mom nodded. “Please, lead the way.”

Aunt Carrie handed Tina one of the spare bottled waters from the cabana bar as Teresa led us away from Tina’s secluded hammock on the beach. My sore calves and I were relieved when we made it off the sand and back onto the sidewalk, but it didn’t last long. As we were following Teresa, a snake fell out of one of the trees beside the sidewalk and landed between Teresa and us. Instant chaos broke out. We scattered like cockroaches when the light comes on. I was screaming bloody murder and tripping over my own feet trying to put distance between me and the snake. Tina sprinted away and shouted, “Oh, hell no!” Mom was a soundless mass of furiously pumping arms and legs as she scrambled away from the snake. Aunt Carrie jumped so hard she pulled a muscle in her leg and was limping away as quickly as she could. Teresa stared at us in open-mouthed, dumbfounded horror until the snake slithered across her foot. She let out a blood-curdling shriek and tried to shimmy up a palm tree to get away from the snake.

“That’s not going to help,” I yelled at her. “The damn snake fell OUT of a tree in the first place!”

Teresa paled, scrambled back down the palm tree, and ran like hell, abandoning us for the moment. If you throw snakes in the mix, all bets are off. I tried to catch my breath and suppressed the adrenaline-fuelled shaking wracking my body. I didn’t take my eyes off the snake. Everyone in the immediate vicinity was staring at it, and as it slithered, people scrambled out of its way. It looked like the parting of the red sea. As the snake slithered farther away from us, we slowly started to regroup. Mom and I got back to each other first, then Tina, and then Aunt Carrie limped back over.

“I honestly didn’t think this day was going to get any shittier,” I muttered, shaking my head.

Mom smacked me on the arm. “You just jinxed it AGAIN, as if we weren’t having a bad enough day already.”

I stared at her. “So, did you just triple-jinx it on purpose, or was what you said an accident?”

She narrowed her eyes and glared at me, and I cocked a challenging eyebrow at her as Teresa rejoined us. I occasionally get brave, but it never lasts for very long. I reserve most of my bravery for hypothetical situations and video games, and even then it’s kind of iffy. I can get so focused on and wrapped up in a game that my adrenal responses sometimes go overboard. I get so wrapped up in the story that my heart will race and pound. I have to put the controller down, turn the game off, walk away, and take some deep breaths. I wish I could walk away from this day and turn off the surreal string of events that just keeps getting stranger as our vacation goes on.

“Okay,” Aunt Carrie sighed, pinning Teresa down with her gaze. “Now that I’ve almost had a heart attack and hurt myself trying to get away from that snake, would you mind telling me how far I’m going to have to limp to see that aerial acrobatics show?”

Teresa had the decency to blush and be embarrassed by the whole situation. “I’m sure we can get you a wheelchair and an ice pack, if you’d like.”

“Yes, thank you,” Aunt Carrie nodded. “We’ll wait here, if you don’t mind.”

I could see the beginnings of panic budding on Teresa’s face as she got on the walkie talkie and started barking out orders in Spanish. Even though I don’t speak much Spanish outside what I learned watching Sesame Street as a kid, her tone and facial expression told me what I needed to know. She was scared to death we were going to sue the park if the day kept going the way it had been so far. We wouldn’t, but she didn’t really need to know that until we safely got back to our hotel and brought the men in the family up to speed on the strange situation. The wheelchair’s arrival was much quicker than expected, as was the ice pack. It was one of those chemical ones like they give you in the hospital, which is much less messy than actual ice, if not quite as cold. Park employees helped ease Aunt Carrie down into the wheelchair and Teresa offered to push it and lead the way to the show we were headed to when the snake incident interrupted our progress.

Mom, Tina, and I followed in silence. Tina and I exchanged glances that clearly stated we both wished this weird, creepy day was done and over with. The entire vacation had been a shit show so far, and I was exhausted. In the aerial acrobatics show’s defense, however, it was incredible. I couldn’t fathom how the men had gotten to the top of the totem-pole like structure, and the aerial stunts they performed were even more breathtaking. I vowed to research it in-depth if we made it out of Mexico without getting arrested or killed. It was that dark, sardonic thought that made me understand why Rick was so frustrated with me. I suddenly felt terrible for bringing him into the loop when there was nothing he could do about the situation, and I was swamped by a tsunami of guilt. I could imagine his level of anxiety at knowing what I’d sent him the night before and not getting any answers from me while we were stuck in the park with no Wi-Fi. I imagined he was probably having a stress-induced stroke, and I made myself a vow that I’d make it up to him if I got back home unscathed.

Mom must have heard my exasperated sigh because she reached over and gave my hand a supportive squeeze. I looked over at her and murmured in a barely audible tone. “I really wish all the men weren’t already back at the hotel. I hate being in a freaky situation like this and be separated from them.”

Teresa butted in before Mom could answer. “I’m sure we’ll have you reunited with the rest of your family soon enough!” Her tone was so bright I knew it had to be forced. She was on damage control duty. I knew it was her job and she had people to answer to, but that knowledge didn’t make me like her any better.

“Any word on when the police are going to get here and speak to us?” It sounded bitchy, but I was getting past the point of caring. I’d been ungodly hot all day long, got lost in the jungle, got the life scared out of me by a medicine man, tripped over a dead body, threw up because I touched a dead person, got scared even worse by a snake falling out of a tree, and I was waiting to be questioned by the local police. It was a bad day, and I felt like that warranted me being a short-tempered asshole, at that moment.

Mom apparently disagreed because she reached up and pinched the shit out of me, right in that soft, tender place on the back of your arm that makes you want to run to try to get away from the pain.

“Yow!” I yelped, rubbing the throbbing spot on my arm furiously. “How do you literally /always/ pinch me in the most painful freaking nerve cluster in my entire body, Mamma?” I glared at her and she glared right back. Apparently, we were all hitting our bullshit and shenanigans quotas for the day because our personality was dwindling with every passing minute that we moved from show to show within the park, waiting for the police to find and question us. The sun went down. Time kept crawling by as Teresa dutifully dragged us from attraction to attraction until there was only one show left for the day. It was supposed to be the most spectacular one of the day, an intricate display of Mayan culture in all its glory put on in a stone amplitheater.

I was beyond being interested or amused until the medicine man we’d encountered earlier was the first one to step out on the stage. He spotted us, recognition flared on his face, and he busted out laughing. I was seriously considering getting up and punching him square in the mouth when he saluted us with a massive conch shell before he blew it to the four winds to signal the start of the ceremonial show. About two-thirds of the way through, the authorities finally joined us and Teresa left. I answered every question they asked me with utter honesty and confidence, and they seemed satisfied with everything I told them. When I recounted the day’s events for them, they couldn’t help laughing at the bizarre chain of events. Part of me resented the laughter, but the other part was glad that the questioning would soon be over and we could go back to the hotel. I was ready to see the rest of the family, regroup, and get some much-needed sleep.

When they finished with their questions, the head detective handed each of us his card. “I’m going to advise that you and your family not leave town in the next few days, just in case we have more questions for you. We all nodded in unison, and the police left just as everyone finished filing out of the amplitheater.

“I know it’s time to go home, but I’ve got to go to the restroom first,” Mom insisted.

“Me, too,” Aunt Carrie agreed.

“I might as well, too,” I nodded.

“I’m going to head on back to the bus,” Tina asserted. “I’ll see y’all in a few minutes.”

When we came out of the restrooms, we went in the direction we thought we’d seen all the other guests go before we went in. Unfortunately, we were wrong. As we were walking up the path, lights began to turn out all around us. I snatched Aunt Carrie’s wheelchair around in a complete 180 and shouted at mom that we needed to try to keep up with the lights. Mom caught up to me, grabbed ahold of one of the handles on the wheelchair, and forced my hand to the other handle. “If we’re going to make it to the gate, we both need to push so the three of us can haul fanny! Hang on, Carrie, this might get hairy!”

Aunt Carrie clutched the arm rests of the wheelchair for dear life, and we barreled in between lit luminaries in paper bags on the ground as we followed the swiftly disappearing lights to the park gate. By the time we reached the gate, Aunt Carrie was deathly pale and mom and I were both beet red and drenched in sweat. We almost got locked in, and would have been left by the bus if Tina hadn’t gone ahead and gotten on it. When we boarded, she was reasoning with the driver. She looked us over, shaking her head all the while.

“I don’t even want to know,” she grumbled.

We shuffled back to our seats and tried to cool off in the meager air conditioning as we ignored the glares from other paggengers who’d been kept waiting by our small directional mistake. Aunt Carrie leaned forward, practically sucking the cold hair out of one of the air conditioning nozzles by the window. As she did, the woman in the seat in front of her leaned her seat back and it popped Aunt Carrie in the face. My blood ran cold as Aunt Carrie jumped back from the impact and angrily slammed her hands against the back of the woman’s seat.

“Get your damn chair out of my face, lady,” Aunt Carrie growled, and the woman sat it back up with a snap.

I was certain we were going to get thrown off the bus for fighting, but the driver just shook his head and pulled out of the park’s parking lot. If we thought the day’s strange events were over, we were horribly wrong. The bus came to a sudden, jerky stop as we were headed back toward the city. Everyone was confused. Most people were half-asleep. We all pressed our noses to the bus windows and peered out into the dark night. That’s when my almost always calm and composed mother completely lost her shit. There was a small red sedan stopped just in front of our up, and men with submachine guns and army-looking camo uniforms were dragging people out of it.

Mom burst into completely hysterical sobs, tears pouring down her face as she had a total meltdown for all the bus to see. “Oh my GOD they’ve got machine guns and they’re pulling people out of that car! We’re next, mark my words. We’re all going to get shot and freaking die! This is bullshit! We’re all going to get killed and buried in some kind of mass grave. We’ll never see Alabama again!”

Aunt Carrie grabbed mom’s forearm in a steely-death grip and shouted over Mom’s hysterical cries. “Dammit, Liz, if you don’t shut up I’m going to kill you myself! They ALWAYS shoot the HYSTERICAL one first, and I’m sitting right next to you!”

Tina had apparently found the other end of the hysteria spectrum at the situation because she was dying laughing at mom and Aunt Carrie. She was laughing so hard tears were pouring down her cheeks. The more she laughed, the more Mom cried, and the more Mom cried, the more Tina laughed. Both were ragged and breathless when the guys in uniform with the sub-machine guns pushed the sedan off to the side of the road and our bus started rolling again. When we piled out of the bus on the sidewalk in front of our resort, we thought our worries were over with for one day. Boy, were we wrong.

The men of the family were completely frantic by the time we made it back to the rooms, and we had to explain the day’s events to them while getting chewed out for attracting weirdness, which we can’t really help.

“It gets worse,” I sighed.

“How could it possibly be worse?” Dad snapped.

“It’s true,” Tina sighed. “Without getting too deeply into details and whatnot, we kind of ended up snooping on one of the other hotel guests last night and the night before because he was acting really weird. We found a bunch of tightly-wrapped packages in the ruined building next door after we watched the guy who was acting strangely dig one out of a flower pot here at the resort and take it next door. We stole one of the packages, which we suspect to be drugs, as evidence, and we’ll have to talk to the police about that tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Dad sighed. “I don’t know how we always manage these things. It’s insane.”

“It gets even worse than that.” I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably. I hadn’t had the chance to clue Tina or anyone else in to the suspicion that weighed on me all day after Teresa described the body to me. “I’ve got a bad feeling that the body I tripped over was the guy we were spying on and stole the evidence from last night. I can’t be sure of that because I couldn’t make myself look at the body, but the description Teresa gave me sounded eerily similar to the guy with the package.”

I knew we were between a rock and a hard place because everybody started cussing a blue streak, except for Pop. Pop was quiet, taking in the situation with a level of calm that seemed out of place until I remembered that he was in the Navy, is a WWII veteran who witnessed MacArthur’s return to the Phillippines, and worked for the NSA as a cryptographer. I might have been eighteen, but I was pretty sure I was grounded for life because even Mom was cussing up a storm, and Mom hardly ever cusses. She has to be extremely stressed and angry to resort to swear words. I cringed, just waiting for the shit storm to hit and swamp Tina and me both.

“Why didn’t you just report the guy’s odd behavior and leave it at that?” Mom’s voice was filled with icy rage that set a leaden knot in my stomach.

“Because, nobody would have believed me without proof,” I snapped. “It would probably have gone exactly like last time, with everyone questioning my sense of reality, my integrity, and my motives. I wanted solid proof of wrongdoing because I wasn’t about to make an ass of myself flying off half-cocked like last time. The cops were assholes when all I had to offer was an eyewitness statement about the situation. I wasn’t about to put myself in that position again.”

“Why the hell couldn’t you just ignore it?” Aunt Carrie groaned, shaking her head. She turned, shaking her finger in Tina’s face. “And /you/, just why in the Hell did you enable her?”

“I didn’t intend to,” Tina defended. “But the guy was such a massive, shady jerk when we bumped into him in the lobby that I couldn’t resist seeing what he was up to any more than Lexie could.”

“Morbid curiosity and the inability to let things go is going to be the death of us all,” Mom ranted, obviously pacing the room to keep from running down the hall screaming in frustration.

“Everybody just calm down,” Pop commanded. Everyone went still, and all eyes focused on him. We waited to see what he had to say with baited breath.

“We’re all addicted to mysteries and puzzles, so nobody can really point an accusing finger at the girls for that. Their course of action may not have been the wisest choice ever, but the investigating they did was pretty procedurally sound, to be honest. Lexie’s reasoning makes sense, as does Tina’s. They saw somebody doing something suspicious and decided to do something about it. Every single one of us would have done the same. Some may have gone about it differently than they did, but they had their reasons. I think we need to shift our focus from blame to the things we need to be concerned with right now.”

“What, exactly, should we be concerned with right now?” Mom blew out a defeated sigh and sat down as she waited for Pop to lay out his thoughts on the matter.

“First, I want to know everything the police asked and how the park staff reacted to the situation.”

Mom, Aunt Carrie, Tina, and I all took turns on filling him in on the situation, and everybody thought the medicine man encounter was pretty funny, all things considered.

“Obviously, the police suspect the four of you of being involved. Hopefully, when whe hand over the evidence and the girls issue statements about what they witnessed, that will lift the police suspicion off you,” Pop explained.

“And then we’re free to forget this shit show ever happened and go home, right?” This came from Aunt Carrie.

“Wrong.” Pop shook his head and frowned. “This is where things get complicated. If Lexie’s right about the body at the park being the guy she and Tina were spying on earlier, then the police suspicion is only a fraction of our problems. That guy is probably dead because some of the product he was supposed to be moving disappeared, and he probably didn’t have a good explanation for that. My guess is we’re going to have a much bigger problem with whoever killed the drug mule than the local authorities.”

This time, Aunt Carrie started crying. Mom looked like she was cried out, and maybe a little shell-shocked. Dad was the first to speak.

“So, we need to analyze this situation and come up with some kind of decent plan to get home safe, not get killed, and make sure that whoever’s involved with the drugs doesn’t follow us home,” Dad asserted.

“Exactly,” Pop gave a sage nod. He stared at me. “You can use the internet on your phone to get in touch with people back home, right?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “What do you need me to do, Pop?”

“I’m guessing you’ve been keeping your best friend Rick abreast of the situation, right?” Pop probed.

“Always,” I nodded.

“Good,” Pop smiled. “I like that boy. I trust him. You need to catch him up on today’s events and ask him if he’s willing to do your granddad a favor.”

“Absolutely,” I nodded. I got my phone, which was plugged in and charging, and used Facebook messenger over the hotel wifi to catch Rick up on the current situation.

*Of course I’ll do your Pawpaw a favor. I love that guy. He’s an awesome, old-school badass with a good heart.*

I grinned at Pop. “Rick says he’s willing to do you a favor. What do you need me to ask him to do?”

“Ask him to go to my house, get the spare key, and let himself in. There’s a little black book locked in my metal desk with the typewriter on top. It’s full of important names, addresses, and phone numbers. I want him to call an old friend of mine from my house phone. If the admiral sees my house phone number, he’ll pick up for sure.”

Everyone in the room stared open-mouthed at Pop. I was having a little trouble processing what he was saying because I was overwhelmed by awe for his sharpness, skills, and connections. I messaged Rick the instructions and told him to message me when he got to the house so I could tell him what name to search the little black book for. He agreed and I blew out a sigh of relief.

“Rick’s on it,” I confirmed with a proud grin.

“Good,” Pop gave a firm nod. “Now we need to take a look at all the evidence and figure out where to go from here before you and Tina discuss anything further with the police tomorrow.”

“Of course,” I nodded. I showed everyone my notes and the picture I’d snapped on my phone while Tina retireved the package from under her bed.

“This is the craziest shit I’ve ever seen in my life, and I was in school during the Cuban missile crisis,” Aunt Carrie grumbled as we caught everyone up to speed.

We opened a corner of the package just enough to peer inside and assess the substance. Uncle Ray looked closer than everyone else, since he was a retired science teacher.

“It’s a fine white powder,” he announced. “With all the anti-drug information we’ve given to students over the years, I’d guess it’s cocaine, just by the looks of it, but for all I actually know it coul be baking soda.”

“Cocaine is probably a pretty solid guess,” Aunt Carrie agreed. “Wrap that garbage back up and hide it in the hotel safe until we have a chance to talk to the cops and hand it over tomorrow.”

Mom suddenly snapped into a more determinedly cheerful, optimistic mood. She was determined to make the best of the situation, as horrible as it was. She just has that way about her. Mom will be damned if she’ll let any situation control her. I love that about my mother. She wrapped the drugs back up, deposited the package in the hotel safe, and set about straightening both hotel rooms, as if order and organization would wipe away the badness of the day. The situation was so utterly bizarre, and we were all handling it in our own ways.

“We should try to get sleep,” Mom insisted. “It’s impossible to function well without a good night’s sleep.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to function well if you’re a member of this family. It’s like a rule of the universe or something,” I grumbled.

Mom rolled her eyes and Tina let out a snort of laughter. “Sleep isn’t a bad idea, though,” I agreed. “Today was exhausting. I’m going to grab a shower and crash.”

I grabbed my phone and shot Rick a quick message. *I really wish you were here. I miss you, and I’d feel a lot better knowing you had my back in this mess.*

*I always have your back, even from this far away.*

*I know.* Part of me really wanted to say “I love you,” instead, but I just couldn’t seem to make myself say it aloud. His girlfriend certainly wouldn’t like it. What I was more afraid of, though, was that he didn’t love me back the same way I love him. It’s safer for everyone involved if we just stay best friends forever.

As badly as I knew I needed sleep, as badly as I wanted it, I couldn’t make it happen. I had too much anxiety swirling around my upcoming talk with the police the next day. /I’m going to get arrested and rot forever in Mexican prison because I’m nosy,/ I thought. /This sucks./

I was staring at the ceiling when the sliding glass door that led out onto the balcony shattered into about a million pieces. I screamed and sprang from my bed over to mom and dad’s. I accidentally elbowed Mom in the ribs when I did. She howled in pain, dad swore in alarm and sleepy confusion.

“What the hell is going on?” He roared.

“Someone smashed our balcony window,” I murmured, trying to quell my adrenaline-fuelled shaking.

Dad strode over and turned on the light, revealing a brick with a note tied to it lying among the shards of glass from the window. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “This situation just keeps getting better and better.”

Mom walked over and opened the adjoining door between our room and Aunt Carrie’s. “Everybody up,” Mom called. “We’ve got a problem.”

“When don’t we have problems?” Aunt Carrie yawned.

“Well, a new problem,” Mom sighed. “Someone just smashed our balcony door with a brick. It came with a note tied to it. I’m guessing somebody’s trying to send us a message.”

“Gee,” Aunt Carrie sighed. “That’s terribly inconvenient. Have you read it yet?”

“No,” Dad shook his head. “We need to clear away some of the glass before we can even get to it.”

“Let’s get clearing, then,” Mom said, getting towels from the bathroom.

“We’ll get dressed and wake dad up. We’ll be in there in a few minutes.”

We all nodded in unison, and Mom, dad, and I started clearing glass away from the brick. The tiniest meow emanated from from our balcony and I froze, trying to keep from cringing. Mom and dad both stared at me, and I knew there was no use.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Mom snapped. “We’ve been here a couple days and you’ve already found some kind of pitiful critter to fall in love with and dote on? How were you planning on getting it home? Surely you realized you were going to have an awful time of it with airport security, right?”

“Honestly, I hadn’t gotten that far yet, but Midnight’s just so cute! I couldn’t help falling in love with her,” I sighed.

“Good grief,” Dad muttered. “She’s already named it. This isn’t going to end well.” He frowned over at me. “Why do you let yourself get so attached to things you know you can’t keep? It only keeps causing you heartbreak, over and over again.”

“I can’t help it, Dad. I love animals, and I do what I can to help them, whenever I can.”

“Even to your own detriment,” Dad groaned, shaking his head. “You can only give so much. You can’t mysteriously pull resources out of thin air and just expect things to work out. The world isn’t a magical place where everything ends up sunshine and rainbows, sweetheart. You work hard, and you don’t give more to others than you can afford to. If you keep giving more of yourself than you can afford, you’re always going to be working at a deficit, scrambling to keep your head above water. That’s a miserable way to live.”

“I can only be what I am, Daddy,” I sighed.

“We’ll figure the cat situation out later,” Mom interjected. “I’d suggest you find food and water for it, and make sure the hotel staff doesn’t find it for the time being. Right now, we need to worry about who smashed our balcony door, and why.”

“I’m pretty sure we’ve got the answer right here,” Dad sighed, hefting the brick in his hand. He untied the note from the brick and scowled down at it as he unfolded and read it aloud. “My mule was incompetent and made a series of mistakes that led to his death. I trust you won’t be so foolish. Return my product and keep your fat, American mouths shut or you’ll end up as dead as that stupid mule.”

“Well,” I groaned. “We are officially in deeper shit than usual. This is bad.”

“So, time for an official family meeting,” Aunt Carrie said as they entered through the adjoining door, plus Pop.

“Definitely,” Mom agreed. “We’ve officially been threatened by some kind of drug lord.”

“Let’s see the note, then,” Aunt Carrie sighed. She read it, and passed it on to Pop, who then passed it on to Uncle Ray.

“Our problems may have grown, but that doesn’t mean they’re unmanageable. We just need to decide what to do about them,” Pop said. He seemed so utterly in command of the situation that I was in awe of him.

“I vote we tell the cops everything, turn over all the evidence, and get the hell back home,” Mom said.

“Yeah, that gets my vote, too,” I piped up. “I just want to find a way to take Midnight with us when we do get out of here and go home.”

“That’s probably going to be a little more difficult, but I’m not without connections,” Pop sighed. “Once Rick gets in touch with the admiral, I’ll put a bug in his ear about the cat, too. It’s important that we fully apprise my connections in the intelligence community of everything that’s happened so far. I have a feeling I’m going to have to call in several favors owed to me to bail us out of this particular mess. Still, I don’t think a drug lord is any match for the American intelligence community.”

We all stopped and stared at him. We all knew he was NSA, but I don’t think any of us realized just how connected he was until that moment.

“I was really hoping we could just tell the cops everything and then go home, easy peasy,” Aunt Carrie said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I was really hoping we could go with that option, too.”

“We’ll try that first,” Pop agreed. “But I want to be prepared for the possibility that option may not go as we hope, and that there may be more than a few complications.”

“Complications are more than likely if the drug lord already knows which rooms we’re staying in,” Dad chimed in.

“Yeah, that’s definitely not ideal,” Uncle Ray agreed. “But I’m really hoping it won’t take the NSA cavalry coming to our rescue to pull our butts out of this particular fire. How will we know when Rick has gotten in touch with the admiral?”

“I’ll tell him to facetime me so we can hear it when he calls the admiral. How does that sound?”

“Good idea,” Dad affirmed.

“I’m going to go get the cat something to eat,” I yawned.

“Nope,” Dad snapped. “Order room service, and let them know someone smashed our balcony door while you’re at it. Nobody goes anywhere by themselves until we’ve found some kind of way out of this mess, and we’re 100% sure we’re safe at home.”

“Yeah,” Tina nodded. “Solid plan.”

“So, we’re basically spending the rest of our vacation under seige, trapped in our rooms?” A sudden wave of anger swept through me. “I don’t like that,” I growled.

“I don’t think any of us are a big fan of it, to be honest,” Tina sighed. “But under seige is better than dead.”

“Yeah,” Aunt Carrie agreed. “By a long shot.”

“So,” Mom sighed. “What do we do now?”

“Now? All we can do is wait,” Pop said. “We can’t really do anything until we make contact with the admiral.”

“I hate waiting,” I whined.

“We all do,” Mom chastised. “But it’s all we can do, for the time being.”


The hotel staff were horrified by what had happened to our balcony door, and I guess us by proxy. We didn’t know who on the staff could be trusted and who couldn’t. For all we knew, one or more of them was involved with the drug lord that was threatening us. They all seemed to be equally as wary of us as we were of them, and it made for a slightly chilly atmosphere between us. They got our balcony door boarded up and the glass cleared away. None of us really felt okay again until they were out of the room and we were safely locked in. We’d managed to convince them to let us call the authorities after we got some rest, and we tried hard to catch up on the sleep we lost during the night. I’m pretty sure we all passed out of pure exhaustion.

We all woke up around noon, and were instantly stir-crazy knowing we couldn’t really go anywhere or do anything. Once everyone was awake, we had the hotel staff contact the authorities about the threat we received during the night. We each fidgeted in our own ways until we heard the knock on the door. Dad checked the peep hole before allowing a well-dressed detective in a suit into the room.

I was pretty sure that dealing with the police two days in a row was going to give me the runs. do with the fact that they’re authority figures, and authority is something I struggle with. If I don’t understand the point of something, or I disagree with the so-called logic behind it, I have a very hard time accepting authority. I always question everything. I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember, and I’m vaguely sure I can’t help it. My feelings about authority cause arguments between my mom and me on a regular basis. She’s of the “cooperate and graduate” mentality, whereas I stand firmly in the “this is dumb and I’m not doing it if I don’t see the point,” corner. She’s a rock. I’m a hard place. It causes a lot of friction.

I recognized the detective as one of the law enforcement officers who’d been investigating the body at the park the day before, and gave him a stiff nod of acknowledgement. He sized up every member of the family before he started speaking.

“I recognize some of you from my crime scene yesterday. Would you mind explaining to me why I’ve been called here, and what this has to do with my murder investigation?” He continued to study us with crossed arms. I could tell by his annoyed tone and his closed-off posture that he thought we were wasting his time.

“Well,” I sighed. “We’ve been having a strange vacation, so far. My cousin and I accidentally bumped into a drug mule and discovered what he was doing after his odd behavior caused us to spy on him. We took one of the packages we found as evidence, and it’s in our safe right now. We’ll be handing it over to you before you leave today. I’m pretty sure the drug mule is who your body was yesterday. We had the strangest day ever yesterday. We got lost. I literally tripped over a dead body while running away from a medicine man who scared the bejesus out of us. We had a moment on the bus where we thought we were going to die because guys with submachine guns were pulling people out of the car in front of our bus on the way back to the resort. We tried to get sleep, but somebody threw a brick through our balcony door. To top all that off, it had a death threat attached to it. All we want to do is hand everything over, give our eyewitness statements, and wash our hands of this situation so we can go home. We want no part of this insanity.”

The detective fought to hide the fact that he was laughing at me. I couldn’t tell if he didn’t believe me, or if it was simply the way I worded things that tickled him. “You are an...interesting girl, Miss Murphy. Surely you realize that your little layperson law enforcement hobby is strange, at best? I don’t even want to consider the worst. Where are the projectile, threat, and the evidence you collected?”

I collected everything from the safe and handed it over, while also sending him my notes and the picture I’d taken over wi-fi.

“The picture and physical evidence were collected from the ruined resort next door,” I explained with a halfhearted shrug.

“I doubt that information will be of much assistance now,” the detective shrugged. “If they know what room you’re staying in, and that you have some of their product in your possession, it’s likely that they’ve already moved everything out of the place next door and took it to another stash location somewhere else.”

I felt both useless and deflated in the face of his bored nonchalance. It was obvious to me that he was just interviewing us as a form of going through the motions. Once again, I wasn’t being taken seriously by law enforcement officials. They thought I was some kind of nut job.

“Is that everything you need from us?” I blew out a sigh.

“I’m inclined to say yes, but I’d like your word that you won’t be leaving Mexico to go home until we’ve had a little longer to investigate and actually clear you of all suspicion.”

Mom looked as horrified as I felt. “We only have the hotel booked for a few more days and we have a scheduled flight home. What are we supposed to do about that?”

“I would recommend rescheduling the flight,” the detective forced a tight smile. “I’ll have a chat with hotel management about you possibly needing your rooms for longer than originally planned.”

“We’d certainly appreciate that,” Mom sighed. “I must warn you that we really can’t afford to pay for the accommodations for longer than our planned stay.”

“I’m sure my department will find a way to take good care of you until we can release you,” the detective offered with a curt nod.

“If that’s all you need from us for now, we’d like to try to relax as best we can with a death threat hanging over our heads,” Dad rejoined.

“I have a feeling you will need all the rest you can get. Try to enjoy the room service, I suppose? I’ll return after we examine this evidence.”

With that, the detective let himself out and we all blew out a collective sigh.

“He thinks we were involved in the murder,” I guessed.

“Right now, we’re the only lead he has. Of course he’s suspicious of us. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t really have anything to do with it. So, he’s not going to find anything to support his suspicions against us. By the way he interacted with us, I’m guessing he and his department might try to hang the crime on one of us anyway because that’s easier and more efficient for them than actual investigating.” Pop’s voice was a little more on the grim side than before, but still eerily calm, considering the circumstances. “I have a feeling getting in touch with my old intelligence contacts is going to be the best move any of us has made since we got here.”

“Now all we can do is wait for the call from Rick,” I groaned.

We were all climbing the walls, going stir-crazy by the time I heard the FaceTime ring on my phone.

“Hey! Oh my GOD, I’m so glad to see you!”

The entire family crowded around me, so they could see my phone screen.

“We all are, for the record,” Mom insisted.

Pop nudged Mom aside and peered down at the phone screen. “Did you find the little black book in my desk?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Steele,” Rick nodded. “I found the Admiral’s numbers. Which one would you like me to call?”

“Try his cell phone,” Pop said. “If he sees it’s my home number on the caller ID, he’s more likely to pick up. Put him on speaker phone, please.”

We all held our breath as the phone rang. A voice only familiar to Pop answered.

“I was starting to think you were never going to call in the favor I owe you, Alcey.”

“Unfortunately, you were wrong. My family and I are on vacation in Mexico and we managed to get in a bit of hot water, Admiral Sexton. I’m definitely calling in that favor.”

“I’ll do whatever I can for you, but I am retired so I might not have as much clout as I used to.”

“That’s all right, Admiral. I’m sure you’ve got just enough clout to get us out of here in one piece.”

“I’ll make some calls before I hop a flight down there. I’ll feel a lot better if I’m boots on the ground and can assess our situation from there.”

“If you’re coming, you should bring a friend of mine with you. His name is Rick Moore, and I’m sure he’ll be more than useful.”

“There’s a problem with that,” Rick piped up. “I don’t have a passport.”

“That’s a problem I can fix,” the Admiral said. “I can have one ready for you by the time I pick you up day after tomorrow.”

“The other problem with that is my job,” Rick sighed. “I might be able to get off on such short notice, but I damn sure won’t be getting paid, and I might not have a job when I get back.”

“I’ll handle that, too,” Admiral Sexton said. “I’ll make it very clear to your boss that you’re doing the United States Government a favor, and we’d very much appreciate it if your job was secure while you’re helping us out. I’m pretty sure I can compensate you for your time while we’re in Mexico, too. I’ll list you as my personal assistant or something. Everything will be fine.”

Rick was visibly taken aback, but he nodded and cleared his throat. “As long as my job is still here when I get back, that’s all that matters.”

“It’s a done deal, then.” The Admiral sounded confident. “Mr. Moore and I will see you day after tomorrow, at the latest. I’ll leave D.C. tonight. Where should I meet you, Mr. Moore?”

“Wherever’s most convenient for you, sir,” Rick shrugged.

“Just pack your bags and meet me at Alcey’s place. I know how to get there.”

The entire family was staring at pop when the Admiral hung up the phone. Rick was staring at us via FaceTime, too.

“What, exactly, did you do that this Admiral Sexton guy is so willing to do you such a big favor?” I couldn’t help blurting the question.

“That’s classified, sweetheart,” was Pop’s only reply.

There was a collective jaw-drop moment, and no one really knew what to say. I took the phone and flopped down on my bed, staring at Rick’s stunned face.

“You sure you’re okay with coming down here?” I murmured.

“Yeah,” Rick nodded. “I’m just trying to think up a cover story that Kelly will believe.”

I wrinkled my nose in distaste at the mention of his too-pretty and too-perfect girlfriend.

“You don’t think the truth would work?”

“No,” he laughed. “I don’t even believe the truth. It’s kind of weird and unreal, plus it would really piss her off if she knew I was flying to Mexico because you’re in trouble. She already doesn’t like how close we are.”

“She’s going to have to get over that,” I growled. “We’ve been best friends since kindergarten.”

“I know, Lexie. I’m not saying we need to back off on our friendship, but you’ve got to understand why she feels threatened by you.”

“I mean, yeah, I guess I get it,” I grumbled. “But I was here first. We’ve literally been friends for as long as I can remember. I have very few memories that don’t have you in them. You’re my absolute best and most trusted friend in the world, and I don’t want that to change because your girlfriend feels threatened by me, for whatever reason.”

“You scare her because you’re pretty, funny, and we have a ton of history together. It may not be romantic history, but she’s still edgy about you. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she pretty well knows that if she were to force me to choose between you and her, I’d choose you.” Rick shrugged. “So, I’ll come up with some kind of good cover story, and I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

“See you when you get here, and thanks again for having my back, no matter how crazy things are.”

“Always,” Rick grinned. “See you soon.”

When he hung up, I looked over my shoulder to see my entire family staring at me in consternation. “What?”

“You are making that whole situation unnecessarily complicated,” Aunt Carrie sighed and shook her head.

“Besides that, you’re not being honest with Rick or yourself about your feelings,” Mom chimed in.

“I don’t have time to be worried about feelings. I’m not about to break him and Kelly up, and on top of that, we’re kind of going separate directions in the next year. It would be kind of stupid to try to change our entire relationship dynamic when he’s going to work and I’m going to college,” I sighed. “It wouldn’t be fair to him or to me.”

“What about Kelly?” Dad frowned.

“Kelly isn’t really my concern. She’s Rick’s. I have nothing to do with his girlfriend situation, and it’s not my job to be worrying about her feelings. I think me respecting their relationship should be kindness enough. I’m not going to braid her hair and have a sleepover.” I shrugged, suddenly feeling claustrophobic and wishing I could leave the room. I knew I couldn’t. It wasn’t safe.

Just as the thought about the lack of safety crossed my mind, there was a loud BANG. We all jumped and scrambled away from the door.

“What’s going on?” That came from Mom in a hoarse, stressed whisper.

“Someone’s trying to kick the door in,” Pop explained.

Only a moment or two later, we heard yelling and scuffling out in the hall. I was dying to take a look out the peephole and see what was going on, but the fear of possibly getting shot through the door kept me rooted to the spot I’d scrambled into after the first kick to the door scared the hell out of me. I was wedged in the small gap between my bed and the wall, clutching my phone to my chest for dear life.

“This is insane,” I moaned. “I have GOT to stop letting my inquiring nature get us in such deep crap!”

“Careful what you say,” Dad chuckled and shook his head. “Somebody might try to hold you to that statement sooner or later.” He snatched the hotel room phone off the base and dialed the front desk. “Yes, this is the Murphy family. Someone just tried to kick in our door, and now we can hear shouting and scuffling out in the hallway. Is there any chance you can tell me what’s going on out there?”

Dad listened with a concerned frown. “Yes, I can hold while you contact security about it.”

We all waited with baited breath to hear what was going on, and whether we were safe or not. Minutes stretched and felt like hours as we waited for an answer. Dad snapped to attention when the hold music stopped and another voice came back on the other end of the line.

“Thank you very much. We appreciate you letting us know.” Dad hung up the phone and turned to face us all. “So, hotel security and a plainclothes police officer just took down some goons who were trying to bust into our room. Judging by the gear they were carrying, they were prepared to kidnap two hostages. They were armed and most likely prepared to shoot us all to hell and gone if we didn’t cooperate.”

“Judging by that detective’s attitude earlier, I’m surprised he left someone in plainclothes to watch our room and protect us,” Aunt Carrie mumbled.

“I don’t know what to think about anything,” Mom sighed, shaking her head.

“I think we’re screwed unless Admiral Sexton can perform miracles,” I muttered.

“Don’t be so negative,” Aunt Carrie sighed, clearly aggravated with my tendency to look at the gloomy side of things. Sometimes I wonder if I tend to lean toward being depressed because the negatives in the world are so glaringly obvious to me and it’s so difficult for me to focus on the good. Then again, if I were depressed, I don’t think I’d feel restless and have surges of creative energy the way I do.

“So,” Tina yawned, “What do we do until Rick and the Admiral get here?”

“Batten down the hatches, hope that we have continued police protection like we did earlier, and find some kind of way to entertain ourselves until the cavalry gets here.” That was from Pop. I love that calm, self-assured authority he has in the face of this kind of chaos. I can only imagine how incredible he was in his prime when he was serving in the Navy and working for the NSA. There are so many things I’d love to be able to ask him about, but they’re classified. I guess I’ll just have to wait it out and read whatever documents end up being declassified in my lifetime. I know better than to think he’d ever tell me anything he isn’t allowed to, as badly as I’d like to know.

“I’m glad I’ve got an e-reader app on my phone. I guess now’s as good a time as any to tackle my backlog of books I’ve wanted to read for a good while now.”

“Carrie and I will call room service and order dinner for everybody in just a little while,” Mom said. “Reading doesn’t seem like a bad idea in the meantime. I’ve got some catching up to do myself.”

“We can almost pretend we’re just being lazy on a nice, relaxing vacation.” Aunt Carrie, forced a grin and shook her head. “I like playing pretend as much as the next person, but this is nuts.”

I was swamped by another wave of guilt in the face of my family basically being under house arrest in our adjoining hotel rooms.

“I’m really sorry, you guys,” my voice shook as I spoke around the lump forming in my throat. “I know that we wouldn’t be in this mess if I hadn’t decided to be nosy. Everything that’s happened is on me.”

“It’s not only on you,” Tina soothed. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if I’d put my foot down and not enabled you.”

“Still, we wouldn’t be in this mess at all, and you wouldn’t have had an opportunity to enable me if I hadn’t been stupid and nosy in the first place.” I tugged my ponytail holder out of my hair and massaged my scalp, trying to rub away the beginnings of a headache. “I’m always making messes, and y’all end up having to clean them up and pick up the slack. That’s not fair to any of you, and I’m sorry.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, kiddo.” Tina gave me a reassuring hug. “You are who you are. You’re intelligent, curious, and tenacious, and you’ll find a way to be constructive with those skills. I know that much, and I don’t have any doubt. You just need to find your niche. Figure out what direction you want to go in, and direct all that determination and energy toward your goals. I know you’ll do something amazing with your life if you do.”

For some reason, I was choking back tears at that assessment, and it wasn’t working too well. They started leaking out of my eyes and burning trails down my cheeks. “I’m glad you’ve got faith in me, Teeny, but I don’t know what to do. People are always telling me I’ve got talent and skills, but I have a really hard time feeling that way about myself when I’ve done nothing productive with my life so far.”

“Honey,” Mom sighed and pulled me into a fierce hug. “You’re only eighteen. You graduated high school and you’ve been accepted to college. There’s a lot of life ahead of you, and plenty of time to figure out what you want to do along the way.”

I blew out a shuddering sigh and took a deep breath. “I just...feel like some kind of jinx on this family. I do things without fully thinking them through, and then we end up in terrible situations like this one. It’s awful!”

“Our family had weird luck long before you came along, kiddo.” Aunt Carrie gave me an encouraging hug. “What’s important is that you’re becoming aware of how your decisions and tendencies affect the people in your life. You can learn from that. It’s really no big deal if you make a mistake. Everything that isn’t fatal is a lesson.”

“Yeah, but this situation I got us into could have been fatal. We don’t know what those guys who tried to kick the door in were armed with, and let’s not forget there’s already a dead body in the mix. I am literally made of bad decisions and regret right now.”

“Just try to take a deep breath and enjoy one of the books on your e-reader app or something. You could use a little escape from reality right now,” Mom said before getting up and heading to the room’s phone. “What does everyone want from room service?”

“I’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a bag of chips, please,” I said. I wasn’t even sure I could eat because I was upset and emotional, and that always messes with my stomach. Still, it couldn’t hurt to try, right? Besides, it would help to have some kind of fuel in my body, just in case we had to go on the run. I was hoping going on the run would be way down on the list of possible solutions to our situation, but I knew it was a possibility.

Dad, Pop, and Uncle Ray all ordered steaks. Mom, Aunt Carrie, and Tina all ordered grilled chicken salads. Everybody else was stocking up on protein and/or eating healthy, and I was eating like a picky toddler. Still, I like what I like, and I’m more likely to be able to choke down food I like when I’m upset. I can’t help that my taste runs to the simple things in life, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Goldfish crackers.

When dinner arrived, we all dug in without speaking, which is unusual dinner behavior for us. We’re a big family, and we’re close. We eat dinner at each other’s houses often. Usually, we talk so much at dinner that our meals run long and we always leave later than we planned to go back home. Thankfully, our houses are all close enough together that it’s a short walk across the yard to get home. /Jeez. I really wish we were all safe at home right now,/ I thought. /I feel like an ungrateful jerk for thinking it because this was supposed to be a nice family vacation./ Unfortunately, the nice kind of went out the window with the late-night spying on a drug mule.

Growing up, my idols were Indiana Jones, James Bond, Han Solo, and Nancy Drew. I’ve also recently added Shawn and Gus from Psych, and Stephanie Plum from Janet Evanovich’s novels to that list. All I’ve ever wanted is to live that kind of incredible, mysterious, adventurous, high-octane kind of life. Now that I’m in a situation that I could see one of them in? I take it back. I take it ALL back. I’m a borderline agoraphobic chicken-shit at heart. All I want right now is to be safe in my bed at home reading about this kind of life, or watching it in a movie. Everybody thinks they want mystery and adventure in their lives. I’ve got news for the people who think that, and the news is that they’re wrong, but they’ll never realize it until they’re trapped in the middle of a situation just like this one.

Naturally, I was the first to finish eating and start talking. “So, I think it might be a good idea to kind of figure out possible plans and backup plans, and maybe backups of the backups, while we wait for Admiral Sexton and Rick to arrive. Knowing our potential options would probably be a pretty good idea, don’t you think?”

Pop, who was picking his teeth with a pocket knife after polishing off his steak, nodded. “I think that’s a pretty smart way to regard the situation. It never hurts to try to make plans and examine the possibilities, as well as the probabilities involved.”

“What do you think the odds are that the local authorities are going to try to hang this murder on one of us and necessitate a not-so-lawful escape from this country to make it home safe?” I posed the question to the room in general, and got an array of groans and grumbles in response.

“Low-hanging fruit is always tempting, especially to lazy people who don’t want to do the pavement-pounding it takes to ferret out the truth. I honestly am not at all sure what kind of guy the lead detective on this case is. He’s hard as hell to read, and I don’t like that. I don’t think we can trust him any further than we can throw him,” Pop replied.

“I’m really hoping the actual bad guys will just accidentally tip their hand, the police will put two and two together, and we’ll be able to pack up and go home safe and sound, no questions asked,” Aunt Carrie chimed in. “Unfortunately, I sincerely doubt that things will go that smoothly, considering our usual luck.”

“I think we’re up Shit Creek without a paddle,” said Tina. “And unless the admiral brings several outboard 300s and some serious bribe money when he comes, we’re pretty well screwed.”

“Let’s stop focusing on how screwed we may or may not be and look at our possible options for getting home,” Dad’s authoritarian streak was coming out, but instead of having my usual recoil reaction to authority of any kind, seeing Dad in that mode made me feel a little safer.

“I like Tina’s train of thought,” Pop murmured. “Escape by sea is right up my alley, and Frank’s, too. We were both Navy men. All of us are strong swimmers, as well as adept snorkelers. If we could get far enough out on some kind of snorkeling or scuba diving excursion, it wouldn’t be that hard to slip away from the group and rendezvous with an American fishing boat or luxury vessel of some kind. If the vessel were small enough, we could slip back into the states through a small marina like the one near our beach house at Bear Point.”

“Okay, I like that idea,” I nodded. “But what happens if the local authorities find a way to follow us home, or worse, what if the drug lord we’ve managed to piss off does that?”

“We’re going to have to find a way to get away from everyone unnoticed, and I don’t know what kind of options we have on that front. Maybe we should hold off on discussing any further options until Admiral Sexton gets here and we know what kind of resources we have to work with?” I wanted to plan, but at the same time, making plans without knowing what resources you actually have to work with is about as useful as tits on a mannequin.

“As much as I’d like to feel productive, you’re probably right,” Mom sighed. “There’s no point making plans without resources to back them up.”

“So, what do we do now?” Aunt Carrie frowned and crossed her arms.

“All we can do is wait for Rick and Admiral Sexton to get here, and try to relax in the meantime.”

“Sure, let’s find a way to relax when a local drug ring wants us dead, and the local cops are highly likely to try to hang the murder of one of their drug mules on one or more of us! Great! Please tell me how we manage that?” Mom was having the minor meltdown we were all trying our best to suppress, with little to no success.

By the time Rick and Admiral Sexton arrived, we were going fifty shades of crazy. If I’m being honest, we had all the crazy bases covered, from stir crazy to fearing for your life stark raving mad level crazy. was developing a stress-induced eye twitch. Mom’s usually well-kempt, perfectly maintained hair looked like she’d stuck her finger in a light socket. Aunt Carrie constantly tried to pace, but ended up limping like a peg-legged pirate with her pulled hamstring. Tina was irritable. Pop was chain-smoking on the balcony of Aunt Carrie’s room, every chance he got, which was a serious feat. Ever since we’d received the thrown brick threat, we mutually decided it would be best if no one saw us outside, so Pop was sliding the door open from a crouch and not popping so much as a hair up over the solid stucco sides of the balcony. I’m pretty sure the smoke signals kind of gave him away, but thankfully nothing bad had happened to him, besides inflamed joints from the crouching and crawling around in spite of the fact that he was in his late seventies. Uncle Ray was probably the most calm of any of us. He was buried in a novel, pretending that we weren’t eyeballs-deep in a life-threatening problem. Dad was completely non-communicative, restricting his interactions to glares, growls, and grunts interspersed by power-pacing around the room to burn off his pent-up energy.

I’m guessing we looked kind of scary, because Rick and Admiral Sexton both looked taken aback by the state of the room and the nearly visible fog of stress and craziness in the room. Admiral Sexton shook it off first and approached Pop with a broad, warm grin, pulling Pop into a fierce hug.

“It’s damn good to see you, Alcey, even under the current circumstances. Speaking of which, I’m going to need a full sit rep before we can get to work.”

I sidled over to Rick and gave him a quick hug. “I’m so freaking glad you’re here, dude.”

He held me at arm’s length and looked me over from top to bottom. “I’m glad to see you alive, kicking, and uninjured. I’ve been worried sick ever since you started snooping around down here.”

“Yes, about that,” the Admiral interjected. “Would you mind terribly giving me a full account of what’s happened so far?”

I began explaining, with the occasional interjection from Tina, but by the time we got him fully caught up on the chain of events, everyone in the family had told him some part of the story of our wild, weird vacation. Rick was sitting next to me, on the edge of my bed, taking it all in with his usual quiet presence and stoic expression. The Admiral looked as if he was torn between awe, disbelief, horror, and a touch of amusement at the way we are as a family unit.

“So, have you considered possible exit strategies yet?” The admiral wasn’t looking at anyone in particular when he asked, so I spoke up.

“We considered one option, but then we decided it would be best to hold off on making plans until we know what resources we’ll actually have at our disposal.”

“That makes sense,” the Admiral nodded. “We have a rather vast array of options. Why don’t you tell me what you were thinking, and we’ll work from there?”

Pop ran the snorkeling sea escape idea by him, and Rick chewed on his bottom lip as he listened to the ideas. He pulled out his phone and connected it to the wi-fi before sending me a message that he apparently didn’t want the rest of the room to hear.

*Dude...I can’t believe the level of deep shit y’all are in this time. This doesn’t even seem real. When we were flying down here, the Admiral was freaking giddy at having an opportunity to perform what he calls a “tactical” extraction and finally be even with your Pawpaw. This whole situation is insane.*

*I know. I feel like garbage because it’s mostly my fault that we’re in this mess.*

*Only mostly this time?*

*Yeah. There’s at least a 10-20% piece of the fault pie on Tina’s plate because she kind of enabled me.*

*Kind of enabled you?*

*I started out spying on her, but as we were heading back inside, we bumped into a guy who was acting kind of suspicious. So, we did what we do best in these kind of situations. We snooped. Turns out the guy was a mule for a local drug ring. We stole a package that he delivered to the ruined resort next door so we could hand it over to the cops as evidence, and then he turned up dead. The whole thing has been kind of a shit show from the word go.*

I would ask just why in the sam hell you thought it was your duty to get physical evidence before going to the police, but I’m pretty sure I know the answer. Is it because of the way things went last time?*

*I don’t know...maybe. We’ll talk about it later if we manage to get a minute alone together.*

I locked my phone and we turned our attention back to the conversation going on in the room.

“I love the escape by sea idea,” the Admiral had a notebook out, and was scribbling things down in lightning-fast shorthand. “We’re not limited to sea options, though. I have a nephew stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station who’s a damn fine Navy pilot. I could call in a favor and have him borrow Fat Albert. That would be a somewhat feasible air escape option.”

Aunt Carrie turned a little green around the gills at the mention of escaping by air. I thought it would be cool in general, not to mention the fact that we’d be doing it in a world-famous C-130 associated with the Blue Angels. Dad and I have gone to the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show almost every year since I can remember, and I’ve always wondered how awesome it would be to take off in Fat Albert.

“That’s one option,” Aunt Carrie said, her tone dripping with dread and disgust. “What other options do we have?”

“Land-based options would take a little longer, but I’ve looked at that as well,” the Admiral explained. “It will take longer, and therefore is more high risk. There’s a lot of ground to cover between here and the Texas border, but we could probably make it. If we had to a do a land extraction, I could use my connections to orchestrate a fake border patrol arrest as we’re crossing the border into Texas. That would most likely get the local authorities off your back, but I’m not really sure how safe you’d be from the drug ring. They could have US connections for all we know. I feel like it’s the least secure option with the most opportunity for something to go wrong, but it’s certainly a good fallback option in the event that we can’t make any of the other options we come up with work.”

Everyone nodded their agreement to that statement, and we continued brainstorming, coming back most often to sea-based escape options.

“How much are we working with in financial resources?” This question came from Dad.

“I have a few million at my disposal thanks to some smart investing,” the Admiral replied.

“A few million?” My dad stared at him in disbelief.

“Yeah,” Admiral Sexton shrugged. “Roughly 97 million, give or take a few dollars.” This information was given completely off-the-cuff, as if it were no big deal.

Every single one of us, with the singular exception of Pop, gaped at him as if he were a three-headed alien from another planet. He stared back, completely nonplussed. None of us knew how to react.

“If that won’t be enough, I can call in a few favors owed me and make some of my poker buddies who owe me pay up,” Admiral Sexton offered.

“Not enough?” Mom’s voice was dazed, and she seemed completely thrown off. “If ninety-seven million dollars won’t be enough, we’re a lot more worse off than I thought.”

“Yeah,” Dad nodded. “Ninety-seven million should be more than enough by a good bit.”

“Oh, good.” Admiral Sexton was visibly relieved. He shifted his gaze to Pop and his expression turned grave. “After I get you and your family out of this mess and guarantee your safety for good we’ll finally be even, right?”

“Of course,” Pop replied. “Once you do this, the scales are even. You’ll have a completely clean slate, Henry. I hope that you no longer owing me doesn’t affect the closeness of our friendship.”

“I assure you it won’t, Alcey. You’re a damn fine man, and the best friend anyone could hope to have. I’ve wanted the chance to repay you for years, and I feel that evening the score can only improve our friendship.”

They exchanged significant looks and cryptic smiles. Finally, Aunt Carrie said what I was thinking.

“You know, it’s really not nice to hint at big secrets in front of a room full of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. So, unless you’re going to let us in on what happened, you should really stop dangling the secret under our noses.”

Pop was momentarily horrified that Aunt Carrie had said something so brash to the Admiral. Thankfully, we discovered he had a good sense of humor because he doubled over with laughter.

“You’re right, of course. I do apologize for being so inconsiderate. I can’t tell you any details because the information is highly classified for national security purposes. What I can tell you is that Alcey caught a mistake I made that could have destroyed our entire Pacific Fleet. He took me on about it and saved thousands of lives, including mine.”

I got goosebumps from head to toe from the genuine respect and awe in Admiral Sexton’s voice when he spoke about Pop saving his life, as well as the lives of thousands of men in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. It wasn’t the whole story, but I knew it was better than I was going to get until the documents regarding the incident become declassified. It would just have to be enough.

“Thank you for sharing that much with us, Admiral. We appreciate it.” I said through a stifled a yawn.

I was getting sleepy, and I rested my head on Rick’s shoulder, all the while trying my best to stifle a yawn. He automatically slipped one of his thick, muscled arms around my shoulders and I had to choke back a sigh of satisfaction. Being nestled against his side just felt so damn right it hurt. He’d thrown his arm around my shoulders this way a million times before. I remembered the very first time he’d looped an arm around my shoulders. He was watching over my shoulder as I colored a coloring page in our kindergarten class.

He’d been looking over my shoulder and watching my back for thirteen years. For just a moment, I allowed myself to fantasize about possibly turning our friendship into something more. My chest developed a hollow, nagging, hunger-like ache as I considered the thought of getting romantically involved with my best friend in the entire world. I wasn’t prepared in the least for the onslaught of feelings that flooded me. It left me feeling like I might be in some incredibly deep emotional trouble before that trip was over.

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke to Rick tucking me in before he flopped down on top of the comforter on the other side of the bed.

“Thanks for always looking out for me, no matter what,” I whispered.

“Always,” was his soft, simple, and utterly confident response.

“Oh, my GOD, Lexie,” I heard Rick groan through the fog of slightly oxygen deprived sleep. “There has got to be some kind of cure for your rhinoceros snoring!”

I mumbled an apology and buried my head under my pillow, trying hard to recapture the sleep I was enjoying before he shook me awake and complained about my sinus-induced symphony. Hot embarrassment washed over me when I heard the Admiral’s voice drift in from the adjoining room.

“Damn, Alcey. There’s no denying that girl is your granddaughter. She sounds exactly like you when she snores!”

“I’m feeling extremely judged and personally attacked right now,” I muttered into my pillow. “If anyone cares.”

“Aw, come on, Lexie. Don’t be mad,” Rick coaxed. “It’s kind of endearing, in a sleep-depriving kind of way.”

“Just shut up so I can go back to sleep,” I grumbled. My feelings were hurt, and I wasn’t just going to let it slide, not even for Rick. Pride is occasionally a problem for me. Okay, so it’s actually a problem most of the time, but I’m the victim, here, so we’ll ignore that for now.

“Is that all you plan to do until we get the hell out of here, just sleep?” I heard a hint of irritation in Rick’s voice, and pulled my pillow off my face to shoot him a quizzical glance.

“Is there something else to do? I was under the impression that we were planning and biding our time until we can go home,” I defended. “What’s wrong with storing up on rest while we can?”

“You could spend some time interacting with your best friend who took off work and flew to Mexico to save your nosy ass,” he snapped.

I sighed and scrubbed a hand over my face in frustration. “I didn’t mean to make you feel underappreciated, Rick. I wasn’t trying to ignore you, and I’m sorry. I’ve been running on adrenaline and I’ve had very little sleep since our first night here. Your willingness to come down here and have my back is the best thing that’s happened to me since we left home.”

“Thank you,” Rick sighed. “It’s nice to know you actually appreciate me being here, especially considering that I’m lying to my girlfriend for you.”

“I know,” I groaned. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize your relationship, and I know how much you hate lying. I also get that she totally wouldn’t understand this situation and would probably end up going off on you. I don’t want to cause problems, really, and I appreciate how you’re going out on a limb for me. It means more to me than I can express.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” he murmured in response. “You know I’ll always have your back, no matter what. It’s just nice to know that you see what I’m doing for you and you appreciate it.”

“I do, I promise. I’m just so freaked out by this entire situation and the crazy hard left-hand turn our vacation took because I can’t mind my own business. My social and communication skills are kind of crippled right now.”

“I screamed at a lady who worked for the park we visited yesterday and basically implied that she was stupid. A snake fell out of a tree in front of us, and she tried to climb a tree to get away from it.” I cringed, feeling like a jerk all over again.

“You couldn’t resist the urge to point out to her that the snake fell out of a tree in the first place, could you?” Rick grinned, shaking his head.

“It came out of my mouth before I could think to bite my tongue,” I sighed.

Aunt Carrie cleared her throat and stuck her head in the room. “It’s not like you’re generally very forgiving of people’s stupid mistakes.”

“Yeah,” I grunted. “I have trouble dealing with people who do dumb, unnecessary things. It’s such a waste.”

“I know, sweetie, but it doesn’t really help when you point out their stupidity. It causes you unnecessary stress, and breeds tension in general.” Aunt Carrie has always been good at putting things in perspective for me. You’d be surprised at how often I need a little perspective adjustment. I’m an only child, and I’ve kind of existed in my own little world since day one. I tend to forget that other people have different windows on the world than I do.

Rick shook his head and gently elbowed me. “I’m sorry I fussed at you. I should have known that such a crazy situation would have you stretched to your limits. I guess I just wanted to know you were glad to have me here.”

“I’m never happier than when you’re around,” I blurted. It took me a second to realize that it sounded more romantic than I intended it to. I rushed to recover. “You’ve been my best friend in the whole world since kindergarten.”

A hot flush crept up my neck, and I tried to squash the panic clawing its way up my throat. “You know what? I gotta pee. I’ll be back...later.”

I launched myself off the bed and bolted to lock myself in the bathroom. I could feel nervous sweat beading on my upper lip and I glared at myself in the mirror.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I hissed at my reflection. “You can’t say shit like that out loud!”

I splashed my face with cold water, patted it dry, and tried to do some deep breathing.

My phone dinged in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at the Facebook Messenger notification from Tina. I opened it and cringed.

*Dude, that was a close call! Your recovery was pretty smooth, but if you keep that up, you’re going to give yourself away, kid.*

*Give myself away? I have no idea what you’re talking about.*


*I know. Shut up. He has a girlfriend, and I can’t screw with that.*

*Honestly, I don’t think he’d be dating someone else if you didn’t have commitment issues. I’m not trying to be a bitch, kid. I think you need to be a little more honest with yourself.*

*I really, really don’t need that kind of temptation in my life right now.*

*Just right now, or...?*

*I really don’t want to talk about it, Teeny. I just...I can’t.*

I locked my phone, did some more deep breathing, and let myself out of the bathroom, hoping that I’d recovered well enough that we wouldn’t have to talk about it. Thankfully, we were back to attempting to make plans on how to get everybody home safely.



Pop was visibly ecstatic at having Admiral Sexton in our company. He was happier than I’d seen him since he lost Granny Irene, animated in a way I’d seldom seen, aside from on the birth of his great-grandchild. In spite of how dire our situation was at the time, the room was filled with laughter and stories.

“Hey, Alcey do you remember that night one on Guam?” the Admiral chuckled. “You woke up the next day and the back of your tent was slit from floor to ceiling.”

Pop laughed, slapping his knee and nodding. “They stole everything in the damn tent except my blanket and the skivvies I was sleeping in. I just consider myself blessed that they didn’t slit my throat after they slit my tent.”

“Well, amen to that,” the admiral agreed. “They could have done it just as easily. You sleep like the dead, and I guarantee they picked your tent because they could hear you snoring from a mile away.”

The whole room shared in some good-natured laughter. Once it settled, Rick cleared his throat.

“I have a question,” he murmured. “Have the local authorities asked you not to leave town?”

“Yes,” we all replied in unison.

Rick turned his gaze to the admiral. “What are we supposed to do about that? How do we handle things from here on in, taking that information into account? How do we know that if we manage to escape and get everyone home safely that they won’t try to extradite someone back here? Is there a way to prevent that? What do we do if they attempt it?”

“All good questions,” the Admiral nodded. “We have several options. Our first option is to stick around long enough to clear everyone’s of any involvement, which could work out or not, depending on how the local authorities operate. The second option is we bribe our way out of the situation. The third option is to haul ass back home without a word to anybody, and if they go through the trouble of coming to the US to find you, we try to bribe them at that point.”

“All of those options are interesting, but we have the problem of the drug ring Lexie stumbled on to consider. Even if the authorities don’t pursue us, there’s a chance the angry drug lord and company might. They could have connections in the US. We have no way of knowing what they’re going to do. That leaves too many variables, and I don’t like those kinds of variables,” Rick sighed.

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