Bannock’s head rested on his laced fingers, a straw hat low over his eyes. One leg dangled out of the huge cotton hammock, an occasional flick of his toe keeping him in a gentle rocking motion. He kept his eyes on the view down to Privassion Creek and the valley below, taking in all the delicate and charming graces of Blancaneaux lodge, but mostly the foreground of view of Loris giving a very intense massage to Shane Black.

Not, rather pointedly, on Kenny and Gareth sitting forward in their cane chairs, their positions and faces advertising supplication. Or even on Curtsy, perched on a table over by the wall and moving her head back and forth to follow the conversation. She’d been following the “Melrose Mafia”, as Loris called them, for three days, practically underfoot. Gareth actually saw possibilities in her for the film–apart from his more immediate schemes for her lush flesh–and had really nailed her when he mentioned they’d need a dolphin wrangler and that Hollywood was practically begging for people who could get cetaceans on their marks.

Continuing his abject crawling to Bannock, Gareth wheedled, “Listen, Big Guy, you did a fabulous job getting oXo for us and it was very small of us to quibble over the money. We felt shitty immediately and hope you’ll accept…”

“Now you need something else,” Bannock said quietly, his eyes half closed as he watched Loris’ hands running over the writer’s shoulders in an almost hypnotic sequence.

“Well not really need,” Gareth said.

“And not so much else,” Kenny stuck in.

“Look, Bannock,” Gareth moved on with an urgency that indicated he might come to the point of their barging in on his siesta. “We’ve taken some meetings behind the skull, and now we’re here. Here in the same house with Coppola and Cage and Shane Black and Marty Bregman and Pacino might even show up and…”

“But we’re getting no love,” Kenny pouted. “We need interface, capische? Input, liaison, face time.”

“You want face time with a skull?”

“You know what he means,” Gareth almost begging for sympathy and succor. “We’ve got access, the director of all time, building a cast…and we can’t talk to oXo.”

“Did you call his agent at Morris?”


“Just fucking with you, man. You need some answers from oXo.”

“Exactly. You nailed it.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”

Gareth turned to Kenny, gushing. “I told you. This man has a few rough spots on his diamond, but he delivers.”

“I didn’t say ‘the right person’. I said the right place.” When Gareth stared, puzzled, he nodded his head at Loris, now working on Black’s fingers as he seemed to be liquefying.

“Of course. Didn’t I tell you, Kenny…”

“You most certainly did not ‘tell me, Kenny’. You said…”

“Okay, okay. But look, do you think she’d…”

“Ask her when she’s done tenderizing Mr. Kissy Kissy Bang Bang, there. And you guys might consider having her work you out, too. You’re both way too uptight.”

Gareth looked at Loris, now kneading the soles of Shane’s feet, and approved. Even Kenny seemed open to having a woman put her hands all over him. “So when will she be done?”

“A massage therapist’s job is never done,” Bannock said with mock gravity. “But I’d say that guy’ll be medium well in about another twenty. Long as you’re up, could you shag me a beer?”

Townsend flowed into the dark bedroom like moonshadow. Moving silently but surely, he took a position in a dark corner to await alarms and gauge the breathing from the bed. He held his fist up to his face, reading his responder without releasing the tiniest amount of glow from the LED’s which were all working overtime in the immediate presence of their obscure object of acquisition. It took two reads before he believed it was sitting in plain sight on the dresser. He ghosted over and scanned it, his stylish glasses giving him a view of it, all twisting, psychedelic color-maps with digits dancing at the sides of the projection. Just sitting there.

Just sitting there in the middle of a big, confused pile of silverware from the dining room, two glass windchimes from the pavilion, and various other odds and ends piled up in a gleaming game of Pick Up Stix. He bent as close as he could without his display feeding back too much to read, but knew there was no way to remove the teetering cage of noisy junk without toppling it onto the steel tray it rested on. Shit. Well, more ways than one to get a cat skin.

He crept to the door sticking close to the walls, opened the door six inches noiselessly, and exuded.

On the bed, Aphra watched the dim triangle of light on the ceiling narrow and disappear before relinquishing the butt of her Detonix, under the pillow. That man was a thief in the night, that’s for sure. Could feel you up and knock you up but not wake you up, no doubt.

Speaking of which. She slid her arm softly over Copper’s ribcage and cupped her firm breast. With just the tip of a fingernail, she gave a tiny pluck at the end of her nipple. No response from the redhead, who must be pretty exhausted, all told. So she scissored two fingers around said nipple and started to move them slowly together and apart. It took about a dozen little squeezes like that before she felt a hand reach back, grab her pubic tangle, and slide down to cup her warmth and do a little finger-walking of their own.

Loris sat in a lotus position, regarding the producers with a neutral calm. Behind her, Shane Black was snoring lightly on the massage table. She thought out the two metrosexuals’ dilemma, to the point where they were about ready to jump out of their skins from anticipation, and said, “Have you tried drugs?”

“Well, I’ve experimented a little,” Kenny offered demurely.

Tried them?” Gareth expostulated. “He’s like indicted them. Convicted them. He’s like, rounded them up and exterminated them.”

“She means on oXo, you twit.” Bannock continued his slow rocking motion and languorous expression.

“How could we do that?” Kenny asked, genuinely stumped. “Maybe a sort of inverse bong-out?

“Kenny,” Loris said, “He doesn’t breathe. He’s a rock.”

Gareth pointed two pistol fingers at her. “You are, baby.”

“Oh, so now he’s just a rock?” Kenny whined. “Before, he was some ascended soul brother.”

“He’s a great, transcended oversoul. He’s a spirit, a mind. But then so am I. We all are. But here’s the deal with him, and it’s kind of sorry, really. He’s been in shifty hands around L.A. for a long time and he’s picked up, basically, a nagging drug habit. He’s the ultimate monkey man. Likes to bring people around him and interact with them when they’re stoned. He’s right in your mind when you blow it and he likes the feeling.”

Gareth stared at her. “So he surrounds himself with telepathically linked stoners and feeds off their energy?”

“If you want to put it like that.”

“Not a problem. I’ve worked with directors like that before.”

“And he’s worked with weaselish Hollywood types before you two. That might help. But maybe not.”

“What? Other producers and directors have had access to him? Why haven’t we heard about this before? Part of the appeal here is novelty…”

“I only know a couple of names, but they’re big names, that I recognize.”

“Name me one,” Kenny challenged with his lip stuck out stubbornly.

“River Phoenix.”

“Oh my God, don’t even bring that name up.” Kenny held his hands to his cheeks, stricken. “I could just sob every time I see that perfect face. And the hair to die for.”

“Not the only bodily fluid you seep out at the very thought, I’m sure,” Gareth observed waspishly. “But look, if he’s such a great seer and fortune teller and all that, it didn’t seem to help River much did it?”

“Because he wasn’t listening. Or asking the right questions.”

Kenny shot a look at Gareth. “This is getting complicated.”

“It always does,” Loris admonished. “Because you turkeys always think he’s a wild joker to cheat with or an ego medallion you can use like bling or a hood ornament. You have access to unlimited energy and use it to pull your puds, then go to smash in your own greed and silliness. You don’t need to worry about him helping you, you need to worry about ending up worse off than when you started. Take my word for that. Or do whatever you want.”

“Okay, what can I say?” Gareth saw no point in getting cute with Loris: she saw through everything he threw out. “You got me… I’m a weasel, I play angles. I got needs. So kill me. But I need to…. see?”

“Maybe you can hire somebody else to ask questions for you,” Kenny sniped bitchily. “Some slut who had a three month run on Jeopardy.”

“Shut up, Kenny. No, wait, wait a second, you’re right. I got it.” He turned back to Loris, excited, “You know how to work him, don’t you?”

“I definitely don’t know ‘how to work him’. Haven’t you been listening to me? It’s more like I’m learning how to let him work me. He’s an influence.”

“More like under the influence to hear you tell it.”

“You paid a quarter million dollars for him, don’t you think it’s worth listening a little?”

That shut Kenny up but Gareth had seen the Route To Riches. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I’m seeing it now. We need you. On the picture.”

“Look, if you’re just going to play Hollywood games, I…”

“No, no, serious. We need somebody to liaise here. F2F peripheral. We’ll put you on salary, you handle him for us.”

Loris thought a minute and said, “I can handle that.”

Gareth looked at Bannock, who had turned his head toward them as soon as he started talking about using Loris. “Full salary, above the line. No points, but hey, gimme a break. On the production payroll as of now. What I’m saying, she’d have a job and we’d treat her right.”

In a low tone, almost a growl, Bannock said, “That’s what I’d suggest.”

“Sure, Biggie, no problemo. We’ll list her as a scout.”

“I was a scout once,” Kenny mused idly.

“Really? Did you make Eagle?” Bannock asked him.

“Double bogie, I think they said.”

“Look, she’s on the film.” Gareth scrambled to get back on track, nail it down. “You come along. No pay…hell we already paid you. We’ll take care of her.”

“If you know what’s good for you.”

“You bet, Bannock. Might even be a speaking part for you in this.”

“You talk like you’ve seen a script,” Loris said evenly.

“Nah, sorry,” Gareth grinned apologetically. “Just reflex. It’s my nature. See, that’s why we need you.”

“First thing we’re going to do,” Loris said with an understated forcefulness, “Is clean up his aura. Give him a nice bath.”

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John Milius sat up, beaming mindlessly. Loris knelt in front of him, smiling. “I’m a writer,” he said, “I should be able to think of something to say other than ‘Oh, wow’.”

“That’s what I said when I found out you wrote ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Dirty Harry’.”

Milius grinned as he slowly stood up. “Let me ask you,” he said, still beaming. “Do you only massage people with superb physiques like mine?”

She laughed. “Tall, short, skinny, fat, broken. Each one its own universe.”

“Well, screenplays are the same way. Each one is totally different. But when I sit down and crack my fingers, they’re all made out of the same stuff.”

He turned and walked to the door, feeling two inches taller and floating an inch off the floor. He opened the door and turned to say thanks and good-bye, but was immediately nailed by Kenny and Gareth, who must have been laying in ambush for a half-hour.

“I think you’ve seen we can bring a show,”

Kenny gushed. “And these girls and talent here are in the film. Are the film, really.”

Milius hid his wince at having his serenity crash down to Biz with these two yapping yorkies, but maintained his manner. “Does that Mayan girl even speak English?”

“Xchab? No way. She’s authentic all the way. Tribal. Magically realistic.”

“She’ll play the Mayan princess,” Gareth yammered. “Speaking Mayan, English subtitles.”

“Except in, you know, foreign distribution,” Kenny tacked on, nodding.

“Didn’t Mel Gibson already to that?”

Gareth shook his head forcefully. “No way. He was just spouting a bunch of weird bullshit and they subtitled him with a booking number.”

He rounded the corner to where the main deck gave views of the gardens and on down the tiers of enchangment to the river below. And saw their host standing at the bannister, intent on the lawn below. He moved closer to speak, hoping it would scrape the Valley Boyz off his shoes since they were desperate to importune Coppola, but too intimidated to even cross his shadow. He saw the hand held up in warning and stepped quietly to the rail where only he could hear the soft, “Have you seen this, John?”

He looked where Coppola was pointing at Copper, practicing her firespin with two tennis balls on her chains, each trailing three feet of bright ribbon. The chains spun a web around her, the ribbons defining a twisting sphere of influence as though trying to weave themselves into a solid ball of color.
And three paces behind her, Xchab continued her apprenticeship, moving with the flame dancer step for step, her arms echoing each movement.
And each of her movements was traced by a hovering cloud of hummingbirds.

A brilliant buzz in the green-tinted sunlight, the flock meshed and morphed behind her, tendrils of vivid birds outlining every movement of her hands, the mantle of irridescent feathers spreading and whirling behind her like a cape.

“That’s the really amazing thing up here,” he said quietly to the writer. “Things happen in real life that would be preposterous to try to bring to the screen.”

Gareth cleared his throat and stepped forward, holding up a timorous finger. “Excuse me, Mr. Coppola, but actually we have some ideas on that…”

Aphra figured she could get in, grab the goodies and be back at the well-provisioned dining table before anybody thought she was taking a long time answering the call of Nature. This whole wide-open, secure feel of the Lodge was great. Totally unsecure. She slipped into the room where Tuan and MeiMei were staying in a Robinson Crusoe With Luxuries setup, everything rustic and Tarzan/Jane where it counted and the jungle just outside and doing it’s damnedest to come on in and get homey. Her tracking gizmo was in her hand, blinking and twittering to itself as she panned the room and oops, there it was, over there in the dresser. The little subdued signal it gave from its own min-battery, meaning somebody had removed the camera battery. And in a place like this, with scenery outside yelling for attention and every other guy you run into some famous movie type, that would mean they were hip to the camera doing a little multi-tasking. Smarter than your average slope, these two, and that’s damned smart. But us corn-row niggahs known to come up with a few wiles, our ownselves.

She had her spare sender-cam ready, but under the circumstances took three seconds to open it and dump the batteries out into her pocket. The one she wanted turned out to actually be behind the dresser, but it’s all good. She pocketed it and carefully taped the ringer back where it had been, shoved the dresser back to the wall and headed back to the dining room. This place had to be good for some scrumptious kind of dessert.

Loris reached for the ceiling, staring straight up, stretching powerfully and rotating her fingers as their voices dwindled down the walkway from this mediation room to the main lodge. Those poor saps needed more than she could give them in a weekend. She thought about oXo again, sitting in their room on a dresser. She could just walk in, pick him up, and walk out. But she knew that wasn’t the right thing. Or not the right time.

She slowly brought her hands down, then lowered her head. And found herself looking right at Aphra Alisander, modest in a big white terrycloth robe. And saying, “So, you do women, too?”

“Massage is equal opportunity,” Loris said, patting the straw mat flooring. Aphra flowed down into a prone position, the robe drifting off along the way. Loris arranged her arms and head, pulled her feet together, rubbed scented oil on her hands, and leaned into a long push up the black girl’s spine.

After a minute she felt some of the residual guardedness start to unwind, but was waiting. And sure enough, Aphra said, “Believe I asked if you do women, too?”

Hands ringing her biceps, working in for the concreted fascia, Loris said, “My relationships with people are about who they are, not what sort of plumbing they have.”

“You sound like my kind of girl,” Aphra purred. After another minute she said, “Course you got that hunky boyfriend. Kind of a new one if I read the signs and scent correctly. Looks like he’s plumbed pretty good.”

“I haven’t known him long, but I think it’s something that’s going to last and grow.”

“So how’d you kids meet?”

“It was a business deal.”

“Turned into a pleasure deal. I cotton to those myself. Hint, hint.”

She turned over face up, sliding snake-like under the oil and light coat of sweat. She faced Loris, supine, and spread her legs a little. “I been liking you since we met, honey. And I’m wide open to getting to know you better, you see what I’m saying.”

Loris adjusted her rub to her new position, working silently, but keeping her eyes on Aphra’s.

“So listen,” she went on, starting a slow and subtle movement under Loris’ hands. “Turns out I’m the kind of person gets to know things and find out shit beyond the average schlimizzle gets his 411 from Google.”

“That’s what I hear.”

“Ah, my reputation precedes me? We should talk about that sometime. But let me tell you about the studly Mr. Bannock there. At least his third surname, by the by.”

“It suits him well enough.”

“There’s girls kind of cream over your bad boys, them roughup scary types. But they’re going for the image, not the real item, they gotta a brain left in they head. But your guy there is the real thing. I’d even go so far as to classify his tight ass–and this is not a term I drop lightly–as a rather badass motherfucker.”

“He’s done pretty well so far.”

“Not a guy to take crime lightly. Oh, no… quite serious is how the man takes his crime and punishment. Like Federal time, for instance. And would still be doing that time if they could’ve nailed down a couple of unfortunate fatalities that he was believed to have had guilty knowledge of. Heard anything about that?”

“Not until just now. But how about you? Have you ever been in prison?”

“Nah, there’s still some of us sassy black folk ain’t been rounded up yet.”

“Because you seem a little dangerous yourself. And nosy. And maybe the type who doesn’t pay much attention to laws and orders.”

“No, I’ve not yet had the privilege of incarceration.”

“Well if you did, do you think you’d do whatever it called for?”

“Oh, you just know it, sweetie.”

“I appreciate the information. I know you mean it well. Well, more or less.”

“Ah, ‘More or less’. Pretty much my M.O.”

“I mean, you’re also hoping to weaken a relationship I’m growing increasingly content with, so you can get your hands on me for ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes? Give me some credit, Slim.”

“Flattering, but also kind of, well… you know. You must run into it all the time. So let’s try something different.”

“Hey, something different…”

“No. I mean different thinking, also. Listen to me, okay?”

Aphra seemed to hit a deeper level of relaxation, subsiding on the mat and looking up without the arch manner she’d been showing since she walked in. Might not be a bad idea.”

“Why go to the trouble? Why not just relax?”

“Girl, I was any more relaxed, I wouldn’t have any vital signs.”

“No, you’re on the prod. Playing angles.” She put a finger over Aphra’s lips to stop the game. Then said, “I read people. No name on it or anything. I just have the gift to read people.”

Aphra’s legs edged wider apart. “Now me, I’m just an open book.”

“More than you know. You think of yourself as a very sensual, sexual person. But I think you’re playing yourself.”

“I always thought if they make a movie of my adventures I could play myself.”

“People use sex as an expression of love. They use it to get pleasure, to feel good and released at a deep level. But that’s not what you do.”

Aphra had a half-dozen quips to lay on that one, but instead was quiet under the seeking, calming hands.

“With you, it’s all about power. You play a game you can win, you use your body to get things from people, get things on people. You seem selfish, and maybe you think you are. But actually, you aren’t really getting any for yourself. You’re just wasting it.”

It took Aphra, her eyes closed and mouth soft, several long minutes to respond to that. Finally she said, “Okay, Dionne Warwick, what you think I should do? Long as it don’t take wearing white clothes and coffee enemas.”

“Don’t just do something,” Loris said, “Lie there. Try thinking about yourself instead of me. Try feeling instead of reacting.”

Aphra spoke very softly at that point, no longer making the rhythmic movements. She said, “Just lay here? Think only of myself? I think I can swing that.”

“You lay still, keep your awareness on yourself, what you’re feeling. Not me. And I’ll give you a very special massage.”

“Oooo,” Aphra murmured in a voice so low Loris could barely hear it. “I hope you’re talking about the famous happy ending.”

“I don’t believe in endings,” Loris said, shifting her weight forward onto her probing hands. “Just cycles.”

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Gareth’s voice was almost inaudible as Loris’ fingers smoothed their way outward from his vertebrae. He was floating, but Kenny insisted on talking, so he talked. “It’s like a family reunion,” he said. “Look who’s around: Nicholas Cage, John Milius…”

“I’m just glad Talia Shire isn’t here,” Kenny said with an overacted shudder. “She gave me the creeps in the Godfather series.”

“The scary one is little Sofia. Won an Oscar for a goofball script and she isn’t even a stripper.”

“This is just a dude ranch for the starfucked,” Kenny pronounced darkly. “Put in a jillion quarters and get a ride on Nick Cage or Buck Henry or whoever. Take pictures home.”

Loris paused from tenderizing Gareth’s shoulders and looked at him reproachfully. “Why would you be so negative towards a business that pays your rent, Kenny?” He tried to avoid her, but she caught his eye. “It’s a beautiful artform when you see it from out here. It adds fun and wonder to our lives, so of course people are going to want a little piece of it for their mantelpiece, keep little autographs that connect them to the magic.”

Kenny stared at her. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard anybody defend Hollywood. How gauche could you get?

Loris turned her attention back to
mayancalendargirls.comGareth’s knotted trapezius but added, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ll get inside some day.”

Kenny stood up with effete dignity and stalked out of the gazebo where she’d set up her massage temple. But he did a drama queen turn and pointed dramatically to the dock on the creek. “Just don’t go fishing with anybody named Fredo.”

Winston sat on the rail of a rustic Meiji Meets Tarzan bridge, sharing a bowl with Nick Cage. “Here’s what I don’t understand,” he said after a soulful exhale. “Guy like you, quirky, funny, offbeat. Moonstruck, Raising Arizona: just these righteous, unique films. Then they make you into an action hero with butch guns and blowing shit up.”

“It’s part of the process,” Cage shrugged, carefully blowing ash out of the bowl and lighting it again. “Career trajectory. Plus I get to buff up and impress chicks.”

Winston laughed and took back the stone Indian pipe for more inhalation therapy. “So if they have to make humorous hearthrobs like you and Banderas and Willis into Rambo clones, why do they take the genetic muscle guys like Arnie and Diesel and Ice Cube and turn them into wimps getting their asses kicked by kindergarden brats?”

“Career trajectory cut both ways, Grasshopper. If I do one more role with no shirt and killing a million guys I have to do one where I’m a pregnant househusband. The cinema gods have a harsh karma of their own.”

Winston nodded sagely, tamped the ash out into his hand and rubbed it onto the leg of his shorts. “Tell me this, then. Godfather III. You’re Sofia’s cousin in real life, right? And family of like half the rest of the cast. So why’d they get Garcia to play the nephew instead of you?”

“Well, it was working with a Who’s Who of industry greats and playing opposite Sofi, or making something where he’d wear a headband and two hundred pounds of firearms.” Cage stood up and stretched, drinking in the pristine valley below the bridge. “So we flipped and I won.”

Gareth’s daily sessions with oXo continued to frustrate him. He knelt on a cushion in a draped pavilion under a sunburst of bougainvillea and stared through those glassy pupils and saw facets of nothingness. He turned to Copper and Curtsy, who were watching him curiously, hoping for something dramatic in the way of kosmic trooth transmission, and snorted in exasperation.

“I’m just not used to talking to crystal heads.”

“I sure am,” Copper said from her hammock. “You should have tried communicating with this boyfriend I had in Bakersfield. My TweakGeek from hell.”

Gareth broke his gaze into the echoing profundities of oXo and looked at her. “Crystal? Oh, you mean, speed? A meth head? Why would you hang around somebody like that?”

Look who’s talking, Copper thought. You live and work with the pissiest little queer in captivity. She said, “How much do you really know about tweak? Effect on human beings?

“Uh, not much I guess. Kenny did it a few times when he couldn’t score coke. Ended up crawling around with his nose in the carpet.”

“Know how long an eightball lasts when you shoot it up? Like all day and half the night. Did you know it’ll keep your dick hard that whole time? And that it makes women horny, pliable and crazed. Not to mention multi-mega-orgasmic?”

“Okay, I didn’t know that.”

“So now you do. What was your question again?”

Curtsy stared at her, eyes wide. “Yikes, girl.”

Gareth suppressed a shudder and dropped a piece of embroidered Guatemalan cloth over oXo’s stare. “There,” he said, “You can hide your Mayan eyes.”

Whatever qualities had made Xchab apprehensive about Copper (her looks, her insinuating confidence, her foreign–even exotic–appearance, her talents, her attitude, her unabashed fuckability) were far surpassed by her take on Aphra. Here those qualities were amped up to a feral, carnivorous, gleaming sensuality that led the Mayan girl to regard her much as a rabbit would view a neighboring cobra. Even her skin. In Mexico, where white is ascendant over dark in a sort of racial caste system–thus dumping Xchab at almost the untouchable level–Copper’s milky complexion topped her dusky umber like an ace played on a three. But Aphra being darker yet didn’t drop her into the cellar: it elevated her to a status she’d never seen before. Uncharted, alien, a black hole through the Newtonian physics of Xchab’s dermal world. And her she was, looming a head taller, wet-shining naked, standing a half meter away. And smiling with sharp, white teeth.

Xchab was trapped in the bathroom of the still-somewhat-under-construction family units that Coppola himself had shown the girls to and bid them welcome. Which might have had something to do with Bannock proffering some sort of payment, or perhaps the earnest conversation he’d had with Town Hardley, but was probably just a measure of the man’s apparent generosity and boyish invitation to all things novel and beautiful.

None of which was at issue as she stood with her bare brown butt against the warm, wet amber tile and tried not to stare at Aphra from carmine-tipped toes to exploded dandelion hair. Much less the thrusting breasts, musky groin, and enveloping arms.

There had been no conversation at all. She shut off the water, turned for the towel, and was startled by Aphra standing there naked, fixing her with that hungry, commanding stare. When she stepped back against the wall, the negrona had followed her, and turned the warm water back on. Now she was soaping up a washrag.

Highly unaware of complications and roads less traveled in the sexual wilds, Xchab still had a very nervous feeling that something was happening that she would either not like one little bit or worse, might like a lot. She had to do or say something but couldn’t think of much to do against this anthracite amazon. So she said, “Please. I am already clean.”

Aphra gave a wolf grin and said, “And no sooner you do, it’s time to start getting all dirty again.”

She extended the sudsy washcloth to Xchab’s shoulders and did a surprisingly gentle mopping motion, watching the soapy water run down the smaller girl’s breast and drip from her nipple. Xchab opened her mouth to protest but just couldn’t think of what to say. The washcloth ran down the side of her left breast, across her tummy with a little digital dipsy-doo at her navel and ended up in a soft, but pressing, swipe across her almost hairless crotch.

“Yo, dark meat. Put down the candy and move away from the child.”

Xchab’s eyes darted past Aphra’s shoulder and she was humiliated to see Copper lounging in the doorway, still wearing the bikini bottom she’d been swimming in with Black and Milius and a couple of the paid conferees. Aphra squeezed the cloth out on her other shoulder and watched the milky water again trickle town to its nipple cascade. Then turned to Copper and said, “The more the merrier, red meat.”

Copper laughed and shook her head, “Nope, redheads are the Other White Meat. But look, why don’t you pick on somebody your own disposition? And weight class? And orientation?”

“Well, you put it like that…” Aphra turned to face her, spreading her legs, putting her fists on her hips, and squaring her shoulders back to hammock up the mass of fine titty. The effect was spoiled as Xchab bolted past her, almost knocking her off balance, threw a look of total confusion at Copper, and dashed past her out the door. Aphra called out, “Bye, ya, Maya. Looks like I gotta buy ya to try ya.”

Copper turned back, hooked her thumbs in the bikini bottom and said, “I think I was saying I’m kind of bi-curious.”

“Curious, huh?” Aphra snorted. “That what killed the pussy.”

“Yeah,” Copper continued. “I’m always curious why so many men hit on me and so few women. Don’t you like redheads?”

“Redheads?” Aphra guffawed. “Shit. You claimin’ colors here?”

“What, want me to flash my bush so you know I’m not cheating?”

Aphra waggled a noncommittal hand. “I could live with that.”

“Fair’s fair. I just wanted to see yours first, make sure you weren’t just passing.”

Aphra smiled and raised a single red-taloned finger to beckon her in under the water. “Careful,” she said. “Don’t want to get those pants wet.”

“Too late,” Copper said, sliding the bottoms off and back-kicking them against the wall. She nodded at the bar of lime soap on the rack and said, “Who gets to do the honors?”

“You offer your honor, I honor your offer,” Aphra said, reaching for the soap. “And all night long I be on her and off her.”

“Now that’s a script I can work with.”

Aphra spread her hands wide and curled her lip in a defiant snarl. “Come and get me, Copper.”

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One’s moving away from you on a road that only leads one place, the other one you’ve been chasing for weeks is coming toward you. Which signal do you follow? Eenie, meenie, mo, catch a negress by the toe.

No decision at all, Aphra decided. She’d felt the slight buzz of her tracker and pulled it out for a look. Ought to keep the thing tucked in my thong, she thought, let that vibration do some good. She read the little touchscreen, frowning, then broke into a shit-scarfing grin. Her little sender was heading straight towards her, and at a really good rate of speed, sending steadily now, not the little dribbles it had doled out to her for day after hair-tearing day.

Almost as frustrating as trying to vet that ditzoid Curtsy on what happened to her raid. Goldilocks in the back seat now, you could almost smell her brain burning while she tried to put her junque back together. Or as together as she ever had it. And her pet MayaBoy just sitting there, staring out the window like he’d never been in a car before. She almost thought of Ganzo’s take on travel as “like a little boy”, but not quite: there was that solemn gravity about him. But pretty well just along for the ride.

All she really had was that the boat was long gone, there were pictures of the jade skull but God knew where they were, and that MeiMei was last seen being dragged off naked by some goons. Well, that little chinadoll could take care of herself.

And since the sender in the camera seemed to be coming out of the cold, she evidentially had. Unless somebody else had it now. In which case they would have to be spoken to. The slim Detonix .380 she’d brought incountry inside a lead-lined radio/clock had been under her seat all the way and she was almost wishing there would be somebody to shoot up. She was fed up with this whole gig. She took one more look at the screen, the green dot coming right toward the Chetumal lagoon, and grinned again. “Yeah, baby. Come on to Mama.”

The Navy chopper zoomed in low over the lagoon and hovered over the military pier for two minutes before skipping sideways to set down beside the municipal dock, where several fishermen gave it dirty looks and unappreciative hand gestures. Aphra stood at the edge of the dock, looking for all the world like a tourist, one hand in her stylish Biaggio purse–handy to the grip of the pistol and a few other devices she lumped into the “rotten surprises” category–the other holding up a little digital camera, taking pictures of the nifty little helicopter sitting on pontoons in the middle of a self-created storm like a tempest in a washing machine. She moved the camera away from her eye to admire her shot, thus scanning the read-out identifying its position in the Mexican armed forces and Jane’s abstracts… and a taint of DEA. Hmmph, she sniffed as she resumed “shooting” to conceal her face behind the camera: honkies in the woodpile.

The slick white MacDouglas popped back up and skittered sideways to land on the city pier. And she saw why it had hit the water first, the big, finned, black pod she’d seen between the floats was now revealed as a kayak, bobbing in the water with a guy paddling it in towards the boarding float. He had a hat brim to big to see his face, but looked Mexican. And she got a piece of the picture, right there. Her cute little transponder had been paddling south for three weeks! She just hated these third world scenes.

But wait, who’s crawling out of the helicopter now? Well, on the side toward her, some clown wearing a trench coat. Seriously, a trenchcoat in the tropics. And a Bogart hat to go with it. Now handing out a cute little señorita… whoa, there! What was her name? Yullia or something. Worked in the damn museum. Aphra was getting that feeling.

Looking under the aircraft, she could see a man’s legs on the other side, then a pair of female calves. Something familiar about them, too. Got a feeling…

Then the aircraft just hopped straight up in the air, but leaned towards her a little. She saw the pilot giving her the eye, and a thumbs-up of approval. So glad I pass your checklist, sucker. Then she looked down at the passengers and couldn’t decide whether to do some sitcom double-take or whip out the pistol. MeiMei fucking Chiang and Townsend fucking Hardley, standing there staring at her!

She pointed the camera and took advantage of the fact that it could actually take a picture when it wanted to. This was a keeper moment, for absolutely sure.

She wanted to hold a cool pose until her quarry and nemesis walked up to her, but she heard the door of the Bora fly open like there’d been a bomb inside and the pitter patter of feet running toward her. No need to make the obvious guess: Ms. Mayflower also started running toward her, and now both deserters from her crack commando team were yelling and squealing like sorority girls at homecoming.

But she was paying attention only to Townsend Hardley, stalking up the pier towards her like a gunslinger coming after the blackhat and not amused. She had her gun and whatnot, but Christ only knew what he was packing. Probably some button he could push and she’d get taken out by a hotty-seeking missile fired from an NSA death star. She stood and waited for him, while Lluvia and Denny’s eyes were ponging back and forth from the laughing/crying/hugging girls to the classic showdown poses of their mysterious coffeehouse chum and the Grace Jones lookalike over there. Who also drew the incurious gaze of Ganzo, sliding out of the car and taking it all in.

Not to mention Tuan, who had tied up the kayak and come up the ladder to see the two spies stop and eye each other with a palpable truculence. What went through his head was; Draw, podnah. He saw a simmer that was quite likely to get ugly and realized who Aphra must be. He looked at MeiMei, jerked his head toward the embattled beeatch in question, and got a confirmatory nod. Combined with a touch of trepidation. He knew she had the camera, snapped into one of his waterproof gadget boxes, in the little kangaroo pouch around her waist. And that she’d been pretty clear about not surrendering it to anybody at all. He walked over to the two snoops and tipped his floppy sunhat.

“Hi. I’m Tuan, but you can call me OB. Hope everything’s okay here?”

Town ignored him, but Aphra pulled her dagger-stare away and actually smiled at him. “Oh, yeah, the Flipster. I think I got it now. She made it back to you, you grabbed your canoe there and headed south. I’m not as clear on how you hitched a ride here, but we got time, right? Glad to see the Doc’s OK, by the way. We were worried about her.”

Tuan nodded empathetically and she could read his unspoken attitude even through the semi-Asian inscrutability. Along the lines of: Yeah, sure, you lying niggah ho who obviously had a bug on her all this time and is just interested in getting your hands on the jade. It was nice to be understood sometimes.

Meanwhile, the lying, etc. had been doing some fast thinking. Along the lines of: Gonna be a bitch getting into Belize with Curtsy not having identification and Ganzo, near as I can tell, not even having an identity. But here’s my main man with a chauffeured government helicopter. She looked back at Townsend, who was obviously pissed, hostile, and–whether he knew it or not–hurt. Kind of touching, actually. Despite all the weirdness, and him being on the wrong side of the sexual fence, she had a hard time not feeling a certain fondness for the guy. She looked him right in the eye, spread her hands in a disarming/apologetic way, and said, “Look, we should get along.”

He stared at her, apparently entertaining mixed emotions, and she motioned for him to walk beside her as she strolled towards the far side of the pier. He fought it out, then followed her. Whatever the hell else she was, she was still The Key.

She topped at the edge of the dock, peered down into the murky water. Said, “Hear me out, okay? I know where it is. The skull.”

She took in Town’s netural expression saw it wasn’t just a studied mask: he really didn’t know, did he? He had MeiMei, but didn’t know what it was all about. “What you’re after, right? What we’re both playing for.”

“If you say so.”

She smirked knowingly. “Fine, play it that way. But you got any questions, ask the good “Doctora” there, would she like to hook back up with the talking skull.”

Townsend turned on his heel, went and did just that. When he came back to Aphra he had to turn twice to motion MeiMei to wait where she was and not run after him.

“Okay. You know where it is.”

“That’s right. I got a trace on it.” She pulled out her receiver and held it up. “‘HomerBoy’ here’s all over it. And you didn’t get to sneak in and diddle this one.”

“Didn’t have to. I tumbled the one you’re holding. All cc direct to me.”

“Nice try, whiteboy. We all virgin on this end, dig. So you wanna play? Or you want me to go cop the real goodies on my own?”

Townsend seemed to have frozen up, running the parameters and trying to rule out his own feelings. She stepped closer to him, gave him a little of the eyes. “Listen here. She trusts me. Well, more than she trusts you, anyway. Maybe we can both get what the fuck we’re after and look good, huh? Or maybe one of us can get well and leave the other one SOL. All’s fair, and all that shamizzle. But why can’t we be buddies?”

She looked up at him, a portrait of inner conflict and incredulity. She laughed and tapped his upper arm with her open palm. “Look, I figured out you didn’t know about my mama and your daddy. So that’s all cool. Sorry to kick you out of bed. Oh, and I did the math.”

She left it hanging, but could see he knew what she meant.

“There’s almost no chance we’re related.”

“Great,” he finally said. “Peachy keen. I feel better already.”

“But look ahere. Maybe whoever put you on this knew about our folks? Didn’t happen to mention it to you?”

Townsend glared at her some more, then looked away down the lagoon. He seemed to suddenly unclench, looked back at her and said, “Oh, it’s even more humiliating than that. My old man says they probably picked me for my looks and my way with women.”

She stared at him and broke into a big, wide laugh. “Way with women? So much for their grade of intelligence. And you think that’s humiliating? Listen, I got looks and have my way with women. And the last thing I feel about it is humiliated.”

“Well good for you.”

Aphra waved it off, smiling at him earnestly. “I just think we could be friends. Who knows what sides we’ll be on for the next gig? Meanwhile, I got off on talking with you. We should do lunch.”

“You mean we can still be friends?”

“Oh, no.” She got it then, and almost felt like patting his cheek, giving him a hug. “I get it. Well, that’s extremely flattering. But it wouldn’t work out. We have some pretty big differences. I mean, you’re Baptist and I’m Rastafarian.”

She saw a trace of smile and stepped closer to him. “Let me tell you something else, sugar. I like you. And I liked you even when you were dicking me. Not a common occurrence. So maybe you can take a little ego from the fact that a stone cold dyke finds you attractive.”

“Whoopee. Can you send me a letter for my commendation file?” He stopped and looked down, kicked a scuzzy lead weight into the water. “But yeah. Buddies. Let’s do lunch. I’ll buy.”

She beamed at him, and meant it. “We’ll dutch it. I don’t have many men friends.” Don’t have many friends, period, come to that. “But first let’s scamper up there to the Godfather’s and see can we get to the bottom of this shit.”

He thought it over, then nodded, He stuck out his hand for a truce shake, but when she reached for it, he jerked his hand up and smoothed his hair.

She laughed and moved past him, towards the helicopter. “Too little, too late, homeboy. That copticopter got your hair so blown out, you might need to borrow my pick.”

The pilot had wound down the big Pratt Whitney turboshaft and stood beside the cockpit door, staring blissfully at this little gathering of international pulchritude. When Town asked him about heading for inland Belize he grinned and said, “Totally illegal and a violation of international law and airspace sovereignty. When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as I can herd all these cats. Mind lifting us all?”

“Of course not, I can’t stand being in small spaces packed full of beautiful women.” He seemed reluctant to add, “But we won’t all fit. I’d suggest leaving all the men here.”

“Don’t count me,” Denny said. “I got paid as soon as Ms. Chiang made that phone call.”

He moved off towards the land end of the dock, where a fairly large crowd had gathered; fishermen scowling, joggers ogling, and tourists snapping pictures. Aphra noted the way Lluvia had brightened when he said he wasn’t leaving (and that he was getting paid) and the way she held his elbow as they said adios and walked away. When the Mexican girl passed her she winked broadly and said, “Did I say you could do better than that Luis fool, or didn’t I?”

She slinked up to the helicopter, whose rotors were starting a slow, lazy rotation, and nodded at Tuan when he offered her a hand into the cabin. He’d heard most of Curtsy’s blurted and fragmentary tale and smiled as he handed her up over the pontoons to the deck. “Why are you the only one of these Angels that doesn’t show up naked?”

“Oh, she does naked when it suits her,” Townsend griped from inside. “She’s just not as upfront about it.”

The pilot looked over his shoulder and got a better load of Aphra. “Does she want to sit up front?” he asked innocently. “Much better view.”

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