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  • Writer's pictureReneé Bibby

Greetings from Costa Rica

The first photo pings Luka’s phone at 11:27 am, while he’s scrolling through Zillow listings of houses in Sun City that he can afford but will never buy. 

The text drops in at the top of his phone in a preview banner, the number is a 720 area code—one of two codes from his hometown, Denver.  

Someone from back in the day?

He thumbs over to the message. It’s a photo without any text.


A stretch of beach, water foaming in gentle rills against smooth sand. An apricot- colored sunset sets two people walking in the water as silhouettes. Entering the frame from the right is a woman, cutoff jeans, bikini top, and flip-flops, blurred as she moves in the low light. She’d mid-laugh, her eye crinkled and teeth flashing. 

Shit. I think that’s Costa Rica.

Three years ago, he’d almost moved there. After college, his International Finance professor who’d left academia to run a tiny nonprofit in Limón, recruited Luka to be their Director of Microlending. At the time, Luka couldn’t afford to visit, but after they talked logistics over a soundtrack of howler monkeys and crashing waves, his professor would pan the camera to show Luka the surf and giant green palms. On his own, Luka imbibed every photo he could find of the shorelines. He researched the hiking trails, parasailing, boating, and surfing. He scrolled through listings for houses a tenth of the size of a Vegas house. He mapped a life there, dreamt of a woman, just like the one in the photo, whose perfect day included leaving work while it was still light, grabbing the best rondón from a place only locals knew, and surfing until the sun set.

In the end, he dismantled the Costa Rica life in the amount of time it took for him to read the number of zeroes on the offer letter from Le Grande Casino.  

Now, the memory of that almost-life surfaces. He tilts the phone so that the horizontal picture fills the frame. All the elements that attest to candidness of the shot—low light, graininess, and blurs—do not detract from the raw beauty of the image with its saturated striations of the sky and the fresh-faced openness of the woman’s visage.

That could have been me. She could’ve been my girlfriend, teasing me to not take her picture.

Clearly, it’s a wrong number, but the kismet of it, that a photo from his once-dreamed life would appear, causes a sense of dislocation so profound that he doesn’t delete it or say, “Sorry, wrong number.”

He looks out his window to the wasteland of a dirt lot that is his daily view. He takes a photo. It’s 80% hazy sky and 20% washed-out yellow ground framed by the dark metal of his windows. It’s blown-out hot looking, but he’s freezing in the office and he wishes the photo captured that desert experience of extremes: searing heat and icebox air-conditioning. 

He sends the picture to the number. A new photo pops back. 


A close-up of the waves, escrolls of white foam against speckled sand. 

Okay, unknown number, yes, you’ve got me beat on locale. 

He wants to hit the comedy of that contrast, so he texts back a close-up from his view: a pen cup half-filled with an assortment of cheap, chewed pens and one neon highlighter.


He doesn’t hear anything for days. He fills his time searching through his old bookmarked Costa Rica sites. He browses the nonprofit’s website, reading and re-reading the little stories about the Bribri women-led business that benefited from the microloans. He sends a tentative email to his old prof asking after the nonprofit, then immediately agonizes over the wording—he didn’t want to give the prof false hope about his availability. Or, is it giving himself false hope? 

His first few months at Le Grande Casino, Luka had been agog at the amount of money moving through the place; he felt chosen and privileged, like he’d been deemed worthy to enter the echelons of a royal family or a drug empire. 

Yet, it wasn’t as if he handled bricks of cash and went to bed smelling of money. He moved digital numbers across columns on a screen and those zeroes smelled of stale sweat cooled by over-conditioned air.

He sits at his desk, browsing houses in Costa Rica he could afford with one Vegas paycheck. His phone chimes.


Midafternoon at an outdoor market. Shoppers are blurred in movement, as if the photo is taken with a long exposure, and shopkeepers are in focus as they lean against stalls. The woman from the first photo is left of the frame. In a short-sleeve, denim blouse and a flowing skirt, she’s moving with the flow of shoppers. She stands out because she seems aware of the camera, her face turned away and an open-palmed hand rising to reset the handle of her canvas satchel on her shoulder.

Luka imagines they’re at the market together, she’s tired from work, and he’s made one joke too many. She’s speed-walking back to their bungalow to prep some food so she can finally eat, ease all the hangry and forgive him, resting her head on his shoulder as they watch TV.

He wants to see the next part of the story. But, he’s not sure about the lexicon and grammar of this weird, visual conversation. Do I need to send something in a comparable setting? Is the idea to highlight how sad America is?

He sends a photo of the sterile, fluorescent-lit expanse of the produce section of Albertsons at 11:37 pm on a Sunday, the only person in the photos an overly-tanned woman in her sixties with disproportionately large breasts assessing the lemons. 

Three days later, when he hasn’t heard back, he wonders if the idea is to highlight how sad his life is, not America specifically. He sends a photo of his frozen Hungry-Man Smothered Salisbury Steak dinner on his beige Formica counter. 


The woman, in profile. She’s a crescent moon in the dimness of the photo. She’s also at a meal, a fork held aloft with a spear of a long green vegetable—asparagus or maybe green bean—yet her mouth is in the shape of speaking, not eating. There’s a hint of glass and metal. Maybe she’s inside a house. The photo is taken from a low angle and a distance.

Like an alley or side yard. Luka wishes he hadn’t seen this one. It’s the first time she doesn’t seem in on it, like she’s not participating in the narrative. 

So…was she part of any of the photos? 

Luka shuts off his phone and throws out his dinner. He lies in bed and can’t believe how angry he is at past Luka who chose this generic, safe life that has reduced him to this voyeur by proxy. He thought the person with the pictures had been somebody sharing their life, opening a window onto a view they knew Luka would appreciate, but now he feels like some dirty street-kid pressing his face against the glass of the store, watching regular customers buy all the candy he can only dream about. 

He punches his pillow and struggles to sleep. He drafts and then redrafts strongly worded texts renouncing this unusual riposte, but then argues himself into taking the offensive with a long list of interrogatives: Who are you? Why did you contact me? Who is that woman? He sleeps only after he resolves to block the number in the morning, without prelude or conversation.


He wakes up to 27 new photos.

They’re almost all of a boxy concrete house painted minty green. Every conceivable angle of the house is photographed. Interspersed with clear shots of the building are strange close-ups.


Weathered, warped sill of wood that creates a gap at the bottom of a closed window. 


A dangling red shingle. 


Chain link fence bisecting green grass and a little garden of weeds.


The insides of the street trash bin. Centered in the frame is a plastic bag spilling over with tissues, but positioned in a way that the words Playtex Super Absorbent Tampons on the box are readable through the thin plastic.


A tree root cracking the sidewalk.


The golden orb of a door handle. 

Each photo is bright and colorful; Luka can’t parse if the beauty of Costa Rica is so potent it shines through even in the grimiest of details, or if the photographer is consciously framing each shot to be impactful. 

Why this house? Is this his house? this the woman’s house? Is he stalking her? Can you take something like this to the police? Would LVPD consider a…situation…from Costa Rica? 

Luka texts his friend Mitch: Who’s that PI your mom used for the divorces?

Mitch: Spanner? Guy’s a wank but he’ll destroy whoever you need him to.

The contact file from Mitch lists the guy as Spanno-the-Whammo.


Spanner is mystery-novel gumshoe come to life. Round, balding, and unfriendly, he immediately eases Luka’s anxiety. Finally, an adult is here to help.

He doesn’t bat an eye as Luka explains the situation, simply takes notes with a worn-down betting pencil in a steno pad. He directs Luka to email each photo, but also flips through them, zooming in on details. 

Luka leans in to try and see what caught his interest, but Spanner doesn’t even pretend to accommodate Luka, keeping the phone close to his own face. He swipes up to access the EXIF data, but grunts, “’Course, it’s scrubbed.”

He hands the phone back, then flips to a new page in his notebook for a series of questions about Luka’s history, current employment, and social network. At every answer, Spanner holds eye contact for a few beats, as if he’s not buying any of it and wants to give a chance for a truer answer.

In some cases, Luka does splutter out more than he intended to say. “I’m worried about the woman.”

Spanner grunts. He inhales hard and cautions, “We don’t know that’s her house in the pictures.”

 Luka knows that logically, but it doesn’t feel like the truth. “Still, I think we should figure out how to get in touch with her.” 

“Well,” Spanner leverages himself to standing, “this ain’t much to work with. But, I’ll see what I can do. Anything else comes in—send it to me pronto.”


Anxious for either the mystery number or Spanner, Luka has a hard time putting his phone down, which complicates his workout routine at the gym. Pumping iron is only ramping up his heart rate when what he really needs to do is slow it down. The moment he takes out his phone to stop his playlist, it pings with an incoming text. 


The woman’s face. Her mouth a wide O, the whites of her teeth slivers inside the darkness. Her eyes, blown wide and her arms up—one reaching towards the camera, one moving up to protect her face. 

It’s pure terror. 

“Holy shit,” Luka yells. He drops the 30 lb. weight onto the padded floor. 


She’s against carpet. Her face out of frame, just the curve of her jaw and ear and the arch of her neck. Her dark hair fans out across the floor. A dark liquid, thick and dark as chocolate sauce, a penumbra around her head.

Without thinking, Luka turns to the woman sitting up on the bench press and shows her the picture, “Is that blood?”

He regrets it as soon as she jumps up with a “what the fuck?”

“Sorry!” he yells as she moves away and collapses on the bench she just left. 

His hands shake so badly, he can’t get his workout gloves off. He yanks them with his teeth and manages to forward to Spanner with the question, “Is that what I think it is?”

Spanno-the-Whammo: Shit. That’s not bueno.


At home, Luka paces from room to room of the house. His big, empty, pointless house.

Spanno-the-Whammo: My guy got to the EXIF data. These photos were taken months ago. My guy in CR says it connects to a cold case in Cahuita. An American expat with her throat slashed. This happened months ago. Nothing you could have done to save her, ok?

Luka: GREAT. So he documents a murder and is still walking around free??????

Spanno-the-Whammo: I’ve got a lead, but it’s complicated. Call me. 

Luka can’t breathe. Why did I answer that first text? Okay, so maybe I wasn’t happy, per se, but this life. It’s good. I choose this life. I choose safe and normal. I can get a girlfriend who is happy and carefree. And you know what? She’ll be here with me and she’ll be normal and alive. 

The phone vibrates in his hand and Luka punches the green button. 

Spanner’s greeting is just a big sigh. “Listen, kid, this is big. This is a break in a bunch of other cold cases. That expat in CR wasn’t the first. This guy’s left a trail of dead people all across Europe. So now CIA and Interpol are involved.”

“Okay, great! Glad to help out and all but why is he texting me?”

“We don’t know. This guy’s smart. Kills in different ways, no clear link between victims—took a while to build a profile on him. It’s those pictures, though, something there.” Spanner’s tone is gentle, avuncular and the care he takes in speaking alarms Luka.

“What do you mean? What do you mean: the photos of victims or to victims?” 

The text chime pings in his ear. He pulls the phone away to look, Spanner’s voice fading to mumbles. 


The foreground, a wide stretch of jaundiced dirt. In the background, a cube of metals and windows. An office building.

For a millisecond Luka’s impressed with the artistry of the image, the highly saturated blue contrasting against the pale-yellow dirt and that low angle positioning the building as a shimmering icon in some futuristic corporate dreamscape. But a millisecond after: That’s my office building. From outside, across the dirt lot.


A picture of Luka at Albertsons. His hair flopping over in his eyes as he fills a plastic bag with apples. In the background, a busty, tanned woman holds a lemon close to her face to smell it. 

Spanner’s voice, wafting up from the phone, “Luka! Kid, come on, let me explain.”  


A close-up of a big black trash bin from the street. An empty Hungry-Man Smothered Salisbury Steak dinner on top of plastic heaps. 

Luka puts the phone back to his ear, and interrupts Spanner, “It’s too late. He’s here.”

“Shit,” Spanner’s shouting is a rumble of rocks, “Luka! Stay calm, you hear me? Don’t open the door for nobody! I got Vegas PD on their way.”

His phone pings again. Ping. Again. Ping. 

Spanner is a stream of inane encouragement, a series of hang in theres and we’re coming punctuated by huffed breaths, as if Spanner is trying to talk and run at the same time. 


“He’s sending me my own story but from the outside looking in, you know?”


“No, I don’t know, kid, what’re you—” 


“If you don’t stop him, Spanner, he’s going to use my story to lure someone else in. My weird, sad life packaged together as bait for someone else.”

“Kid, what’re you saying?” 


“Just that they’ll see the pictures and the pictures don’t show how it felt, you know?”

“I mean, I guess—but, kid you’re getting ahead of yourself. We’re close!”  


Luka pulls the phone away without hanging up. He knows what the next photos are without looking. He knows Costa Rica would have been the better life. He knows that if he could do it again, he would choose the complicated life, the scuffed, charmed, make-less-money life traveling to volcanoes, taking pictures of macaws, learning to speak another language so earnestly his clients forgive his bad accent, and counting bigger things than zeroes. And he knows that he won’t get the chance. 

Luka looks up to squares of black that show nothing of the outside that is burnt air and flatness as his phone pings with pictures of his house, every security weak point beautifully lit and perfectly composed.


Reneé Bibby (she/her) is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. She teaches at The Writers Studio and reads for Brink. Her work has appeared in PRISM International, Luna Station Quarterly, Taco Bell Quarterly, The Worcester Review, and Wildness. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Reneé coordinates a yearly Rejection Competition for writers—all writers welcome! More at


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