Friday, December 22, 2006

The Historian's Proposal


We're seated in a narrow dining room/library. In fact, every room in Juan's house seems to be inhabited by books. The sad, quiet air of the coral rock house makes me think of Elliott Smith's "Let's Get Lost."

Juan's assistant pulls out a chair for me at one end of a long wooden table, then skulks away to eat his soup in the corner. He's still in his blue coat, which seems especially odd in unairconditioned Miami.

Juan struggles to sit down at the other end, obviously in pain. He forces a smile.

"I knew your grandmother. Remarkable lady. She learned to thrive in this heat," Juan says, dipping into his bowl.

"How did you..." I start to ask, but Juan isn't listening. He's now rifling through a leather-bound journal.

"I've been keeping a journal since I started the Red Coral Society project. Take notes -- or you'll forget everything. That's my advice," he says.

Even though the chowder is excellent, I'm still feeling uneasy. Maybe it's Juan's jumpy manner (though I know he can't help it), maybe it's how I was chloroformed and dragged here against my will, or maybe it's the rabbit skull looking at me from the bookshelf.

"Opossum," says Juan, meeting my gaze. I quickly look back at my plate.

"This is good. The dolphin," I mumble. "Have you lived here long?" I manage to say, a bit awkwardly.

"Almost three years," Juan says, staring through me. "My parents both died in the Fire in the Glades. I had to seek alternate arrangements." Juan lets this soak in, then adds, "I had a half-brother. But I haven't seen him in years."

"Don't you think you're a bit young to be living on your own?" I challenge him, as Juan's assistant appears out of nowhere and pours me a glass of pinot grigio.

"I'll be eighteen in January. And I prefer living on my own...with my assistant's help, of course." Juan starts to pick up his glass, but his hand trembles and he sets it back down. He looks almost embarassed.

"I read your book," I say quickly. "I liked it. But it was sort of...anticlimactic. You spend five hundred pages searching for the Red Coral Society only to find it never really existed."

Juan smirks. "Francie. You're a smart girl. If you were getting close to solving one of the world's greatest mysteries, would you put it in a book? Post it online? Bring it to a party and let someone walk off with it?" He pauses for effect and grabs a copy of his book from a shelf. "This is for the masses." He points to his head. "This is for me...and my assistant."

Juan's assistant slurps the dregs of his soup. He wipes his face on his sleeve and trudges out of the room. Juan leans towards me.

"Word on the street is you're short on work. It's an extraordinary coincidence, Francie, but I may be out of an assistant soon," he says.

"I'm technically still third assistant to the Queen Conch," I say, loyally. Juan looks unconvinced. "I lost something...an important delivery for her. I need to find it."

Even though Juan is the world's leading expert on the Red Coral Society, I'm not sure if I can trust him, let alone work for him. I really need to get in touch with Grandma and find out why she gave me the missing bottle in the first place.

"I'm also looking for something," says Juan, slowly sipping his pinot grigio. "Tell me...what do you know of the famous conquistador Ponce de Leon?"

Friday, December 15, 2006

Salt Island (and the Man Who Lived There)

I'm sorry it's taken me a while to catch up. Sometimes my story gets ahead of me.

In my last post, I was carried on a ferry steered by an unknown captain to Salt Island. Of course, I didn't know we were headed toward Salt Island until the ferry reached the dark shore.

I had never been to Salt Island, but I knew it immediately by the briny smell -- the result of centuries of ocean salt deposits. No one knows exactly why Salt Island accumulates more than its share of bitter salt -- but because the salt-smell is so pungeant, plans to develop the island for a power plant, luxury condos, and other uses were finally abandoned in the late 1970's and the island fell into decline.

I struggle to lift the blanket off of me -- this was the smell I was trying to place (before the chloroform took effect). I'm still a little groggy, but I can see the pale moon shining over the sparkling piles of salt. The third passenger is leaning over the deck, smoking.

I remember when Rafe used to light up, usually after he'd been drinking. He knew I couldn't breathe around smoke and used to watch as I coughed. Of course, this was before the Thing That Happened in the Snow.

I realize we're not moving. "Let's go." The third passenger tries to direct me off the boat. "This ship's leaving. And trust me -- you don't want to go in the other direction." I silently stumble to my feet. He grabs my arm and leads me off the ferry.


The captain sounds his horn and the ferry pulls away from the island. As the salty gloom sets in, I realize with a sinking feeling that there are no other boats in sight. The third passenger pushes me ahead of him down a winding shell path away from the shore. After about ten minutes, we reach a small house built of carved coral rock. He takes out a key and jiggles it to open the rusty door.

The door creaks open and he pushes me inside. I am overwhelmed by a much more inviting smell: the smell of dinner cooking. My stomach growls.

The third passenger leads me down a narrow corridor to a living room with a very low ceiling. This place is giving me the odd sense of being in someone's cave.

"Sit," the third passenger growls. "The Historian will be with you in a minute." He trudges out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

I look around. The Historian is a collector. The room is filled with specimens of South Florida wildlife and sealife -- shells, stuffed birds, maps of nearby islands. There is also a metal contraption that appears to be an intricate web of pulleys, levers, and found objects like action figures. I step closer to examine it and a small turtle crawls out from under a book, startling me.

I pick up the book. The Lost Journals of Ponce de Leon. The yellowed inside cover reads © 1977, Absynthe Press. The pages are so worn with time and use that they practically crumble in my hands.

"I see you've made yourself comfortable." Behind me is a young man, probably no older than sixteen or seventeen. His pale face is flushed and he leans upon a table for support. He grimaces, as if each of his muscles has failed him. I quickly hand him the book and try not to step on the turtle as I back away.

"I'm sorry."

"No, no, it is I who must apologize. It is so rare that we have guests, I'm afraid my assistant didn't give you a very warm welcome." The Historian turns to me so that his face is lit by the lamplight. My breath catches. He looks exactly like a younger version of Rafe. It's uncanny.

"I've heated up some conch chowder and roasted two dolphins (fish, not Flipper). Please...I'd be honored if you joined me. I've heard so much about you, Francie," the Historian says. My feet still won't move.

"I know, this all must seem very strange to you. Why would I choose to live on Salt Island when I could be playing tennis at private school? They call me the Historian, but you may know me by my real name: Juan Rosado. My book was #1 on the Times bestseller list. It's fiction, with a twist of truth."

Juan Rosado, author of the controversial new book on the Red Coral Society. But I thought the author was at least in his forties.

"No one would believe my crazy theories if they knew how old I was," he offers.

"Come on," he says. "Let's get you something to eat."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Wreckers

Last night I slept restlessly. I was listening to Joanna Newsom's "Monkey & Bear" before I fell asleep and had a fitful dream of a table of monkeys smashing plates and crawling all over the place. In another, I was running through a house built like a Moroccan temple. I turned a corner and saw Rafe's face in a hanging mirror. He raised his hand. Burnt into his palm was a heart-shaped shell.
***
It's almost eight. I dial Betty's number on my cell, but no answer. I've been trying to reach Betty all day. I'd like to talk to her. She was the last one to see the owl purse before it disappeared.

I feel a sharp pain in my abdomen again and decide it's just nerves. I'm not a hypochondriac, but I am prone to flights of fancy, and sometimes these flights take the shape of dark, formless things.

I pull out Officer Khost's card and start to dial his number, then change my mind. Maybe I shouldn't get the detective involved until I know if Grandma's trafficking in stolen artifacts.

I take out Brad's card: "8 p.m. The Wreckers." Maybe Brad can help track down the missing purse. His mother is the Mayor of Battersea. She knows everyone.
***
To get to The Wreckers, you take a ferry from the Old Port. It's not too far from Star Island, but not too close either. I've tried to give directions to friends, but they always wind up getting lost.

Driving across the rickety wooden bridge to the Old Port, I nervously flip through radio stations. My windshield keeps fogging up, so that I can barely see the Bay stretching out in front of me. I park my car and buy a ticket from the machine.

There are only three of us on the ferry. Me in my grey hoodie, the captain, and someone (a man?) in a dark blue hooded coat. The third passenger is smoking a cigarette and staring out over the railing. As the wind picks up, I reach into my pocket for warmth and clasp the bottle of bug repellent Grandma gave me. Ick.

I'm starting to doubt whether Brad is even going to show up. He seemed pretty drunk when he scribbled the meeting place on his card. He's probably at a more trendy bar with Eva tonight, while I'm fighting the wind.

The third passenger tosses his cigarette into the dark waves. He pulls his jacket tighter and starts to walk towards me. I turn around. There is no one on the deck except us. Behind him, the wooden stilts and cracked tile roof of The Wreckers loom over the Bay. We're almost there.

The third passenger reaches inside his coat. In a moment of panic, I realize that there is nowhere to run. I instinctively start to back up as he approaches. He pulls out a pack of gum.

"Gum?" he growls.

"Thanks," I say, my heart racing. I take the stick of gum from his weathered hand and smile to myself. I unwrap the gum and the third passenger starts to walk away, then stops.

Before I can react, someone throws a blanket over me from behind, muffling my scream. The blanket smells funny, like a musty sweater and something else...odd...the smell is the last thing I remember before I start to sway, then everything quickly fades to black.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Found and Lost

If you're into the club scene then you already know about Havana. To get to the swank poolside bar, you first need to find the Havana Botanica downtown.

It's easy to miss, sandwiched between a run-down parking garage and a souvenir shop selling shot glasses and coconut patties.

Once you weave past a few late-night customers looking for remedies for their various urban ailments, the owner points you to the velvet rope at the back exit.

The bouncer opens the door and I step out into the cool Miami night. The crowd flows seamlessly between the outdoor bar, large silk cushions by the pool, and more secluded tents. I am usually a bit intimidated by the leggy South American model set, but tonight I have the yellow dress. I'm feeling okay until I remember I'm still holding my decidedly unglamorous grey hoodie. At least I won't be cold.

An unseen DJ is spinning an upbeat remix of "Yours to Keep" by the Teddybears.

I clutch the owl purse tightly. Grandma gave me specific instructions: "I need you to deliver this purse to the Queen Conch." I'm feeling uneasy about this mission, not knowing exactly what I'm delivering or why it's so important.

I scan the crowd for Betty. As I'm trying to make out the faces of women leaning over the bar, I forget to look down and completely trip over each step leading to the path by the pool. I somehow manage not to lose my balance or the purse, and stop to catch my breath.

"Is that a hoodie?" A model in a black mini-dress gestures with her mojito. As if my lack of coordination wasn't bad enough, it sent off a flare to the fashion police.

"Darling, thanks for holding...that for me." Brad, son of the mayor of Battersea and future-fiance of Eva pushes through the semi-circle of models. "It's seventy degrees out -- you know I need my layers."

Grateful for a quick exit, I follow Brad to the closest tent.

"I think I have one of these in my gym bag," says Brad, dropping the hoodie on a mosaic table. "I like the dress, it reminds me of something...a parakeet, maybe?"

"Thanks," I say, dryly. A waiter pokes his head in and Brad says, "Dos mojitos, por favor," before I can say anything. "Thanks," I repeat.

"No, a canary -- that's it. Canaries are yellow." Brad seems especially pleased with himself tonight. Maybe he's already had a few mojitos.

"So where's Eva? I never heard from her," I say. Brad laughs, then gestures for me to sit closer to him. A little wary, I oblige.

"Eva and me...me and Eva..." I'm not sure where he's going with this.

"You and Eva," I prod. Brad tries to shift to a serious face.

"Eva...is not my type." Oh, this is classic. I start to get up before he can give me the "I'm in an open relationship" speech. Brad grabs my arm, almost forcefully.

"You have many layers," says Brad. This seems profound until I realize he's looking at the hoodie.

"Yes, Brad, I have a few layers," I say.

"I'm sorry," he says, letting go of my arm. "I'm trying to help her."

"And I'm sure Eva appreciates your...help."

"You think I meant Eva?" The waiter hands me a mojito. "This isn't the best place to talk..." Brad hands me his card. On the front, "Brad." On the back, "Hart & Murk LLP -- Saving Miami, One Palm Tree at a Time."

Brad takes the card back and writes something on it, tucks it in my pocket. "You should call me." He leans in as if he wants to say more, then changes his mind and stumbles out of the tent.

I'm fuming -- does Brad think that because of his family connections he can buy me a mojito and make me swoon? Eva may have fallen for his environmental crusader bit but I'm not as blonde.

I pull out Brad's and Officer Khost's cards. I'm about to tear up Brad's when I see he's scrawled at the bottom: "Tomorrow. 8 p.m. The Wreckers." I put the card back in my pocket and toss Officer Khost's blank card on the table. Betty peeks her head into the tent.

"There you are! If I have to talk to another cigar-smoking middle-aged real estate investor..." Betty sits down on the cushion next to me. I let out a deep breath.

"Okay, here's the deal. I need to get this to the Queen Conch. It's from a friend." I show Betty the owl purse. I decide it's not the best idea to tell Betty about my Grandma living in a parlor above our old office.

"What is it?" Betty asks the inevitable question.

"I don't know...exactly."

"I can't help you if I don't know what it is -- it could be anthrax, or..." Before I can protest, Betty grabs the purse and unzips it.

"Oh my god." Betty looks pale. "You know what this is, don't you?" I take the purse carefully from Betty and look inside.

"It looks like a perfume bottle." Betty searches her oversized black satchel and pulls out the Battersea Dirt. The headline: Rare Spanish artifact stolen from Historical Museum.

I scan the article: "While cataloguing items for an exhibition on "Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth," a curator noticed that a glass bottle labeled #3 was missing. Though the team of archaeologists to discover the bottle initially thought it was simply one piece of conquistador trash, possibly used to store a potent liquor, archaeologists and historians are now beginning to think the bottle, with its inscriptions and heart-shaped insignia has far greater importance..."

"I know the Battersea Dirt isn't the most reliable source, but don't you think it's weird -- the Red Coral Society opens its new building right next door to us, Bottle #3 is stolen, and now you have a special delivery for the Queen Conch?"

"We don't even know if the Red Coral Society exists," I say, pointedly.

"Look, I don't know who gave you this bottle, but you're in over your head..."

Just then, there is a loud commotion outside -- cheers and claps echoing around the pool. I step out of the tent and see a crowd forming near the deep end. At first I'm not sure what I'm seeing, as water seems to part and a platform rises.

Standing on the platform is a woman of perfect proportions and equally perfect diamond jewelry wearing...the same yellow dress. It's the Queen Conch.

Before I have time to react, Eva appears in front of me.

"How could you?" says Eva. She leads me away from the stage. "Did Brad tell you about the dress? He's the only one who knew about it. I had it specially designed for the Queen, in Italy. Has anyone seen you?"

"Maybe a couple of people..."

"I should have called. Things have been...hectic. But to pull something like this..." Eva's pale face is turning pink. "I remember being a third assistant. It was tough. But you can't compete with the Queen...She'll destroy you."

"I'm not competing, I..." My voice trails off. I can see that nothing I say is going to calm Eva down.

"Okay, damage control. You need to leave. Right now." Eva starts to push me as far from the stage as she can, while the Queen raises her microphone.

"Thank you," she whispers into the mic. "I thought I would reward my loyal fans with a secret show. Life is full of secrets," she says. I feel like the Queen's voice is drawing me in, so that I can barely hear Eva yelling at me, or the crowd cheering and pushing by me to get a better view. It is as if we are all under her spell.

Suddenly, I remember Grandma's order. I rush back to retrieve the purse. Both Betty and the purse are now gone. I look everywhere -- on the table, between the cushions...but it is nowhere to be found. Outside, Eva has disappeared into the crowd, now singing along to the Queen's hit, "Sunny Winter."

I step back into the tent and grab my hoodie, in the process knocking over my mojito. It spills all over the table and Officer Khost's card.

Cursing, I try to mop up the mojito. Khost's card has started to make a crackling sound and change color. It emits a few sparks and jumps a bit on the table, like a sputtering firecracker. It's now a deep shade of blue. In awe, I pick up the card with the sleeve of my hoodie and look closely. There, on the once blank front, is a phone number.

Now, I'm not usually one to believe in signs. But I need someone to help me track down a missing owl purse and a possibly stolen bottle. I clutch the card tightly, weaving my way out of Havana, two words firmly in my mind: Officer Khost.