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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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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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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