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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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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Aphra saw the knife–a raptor claw of some gray matte space-aged metal–come through between the warped door and the frame, then flick upwards to toss the latch, but there wasn’t much she could do about. Caught flat-footed, about the only way you get caught when you’re sitting on a toilet and the stall door blows open on you. And who else but Townsend Hardley, once again barging in on her private participles?

Her eyebrow arched delicately as she regarded him over the fist he stuck in her face. The fist that came wrapped around another dull-metal object that reminded her of one of those rubber hand-exercisers with finger grooves, but had this thing like a cigarette filter sticking out between two fingers and pointing right between her eyes.

Never saw one of those little tricks before, but got no doubt it would blow somebody’s head off or poison their whole family or whatever shit it was supposed to do. So she said, “Could you be a little dear and grab me some toilet paper from the next stall?”

Townsend didn’t smile or blink, just kept the drop on her, held his hand out, and snapped his fingers. She’d thought she was home free, somehow getting off the airport jitney and slipping down here to the bus station in Belize City.mayancalendargirls.com 2-D scrambling, unaware of hawkeyes from Up. So here he was with compulsion in his fist, and there she was with her slinky little undies around her ankles and a roll of TP short. He didn’t want to speak to her and didn’t feel like he really had to.

“Can see you’re no gentleman, Townsend,” she said archly. “You didn’t hurt Copper on your way in here, did you?”

“No need. I know you have it on you. Give.”

With a world-weary sigh, she reached up to where she’d hung her traveling purse to keep it off the decidedly unsanitary floor. Slowly, carefully bringing it down to where she could reach inside.

And he quickly, carefully taking it from her. Took the straps in his teeth and plunged around inside it.

“You find that poisoned wolftrap I left in there?” she asked innocently. “Started feeling sleepy from the stuff I put on the strap?”

He came out with the camera, quickly flipped the little door open and felt for the memory card without taking his eyes off hers. Then boom, he was gone.

She sat motionless without a sound, waiting to hear the restroom door close before she moved. Then the stall door popped open again and he tossed her a roll of the local toilet sandpaper and hit her with a rodeo smile. “No hard feelings.”

Outside the nasty ladies’ room, he moved through the big, echoing, grimy terminal, heading for the chartered car waiting in one of the bays. He saw Copper buying bottles of water for their trip to the border and held the bag up for her to see, then dumped it on a bench and got in the car.

As he pulled away from the apron, Copper moved over to pick up the purse, looking nervously at the restroom door. But Aphra walked out, cool and collected, to reach for the purse, sling it over her bare shoulder, and give her a grin. “Whiteboy just don’t get up early enough in the morning to nab lil orphan Aphra,” she said and Copper laughed her fool ass off.

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Bannock, never relinquishing the backpack in which oXo was hammocked and wary of untoward developments, kept an eye on the two Valley Vultures, who were trying to give him the stink-eye while being pestered by a bouncy, Hollywood-hyped Curtsy. But also took in his pool-mates standing there in
shabby clothes with no belongings. Finally, uncomfortably, he spoke quietly to them, “It’s been great meeting you… well… freaks. I’ll miss you all. But listen, is everybody going to be okay, here?”

He was pleased, and a little surprised, to get nods all around. Winston made a “smooth sailing” gesture with a flat palm. “I’m stoned, I’m possession-free, and just got rid of a woman I had to take care of. How okay can I get?”

MeiMei and Tuan nodded, impressed by his implied gesture, but about as okay as a professor and millionaire newly in love can be. Copper and Aphra unconsciously inclined their heads toward each other, Aphra wearing the buddhistic calm of somebody in possession of extremely high-ticket intel soon to become a government secret. Quasi government, anyway. Real government, probably. And Seagull was evidentially going to third-wheel the two “lebanese” girls for awhile, token different rummer.

Curtsy was in however good hands you would consider Gareth and Kenny to represent and anyway stacked blondes are seldom refugees in this world.

He gave a lingering look at Ganzo, making sure he was understood. The beachcomber slowly nodded and Xchab seemed to drift a little closer to him.

“So we’re all heading to town?” Nods all around, except for Aphra and Copper, who pointed to the airport jitney. Even Curtsy and, less comfortably, the producers were on the Belize City run. So he decided he wasn’t needed. Which was just fine.

The shuttle motor fired up and Copper was moving towards the door, but Aphra turned and looked at Townsend, who was stood apart and looked at her steadily but without expression. (Unlike Gareth and Kenny, who regarded Loris and Bannock with undisguised loathing.)

She stepped away from the shuttle door and motioned him closer. He paused for a long moment, then walked to within a pace of her. She waited for him in a natural stance, no posing, and looked at him in a very unaffected way that made him immediately suspicious. “Hey, Bigtime,” she said. “No hard feelings?”

Townsend stared at her a beat, then turned away.

“Hey, wait,” she called out and he stopped but didn’t turn. She said, “We suck, huh?”

That got him to turn and look at her, so she blurted. “I mean as, you know, human beings. We’re rotten and do fucked-up shit.”

He nodded non-committally so she went on. “Ever think about changing that? Be somebody, you know… good and decent and not like deceitful and all that?”

“Lately it’s crossed my mind.”

Now she stopped and regard him thoughtfully. “Well, maybe me too,” she said dubiously. “Almost. But listen, MeiMei Chiang? She’s good, you know? Not all sappy sweet new age good like that Loris, but she’s a straight-shooter and doesn’t hurt people, you know?”

He just stood, watching her.

“And I fucked her over. Too. Just like you would’ve, if you’d been a little quicker. But maybe you could help her out.”

“If you’re so concerned, why not give her camera back?”

She smiled, but wiped if off and hurried on. “Look, I don’t know quite which alphabet frat you work for. But whoever they are, they get shit done, I been noticing. So you got that guy on the yacht. Ronchel, on the Nahual. Heading south out of Cozumel like six weeks ago. So maybe somebody you know might be up to doing his ass for him?”

He started to give her a quick, shitty answer, but just didn’t feel like it. “Yeah, sure,” he said. “Consider it under advisement.”

Then he stepped away and she moved to the door of the shuttle and stepped up inside. Townsend made no move to board either vehicle. He’d made his arrangements. He stood watching the shuttle pull out, enduring Aphra’s smirk and fingertip wave through the window. Copper leaned over and kissed her palm, then high-fived it against the glass and they were gone.

Alone on the lot except for two Mayan groundskeepers hauling out a barrow and brooms to restore the immaculosity of the area, he pulled
out a pocket widget and checked the battery and display. Very tricky lady, that one. But basically, like many private spooks, living in a two-dimensional world. Like bugs crawling around on the floor, hiding behind bottlecaps and cigar butts, not realizing they could be seen and apprehended from the mystic
third dimension known as “up”.

Curtsy sat in the very back of the bus with the Melrose Metrosex duo, as removed as possible from the rest. She chattered about wrangling dolphins, working in pictures. But she was a girl whose idle chatter wasn’t that unpleasant to take in, especially for Gareth, so they weren’t loath to have her along.

“Remember, I got that thing I gotta do first. In Belize City. Okay?”

“Sure,” Gareth said indulgently. “We can talk to that little termite in the government film office about their program. Now that he’s had time to come down from his coke blitz at the festival.”

Curtsy grinned happily, her hot-weather ponytail bobbing. Then a shadow flitted across
her expression and she got all earnest. “Listen, I know you guys paid like a quarter million for oXo, then lost him.”

“Lost him?” Kenny asked shrilly. ” Is that what you call it when somebody takes your property out of your room at night? Maybe you and your little pals, for that matter?”

“Hey, not me. Okay? But where does that leave you guys? How can you take a hit like that and still make a picture?”

“Thanks for caring, Curtsy.” Gareth laying out his nicest manners. “It’s complicated. Money’s funny in The Wood. But okay, we don’t have a director for that picture…”

“Or a script, or a treatment, or a concept, or a vaguest fucking idea.” Kenny elaborated.

“All true. But we gotta whole lotta love at that seminar.”

“And for once he’s not bullshitting. We’ve got meetings at Zoetrope and Warners, exploring doing something down here. Maybe a real Maya picture. Maybe up there at the Lodge, down at the coast. Coppola loves it. He wants to see more of little Chabex, too.”

“Xchab. That’s great, guys. So are there dolphins in it?”

“Sure. You bet. I’m taking meetings with Flipper’s people, seeing if Willy will work for free.” He smiled enough to let her know he was more or less joking. “But how about Xchab? Is she going to be around. It might be almost a year before we do it, but we’d like to think…”

“Don’t worry. She’s going to be in a great place where they’ll take good care of her.”

“Great! Mind telling us where?”

“No problem. When the time comes. Now about your company for this film… where do you think I would fit in best?”

“Let’s see,” Kenny mused. “Blonde, built like a brickhouse, hot as a cell phone at Pico and Alvarado, full of mindless enthusiasm and dumb as a box of rocks… I’d say, executive producer?”

“I was thinking more like marketing,” Gareth said. “Now all you need is a Best Boy.”

“They’re all best,” Kenny said. “One way or another.”

After carefully storing the pack with its crystal passenger, Bannock shifted to where he could keep the corner of his eye on Gareth and Kenny in the back. He knew they’d be back into a cell phone footprint before they reached Belize City and that the really dicey spot would be getting out at the bus station. Meanwhile, he turned his attention to Loris, asked her something that had been on his mind. “What I don’t
understand…you were so crushed to be parted from oXo, but now you’re trying to lose him for keeps. So, what’s the difference?

“Because he’s going home. Don’t you see? He has his spot in the scheme of things and now he’s on his way. You said you were taking him home and you came through”

“Well, I have to confess, I didn’t exactly…”

“Hey.” She put a finger to his lips.” You did it. You can’t snarl out the reasons on things like this: you made it happen. And I’m never going to forget that.”

“Well, you might, after a few years. So I figure I’ll stick around and remind you.”

She shot him a sidelong look past her hair. “Are you professional tough guys really allowed to say mushy stuff like that?”

“I’m considering retirement. Know any good beaches?”mayancalendargirls.com

“You’re pretty young for that.”

“Well, you know… I was looking at those movie people up there. And kept thinking, “Just how hard
can this business be, anyway?”

“Oh, God. Are we going to jump off ‘Get Biggie’ here?”

“Actually, I think our next role should be ‘Get Lost’.”

“How else can anybody ever get found?”

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