Aphra sat up with her back straight as any finishing school girl, Pollini-encased toe markedly not tapping the floor in impatience, while The Right Honorable Elijah Weatherwax scanned an eleven by fourteen high-contrast print on Oriental Seagull paper with a slight touch of selenium toner to render it about as black and white as any photograph ever gets. He grunted a few times as he scanned what he had already seen, already read a stack of reports on, already bounced around various think tanks and academic lairs. Finally he cut his pinkish eyes toward her and said, “That’s one beauty of a picture, honeysuckle.”

“Thanks, Mr. Chairman. A retired Navy darkroom tech I’ve been using for years. A real artisan.”

“And if nobody else has said it, I’m saying it now: you did one bang-up job. If half of your report can be believed, it was one hell of a grab.”

“Thanks again. So it sounds like payday for lil ol Aphra.”

“Weeeeeell,” he drew it out and chewed on it until she expected him to hawk a chaw into a spittoon for emphasis. “Yes and no.”

Well, thanks and no thanks, you pus-gut cracker, Aphra thought. But played a deuce on it. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Wall,” he leaned over the desk and flicked the print to her, “Just read that thing to me.”

Uh, oh. She slipped the print back towards him and said, “Sorry, I snuck out smoking the day they had the Maya cartoon spelling bee. But that’s not really my job description here, is it?”

“It’s not? Did you contract to bring us an artisan-quality picture of Sammy Skull spouting little high-roglyphics? Or intelligence regarding proceedings on the dates in question?”

Shit. Shit, fuck, piss in your granny’s ears. Try for the high hand, only way she could see to play it. Either that or see if they’ve got some kind of Berlitz course in MayaToon. “So you’re sitting here at this desk, Senate Office Building, ready to go chair one of the heaviest committees in the galaxy…and you can’t get some egghead, tell you what that shit’s trying to say?”

“Couldn’ta put it better myself. Seems this is some very old version of a very regional kinda, you know, whatever it is. Only a couple of people could translate it. Only one we can get a definite name for.”

Oh double fuck-shit-piss, Aphra almost wailed. Just let me guess. About five seven, cute as a baby duck, of the Buddha-head persuasion? All she said was, “Let me guess.”

“You got it, sweets. Any idea where the good Doctor Chiang is these days? Because we can’t find her. And apparently it wouldn’t be a good idea for her to go back to Mexico, where she’s working. Seattle University said she called in sick for a couple of
months.”

“Doesn’t matter. She wouldn’t give me the time, not even the finger. She’s sure to be pissed off solid from about the time she powered that camera up and found it was empty.”

“Ironic, ain’t it? But there’s an original out there, right? Or did you get that shot up?”

Aphra stared at him silently. So I can either find and win over a disappeared chinagirl in company of a guy who got her out of that dragnet in Mexico and is probably ready to brain my ass. Or I can take on Señor Kingpin wherever the hell his wandering yacht has got to. Let me get back to you on that one. I shoulda just sold this shit to Popular Archeologist and got shet of it.

She stood up and gave a cool look at Sen. Weatherwax, who knew exactly her dilemma and was watching wolfishly for her reaction.

“I’m all over it, Senator. You’ll be hearing from me.”

Weatherwax turned his full-candlepower rum-flushed beam on her. “Damn! I like your style, woman. No whining, just get back out there and kick ass. Tell you what, I’m gonna cut you a partial because like I said, you done it up real fine. Not so big an advance you don’t wanna go get me that translation, though. You ever thought of going into politics your own self?”

“Senator,” Aphra said, rising elegantly and gripping her Vuitton clutch chastely in front of her. “I have been a liar and thief, a spy with no allegiance or scruples, a traitor, and a whore.”

She walked to the door, opened it and turned to face Weatherwax, who was waiting for it. “But there’s still a few depths of scumbucketry I just can’t stoop to.”

She closed the door on his fervent applause and started making new plans.

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“Got four shots off that memory card,” Weistler said with a big butt-smacking grin.

Townsend nodded. He’d pulled and switched the card from MeiMei’s camera in case Aphra somehow managed to re-acquire. Hadn’t peeked until he handed it over to Monsoon. Now the whole thing was done and he could get rid of these assholes. “And they all came out all right?”

“Weeelll,” Weistler drawled. “Yes and no.”

Well good, Town thought. Or not. He said, “So ‘Yes’ sounds good.”

He glanced across the featureless lounge in the White House basement they’d grabbed to debrief him, hoping for a hint from the Monsoon. But the big Irish was ignoring him, watching that stupid POTUS show on a microwave-sized TV set. No clues there and The Weaseler was being a dick about it. But now he had a manila folder and was pulling out four eight by ten color glossies. He handed all but one to Town, holding the other one up and adjusting his glasses for a good look. “They’re all damn good, but I like this one best.”

Townsend casually picked up the glossies and fanned them for a look. And fell into a personal interior abyss.

The first one showed Aphra, naked, giving him the finger. In the second one she was bent over, looking back over her shoulder with a feral grin as she shot him the dark side of the moon. The third one was her and that redhead fire freak, also nude, wrapped all around each other and obviously taking their own portrait in a full length mirror. He sat and stared. thinking what we always end up thinking about reversals of that magnitude.: No way. No motherfucking way.

Weistler held up the fourth print, which depicted the two women in a much spicier embrace on a bed, Aphra holding the camera up for a shot at the mirror. “I want a couple of blow-ups of that one and a dozen wallet-sized of the squat shot,” he said.

Townsend just sat, staring, his mind racing. How many camera/bugs had the bitch had down there? He was wracking his brain for a way to turn this around and couldn’t come up with jack.

Weistler leaned forward and laid on a confidential tone, “So what’s it like porking a dyke, anyway?”

Townsend stood and moved up to where his thighs touched the desk, leaned forward with his fists on the top and spoke to the weasel in a way that imparted a faint, chilly hint of the real fears and menace of The Field. When he recoiled with a sickly smile, Townsend said, “Pretty much like your mama, except she won’t swallow after it’s been in her ass.”

Monsoon turned from his fascinated/appalled view of the POTUS show and roared with laughter. “That’s telling him, Townie.” He was breaking the tension between the other two guys, and moving to defuse what he knew must be starting to eat Townsend up. “Look, you think you got problems? Check out the guy I have to re-elect. Mugging with George Clooney like he’s Bill fuckin’ Cosby or something.”

Sure enough, on the little screen Barak Obama lolled at ease in his host chair, inviting intimacy and confidence from his guest. Clooney nodded appreciation for the applause following his last mot, then asked the host of the POTUS Show, “So what did you spend your stimulus package on?”

“Stimulants.” When the laughter died down Obama added, “What, didn’t you read my book, George?”

“Holy Motherhumpin’ Macree,” Monsoon moaned as he switched off the set and threw the remote across the room. “I keep thinking he’s crossed the line, then I start thinking there’s no such thing as a line anymore.”

He stood up and heaved around the room for awhile, puffing about the hated show his boss was drawing top ratings with. Townsend watched as he shook it off and turned back to the matter at hand. He lumbered across the floor and pulled up a leather-like ottoman to dump his ruddy bulk right in front of the faux Morris chair where Townsend sat, and leaned in like the dutchest of uncles. “Look, whatever sort of emo framistan you were stupid enough to jam into this thing…”

“And, honest injun here, I can’t blame you much,” Weistler stuck in from where he lounged with his weejuns on the pristine upholstery of a GS-12 class sofa. “She’s the five alarm hot sauce, no two ways about it.”

“Not so much that…”

Monsoon guffawed. “Well, apart from that.”

Townsend slogged on into it. He’d committed himself, for some reason he didn’t completely understand, to playing this completely straight: total debrief, no cover, no chaser. The only one who’d had anything to tell him about Life After Megagasms had stressed that: truth brings truth, lies bring lies. Take the chance and you’ll reap the harvest. Not the best advice to a professional spy, but he didn’t sense even an ounce of bullshit around that Loris babe. So here goes:

“She was like… like a colleague. A peer. Nobody else really understands what I’m doing. There’s nobody to talk to about it. She’s like… I don’t know… like somebody I played with in college but now I’m a Yankee and she’s a Red Sock, but we can talk in a place all the fans and assholes don’t know about. That make sense?”

Weistler gave Monsoon a searching look, drawing forth a shrug, then a rueful grin. Then, “That makes a lot of sense to both of us, actually. What are we going to do, tell our wives what we did at the office?”

“If you could rent a hall big enough for all your wives.”

“I’d have to look around for one big enough just for Erin these days.”

“Somewhere inside that mound of lard there’s still the sylphlike lingerie model, trying to eat her way out.”

Townsend was still on the edge of his chair, leaning forward in a dark tension, but realized that the vaudeville was for his benefit. And was surprised to realize that he appreciated it.

“Look, kid,” Monsoon rumbled. “There’s no shame in getting faced by Beyonce, there. Aside from the obvious, you’re a rookie, she’s an old timer.”

“Same age as me.”

“Yeah but…”

“But she was grifting intel in her teens, Town,” Weistler cut in. “Working top-level exec parties, clubs. Doing vice callouts to get next to top CEO’s and mid-managers. Guys who run conglomerates. Are they stupider than you?”

“And what were you doing in your teens?” Monsoon asked.

“Dunking forty-three points in the Tri-State final,” Weistler answered the rhetorical question. “Pitching three games in the College World Series. Playing bass with The Fugknuckles, I believe they were called. Laying waste to sorority row.”

“Then you get almost like, tapped in to the Agency.” Monsoon scowled. “After college. We should probably be recruiting little gamesters out of grade school. Running Spy Scouts camps like the gooks.”

“Instead of getting the job because of my old man’s network of admirers and envious loathers? Find out I’m not the right timber from some lez bimbo?”

“Who also has a bit of a parental shadow behind her, it might interest you to know. Difference was, her mom taught her Trade, wanted her in The Life.”

“Just on some other side,” Weistler snickered. “She probably runs into people all the time, old Panthers with their berets turning grey telling her what a great organizer her mama was.”

“Not to mention what a come-to-Jesus great fuck.”

“And she probably runs into them as little as she can.”

“Like I said,” Townsend said quietly, “Overlook a few obvious differences and we’re the same thing. Karmic teammates or something.”

“For one thing,” Weistler said straight-faced, “You’re both wild about pussy.”

Monsoon saw Townsend about to stand up and walk out and spoke quickly but with an authoritative warmth. “Hang on, kid. Gimme a minute more, okay? You shut up, Jerry.”

Weistler shrugged and leaned back to see what riff his colleague would roll out this time. He was actually surprised for a change.

Monsoon paused, looked Townsend back into his chair, then hiked his a little closer and spoke right into his face. Talking like a man who’d taken off his official hat for a minute. Townsend slumped back and listened.

“Let me ask you a question, Townie. Why the screaming, shitting, wall-kicking, paddywacking fuck did we start a war in the Middle East?”

Townsend warped out on that one a minute, then shifted into Dudley Dooright. “So the terrorists wouldn’t win? To make the world safe for Monday Night Football? To preserve our way of landing on aircraft carriers?”

“I’m being real here.”

“Okay. I guess I’d say what anybody not stupid enough to repeat what we told them would say: Oil.”

“So show me the oil,” Weistler chuckled. “Show me why we’re paying billions to rebuild Shithole On Sandgrit over there while they’re pulling bejillions in petroprofits.”

“I thought we agreed one of us would shut up,” Monsoon growled, then returned to Townsend. “You’re not that dumb. You probably figure it’s all about some wheels within wheels hidden behind gears and guts down in the Beast. Nothing to worry your pretty head about because you’re an action figure. The Jimmy Bond ninety percent of the agency really want to be but can’t cut the mustard.”

“Junior Grade.”

“I’m getting to that. Let me tell you from a pretty damn unique insider perspective why we jumped off our personal jihad against Islam. Let’s take a closer look at George W. Bush.”

Great, Townsend thought. First I get the “thinking with your johnson” smirks, now I’m getting some old nutcutter’s history lesson. On the other hand, maybe that’s what it calls for.

“One thing pretty unique about Dubya,” Monsoon went on in his armchair lecturer mode, “How many presidents had fathers who were presidents? You’re looking at a guy who made it to the most powerful position in the world and was still falling short of his old man’s accomplishments. And Senior made it pretty clear he thought Junior was Howdy Doody. How could he possibly top the Pop?”

Townsend was jolted out of any lull in his attention at that point; staring at Munson as though he’d just morphed into a guru channeling Dr. Phil and Dr. Ruth.

“He didn’t make his Dad’s marks at Yale, was the joke of Skull and Bones, zippo military record, screwing around baseball instead of the Company. Second rate blowby right down the line. But there was one thing his father failed to accomplish.”

Townsend almost whispered. “Take out Saddam.”

“You got it,” Monsoon nodded as if to a dull student finally picking up on the picture. “You talk to anybody who was around the Oval back then. Anybody who’ll give a straight answer–and lotsa luck finding that–and they all know it: Georgie came into office already committed to going after Hussein. He’d been dreaming about it through the whole Clinton Scare and he hit the ground running.”

“Shit, that almost makes some scary kind of sense.”

“The only mystery is how he sold the sane, grownup world that such a reckless action was necessary to take care of a guy who didn’t even make the Top Ten Dangerous Asshole Dictators list. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after blowing my life working in top-level politics it’s that it really comes down to personalities. You just can’t go back and examine the political parameters and components of the times and explain a Bonaparte or Alexander or Hitler or Bolivar. They’re pretending to now, of course, revisionizing history to get rid of bronze Paul Bunyans and Elvises that make them feel inadequate, but I’m telling you: things happen in this world because of diseased personalities, not graphs and flowcharts.”

“And you get down to it,” Weistler said, almost to himself as he examined Monsoon’s thesis, “It’s generally over something stupid and petty.”

“Napoleon too short,” Monsoon nodded. “Hitler too scrawny and Jewish-looking. Duke’s fucking the French king’s wife. Chancellor snubbed the Premier at a state dinner. Chief of Secret Police is impotent. The professor’s parents tossed out his teddy bear. All explanations that bear no explanation. Most times nobody even has a clue what’s going on. And as little as we understand politics and economics, Christ knows, it’s lore of the savants compared to what we know about psychology.”

Townsend took a slow pan of these power players, Monsoon regarding him like a kindly uncle–which would have creeped him out except there was that gnawing feeling of gratitude again–and Weistler highly impressed but curious as to how he’d take it. He licked his lips, looked over their heads for a moment. Then said, “It’s been frustrating.”

Monsoon nodded, pleased with the outcome. “I can see how it would be. And now this. And just maybe your old man’s lingering fingers had something to do with you sucking a goose egg down there? Look. You’re too young to be frustrated. That’s one of the privileges of age and experience.”

Weistler laughed, but kept that curious eye on him.

“I think things are different now.”

“Know what?” Monsoon leaned back, regaining distance. “I was sort of picking up on that. God knows what went on down there, but I’m hoping it does you some good. Here’s what I’m suggesting: don’t let your hardon for your old man make you burn down the world.”

He didn’t squirm or flare behind that. He’d already figured out what the older man was saying and was filing it away in places that seemed to have been recently prepared to accept it. What he said was, “Thank you very much. For everything. Next time I’ll do better.”

Weistler laughed and Monsoon filled in the bassline with his own jolly rumbling. “Next time is the New This Time,” he said.

“You hear a fat lady singing?” Monsoon asked him.

“If so, I hope it’s not Erin,” Weistler tossed in. “She could shatter the plate in Yankee Stadium.”

“You said this thing ties into this whole Maya bullshit? And the little chink is still after some way to make sense of it? And that splib rugmuncher is still after it? Well then…”

This time the gratitude threatened to break out in a tremor, so Townsend was very careful when he nodded gravely to the corrupt old machinators and said, “Thanks, you guys. I won’t let you down.”

“Good. See if you can tape the dirty parts this time out.”

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Denny “Stonecold” Mercer slipped out of his trenchcoat, damp from the showers of some little-known tropical capital, and hung it neatly over a bamboo chair. He removed his battered, “if this hat could talk, the stories it could tell” fedora and tossed it on the rack in the corner. All without taking his eyes off the woman on the bed: dark-skinned, exotic, of primordial, pre-whiteman breeding.

He’d completed his mission, against improbable odds, and brought home the bacon, squeal and all. He brushed the pleats on the front of his khakis, then undid the tricky knife/camera/buckle and let them fall to the floor. She was looking at him, ancient eyes staring out from the hard young body. He moved across to her, sat on the bed, checking around for snares, eye-holes, or listening devices. He reached to touch her soft, mounded breast and she sighed and rose towards him. mayancalendargirls.com “Aren’t you going to turn off the television?” Lluvia moaned softly.

So he turned off the television and tossed a yellow towel over the lamp. And once again sat down beside Lluvia, old eyes in a young body in an obscure tropical capital. Slowly, shyly, she reached up to him. And in the moment her soft hands touched his face he felt a shift inside himself, a deep, tectonic psychic shift, two worlds grinding into accommodation. Here he was. He eased down beside her, drinking in her touch and diving deep into a world where there was just no need to be anybody but himself.

She didn’t much like the looks on Tuan’s face as he viewed the screen of a “VIP” computer in the Presidents’ Lounge. Yes, THOSE Presidents in the Houston airport. He glanced at her, blank, and said, “There’s only one file here, Mei.”

“There should be at least six shots. Things got a little confused there, but…”

“It’s a video.”

That set her back. How could that be? Well, one thing to do. “Let’s have a look.”

He started to shuffle his chair to one side, but she perched on his knee with an arm around his neck and peered at the screen as he clicked the file. There was the usual bevy of idiot Window’s questions and kvetching, then Media Player opened on a close-up on the face of Aphra Alisandra.

“Uh-oh.”

Tuan turned up the volume. Aphra, looking into the camera in a mixture of faux embarrassment and possibly semi-valid sincerity, said, “Hey, Chinatown. Hope you’re not in Mexico watching this in a holding cell. Yeah, I took your camera. Beat Townsend to it by a nanometer. Sorry, kiddo. mayancalendargirls.comBut I really need this stuff and I’m not into chasing down that yacht asshole. Thanks for everything and maybe I can return the favor some day. Give me about a six month lead with this shit, okay? Then some day you’ll get an email from “Black Adder”. Respond and I’ll send you your stuff, is that cool? I figure you’re not going to be back up to speed in academia before then, anyway. And I’m going to see if I can make some of your troubles in Mexico go away. Good luck. Hope it works out with the little Flip. I thought he was pretty cute, actually. I mean, you know, considering. I’d nab him myself, but I don’t do short. Or smart. Hasta la vista, baby.”

They both stared at the screen until Tuan moved to shut it down before it repeated. They both sat, MeiMei leaning her head on his. “I gotta admit, she’s kind of cool,” she said. “For a back-stabbing, amoral bitch.”

Tuan nodded absently, obviously lost in thought. Finally he said, “Do you think she can really sort out Mexico for you?”

“I really doubt it. I told you who that asshole is.”

“Then there’s the Old Assholes Network, Mexico Chapter.”

“I don’t know. I really want to know what’s on that thing. Think maybe hypnosis might help? Recovered memories?”

“Aren’t those always about sex abuse by parents and satanic cults?”

“You know what? I’m actually not too keen to get back to work right away. I’ve always been a workaholic but…” she turned to kiss his brow. “I never had any reason to goof off before.”

“An excuse for procrastination and laziness. Few men could aspire to a higher calling.”

“So what’s this O.B. place like?”

“Ocean Beach? You’ll love it. It’s got a special beach for dogs.”

“You’d enjoy Seattle, too. Until it starts raining.”

Tuan reached into his carry-on and pulled out two boarding passes. “Two first class to SeaTac,” he said. “I figured you’d want to touch base with your family.”

MeiMei turned in his lap to hug his neck. And whisper in his ear. “I agree with that bitch on one thing: I hope this works out, too.”

“It has to,” he said. “We already did the honeymoon.”

She was a hundred yards outside the reef, and pushing deeper with every dive. She felt slow and awkward with the strap-back SCUBA fins, but was getting some serious depth. Between recover spells, lying still on the surface with her hands and legs pointing downward, her mind and oxygen metabolism slowed with the meditation Royal had taught her years ago on Roatan. She started to ramp up another hyper-ventilation cycle and series of breath packs and there they were, like she’d known they would be. Knew they would be.That’s the way it was now, for some reason.

Bruto was there first, rocketing past her in his coarse way, shouldering her roughly aside. Her heart jumped. They’d come for her then, and they came to her now!

mayancalendargirls.comShe felt Pinoccio bump her feet, two other bodies slide along her legs, then Caruso made a pass at her waist as she shifted to an upright position, her head up as she laughed and whooped. When Bruto barged back through she caught his muzzle with cupped hands and he dragged her ten yards before diving and shaking her off. By the time she was back to the surface, Chido and Xochil had both nosed by, spinning her around.

Caruso nuzzled his beak into her crotch and she reached down to lean her hands over it. He reacted with a powerful ripple of his frame, powering him into what would have been a surface-clearing leap if she hadn’t been leaning on his nose. She shot up out of the water, balancing on him like the cross stroke of a “T”, then sailing off to splashdown with a happy yelp.

Okay, fellahs, she thought to them, let’s get down and get rowdy. It didn’t hit her right away, not until she was back on shore meeting Gareth and Kenny at the Paraiso, but she felt nothing sexual with the streaking black beasts. Not even a tingle. It had all been like rough-housing with her brothers, or playing co-ed basketball at college. One of the guys. And her guys had come through, had her back.

She lay on her back in the water, with her head lolling back, looking up at the sky. Waiting for one of those scamps to bump by her butt with a fin. And suddenly, out of nowhere, she remembered lying like that on top of an ancient pyramid. And feeling the body, seeing the face, of a man who wanted to offer her heart to the Gods.

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Bannock had dropped them off in the rented, dented van, as far up the rutted trail as he could navigate. And would wait for them there as long as it took. He sat on the ground, leaning back on a tire and just listening to the rain forest breathe and twitter. Funny how you didn’t hear the world making its little sounds until you decided to listen. He inhaled the scent of pine and primordial rot and decided he was better off here than back in that motel with Tuan and Ganzo. That had to be a fairly one-way conversation.

But it had still been a long hike and some of the girls offered to spell Curtsy, carrying the duffle of gear Tuan had hastily rented from that shady tour operator in Placencia. But now, as they trod carefully in the shadows of what seemed like a totally different world, that seemed meaningless. They were here in this egg-shapedmayancalendargirls.com cavern with a floor of blue water and tiny ceiling of sunlit leaves.

Curtsy, with the pack slung across her back, was the last one down the rope and even though she was no stranger to cenotes she was subdued by the cathedral air of this one. She moved quietly up beside the other girls and looked down into water as clean and clear as the air up above.

There hadn’t been any discussion when Loris told them about it. Aphra was hot to get back to the States, but Copper was dying to come with them and each of the six girls who had been in the hot tub that night had deeply felt that they should be here. MeiMei had realized, though not mentioned, that having everybody present meant six people who would know about the place, could come back and seek out the power or just money. But she had a feeling nobody would do that. Just a feeling.

Curtsy was sizing up the cave and the water at the bottom, definitely impressed. She asked Loris, “How did you know this was here?”

Loris laughed and said, “How do you think?”

Then she reached into her backpack, pulled out the bundle of soft cotton, and unveiled oXo. The skull seemed almost matte in the cavern’s filtered light, a primal green dancing with a sphere of gold light from the sinkhole overhead.

Aphra stepped over to stroke the gleaming occipital. “Way I hear it, those two dorks paid you a good chunk of change for that thing. Now you playing Indian giver?” Just to fuck with Miss Bettysue PerfectCenter. She nodded towards Xchab and mimed embarrassment, “Scuse me, there honey.”

Xchab regarded her impassively as Loris buffed oXo with the shroud cloths then looked at Aphra and said, “You heard wrong then. They paid Bannock. Who took him from me, and now I just stole him from those guys. But that’s meaningless, really. There’s no ownership where something like this is concerned. We’ve all done our part to bring oXo home. Including those film guys financing it.”

“Fine with me. Information wants to be free, and all that,” Aphra shrugged. “Long as it don’t get too free and there’s no market for it.”

Curtsy opened the bag duffle and started passing around masks. No snorkles needed, she’d pointed out, since they weren’t going to be cruising the surface. She pulled her mask on and started pulling off her work shirt.

“Okay, everybody gotta get totally nekkid for this one,” Aphra said in the same tone of finality they associated with Loris.

MeiMei, unbuttoning her blouse, looked at her suspiciously and asked, “Why?”

“Because we look so much hotter that way, of course!” Aphra whooped and was almost instantly nude. Copper stripped down just as quick, and pulled the mask over her unruly red mop. The other girls all laughed and started following suit. Except Xchab, who merely undressed and stood naked and flatfooted, waiting for the next move. Aphra looked around and gave a whistle, but something in the way the high pitch echoed in the cave silenced them again. mayancalendargirls.com Curtsy knelt at the edge of the pool, closely examining the bottom in the green/gold twilight, then smiled at the others and pitched forward into the water. She was at the bottom, peering further back into the subterranean lake, as five other splashes sounded around her.

She surfaced and looked around at the other girls. “I see some light back there,” she said, “But it’s a long damn ways.”

“I think I heard about that light at the end of the tunnel shit before,” Aphra sneered.

“If there’s light, there’s air,” Curtsy returned flatly, and once again Aphra had that awareness of being in a new element where she wasn’t the prime player. Loris glided over to Curtsy and held oXo out, half of his dome above the water. “You take him. You’re the one who can make it all the way.”

Curtsy nodded and told them all about how to relax and rebreathe to get a maximum lungful of air. Then she dropped out of sight and kicked off powerfully into the long tunnel that ran through the bedrock. She held oXo in both hands, stretched out in front of her, zooming through the water with a crystal figurehead out front.

The other girls were behind her, each of them moving as well as they could. And each of them reached a point that they knew was as far as they could push it. They would each stop, hover in the water, look down the tunnel to the faintly lit chamber at the end, then turn back. The last one to rein up was Loris, who stared ahead at what she knew she would see, a hemispherical dome in the rock, illuminated in yellow glow from above. And in the center of it, a broken off stalagmite created a low plinth. She turned back, pulling her way along the roof of the grotto, but looked back to see Curtsy flash into the chamber, her gold/white body fluorescing in the filtered sunlight, and place oXo gently on the little pedestal before kicking the bottom once to rise up and breathe.

Five girls paddled in place in the deep end of the pool by the entrance to the tunnel, not looking at each other, just waiting for Curtsy to break the surface. Then she was there, bounding out of the water like an orca, whipping water out of her hair, laughing like a little girl at recess.

All six of them were quiet then, a circle of heads in the water. Without conscious thought, they extended their arms and found their hands on each other’s napes.

Copper broke the calm, almost reverential silence. “Think we could get oXo to spring for one more metagasm?”

“If he won’t, it’s on me,” Aphra purred and the other girls laughed.

They broke the circle and climbed out of the water. MeiMei looked around, wondering when was the last time people were here. Had the Mayans placed oXo there? Or had he been there for millennia awaiting them? mayancalendargirls.comAnd somebody must have come to take him out and put him into circulation. She’d buy about anything at that point.

They dressed without much chatter, Curtsy quietly collecting the masks and fins and tossing them back in the bag. On the way out, Loris stopped at the bottom of the rope and looked back. She called out, “See you, oXo. I love you,” and nobody even thought it was silly. In fact each one of them had a sudden thought in the same moment. One of those little mental jingles that makes no sense at all. “The Love loves to love you all.”

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