The darkness was full of skeletons.

Not a novelty.

Well, these were a little different from most of the skulls and bones clanking around in Winston’s bummer dreams. Whole different attitude.

As he crept forward through the darkness, white grins popped out on either side, soared around overhead. Not your Day of the Dead types, not grisly Lost Temple stuff, either. More like Cemetery Spring Break. These skeletons frolicked, essentially. They paddled kayaks, balanced on surfboards far over his head, sat three deep on motorcycles, zoomed on jet skis, waved beers and margarita glasses. They wore tourist trap sombreros and NBA jerseys. They waved at him, made out with each other,

This had felt like a prophetic dream from the start, but he was beginning to have his doubts as he wafted along through the cavorting dead. He shouldered past a bunch of skeletal mariachis with old silver horns and entered another chamber, this one better lighted and painted with murals of Mexican revolutions and colonial life. Overhead was a balloon with two dead in the gondola, dressed like Villa and Zapata. Winston mentally shrugged and ghosted on, smoothly dollying in on dreamwheels.

He passed a table set with fruit and bottles, two handsome skeleton couples dressed to the nines for luxury dining. A skeleton parrot sat on the shoulder of the woman with the silvery gown. Then he saw the other table, over in the corner, and knew this particular dream was about to cut to the chase.

Four skeletons sat at this table: two dressed in the satire finery of fatcats in murals by Rivera and Orozco, a big-boned male in funeral suit sat across from them beside a set of gleaming white bones clothed in an embroidered peasant huipil. A shower of gold fell from the darkness above, flitting around before coalescing into a golden, translucent skull floating above the table and regarding him with eyes like holes punched in Hell’s back furnace. Winston, no stranger to the appearance of deities (benign, malign or design) in his visions and occasionally real life, was wiped out. He felt like falling to his knees in front of this pulsing, luminous creature whose eyes spoke of vision permanently focused past infinity.

In a thunderous echo owing much to The Great Oz, the skull spoke to him. “Are you trippin’, fool?”

“Who, me?” Winston said out of reflex. “No way. I wish.”

The skull’s glow throbbed like wind-stoked embers. “That’s what you think.”

“Actually, I think I’m dreaming.”

“Dream on, turkey.” The skull thundered. “Tomorrow night I’ll be right at this table. Be there or beware.”

The terrible glow faded, and the skull diminished without relinquishing eye contact. It was almost invisible when it suddenly popped back to full resolution and fireflush pulsation. “Oh, yeah. Bring some shrooms.”

Winston had learned that the last thing Xchab wanted to hear, while playing house with him and waiting for a whiter knight to sweep her onto a more reliable charger, was replays of his dreams and drugged visions. But this one required some information to understand and he had also learned that in such cases the best bet was to blurt them out to anybody who’ll listen. Some mousy secretary trapped on a diner stool or sodden wino slumped on the bus might just barf up the one key required to point one in the proper direction. And bingo. He’d barely gotten into the first leg of the cavern of skeletons when she fixed him with one of her stonecarved Mayan expressions. “Sounds like Pericos,” she said, in a bored tone. The old fart thinks he knows all this stuff about the Yucatan, but has no clue where people party.

Not that she’d ever partied there, personally, but she’d gotten a wistful nose to the window, coveting all the toys and doggies and lollipops, on her grim treks to sell woven bracelets and shell jewelry to the choked flow of First World twerps beer-bonging their way through Cancun’s hospitality ghetto feeding frenzy. Holding up her chintzy goods and suffering tourists snapping cellphone shots of her Mayan get-up while she soaked up the vista of all the moneyed, sophisticated, superficial glitz she coveted. Until the wait staff headed her off and hustled her back to the Yaxchitlan sidewalk.

But now it looked as though Winston, of all people, was actually going to take her there. Walk in and get a table, find out what these people eat and drink. She looked as stony as ever cruising across Palapas Park, but inside her a thwarted soul beat its untried wings.

Winston was blasted, of course, which might have explained a few things. He’d been glad Copper had declined to come along, muttering woodenly under the grip of Ketamine. They’d left her floating in an innertube, her bare bottom bulging down into the water: what she called “trolling for barracuda.” Her addiction to that rather nasty and consciousness-lowering drug was a mystery that Winston found at turns annoying and tragic. He didn’t like being around people who were “Ko’ed”: they were like amplifiers on stand-by mode, meat puppets who’d swallowed their own strings.

He, on the other hand, was toasted on some very fine Affy weed he’d scored at the hostel and augmented with just a pinch of mushroom dust and wouldn’t have minded a third party checkoff on what he was seeing.

He’d noticed it as soon as they came into the park, little kids with ice-cream cones staring at his loose hempen duds and weedeater hairdo, adolescent hand drummers calling out to Xchab over their beats but getting her usual basalt head snub job. There seemed to be a lot of bees around Xchab. Luminous golden bees. They followed her at first, stringing out in swelling squadrons. But by the time they left the park for the alley over to Yaxchitlan the swarm was all around her, shifting their pattern to create a scintillating veil around her dark, ordered features and short body. They towered over her head, milling and buzzing in a high register that almost reminded him of tin whistles. Too bad he hadn’t brought his flute. The glow from the bees lit their way through the alley.

He made one attempt to discuss this phenomenon with the girl, but she’d made it curtly clear that she didn’t want to hear any of his crazy shit at the moment. She was already up ahead, luxuriating in the interior of Pericos.

Winston strode into Pericos like he owned the franchise, imperiously waving off the waiters proffering menus and the worried looks that appeared when jipis and indios showed up amidst the carriage trade. He’d walked into too many pitiless courtrooms, forbidding boudoirs, raucous cellblocks, hellish Angel showdowns, and stonecold busts while partially decapitated by substances of unknown origin, trajectory or allegiance to quail at whatever dicey deal was going down in Chez Skeleton.

Because the dead were indeed at hand, floating around high up under the peaked palapa roof: real life skeletions. Up there on real motorcycles and jetskis and outriggers and crap. Far more troubling than anything in a dream, actually. Winston generally considered reality to be too weird for him: a crutch for those who couldn’t handle dope.

On the other hand, it was drug of choice for Xchab. She was getting hot over the whole proximity of wealth and leisure and the ability to deploy them. She leered artlessly at the displays of money, but her rookie stun quotient was out of synch with what the people themselves rated: she might read a Rolex or Prada gown as just a timepiece or black dress, while waxing ecstatic over a ripped Metallica shirt appliquéd in gilt or some switchblade cell phone or cunningly curved cheap sunglasses. The poiint being: this was The Stuff. And these were The Ones Who Be Havin’ Stuff. And above all knew how to get it, what to do with it, and how to evaluate and deploy it. She trailed Winston, stumbly and agog, her eyes and ears drinking the place in.

As soon as they entered, Xchab’s bee escort buzzed past her, eagerly leading the way. He followed the glow of the yellow bee road into the back room. Where he immediately saw the tables he’d dreamt, except that only the first one was really skeletons. Back in the corner sat four real people, more or less, and the bees were all around them like a seething gold lantern.

He was sauntering up to a table he read as freighted with enough greed and potential violence to make many a person’s “too high for this shit” lists, but wasn’t fazed. Well, he was impressed by the way the bees all coalesced around a small leather backpack sitting on the table, close to the big guy in the linen guayabera. In Cuba a guayabera might mean one thing, but in this part of Mexico, Winston tended to read them as, “there’s a gun under these starched shirtails”.

Xchab was staring at the two assholes in Melrose chic, magpie eye for the glister of expense. Winston was more interested in the guy with the pack. Muscle, but not a musclehead. Unlike, oh, say the per-diem ex-cop bodyguard sitting behind the pose monsters. And also flanking the pack, sensuous in white peasant drag, was one extremely hot gabacha. Hmmmmmm. Smelled like money and nogoodnikism to Winston’s veteran nose. Just like back in the day.

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Bannock gave Loris a glance and smile when she came out of the bathroom, wrapped in a fluffy white Sheraton robe and toweling off her long mahogany hair. And looking very, very good. No rush. For a professional thief, extortionist, asskicker, and kneecapper, Bannock was far from brutal or crass with women. He knew quality when he saw it and he knew the hippie girl was a class act who’d made her call. He couldn’t completely discount the idea that she had tagged onto him to try get oXo back, but he figured she’d be around and patience would pay nice dividends. He liked the real thing.

So he turned his attention back to oXo, regarding him from the dresser as he crouched on the foot of the bed trying to look into those transparent eyes. He had a feeling there was something going on there, but was clueless regarding how to get a grip on it.mayan calendar girls crystal skull

Loris swiveled past him and stepped out on the dinky harbor view lanai. Southern California is best seen from at least 12 stories up, was his theory. She sank into a lounge chair and busied herself with her hair. “You have to formulate a question,” she said. “Not a demand, though. Try to be unselfish: you get more benefit that way.”

Pretty much what he’d just been thinking, wasn’t it? He stared into the gleaming nothingness of oXo. “Clue me in on how it works? I don’t mean aliens or ancient kings or that crap. I mean, where is this dude coming from?”

“Crystals absorb and resonate vibrations,” she said. “On a cruder level, that’s how a radio works.”

Ah shit, he thought. Why did I expect anything other than mystical spiels?

“Wherever he came from, he’s been on Earth thousands of years and passed through many hands. Kings, murderers, courtesans. And he’s absorbed vibrations from all of them. He’s a repository of human wisdom. He knows the future and your fate.”

Hmm. Not as flaky as much he’d read since starting his search for the skull, and no way to prove or disprove. He had a gut feeling that she might be right. And actually, she was.

However, for the last fifty years oXo had been in America, most of it in the Los Angeles basin. He’d moved from hand to hand, but they were all criminal hands and almost entirely–except for some movie people and one rich Arab–hands that mostly handled drugs. He had been an obvious sensation among top-level coke dealers, an ultimate status symbol and better pussybait than a Ferrari or yacht.

He’d been traded for staggering amounts of dope, raked off by biker gangs, presided over grower communes, accepted animal sacrifices by Santeria-crazed smackers, wreaked havoc on the fragile psyches of tweakers. And most recently snatched up as Blaster ran towards the back door of a house in which the owner was being handcuffed by DEA agents on the front porch.

And now he sat staring into Bannock.

“So I just ask him a question? Out loud?”

“Seems to work better out loud. Or write it and slip it under him.”

“And he replies by email?”

“You just know. You sort of, not really hear, but just sort of know something in your head. Once you identify his voice you can’t miss it.”

Great, Bannock thought, feeling really foolish. You get around these people and they always want to clean your aura, give you a coffee enema, make you listen for inner voices. He regarded oXo a moment longer then spoke conversationally, “So, can I get you anything?”

Immediately he was aware of a thought, like one of those memos you do to yourself sometimes. Remember to pick up the laundry. Don’t forget Mom’s birthday again, asshole. Next time bring the shotgun. Except this one said, “How about a bong hit?”

Bannock stared for a moment more, then slowly turned to Loris, who was watching him intently, her hands poised on top of her head. He said, “You got a bong in your bag?”

She lowered her hands and shook her hair, stood and walked inside. She looked at him, then at oXo. “He likes you,” she said, laying her hand lightly on his shoulder.

Bannock had a feeling she might not require quite as much patience as he’d thought. Little oXo was already growing on him. He gave the skull a pat on top and told it, “Hang in, little buddy. I’m taking you home.”

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“He’s sitting right here.” Blaster patted the round shape under the purple velvet shroud like a father doting on a real comer kid. “Man, I like, so hate to part company with this guy. He’s like a member of the family. But you know how it goes?”

Oh, I know how it goes, Bannock thought, looking around the dingy motel room. Not even a Motel 6; more like a Motel 2.3. On a scale of a hundred. Cat smell, dope smell, hippie smell. And the gorgeous girlfriend dressed practically in rags. Yeah, if I was “Blaster”, I might part with an incredibly valuable ancient treasure to shake this lifestyle.

Loris was leaning back on the ratty couch, already cutting the cord. Which was a good thing. Sick transit Monday. But she had a few last words on the oXo deal.

“He changed our lives. Seriously.” No need for that last word; her solemn brown eyes told the tale. “He showed us how to live, unsnarled our karma, opened us to The Love.”

Wouldn’t mind cracking a case of that myself; Bannock eyeing her just enough to let her know it was there if she wanted to nibble. But it’s all about business, isn’t it? He motioned towards the velvet lump, which somehow dominated a little clearing on top of the grungy, littered coffee table. “So, let’s see what we’ve got here.”

Blaster nodded, but Loris gave him a deadpan look and said, “Yeah, let’s.”

Bannock hefted his black Ballistic messenger bag and tapped it significantly. “As agreed,” he told her, not bothering to address Blaster anymore.

The shaggy dealer wiped his hands across the skidmarks on his hemp pants and reached for the velvet, saying, “Good enough for me.”

Then he whisked the cloth away and even a hard case like Bannock stalled out for a moment, struck by the presence of oXo.

Holy shit, Bannock thought, lotta starglow for a piece of rock.

oXo sat in the same gloom as the rest of the room, but seemed more luminous, as if touched by an overhead spotlight. “Aura” wouldn’t be all that farfetched. There was silence for half a minute, oXo’s usual effect. The toothy grin was enigmatic, but approachable: this was one skull that signified nothing of terror and death. The faint golden tone of the crystal seemed warm and wise, invited the touch. Enticed confidence.

Damn, maybe the whole crystal skull fetish has something to it, Bannock was thinking. At least he didn’t have to go into some grungy old temple full of boobytraps for it. Though thinking of the cluttered, toxic motel room, he modified that to more like, Not totally, anyway. His hand surprised him no end by moving out unbidden to stroke the top of the quartz cranium. It felt slightly warm to the touch, smooth and caressable.

“You’re going to take care of oXo.” Loris didn’t make it a question, more of a kind of pointless threat.

“Oh, I sure am. Lots of major people want to get in on his…” He glanced at her, the lovely young face now hard and the lissome body tense. “…guidance. His wisdom. There are lots of lives that need changing.”

She relaxed a little, but still eyed him suspiciously. Hey, ol’ oXo is sure as hell going to change my life, he thought. “How does anybody know his name?” he asked her.

“He tells you,” Blaster blurted out. That’s how we know it’s ‘Osho’, not like ‘ox-o’ or something.”

“There’s a label on the bottom,” Loris said.

The two men stared at her. Bannock picked oXo up with both hands, feeling a peculiar impulse to cradle the skull by his heart, wrap his arms around it. Carefully he rotated it, the crystal a dance of reflections and light shafts shattering down inner faultlines. And sure enough, there was a sticker: “Made in China”.

That tensed Bannock up, but Blaster practically levitated. He jittered out of control, goggling at the others, staring at the label like it was an ace falling on the dealer’s jack. The spasm passed over him and he fell back on the couch waving defensive hands towards Bannock and the quiescent oXo. “No way, Man. No fuckin’ way. He’s been… Look, I got him from Ginrick himself, he’s… Ah, shit!”

Loris leaned languidly forward and extended a natural colored but well-cared-for fingernail. She flicked the label off and leaned over to stick it on Blaster’s forehead. It might as well have said “Vacancy” in that location. She smiled a beautiful little smile and said, “April fool, asshole. Just wanted to find out if you were really washing him every day like you’re supposed to.”

Blaster was hors de combat, Bannock thought he might be in love for the first time since his teens. Loris leaned forward, her loose hempen top falling open a little, revealing no evidence of support garments. She bored right into Bannock’s eyes and said, “Now you show me yours.”

Bannock could have used a little more eyeball time with her, but there was the business thing. He set oXo down beside him in the rickety plastic deck chair, lifted the shoulder bag onto his lap, and opened it. “There’s good news and bad news about that, kids.”

Blaster showed him a mild befuddlement he figured was his usual game face; Loris looked calm but reproachful.

“The good news is, I’ve got the money,” he said, “The bad news is, you don’t get any of it. Sorry.”

Blaster jerked forward as if he’d been kicked in the balls. Loris slumped and looked around the room, then at Blaster, with a sad expression.

“More bad news,” Bannock went on, sliding a very wicked-looking little .32 auto out of the bag. It was fitted with a dummy silencer he’d picked up; didn’t work–and was therefore not illegal–but sure looked intimidating. Definitely slammed Blaster back onto the couch. “Good news, I never shoot anybody unless I absolutely have to.”

Loris turned a very searching gaze on him and said, “You should consult with oXo before you do anything rash. He can help you work this out.”

“I’ll pencil him in for this evening, honey.” Bannock slung the strap over his head, gently lowered oXo into it, slipped his gun hand inside to continue vaguely covering them, and stood up. She stood up, too.

“Just ask him what you should do,” she said in a neutral tone. “oXo knows about people, can get things done. Believe me, I’ve lived with him for three years.”

“Maybe one of the things he got done was bringing me here to get him out of this shithole.”

He got a different look from her, then. He was unsure what it was, but willing to find out more about it. Slowly, thoughtfully, she said, “That’s what I’ve been meditating about with him for the last few months.”

Bannock backed towards the door, but kept his eyes on the girl. She shifted her posture almost imperceptibly, and just like that he knew where she was coming from. He looked her over head to toe, scanned her face with finality. Said, “You got a passport?”

She squatted quickly and dragged a big Mexican hippie bag out from under the coffee table. “Right in here.”

Blaster stared at her but couldn’t seem to settle on the right question. As she strode toward Bannock she said, “oXo told me I should get one.”

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