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part II

second stanza: rubacava's lights

**********

"They say the lights in Rubacava

Will shine as long as felines run.

They say that when those cats stop sprinting,

Rubacava's time is done.

They say the lights in Rubacava

Illuminate all over town

But when a crime's to be committed,

Rubacava's lights go down."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Rubacava's Lights"

**********

The feel of a sproutella gun is an acquired taste. I acquired it almost as soon as I stepped out of the DOD building and soon purchased a weapon to match. The grip is slightly different than that of a normal pistol, this one being ergonomically designed for a skeletal clutch. Sproutella recoil, however, is significantly lower than that of a standard LOL handgun, making such a gun blissfully easy to use with deadly accuracy.

The aftermath of a sproutella shooting is the other deadly thing about the weapon. A normal bullet is a less efficient tool when the assailant is shooting to kill; the possibilities of its effects are endless. It can merely injure the target, kill it instantly, or mortally wound it so that it dies slowly over an extended period of time. Sproutella invariably works the last way. One shot spreads. There are no injuries. There is no survival without immediate removal of the affected limb, and no help if the infection spreads to the cranial area.

The process is ironic. Sproutella guns fire not bullets, but compressed capsules of seeds and fertilizer designed to affect bone. On contact, the capsule explodes, accellerating the growth of the seeds sharply. Flowers bloom all over the skeleton, ravaging every bone and socket. Vines enlace the body in an inescapable web. The horror slowly sinks through the entire skeletal structure, until finally the mouth and eyesockets are lacerated with blossoms and screaming is no longer an option. Movement ceases. Struggling and suffering end. Entombed in a verdant floral casket, the victim experiences a death within death.

It's an interesting process to watch.

Imagining this scenario as applied to the photo girl interested me briefly as I slipped out of the club and walked quickly through the crossroads to the back entrance of the cat track. The cats were obviously running; the roaring of the crowds filtered dully through the massive facade of Feline Meadows. The races had never particularly interested me, although an animal called Sanspoof was amusing for a short time when it was winning. I'd viewed the cat with an eye somewhere between that of a connoisseur and a kindred spirit. Several times in its earliest races I'd seen it kick other animals in the face while running, yet the populace never seemed to notice and would, in fact, have been irate had such a thing been suggested. I admired in it the same quality I possessed; the ability to step cleanly over the competition and come out on top.

In the end, though, Sanspoof's end had come indirectly at my gloved hands; when Max built me my first airship, the Olivia I, it had collapsed onto the track during the race. This unfortunate event caused a massive explosion and killed the leading cat. Max was beside himself. For my part, I was annoyed about the loss of my airship, but far more pleased with my avoidance of the question of marriage Max had been about to ask. I'd always had a penchant for keeping my options open.

The back staircase was deserted, and I strode briskly toward the shaft of light. As my hand hit the railing over the first step another hand fell on my wrist. I turned sharply to see Nick Virago standing behind me, a grim expression on his skull.

"You do seem to turn up in the strangest places," I commented with a wry smile.

He shifted his briefcase under his arm. "I have some paperwork to deliver to Maximino. Are you going up?"

"Of course," I replied. "Can't expect Max to go all evening without enjoying the presence of his eternally erudite girlfriend, can we?"

Nick made that brief growling sound in the back of his throat again. "Of course not. Well, then, I'll have to wait in the lounge until you're done."

"I'm not sure you'll want to go in there if his office is going to look anything like my room by the time I leave, darling."

"Perhaps one of the waiters can find a tablecloth to spread across the mess on the desk while Maximino signs these," he answered dryly. I replaced my hand on the banister and started to ascend when he grabbed my wrist. "It's done," he told me in an urgent whisper. I knew as well as he did what those words meant. It meant that tomorrow morning someone in the city would find the body of a badly-dressed photographer buried under a hailstorm of flowers.

"Did you get the pictures?" I hissed back.

"No, but I assure you they'll be in my hands by dawn," he growled. "The girl didn't have them on her. It's possible she has them squirreled away somewhere, but she can't tell anyone where. I dumped her at the top of the lighthouse." His hand slipped into his pocket and rattled his cigarette case briefly. There was a clinking sound from inside that I assumed came from the lighthouse key.

"Get them. Now, if you'll excuse me, I do have business to attend to." I brushed past him and continued up the stairs, turning this new development over in my mind. "Hello, Max," I said in my smokiest voice, oozing through the doorway. I made a habit of oozing around men, particularly Max, because it got results. The empty sockets in his skull were trained on me as I crossed the room.

Max's club was the antithesis of my own, and the differences between his office and mine underscored this. Where the Blue Casket was dark and intimate, Feline Meadows was infested with bourgeois opulence in the form of incandescent lighting and plush red velvet. I tried to achieve elegance in blacklit neon simplicity. Max's clients didn't want simplicity; they wanted to feel like big shots, with all the excessive luxury that implies. And because Max was the biggest big shot of them all, his office was wide, crammed with gleaming trophies and marble flooring and hideous Oriental rugs, and lined with a full glass wall overlooking the track. Some opposites combine to complement each other; Max and I, despite what he thought, were not one of them. I hated the place.

"Olivia," he greeted me, spinning around in his chair and tapping ash off his cigar. "You look beautiful."

"I look the same as I always look, Max." I deflected the compliment lazily, removing a cigarette from the pack in my trench pocket. He stood to ignite it for me with a gold lighter and then leaned in to clamp his skeletally meaty arms around my waist.

I was still exhausted from the events of the previous hour and would have liked nothing better than to insert that cigarette forcibly several inches down my beloved's trachea, but that isn't how the game is played in Rubacava. Instead, I blew out a thin stream of cigarette smoke before idly brushing a piece of lint off the sleeve of his magenta suit coat (nauseating when combined with a banana-yellow shirt, a flecked green tie, and Max's less-than-sylphlike build), and resigning myself to the inevitable liplock. Sometimes the ends justify the means, and this was one of those times.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Eighth Underworld is its inherent paradoxes. For example, how is it possible to lack lips, a tongue, and salivary glands and still manage to slobber all over someone during an extended kiss? My mind was still running along this vein when I finally managed to extricate myself some time later and perch on the edge of his desk to look out at the track as if it fascinated me. He settled back down in his chair like an overgrown bird nesting and watched me; unlike I, he wasn't feigning captivation. "You always look beautiful, Olivia," he offered.

After all this time, men still seemed to believe that all their pretty words actually had an effect on me. "How's business tonight?" I asked, lifting the smoldering cigarette to my lips.

"Great; it's always great. The lounge is quiet, but they're jammed down at the track. The Day of the Dead is always good for us around here."

"Has anyone dropped by?" I was still gazing out at the track, but my earholes were trained on every word he was saying. Nick would have known instantly that he was being grilled, but darling Max didn't have a clue. I wanted to know if Calavera had already been there, and if so, how much damage control I would have to do. In my mind I was seeing the embrace, not the furball-strewn dirt below, trying to remember where my hands had been. Could I make Nick take the fall for it, say he forced himself on me? Maybe he was threatening to sell Max's business information to Calavera and the only way I could prevent it was to sleep with him...

"No. Like I said, it's been quiet," Maximino replied. I heaved an internal smile of relief and expelled smoke all the way up to the mirrorred ceiling. That was that much less work I'd have to do at the moment. "I did get a phone call, though," he added, and if I'd had muscles they would have frozen again.

"From whom?" I asked casually.

"Remember when I told you about my business contacts in El Marrow?"

I remembered, all right. He hadn't shut up about it for weeks. "I believe you mentioned them," was what I actually said.

"I'm gonna have a little party at the club next month so we can meet face-to-face. We've been talking about opening some casinos in El Marrow, and I want Mr. Lemans to see the best of what Rubacava has to offer. I'd like you to be there too."

Lemans. That was the name Nick had mentioned. Deep pockets. If I'd heard it from anyone else, I would have been skeptical, but Nick Virago had enough cash running through his bony hands to know what real money was. And he'd made it sound like this Lemans cat was dealing in Double-N tickets or something. Perhaps, I thought with a feral smile, this was my next victim.

"Well, I certainly fall under the category of 'the best of what Rubacava has to offer,' don't I?" I purred. "All right, darling. I'll be happy to put in an appearance at this little shindig of yours."

"That's great." He was beaming and chewing on his cigar simultaneously, sending flickers of saliva across the desk with every syllable. "I really think--yeah, who is it?"

I turned toward the office door just as it swung open and Nick Virago stepped into the room. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Max," he drawled, "but I have some paperwork that has to go out tomorrow morning and it needs your signature. I'd like to go over it with you."

"Business before pleasure, eh?" Max scowled, but he waved the attorney over. "All right, Nick, let me see it. I'm sorry, honey. This shouldn't take long."

Nick was turned toward Max, but when the kingpin looked away his lawyer's eye sockets were on me. Something was up. I wasn't sure what the game was, but it was probably time to make my exit.

"That's all right, darling. I really should be getting back in any event. Open mic night is going tragically slowly, and I'm afraid I'll lose my clientele if I don't get things rolling. You know how that goes."

"Sure. You wanna drop by a little later, we can--"

Nick cleared his throat rather louder than necessary. "Good night, Olivia."

He'd said earlier that he'd wait until I was done. Under normal circumstances, I might have thought he was a jealous lover trying to prevent the inevitable clinch, but he wasn't the type. If he was kicking me out early, he must have a good reason, so I took my cue and left the room. As soon as the door shut behind me, I discovered the reason for Nick's urgent need to talk to Max--Manny Calavera was sitting in Nick's customary chair in the High Roller's lounge outside the office, and he was nonchalantly playing with Nick's custom-made titanium cigarette case.

"Hey, it's Olivia," he greeted me coolly. "Which one of your boyfriends did you come to see?"

"Cute, Man. How long does it take you to come up with these lines? For that matter, what are you still doing here? Last I heard, Johnny Law was breathing down your neck."

"Yeah, well, turns out it's actually a friend of mine who's on his bad side. I need Golden Boy here to spring him for me."

I laughed. "'Golden Boy' doesn't spring for just anyone, daddy. He's Max's personal laywer."

"Yeah, he told me that too. Turns out he was pretty willing to negotiate when I showed him this." If I'd blinked, I would have missed it, but luckily I no longer had eyelids. For an instant, Calavera whipped a piece of paper out of his jacket and flashed it at me. It was the picture from the club.

I started calculating. Was Calavera packing heat too? Somehow I doubted it; he didn't seem like the type. The lounge was deserted, except for the lone waiter wandering in and out of the kitchen with his nose in the air. If I could get my gun out quickly enough, I could jam it against that cylindrical skull of his and force him to give me the picture--but then, I had no way of knowing how many copies he might have. Shooting him really wasn't an option. Max's opinion might count for a lot in this town, but I had a feeling that not even he could keep Bogen's paws off me if I got pegged with murder two. In any event, I knew I could worm my way out of this one. If Nick was stupid enough to take the fall for it, that was his problem.

"Touche, Manny," I conceded, snapping my fingers. "You're sharper than I give you credit for."

He eyeballed me, sans the eyeballs. "You're the expert."

I shot him a glance and ran my fingertips along his skull. "As fun as it's been, I've got business to take care of. Keep working on those poems of yours and drop by again, if you have the time. I'm always looking for amateur talent." One last smile and I was striding toward the elevator, leaving him there to grope for a comeback. After all, I had a club to run.

To be continued...

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