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ninth stanza: sayonara neon
"I've lived aeons at nightfall here where the scene and the sex and the smokes are all that exist. And the dynasties dying in the rise of mine meant nothing until recreation by my words. My words that made and destroyed this city.
She giveth and she taketh away.
And as ashes die to ashes, this is no longer a battlefield. It's a tomb.
With departures of 'sayonara neon' I leave the land of death I killed."
--Olivia Ofrenda, "Sayonara Neon"
With one finger, I had brought Rubacava to its knees. The town got dangerous after that. Rubacava had always been home to the real underworld of the Underworld, so to speak, but now it ran deeper than petty affairs like extortion, prostitution, or minor drug trafficking. The police chief Bogen was mysteriously sprouted while investigating Maximino's death--the murders were rumored to have been committed by an associate of Hector Lemans, but no one dared say it out loud.
Hector was convinced that we needed to focus on Nuevo Marrow first and then resurrect Rubacava once the entry city was under our thumb. He wouldn't do anything to cool Rubacava down, and so things quickly spiraled out of control. There was another string of riots at the docks. Cries of "revolution" rang through the streets. Between the political radicals and the mobsters, the crime rate tripled in two weeks. Finally, even my most hardcore regulars stopped coming altogether and hightailed it for Puerto Zapato. Officially, the cops had the town under lockdown and curfew, but that was a joke. The simple truth was that it was no longer safe to walk the streets of Rubacava at night.
I didn't regret what I'd done; it had had to be done. I knew my city would come alive again if I were only patient. But still and inexplicably, I found myself missing the old days. I wanted my newfound power to start feeling like power. Every night for the next three months, I stood alone onstage in the empty Casket and imagined myself reading my latest work to a full house. My voice running like a velvet ribbon from the microphone, the wild snaps of applause, Jak on the bongos and the band getting started again, the long hours ahead with Nick. Once, walking in downtown El Marrow, I even thought I saw him. I was strangely sentimental about the glory days of Rubacava. I missed the banter and the electricity. I missed the spotlight.
Ironic that the final turning point would happen on the Day of the Dead once again, in the form of a memento from those glory days.
It was two AM. I was sitting alone in the center of the club, drinking in the silence and writing. Empty chairs at empty tables. It was a scene that had played out many times since Max's death, and tonight I was ready to give up. I was tired of sitting at home like a good girl and waiting for something to happen. It was time to hit Nuevo Marrow.
"What? No reading tonight?" a man's voice called abruptly from the doorway, cutting into my thoughts.
"Read poetry in my own club? That would be like this whole place was just a big temple set up to worship me," I replied, feeding him the standard line. "The Casket's closed. Get out of the streets before you get a dozen long-stemmeds through your skull."
"I'm all skull. Wouldn't make much difference." I looked up to see none other than Manny Calavera leaning over the railing of the entrance balcony, watching me.
I shut my notebook and stood. "Calavera? What are you doing here? I heard you went POW in Zapato, daddy!"
"Well, Hector Lemans tried and missed; now it's my turn. I'm headed to El Marrow to put him out of business." His voice was the same and yet not the same--there was something grim in it now. Perhaps the edge of the world had done something to him.
Hector Lemans. So Calavera really was on to the operation then. I knew from the e-mails Domino had sent before he disappeared that Hector knew about the LSA's plots. He must have sent some of his own agents to kill Calavera, perhaps at Puerto Zapato if he'd moved quickly enough. And, apparently, Hector had lost that round.
And Calavera was going after Hector.
Calavera, who was part of the LSA.
Which just might be the one group in the Eighth Underworld tough enough to take on Hector Lemans and come out on top.
This was my kind of party.
"Manny, that place is changed; you don't know what you're getting into." I fixed him with a sideways smile and then added in a husky voice, "I'd better come with you."
"Why?" he wanted to know. "I know you, Olivia. What's in it for you?"
"A little action." I stretched, catlike, and catlike eyed him across the empty room stretching like a battle line between us. "Take a look around you, Man. That Lemans cat is a vampire, and he's sucking all his blood from Rubacava. These days, everyone who's anyone is in El Marrow."
"So why aren't you?"
"I've been trying to protect my own. A lot more has changed since you took your vacation than the state of the nightlife in El Marrow. This place is a mob town. I'm getting out--" yes, I could indulge myself and quote Nick Virago a little, "--while the getting is good."
"Okay, so why should we take you?" he asked. "If El Marrow is as dangerous as you say, why should I add to the risk by taking another person?"
"I can help you." I started thinking fast. "There's an organization there called the Lost Souls' Alliance that wants a piece of Hector Lemans as well. Get me in, and I'll get you in. I have my own reasons for wanting Lemans shut down."
"You know the LSA?" Calavera looked incredulous.
I laughed. "Ever since I saw those letters of yours, Man. I hear the word on the street. Salvador Limones and Manny Calavera, the revolutionaries who are taking the DOD down from the ground up--the underground up, actually, if I'm not mistaken. I've been watching you for a long time.
"See, one of those tickets is mine."
He was standing there, just looking at me. Finally he gave a helpless shrug. I smiled. "Just give me a minute to get ready." And with that, I picked up my things and swished back into my suite. It wasn't until the door was closing that the cat finally let go of his tongue and he called after me, "Okay, but if you hear a loud explosion anytime soon, the trip's off!"
I laughed and kicked the door shut with the toe of one boot. For a few minutes, I heard him prowling around in the kitchen, and then the sound of the main doors shutting heavily. As soon as I was sure he was gone, I reached for the phone and started dialing.
I had just hung up when I heard an extended sequence of loud noises, including several bangs, a deafening metallic clang, several seconds of gulping, and a moan that sounded suspiciously like it could have come from that obnoxious tangerine demon that used to play piano at Calavera's club and tear up Max's track on his off-days. A lesser immortal might have been alarmed by this progression of events, but professional nightclub proprietors tend to take things like this in stride. I calmly secured my sproutella gun and a few extra rounds inside my coat, checking as always to make sure that they didn't ruin the line, and swiped on another quick coat of lipstick. I has just finished locking the club down when Calavera came back to escort me to my chariot.
...that old hot rod. I should have guessed.
They'd been keeping it in Max's garage, and it looked like it had been booby-trapped. With a trail of dominos, no less, and something told me I had an idea whose work that was. So much for tying up loose ends. Standing next to the car were the demon and a woman clad in cheap furs--that must be the infamous Mercedes Colomar.
"Meche, this is Olivia Ofrenda. She owns a club here in town," Calavera said by way of introduction, confirming my suspicions. "Olivia, Mercedes Colomar, an old client of mine. We're headed back to El Marrow to get her the ticket on the Number Nine she deserves."
"Charmed," I greeted the woman briefly as I lit a cigarette. "I've heard so much about you. I hear the three of you took a vacation to the edge of the world."
"And back," Calavera added. He still sounded grim. "Everyone ready to go? We could get to El Marrow in a couple hours if we get started now." The demon retched loudly, as if to punctuate the statement.
"Mmm," I replied, calculating. Calavera and the chick were definitely close. I might still be able to seduce him if I had to, but the girl wouldn't like it, and after spending several years chasing after her he wouldn't like anything that the girl didn't like. I'd better keep my hands off and concentrate on convincing them that I was a great ally in their noble revolution. Only two things interested me in this situation--their leader and my ticket. I let her sit next to Manny.
The Bonewagon--that was what they all called it--had apparently begun its life as a DOD company car and been wrenched into its present form by the DOD company demon, Glottis. I liked it; the flames were a nice touch. And it rode surprisingly well for the hot rod from hell. Within minutes, we had left Rubacava behind and were flying down the road to El Marrow. "So, Olivia," Calavera began conversationally when I'd gotten used to the ride, "what's this story about a Double-N ticket? I wouldn'ta pegged you as the type."
"Cold as ice. From an ex-reaper, no less," I retorted to buy time, but I didn't want to make him mad. He had been a reaper, after all--it was entirely possible that he already knew what was in my file. There was no sense in lying. "There's really not much to tell. I was a poet then--are you familiar with the original Beat movement?" They shook their heads like mechanical dolls. "Then I'll give you the back-of-the-box version. It started with a few friends at Columbia University in the 1950s--people like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg--and then a handful of other people they knew, like the notorious Neal Cassady." Who I had special reason for remembering. "I was part of the inner circle."
"That's odd." The Colomar woman tilted her head and looked at me. "I read some of their work while I was volunteering at a homeless shelter in New York once--it was part of my training, a way to make me feel what these people had been through. I don't remember ever hearing of you."
I laughed. "I doubt you would have. I had some trouble with that group--bad breakup. Later, my work began to attract attention and I started gathering funding--" from my lovers, but I was only giving them the salient details here, "--so I could continue. Most of those cats were still drinking and watching the best minds of their generation being destroyed by madness in the streets. They accused me of selling out...and erased me.
"But I had bigger fish to fry, after all. During my lifetime, I worked in New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Rome, Chicago...all over the world. My work was the unclaimed crowning achievement of the Beat Generation. Its impact on society and 20th-century literature as a whole was staggering, at least in the most influential circles. And Domino Hurley and Hector Lemans stole the eternal rest it should have won me."
Why was it so strange to think of this after all these years? Remembering my life only made more of it surface--how I got to Columbia. Those years with my mother in Mexico--my father was a wealthy American customer of hers; I never knew his name. Perhaps he'd been a lover of mine over the years. I remembered standing barefoot in the dirt and the sweltering heat, swearing that I wasn't going to become like my mother. When I was seventeen, I found my first lover and got out of Mexico. In the states, I replaced him briefly with a member of the Columbia admissions board. I went to college, established myself as an up-and-coming literary genius, and started climbing the social ladder.
I'd never written about any of that.
Calavera was saying something now. "...won't have to worry about Domino Hurley anymore. He got pretty chewed up back there at the edge of the world." Mercedes winced; she must be one of those weak, clingy types. I hated them, even more than I hated the men who fell for them. Why had Calavera been so obsessed with her? She didn't even look as if she could handle a gun.
Calavera, on the other hand--he had killed Domino Hurley. Domino hadn't been the sharpest Coffin Shooter in the batch, but he had been a grifter. Calavera jumped another notch in my estimation. So he could be forceful as well as subversive. I should watch out.
"Sounds like you kids had an interesting field trip," I commented.
"Oh, yeah, lemme tell ya," the demon piped up from the front, yowling over the roar of the engine. "We got this job workin' on a ship, and I was in charge'a the engines--" here it paused to make motor noises with its mouth, "--and you shoulda SEEN what I did to 'em, man, it was sah-WEET..."
"And we made it as far as Puerto Zapato before Hector's agents caught onto us and sunk our ship at the Pearl," Calavera interrupted it. "That's where Domino was keeping all the Double-N clients who made it as far as Rubacava Port."
"We 'jumped off' the ship there," Mercedes explained, shuddering.
Calavera patted her hand, leaving his there a little longer than he needed to. "We managed to escape with all the other prisoners and get to the end of the line, but the gatekeeper wouldn't let Meche and the others through without their tickets."
"And so now we're heading back to El Marrow to exchange these," Mercedes yanked a suitcase out from under the seat and opened it up to reveal thousands of gleaming golden Double-N tickets, "for the real thing."
I picked one up and rubbed it between my fingers. "How can you tell these our counterfeit?" "They're not moving," Calavera replied swiftly. "Real Number Nine tickets get agitated around human souls. Your ticket and Meche's would be sticking to you right now if these were real."
I'd bluffed Hector with counterfeit Number Nine tickets, but now it seemed that they really existed. Why? Where was the angle I was missing? "What would Hector and Domino need with fake tickets?"
"I dunno, but they're selling them to their moneybags clients," Calavera told me, taking the ticket back and shutting the case. "And the gatekeeper's not buying it. Your old buddy Nick Virago bought one, didn't he?"
"...and his train dove straight off the tracks into a pit of fire," he said. "These phony tickets aren't getting anyone into the Ninth Underworld."
I turned to stare at him. He appeared completely guileless.
Violently, I stabbed my cigarette against the side of the car. The demon howled about the chrome, but I didn't care. That fool. Why hadn't he listened to me? If he had stayed, he could have taken the track over. The two of us could have saved Rubacava!
...why hadn't he listened to me?
"Manny, what are we going to do when we get back to El Marrow?" Mercedes was breaking into my thoughts again. I forced myself to focus once more on the situation at hand. There would be plenty of time to rail at Nick in poetic form later.
He turned to watch the road as it flew by. "We're gonna go talk to Sal right away. Then I'm gonna go settle the score with Hector and get those Double-N tickets back. And then you and everyone else he stole from are gonna get your tickets back and take the Number Nine right out of there. And I guess I'll try to get my old job back," he added glumly.
And I'll try to meet this cat Limones and see if he's all he's cracked up to be, I added silently. And if he is, if I can shake myself a place on the winning team.
To be continued...
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