The easy answer is that two of the biggest influences in my life have been my mother and grandmother, both strong women who made hard decisions in their lives. My best friends are strong women who live busy, multi-faceted lives. That’s how I define myself as well. A strong female character, one who grows as a result of facing personal and professional challenges, is my comfort zone as a writer.
But there is another answer as well and it isn’t as easy to describe or hear. Emilia Cruz is the first and only female detective on the Acapulco police force. Her unique position forces her to contend with Mexico’s traditional culture of machismo as well as the drug cartels and street gangs of Mexico’s drug wars. If Emilia wasn’t tough she wouldn’t survive; some estimates say that over 60,000 people in Mexico have been killed in the country’s drug violence over the past seven years.
Maybe those asking the question of why Emilia is a female character—instead of a guy named Emilio, I suppose–assume that Mexico’s drug wars are a male-dominated phenomenon. Or maybe they assume that the most successful international mystery series need to feature a male protagonist, like Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole.
But women are involved in Mexico’s drug wars as both players and victims, and it was time for a female “good guy.” Notorious female cartel members, like the recently captured “Queen of the Pacific” make the news for their exploits, even as women are killed or go missing amid the ongoing violence. Probably the best-known assaults on women have occurred in and around the city of Ciudad Juárez since the 1990s, with more women’s bodies found in mass graves every year.
The character of Emilia brings awareness and empathy to what is happening in Mexico. She keeps a log of women who have gone missing in Acapulco, a symbol of the plight of missing women throughout Mexico.
So that’s the short and long of why Emilia is who she is. Stick with her–Emilia will need all the girlfriends she can get.
CARMEN AMATO is the author of political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City and the Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. She currently divides her time between the United States and Central America. Visit her website at carmenamato.net, follow her on Twitter @CarmenConnects and like her on Facebook.
Acapulco police detective Emilia Cruz will risk a dance with the devil to catch a violent arsonist and find a missing girl from her own neighborhood. But when the music stops, the consequences could be fatal.
Together with hotel manager Kurt Rucker, Emilia survives a deadly arson attack. When the fire is labeled an assassination attempt against Acapulco’s popular mayor, Emilia’s investigation is turned into a political maneuver against both the local army presence and an old political rival.
Meanwhile, disturbed by what she finds out about the missing girl, whose dark family secrets may be the key to her disappearance, Emilia soon finds herself on the wrong side of a shady Vice cop and walking dark streets in search of answers.
Haunted by her fear of the fire and dismayed by Kurt’s consideration of a new job in Belize, Emilia’s professional skills and personal life start to unravel. She’s got information to trade, however, and making deals might be a way to survive both investigations.
But every honest cop knows you don’t deal with the devil . . . and survive.
HAT DANCE is the second book in the EMILIA CRUZ mystery series set in Acapulco. It follows CLIFF DIVER, the book that Kirkus Reviews praised as “consistently exciting.”
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“I never thought we’d be able to close down the casino,” Emilia Cruz Encinos said. “Much less do it in only three months.”
Kurt Rucker poured them both more wine from the bottle of Monte Xanic cabernet. “Three months isn’t exactly fast, Em,” he said.
“Maybe not in El Norte,” Emilia observed. “But that’s lightning fast in Mexico. Especially when we’re talking about the El Pharaoh. It’s an Acapulco institution.”
“May it never regain its glory.” Kurt raised his glass and Emilia touched her own to it. The crystal chimed, Kurt drank, and the flame of the candle on their table flickered, sending shadows across the restaurant’s brocade walls and creating a momentary halo over his yellow hair. Emilia drank her wine with a surge of incredulity that she was here in this elegant place, with a gringo man in a suit and tie, celebrating an event she was sure would never happen.
“Another toast,” Kurt said. “To you, Em. The smartest detective in Acapulco. Rico would be proud.”
“I hope so.” Emilia smiled over the rim of her glass but the mention of her dead partner brought a lump to her throat. Rico and another detective had been killed during an investigation into dirty cops and drug smuggling that had led to the money laundering case against the El Pharaoh casino. The squadroom was far lonelier now without Rico’s good humor and the over-protective attitude that she’d once found so annoying. He hadn’t been replaced and his empty desk was a constant reminder of her loss.
“How’s Silvio holding up?” Kurt asked. “You obviously haven’t strangled each other yet.”
Emilia put her glass back on the table. “He came through,” she admitted. “Walked into El Pharaoh yesterday morning as if he owned the place, showed the closure order and got the files out before the manager really understood what was happening. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff we took out of there. Spreadsheets, money orders, employee records. Boxes and boxes of dollars, pesos, euros, you name it. Half of that money is probably fake.”
“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Kurt said. “But you and Silvio make a good team. Brains and brawn.”
“Franco Silvio is not my partner,” Emilia reminded him, waggling a finger for emphasis. “He’s a pendejo who makes me nuts.”
“As soon as Lt. Rufino gets organized we’ll get some replacements,” she went on. “After everything that’s happened, they owe me a real partner.”
“I know.” Kurt slid his hand over hers, stilling it against the white linen tablecloth. He had a tan but her skin was still a deeper café tone than his. “Dessert?”
Emilia looked guiltily at her empty plate. The El Tigre was a fancy restaurant, a close rival to the restaurant at the Palacio Réal, Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel which Kurt managed. If she’d been to more places like this she might have known that ‘fancy’ meant minute portions. Despite it being a Saturday, she’d been at work that morning, wrestling the boxes of evidence from the El Pharaoh into some sort of order, then spent the afternoon in a kickboxing training session with uniformed cops in the basement gym of the central police administration building. By the time she’d washed up, pulled her hair into its usual high ponytail, dressed in her one nice skinny black dress and driven across Acapulco to the Palacio Réal to meet Kurt, her stomach had been growling. Her elegant dinner of broiled corvina topped with caviar and accompanied by a dab of asparagus puree had hardly filled her up.
Kurt leaned forward. “Maybe we should just see what they’ve got.”
Emilia raised her eyebrows at him. “You never eat dessert,” she said. A marathon runner and triathlete, Kurt was always in training. Not only did he look different than any other man she’d ever been with, he didn’t even eat like the men she knew.
“I just ate a piece of chicken the size of a peanut,” he whispered and squeezed her hand. Emilia grinned. A moment later the waiter had cleared the table, wheeled over the dessert cart, complimented their choices and served them coffee.
They traded bites of Emilia’s chocolate cake and Kurt’s flan. Kurt stirred cream into his coffee and put down his spoon, taking a moment to align it with the edge of the table as if needing time to gather his thoughts. “Now that the El Pharaoh is closed,” he said. “How about a vacation?”
Emilia blinked as she stirred her own coffee. “A vacation? On Monday we start on all the crap we hauled out of there yesterday.”
Kurt opened his mouth to reply, but his attention slid away from Emilia and towards the front of the dimly lit restaurant. Emilia half turned and followed his gaze.
“Local celebrity?” Kurt asked.
“It’s the mayor’s security detail,” Emilia murmured.
Six burly men in dark suits and earpieces fanned out as the owner of the El Tigre stepped towards the door. Kurt had introduced Emilia to him, a dapper Spaniard named Jorge Serverio who had bowed over Emilia’s hand and complimented Kurt on finding the most beautiful woman in Acapulco. Serverio owned several high-end restaurants in Acapulco. Kurt knew him from meetings of businesses supporting the local tourist industry.
Emilia watched as Carlota Montoya Perez walked into the restaurant, followed by a dark figure obscured by the security detail and Serverio’s effusive gestures of welcome. Carlota gave a tinkling laugh and everyone in the elegant restaurant pretended they weren’t watching Acapulco’s enormously popular and photogenic mayor.
Emilia swung around in her seat to again face Kurt across the table. There was a 100-peso piece of chocolate cake on her plate, a gorgeous man across from her, and every expectation that the night would end with a shower together in his apartment before she left the Palacio Réal and headed home. The mayor’s choices of restaurant and dinner companion were none of Emilia’s business even if her previous encounters with Carlota had left Emilia torn; captivated by the woman’s dynamism yet repulsed by her political machinations.
“Have you ever been to Belize?” Kurt asked.
Emilia pronged some cake. “No. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been offered a job there,” Kurt said.
“A job in Belize?” Emilia actually felt her heart stutter. The fork slid out of her hand, spraying cake crumbs and clattering over her dessert dish. It ended up in her lap. Emilia hastily plucked the fork off her dress and grabbed her napkin. She scrubbed at the fabric, glad of a reason not to say anything for a minute or two.
They’d only been dating seriously for a few weeks, the relationship paced by the time constraints imposed by competing work schedules as well as Emilia’s innate caution. The ever-present feeling of unreality at finding herself dating—and sleeping with —a gringo meant that she’d told no one about him, not her mother or her cousins and certainly not any of the other detectives at work. Despite strong mutual attraction, Emilia still wasn’t sure she belonged with Kurt. He lived in a world of wealth and advantage she only touched when she was with him. Tonight, for example.
Kurt pushed aside his empty flan dish. “Em, this was all set in motion months ago, long before we ever connected. Some headhunter in London got in touch, asked if they could represent me. They’re always trolling for good talent and tracking who’s who in the hospitality industry.
”Emilia stopped scrubbing her dress. It wasn’t stained. She put her napkin on the table. “You want to leave Acapulco?” she asked.
“When they called, I’d been in Acapulco nearly two years, longer than I’ve stayed anywhere since high school,” Kurt said. His tone was one of explanation, not apology. “So I said, sure, let’s see what else is out there. They sent me a few proposals that weren’t worth the effort but this one is–.” He paused. “Well, it’s pretty good and I think I need to look into it.”
“Kurt Rucker! Looking both dashing and serious tonight!”
Kurt stood and Emilia realized that Carlota had stopped by their table. The mayor, whom many considered the most exciting and enigmatic politician in the entire state of Guerrero, was a striking woman whose age could be anything from 25 to 50 years old. Jet black hair brushed her shoulders and framed the well-known face. As before when she’d encountered Carlota, Emilia was struck by how she looked just like those famous billboards. Both in person and on a poster Carlota projected a vibrancy that was at once amazingly attractive and disturbingly forceful. Tonight she wore a white silk pantsuit, her nails were blood-red, and her escort was Victor Obregon Sosa, head of the police union for the state.
“Jorge Serverio.” Carlota fluttered her hand at the restaurant owner who’d obviously been leading Carlota and Obregon to their table. “You didn’t tell me that Kurt Rucker was dining here this evening. I’ve been trying to get him for my Olympic Committee.” She arched her perfect brows at Kurt. “You’re a difficult man to pin down, Señor Rucker.”
Kurt gave a tiny formal bow. “My apologies, señora.” He spread his hands. “I’m sure my schedule will be opening up.”
“Have you met Victor?” Carlota lowered one shoulder so that Kurt could connect with Obregon.
Emilia marveled at Kurt’s cool composure as he shook hands with the man that Emilia was sure had been involved in the drug smuggling mess that had gotten Rico killed. She had no proof, just her gut instinct. And Obregon knew it. Their last encounter some months ago had staked out the distance between them.
She stood up, too, twitching the tight black dress as Kurt introduced her. Serverio gave her another warm smile. Obregon nodded. Carlota pretended to be pleased to see Emilia and gave her the mandatory ladies cheek kiss as if they were peers or even friends.
“You’re looking lovely tonight, Detective Cruz.” Carlota’s eyes flickered from Kurt to Emilia but otherwise hid her curiosity well. Neither did she give any indication that Emilia had once turned down an offer to work in her administration.
“Thank you, señora.”
“And making quite another splash,” Carlota said with that famous billboard smile. “I heard that you were the driver behind the El Pharaoh investigation. Keeping Acapulco honest. I’m pleased. It played very well in the international press this morning.”
Which is the only thing that matters, isn’t it? Emilia hushed her thoughts before they turned into words. She managed a tight smile in return. “That’s good news, señora.”
“Lt. Rufino has started his tenure as chief of detectives with a bang.” Obregon had dark hair slicked back from a high forehead and angular cheekbones that spoke of a thick indio bloodline. Emilia had only ever seen him wear black and tonight was no exception: black suit, black silk shirt, striated black linen tie. There was a slight bulge under his left arm and he exuded an aura of power and entitlement that matched Carlota’s own.
“I guess that depends if you’re a gambler or not,” Emilia replied. Carlota in white and Obregon in black. The queen and king of opposing chess pieces.
Carlota laughed, tossing her head to see who was watching her. Serverio chuckled thinly then checked his watch.
“Chief Salazar really made a case for Rufino,” Obregon said. “All the way from Mexico City. Now I see that he’s hit the ground running.”
It was on the tip of Emilia’s tongue to say that the investigation into money laundering at the El Pharaoh had been under way for over two months before Lt. Nelson Rufino Herrera ever stepped foot inside the detectives squadroom. But again she stopped herself. There was something insidious behind Obregon’s words, something Emilia didn’t quite understand, and it made her reluctant to be seen as either for or against her new lieutenant.
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