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part II

third stanza: fat cat limerick **********

"They raided old Manny's cafe

And Manny was too scared to stay.

So the coward skipped town

And they closed his club down

What happened next, no one can say."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Fat Cat Limerick" **********

I locked the Casket down at dawn, when there were only a few die-hards left still working up the nerve to read their "Howl" pastiches. Rubacava only turns on after dark. In the early mornings, the fog comes up thick from the sea and doesn't burn off until midday. No one cares, because everyone's sleeping anyway except the few souls who are just passing through. El Marrow isn't a port city, so the ships that take better souls than mine to the end of the line dock at Rubacava. It's possible to charter a slower vessel if you've got the cash, but very few people do by the time they get here; they've been conned by the DOD vultures into blowing their life's savings on walking sticks. Most souls end up at the cat track or the Calavera Cafe, throwing what little they have left into the kitties or the roulette tables in a last-ditch attempt to scrimp up the cash to get out. Most of them never will.

Nothing's open during the day except the few hotels that cater to pass-throughs. The locals are all nocturnal, so I stripped back down and went to bed as soon as I'd locked the doors. When I awoke again around eight o'clock that evening, I showered quickly (habit), slipped into a fresh turtleneck and trench, and went outside to check the day's headlines. I scanned through the entire paper; no new reports of sproutings in the obituaries except Anselmo Naranja, whose body had just been identified the night before by Membrillo, et cetera, et cetera...I finally found it on the very back page, just a three-line blurb about an unidentified body found on top of the lighthouse. Rubacava police were seeking club owner Manuel Calavera for questioning, as he'd been seen in the area. I smiled. So Calavera was going to take the fall for this one.

Unfortunately, my luck didn't extend that far. Not long after that, the entourage started appearing and setting up for the evening. I kept hearing whispered snatches of it as they wove their ways around the club, and finally I cornered Jak as he was setting up his bongos and asked him what the buzz was about.

"Mr. High Roller skipped town, that's what the buzz is about," he told me. "Bogen raided his club."

"Max?!" I demanded, practically collaring him. This was bad; there went my bankroll. I'd have to get the next car into El Marrow before the shit hit the fan and try to find a new benefactor--

"Nah, Calavera. Fixed roulette tables, I hear. He and that demon he came in with just got on a ship and bailed, set sail just before dawn. Word got out too late to make the papers. His coat girl's in hock, but she's been telling everyone he got a lead on that chick Colomar he's been chasing after for a year and split after her."

I cursed under my breath. Too damn bad, Ofrenda. Chalk one up for the bourgeoisie. "What's the story on the Cafe?" I asked out loud.

Jak shrugged. "I'm bone dry there, sister."

I couldn't get anything else out of him; I'd have to wait around to get the scoop from Nick. It looked like the photo girl's body hadn't been identified yet, but I wasn't particularly interested in her one way or the other--she'd been collateral damage. The only thing I really cared about was exactly what had happened to that photograph of hers.

I'd have to be around when the doors opened at nine; I didn't have time to get to Feline Meadows and back in the forty-five minutes I had. The only thing I could really do was light myself a cigarette and start planning out my night. I'd have to be around early in the evening, but I'd be wandering in and out of my apartment, and I wouldn't dream of getting near the stage before midnight. Talking to Max would have to wait until things had cooled down a little.

I went upstairs and out to one of the ramped balconies at the front of the club. Rubacava isn't a high-rise city in the same way as El Marrow; at three stories up, I was at an elevation higher than that of most of the city--with the exception of the former Calavera Cafe, which was linked to the rest of Rubacava by the elevator on the other side of the Blue Casket. From where I was standing, I had a fairly good view of the entire town. Feline Meadows was already busy, and the sounds of the race that was in progress drifted toward me.

The sun was glowing a brilliant carmine in a scarlet sky now. As soon as it set, the lights of the Casket would come on and the real day in Rubacava would begin. During the day, the Blue Casket looks like a dead husk--the exterior of the building is primarily constructed from brick and stained glass in shades of lime and aquamarine, but the glass isn't lit from the inside until I open at dusk. Only the gold accents of the facade pick up the sunlight and reflect it back at this time of day, serving as a signal that it's almost time.

If the exterior of the club is alternately dead and vibrantly alive, the interior is constantly in a state of existence somewhere in between--I designed it to suggest my own stance in that living-yet-not-alive realm. It's a vision in indigo and neon, lined by brick and bookshelves, with a high ceiling made intimate by cast-iron arches that slope overhead. There are only a few tables, and the real focal point of the main room is a small semicircular stage. Tonight, that stage was scheduled to be occupied by Slisko, one of my regulars. Apparently he'd saved open mic night the previous evening.

Suddenly everything around me exploded into a sea of blue and green. The sun was setting, and the lights had just come on. For a moment, I felt as I always felt at that point in the evening--as if I'd been plunged underwater.

I smiled. Good morning, Rubacava. The Casket always fills later than the other clubs in town; that night we hit capacity just before midnight, when I was scheduled to take over for a few minutes and read some of my own later works. As usual, I made my way toward the stage fasionably late, and Slisko ran long. He was still finishing the last set when I got there and leaned back against a table to watch for my opening.

"And the cats cryin' in the street are still starvin'," he recited passionately, "'Cause the Man's got them collared and he won't let them go. / Don't ya know / We're all just the tools of the Man / So brothers, if you pray you'd better / That those two street cats got a plan."

"Street cats?" I hissed to Jak, who was banging violently away at the bongos. From the little I'd heard, he'd had something of a criminal record in a previous life; it had a tendency to manifest itself in the form of aggression about halfway through the night when he started getting into the swing of things.

"Calavera and Salvador Limones," he whispered back. "I heard him talking to the other two earlier. Sounds like they're revolutionaries or something. I think Slisko thinks that Calavera took off to meet up with this cat Limones and change the world."

I snorted again at the idea. It had been ridiculous the night before, but I couldn't believe this crowd was taking it seriously. Manny Calavera, a revolutionary? I'd had him pegged as more the type of person Slisko's revolution was against. The man might not have controlled the means of production in any real sense, but he was definitely the kind of guy who'd be seen as oppressing the masses. He must have done something to get on their good side between his performance the previous evening and now.

And there was that Limones cat again...

I was shaken out of my reverie by the sound of scattered fingersnaps, radiating primarily from the direction of Alexi and Gunnar, the poet's two Communist compatriots. Slisko slunk off the front of the stage and back to his usual seat, where he immediately downed the house special, a Coffin Shooter on the rocks. The man was my meat.

I started off with some of my older work, then broke into a few newer things to keep the regulars on their toes. I was in full swing when the thick double doors outswung me and Nick Virago stepped in and crossed to the back of the balcony by the exit. Quickly, I switched to "Grim Fandango" for the big finale and exited the stage to snaps of approval. Nick followed.

"I want to know everything that's happened in this city in the last twenty-four hours," I demanded as soon as the door to my suite shut behind us.

Coolly, he pulled the chair out from my desk and sat; I perched on the edge of the bed and leaned forward, all business. "You've heard about Calavera?" he asked.

"But of course, Nick. What do you take me for?"

"Sharp enough to have picked that up. The girl's body has been found and taken to the morgue, but Membrillo's an idiot; she'll never be identified."

"I don't care about the girl," I snapped impatiently. "Did Calavera get the pictures to Max?"

"No." He withdrew a manilla envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and set it on my desk. "I have them all: negatives and prints."

"Give me those." I held out my hand and he set the envelope in it. With one fingertip, I slit it open and shook out the contents. "We make such an adorable couple," I snorted sarcastically. "I almost hate to do this." With that, I extended my cigarette holder until the ember was nestled directly against the paper. Within minutes, the entire stack had been incinerated. "Interesting," I commented. "Perhaps I'll use these as props the next time I perform 'Ashes.' Did I miss anything else?"

"That cat with the grotesque eye infection lost, leaving me a few hundred dollars richer."

"Anything I care about, Nick. That's pocket change."

"I had to get one of those moronic dock workers out of the Rubacava jail to get those ashes back. There was a strike on the docks last night."

"Stop right there. What does getting a SeaBee out of the can have to do with the pictures?" I paused, and then it hit me. "Calavera."

"Exactly. He swiped my cigarette case and got the key. He must have found the photo girl and gotten the pictures from her. I talked to him last night; he knew exactly what was going on."

"Sounds like he knew a lot more than that." Briefly, I sketched out what I'd heard from Jak about Calavera's connections to Salvador Limones. "The man is some kind of revolutionary."

"Interesting, but it doesn't have any real effect on us. Calavera took the Limbo out of town last night. I checked with Velasco, and that ship is on a yearlong voyage to Puerto Zapato. It'll be a long time before he comes back to haunt us."

As a matter of fact, it would be exactly two years to the day.

To be continued...

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