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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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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Francis Ford Coppola was the last one to walk out on the balcony of his Edenic retreat and gawk at the sleek white helicopter that was carefully working its way up the narrow valley and slipping in under the rain forest canopy to approach the lawn in front of the main lodge. He sized up the sexy frame of the 902, mayancalendargirls.coma man not without professional experience of military helicopters. Characteristically, he didn’t view the noisy intrusion of the chopper as some fresh hell barging into his lovingly created paradise, but as just one more invitation to view something weird with wonder.

The rest of the invitees to his film conference had different takes on it, though. The muffled chop of the rotor had busted up the afternoon seminar on independent script development, the conferees stumbling out into the blaze of mid-afternoon sun to squint at this rather flamboyant intruder.

Most of the paid attendees huddled together on the porch, or leaned over the lashed cane railing for a better view into the tinted windows. Nicholas Cage and Marty Bregman were joking about the chopper, John Milius calling out over the rising roar, “Hey, Francis, what is this? Apocalypto Now?”

Shane Black rejoined, “If they start shooting, better look around for Andy Garcia.”

Bannock motioned for Loris to go around the corner of the house–which she ignored–and moved towards a stone stele that might offer a little cover it things got as messed-up as they often did when Navy helicopters show up without tickets.

Kenny and Gareth stood somewhat apart from the rest, a condition they had experienced–and despaired of–from the first. The collection of filmdom’s heavy hitters at the lodge had been more bemused than impressed by the entourage that Black had termed the “Jerque du Freak”. Bregman had been taken by Copper’s flame art, Cage had snuck off for a splif or two with Winston, and Coppola himself had expressed admiration for Xchab’s sheer Mayan-ness, but mostly they were seen as a road company publicity stunt. Loris was winning hearts, minds and musculature with her massage treatments, but nobody was taking the Burbank Bros. seriously and flaunting oXo did little to improve their shot at support. Kenny had been increasingly frantic as the first day of conference moved along; the helicopter was about to push him over the edge into babbling paranoia.

Winston turned his back to the propwash and lit a doobie.

Then the ship set down right on the front lawn of the main house, bouncing a tiny bit on its pontoons. A uniformed pilot opened his window and waved.

Silenced and nonplussed, the guests and speakers (and gypsy camp followers) watched Townsend jump out and look around, every bit the central casting action hero. He reached up to help a Diana Ross type out of the front door while a beautiful, bouncy blonde swarmed out the other side followed by a hunky Mayan kid. Then an Asian beauty, handed down from the cabin by her vaguely Asian retainer.

None of this did anything to unstun the watchers on the porch.

Gareth was first to speak, slapping Kenny on the arm and chiding, “I told you we should have brought a cameraman.”

Kenny returned a limpish slap and said, “And I told you we don’t have the money. FYI, it’s the blonde and Noble Savage from that dump in Tulum.”

“Oh, right, and the black babe. Christ, how’d I forget her?”

Coppola heard them from the deck above and leaned down, “You know these people?”

Gareth took a deep inner breath, shook ’em and rolled ’em. “The film I was trying to tell you about? That’s the cast.”

Kenny nearly fainted from the sheer audacity, but recovered quickly enough to add, “The rest of the cast. It’s multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-sexual. It’s… you know… The Yucatan Lives.”

Coppola looked back at the new arrivals. “Interesting.”

All right, Kenny thought. He thinks it’s interesting.

Oh shit, Gareth thought, anything but “interesting”.

Denny grabbed his hat as the copter lifted off again, doing a fancy backflip and blitzing away much faster since the pilot knew the route, and studied the group on the porch. Curtsy and MeiMei gave shy waves and smiles, Aphra cocked a hip.

Tuan recognized Coppola at once and tipped his sun hat in tribute. MeiMei took in Copper and Xchab and Loris, all looking pretty cinematic, and the Burbank Boyz, who looked genetically Hollywood. “What are they doing?” she asked Tuan, “Making a film here and now?”

Tuan looked around, said, “Do you see a camera?”

“No,” she replied quickly. “And nobody gets to see mine.”

“I gathered that. Well, shall we go mingle?”

“You bet your butt we mingle. I can’t believe I have a chance to meet the man who wrote ‘The Conversation’.”

Tuan gave her an amused sidelong look. “But what he really wants is to direct. It’s always weird seeing people like this in real life. He looks so…”

“So patriarchal?”

“So real.”

She turned and put on a supercilious expression. “Where have you been? Sorealism is like totally dead.”

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It wasn’t easy sorting it out, and Aphra was about to give up when one of those thunderbolts of luck hit. Most people in espionage had an almost superstitious belief that all success came from hard work, training and, well… superior intelligence. But she’d always seen a heavy streak of crap-shoot in it all and felt like you won most if you were ready to go with the roll. Which was good, because she was getting absolutely nowhere trying to get into the blonde’s scrambled head.

“So you saw the jade thing?”

“Yeah, yeah. And all these heads and gold and coralcaturas…”

And off she went, babbling to her beach hunk about coral. Aphra shook her head and knocked back some more brandy. She looked around the Paraiso and scowled. It was going to be a long night, and it looked like it would be right here in this beachbum dive. Where the seashell-wailing chick had split and now their idea of fun was some wispy hippy playing drums and this retro-hip/goth/vamp redhead spinning fireballs around. In a place with a thatch roof. Fairly foxy redhead, though.

She tried once again to corral Curtsy’s exploded attention. “Did you see a skull on the jade?”

“Yeah. How’d you know? MeiMei took pictures…” Then she plummeted off the re-recognition buzz into another weeping fit. “MeiMei. They… those fuckers! They…”

“When did you last see MeiMei?” Two steps forward, one step back.

“They stripped us, then they dragged her off. The guy, the yacht guy… Oh, man is he an asshole. He was going to rape us!” She touched her head and went ballistic over another memory fragment. “He shot me! He must have thrown me in the water. Those assholes!”

She was practically screaming at that point, and her boyfriend didn’t try to calm her down, just watched her like she was a circus act. Aphra tried to think of how to play her, then she veered off again, California smile breaking out through the tears. “But they came for me! They saved my life. It was so beautiful.”

“Not the same ‘they’ as the assholes who shot you?”

“Of course not!” The very idea offended her. She smiled and simpered like a middle-schooler in love. “The guys. My guys came and got me and brought me home. Oh, wait, I fucked that up, though.”

“Your guys?” Aphra didn’t mind admitting to being totally lost at this point and was starting to wonder if the head injuries Curtsy had apparently been piling up over the past week had done permanent damage. Hard to tell, though. How do blonde brain cells die? Alone.

“Yeah. Bongo and Bruto and Pinoccio and Caruso and Mayab. Well, Mayab isn’t a ‘guy’, really, but she’s cool and…”

God only knew what that rant was all about. What she had to show for this whole fuckup was that MeiMei had seen the skull, had gotten pictures, last seen in captivity by some guys who didn’t mind raping and shooting girls who took pictures of their skull collection. And she just couldn’t think of any further ways to pursue questioning without the blonde’s wackness getting contagious. She took another sip of brandy and went rigid when there was one of those sudden lulls in bar chatter and she heard somebody at the table behind her say something that snagged her attention like a number ten triple-snelled fishhook.

Kenny had done nothing but bitch ever since they came in the place–quelle surprise–and was starting to get on everybody’s nerves. “This hovel is deader than those ruins,” he whined loudly. “I thought you said the beach scene here was, you know, active.”

“Meaning, of course, cruisy,” Gareth replied. “Look it’s a cheap place to kill two days until the workshop starts. And there are some lovely women here, get a load of the table behind me.”

Kenny’s petulant gaze skittered past the knockout ebony/ivory pair and lit on Ganzo. “Not bad, I guess,” he pouted. “But he’s just…”

Loris, who’d been watching Copper’s fire-spinning with interest, turned to him and said, “We’re here, Kenny. Who could be more interesting than that?”

Kenny, confused, stopped to sort it out, and shot yet another covetous glance at Bannock, who had tuned him out. Xchab couldn’t even understand English and she was ready to slap him silly if he didn’t shut up.

“Okay, let’s talk about this trip to Jungleville,” he bitched to Gareth. “What are we really going to accomplish?”

“Maybe get greenlighted for a real feature, not another one of these dorkploitation reels.”

“But how? is what I’m asking.” His voice raised as the real source of his recent vapors came to the surface. “What we waltz in there with a stone skull and tell him it can talk to us? If it would really talk instead of all this stone innuendo, we could at least figure out where the bottom line is. Get a picture of the ending. Get a budget. Take out insurance.”

Which affected Aphra in the manner already mentioned. She turned slowly as if scoping out the scene and took a look. Two flitty-looking chipmunks in resort wear, very tasty-looking white girl in a white linen shift, DeNiro-looking cat coulda been the collection department for a loan shark, possibly yummy lil Injun gal, and a sixties burnout. Quite the crew, all right. And she remembered now that they’d come in with the little drummer boy and his tres lappable redhead fire-thrower.

She excused herself, walked past the washrooms that she wouldn’t have set foot in on a bet, and eased into the crushed shell lot where she’d parked. Didn’t take a rocket surgeon to spot the white passenger van with rental plates so she sashayed over, slipping one of her new tracers out of her purse. One-day Fed-Ex to Cancun, cost somebody bucks, delayed her a day to pick them up, but she didn’t see any way Hardley or the White House was going to have their numbers. She squatted quickly to click the sender under the fender of the van. As she walked back into the Paraiso, she did a quick check on her receiver. It lit up, tossed blips and digits around it’s touch screen, and basically told her, “Follow that car.” Don’t mean shit getting a wild break unless you’ve got it together to follow your shots.

Curtsy stood in the dark parking area fidgeting and chewing a fingernail. First they follow a yacht, now Aphra wants to follow a van. She’d been seeing Ganzo as provider and protector ever since she could remember. But now she could remember a whole lot more, and he suddenly seemed inadequate to the task. Aphra could swing about anything like magic. On the other hand, her last trick had played out pretty ugly.

Finally Aphra leaned over. pushed the door open and patted the seat. “Come on, girlfriend? Where else you got to go?”

Curtsy dithered a few seconds more then jerked the back door open, prodded Ganzo into the tiny back seat, and slid in after him. She looked at Aphra in the rearview mirror and said, “Okay, what the hell? Get us out of here.”

Aphra bobbed her head as she turned the ignition. “Oh, yowsuh, right away Miss Daisy.

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