Excerpt from Death Under the Perseids
by Teresa Dovelpage
Chapter One: Surprise Tickets
The cruise ship Narwhal, all twelve decks of her, towered above the terminal building. It had a festive air, with the hull painted white and bright ribbons of red, yellow and green splashed all over. From a distance it looked like a giant tropical bird that had inexplicably landed on water.
August in Miami was, as usual, ninety-four degrees with a devilish mix of heat and humidity that made you want to crawl inside a refrigerator. The Nautilus instructions said to be at Terminal B before noon, but it was well past one and the line to enter the building wasn’t moving. It was worse than being at an airport, por Dios! Then I remembered that we had no right to complain. After all, we had gotten the cruise for free.
I was still scratching my head about the whole thing. It all began when a young woman showed up at Pretty and Pampered, the pet grooming salon where I worked part-time, asking for me. She looked like a teenager, but dressed professionally in a beige suit, and introduced herself as a Nautilus representative. I was getting ready to give a summer cut to a standard poodle when she presented me with an embossed envelope and cooed, “Congratulations, Ms. Spivey! You’ve just won two cruise tickets to Havana!”
I was born and raised in Havana. After marrying Nolan in 2008, I had returned many times to visit my grandmother but never thought of taking a cruise back. And in July 2017, sailing to Cuba was the last thing on my mind. “I’ve won what?” I asked.
The poodle took advantage of my surprise to get away and hide under a chair.
“A couple of tickets!” the girl chirped, perky as could be. “Aboard the Narwhal, our most popular ship! The cruise’s departing on August the tenth.”
Nautilus Cruise Line had started to offer short cruises that included Cuba in their itineraries, she explained. They were carrying out their biggest ever promotional campaign with many giveaways. I was one of the lucky winners. Cool, eh? What that chick didn’t say was how and where I had signed up for the raffle or whatever it was that I had won.
I used to enter sweepstakes that promised everything from five hundred dollars a week for life to a grand prize of a million, or a Porsche, or a weekend in Paris, but that was a long time ago. It had finally dawned on me that most were a waste of time, if not outright scams. I didn’t know how these Nautilus people found me either, but I guess everybody’s information is online nowadays. Besides, the idea of winning something, anything, was appealing. I kept my mouth shut and accepted the “gift.”
As soon as the girl left, Candela hugged me. She smelled of patchouli, sandalwood incense and, faintly, wet dog hair.
“I’m so happy for you!” she said. “That’s the start of the hot streak I told you about. ¿Viste?”
I didn’t “see” anything clearly, but went along with her.
Candela and I had met at a Starbucks in 2011. Nolan and I had been in Gainesville for around five months, and I already missed Miami and the friends I made there. Not that there were many. Since I didn’t drive yet, I couldn’t go out on my own to meet new people, and my husband’s colleagues wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I needed someone to talk to. To vent, actually. In my own language.
So I was waiting for my iced caramel cloud macchiato when someone said coño aloud. Coño is like the freemasons’ secret handshake for Cubans. I looked up and saw a young woman, curvy and petite, with arms covered in jingling silver bracelets and a zodiac sign necklace.
“You Cuban?” I asked shyly in English.
“Kinda of.” She smiled. “You are.”
Daughter and granddaughter of Cubans, Candela spoke fluent, if at times old-fashioned Spanish. She was into esoteric stuff—astrology, the Law of Attraction, the Ascended Masters, the whole metaphysical enchilada. She said she liked my aura that first day. I just liked hanging out with someone who cursed in public. We became fast friends.
When she opened Pretty and Pampered, I joined her as a “pet stylist.” I didn’t know much about styling pets but enjoyed working with cats and dogs, and even the occasional rabbit—why anybody would want to groom a rabbit is beyond my understanding. The cochinos stink and bite, and I got three stitches after a Holland Lop tried to take off my finger.
The weekend before the ticket surprise, Candela had read the Tarot for me. I got the upright Wheel of Fortune, one of the most auspicious cards for money, according to her, and the Eight of Wands, up too, indicating a trip. I also drew the Star Reversed. “A warning sign, but you got two good cards out of three,” she concluded. “The Star Reversed just means you should be careful, now that so many wonderful things are bound to happen.”
Even if I didn’t believe in Tarot, the Eight of Wands card popped into my head when I opened the envelope with the Nautilus Cruise Line logo.
I thought of Nolan, too. His job situation had him all stressed out. The cruise could be turned into something fun, a second honeymoon of sorts. We hadn’t had much intimacy, sexual or otherwise, for months. I hadn’t called him “papito,” my romantic nickname for him, in a long time. He needed a vacation, poor guy. So did I.
Candela passed me the poodle, who wasn’t happy to be back on the grooming table.
“You’re going to live la vida loca for a few days, Merceditas. It’ll do you good!”
Candela was the only person in Gainesville who called me Merceditas—the affectionate form of Mercedes. Everybody else called me Mercy; Merceditas was too long and difficult to pronounce for most Americans, including my husband. I had tried using Mercedes, but people kept asking why I had been named after a car.
Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana, Cuba. She has a PhD in Hispanic Literature from the University of New Mexico and is currently a Spanish professor at New Mexico Junior College. She is the author of twelve novels and three collections of short stories. Her Havana Mystery series, published by Soho Crime, debuted with the culinary mystery Death Comes in through the Kitchen (2018). The second, Queen of Bones (2019) was chosen by NBC News as one of the top “10 books from 2019 by and about Latinos.” The third is Death of a Telenovela Star (2020), set on a Caribbean cruise. Upcoming is Death under the Perseids (December 2021).