The parking lot was a bustle of people, luggage and conflicting itineraries. Tuan noticed an inverse proportion of luggage: the nobodies who’d paid to come touch the hem of Hollywood’s garment looked like they’d packed for a safari, luminaries like Cage and Black had single carry-ons. He and Mei had, of course, the clothes on their backs and two small packs of gizmos and necessories.

No lack of ground transport, as it’s called in the trade. A couple of cabs out of Belize City, driven by evil-looking RastaNefarious villains who broke into a lyrical Creole and engaging smiles when spoken to. A shuttle bus from Maya Island Airlines and the Lodge’s own combat Proven veteran of Camel Trophy wilderness racing Range Rover for those heading for Belize City, and buses to the border or the Cayes.

“No helicopters, though,” Aphra condescendingly observed to Copper.

Copper squinted up through the rainforest canopy and said, “Yet.”

The various guests and staff were sorting out into the vehicles, most heading for the airport, a few to Caye Caulker to unwind after three days in paradise. mayancalendargirls.com

Winston and Cage had vanished, presumably “bowling” at the 420 Lanes. Shane Black was pointing out some odd arm and shoulder movements to Loris, telling her how she’d eliminated the whole carpal/zygoid glitch he called “writer’s wrist”, and asking if he could make an appointment with her back in California.

Warm farewells and promises to exchange emails were being made with all the assurance of people who believed they would actually continue to correspond. The “interloper” cadre stood somewhat apart, marked by general lack of luggage and the somewhat preoccupied expressions they’d worn all day. They spoke softly among themselves, both avoiding the subject and wanting to sort it all out.

“It’s… I don’t know. Like a ship hits a hurricane and things shift around down in the hold.” Copper nodded blankly, but Aphra kept after it. “You know it’s different, but might not find out until you start unloading. But definitely some differences.”

Definitely. Some differences Copper would never really notice. And it would be almost three months before it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in renewing her explorations of the non-world of Ketamine anymore. Pharmaceuticals in general seemed uninteresting, like artificial lures. And it would be almost a year before she realized that she hadn’t dumped her lover and started scouting around: an all-time record.

“I don’t really notice anything different,” Tuan said, looking down as if he’d spot some change in his posture. “I mean, it blew my mind like never before. But I’m still me.”

“Probably because you’re so normal anyway,” MeiMei teased. Like she should talk about people being normal.

“Salvia and mescaline are like that,” Copper volunteered. “The more fucked-up you are, the more you notice it.”

“In that case,” Curtsy said, “How are you doing, there, Aphra?”

Aphra shot her an eye, but tossed her hands up and gushed, “I’m queer no mo’! Bless gracious and praise the lord, I’se free at last. All I can think about anymore is big old dicks. And I’m thinking of donating my time and money to working with Retarded Unwed Manatees.”

Loris looked up and caught her eye and Aphra toned it down a little. “Yeah, there’s something happening. But nothing I want to talk about. Don’t want to jinx the mojo.”

Much of what shifted below decks in Aphra had to do with what Loris had noted in her, the conquest obsession with sex. The mighty orgasmablitz had shaken a lot loose inside her, and she felt a lingering effect every time she came, clutching Copper to her in a torrent of sensation with no thought of anything but feeling it more and passing it on. She was also, though it would have alarmed her to know it, developing a rudimentary conscience.

But she looked back at Curtsy and pointed with her chin to where Ganzo was sitting in front of Xchab, talking to her non-stop. “Now right there’s a change you might take note of, Barbie. Looks like you might wind up short one boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“I’d say it be like that .”

Everybody looked at the Mayan pair. You could spot something different about Xchab right away; there was no longer the shadow of subservience or abnegation in her pose or manner. She sat up, looked sharply, took account. And as for Ganzo…

“It’s like he just woke up,” Curtsy said. “Came out of some kind of coma. I could never figure him out before. He wasn’t stupid or gorked out: he just wasn’t really around. And now…”

At that particular “now”, Ganzo was telling Xchab, “So you see. You are who you are, you have your place to be.”

“I see that,” she said. “I just wanted… But who am I, then? Where do I belong? Do you have answers to that?”

Ganzo’s steady gaze never wavered. “You’re like me. You belong with me. We’ll leave here and go find the place where we should be.”

Xchab stared at him. This was one different guy than the one she’d seen around before. And he seemed to know exactly what he was saying. She looked at him and tried to weigh him against Winston, against the tantalizing promise of the glittery world she’d been moping around the edges of. She said, “Those men want to put me in a movie.”

“Good. Maybe that will happen. Here’s what I think. You should come with me. I feel that very strongly. I want you to come with me. Stay with me.”

There was plenty of room for a girl to be thinking, Come where? Stay where? But Xchab looked at this sturdy, open young man of her own people and mold and slowly nodded her head.

“Tell you what,” Bannock said, when people seemed done with gawking the young Indian couple, “I’ve had more remodels and refits in my head the last couple weeks than I can really deal with. Right now I just sorta feel the way I did after eating those mushrooms. Except maybe more so. I’m just… I’m up for it. That’s it, I guess: I’m all for it.”

“That’s it!” Curtsy blurted. “That’s it right there. Bring it on.”

“When I was a little girl,” MeiMei said softly, getting everybody’s attention with her soft tone of voice, “My mother would always say, When you get old enough you’ll know better. Right now, I feel like I know better.”

“That’s what I would say about it,” Loris said. “I feel like I’m charged, informed.”

“Back in my ‘hood,” Aphra told her, “When peeps informed it worked out bad for ’em.”

MeiMei and Bannock laughed and Loris smiled wide, but went on, “I have knowledge. Knowledge isn’t just information, it has it’s own intelligence.”

Aphra and Townsend both nodded at that, caught each other and looked away.

“There’s only a certain amount of knowledge in the world and nobody can have all of it,” Loris continued. “But it wants to flow out and know everyone. That’s what the Call is: to know with total certainty who we are and what the world is, what we mean.”

“And now you on top of all that? Got the inside skinny?” Aphra wasn’t adverse, but wanted to hear her answer.

“It’s coming to everybody and everything in the world,” she said. “We have each been called to a task and our task is to prepare the next call, which will come in one year.”

“Fine with me,” Aphra grinned. “I’m still shakin like a jellyroll from the last one.”

“And the purpose of the Second call will be to bring people together to amplify the next Call, each one affecting more people, more meaningfully than the one before.”

“And the final one is in 2012? What’s its purpose?”

Loris stopped, looking at her–or through her–for a long moment, then she said, “The Final Call is its own purpose. Which the purpose for everything alive, everything that exists.”

“Hey, I heard last calls before,” Aphra cracked. “Means you don’t gotta go home, but you gotta get your ass out the door.”

There were smiles. but it fell a little flat. Then Townsend spoke quietly and simply. “All I notice is, I feel more like me. Trouble is, I don’t really recognize myself.”

“But you will,” Loris told him, looking at him intently. “We all will. That’s why this is happening. Why everything happened in the first place.”

“Wow, cool.” Winston muttered. Then straightened up and looked right at her. “But nothing you said makes any sense.”

“It will,” Loris said. “It’s what sense is for in the first place.”

“Tell you what I’m wondering here,” Aphra said, and everybody turned towards her as she said, “What is the sound of one hand pulling your leg?”

Everybody laughed, including Loris. But then she said, “You already know the sound. You just heard it. The First Tone.”

As more revelations of inner alterations trickled out of the waiting passengers, testimonials Aphra thought of as “Change You Can’t Help But Believe In”, Copper suddenly started laughing and motioned her closer. She leaned over and the redhead said. “God, you know what this sounds like?”

“What, child? What?”

“The obligatory character arc.”

Both of them clutched their cheeks and screamed, “Oh, noooooooooo!”

“First Tomb Raider, then Crystal Skulls,” Aphra said, pursing her long-suffering lips. “Now we’re Raiders of the Lost Arc.”

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Breakfast at Blancaneaux was delicious as ever, and the feeling on the open deck as delightful. But the big table surrounded by the twelve “interlopers”, as they’d been dubbed by the conference staff and paid attendees, wasn’t awash in taste or sensation. They huddled together trying to both come to grips with and avoid examining what had happened to them the night before.

“I wish you’d just tell us the whole works,” Copper pouted behind her freckles. “I’d say we’re all pretty involved in this by now.”

“And if it’s the end of the world you’re talking about, I’d like to cancel some engagements and break a few dates,” Aphra added, only halfway smiling.

“My guess, anybody you date or are engaged to is already broken,” Townsend said, but without any real spite.

MeiMei was more on beam. “When you talked about that… whatever it was… being the First Tone,” she asked, “Do you mean ‘tones’ like the date glyphs on the Mayan calendar? Because if so…”

“I’m telling you everything I know,” Loris said. “As it comes in.
I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m not questioning it.”

“Hard to question getting your ashes hauled that thoroughly,” Winston tossed out, pausing to burp. “Best safe sex I ever had.”

That was the first time any of them had made a direct reference to the most spectacular part of their evening soak in such terms. The general, unspoken, feeling in the group was that nobody had ever had such a sweeping, explosive, wringing, pyrotechnic, obliterating orgasm before, and maybe nobody would ever again. There was a pause, nobody making eye contact, then Loris spoke again.

“Oh, sorry. There’s also this. The four ‘tones’ are also known as ‘calls’. What we heard was the First Call, and each of the future ones will be stronger and felt by more people, until the final one which will be of universal scope.”

That produced another silence until Aphra piped up. “Well, if they’re going to be stronger than that, I’ll definitely keep them on Call Forwarding.”

“Just a call girl at heart,” Copper chuckled, tapping her thigh to Aphra’s under the table.

“Each one of us has been changed. Or more like… oriented. I get the impression of something like a magnet with a field around it. And each of us will in some way help to bring about the Second Call.”

“Ah, a Second Coming,” Tuan said, straight-faced. “I assumed there are no dates and venues announced?”

Loris shook her head as if embarrassed not to have the press kit ready to hand out, then they all looked up because Francis Coppola was approaching the table.

He walked up, nodded around the circle of expectant faces, said, “About last night…” and gave it the beat any straight line needs to breathe.

“Mr. Coppola,” MeiMei said with mock severity, “By your age you must have learned never to utter that phrase to a woman over breakfast.”

He laughed with the rest, but obviously retained curiosity. Which Loris nipped in the bud. “I hope you’re ready for your massage, Mr. Coppola?”

He smiled back, “Is anybody ever not ready for a massage?”

“You’d be surprised.”

And if there are surprises to be had, I’m sure you and your little bunch will be the ones to provide them, he thought. “You know,” he said in an avuncular manner, as if veering off into some old-timer’s reminiscence, “You shoot all these miles of film, and most of it gets left in the cutting room. Not really on the floor, I’m sure you understand. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to take all those cuts and splice together a picture. The same cast, same setting, most of the same scenes, but a very different film from what everybody gets to see.”

“Sort of a ‘defector’s cut’?” Tuan ventured.

Coppola nodded absently then said, “I just look at you people and get a sense of you and that comes to my mind. Some other picture than the one that we’re seeing.”

Nobody had a quip for that so he stepped back and made a courtly, old world gesture. “There will be transportation at the parking lot at one. If anybody wants to arrange something more spectacular than a bus or house van…” he looked at Townsend, “…there’s a satellite phone at the concierge. Thank you for coming. I have to say, you’ve made this one of the more memorable conferences.”

“Thank you Mr. Coppola,” Loris said. “I know we’re party crashers, but your hospitality has been wonderful and your place here is simply magnificent.”

He turned and gave her a deprecating gesture of his fingers, straight out of Brando, and said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your host. You’ve entertained me, as well. And an old maxim of entertainment is, ‘Give ’em what they want, then beat it for the wings’.”

And he turned to make an exit worthy of any stage trouper, leaving a dozen people charmed, but still totally unsure what to make of what had happened at the Lodge or why they were even there in the first place.

But there was no doubt of the “why” in the minds of Gareth and Kenny as they waited until Coppola had left the building then jumped up and buzzed over to the twelve-top burning with guarded outrage. “Where is it?” Gareth snapped without warm-up or intro. “It’s not in the pool and not in your room.”

“And definitely not in our room, where our property belongs,” Kenny snipped.

Everybody just looked at them except Loris and Bannock, who knew exactly what they meant. “He,” Loris emphasized, “Is in a safe place.”

“Well then would it be safe to say…” Kenny started up, but Gareth finished.

“…that since he is ours and we paid you a large sum of money…”

“…plus expenses…”

“…that you’re going to be honorable…”

“…not sneak thieves…”

“…and return him to us?”

Bannock set down the English muffin he’d been spreading with black Mayan honey and said, “No.”

The simple finality stopped the two harried producer-hyphenates, as it was meant to.

Gareth immediately dropped into a whining competition with Kenny, no easy contest. “But listen, you guys… We can work something out.”

“Maybe. Some time,” Loris said. “But for now, oXo wants to go home so that’s where he’s going.”

“Listen, you two.” Kenny actually managed to snivel and bluster at the same time. “There are laws, even in this God-forsaken place…”

Almost everybody at the table turned their heads, taking in the simple grace of the dining deck, the teeming green beauty of the morning rain forest. But Kenny plunged on.
“We paid for that thing, it’s part of our film, and we are going to have it back.”

“No,” Bannock said. “You’re not.”

“Well you make your tactics pretty obvious,” Kenny sniffed. “Mr. Inedible Hulk sitting there threatening to turn us into brunch. But things don’t work like that in the real world.”

“Sure they do.”

“Okay, they do,” Gareth practically sobbed. “But couldn’t you just talk about this?”

“We’ll talk.” Loris’ calm statement astonished the rest of the table, who regarded talking to the Van Niseguys as being as fun and useful as self-administered dentistry. “Back in L.A. We’ll call Curtsy when the time comes. She’s on your picture, right?”

What picture?” Gareth practically shrieked. “You stole our picture, remember?”

“Director-nappers!” Kenny snarled.

“Roasting Flesh,” Loris said. “The festival brochure said you start shooting next month.”

“Is it a cooking show?” Aphra asked. “Or one of those celebrity roast things gone horribly wrong?”

“It’s a teen-aged grindhouse fucking flasher/slasher!” Gareth moaned. “We can do better. But you stole our director.”

“And our buzz,” Kenny glared accusingly. “You snatched Entertainment Tonight right out of our jaws.”

“So it’s ‘ET meets Jaws’?” Copper asked with feigned innocence.

“I think Curtsy would be practically type-casting for some co-ed getting naked before some ugly freak takes a jackhammer to her,” Aphra announced, drawing a scowl from Curtsy.

“Cut the shit, you crooks,” Kenny spluttered. “We’re going to…”

“You’re going to shut up and get lost,” Bannock said without inflection, but it was enough to stop Kenny in mid-spittle-spray. Bannock raised a battered hand and made a shooing gesture and the two producers started backing away, glaring as they bumped into waiters and chairs.

“You haven’t seen the last of us, Chuckie,” Gareth shot back as the two wheeled and fled the room.

Now that’s a dire warning,” Aphra said. “I’d just as soon see Hannibal Lector for being overweight”

“You know what really sucks?” Loris said. “He’s right.”

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The vibration in the pool was no longer subtle, and had again shifted in frequency: to the slower, more evocative beat known as “Theta”. Around the circle, legs were spreading open, nipples and erections were stiffening, membranes moistening, limbic systems reacting, anuses unclenching, breathing slowing, muscles moving in a rolling rhythm, third eyes blinking.

A sound could be heard, but only to those in the pool: an inner sound like a thin, piping whistle or piccolo. Tuan automatically classified it as an artifact, a “beat” created by wave amplitude interference of the deeper frequencies. Which was more or less his last coherent thought on the subject. The pulse dropped lower and their bodies started rising, abdominals fluttering, inner visions seeing a long tunnel with a watery, golden light at the end.

Copper, veteran of hundreds of acid orgies, took it in her proprioceptive stride, opening herself to the beginnings of white waves of orgasmic release. Her lips grew cold and trembled, seeming to whistle a simple air like that of a piper.

Xchab, a virgin emotionally if not technically, had no vocabulary of stimulus or response to refer to. As wavelets of energy lapped at her mind she retreated into the stolid non-here of an Indian, then to the unreasoned purity of childhood. Her body floated upward, her mind sank into a vortex. She felt good. She felt. She…………

Winston, another inveterate shocktrooper in the campaigns of sex and psychedelia, had long since hung a Gone Fishin’ sign on his brain and surrendered serenely to what was happening. Which, judged by the storms and tsunamis his mind/body had weathered previously, was shaping up to one hell of a blow. He felt his legs spreading wider, his feet brushed the toes of Xchab and Charity on either side.

The vibration was slowing even more, and nobody involved would have, at that point, described what they were experiencing as due to pulsing water pressure. It was inside them, around them, all over and about them. They were strings being strummed, chants being hummed.

Bannock was on alien shores, but nothing in him resisted it. His spread feet touched MeiMei’s, then Loris’ and he was profoundly conscious of being in the right place, among the right people, at the right time, of the right stuff. He wasn’t really aware of his body floating slowly up in the water, of the tip of his straining penis breaking the surface like a periscope seeking visions and orientation.

Beside him, MeiMei felt her left foot touch Bannock, and a second later her right foot contacting Tuan’s. But she really had nothing to do with any of that. She was a disembodied point of view ascending a molten staircase of golden light, her arms spread wide to embrace the source of that light, which seemed to radiate from all around her, from an invisible bird calling above her head. The bird’s song was as sweet as a gold flute. She no longer climbed, she drifted up like a bubble in a tall flute of champagne.

The beat of the night had slowed further, hovered at about one hertz. The frequency was fixed in each person in the tub, their hearts synchronized at sixty beats a minute, the blood in their arteries lub-dubbing in unison. Once a second: one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hippopotamus, four. The inner circuitry of their brains was also firing as one, running subprograms that released treasured molecules into their brain fluid and blood. They vibrated like insistently plucked harps, shook like the columns of wind twelve-toned saxophones.

Ganzo was almost completely horizontal at this point, his dick poking out of the water like the other guys’, one of a ring of standing members moving to inner fluctuations of blood pressure. He could feel Curtsy and Xchab touching him, could feel the music of inner tides and currents, the neaping and seeping that made him. He was alone in the dark except for that black, compelling littoral music. Then a star shone above him. As he looked at it, it widened. A comet, a moon, a distant sun. He lay as limp as he had very laid on a beach recovering from a deep dive. And the sun rotated, sucking his gaze into it, pressing down on him in a rhythmic massage. As he stared into that single light, something happened in him, as abrupt and definite as the flick of a switch. Ganzo woke up.

Seagull had felt like a third wheel when he first slipped into the water between Copper and Aphra, a useless membrane between them. But as his feet touched theirs, and as his fingers clutched around their necks and he felt other twined fingers on his own, that changed. He felt as though he stood between them on a high platform, singing while they harmonized, cosmic backup singers stepping up to do a trio turn as the piping grew stronger and the vibration shook deeper down. It was a shell, like the Hollywood Bowl, or more like Red Rocks. And in the darkness in front of him, as he sang his cellular choir, little points of light were coming on. A dozen flames out there in the night, a hundred flares held overhead by an audience of everybody who’d ever lived, a million, million stars that claimed him as their own. His mouth came open and his teeth stopped chattering. He ran to the edge of the stage and dived into the light.

Copper spun at the center of the sun. Surrounded by fire, warmed like soft wax in its radiation, buffed to metallic glory in its scarlet light, ignited with the proximity of all she had ever sought, she gave herself to the fire that moved upon her. It exploded into her eyes and she burst into flame like a bird bursts into song, like a shell bursts into a hot white flower of final flame. She was burning now, smoke coming off her in twisting, Sanskrit patterns, Tibetan flames layering out of her darkening skin, as her pubic hair rose above the surface of the pool, her nipples shed water like an emerging helldiver…she burned up and was gone. Finally rid of that. All gone. All gone.

The piping sound grew faster, louder, more piercing. It was an icepick now, sixty hertz buzz drawn out into a white lance that ran them all through.

Townsend had fought against what he had no wherewithal or reason to fight off. And seen his inhibitions blown to smithereens, his defenses flattened. He was taken and squeezed flat, kneaded like a tube of toothpaste, forced into a constricted passage of darkness. He was massaged through that black tunnel for centuries, knowing no time or space but the eternal, prodding pressure toward something he couldn’t imagine or anticipate. He felt himself longing to be there, to emerge from this bowl of blackness into something open and light. And finally a time came when he could see it, somewhere in the distance or future. He squirmed toward it in vain, but was pumped on towards that light by the constrictions around him. He stop fighting to be born and let himself flow out into the world. He slipped into blinding light, light that burned him clean and dry, polished him like ivory. He looked up at the lights above and realized he was held by hands. And the hands lifted him upwards and the light became a face. This was where he came from, he realized in exultation. This is my source! And he felt the love of it. It was not familiar to him, so it came over him like twilight, but it was The Love. He loved his parents for giving him life, he loved the children to whom he would some day return it. He loved the world for coming into existence, and for going back to nothing. For the first time since he was born, Townsend felt the motes of rock-deep, unbound, star-high love. His tears blew back out of his eyes, fell the ground and sprang up as small beings of light.

Aphra, head lolling back on Townsend and Seagull’s laced hands, legs spread open to receive the subtle but insistence pulse in the water, thought she saw something forming in the steam cloud the hot water generated in the moist night air above it. There was a swirling in the mist, then a bunching and compounding, then it was as though a shaft of mist–or light, or impulse or hallucination, or something–flared up into the sky; a column of quivering vapor that lanced as far up as she could see. Damn, she thought before she moved way past thoughts, ET calling home for real. Hope he isn’t on roaming rates. Then her eyes dropped shut under the onslaught of internal sensation, the rhythm in the water deepening and spreading up through her body, down through her nervous system, out through her mind. Her head flopped back into cradling, shuddering hands, her long flat stomach muscles fluttered, then convulsed into a running throb. Her head filled with colors, with boomings, with sparkles and spangles and the wide pounding of oblivion.

Loris stood on top of a hill, looking up the Milky Way, which extended from the center of her eye to the end of the universe. She raised her hand towards the glow of it and her hair was blown back by an almond-scented breeze. The rising wind plucked the pure white cotton robes off her, blew them away behind her. The wind was caused by her own movement: she moved steadily up the causeway of stardust, led by the light of the center of All. The rising wind blew off her hair, then teased away her skin, which rippled back and away from her. The rest of her flesh was also blown away by the rising sirocco of her own acceleration. She was lying horizontal now, flying like a harpoon into the center of the center of the center. Her bones turned to dust, more dross to curl way into her wake. She elongated as her velocity approached that of light, she was expanding, becoming the only object in the universe, streaking forward pulling an infinite cone of change towards the point of her death and birth. She was beam, a ray just one point wide and infinite points long, motion no longer meaningful. As she pierced the eye of the cosmos… she bloomed.

All six men in the pool ejaculated at once, a tiny Vegas fountain in the glowing water. All six women orgasmed as they had never before, blasted into that sweet death as though lashed onto big rockets. They all shook and spasmed, arching up out of the water as though it had been electrified.

Then they went limp and subsided, slowing sinking back down, their feet touching the bottom, their butts drifting down onto the benches. But they continued to embrace each other, their eyes still closed. Their lips parted. Their throats loosened. In some cases, their balls descended.

From the window of his bedroom in the Lodge’s highest room, Francis Ford Coppola looked down at his jungle hot pool. It looked like a carnation, like a fractal star, one of those Esther Williams musical numbers. Twelve people he didn’t know from Adam, naked and arranged around the pool with their legs forming a Moravian star in the center. They seemed to be doing some sort of dance or exercise, kind of throbbing. He opened the mosquito screen for a better view through the dome of glowing mist over the pool… just in time to see it spring upward as though somebody had turned on one of those opening night searchlights under the pool. The shaft of golden light, the same diameter as the pool, leaped up, shone into the night sky, didn’t diminish as it shined out of sight, had no end.

Then it went out and the whole pool plunged into darkness. Great, Coppola thought. Now they’ll have to drain the pool to change the bulb.

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Francis Coppola emerged slowly from the hot pool and stood for a moment savoring the jungly scent of the night and the sounds of the waterfall into the pool. He was the last one out, the others slipping away to let him enjoy his soak.mayancalendargirls.com He didn’t understand why these guys would get into hot water to relax, then get all stressed-out jabbering about projects and budgets and agents and residuals. Especially those two latecomers. God, they were insane: talking about directing a film by séance if he got their drift. What I need up here, he suddenly realized, is a steam room.

Definitely. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? That was an offer to relax nobody could refuse. There was something really East Coast and borough about steam. Guys with Yawk accents sitting around naked in the mist, walking around in rough Turkish towels. This whole hot tub thing was so California by comparison.

He rubbed down with a soft, fluffy towel and shook drops from his beard into the hot water. Thinking, kind of like me, maybe? Gone California? Or have I just disappeared into some global stratosphere, a tower in The Cloud?

Chuckling at himself, he turned to head to bed and almost walked into a half dozen really beautiful young women, also wearing only towels or shifts. His eyebrows raised as he smiled at them appreciatively and waved them towards the pool.

Aqua termal,” he said in his best Corleone rasp. “Prego.”

The girls laughed. All except the stone-faced little Maya girl, who was starting to fascinate him. What a face she had, really. He couldn’t help framing her whenever he saw her.

“Mr. Coppola,” the tall brunette said, “We really appreciate your hospitality here. It’s such a beautiful, serene place.”

“You’re fairly beautiful and serene yourself, my dear,” he told her. “You do massage, I understand?”

“I do. And I’d be honored to give you one any time you like.”

“I’ll take you up on that. Maybe tomorrow after breakfast.”

“Any time. I just love your work. I saw Goodfellas six times.”

He almost laughed his towel off. “Good one. Thanks for the laugh. You ladies are taking a really late soak tonight.”

“We need to cleanse her skull,” Copper offered as she shed her towel and slipped into the water.

He looked at Loris’ hair a little differently, hoping it wasn’t infested. “Please don’t put any soap in the water.”

Loris smiled, held up the towel-wrapped object she’d been carrying, and let the towel slide away from oXo, grinning at the director with eyes aflare from the mosquito torches on the deck. “He doesn’t need soap, just running water,” she said. “And love.”

He fought the impulse to cross himself. “Okaaaay.”

He backed away towards the lodge. As he walked off he heard the girls all giggling, a sound as bright and clean as windchimes. But he didn’t even consider going back to bask in their beauty and youth. There were plenty of attractive young people who weren’t nuts. Turning, he saw them all shedding their wraps and slipping into the hot water like sirens of many colors. He called back, “Just don’t leave a ring.”

Xchab was the last into the pool, even with the other girls teasing her and beckoning her in. She looked balefully at Aphra, timidly at Copper and Curtsy. But when MeiMei smiled and waved her in, she stepped down to the stone bench that ran around the perimeter of the pool, standing there thigh-deep in her cotton huipil, frozen. Finally Loris walked the length of the pool and looked solemnly into her eyes, holding that spooky glass skull between her breasts. Slowly, gently, she reached up and rolled one shoulder strap down the Mayan girl’s shoulder, then the other. Xchab didn’t try to stop her shift from sliding down into the water and when Loris held up her free hand, she took it, stepped out of the floating garment, and lowered into the water. Loris beamed at her, turned and moved towards the other end of the pool.

She waded back across the pool to the waterfall that animated its narrow end, the other girls watching as she marched towards it holding oXo in front of her like a sacrament. She extended her hands and the glassy skull slipped under the little cascade, water flowing around the smooth contours rather than splashing off. She stood motionless, head bent forward and eyes closed, as oXo luxuriated in the wash of moving water.

Aphra was playing a little submarine footsy with Copper, and wouldn’t have minded sitting within hands-on range of the redhead, who it turned out contained a sexuality as wild and fiery as her own. But for whatever reason, the girls were all sitting a little too distant to touch, evenly spaced around the pool, heads leaning on the rim, watching Loris and oXo. So Aphra bided her time, and watched with them.

Curtsy luxuriated in the hot water, which almost seemed to be rhythmically palpitating her body. She played with the underwater sealed-beam floodlight beside her, trying to make shadow puppets in the water, her hands starting to move in time with the beat she felt in the water. The whole pool started to flicker in a slow, sure rhythm. She spread her thighs, then pushed them together. Her nipples tingled. She closed her eyes and for some reason had an image of Puch Pop, standing on top of a pyramid at Cobá, just looking at her.

MeiMei was feeling the same insinuation in the water and “decided” to just lay back and like it. It figured that wealthy directors would have devices like this in their hot tubs. She wriggled her hips around on the smooth tier, watching Loris’ careful laving of oXo, but caught movement from the corner of her eye and looked back towards the buildings. And saw Tuan and Winston strolling down the path, in quiet but intense conversation. She was glad to see OB, but wondered if he was crashing one of those “all-girl moments.” Then she saw Townsend and Bannock behind them, also talking with interest. And behind them, that “Seagull” character chattering to Ganzo, who regarded him with a serious gaze. Tuan saw her and smiled and she giggled, “Company, girls.”

Aphra opened her eyes and saw a group of males arriving, ringing the far side of the pool. They stood watching the women for a moment, probably impressed by the general tableau. Breaking the calm, she said, “Damn. There go the neighborhood.”

Everybody but Xchab laughed: she was eyeing the men a little nervously. And suddenly the big indio that had come up with the blonde just stepped in the water right beside her, took off his wet towel, and tossed it back on the deck. Curtsy, on Ganzo’s other side, smiled at him and reached out to stroke his hair as he settled down between them. Faced with the typical hot tub dilemma of what to do with his hands, he chose the usual approach and spread his arms along the rim of the pool. Curtsy leaned her head into his left hand, smiling happily. His other hand brushed the back of Xchab’s torrent of black hair but she didn’t shy away, for some reason. She looked sideways at him and he was looking back at her, his expression as blank and noble as a dog’s. One thing she realized at that moment: whatever else there was about Ganzo, she knew she would never have to fear him. She sunk a little deeper in the water, also feeling the beguiling pulse in the water and reluctantly starting to respond. A few minutes later she put her own arms on the pool rim, her left hand slipping behind Ganzo’s head, the other laying on the nape of Winston, whose other hand was buried in Copper’s cuprous curls.

Curtsy hadn’t been the only mermaid getting an eyeful as Townsend and Bannock, standing side by side, peeled off their trunks and eased towards the pool. Couple of major swinging dudes, was the way she sized things up. Classic match-up: showy class versus brute power. It was hard not to linger on the sheer beauty of the slide of Town’s abs and pecs, but the scars and welts made a tour of the big lug’s torso rather interesting as well. She wondered what they’d look like out swimming. She watched Townsend move around and slip in beside Aphra, and the look she gave him. Something going on there, for sure. Didn’t think that muff-mistress swung that way. He also laid his arms along the rim as he unwound and Aphra gave him a “Oh, please, whitebread” look, but didn’t move away from his hand on her shoulder.

Bannock moved in between MeiMei and Loris, who smiled at him as she continued facilitating oXo’s brain scrub. Mei felt his hand brush her left shoulder at the same time that Tuan slithered into the water like an otter, ducked his head, then shook it off before settling beside her and placing his left hand under her hair to caress the down on her slim neck. She extended her arm to give him a friendly Dutch rub, before resting it on his hard deltoid. His right hand moved behind Curtsy, who reached behind his neck to twine her fingers with MeiMei’s.

Loris, who had been standing a few inches from oXo as she held him under the waterfall, had been exposed more heavily to the pulse that the skull was emanating. She moved slowly and dreamily as she turned around to face the circle of faces ringing the pool. Her nipples were tight, her aureoles puffy, her thighs tender, her face muscles slack and creamy. She moved to the center of the pool and bent forward to gently place oXo on the bottom. For a moment she appeared to everyone else as a sleek form on the surface, an hourglass of buttocks, fluted back and wide shoulders riding above the water like an island.

She straightened up and looked around, noticing the slackening and loosening going on around her. The Love, she thought, is the ultimate massage. Then she had another thought, which she knew she should share. “We are about to hear something,” she said. “It’s called the First Tone. There will be four Tones before this is over.”

As she backed away from oXo, towards her place by Bannock, MeiMei asked, in a voice so relaxed she could barely articulate, “Tones? Like the Calendar? What does that mean?”

Loris smiled as she moved away from oXo, to the edge of the pool. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Nobody else asked why she had done what she did or said what she said, nobody spoke. Nobody even really thought. oXo had begun to “broadcast” his pulse of live, whole, movement stronger and at a slightly lower frequency. A frequency that those who give names to such things call “Alpha”. She moved back to the edge and sat down. Immediately Bannock cupped the base of her skull. He extended the thumb and finger of his huge hand to rub behind her ears, like you’d do to a big dog. She closed her eyes in pleasure. Nobody ever thinks that massage people like to be rubbed, too. But this guy did.

She put her hand behind his head, as well, idly ruffling his short, wiry crop. She extended her other hand behind Townsend, then removed it to lift his hand behind her own head, then replaced it at the base of his skull. All twelve people were now touching, a dozen heads woven together by intertwined arms and hands. And in the water, an intimate pulsation was throbbing stronger and deeper, a righteous somatic dub that synchronized twelve heartbeats into a single chorus.

Kenny and Gareth discovered that somebody had walked off with their all-important director and spiritual leader and immediately spun into frantic, mostly ineffective motion. They blasted around the dark lodge, pushed into empty rooms–even Bannock and Loris’ room, which would have scared them green to intrude on in other circumstances. They burst out onto the side deck and looked down at the pool, where they could make out people lounging around in a gold mist suffusing the air above the water. They tore along the porch until they hit the stairs, then stopped as if they’d run into an invisible fence. Kenny was at the point of tears as he wailed, “It has to be down there. That bitch took it down there to play with in the fucking water.”

“I guess,” Gareth said, feeling extremely strange and out of place.

“Well, why don’t we just march our perfect butts down there and seize it?” Kenny demanded.

“Nah,” Gareth demurred. “You go ahead if you feel like it.”

Kenny stared at the mist, which seemed to be vibrating in some way, his mouth working. “Well,” he finally said, “As long as they bring it back.”

“It’s not like they can go anywhere,” Gareth hastily added. He turned back and headed for bed. After a few tortured seconds staring down at the pool with fists clenched, Kenny followed.

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