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part I

third stanza: first bite



the hiss of the breeze over pebbles.

Smear the monochrome night with seagrass,

Open the sky for one more star.

Break down the door.


in eternity, I taste eternity.

It's the first bite."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "First Bite"


Those years when Rubacava and I were climbing the ladder together have spanned together and hazed out in my head. Twenty years feels like forever, but I see those years as marking time. I moved out of the cheap florescent hotel and into an endless succession of men's arms. Most of them are long gone, but I doubt I'd recognize any of them if I saw them on the street. They were immaterial background noise, just a meal ticket to waste time with until I hit paydirt.

My chance came the night I met Maximino. He arrived in Rubacava a few years after I did and opened the gates at the cat track only a few years after that with all the money he'd saved not buying travel packages from the DOD--not that he would have qualified for any of them anyway. He wasn't big on mingling with the peons, though, so it wasn't until I was finally accepted into the upper echelon of Rubacava's society that my then-boyfriend was granted a pass to the High Roller's Lounge of Feline Meadows and escorted me to a party there one night. As soon as I saw Max for the first time, I knew it was over. I was going to reach the top at last, and I wouldn't even have to lift a finger to do it.

That was my first impression of Max: a pushover. Like Caesar, the best way to flatter him was to tell him he couldn't be flattered. An almost flawless facsimile of so many other men I'd eaten through like acid before: a wallet and body that were both overblown and balanced out by a small brain, and an ego that maintained its massive proportions only through constant stroking. But he was the king of Rubacava, and in the next few years he'd not only put its name and mine on the map--he'd set them side by side in lights so the entire Land of the Dead would see them.

It wasn't difficult; it never is. When my boyfriend waded through the shining sea of beautiful people to greet Max, I put myself directly into the kingpin's line of vision. He stopped and turned toward me, and from then on in it was the same old game.

"I've seen your face before," he said, "but I've never known your name."

"Olivia," I purred, extending my hand. "Olivia Ofrenda."

"Maximino," he replied as he gave it a firm shake. "I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of you around here."

By the next weekend I was his lover.

We kept it secret for a long time, but it wasn't long at all before I managed to let it slip that I'd always wanted a club of my own. Max did things fast. The next day, the deal was signed and sealed, and I was overseeing the bulldozing and ground-breaking of the property. Max funneled the money to me under the table, and I was working with his top assistants to design the beat scene of my dreams in the heart of Rubacava. The flow was almost limitless, and from the ground up I created hundreds of feet of soaring backlit glass and steel--and then went underground.

It was then that I first met Nick Virago. He was Max's personal lawyer, but it was a position he had attained by working for a succession of increasingly wealthy men until I reached the top. Given the parallels, it was inevitable that we should hate each other. What followed was even more inevitable.

It had been a long time coming, but things finally came to a head one night a few weeks before the club opened. The power and water services had been turned on only slightly earlier, and I had already moved into my suite in the back. I was there alone late one night, working, when I heard a loud rapping echoing from the outside of the thick double doors at the club's entrance and opened them to find the lawyer leaning against the exterior wall, briefcase in hand.

"Nick Virago," I greeted him smoothly. "Get that silk tie out of here; you'll infect the place with bourgeois."

He didn't wait for an invitation and brushed past me into the club, surveying his surroundings. "I would think you'd enjoy that," he replied dryly.

"I don't like to mix business and pleasure," I told him, slamming the door shut and standing just a hair closer behind him than was necessary.

"Glad to hear it." As he said it, he took two steps away from me and clicked his briefcase open. Then he turned to look at me. "I'm all business."

I laughed and perched on top of the nearest table. "I might have made an exception in your case. What really brings you to the party, Virago?"

"This." He withdrew a sheaf of papers from the briefcase and held them up. "Some final licensing issues before you open. Chief Bogen wants them in hand by nine AM."

I held my hand out for the papers and flipped through them. "Then I'll take my time."

He scoffed impatiently. "Just sign on the dotted line, Olivia."

"Don't insult me, Nick. That's not how I do business."

"I've heard how you do business." I could feel the friction in the air now. Had we had eyes, they would have set off sparks in the dark stillness of the empty room. The ceiling soared more than three stories overhead, but I felt like the space was shrinking. He was staring at me.

"Oh?" I responded coolly.

Was that a glare? "Your business IS pleasure."

"And what's your business, Nick?" I took two steps forward and regained the ground he'd put between us.

"*Max's* business," he said pointedly.

"Which makes me your business too, doesn't it?" He didn't have anything to say to that one for the moment, and I laughed again. "Why don't you step into my office for a few minutes while I look these over?" With that I swished back through the club to my suite. He followed at a distance.

"Your office and your bedroom are the same room?" he asked when he reached the doorway. I'd already installed myself at my desk and was rapidly deciphering Legalese.

I glanced at him over my glasses with a challenging smile. "Business and pleasure once again. Seems to be a recurring theme tonight, doesn't it?"

He ran one finger under his collar so unsubtly I realized it was subconscious. "It's always a recurring theme with you."

At that, I stood up slowly and pivoted to face him. "Why not make it one with you as well?"

It was all the coaxing he needed. Seconds later his arms closed around me for the first time. The paperwork made it to Bogen at 8:57 the next morning.


It was during this period that Rubacava really began to grow. Whatever else one could say about Max, he knew how to bring in a crowd, and he did--the masses and the bourgeoisie alike. The fog in the mornings began to burn off into the neon nightlife in which I would thrive for more than a decade.

The club rolled on toward completion over the next weeks--it had already set a new record for construction speed in Rubacava--while I stirred up clientele. I'd been publishing since I arrived in the LOD--first all I could remember of what I hadn't made public before my death, and then chapbook after chapbook of new work. As a result, I'd already attracted a decent base, and the beat little coffee shops and alleyways of the city yielded everything else I needed. Minimal cover charge, just enough to keep the lights on and the drinks coming. The real meat of the club--the poetry readings--was all mine for the taking.

The night the Blue Casket opened was one of the best of my afterlife. As blase as I am, I can still remember the chill that shot down my spinal cord like a bullet on ice when I stepped out onto the third-story balcony as the sun set and looked down at the sea of black and white swelling outside the doors of the club. Turning the lights on for the first time, parting those human waters with a beacon of rich blues and greens...I must have written a hundred poems about it in the years to come before I gave up. I never got it right.

And it was nothing compared to stepping downstairs, pushing open the huge heavy doors, and standing spotlighted alone on the stage as the deluge rushed inward.

A few minutes later, the place was jammed from the railings to the rafters with turtlenecks and shades. My inaugural reading of "Grim Fandango" drove the crowds into such a passionate frenzy that they nearly clawed the stage down. The coffee and booze were flowing like water, and the place hung thick with cigarette smoke. I'd expected nothing less.

And the years flowed too, and gradually life stabilized and hit a pattern. For the first time since my death I always knew where my next meal was coming from. Even without Max, I might have become a very wealthy woman, but his cash meant that the slightest desire was within my grasp instantly. My private apartment in the Casket was stocked with the best wines money could buy, my turtlenecks were upgraded from cotton to cashmere, and the first airship to grace the skies of the Eighth Underworld had my name on it.

I reaped the benefits of being Max's girl every day, and when he bored me his laywer was at my beck and call. I was only toying with Nick Virago and he knew it, but he didn't care. It was all about that play, the thrill of the chase. One Day of the Dead more than thirty years after my death, the two of us even snuck back to El Marrow for the festival. We arrived back in Rubacava at the same time as the ex-reaper Manny Calavera--Calavera, who would make my life a dead hell not too far in the future.

And a year after that is where my story really begins.

To be continued...

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