The snake had coiled itself halfway around my ankle by the time I spotted it. Cool and smooth against my skin, it inched across my sandaled foot, turning its head back and upward to meet my gaze. Its slender body was striped with red and yellow and blackish brown. Even though its eyes were all but invisible in its glossy dark head, I was sure it was regarding me with pure defiance.
“Welcome to Acapulco, Miss Moore.” The hotel clerk’s voice echoed from far, far away. “Is this your first time here?”
I wanted to answer him—it was my first time in Acapulco, not Mexico—but my tongue had gone sandpaper-dry and my teeth were grinding together. A soft noise escaped from the back of my throat.
The clerk didn’t notice. “You will enjoy your stay at the Hotel Cerón very much, I promise you.”
The snake gave an excited shiver, and then abandoned its perch atop my foot, slithering toward the shadows under the reception desk.
Stepping back several paces, I took a deep breath that didn’t quite fill the pit in my chest. “That snake isn’t poisonous, right?”
“What snake?” The clerk’s buoyant mood instantly deflated. “Where?”
“Under your desk.”
The clerk took a couple of steps back and looked down. The whites of his eyes were startling against his deep tan. The reception desk was a tall wooden counter carved into a series of archways that wouldn’t have been out of place in a church; the openings were fitted with wrought-iron grates. The snake was weaving its way through the slits in the metal, as if on an obstacle course. Briefly, it lifted its head and flicked its tongue, seemingly pleased at being the center of attention. When the clerk screamed, a bellman came running in, and I backed away some more. When I looked at the floor again, the snake was gone.
I stared at the tiles, holding my breath and waiting for it to reappear. The clerk and the bellman were on the floor, hunting under the desk and cursing in rapid-fire Spanish. The only word I caught was venonoso—poisonous—which wasn’t reassuring. I looked around the lobby. The Hotel Cerón had seemed so charming as I’d strolled in five minutes earlier. There were antique wooden tables with clawed feet and chairs with elaborately carved backs fitted between plush white sofas. The room was dolled up like a Technicolor film set from the 1950s, with its pink tile floor, turquoise pillows, and silver vases holding long-stemmed fragrant pink flowers. Scattered around the walls and on the squared-off columns was a series of black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars who’d famously made this Mexican resort town their playground. There was a print of my idol, Ava Gardner, who’d brought Frank Sinatra to Acapulco on vacation. I also noticed a shot of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd, who’d gotten married at a local villa. The retro atmosphere had immediately made me feel at home, until the snake decided to give me a personal welcome.
“Do not worry, Miss Moore. We will find the snake,” the clerk said. The bellman was stretched on the floor, peering under the reception desk.
“I’m sure you will.”
“It is very common to see snakes and lizards here, you understand. Even in the water, there are snakes.”
“Lovely.” I wasn’t phobic about snakes, but I preferred them behind glass, as they were at the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. “I guess it’s too late for me to get back on the plane?”
Behind me, someone said, “Lily?”
I turned and saw Skye McDermott standing by a pillar. She was blonder and thinner than she’d been when I’d last met up with her, but her heart-shaped face and wide-set gray-blue eyes were instantly recognizable. Now that her hair was platinum, she looked more like Jean Harlow than ever, though her features—eyebrows full, not tweezed into a thin 1930s line, and lips glossy, not painted into a bow—were modern. If Harlow were making movies today, she’d be a dead ringer for Skye.
“I had no idea you were on this trip!” I was thrilled to see her. We’d traveled together countless times over the years, and even though I rarely saw her outside of press junkets, she was the best travel companion I could ask for.
“It’s good to see you, Lily.” Her voice was thin, and it quavered on my name. As I went toward her, I noticed her skin was red and blotchy, as if she’d just been running. Up close, her eyes were swollen. Still, she gave me a smile and pulled me into a hug. Skye’s shoulder blades cut through the delicate black silk of her dress, making her seem terribly fragile. Barely five foot two, she was wearing four-inch heels that made her almost the same height as me in my low-heeled sandals.
“What’s wrong?” I pulled back gingerly, untangling myself from the long, flapperlike strand of reddish orange beads she was wearing. Up close, I could see how heavy her makeup was. She looked gorgeous but exhausted, with purplish half-moons under her eyes that no concealer could cover; I knew, because I’d tried to cover up plenty in my time.
“Nothing. Just, um, allergies. They’re awful here.” She smiled at me, but I wasn’t convinced. Skye had a definite flair for the dramatic, but she wasn’t someone who walked around weeping. She was usually gregarious and irreverent, and an incorrigible flirt. “What were you saying about a snake?” she asked, swiftly changing the subject.
“One wanted to get to know me better.” I looked at the tiles again, but they were serpent-free. “I don’t know where it crawled off to, so keep your eyes peeled. I didn’t see its fangs, but the clerk thinks it’s dangerous.”
“Ugh. There are creepy-crawly things all over the place here,” Skye said. “You’d think the humidity would get rid of them, but the only thing that kills is humans.”
“Your luggage is already in your suite, Miss Moore.” The clerk slid a small envelope across the counter. I retrieved it, stepping lightly near the desk. The number 527 was scrawled on the front; tucked inside were a pair of electronic key cards.
“If you will go upstairs, a waiter will bring your dinner to you,” he added. “The kitchen will have everything ready in less than half an hour.”
“But how do they…?”
“Steak, medium rare. Grilled root vegetables. Champagne. Crème brûlée,” the clerk recited. If someone had asked me to name a few of my favorite foods, those would all be on the list. “Miss Denny Chiu arranged for everything for you.”
That cleared up the mystery. Denny was the public relations person who’d organized the trip, and she knew me well. Before I left my apartment in Barcelona, she’d sent me a travel pillow; when I’d arrived at my friend Jesse’s place in New York, I found Denny had couriered over a margarita-mixing kit, complete with a pair of cobalt-rimmed glasses from Mexico. Journalists tended to be spoiled on press trips, but this was above and beyond. Before I could say a word, Skye made a gasping, choking sound and burst into tears.
Copyright © 2013 by Hilary Davidson