“Got four shots off that memory card,” Weistler said with a big butt-smacking grin.

Townsend nodded. He’d pulled and switched the card from MeiMei’s camera in case Aphra somehow managed to re-acquire. Hadn’t peeked until he handed it over to Monsoon. Now the whole thing was done and he could get rid of these assholes. “And they all came out all right?”

“Weeelll,” Weistler drawled. “Yes and no.”

Well good, Town thought. Or not. He said, “So ‘Yes’ sounds good.”

He glanced across the featureless lounge in the White House basement they’d grabbed to debrief him, hoping for a hint from the Monsoon. But the big Irish was ignoring him, watching that stupid POTUS show on a microwave-sized TV set. No clues there and The Weaseler was being a dick about it. But now he had a manila folder and was pulling out four eight by ten color glossies. He handed all but one to Town, holding the other one up and adjusting his glasses for a good look. “They’re all damn good, but I like this one best.”

Townsend casually picked up the glossies and fanned them for a look. And fell into a personal interior abyss.

The first one showed Aphra, naked, giving him the finger. In the second one she was bent over, looking back over her shoulder with a feral grin as she shot him the dark side of the moon. The third one was her and that redhead fire freak, also nude, wrapped all around each other and obviously taking their own portrait in a full length mirror. He sat and stared. thinking what we always end up thinking about reversals of that magnitude.: No way. No motherfucking way.

Weistler held up the fourth print, which depicted the two women in a much spicier embrace on a bed, Aphra holding the camera up for a shot at the mirror. “I want a couple of blow-ups of that one and a dozen wallet-sized of the squat shot,” he said.

Townsend just sat, staring, his mind racing. How many camera/bugs had the bitch had down there? He was wracking his brain for a way to turn this around and couldn’t come up with jack.

Weistler leaned forward and laid on a confidential tone, “So what’s it like porking a dyke, anyway?”

Townsend stood and moved up to where his thighs touched the desk, leaned forward with his fists on the top and spoke to the weasel in a way that imparted a faint, chilly hint of the real fears and menace of The Field. When he recoiled with a sickly smile, Townsend said, “Pretty much like your mama, except she won’t swallow after it’s been in her ass.”

Monsoon turned from his fascinated/appalled view of the POTUS show and roared with laughter. “That’s telling him, Townie.” He was breaking the tension between the other two guys, and moving to defuse what he knew must be starting to eat Townsend up. “Look, you think you got problems? Check out the guy I have to re-elect. Mugging with George Clooney like he’s Bill fuckin’ Cosby or something.”

Sure enough, on the little screen Barak Obama lolled at ease in his host chair, inviting intimacy and confidence from his guest. Clooney nodded appreciation for the applause following his last mot, then asked the host of the POTUS Show, “So what did you spend your stimulus package on?”

“Stimulants.” When the laughter died down Obama added, “What, didn’t you read my book, George?”

“Holy Motherhumpin’ Macree,” Monsoon moaned as he switched off the set and threw the remote across the room. “I keep thinking he’s crossed the line, then I start thinking there’s no such thing as a line anymore.”

He stood up and heaved around the room for awhile, puffing about the hated show his boss was drawing top ratings with. Townsend watched as he shook it off and turned back to the matter at hand. He lumbered across the floor and pulled up a leather-like ottoman to dump his ruddy bulk right in front of the faux Morris chair where Townsend sat, and leaned in like the dutchest of uncles. “Look, whatever sort of emo framistan you were stupid enough to jam into this thing…”

“And, honest injun here, I can’t blame you much,” Weistler stuck in from where he lounged with his weejuns on the pristine upholstery of a GS-12 class sofa. “She’s the five alarm hot sauce, no two ways about it.”

“Not so much that…”

Monsoon guffawed. “Well, apart from that.”

Townsend slogged on into it. He’d committed himself, for some reason he didn’t completely understand, to playing this completely straight: total debrief, no cover, no chaser. The only one who’d had anything to tell him about Life After Megagasms had stressed that: truth brings truth, lies bring lies. Take the chance and you’ll reap the harvest. Not the best advice to a professional spy, but he didn’t sense even an ounce of bullshit around that Loris babe. So here goes:

“She was like… like a colleague. A peer. Nobody else really understands what I’m doing. There’s nobody to talk to about it. She’s like… I don’t know… like somebody I played with in college but now I’m a Yankee and she’s a Red Sock, but we can talk in a place all the fans and assholes don’t know about. That make sense?”

Weistler gave Monsoon a searching look, drawing forth a shrug, then a rueful grin. Then, “That makes a lot of sense to both of us, actually. What are we going to do, tell our wives what we did at the office?”

“If you could rent a hall big enough for all your wives.”

“I’d have to look around for one big enough just for Erin these days.”

“Somewhere inside that mound of lard there’s still the sylphlike lingerie model, trying to eat her way out.”

Townsend was still on the edge of his chair, leaning forward in a dark tension, but realized that the vaudeville was for his benefit. And was surprised to realize that he appreciated it.

“Look, kid,” Monsoon rumbled. “There’s no shame in getting faced by Beyonce, there. Aside from the obvious, you’re a rookie, she’s an old timer.”

“Same age as me.”

“Yeah but…”

“But she was grifting intel in her teens, Town,” Weistler cut in. “Working top-level exec parties, clubs. Doing vice callouts to get next to top CEO’s and mid-managers. Guys who run conglomerates. Are they stupider than you?”

“And what were you doing in your teens?” Monsoon asked.

“Dunking forty-three points in the Tri-State final,” Weistler answered the rhetorical question. “Pitching three games in the College World Series. Playing bass with The Fugknuckles, I believe they were called. Laying waste to sorority row.”

“Then you get almost like, tapped in to the Agency.” Monsoon scowled. “After college. We should probably be recruiting little gamesters out of grade school. Running Spy Scouts camps like the gooks.”

“Instead of getting the job because of my old man’s network of admirers and envious loathers? Find out I’m not the right timber from some lez bimbo?”

“Who also has a bit of a parental shadow behind her, it might interest you to know. Difference was, her mom taught her Trade, wanted her in The Life.”

“Just on some other side,” Weistler snickered. “She probably runs into people all the time, old Panthers with their berets turning grey telling her what a great organizer her mama was.”

“Not to mention what a come-to-Jesus great fuck.”

“And she probably runs into them as little as she can.”

“Like I said,” Townsend said quietly, “Overlook a few obvious differences and we’re the same thing. Karmic teammates or something.”

“For one thing,” Weistler said straight-faced, “You’re both wild about pussy.”

Monsoon saw Townsend about to stand up and walk out and spoke quickly but with an authoritative warmth. “Hang on, kid. Gimme a minute more, okay? You shut up, Jerry.”

Weistler shrugged and leaned back to see what riff his colleague would roll out this time. He was actually surprised for a change.

Monsoon paused, looked Townsend back into his chair, then hiked his a little closer and spoke right into his face. Talking like a man who’d taken off his official hat for a minute. Townsend slumped back and listened.

“Let me ask you a question, Townie. Why the screaming, shitting, wall-kicking, paddywacking fuck did we start a war in the Middle East?”

Townsend warped out on that one a minute, then shifted into Dudley Dooright. “So the terrorists wouldn’t win? To make the world safe for Monday Night Football? To preserve our way of landing on aircraft carriers?”

“I’m being real here.”

“Okay. I guess I’d say what anybody not stupid enough to repeat what we told them would say: Oil.”

“So show me the oil,” Weistler chuckled. “Show me why we’re paying billions to rebuild Shithole On Sandgrit over there while they’re pulling bejillions in petroprofits.”

“I thought we agreed one of us would shut up,” Monsoon growled, then returned to Townsend. “You’re not that dumb. You probably figure it’s all about some wheels within wheels hidden behind gears and guts down in the Beast. Nothing to worry your pretty head about because you’re an action figure. The Jimmy Bond ninety percent of the agency really want to be but can’t cut the mustard.”

“Junior Grade.”

“I’m getting to that. Let me tell you from a pretty damn unique insider perspective why we jumped off our personal jihad against Islam. Let’s take a closer look at George W. Bush.”

Great, Townsend thought. First I get the “thinking with your johnson” smirks, now I’m getting some old nutcutter’s history lesson. On the other hand, maybe that’s what it calls for.

“One thing pretty unique about Dubya,” Monsoon went on in his armchair lecturer mode, “How many presidents had fathers who were presidents? You’re looking at a guy who made it to the most powerful position in the world and was still falling short of his old man’s accomplishments. And Senior made it pretty clear he thought Junior was Howdy Doody. How could he possibly top the Pop?”

Townsend was jolted out of any lull in his attention at that point; staring at Munson as though he’d just morphed into a guru channeling Dr. Phil and Dr. Ruth.

“He didn’t make his Dad’s marks at Yale, was the joke of Skull and Bones, zippo military record, screwing around baseball instead of the Company. Second rate blowby right down the line. But there was one thing his father failed to accomplish.”

Townsend almost whispered. “Take out Saddam.”

“You got it,” Monsoon nodded as if to a dull student finally picking up on the picture. “You talk to anybody who was around the Oval back then. Anybody who’ll give a straight answer–and lotsa luck finding that–and they all know it: Georgie came into office already committed to going after Hussein. He’d been dreaming about it through the whole Clinton Scare and he hit the ground running.”

“Shit, that almost makes some scary kind of sense.”

“The only mystery is how he sold the sane, grownup world that such a reckless action was necessary to take care of a guy who didn’t even make the Top Ten Dangerous Asshole Dictators list. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after blowing my life working in top-level politics it’s that it really comes down to personalities. You just can’t go back and examine the political parameters and components of the times and explain a Bonaparte or Alexander or Hitler or Bolivar. They’re pretending to now, of course, revisionizing history to get rid of bronze Paul Bunyans and Elvises that make them feel inadequate, but I’m telling you: things happen in this world because of diseased personalities, not graphs and flowcharts.”

“And you get down to it,” Weistler said, almost to himself as he examined Monsoon’s thesis, “It’s generally over something stupid and petty.”

“Napoleon too short,” Monsoon nodded. “Hitler too scrawny and Jewish-looking. Duke’s fucking the French king’s wife. Chancellor snubbed the Premier at a state dinner. Chief of Secret Police is impotent. The professor’s parents tossed out his teddy bear. All explanations that bear no explanation. Most times nobody even has a clue what’s going on. And as little as we understand politics and economics, Christ knows, it’s lore of the savants compared to what we know about psychology.”

Townsend took a slow pan of these power players, Monsoon regarding him like a kindly uncle–which would have creeped him out except there was that gnawing feeling of gratitude again–and Weistler highly impressed but curious as to how he’d take it. He licked his lips, looked over their heads for a moment. Then said, “It’s been frustrating.”

Monsoon nodded, pleased with the outcome. “I can see how it would be. And now this. And just maybe your old man’s lingering fingers had something to do with you sucking a goose egg down there? Look. You’re too young to be frustrated. That’s one of the privileges of age and experience.”

Weistler laughed, but kept that curious eye on him.

“I think things are different now.”

“Know what?” Monsoon leaned back, regaining distance. “I was sort of picking up on that. God knows what went on down there, but I’m hoping it does you some good. Here’s what I’m suggesting: don’t let your hardon for your old man make you burn down the world.”

He didn’t squirm or flare behind that. He’d already figured out what the older man was saying and was filing it away in places that seemed to have been recently prepared to accept it. What he said was, “Thank you very much. For everything. Next time I’ll do better.”

Weistler laughed and Monsoon filled in the bassline with his own jolly rumbling. “Next time is the New This Time,” he said.

“You hear a fat lady singing?” Monsoon asked him.

“If so, I hope it’s not Erin,” Weistler tossed in. “She could shatter the plate in Yankee Stadium.”

“You said this thing ties into this whole Maya bullshit? And the little chink is still after some way to make sense of it? And that splib rugmuncher is still after it? Well then…”

This time the gratitude threatened to break out in a tremor, so Townsend was very careful when he nodded gravely to the corrupt old machinators and said, “Thanks, you guys. I won’t let you down.”

“Good. See if you can tape the dirty parts this time out.”

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Aphra saw the knife–a raptor claw of some gray matte space-aged metal–come through between the warped door and the frame, then flick upwards to toss the latch, but there wasn’t much she could do about. Caught flat-footed, about the only way you get caught when you’re sitting on a toilet and the stall door blows open on you. And who else but Townsend Hardley, once again barging in on her private participles?

Her eyebrow arched delicately as she regarded him over the fist he stuck in her face. The fist that came wrapped around another dull-metal object that reminded her of one of those rubber hand-exercisers with finger grooves, but had this thing like a cigarette filter sticking out between two fingers and pointing right between her eyes.

Never saw one of those little tricks before, but got no doubt it would blow somebody’s head off or poison their whole family or whatever shit it was supposed to do. So she said, “Could you be a little dear and grab me some toilet paper from the next stall?”

Townsend didn’t smile or blink, just kept the drop on her, held his hand out, and snapped his fingers. She’d thought she was home free, somehow getting off the airport jitney and slipping down here to the bus station in Belize City.mayancalendargirls.com 2-D scrambling, unaware of hawkeyes from Up. So here he was with compulsion in his fist, and there she was with her slinky little undies around her ankles and a roll of TP short. He didn’t want to speak to her and didn’t feel like he really had to.

“Can see you’re no gentleman, Townsend,” she said archly. “You didn’t hurt Copper on your way in here, did you?”

“No need. I know you have it on you. Give.”

With a world-weary sigh, she reached up to where she’d hung her traveling purse to keep it off the decidedly unsanitary floor. Slowly, carefully bringing it down to where she could reach inside.

And he quickly, carefully taking it from her. Took the straps in his teeth and plunged around inside it.

“You find that poisoned wolftrap I left in there?” she asked innocently. “Started feeling sleepy from the stuff I put on the strap?”

He came out with the camera, quickly flipped the little door open and felt for the memory card without taking his eyes off hers. Then boom, he was gone.

She sat motionless without a sound, waiting to hear the restroom door close before she moved. Then the stall door popped open again and he tossed her a roll of the local toilet sandpaper and hit her with a rodeo smile. “No hard feelings.”

Outside the nasty ladies’ room, he moved through the big, echoing, grimy terminal, heading for the chartered car waiting in one of the bays. He saw Copper buying bottles of water for their trip to the border and held the bag up for her to see, then dumped it on a bench and got in the car.

As he pulled away from the apron, Copper moved over to pick up the purse, looking nervously at the restroom door. But Aphra walked out, cool and collected, to reach for the purse, sling it over her bare shoulder, and give her a grin. “Whiteboy just don’t get up early enough in the morning to nab lil orphan Aphra,” she said and Copper laughed her fool ass off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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