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part II

sixth stanza: rusty anchor

*****

"Wind pierces my hull An iceberg, a needle. Sweet whispered nothings "Sail tonight!" A storm! This deathbed harbor. By love's rusty anchor, Forever moored."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Rusty Anchor"

*****

In a previous life, I had a lover who played the saxophone. He was then what Nick Virago would become to me two decades after I died--a toy. Whatever reasons I had for keeping him around, love wasn't a part of them. But one of the sharpest memories of my mortal existence after it ended remained the image of myself standing on the balcony of my then-boyfriend's suite in Paris, overlooking the skyline of the City of Lights with my notebook in hand, while he improvised jazz on the sax behind me. For a long time after that, I always wrote to the sound of a saxophone.

I couldn't say what made me think of him again just before dawn that night. Hector was breathing heavily as he slept, and I slipped into a silk robe Max had given me and walked down through the deserted club and out to the balcony. Watching the skyline of Rubacava shut down, I drank in my first cigarette of the day and considered my options. If the plans he'd told me of held water, Hector Lemans was indeed my next target. On the other hand, I'd made it this far by never playing my entire hand at once. It was still too early to break with Max--and doing so, I realized, might chase me out of Rubacava for good unless Hector was powerful enough to run Max out instead. That meant that I'd have to play them both out for a while until it was time to make my move. I sighed. The transition period always came close to being more trouble than it was worth.

I couldn't remember how many times I'd done this over the years. Find a man, use him until a better opportunity presented itself, transition, start in on the next one. It was a parasitic lifestyle, but anyone who could claim it wasn't a full-time job had no idea how much work it took. My poetry and, later, the club would have provided me with enough money to make it, but surviving and thriving are two very different matters. And, aside from small-time cons like the one I'd pulled on Hector the first night he came in, I'd never sold out artistically like so many of my contemporaries. Between that and being flush with everything I'd ever dreamed of having and more, it wasn't a bad way to go through afterlife.

That was the night the game began, and the stakes I was playing for now were the highest I'd ever gambled on. For the next twelve months, I would be balancing three men on a silver tray, and one wrong move could send all of them crashing to the floor.

But then, I was a professional.

*****

Ordinarily, this transition would have gone extraordinarily smoothly. Once I'd made my decision, I would gradually begin hinting to the new man that I had fallen in love with him and wanted everyone to know it, and that someday in the not-too-distant future I would leave my old lover in order to be with him. This step was usually enough to secure myself a new living space of my own--which, I explained, was necessary to allow me the solitude I required to create true art, although in reality it was merely infinitely preferable to being forced to spend every waking minute in the domicile of my beloved. At the same time, I would gradually begin the break with the old lover. This was generally easily; all I had to do was make a habit of visiting him at times I knew he would be too busy to see me and come to him after a few months saying that we had to break up because I felt we were growing apart. Alternately, I could cite my need for independence or artistic expression. My general goal in this stage was to ensure that he came out of it believing that the fault for the end of the relationship's end was not mine, but it wasn't strictly necessary. Of course, my new boyfriend was always more powerful than my own, powerful enough to protect me--almost always, which was why I'd made a mistake in the last transition of my life. Giuseppe had refused to accept that we were over and kept attempting to make attends until I'd had no choice but to inform the police and FBI of his illegal activities. This had done wonders for my status with Reuben, but he wasn't strong enough to protect me from the Family.

Still, most circumstances were less high-risk, and this transition might have been so too had the geography of the affair not presented a problem. I'd dealt with two men in different locales before, but Max and Hector were equally rigid in their reluctance to leave their spheres of influence. Like most of their status, they were internally small men who clung to their power above everything else, and felt extremely insecure in any place where it was weakened. As construction on the casino began, each man began visiting the other city with increasing frequency--during which times I had to be present for both, which may have been one of the most time-consuming and uncomfortable experiences of my afterlife--but on several occasions I did have to visit El Marrow on my own.

Despite the problems inherent in this strategy, however, the direct players weren't my biggest setbacks in the transition. It was the X-factors. And the first X-factor on the list was Domino Hurley.

*****

Gunnar had also been reaped by Domino, and from the changes I once heard him describe to Alexi and Slisko, my club was designed like a darker version of the travel agent's new office. I had to hand it to the man; he had some sense of taste. We both relied heavily on modern architecture and fixtures and focused our main rooms around the nuclei of their respective businesses: his desk, my stage. The parallels, Gunnar mentioned in between spats about the true necessity of the development of the middle class, were uncanny.

I laughed when I heard this, but it reminded me of Domino's involvement in Hector's scheme. So we'd both joined the winning team over the years. I had no idea what he'd been doing since I'd last seen him, though, and I didn't particularly care. As long as the machine worked properly, I didn't care much about the cogs or what oiled them.

All that changed the night he walked into the Blue Casket. I'd been in the suite with Nick and was just heading back into the club to listen to a few minutes of the night's reading when I passed him. I wasn't paying attention; I was noting that the newer regulars who hadn't developed as great a tolerance for Coffin Shooters yet were starting to drop flies. It usually marked the halfway point of the evening. And so I simply strode by him, ignoring him, and it wasn't until a beat later that I heard, "Good evening, Ms. Ofrenda."

"Domino," I said without turning around. "Been a while."

"Nice to see you've done well for yourself."

"I hear you haven't done too badly either, Daddy. Construction on the casino's almost done." I pivoted and took the chair across the table from him.

"I wouldn't know," he replied. "Haven't been to El Marrow in months."

"Out of a job?"

"Into one. I'm running a leg of Mr. Lemans's operations overseas."

I laughed. "Waste of time. Puerto Zapato's practically a ghost town."

He leaned back, crossing his legs, and took a drink. "When I said overseas, I meant it literally."

"Well, if you're making a living on a cruise ship, why come back to Rubacava? The drinks aren't that much better here, although the company might be."

"Got it in one, Ms. Ofrenda. But I'm not here for the company. I had a few loose ends to tie up. Thought I'd swing your way while I was in town."

As he set his glass back down on the table, I snatched it away from him and finished it off with a catlike smile. "You've always swung my way, daddy-o."

"I'm not the only one," he said. He might have been looking at Nick, who had just stalked out to build himself a nest of paperwork, but then he continued. "Saw a friend of yours; last client before I left town. Guy called Charlie Taylor. You know him?"

Paris. The end of the '50s. Secret meetings under Alain's nose. A saxophone. He was the one I'd remembered that first night with Hector--artist's intuition.

I definitely knew him.

"I know him," I replied, cutting off the memory stream. "Where's he now?"

"His eternal reward." The reaper tossed it off like it was nothing.

The end of the line. He'd never come through the club, and he would have. I did some quick calculations. Given the timing, that could only mean one thing. "He got a ticket on the Double-N." Domino nodded. I snorted. "He must have had to pull a lot more strings than I did. Sure you don't swing the other way?"

He ignored that. "I'm not really supposed to reveal what's in the files, but I'm on a leave of absence, so...the man played a mean saxophone, apparently; gave a lot of free concerts in Paris. The powers that be figure he did something good for society, something like that. Tipped the balance in his favor."

Charlie. Charlie had gotten a ride on the Number Nine just for sucking a reed. What was the part of the equation I was missing? Certainly I'd done more for the arts in Paris than slinking around the back alleys honking on a twisted piece of metal. Why had I had to walk?

"Enthralling," I snapped. "Tell me, what was the point--"

"He's not the only friend of yours I've met," Domino interrupted me. "Your old buddies from Columbia. New York City in the '50s, remember? Jack, Allen, William...Neal? You DO remember. They all took the Number Nine too."

This was like a nightmare.

Why was I still here? Half of the cats back in NYC had sold out. Certainly my work had more artistic merit. Certainly--no. No. I hadn't done anything wrong. Their racket had been targeting me all along.

That was the point at which I decided. I still wasn't ready to put much credence in the fool's gold of the Ninth Underworld, but even fool's gold glimmers, and your hand still feels empty when someone steals it. I was sure now that my Double-N ticket had been filched by Hector Lemans's racket, and I was going to get to the bottom of the matter. I'm not a woman who's often accused of having principles, but now it was the principle of the matter.

And now I was sure that the power shift to Hector was the right move. Whether he'd been responsible for all those long years I'd had to struggle through before reaching the top or not, moving toward him would be moving up. In this world--or the next one.

All of this crossed my mind in the span of time it would take someone with eyelids to blink. "Did you come here to sell me a Double-N ticket, Hurley?" I sighed, resting my chin lightly on my knuckles.

"Me? No. Making you think wouldn't hurt, but I'm just here to catch up on old times, check the place out. I'm headed back out to the edge of the world before Calavera arrives there."

"Calavera?" Not that I would have admitted this, but I seized upon the change of subject. "He was headed after that gone chick who took off a few months ago."

He nodded in recognition. "Mercedes Colomar. Another client of mine. I assure you, she's in good hands."

"I don't care whose hands she's in," I told him. Then it hit me. Calavera was working for the LSA. Domino had been ripping Number Nine tickets from his clients. They were both after this Colomar woman for one reason or another. Unless they were both in love with her--and looking at the smirking reaper across the table, I had the feeling that theory didn't go far--which meant... "But she was a Double-N candidate, wasn't she?"

"Bingo," he replied, applauding. As it happened, the reading had just finished and everyone around us was snapping their fingers; with one motion, they all turned to look at the moronic outsider who was killing their atmosphere. He raised his hands in self-defense and they turned around again, muttering.

"Listen." I leaned forward across the table. "Calavera's working with some underground revolutionary organization called the Lost Soul's Alliance in El Marrow. The leader is a man called Salvador Limones. I think they know the game."

Domino pulled back and chuckled to himself. "Always did have a knack for getting in there and screwing it up." He stood, shaking his head lightly with an almost affectionate condescension. "Well, I'll take care of him. Hold down the fort for me here, okay?"

He turned to go. Behind him, I laughed and shook my own head. "Until the next power shift, hep cat."

To be continued...

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