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part II seventh stanza: nuevo marrow

*****

"Evolution, form to function Revolution, no compunctions

A new day dawns with gaudy sun

Another era has begun..."

--Olivia Ofrenda, "Nuevo Marrow"

*****

Rubacava in her heydey was like a beast of prey that slumbered during the day, deceptively stagnant, and awoke with flashing eyes when the sun went down to stalk her quarry with a feral neon grace. Calling it the city that never slept is inaccurate, but it was the city that never slept at night. The night Hector's casino opened at the base of the DOD building was the day all that changed. It was the start of the power shift from Rubacava to El Marrow. It was the beginning of the end.

On the surface, everything was humming as always in Rubacava that night, but the real players weren't on the scene. Max packed up and headed for El Marrow before the fog lifted, bringing with him a large portion of his entourage, Nick Virago, and me. I remarked snidely that our motorcade alone spanned the entire distance between the two cities; Max was not amused. He was strangely uptight that night, and that made his lackeys uptight because they knew it meant trouble for them. Only I seemed to be enjoying myself.

I'd been to El Marrow several times since my arrival there, but even I was surprised by how much it had changed in the few months since I had last seen it. The skyscrapers were lit up as always, but now there were bursts of color everywhere. It could have been Times Square, downtown Paris, Shinjuku. Neon lights, signs, open doorways, clubs, bars, cafes, shops, streetlamps...it was an unusual splash of modernity in the Aztec-influenced city, and El Marrow hadn't yet adjusted to to the contrast.

The headquarters of the Department of Death, with its huge facade, had always been the most imposing building in the city. Now it was even more eyecatching, garnished with chrome and gold lights cleverly arranged to spotlight the entrance without looking gaudy. Hector had learned a few things from the Casket after all.

No, more than a few. I amended the statement as the doors were whisked open by almost-unseen doormen to reveal the revamped lobby. The carpeting and tile had been redone and the walls repapered with the same teal and tan covering, but aside from that the main part of the room was as it had been the last time I'd seen it: classy, businesslike, elegant but understated. Hector had been unobtrusive with the new construction at the rear of the building, and the casino entrance fit so seamlessly into the design of the rest of the room that I had to stop and ask myself if it hadn't been there before.

As soon as we stepped down the wide hallway and the doors to the lobby closed behind us, though, there was an immediate paradigm shift in the design of the place. Right away, we were in the heart of the casino. Everything was brighter, flashier, more vivid. I could still see the upscale teal-and-tan at work, but now there were bold strokes of red incorporated too, with gleaming brass banisters and hardwood paneling lining the staircases. I knew that environment--especially colors-- had a strong effect on the human mind, and even a few moments after walking in, I was feeling energized. Merely standing in the room had a stimulating, bracing effect. I knew that it would make Hector's high rollers feel big. And that that sense of importance and wealth would put them at ease back in an environment they could feel at home in, and they would buy his tickets. This scheme was almost failsafe.

Almost.

He gave us a tour of the new facilities, from the main casino lobby where we'd been standing to the slot machines--I hated them; the decor there was sleazy and it was patently obvious that the room was only there as a cash cow--to the card tables to the roulette wheels to the bars and lounges. Our entourage--Max, Hector, and their respective hordes of beautiful people--eventually retired to one of the last of these, Hector's version of Max's High Roller's Lounge.

"Well?" Hector asked, leaning back with some effort in his massive armchair and directing the question to Max. "What do you think of the place?" "The casino?" Darling Max always was quick on the uptake. "It's great, pal. Just beautiful. I love it. Don't you love it?" Here he turned and looked at the entourage, most of which was standing behind him ready to respond on cue. The gesture told me that he was still feeling insecure. He knew he might be outclassed here. The entourage nodded in unison.

"And you, Olivia?" Hector's green skull swiveled toward me. "I'm afraid I haven't quite managed the elegance of your establishment, but I hope that in some small way I have been able to emulate it."

Had I been less aware of the side on which my bread was buttered, I would have asked him which element of this place reflected the Blue Casket in any way: was it the gaudy brass fixtures? Perhaps the cheap vinyl coverings on the bar stools in front of the slot machines?

Then, a casino couldn't be expected to follow true aesthetic standards, in the same sense as a man like Hector couldn't be expected to tell a real poem from a seductively painted fraud. Unlike the Casket, people weren't here for the atmosphere; the atmosphere was here for them. And this casino fit its clientele: sophisticated on the surface, but cheap and shallow within. It was perfect.

"I love it, Hector," I replied.

*****

"Really?" he persisted. "You don't think it's a bit too...gauche?"

"Form matches function," I replied swiftly. For example, Hector, darling, your form is a textbook illustration of a man who is required only to hold the purse while I pull the strings. "I think it's a beautiful casino."

"Not as beautiful as you are, Olivia," Max cut in, leaning over to kiss me. I pulled away, murmuring, "Max...all these people." It let me save face with both men.

"I agree," Hector said, and I heard the edge in his voice. "If this establishment holds a tenth of the beauty of the lovely Olivia Ofrenda, then I will have achieved all I could have asked for."

I rubbed my gloved fingers against the side of my skull, a classic geisha sleight-of-hand that made men think I was blushing. Since I couldn't remember ever blushing in my life, I'd gotten a lot of mileage out of the trick.

Max almost growled. "Nothing could even come close. Not even my kitties."

"I believe we were speaking of the Altar, not your 'kitties,'" Hector said a bit icily.

"The Altar?"

The larger man turned carefully to stare the other one down. "Why, yes. Didn't I tell you? That's the name of this establishment. It's quite a fitting one, too, if I do say so myself. You see, on the traditional Mexican Day of the Dead--"

"--families set up altars with offerings for their dead relatives," I interrupted, glancing at Max. "Altars called 'ofrendas.'"

The chill of death flooded the room instantly. There was dead silence, except for the sounds of the soft jazz being piped in from some unseen speaker and Max's saliva swishing as he chewed on the end of his cigar.

Hector cleared his throat. "Well, yes, Olivia, thank you. I thought it quite proper. For the newly departed souls who pass through, this casino is something of an altar on which an offering is placed. The offering of...eternity." In the form of Double-N tickets. But you don't care to share that detail with this buffoon, do you, Hector?

Perhaps because you know that tonight is his last stand?

"Whatever. Anyway, I think it's a great little place. If it does as well as my joint, I'll have to start thinking about opening up a little place of my own here in El Marrow."

I shot a glance at him in amusement. Open a new club in this town? Property values in El Marrow, already astronomical, were skyrocketing. Somehow I doubted that even Max had the financial resources to start a fledgling business of the size he must have in mind around here.

Especially without the money that Nick and I had been skimming off the top of his operations for the past two years.

Nick was seated, as usual, on Max's other side. I could tell that he knew what was going on, but he made no comment as he withdrew another cigarette from his new case and lit it. He was smoking, I was smoking, Max was smoking, Hector was smoking, the entourages were smoking. Everyone was smoking. Everyone was tense. The room was almost blue with smoke. There was a poem there somewhere.

"By all means, my good man, you simply must!" Hector cried in false joviality. "In fact, I believe there is a prime location right across the street." He lowered his voice, the way sinfully rich men always do when they discuss money. "The asking price at the moment is a mere 4.5 million for the suite! Pocket change for a man such as yourself."

Pocket change indeed. I'd taken at least twice that sum from Max in the previous two years and watched as careless accountants were sprouted for it. He could no longer afford to toss that change into fountains.

"Absolutely, Max," I chimed in. "I think it's a fabulous idea. In fact...perhaps I'll open a little place of my own around here. This town could use a little culture, don't you think?" This last to Hector.

"Certainly," he agreed. "And if you ever find yourself in need of any assistance, my dear Olivia, you mustn't hesitate in the slightest to ask. After all your help with the Altar, the least I could do would be to respond in kind."

I gave Max the Cheshire cat smile. "The triumvirate. Max, we'd own this town. And with the two biggest cities dominated by our clubs...we'd own the Eighth Underworld. Can you imagine it? Perhaps I'll get myself a penthouse suite uptown..."

"Absolutely not!" Max finally exploded. There was silence again as everyone stared at him and he tried to recover. "I mean, I don't think it'd come off, hon," he corrected himself. "Why don't you leave the business decisions to me? If you want a bigger place in Rubacava, I can build us a mansion or something down by the water. That'd be better anyway, huh?"

Silence again. I glanced over at Max, who was chomping nervously on his cigar, his eyesockets fixed on me. Hector had made a steeple out of his hands and was tapping his fingers together, making small clicking sounds.

And I shook my head slowly.

"Poor Maxie," I said, still smiling. "That's always been a weakness of yours, darling. You simply lack vision." I swept my cigarette holder away from me, dismissively.

"Now, Hector, on the other hand..." "...is a man who knows opportunity when he sees it," Hector finished. "And this is an opportunity."

"Indeed it is, darling," I agreed, turning back from him to face Max again. He was staring at me with his jaw hanging open. The cigar fell from it and dropped to the floor, where it died.

"Olivia..." he spluttered. "Olivia...you can't mean--"

"I can and do, Max." With one quick motion, I stubbed out my own cigarette. "It's over."

"For each end, there is a beginning," Hector intoned. He motioned to two members of his entourage, who immediately stepped forward and helped him heave himself out of his armchair and to his feet. He offered me his arm. "Shall we, my dear? It is opening night, after all."

"But of course." I stood as well and took the arm. "The night is young, after all, and I'm sure that the beautiful people have been waiting for you to make an entrance."

"None more beautiful than you, Olivia," he murmured, leaning in to kiss me. When we broke, he turned. "Do feel free to stay as long as you like, Max, old boy," he added. "No hard feelings, I'm sure. This is the way the game is played between men like us." He and the entourage started for the door.

As I was stepping out of it, I turned back to look at Max. "And this is the way the game is played by women like me. Goodbye, Max." And with that, my new boyfriend and I swept out to begin reigning over our new empire, leaving Max sitting there stunned. His jaw was still open.

To be continued...

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