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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t Mel Gibson already to that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how’d you kids meet?”

“It was a business deal.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s what I hear.”

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

“It suits him well enough.”

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

“He’s done pretty well so far.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you just know it, sweetie.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, something different…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

“Okay. You know where it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well good for you.”

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

“You mean we can still be friends?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“You see?” Lluvia asked proudly. She swept her hand around, offering the view from the upper deck of La Flota. “It’s not on earth, it’s on sea.”

Sí, sí,” Denny said, looking up the malecon at the State government buildings and the accoutrements in the park. When you’re right, you’re right.”

There was a slight breeze off the lagoon, alleviating the heat he felt so intensely because of his moronic insistence of keeping the trenchcoat on. This was his first foreign assignment and he meant to look the part. Besides, Seattle people feel naked outside their raincoats.

She sat, poured Lala half and half into her Americano (chosen instead of her usual sweet cappuccinos and lattes as a tribute to her companion) and motioned him to take the other chair. She handed him the cream and sipped from her cup, almost sighing with pleasure. This was how it should be, she was thinking. In a nice place like this, with a nice-looking, interesting man who treated like something other than furniture or a potential love doll. Having foreign coffee drinks. She felt sophisticated, not a common feeling for her. Who doesn’t long to be a chica de Bond?

There was only one other person on the deck, another gringo. Long odds on that. A handsome blonde who looked like a movie star. In The Picture, was the way she felt. She didn’t realize it yet, but she had at that point totally and permanently lost interest in Luis.

At the water end of the deck, Townsend had given them a cursory scan when they came up the ladder. Pretty girl, looks nice and fun. Guy an obvious dumbass from the sticks. I mean, a trench coat? In Mexico? He turned his attention back to the boats at the Co-op dock and wishing that turkey would hurry up and show. He was already fifteen minutes late.

At the shore end, Denny was basking in the interest and general approval rating of Lluvia: the only place he generally ran into pretty women hanging on his words was in his nouveau-rich fantasy life. Continuing to speak fluent Chandler/Gumshoese, he grilled the dame over the lowdown on this Luis mug. “So he takes her to this Cobá thing and she never comes back. Nobody had any questions about that?”

“Yes. Well, only I. And he never answered. I was very preoccupied about her and nobody would say anything. I called the office at Cobá and they wouldn’t say one word to me. Even the Director called them and they are saying nothing. Something is going here. Not right.”

“Well getting to the bottom of not right stuff is what I do for a living, honey. Has anything, anything at all, come up about Dr. Chiang since she left with him?”

Bueno…. Ah, there was a woman who came to look for her. I talked about that and she said she was going to Cobá to look at Dra. Chiang, but she never arrived there. I thought that was a strange thing.”

“A Mexican woman?”

Uy, al contrario. Sorry, I mean to say, no. In no case was she Mexican. An American, I think. But she had a strange accents. She was very negra, a black American woman.”

“Really. Did she look like police? Scientist? Reporter?”

“She looked like a movie star. Like Iman or Beyonce or some person of that form. Beautiful, but I don’t know…. Dangerous, like a big cat in the circo.

Badda bing! A chair scraped at the other of the deck and the men’s wear model sitting there got up and came back towards them, threading along the narrow space between the chairs on the starboard side and the handrail to port. He smiled and nodded. “Hi, I’m Town Hardley. You’re American, right? May I join you?”

Lluvia blinked, trying to take him all in. Thinking of Brad Pitt, Keifer Southerland, Gael Garcia. Denny paused. He was starting to get really fond of having Lluvia’s undivided attention and like most males, had the sneaking feeling that if Town was around female attention would be hard to come by.

But Town gave them the hometown ballplayer grin and said, “Hope you don’t mind. I just heard somebody speaking English for a change and she mentioned Beyonce and well, I’m a fan, so I thought I’d come over and say hi.”

Within five minutes of joining them at the table Town was enjoying a half-hearted rapport with Denny and a warm display from Lluvia. And had the conversation firmly routed back to the black woman and the good Dr. Chiang’s mysterious non-whereabouts.

“Why would this doctor go to Cobá in the first place?”

“I don’t know. But it was something about an artifact there. Maybe something from our collection, but before I came to the work here. I’m from Merida and they sent me here directly from the Autonimo.”

“She didn’t say anything about it?”

“I heard Luis say he would show her the placa. That could mean a plaque or badge. But on the phone to Cobá I heard him call it a calavera. That means, you know a cranio.”

“Skull,” Town offered.

“That. A skull. I think they didn’t want him to see it, but he got authorization out of Mexico and took her there anyway.”

“Quite a mystery,” Townsend offered.

“There is no doubt. A disappearing woman, a skull, a guilty bureaucrat. I would buy the ticket and the popcorns, definitively.”

“Everything’s a mystery, kid,” Denny said out of the corner of his mouth. “Until it’s marked solved.”

Townsend nodded appreciatively at that bit of hard-boiled wisdom, thinking, Christ did this guy fall off the turnip truck last night, or this morning? Wonder if he’s “packing” a “roscoe”? He said, “So you’re trying to find her? An investigator?”

“I’m just interested in the Doc. She’s a noted authority, you know.” Which Denny knew because Lluvia had told him on the way over. He saw her glance at him, catching the discrepancy from what he had told her. She seemed to take it as part of the mystique.

“Well, I’m kind of interested in finding somebody, too.”

“And we know who, don’t we?” Denny was not always as stupid as he seemed and had tumbled to the sheer lack of idle co-incidence. “You’re looking for her, too, aren’t you? Tracing her.”

“What? Tracing who?”

“MeiMei Chiang. We’re colleagues, aren’t we? Same line of grift. More like competitors at the moment. You’ve been playing us pretty cute, but you slipped up.”

“Oh, really?” Townsend said. Rhyming it with “chilly”. Can you believe this dickhead?

“Yep.” He turned to Lluvia who was practically gaping, trying to follow the plot without a scorecard. “Hey, doll, does this guy look like a Beyonce fan to you?”

She studied Town seriously. Chiin, que gringo bonito. Then said, “I think all men would be fans of Beyonce.”

“Well, then, amigo. Can you tell me this?” Denny paused while Townsend smoldered. “Name me the title of a single Beyonce song?”

That pissed Townsend off more than anything he’d run into in years. More like, ratcheted up his frustration. Without visibly gritting his teeth, he said, “Okay, you got me, Mr. Intercontintental Op. The black bitch pulled a one-nighter on me, then ripped me off for some important stuff and took off. I’ve got to get it back. So I’m after her ass.”

Lluvia nodded to herself. Yes, this looked like the kind of man who would be in bed with a woman like that. She’d buy the popcorns to watch that, too. In a heartbeat.

“Okay, look. Don’t ask me how I know this, okay?” Denny gave an overacted, “just between us pros” take that Town felt like slapping off his face. “But I think she found Dr. Chiang and is trying to rip her off, too. This thing is big. Like treasure, okay? Maybe. And I can’t say anything more than that. But if you help me out here a little…”

Denny was so practiced and fluent at producing fantasies for his own amusement that lying to others was a sort of performance art for him. He wasn’t as good at it as he thought, but lies work best when people are really motivated to believe them.

“So here’s my proposition. “We team up, pool what we’ve got, go find these broads, turn ’em up and sort ’em out.”

Oh yeah, I’m going to pool info and work with this clown. “You sure turned me over there, pal. You’re some sort of pro, huh?”

Denny pulled out a wallet and produced a rather fancy laminated document with gold seal and goony picture, making sure Lluvia saw it. Townsend took it, but butterfingered. “Whoops, sorry.”

He ducked his head under the table, hand coming out of his pocket with what he thought of as his “Phaser”, and scanned the license as he emerged from under the narrow table. Handed the card back to Denny saying, “Wow, Washington.”

“Washington State,” Denny corrected.

As Denny chattered toughly about the “case”, Townsend flitted his fingers across the keys of his reader, looking at everything they had on this yo-yo Which wasn’t much, but certainly established just who exactly was the chump here. Wrong Washington, asshole, Townsend thought. On the other hand, he did seem to have some big chunks of this. And wasn’t about to just give them up.

“So where do you think Dr. Chiang is?” Denny asked. Neutral, baseline question, like that course he took in San Francisco had trained him.

Townsend paused, apparently deep in thought, actually scanning data on Mercer. And coming to a conclusion. Namely, What the hell? He just couldn’t come up with a reason why this guy would pose any threat or problem. So he smiled and said, “Okay, let’s share. She’s might be heading down the Cayes in a rowboat.”

A bit of a leap, but whatever or whoever was at the other end of that electronic connection was of extreme interest to Aphra Alisander. Unless she’d dumped the bug on some old salt trying to row a dingy to Brazil or something.

“Belize?” Denny wasn’t Miss South Carolina, exactly. He knew what it was and where it was. Another country, for one thing. He just didn’t know jack about it other than that. He looked at Lluvia. “If I go to Belize can you come along? Keep helping and translating?”

Something he caught in her expression gave him pause. “Wait, how many people in Belize speak English?”

She wasn’t sure if he was serious or playing some gringo game that was over her head. She said, “They all do.”

“It’s the official language,” Townsend said, his heavily neutral tone a rebuke in itself.

“Oh. Well, great. How do we get there?”

“The bus runs south from the same station you arrived,” Lluvia told him.

“But probably doesn’t run out the reef?” Townsend looked at her a second and gave it a shot. “Is there any sort of town out on the Cayes?”

“Well, Cayo Tobaco has some hotels, maybe a bar. Docks.”

Ah. He’d seen some docks on the satellite shots from GoogleEarth, but had figured they were all just places fishermen tied up because he’d seen no buildings. He now figured they were thatched-roof shacks in under the palms, a good assumption. They almost had to be heading there. They couldn’t have three weeks of supplies in whatever they were rowing and definitely hadn’t hit any towns on the way. He looked at Lluvia again, not an unpleasant place to look.
“How could I get there?”

Dangerous Den Mercer, fedora crammed back on his head and machete clenched in his pearly whites, mayancalendargirls.comjumped off the wing float of the long-snouted Grumman Widgeon into waist deep water. Kicking aside a crocodile, and holding the pesky Artifact over his head, he waded up the beach towards an adoring Chinese beauty tied to a palm tree by four unsavory pirates bent on plundering her. They glared at Denny truculently and went for their side arms. Denny…

“Seaplanes aren’t legal there.”

He was wrenched from his vision by Lluvia’s comment. Damn, no seaplanes?
“Why not?”

“I think they outlawed them because narcos were using them so much. You understand, trafficants of drugs.”

“Shut down flight on the whole coast so U.S. junkies can pay more for their dope,” Denny scoffed, further pissing off Townsend, who’d been with the DEA for a year and was probably going back with them after this fiasco got closed out.

Lluvia turned to look at the rows of boats moored south of the municipal dock and waved her hand. “It’s illegal to go over in boats, too. But the fishermen do it all the time.”

Townsend looked at his watch. “I’d been hoping for something a little more efficient,” he said, then looked up at a shifting of the hull and feet on the ladder. “And hey, this must be the guy now.”

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The way these things go, Townsend could have shown up to catch the same ferry as Aphra. But he didn’t. He might have if he’d walked out of the Avalon Reef ten minutes sooner, or if he hadn’t gone the long away around, walking North Beach in front of the Maria Del Mar with his shoes slung around his neck and his general grasp of the situation dragging ass on the bottom.

Was she his sister? Or half sister, technically? He wouldn’t be surprised if he had a whole army of half-siblings out there from his father’s wild-assed seed distribution program back in the day. What else would have caused that sudden fury and rejection just from mention of the name?

He stopped under the palms. facing the hotel’s beach portal, anad felt a deep sense of loss for something he’d never really had. He didn’t known just how greatly he hadn’t had Aphra, of course, but even if he’d known her interest in him was pretty emphatically not sexual, he’d have missed the conversational links they’d been forming. And if he’d known just how much Aphra had dug him, even as a lesbian from birth, he could have taken some pride in it, maybe.

He stood halfway up his calves in the slow lap of the wavelets, staring without focus into the courtyard of the Maria Del Mar, then shook it off and put on his game face. Whatever else she was, she was the target and needed to be re-acquired. He walked rapidly up Playa Norte and around the point, cut in through Sergio’s to slip on his shoes and grab his return ferry ticket out of his duffle bag, then headed down the malecón to the dock. He didn’t know that Aphra had left on the previous boat, and had no way of finding that out. He’d tagged her tracker to re-echo, but she’d apparently re-flummoxed that and he got no blip.

He figured there was no way she could have affected the pickup from the sender she was following: all he’d done was nab the codes. He was showing nothing as he looked at his “iPod” sitting on the bench in the terminal, idly glimpsing at the other docks where off-season tourists filed off windjammers and a huge, surrealistic pirate ship. It might be a sender that functioned intermittently to avoid detection. Might be sending pulse bindles at given intervals. Might be smashed to pieces somewhere. When the Magaña boat eased up to the dock he stood up and slipped his little electro-tail in his shirt pocket. Holding his ticket ready as he moved towards the gangway, he socketed in the earbuds. Nice thing about this cryptoPod, it actually did play music. He clicked twice and stopped on “The Sky is Crying” by Stevie Ray Vaughn.

He had no way of knowing that Stevie’s widow, Lenny, lived on Isla Mujeres and he and Aphra had gone right by her house on the way to The Blue Iguana. There are definite limits to Intelligence. No limits whatsoever to Coincidence.

A concept Aphra pondered heavily as she disembarked on the Cancun side at about the same moment that Town was boarding the other boat on the Isla side. What the fuck were the chances of her ever running into a son of J. Davis Hardley? Much less the chances that one of the very few men she had ever willingly screwed and hadn’t much minded it, would be the self-same fortunate son?

She brooded further in the cab to downtown, where she damned well planned on renting a car. Her card was blown or it wasn’t. She was totally fed up with public transportation and cheap hotels. Was there some subliminal signal between them, one of those things you pick up on without knowing why, like the cute little trick down at that Baskin Robbins that time, with about twenty hotshot boyfriends coming by in their muscle cars but was actually so bi-curious it was about to ooze out her ears?

Or was it worse than that? They knew and had sicced him on her because of that? There must be records of the whole shitaree. If not on paper or hard drive, at least in the elephant memories of some old spooks and agents provocateurs still around D.C. And he’d end up screwing her just like his old man had screwed her mama, then busted her.

No way I’m telling Ma about this. No way. She’d snatch out that old sawed-off Weatherby double-barrel she always claimed Eldridge gave her to hold for him and never came back for. Lots of her men never came back for it. One-night special, that’s my mama. Surprised she only got knocked up twice. Then it finally hit her. Oh shit!

She started doing some really quick math, straining to remember exact dates. Let’s see, the Feds took Mammy dearest in right after the bombing. August of ’75, wasn’t it? So that’s more than nine months prior to ’77, so I guess I didn’t commit incest. Okay, half-incest. Unless he was nailing her during her stretch in Danbury. Which didn’t seem likely. So she was off the hook on that one. Still…

She got out of the cab in front of Sanborns by the big bus station. Car rental right next door, but she needed to have some coffee and mull things over. Half way through her second refill she realized that she wouldn’t have been so pissed off if she hadn’t been liking the guy. How messed-up is that? She could have spent a week hanging out with him and swapping licks about parents and cloak/dagger shit. Screw it. Think about something a little less kinky than getting hung up on a straight man whose daddy fucked over my mama and is spying on my still-skintight ass at this very moment.

One refill later and she felt a slight vibration in the pocket of the red capris she’d shimmied into that morning and pulled out her crystal ball. Mirror, mirror, she thought as she flicked the reflective screen to display mode, where are my wandering girls today?

And at that exact moment, while she frowned at the co-ords she was reading, trying to make sense of them, Townsend was rounding the traffic circle in a newly-rented Jetta, only a hundred yards from where she sat. He’d caught the same pulse and was working it out. Both arrived at the same conclusion at the same instant: moving south along the coast very, very slowly.

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