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part II

eleventh stanza: grim fandango

*****

"With bony hands I hold my partner On soulless feet we cross the floor

The music stops, as if to answer

An empty knocking at the door.

It seems his skin was sweet as mango When last I held him to my breast

But now we dance this grim fandango

And will four years before we rest."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Grim Fandango"

*****

I leaned over to kiss Hector. "Thank you, love. Knowing that you're safe puts my mind at ease. I have a little business to attend to in the city, but I'll be back soon." With that, I turned and walked back down the hill of flowers. "Manny has the tickets," I told Limones, who was waiting expectantly in the car. "Let's head back to El Marrow. I want to make sure the tickets are secure before we go after Lemans. His agents are sure to make a move against that suitcase unless we keep it safe." "If you are sure, Agent Ofrenda, then I must defer to your judgement," he replied as he started the engine. I glanced at him--he was so sure of himself. He trusted me instantly. This man believed absolutely in everything he was doing. "Why are you doing this?" I asked as he began the drive back. "Why worry about another world that may not even exist when you could have everything you wanted in this one?" "Do you not say, 'A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush?'" he asked. I nodded. "I do not believe that. Money, power...all are immaterial next to the true treasures of the world to come, Olivia. The Ninth Underworld, the land of eternal rest. Peace--until the end of time. An end to this weary toil, these struggles. Have you never felt as if you are getting nowhere, no matter how hard you fight?"

"I have."

"Then you know why we fight now. Even if, as you say, the Ninth Underworld is an illusion, so, too, must this world be. I have spent lifetimes wandering through illusions. Like all other souls here, I seek rest, even if I must find it in a dream."

His bony hands on the wheel were steady. So was his voice. Still that complete self-assurance. I couldn't believe I was actually being taken in by this, as if I were...one of the unwashed masses. "I believe, however," he continued, surely, "that the Ninth Underworld does exist. After all, it has been prophecied for centuries by the Aztec in Mexico--"

"Stop right there," I snapped. The roughness in my voice surprised me for some reason. "I've heard this fairy tale before. The dead go either to the sky or to the underworld, which has nine levels. They spend four years in the land of the dead before moving on to Mictlan, the last of the nine layers." He nodded, and I shook my head. "No. Do you not understand? Mictlan is a cave filled with eternal darkness. Even if your Ninth Underworld exists--and I don't put any credence in it--it isn't paradise. It's hell."

The car coasted to a stop. We stood dead still in the center of the winding one-lane road, the two of us alone in the middle of nowhere. Slowly, he spread his white hands out like doves separating. "Even so, Agent Olivia Ofrenda...is not the hope of salvation all we can seek in this life?"

Perhaps I screamed as I shot him.

*****

It was a point-blank shot to the side of his body. He convulsed as the first flowers--a rich shade of purple, striking against the bone and forest green--burst out of the side of his uniform all at once. I grabbed the axe from the floor in the rear of the car where he'd left it and lunged for him, his sprouting skeleton taking the brunt of the impact as our velocity forced the car door open. We landed together in the road. His bones made a cracking sound as they slammed into the pavement, me on top of him. We would have looked like lovers if he weren't in full bloom.

I drew myself up onto my knees and slammed the axe down in the center of his neck. It severed with a sick cracking sound, and his skull bounced once and rolled a few feet away to lie facedown by the roadside. The flowers pushed out all over the rest of his body and stopped. I had fallen forward on the corpse again.

I lay silent for a long moment there on the road, holding the skeleton like a lover, petals crushed inside my gloves. Nothing moved. He said nothing. I said nothing. Time stopped.

I had shot him because I had thought suddenly, 'If I had known you when I was alive, would my life have been different?'

"Why?" Limones' skull asked me.

"Why?! Because idealistic fools like you ruin everything I've spent two lifetimes gaining! I gave up on your fantasies of Mictlan as a child. There is no paradise in this world or any other; can't you see that? There is nothing for you in life except what you take!"

With an effort, he forced his head to roll until he was faceup, staring with blank eyesockets at the stars. "You are wrong, Olivia," he said.

"Shut up!" I demanded, aiming the sproutella gun at his head. "I'm tired of these children's stories. We're getting out of here." He fell silent. I got to my feet, scooped up his skull and tossed it in the front passenger seat of the open car. Dragging the rest of his body back to the car took more effort, but I managed it and laid the corpse across my lap. Then I took a U-turn across both lanes and started back toward the greenhouse.

"Where are you taking me?" Limones asked.

"Back to Hector's," I muttered through clenched teeth. "I'm getting rid of this hunk of pansies where Calavera and the rest of your little friends won't mess with it. And then you and I are going back to Nuevo Marrow so I can get those tickets back and Calavera, Mercedes Colomar, and everyone else can join you."

"Why do you desire the tickets if you do not believe in their destination?"

Unconsciously, I jammed my foot down on the accelerator. "I like to keep my options open."

*****

It took some time to lug the corpse all the way up the hill--Salvador Limones had been a big man. I half-carried, half-dragged him to the top behind the greenhouse and dumped him in a bank of similar flowers, carefully concealing the body afterwards so the area looked undisturbed. Then I checked my guns carefully and made my way back to the city.

The traffic had thinned out a little, and by bending basic traffic laws a little I was able to burn rubber all the way to the DOD building, where I followed the signs to the train station. I managed to arrive just as Hector's demon ravens swooped down on Mercedes Colomar, who was carrying my suitcase of Double-N tickets. She screamed and hurled the case with all her might at Calavera, who took it in the stomach and tumbled down the steps. He got to his feet and shouted, "Run! Find Salvador!" at the girl just before I careened around the corner and screeched to a stop beside him.

"Get in, quick!" I ordered. Without hesitating, he dove into the back seat of the town car, suitcase in hand. I squealed the tires hard in another on-a-dime U-turn and shot back toward the freeway. The fastest route was blocked off for the Dia de los Muertos festival, but I took out two traffic cones and an empty tent full of bread and went up on the sidewalk, doing eighty-five and scattering pedestrians like skeletal pidgeons. As soon as I was out of the city center, I jammed my foot to the floor. I wanted to be out of town and away from the LSA's turf when this cat figured the game out.

When Calavera caught his breath, he burst out, "We were supposed to have coverage back there! Where are all of Salvador's men?!"

"I don't know," I replied. "He hasn't told me yet." With one hand, I picked up Limones' skull and tossed it into the backseat.

"Hola, Manuel," Limones greeted the other man, as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on. I had to hand it to him; his composure was impressive.

"Salvador!" Calavera cried. Cradling the skull in his arms awkwardly, he shot his own head up to look at me. "You'll pay for this, puta."

"You're not kidding. It'll cost me a fortune to get the smell of flowers out of this upholstery," I shot back. "And speaking of getting things out, I want to see whatever heat you're packing under that Halloween costume of yours. I still don't like competition from the bourgeoisie."

"What if I don't want to give it to you?" His jaw was jutting out petulantly like a child's.

I sighed and whipped my own gun over my shoulder with my right hand, keeping it aimed at him but just out of his reach. "I wasn't going to waste my time sprouting you, but don't push your luck, hep cat. On the freeway, no one can hear you scream."

"You stole that line," he sulked as he tossed a sproutella gun into the passenger's seat.

"My version's better anyway," I replied.

*****

I drove in silence for the next twenty minutes. I wanted to be able to hear everything Calavera and Limones were doing, and it was impossible to find a good bop station in Nuevo Marrow anyway. The two dead men in the backseat told no tales.

The quiet gave me time to plan my next move. Hector would want to be the one to deal with these two himself--he'd probably have his own plans to use their skulls as hanging planters. Sending Calavera to a second death first would give me a little time to reclaim my own Number Nine ticket before visiting my beloved with Limones' skull.

I wasn't sure why the ticket was still so important to me. It couldn't have been that Limones' words had swayed me. It was just his utter conviction that he was doing the right thing, that this futile hope of his was worth dying for. I wasn't Nick Virago. My ticket would be my own, and it would be real. I had to know.

I parked in the same spot at the base of the hill and picked up Calavera's gun before I got out of the car. I opened the rear driver's-side door and jerked the gun toward the greenhouse. "Time for you to swing, Daddy-O," I ordered Calavera. "Let's see you walk."

He climbed out, leaving the skull behind in the back seat. The expression on his skull was dazed as he stared around him. "These flowers...all people Hector has sprouted?!"

Naive soul, that Calavera. Had a man like that really been a reaper? "Hey," I told him, smiling, "when you're on top like my boyfriend Hector is, you make a lot of enemies."

"You know, you have really bad taste in men."

"No," I corrected him, gesturing with the sproutella gun for emphasis, "I have a taste for really bad men. There's a difference." Why is it that power and wealth are always so misunderstood by the peons of the world? Getting ahead has never been inherently evil. Had these people never read Rand?

He was still hesitating. "Scat, man," I hissed, clicking the gun into place in the direction of his skull. "Time to face the music."

Slowly, he turned and started up the hill. I kept the gun aimed at him until he had made it to the top and was at the door of the greenhouse, and then I slid back into the back seat of the town car and grabbed the suitcase. "Enjoying yourself?" I asked Limones as I got out again.

"When justice prevails," he replied cryptically.

The man could have been a beat poet. I locked Calavera's gun in the trunk and set the suitcase down in the grass behind the car. On my knees, I clicked it open and waited. The tickets were fluttering quietly, but not one flew at me the way I had expected.

What?

I picked one up and rubbed it between my fingers. It didn't stick. There was no reaction whatsoever.

Why?

I took off my gloves and started sifting through the tickets with the tips of my fingerbones. I went slowly at first, then faster and faster until I was tearing through the case, tossing handfuls of priceless paper destinies over my shoulders.

Where was my ticket?

I had to calm down; I'd been too much on edge tonight. Regaining my composure, I stuffed all the tickets back in the case and began to go through them again, slower this time.

Nothing!

"Come on, shake it for me, baby," I whispered. "One of you must be mine." There were vague noises behind me, but I ignored them. Was Hector stockpiling more tickets somewhere? He'd said the suitcase contained every one he had, and I could believe that from him. How like that fool to put all his golden eggs in one basket, especially now that the goose was dead.

My ticket...it had to exist. It had to be there. I knew it!

Suddenly Calavera's voice rose behind me, too loud. I leapt to my feet and whirled to see him leaning into the backseat of the car. He was talking to Limones.

Why hadn't Hector sprouted him? I was sure that Calavera had gone into the greenhouse, but it was possible that he'd hidden there and then returned. Now I'd have to waste time shooting him myself. Thanks for nothing, Hector dearest.

"Hey! Get out of there!" I ordered, jerking my gun out of the inside of my trenchcoat and jamming it against his skull from behind. He crawled out slowly and backed to one side, hands in the air. I kept the gun on him until he laced his fingers behind his head, and then I slipped into the car and grabbed Limones' skull. Somehow I felt that this wasn't the time to invoke poor Yorick.

"What were you talking about with the 'head' of the LSA in there?" I asked Calavera pointedly as I extracted myself from the car, my gun still aimed at him. He kept his distance, a few feet away, saying nothing. I turned to the skull in my hand. "Huh, Sal? Got something you want to share with the class?"

"Only this." He fixed me with those piercing sockets for a single instant. "Viva la Revolucion!"

There was a terrible popping sound, and then a thin green cloud filtered out from between his jaws.

The flowers burst from the inside of his mouth instantly, and I realized what was happening. I hurled the sprouting skull to the pavement, but it didn't crack. It was already engulfed by leaves. And then a green tendril shot out from my right eye socket.

I screamed and clawed at my own face, but I was too late. The foliage was growing too fast. Two tiny blossoms sprang from my other eye socket and bloomed furiously, obscuring my vision. The vines were wrapping around my head, lashing the beret to it. Then another stem from beneath the bridge of what had been my nose in another life.

Stumbling, I reached my hands out with shredded gloves to grope for something--Calavera, the axe, anything. I could find nothing. My foot hit a rock and I sprawled hard in the grass, screams that must have been my own ringing in my earholes. My jawbone cracked against metal and I struggled to grip the gun through the vines that were twisting between my fingers.

And then the flowers forced their way up my throat, choking me, until they slammed my jaws apart and I spat petals, no longer even able to scream.

I fired the gun now forever bound to my hand limply, but my shot went wild and my hand fell back into the grass it was growing into. I could barely think beyond the pain. Everything was going black.

"I'll never play my cards wrong again," I swore bitterly inside a mind forever sealed as one last green leaf choked its way out of my face. It was autumn in Nuevo Marrow. I was dead.

To be continued...

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