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tenth stanza: la noche final
"Por el dia la ofrenda solamente es de madera. Los ofreciendos, amarillos, brilliantes, son bonitos en las rayas del sol. Nada amenaza aqui.
Por que es, entonces, que por la noche esos limones que duermen en las manos de la ofrenda se parecen como calaveras?"
"By day the altar is made only of wood. The offerings, yellow, brilliant are beautiful in the rays of the sun. Nothing threatens here.
Why is it, then that in the night those lemons that sleep in the hands of the altar
appear as skulls?"
--Olivia Ofrenda, "La Noche Final" Final poem of Olivia Ofrenda; only recorded poem in Spanish.
We lapsed into a gloomy silence after that. I was contemplating my next move and the fate of Nick Virago, and it seemed that the other occupants of the Bonewagon were equally preoccupied. There was a definite chill in the air by the time we reached the Petrified Forest, and shadows seemed to threaten from all sides.
But it was not my imagination that I saw a charred and mangled saxophone half buried under the mountain of bones in the beaver dam.
We reached the outskirts of Nuevo Marrow around one AM. As I had known it would, the light caught our attention long before we made our way out of the forest; in the year since Hector's first casino had opened, the entire town had turned into a sprawling neon carnival--Las Vegas squared. It was simultaneously appalling and enthralling.
"Looks like Hector's taken over the whole town," Manny said, sounding awestruck.
"He hasn't had much resistance," I replied as the demon maneuvered us out of the edge of the forest and down the slope toward the city center. "There's only one small group who oppose him, and they live out on the fringes of the city."
As soon as the words left my jaws, we were surrounded by masked men aiming sproutella guns at us. Had I not realized who they were, I would have had my own gun out in an instant, but I decided that it might not be wise to be introduced to the great Salvador Limones as an armed terrorist.
"Places like this, you mean?" Calavera asked wryly as he stepped out of the car, arms still above his head.
They put the car in hock in the sewers and escorted us underground to what I assumed must be the LSA headquarters. If I was right, we would be beneath the DOD building--probably a few floors under the casino. I was armed; I could get out if I needed to. Knowing this, I felt strangely comfortable as I was hustled into the dingy little office.
"I hope they're not huring Glottis," Mercedes murmured to Calavera.
"Ha!" I laughed, largely for the benefit of the disinterested secretarial-type in combat fatigues. Where had I seen her before? Her typewriter-pecking didn't even slow. "Shows what you know about their group! Their leader is a great man who--"
"Manuel Calavera. We meet again."
--had just walked in the door.
He was very tall, also clad in camoflague fatigues, and something about him screamed 'authority figure' and made me think that this was a man I could trust.
And therefore, a man I could trust to take a fall very easily if I wanted him to.
"I see you have found what you were looking for." Limones nodded to Mercedes. "How fortunate for you to arrive now just as we, too, are about to achieve success. Our army has grown, and right now our top agents are in Hector's weapons lab, about to close in on the enemy right in his own den. I couldn't have done it without you, Manuel."
Hector was in the lab? This could be bad. I'd been careful about keeping the paper trail low; with luck, the LSA wouldn't be able to trace me to Hector. If they caught him...well. I'd have my answer about which side was the winning team.
"Trap!" The word burst out like a gunshot from the door as a man staggered into the room from behind us. I whirled around to see the vines bursting through his body from the bottom up. "It was a trap!" he shouted, his voice hoarse.
Mercedes gasped and Calavera started forward, but Limones stopped him. "Stand back! There's only one thing to do." With one strong motion, he grabbed a fire axe from a holster on the wall and severed the man's legs from his upper body. A single blow. The raw power that must have gone into it was amazing.
Mercedes was still gasping for breath like a frightened rabbit when the man hopped up on his arms and saluted. "Thank you, sir! You have saved me, but more than that, you have enabled me to continue to serve the movement."
Limones waved that aside. "What did you say about a trap?"
"Hector uncovered our agent in his weapons lab."
"No!" The leader sucked in his breath.
Just then there was a crackle as a small TV monitor to one side of the room came on. On it, I could see the snowy image of Hector. "You idiot, Bowlsley!" he was bellowing. "Your new lab assistant is a SPY! Haven't you ever heard of a BACKGROUND CHECK?!"
Internally I sighed in relief. The game was still on.
"What?" Calavera started to ask, but Limones cut him off.
"No time to explain. Now I'll have to take matters into my own hands." He started for the door, but I saw my chance and thrust myself into his path, my skull two inches away from his.
"Take me with you," I begged breathily. "I've longed to be of service to your cause for years."
He looked at me for a long moment, and I was struck with a sudden vision of the intense, soulful eyes that must have filled those sockets a long time ago. Then he jerked his head once toward the door and strode out. I followed. It was time for the showdown.
I consider myself a highly literate woman. By this point, I had spent more than fifty years as a professional writer, and I had a very wide range of words at my command. Only one of these words, though, could aqequately sum up a man like Salvador Limones: intense. His stare was intense, his manner was intense, his stride was intense. This last, paired with the fact that his legs were extremely long, was giving me trouble as we made our way down the sewer to the place where his agents had left the Bonewagon.
"How much do you know about Hector Lemans, Ms...?" he began, opening the door of a nondescript black town car and gesturing for me to enter.
"Ofrenda. Olivia, please."
"Olivia." The word rolled off his tongue in a subconsciously seductive way I had never heard outside of Mexico and had never expected to. I climbed into the car, he started it, and we started pulling out of the sewer.
"Not much. I've been operating alone for the last few years, ever since I first heard about his scheme. Most of what I've heard comes from scraps--things I overheard in a club."
"Then I should explain." He turned out of the alley and merged into the city traffic. I'd learned long ago that gamblers were rarely the type to go home on the Day of the Dead; Nuevo Marrow was even more crowded than usual tonight. "The mission we are about to undertake is extremely dangerous, but it will have immeasurable value for our revolution. Hector has the Number Nine tickets in his possession. We must gain entrance to his residence outside the city limits, secure the tickets, and dispose of Lemans."
So Hector was at the greenhouse. He had a penthouse suite in one of the high-rises in the city center, but he'd built the greenhouse on a hill some miles outside of Nuevo Marrow as a trophy. The hillside was covered in flowers, millions of vivid, richly-scented blossoms of every possible color and description.
Every last one of them was fertilized with human bones.
In fact, the great Maximino himself had a humble spot at the base of the hill. Hector had hired a photographer to come out one afternoon when he and I were together and take a picture of me sitting in the meadow, picking...roses.
My call and the incident with Bowlsley had tipped Hector off, then. He would be watching for an agent. The only way to get the tickets--and the real story behind them--would be to go in alone.
"It sounds simple enough. How are we going to get the tickets, though?" I asked.
"I do not know." Limones took the exit to the freeway and accellerated. We were only ten or fifteen minutes away now. "Perhaps he can be compelled to surrender them at gunpoint. Perhaps we will be able to locate them without attracting his attention."
"Salvador, if the rumors are true, this man has sprouted more than a thousand people." Far more than a thousand, and the rumors were more than true, actually, but knowledge wasn't power at the moment. "I don't like the odds, and the LSA can't risk its leader. I think you'd better let me try my luck alone at first. I can be..." I shot him a sideways smile over my shades, "...very persuasive."
He hesitated. "Are you confident, Agent Ofrenda? There is no room for failure in this mission."
"I can do it, sir," I told him, trying to sound like the agent back at headquarters. "But I'll need a weapon."
He was silent for several minutes. Finally, we rounded a bend in the road and stopped at the base of the hill. Limones shifted hard into park, removed a loaded sproutella gun from his pocket, and handed it to me. "Then the fate of the revolution rests in your hands, Agent Ofrenda. I leave it to you. Viva la revolucion!"
"Viva la revolucion," I replied softly as I started the long trek up the hill, slipping his gun into the other side of my trench coat.
It occurred to me that Hector might be slightly on edge tonight, so I knocked at the greenhouse door. There was a harrumphing sound from inside before it was opened and Hector's green skull looked down at me. "Why, Olivia...! This is quite a surprise; I hadn't expected you until tomorrow."
"I know, darling," I replied, "but we need to talk."
"Well, by all means, please, come in. You must excuse me; I just got in myself." He held the door for me and I slipped into the greenhouse. "I was in the city, dealing with some...unexpected issues that have just come up." I'd noticed the helicopter sitting out on the pad; he would have had to come that way to beat us the way Limones had been driving. The traffic must have held us back.
"Would you like some tea?" he babbled, bustling through the rows of flowers. "I'd be delighted to--"
"Hector." I cut him off. "Where are the tickets?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Don't play dumb, darling. You've been selling counterfeit Double-N tickets. What I want to know is where the real ones you stole are."
He was still for a moment, then let out a long sigh and came back around to face me. "How did you know?"
"Our old friend Calavera."
"Coincidentally, he's the one who currently has possession of my tickets," Hector sighed again. "I just returned from the DOD building. Calavera has taken the entire suitcase containing every ticket I have."
"Why are you selling fake tickets? What are you doing, photocopying the real ones?" I asked sarcastically.
"Partially. After all, true tickets on the Number Nine are like hen's teeth. It's taken me years to steal these--and think how much more difficult it was to get them in all the years before the casino. But with false tickets, the supply will always be able to meet the demand. In fact, that old lawyer of Maximino's bought one just this morning."
"What?!" I demanded, less coolly than I should have.
"Oh, dear me, what was his name? Nick Virago? Yes, he arrived from Rubacava several months ago; said the town was dying and he was looking for a larger piece of the action. I believe he contemplated buying property here, but last night my agents finally convinced him to put his savings into a Number Nine ticket. He left on the 7:56 train this morning. I'm sure at this very moment he's enjoying the rewards of the world to come."
Nick had been here for three months? Then it had been him I'd seen in the city that day.
And he had thought about staying.
And he had left less than a day ago.
He'd lied to me that night in Max's office when he told me he was getting out in two days. Nick Virago had betrayed me.
Had Calavera been lying about the train?
"What if I told you that the fake tickets weren't getting souls into the Ninth Underworld?" I asked. "If I said that the trains were sending those passengers to something like hell?"
Hector threw his head back and laughed, nearly dislogding his fez. "It isn't as if the customers are coming back to complain, Olivia, dear! It's no concern of mine where they go after departing Nuevo Marrow. I intend to get the real tickets back, and when I leave, I'll be using an entire suitcase full of them to ensure my passage."
So that was it.
Hector was stealing tickets and selling fake ones--cheating souls twice--to hoard tickets to get himself into the Ninth Underworld. To tilt the scales in his favor by balancing all his less virtuous acts with thousands of entire lifetimes of virtuous souls.
I thought of Charlie and his mangled saxophone in the Petrified Forest--souls who should have taken a four-minute trip to paradise and had lost their lives a second time on the way. I thought of Nick Virago's train diving into a pit of fire off the tracks within walking distance of eternity. I thought of my own ticket, somewhere in that suitcase with Calavera.
And I smiled.
Hector was getting out. When he left, I would be in charge of everything he had. All I had to do was shut the LSA down tonight, and all of it would be mine.
And their leader was sitting, completely unarmed, in a car at the bottom of the hill.
To be continued...
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