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part II

eighth stanza: dead weight



*****

"The crest of every wave was an affirmation

you and I, ascending the ladder

locked together.

Looking backward, Moving forward, I saw you become dead weight.

In death my mistakes still have a life of their own. You're all the same."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Dead Weight"

*****

From that night onward, Rubacava began changing.

At first even I didn't realize it, although I'd always known that it would happen. Max's Rubacavan empire had been on the decline ever since Nick and I had started embezzling the money, but my absence only compounded the problem. To a large extent, Max simply stopped caring. The air was slowly being let out of Feline Meadows and the city.

People started moving on. The docks began to get busier than the clubs on weekday nights. It took months, but one by one, my regulars started to disappear.

I'd been expecting it, of course. I knew that if Max's business took a dive, Rubacava would take a dive. For the moment, I wasn't particularly concerned. Most of MY business was taking place in El Marrow--or rather Nuevo Marrow, as Hector's expensive PR firm was beginning to call it. The city was sucking the life out of Rubacava; as one withered on the vine, the other was bursting into full bloom. Over the course of the next six months, Hector very quickly contracted and opened two new clubs and several restaurants, and other developers began to follow suit. Soon, downtown Nuevo Marrow was a sea of neon lights and bars and people. I knew and accepted that the balance of power would have to shift, at least temporarily. But I was unwilling to give up Rubacava. It was going to be my throne.

Two afternoons a week, a plane was sent to the lonely stretch of highway outside Rubacava to whisk me away to where the action was. Being so close to the center of operations provided me with a crystal window through which I could see everything that went on in the Eighth Underworld.

I knew it, for example, the moment Giuseppe set foot in the Land of the Dead.

It had been more than thirty years since his men had shot me down in the streets of New York. Apparently he had lived to a ripe old age, although one visit back on one of my more bitter Days of the Dead told me that most of the money had left him, probably for expensive wine and expensive women. Hector managed to charm some secretary into giving me a copy of the file, which also told me that Giuseppe had spent those three decades fleeing the FBI and finally landed in a dilapidated villa in Sicily. And died there of lung cancer and obscurity. Pathetic.

I'd been waiting for that night for a long time. And so I was standing in the casino when he came down, dressed in a cheap suit that didn't even bear a passing resemblance to an Armani. I pitched my voice a little high so he wouldn't recognize me and sidled up to him, managing to convince him to take me to dinner. I seduced him easily--and then shot him. The look on his skull when he finally recognized me as I levelled my sproutella gun at him was worth waiting three decades for. He bloomed pointsettias. The petals were the color of the leaves that were falling in the city the day I died.

It's the tinge of irony in revenge that makes it so sweet.

Slowly, I began to learn about Hector's operation. At first I was only able to sneak an occasional glance at his paperwork, but within a matter of months I knew the contents of his inbox better than he did. He left his account on the DOD computer server open if distracted while working, and as soon as he was asleep I stole out of bed and started the hunt.

Initially, my searches were fruitless. It wasn't until I happened onto the work order for Domino's car that I managed to make my way into his folders and find the files of his old clients.

My file was a dead end. It said what I expected the artless half-wits of the DOD beaurocracy to say about my life: a brief account of my formative years in Mexico, followed by a more detailed rundown of most of my affairs and several minor acts that might be considered criminal in the eyes of the legal systems of various nations, and virtually nothing about my work. And the final analysis flatly proclaimed that I was going to be hiking, and was in fact lucky to have avoided being handed a scythe and a cloak myself.

Of course, I knew the files had been doctored; Domino and Hector couldn't afford to leave a trail if their racket was going to work. Just to be sure, I checked Charlie's file--and stopped dead. He was listed as a Double-N recepient.

Their records were incomplete, then. Or maybe a few clients had to get through the system properly to avoid getting the conspirators busted. Either way, there must be a logical explanation as to the whereabouts of my Number Nine ticket.

I learned about Domino's operations at the Edge of the World (not to be confused with the End of the Line, although I had about as little credence in the idea that the world really was flat) as well; in fact, I, not Hector, was the one who received the e-mail from him when Calavera arrived. Amusing how cretins with their lofty principles would go to the ends of the earth for something as illusionary as love--but somehow Calavera and that woman and Salvador Limones were all connected. Idealistic pushover Calavera may have been, but he wasn't a complete fool. I closed the message and remarked it as new for Hector, and for some reason I wasn't surprised that that was the last anyone in the Eighth Underworld ever heard of Domino Hurley.

I'd meant to ask him about my ticket, but I had plenty of time to pursue other leads. With the drop-ins and casual regulars filtering out, most of my remaining clients were the die-hard radicals like Alexi, Slisko and Gunnar. They were talking more and more about that Limones cat. According to their conversations, the LSA knew what was going on behind the scenes and was working to get cheated souls like me what they deserved.

It was an intriguing prospect, and several times I was tempted to go find Limones himself and ask him what the truth was. But a revolutionary, I'd learned, is only useful to you if he's on the winning side of history, and you are only useful to a revolutionary if you have something he needs. I would bide my time with Hector, gathering information, before making my move toward Limones. If the LSA was going to topple the DOD, I would feed them intelligence straight from Hector's personal files until they could checkmate him--and until I became Limones's lover. If Hector was going to be the victor, I would get close enough to Limones to become part of the inner circle, and then drop him right into Hector's hands. Either way, one man was going to own El Marrow when this match was over, and I was going to own that man.



*****

Nine months to the day after Hector's casino opened and I broke up with Max, the decisive turning point finally came. Throughout our relationship, Max had been funneling money into the Casket; when we split, I had Hector's best lawyer serve Nick a letter in very cordial Legalese informing him that if the checks didn't keep showing up on time, we were going to buy Feline Meadows out and turn it into a shopping mall. The money was paid.

...for six months, and then it stopped. For those six months, I was under a constant barrage of attention from Max, pleading with me to think about what I was doing, I was making a mistake, he knew we were meant to be, on and on ad nauseum through several cigarettes. I refused to see him, accept his communications, or allow him into my club; eventually I had Hector's lawyer send Nick a restraining order. All of a sudden, there was silence. The visits, the letters, the incessant calls, all of it stopped. So did the checks.

I'd sent various legal communications on freshly engraved letterhead, but I still heard nothing. On that night, when Max missed the deadline for the third check in a row, I finally gave up and paid him a visit.

The place had certainly changed since I'd been there. It was a Friday night, still warm in early August despite the sea breeze, and the track was dark and deserted. A year before it would have contained a larger crowd than any other single location in the Land of the Dead. Pathetic.

The main entrance was shut down, so I walked back to the Blue Casket and took the elevator up to the cliff. The giant cactus loomed overhead, a massive ominous phallic symbol silhouetted against the night sky. There was a poem in there somewhere as well, albeit a very Freudian one. Perhaps I would buy the old Calavera Cafe as well.

I was taking the long way around--I knew the ground level side exits might be open, but I wanted time to think. The cliff district of Rubacava between the Cafe and Feline Meadows had always been the quiet side of town, but most of the time there would be someone wandering around--drunks or lovers or lost tourists, anyone. The streets were deserted tonight. Thin streams of light piped out of the jail and the morgue, but that was all until I reached the bridge and had to shield my eyes. The LOL tower is the security checkpoint for the Olivia II, the shuttle that crosses the divide between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead on the Dia de los Muertos. I doubted Max would rename it now. He would continue to cling to his desperate illusions of hope for as long as humanly possible.

The security guard at the LOL checkpoint let me into the track. She still recognized me, but I had no concrete memory of her until she opened her mouth and started talking about Manny Calavera. "I've wanted to tell this to someone forever," she droned, "and I thought maybe you'd understand, Olivia, you've probably dated your share of jerks--"

"Let's leave Maxie out of this, shall we?" I cut her off smoothly as the door clanged open and I stepped into the silent hallway. "Why isn't the place running?"

She shrugged. "Maximino hasn't felt like opening up lately. In fact, I haven't even seen him, not like I used to catch him all that much. Mostly when the place opens, that lawyer of his is handling things, but mostly it doesn't open. I have been--" she stopped and looked at me to make sure I got the joke, "--dead bored."

Now I remembered her. The type that never shuts up, and she was always talking about Calavera. Wasn't her name Connie or something like that? "That's great," I lied without bothering to make an effort at it. "Anyone around?"

"Just a couple other security guards," she replied. "Actually, I bet they're probably all down in storage filling their pockets again. You want me to work the elevator buttons for you or something?"

I recognized this ploy; she'd latch onto me just to have someone to talk at and never let me leave. "I think I can manage," I told Carol. Or whoever she was.

"Are you sure, Olivia? Because it's not like I need to be up here. Y'know, we should hang out sometime. I hear El Marrow's got some great clubs these days. We could go out dancing, maybe meet some guys..." I slammed the door on Carrie-- or whatever her name was--'s face, and slid a fresh cigarette into my holder. For a few minutes I just stood in the plush hallway that led to the High Roller's Lounge, letting the nicotine work itself into my system. Then I continued up the elevator, through the darkened lounge, and straight through the open door of Max's office.

*****

The lights were off, as they often were, but tonight there was no brilliant glare from the track below to illuminate the room. It was only the moonlight that set off Max's form against the desolate arena. He was slumped forward facedown on his desk, next to several empty bottles of Jack Daniels.

He would be completely sloshed by this time, assuming he was conscious or alive. "Max," I said loudly, not bothering to ooze. "where is my money?"

There was silence for a few seconds, and then, "Olivia?" He raised his face off the desk to look at me. "Olivia, honey, is that really you? I knew you'd come back."

"I came back for the cash, Max," I said sharply. "I haven't seen a dime from you in three months. I have a club to run, you do know that."

"Olivia..." He spoke as if he hadn't even heard me. "I missed you, you know that? For a while there, things were really looking bad. But I guess I knew everything'd be okay, babe." He slammed one meaty paw on the desk and heaved himself up.

I backed away. "You're drunk, and I'm not interested in reconciling. I am here for only one reason: I want the payments to which everyone involved has agreed I am legally entitled. Some of us don't intend to let our business ventures slide."

"I'm not drunk." The words were slurred. He began to slip off the desk slightly; if I hadn't known better, I would have said that his hands were sweaty. Violently, he replanted them, thrusting himself to his feet. "We've been through a lot together, huh? You and me?"

"Max, where is the money?"

He lurched up and around the desk, staggering and almost tripping before he groped the edge and hauled his corpulent corpse up again. "The airship--you know I was gonna ask you to marry me? I had it all planned out, even bought the ring and everything. We coulda had the wedding right down there on the track..."

"Max, where is the money?"

Now he was only a few feet away from me, arms outstretched. "...you woulda made such a beautiful bride, Olivia. I coulda given you anything you wanted...didn't I always give you everything you wanted?"

"Max, WHERE IS THE MONEY?"

"Olivia..." he moaned, and I could have sworn I thought I saw a single calcified tear fall from one of his eye sockets as he lunged for me, "I love you."

The bullet lodged in the left side of his torso, directly over where his heart should have been. He looked at me once, gurgling--and fell. The roses were already starting to bloom.

Impassively, I watched as the thorns ripped through his cheap suit and blood red flowers blossomed down the length of the skeleton. The soggy cigar landed on the floor and fizzled out in a pool of saliva. I could hear the strangling noises in the back of Max's throat before the stems shot their way up between his jaws. As a final macabre touch, two pure white roses sprang out of his eye sockets. Hector's hybrid experiments had apparently been successful.

I slipped my sproutella gun back inside my trench coat, stepped neatly over the body, and opened the desk drawer. Inside were the three checks.

"Can't say I'm surprised," a voice said from the doorway. Nick Virago stepped into the room and looked down at the rose-covered corpse. "I always knew you'd come back to clean up."

"I'm getting predictable, then. How dull. I'll have to shake things up a bit," I replied coolly as I shut the drawer and came around the desk to face him, the body in between us on the floor.

"You may have to work a little harder to do it than you're used to. I doubt even this will shake Rubacava up much these days." He gestured to the rosebush.

"It will soon. Hector and I will take the place over. In a year, you won't recognize it."

"I won't have to." He looked at me levelly through the bluish haze of smoke both our cigarettes were producing. "I'm leaving."

"You're what?" I demanded, thrown for once.

"I'm leaving. I have a ticket on the Number Nine two days from now."

I stared at him. "Why? Why not become Hector's personal lawyer and gain even more power than you already have? This place could be yours, Nick. Why would you give up that kind of reward for a pipe dream like the Ninth Underworld?"

"That darling boyfriend of yours convinced me," he said flatly. "For a long time, I was like you. I never looked beyond the next rung of the latter. But sooner or later, that ladder has to end. There's a destination. This may be it."

"You can't possibly be serious."

"I'm one of the most powerful men in the Land of the Dead. Where is there to go now? You're right; I could take this place over, become a businessman myself. But for what? So I could end up like Maximino?"

I was silent. He continued, "If you like it this way, you win. I'm not going to sit here and wait for you to tire of me. I'm going to get out and get what I deserve while the getting is good. Enjoy the top alone--you clawed yourself there that way."

My laughter came out too harshly. "Almost poetic."

"There's no poetry in this, Olivia. There never has been. There's nothing in this life."

"And surely the bards of the ages are singing the songs of angels at the end of the line?" I challenged him.

He inclined his head. "Perhaps I'll send you a postcard and tell you."

"You're a fool. You know you're only lying to yourself."

"One of us is." He looked at me. "Goodbye, Olivia."

"Goodbye, Nick."

I could have said far more to him, but I didn't have to. We both knew everything that was there between us, and it was more than cigarette haze and a sprouted corpse.

In the end, he'd been just like Maximino.

Striding briskly with my composure regained, I stepped past Max and Nick and left all those years of manipulation and nights in bed behind for the last time. It was time to move on. The next rung of the ladder was within my reach.

To be continued...

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