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part II

fifth stanza: first bloom of love

*****

"That face,

vaguely verdant, my dream-haunter...

Something striking. I see you coming...

...are you, too, seeking someone...?

Love...?"

--Olivia Ofrenda, "First Bloom of Love"

*****

Hector Lemans was a man who was true to his word. He arrived in the Blue Casket exactly two weeks later, around ten o'clock at night. As luck would have it, Naomi, the poet who was reading that night, had just begun a set break, and so I was able to make my way onstage as soon as he stepped in the door.

I'd been planning for this moment ever since Max's party earlier that month. The club was a little smokier than normal, a little warmer, a little more welcoming to outsiders. This helped to account for the few newcomers we drew that night off the street--curious thrill-seekers, lulled and lured in by the open door and the sweet sounds of jazz filtering out into the heart of the city. I'd planned this, thinking Lemans would feel more comfortable if he wasn't the only stranger in the room. And I'd been writing.

"That face," I sighed softly when the room was dead silent and I could clearly see him standing awkwardly on the entance balcony. "Vaguely verdant, my dream-haunter..." Now I was in my element. I knew how to pull the dreamy, lovesick act. "Something striking. I see you coming...are you, too, seeking someone...? Love...?"

It was a sniveling parody of my early work, but most of the occupants of the club were fans of mine, and if I'd performed a reading of the back of a cereal box they would have thought it was the height of genius. The outsiders were unaware of what I was trying to do, but Lemans looked entranced as we gravitated toward each other at the center of the room.

"Olivia," he greeted me, kissing my hand once again. "I must say, I'm charmed. This certainly is quite different from Feline Meadows."

"Thus its appeal," I smiled silkily. "But you don't seem like the type for this atmosphere."

"Not usually, no. Something about it, however--" here he smiled "--shall we say, strikes me. Would you be so kind as to tell me a bit about it? Judging by the construction, it appears to be relatively old."

"And Max spent a lot of money to make it look that way. The building was actually contructed about six years ago."

He reached out to touch one of the leather-bound volumes lining the wall with his fingertips and drew back when he saw the dust. "Maximino put up the money?"

"Yes. Aside from the on-site suites of business owners such as myself, the only housing in Rubacava is in the form of hotels. Max owns several of these. The longer people are entertained here, the longer they stay in town, and the longer they stay in town, the more money he makes. It's to his distinct advantages to take smaller establishments like the Casket under his wing."

"It's not due to your...erm...relationship?" he asked delicately.

I smiled. "That too. In any event, my market is the beat scene, and it's more lucrative than one would expect. As you can see, I get a little spillover from the more high-end clubs in town, and most of my customers are diehard regulars."

"Can you tell me a little about how you apply your theory here?" he asked.

"Of course. The atmosphere is..."

"A little dark."

"Dark and cold, like the hearts of men." He looked almost hurt; I laughed. "It's an old line of mine, Hector. I designed the Casket that way intentionally. In a sense, it's a metaphor, but more practically, the dark focuses the eye on the stage. Which, incidentally, houses the entertainment. As for food, I keep it fairly light--we focus instead on specialty coffee and drinks like the Coffin Shooter."

He looked impressed. "My word, Olivia, you certainly seem to know what you're doing here."

"Thus my appeal," I laughed. "But thank you, Hector, I do appreciate it. All..." I let my face angle slightly up toward his and then turned away quickly, as if I'd grown dreamy for a moment and then snapped myself out of it. "All my best wishes for the club," I finished, leaning on the railing of the balcony.

I felt his fingers on my arm and turned back a little to see him watching me. He said, "Please, wait a moment. I...would you care to accompany me to the High Roller's Lounge and have a drink?"

My mind flickered back involuntarily to the little pile of ashes in my desk drawer. I'd been so careful with the evidence of my little indiscretion for a reason: my boyfriend was a very jealous man. He already thought Hector had too much interest in me. Any hint that something was going on could send him flying into a rage and break the whole deal, and I'd be left without either of them. "I'm afraid I can't on such short notice," I said in a voice that sounded laden with regrets. "This place requires a little attention. Next time you're in town, though...?"

"I'd be absolutely delighted," he answered swiftly.

*****

I was used to spending long stretches of the night in my office, grappling with paperwork, poetry, or Nick Virago, but with the open invitation on the table I began to mingle with the crowd a little more. As a result, I heard even more of the word on the street than I'd already known. The night after Hector visited the club, I overheard Slisko's crowd mention Calavera and started listening. I found out that my prediction and Jak's report had been accurate: he'd blown town the very night he saw that woman he'd been pining for hit the docks with another man. I had to laugh. How like a man, to rush off and do something pseudo-heroic without thinking, especially for something as petty as a response to the release of chemicals in the brain.

Gradually I began to hear more and more about his connections to the revolution of theirs. Apparently he was moonlighting as an agent with something called the Lost Souls Alliance, some underground rebel group in El Marrow devoted to taking down the DOD.

I had no particular fondness or dislike for the DOD as an institution; what caught my attention was the awe with which they regarded the LSA's leader, the aforementioned Salvador Limones. The DOD held a lot of power in the Land of the Dead. If this setup of his played out, this cat Limones might end up on top--certainly he'd end up knocking Hector's pedestal over. He was someone to watch.

At the moment, though, I had my hands full with Hector himself. The drive between Rubacava and El Marrow is still a long one, but his trips became increasingly frequent and increasingly lengthy. He began to drop by the club every night for the entire duration of his weeklong stays in town, and I was always more than happy to provide him with any business advice I could during the two hours or more he stayed.

I had a goal in mind, however. To know whether he was my logical step up, I had to know more about this underground gig selling shots at afterlife plus. Unfortunately, he was unusually closed-lipped about the thing, and no matter how hard I worked to smoke the details out without letting him know what I was trying to do, I couldn't get anything out of him, night after night after night.

One of those nights, though, I finally cracked him. I'd ordered him a Coffin Shooter with less than the usual amount of sedative--just enough to make him drowsy. We took a table in the corner of the club and chatted for more than an hour. Finally, after his third round--he was a large man--I asked nonchalantly about his business enterprises and he said, "Well, I suppose I do trust you enough to let you in on my little secret, Olivia. Is there any place where we could talk in private?"

I stood, helped the sloshed suit to his feet, and led him back through the club into the room that doubled as my bedroom and my office.

"Now then," he began when he'd been made comfortable on my bed--the only surface in the room large enough to accomodate him--with a fourth Coffin Shooter, "the information I'm about to give you is a very sensitive, and very lucrative, prospect. As I'm sure you know, the traditional journey through the Land of the Dead spans across four years: one year in transit from El Marrow through the Petrified Forest and along the highway to Rubacava, another waiting for passage in this city, a third crossing the Sea of Lament to Puerto Zapato, and the fourth overland to the famed 'End of the Line.' But what would you say if I told you that it would be possible for you to enter the Land of Eternal Rest only minutes from this very moment, instead of years?"

"Quite bluntly, Hector, I'd say the Ninth Underworld is a myth, and you'd be wasting my time," I told him, dragging dismissively on my cigarette.

He chuckled. "You and I are very much alike in some ways, Olivia. I believe I would say the same thing. However, there are those who believe in that so-called 'myth,' and would go to great lengths to attain it quickly. Imagine, for a moment, the classical concept of Heaven. A world without strife or conflict, where perfect fulfillment is not merely a dream, but a reality. You can see, I'm sure, what an attractive vision it is.

"Humans are by nature impatient. Of course, not all of us led...how shall I put this delicately?...admirable enough lives to warrant a ticket on the Number Nine. What if those tickets were made accessible to anyone with enough personal initiative to obtain one?"

So I'd gotten it right. The man was dealing in Double-N tickets. "How capitalistic of you," I commented. "Anyone with flow gets a ride." He opened his mouth to protest; I leaned over and pressed my fingertips against it to shut it. "It's my kind of system, Hector."

"You aren't the only one, and that's why I got into this business. Your Max doesn't know this, but the casino is actually a front. It's a way to corral wealthy souls who might be interested in our venture."

"It's an enterprising idea." And suddenly I realized where the Domino angle was coming from. "So you're counterfeiting tickets?" I bluffed.

"Of course not. What kind of man do you take me for?" He looked offended again. "The tickets are all quite legitimate. My partner, the reaper Domino Hurley, has been stockpiling Double-N tickets for years. Routing clients through...let us say, alternative means of transportation has allowed him to obtain quite a collection, and now he finally has enough to begin our operation."

I weeded through all the high-class rhetoric and extracted the meaning, a trick I'd mastered through years of listening to beat poetry: Domino was scamming souls out of their Double-N tickets and shipping them off on foot instead. And suddenly everything clicked into place. Ever since I'd first met him and wondered why I, a woman who'd made such a monumental contribution to Western civilization through poetry which would never again be equaled, was forced to go it alone through the Land of the Dead without so much as a walking stick. Of course, I'd done some things that weren't so admirable, but sometimes a woman has to look out for herself, and surely the gravity of my work outweighed any petty crimes I might have committed. Had Domino filched my ticket on the Number Nine?

I wasn't ready yet to believe that the Ninth Underworld was a part of reality yet. But if it was, teaming up with Hector could help me get back what a lifetime's worth of words had certainly earned me.

"What do you think?" Hector asked me a little nervously from the edge of my bed.

I stood up, walked over to him, and leaned in to brush my mouth against his as I slipped my arms around his neck to loosen his tie. "I think," I purred, "it's a brilliant idea." As usual, the rest came naturally.

To be continued...

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