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part II

fourth stanza: december vision

**********

"I'm going to tell you about the night I met him.

Distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor--

--oh, stop it, my version's better anyway."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "December Vision"

**********

After a while in the Land of the Dead, existentialism seems relatively futile, but living poets throughout the ages have spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what happens to the soul after death. When I was one of them, I would have scoffed and said "nothing," but in my current state it all made a twisted kind of sense: I'd simply awoken inside a paper shell as it was deftly sliced open by the classical personification of Death. But of course. How simple.

I have to admit that one of the hardest parts to get used to was being reduced to a skeleton. For almost my entire lifetime, I'd been used to the best of everything money could buy--other people's money, of course. Then one day, with no warning, I found myself sitting inside the reaper's office--sans jewels, sans clothes, sans even skin.

Two things could account for my good fortune in arriving in Rubacava in record time: first, the reaper was a man, and second, I knew how to handle men. My lack of tear ducts prevented me from crying, but it made no tangible difference; I was a professional. The reaper tossed his hood back, looked at me, and said something I'll never forget: "You don't fool me, Ms. Ofrenda. I've been jerking people around long enough to know when someone else does it. But from one grifter to another, if you want my help, you got it." And with that--and a little delay--Domino Hurley escorted me downstairs to the DOD garage, where his driver chauffered me all 1020 kilometers to Rubacava.

But all these details are irrelevant. In the years between that day and the night I met Hector Lemans for the first time, I'd mastered the art of fleshless dressing, so that I could have almost passed for a living woman. That night, I slipped into a long-sleeved evening gown, furs, and my customary beret, and set out toward the High Roller's Lounge of Feline Meadows.

I mention this because Hector told me later that the reason I'd caught his eye the second I entered the room was that dress. I'd chosen a shade of ebony that would contrast with the plush red lounge without clashing, and as soon as I stepped through the door, the chatter stopped and everyone noticed.

"Olivia," Max cooed, brushing through the crowd--not a particularly easy feat for someone his size. "You look beautiful, honey." He'd said those same words to me exactly sixty-eight times in the month since the Day of the Dead alone. After clamping me in a bear hug and making what appeared to be a sincere effort to salivate on every square inch of my skull, he dragged me up the stairs to the lounge balcony. "And now, it's time to introduce my two guests of honor. Hector, I'd like you to meet the love of my life--not to mention Rubacava's poet laureate--Olivia Ofrenda. Olivia, this is my business associate and close personal friend, Hector Lemans."

I hadn't been the poet laureate of Rubacava until that very moment, incidentally; Rubacava didn't even have one. But what Max said went in that town, and it made a marked impression on the man sitting across the table from me.

If Max was large, Hector Lemans was positively corpulent. One of the plush sofas had been dragged upstairs for him, and he was sprawled across it in a range of several square feet. Certainly his dress sense was no better than Max's, but what struck me most about his appearance other than its sheer size was the bizarre greenish cast to his bones--not to mention the red fez cocked in what I assumed was intended to be a jaunty manner on top of his overwhelmingly peanut- shaped skull. But he had about him the air of complete self-assurance that only exists in a very wealthy and powerful man. Instantly, I turned up the charm and pounced. Let an opportunity like this get away? Not a chance.

"Mr. Lemans," I greeted him, extending my hand to him and giving him my well-known firm shake before he bent to kiss it. "It's quite an honor. I've been hearing about you for months."

"All good things, I hope," he chortled to himself. For a moment, no one else laughed, then several men behind him in expensive suits began to chuckle to themselves too. So the man even had henchmen who traveled with him to laugh at his jokes. They'd be paid, of course. That told me that Lemans had both enough money to throw around and a need to feel good about himself. I was an expert at taking care of both. "Please, do call me Hector. I feel as if I already know you. As it happens, Max has told me quite a bit about his lady friend as well," he continued. "I understand you also own a club here in Rubacava."

"Ah, my reputation precedes me." I laughed as well, but mentally I was still sizing him up. Most men's eyes still drifted down to the area of my ribcage through force of habit. His didn't. He'd been dead long enough to know it was a waste of his energy. No greenhorn, then. "I own a little place near the center of town, the Blue Casket. It's really just a cafe and a place where local poets can exhibit their work, but it suits me."

"Come now, I'm sure you're just being modest. I'd expect nothing less than the best from Rubacava's poet laureate, especially now that I've seen her."

Max had been growing increasingly uncomfortable throughout this entire exchange, and now his patience finally snapped. "Raoul!" he called loudly. "I think we're about ready for dinner to start here!"

"My name is Ramon, sir," the waiter explained patiently as he materialized at his boss' side. "Raoul left your service last month."

"Whatever," Max snapped, puffing on his cigar. "Now that Hector and Olivia are both here, it's time to show them the best cuisine this town has to offer. And the speed at which it can be delivered to our table." This last was accented heavily, with a clear intimation: move it.

There was a tense silence until the food arrived a few minutes later, at which point we were all temporarily occupied with its consumption. The little conversation that occurred during the next hour served to tell me only that Maximino's guest was indeed a very high-rent businessman in El Marrow, and that he was unmarried. By that point, I doubt it would have mattered much if he had been.

Eventually Max pushed back his last plate of sauteed scallops and leaned back in his chair. "Normally you know I don't like mixing business and pleasure, Hector--except when it comes to my kitties, that is." Max had his own squad of cheerleaders: the beautiful people of Rubacava, who tittered obligingly from the first floor. "But I'd like Olivia to hear this, and she's so busy with the club that she doesn't have much chance to get out to El Marrow."

"Not at all, my good man," Lemans said, and I smiled in pleasure at the upper-crust British accent. This was all so beautiful it almost ached. "Where's that lawyer of yours?"

"At your service, as always, Mr. Lemans," Nick said, stepping forward. Like all good hired help, he had the ability to appear virtually out of nowhere. "And as always, it is a pleasure."

"Have a seat, Nick." Maximino snapped his fingers and one of his lackeys rushed up and pulled out one of the wire chairs for the lawyer. "Hector's just about to tell us about his proposal."

"It's fairly small at the moment, gentlemen...Olivia." Lemans looked at me slightly longer than Max would have liked. "As you know, I am a denizen of El Marrow, a city that lacks the vigorous nightlife possessed by Rubacava. My business, however, prevents me from leaving my residence with any frequency, although I do so enjoy this city's atmosphere, and so I'd like to change that. I'd like to establish a casino or two in El Marrow, and everyone in the Land of the Dead knows that Maximino is the kingpin of casinos."

Max swelled with pride in a way that put me in mind of nothing so much as a pufferfish. "You're right there, Hector. Where are you thinking about setting 'em up?"

"As you understand, Max, I'm interested in protecting my investment, so my initial endeavor would be only a single casino. As for that one location...a few years ago, I established a few connections at the Department of Death. One of their senior executives is interested in updating the Department's image, and, after discussion, he informed me that he wouldn't be averse to the creation of a casino in the lobby of their building."

"If you don't mind my asking, who is this 'associate' of yours?" I interjected.

"Sharp, isn't she?" Lemans laughed, turning to Max, whose skull would have turned red if if could have as he nodded. "A man by the name of Domino Hurley."

My reaper. The only kind of associate he'd been when I'd known him several years earlier was 'junior sales.' Now he was in a position of enough authority to commission casinos. Interesting.

There was something else that bothered me about the whole situation, though. Nick had mentioned Hector Lemans as being a dealer in destiny--"Suffice it to say that moving onto my eternal reward might be a little easier than I'd been led to believe" had been his exact words. I wasn't entirely sure what that meant. Was the man dealing in Double-N tickets or something? If that was the case, he had something larger than casinos on his mind. Tickets on the Number Nine could mean a fortune to any poor saps who believed the Ninth Underworld existed and wanted a one- way ticket there. The casinos could be a front, or a way to pool wealthy clients to whom the offer could be made.

If there was such an endeavor going on here, I was sure Max knew nothing about it. If I were running this show, he'd be the flunky, to run around doing my bidding as regarded the surface operation until he was no longer needed, at which point I'd get rid of him. I already knew Nick was in on it, because he'd been the one who mentioned it to me. But I wasn't sure how Domino Hurley fit into the equation. It was probable that he was the sales arm of the deal, but how were the tickets being obtained? Could they be counterfeited a la Chowchilla Charlie? There was still too much I didn't know about this situation for me to be able to get a read on it.

"...DOD building?" Max was asking.

"The legal ramifications?" Nick leaned back in his chair. "I'd have to do a bit of research. As long as you've obtained written permission from a Department of Death authority, it should be fine. I can draw up the necessary documents myself."

"Excellent. What I really want from you, Max, is a little advice on how to get the place running. I'm looking to draw a very exclusive clientele, something like what you entertain in this lounge of yours."

"I can tell you how to do that," Max said with pride. And for the next forty-five minutes, he did, ad nauseum.

When he'd enlightened us all on the enthralling topic of how, exactly, one obtains the kind of patrons I go out of my way to avoid, until I reached the point of an almost physical sense of illness, Lemans cleared his throat. "Thank you. Of course, I'd like you to be involved every step of the way. We are partners, after all." They shook hands in a manly way, and then Lemans turned to me. "But I'm interested to hear your perspective on all of this...if I may, Olivia?" I nodded, and he continued. "Olivia, then. You own a club as well. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?"

Nick was withdrawing his new cigarette case from his jacket pocket; I motioned for him to hand me one and Hector rushed to give me a light as soon as I had it in my holder. I inhaled thoughtfully and looked at him. "If you know the Blue Casket, Hector, you know that your customers and mine are very different. Still, running a club and a casino probably aren't all that different. Your first issue is still money, and..." A small smile flickered across my face. "...you look like it isn't an issue."

"It isn't," he replied, with just a hint of a boast in the way he sucked down the last of his champagne.

"In that case, I worry about atmosphere, entertainment, and food, in that order. My club has been successful because of my relationship with my regulars, but in a place like the DOD complex, you'll have more of a...transient client base, if I'm not mistaken?" He nodded again. "Then my priorities don't change. Souls coming into El Marrow are disoriented and terrified. Provide an atmosphere where they can forget about reality. Think glitz and energy and excitement. Do that, and you'll have all the customers you need."

"Thank you, Olivia. Thank you very much indeed." With an effort, Lemans heaved himself to his feet. "And with that, I am afraid I must be going. I have rather a long trip ahead of me back to El Marrow. Max, my thanks to you as well, and to your excellent lawyer," who'd said a total of six sentences during the entire conversation, "and...Olivia, would it be possible to pay a visit to your establishment during the coming weeks? I'd dearly love to see your theory in practice."

"My doors will be open," I responded, reaching my hand out again so he could kiss it again. As a matter of fact, one of my doors was always open at this time of year to keep the club slightly chilly and provide the ambience my customers expected, but I'd probably have to break policy and open the other door if I expected him to fit through.

"Then I bid you all adieu." The three lackeys closed in and escorted Lemans downstairs and to the elevator. By this time, the party was breaking up.

"Well," Nick muttered as close to my earhole as he dared when Max wasn't looking. "He certainly seemed quite taken with you."

"A little too taken," Max scowled, storming downstairs.

I leaned against the balcony railing and smiled to myself. Taken enough for me to move up in the world? I'd just have to wait and see.

To be continued...

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