Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tropical Blush

I find Betty at the Tropical Blush counter, where she’s been working weekends.

Without a word, she sits me down in the makeover chair and hands me a copy of the Battersea Dirt.

Headline: Battersea Prince in Hot Salt-Water: Caught With Queen’s Assistant on Eve of Engagement!

“Brad’s engaged?” I ask, as Betty pulls out her make-up kit and brushes.


“Francie, the Dirt is calling you a dirty mistress and that’s what you wanna know? Oh my god, you are sleeping with him!"

Betty grabs my face and examines it closely.

“No! I’m...is there anything about a shooting, at the Queen’s Palace last night?

Betty flips through the tabs. “No, just a couple lines in the Gatherings section about a party. Says she hosted a small soirée for a few selected industry friends.”

“Like the Red Coral Society? Since when is kidnapping and murder an ‘industry’?” I say.

“Don’t tell me you still think they had something to do with Maribel’s death...”

“I’m not sure. The Historian, Juan Rosado -- He's a bit...unbalanced. It was Juan who did the shooting last night. And I'm pretty sure he killed Maribel. But
I think someone -- maybe someone in the Society -- told Juan that Maribel had something, something he wanted, and that she was keeping it in the shop. Now Juan thinks I have this thing. So he shot the Cat, trying to get to me.”

“If it’s not in the tabs, it didn’t happen,” says Betty, applying foundation. The impact of this statement hits me.

“No one knows what’s going on,” I say.

“Will you stop fidgeting?” says Betty.

“Betty, I need you to tell me everything you know about the Red Coral Society, everything you’ve read in the tabs.”

Betty stops applying blush and steps back to look at me.

“I really shouldn’t be helping you now that you’re a former assistant,” says Betty, “I'm starting to get some real responsibility.”


Betty takes out her shiny new Device and scrolls through a list of pink-font Eva messages. She avoids my look, surveys the row of lip glosses and picks out a sheer raspberry gloss.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful, Francie...I’m not saying you’re right about Maribel, but here’s the thing...the Red Coral Society used to be completely underground, the Dirt couldn’t even touch them. But lately it seems like they’ve been...asking for publicity -- opening the new building, hosting parties, showing up around town...it’s like they’re scripting everything, how much the tabs say, and when. They can disappear, or be the front page story.”

“So you’re saying...”

“...they’re not afraid,” finishes Betty.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Ghosts of Little Things

Opossum sits on the edge of my bed, looking at me with glowing eyes.

“I feel like I’m not good at this,” I say, “this moving forward.”

“You’re lucky,” says Opossum, “these days I just turn up. I don’t even remember what it felt like to move.”

“I’m starting to feel it, you know, this ‘spiritual growth.’ It started as a pain in my abdomen, like a terrible cramp, but now it radiates to my legs sometimes. On good days, I can almost pretend it’s not there, but mostly, I feel sort of restless, like I’m going around in circles.”

“It’s the world,” says Opossum, looking out the dark window, “you’re just feeling it inside.”

“Maybe,” I say.

I pull the covers up to my chest and Opossum pads his way closer.

“I think I might be going crazy,” I say to Opossum. “I’m seeing Rafe everywhere, even as this kid, Juan Rosado. I feel like something’s turning...the closer I get to the Fountain, the more I feel the weight of the Thing That Happened in the Snow. Do you think it’s possible to forget a person, as if they never really existed?”

“People,” says Opossum, “you cling to your memories like barnacles to ships.” He pads closer to me, so that our noses are almost touching.

“Find the Second Point,” says Opossum, “but keep up your guard. Stay alert. Be prepared.”

“For what?” I ask.

“For the unraveling,” says Opossum.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Long Live the Queen

“Yeah?” I say, “Well, the Cat didn’t exactly invite me over for sushi. Anyway, I’m not really a fan of raw fish, so maybe we should catch up another time...”

I start walking around the room, searching for where we came in, but the door seems to have disappeared. I glance at the sliding glass doors, which seem to be the only way out.

The Queen smiles.

“Francie, my friends outside are all part of, let’s call it an organization...that takes loyalty very seriously. Without loyalty, where would we be? I would sell a lot fewer albums and downloads, my concerts would be empty...I might even have to make my own sushi, and I’m not as good with a knife as the Cat.”

The Cat growls, perhaps in agreement.

“So, you see, it might be a good idea for you to start thinking about building your own career around such principles. Otherwise, you might as well just jump off the cliffs outside into the Bay, because there is absolutely nowhere else to go.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” I say, “and there’s no one I’d rather field phone calls for, but I’ve thought about my career, and I’ve decided this third assistant gig isn’t working out.”

I fumble behind me for the door handle, as the Cat clenches her knife.

“You know, you remind me of your grandmother. She was a remarkable woman.
I remember, when I worked for her, she used to take me to the old Observatory, in the Glades. It was there that on a clear night, you'd get the most incredible view of the Ten Thousand Islands, and of the entire night sky. Though I’ve been married more than a few times, I’ve never been given any diamonds that equaled that view.”

The Queen leans back and lifts a cigarette from a small, mosaic dish on the glass coffee table.

“You worked for my grandma?”

“Of course,” says the Queen, lighting a match, “didn't she tell you? I was your grandmother’s third assistant.”

Just then, there is a loud splash as one of the Star Islanders, a large, mustached man, falls backwards into the pool. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, I slide open the door and stumble outside. A group of men turns from the pool, where they are trying to lift Mustache out by his beefy arms, and shout something at the women.

Three women turn around, as if choreographed, so that I can see the matching red coral charms hanging from their necks. They start to move towards me, as
I run around the curved side of the house, towards the gate, and I keep going, trying not to trip on the stone steps on my way down.

I hear a gunshot, and I turn around to see the Cat running after me, her long, spindly legs carrying her past the women, holding the gun in one hand and knife in the other. I press all the buttons on the keypad, setting off the alarm, but the gate stays locked. The Cat grabs me from behind.

“The bottle,” she says, in more of a growl than a voice, “bring us the bottle, and we will all live.”

“I don’t think so,” I say, trying to push her away and hit the keypad at the same time, “see, I’m pretty sure if I bring you the bottle, I won’t be leaving this island. And even though it’s a nice place to visit, with all its Bentleys and fancy houses,
I wouldn’t wanna live here.”

I make a grab for the knife, and at the same time, a shot rings out. The Cat stumbles back, a look of shock on her face, clutching her arm. Blood begins to trickle out from under her bony fingers. She drops the gun.

I turn around, and see Juan Rosado, in the shadows, leaning on a cane shaped like a snowy egret, and holding a gun in his hand. He raises it in the air again, as the Star Islanders scatter in all directions.

The front door to the house opens, and the Queen steps out, holding a lantern, and trying to get a hold on what’s going on.

“Long live the Queen,” shouts Juan, with a twisted smile and laugh, that might only be found in the darkest comic, had I not heard that laugh once before, on the night of the Thing That Happened in the Snow.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Still Darker Events, or, the Night Captive

As the gate slowly opens, I can see the outline of a house built like a Moroccan temple. This was Sea’s house, and the house stands as I remember, at the top of a man-made hill, framed softly by gardenias, and overlooking the night waves.

The moon hangs, fully, over the house, so that the heart-shaped shell carved into the door is illuminated.

The Cat leads me through the house, corner after corner, to a large room with curved glass doors opening out onto the patio. Without saying a word, she sits down at a marble kitchen island, takes out a large knife, and a slab of raw salmon, and begins slicing thin pieces and rolling them into sushi. She looks straight at me with each cut.

Below me, in the floor, is a glass fish tank, like a small, enclosed pond. Several fish dart around inside. As I look closer, I can see that they’re not exotic or tropical fish, but, rather, your basic pet store goldfish.

One of the glass doors slides open, and outside, a group of Star Islanders lift their flutes in a toast, seemingly in my direction, until I see the Queen Conch, decked in pearls and slink, closing the door behind her. As soon as she is inside, they turn back to each other, oblivious to anything except themselves.

The Queen presses an unseen button on the wall, and Nick Drake’s Magic starts to play softly.

The Queen gestures for me to sit on the white leather couch, as the Cat brings her knife down on the cutting board, like a machine. She lifts her hand, and the Cat stops cutting and holds the knife at attention, glaring at me.

“Francie,” says the Queen, “my third assistant. I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you.”

Friday, July 20, 2007

Less Than Swimming News

I knew exactly where we were going long before we reached the bridge, casting its lanterned-glow over the Bay.

And, frankly, the gun pointed at my side the entire drive felt unnecessary, like a prop left over from a melodrama. I knew where we were going and I wasn't about to exit before my entrance.

However, the bone-thin model next to me seemed to have an entirely different idea of what was necessary. Her cats' eyes (one green, one blue) were cool and expressionless, but alert, as if waiting for the slightest movement. Hadn't she heard of color-correcting contacts? (Probably not.)

If I had to bet, I'd say the Cat rarely slept and never, ever ate her vegetables.

As we turned off the causeway, I caught a glimpse of the red coral charm hanging from the neck of my captor. It reminded me of the centuries-old puzzle I had yet to unravel and did nothing to calm my feeling that this return to Star Island, this first visit in ten years, was not going to be good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Return to the Sort-of-Real World

If I had even the slightest sense of time, I might have realized that we weren't going to make it to the Queen's book signing. But as Brad pushed me through the doors of the over-airconditioned mega-bookstore, I hoped that the Queen might be signing one last, false-adoring page of Love sincerely, your own idol, the Queen.

Instead, as I should have expected, Eva blocks our entrance, holding a book to her chest like a life-preserver.

"It. Didn't. Go. Well," she says, shifting her icy gaze between us. "I needed you."

I glance at Brad, not sure if Eva meant him or me.

"I'm sorry," we both say at once, then look away from her, guilty of some imagined conspiracy.

Though I still don't know how we're gonna find our moon, the Second Point hangs invisibly between us, a mystery to be solved, or dissected, or searched. Now that people (and opossums) are dying, I'm not sure if I can be the Queen's pretend third assistant, or Khost's true assistant, or if true is even the opposite of pretend, but still, not knowing how, I find myself saying (or hearing?):

I'll make it up to you.

Eva, at least, thinks I've said it. She growls: "Well, the Queen's long gone. Driver took her back to the Palace. Betty's signing another box of books for her. I've been most impressed with how Betty's stepped up in your absence. So I guess all that leaves is...you telling me where the hell you've been this evening."

Brad: "I should go."

Eva (a little manic): "No...no, you stay here. I want to see if you get that, that eyebrow twitch that happens when you hear a lie."

Brad: "You noticed that?"

Eva: "Please, I knew you knew I'd never risk a real tan. Every time I came back from 'sunbathing': twitchy."

"I was at the library," I say quickly. "I'm sorry I can't be more interesting for you, Eva, but I'm old, I'm boring, I was at the library with the dust motes."

"Very boring," coughs Brad, eyebrows still.

For some reason I feel compelled to keep going. "And I caught Brad, here, your Brad, researching shiny objects. Shiny glittery objects. But I'm sure you'd be the least surprised to hear that," I say.

Instead of looking pleased, Eva eyes Brad strangely.

"Oh," she says, simply, unreadable.

I'm trying to process. But this is not the only thing going on. Down the street, a lone car is slowly making its way towards us. The silver Bentley crawls to a stop right outside the mega-bookstore, and a few feet away.

Max lets out a large squawk and I turn around, almost in slow motion, as the door swings crudely open.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Saints and Poets, Maybe

Outside, a thunderstorm comes down suddenly, gusting heavy rain over the saw palmetto and hibiscus.

“So, why did I send you to the Great Library?” says Khost. "Because all great stories begin (and end) in books. After Ponce de Leon died, the Red Coral Society continued to search for the second and third points, leaving clues, in the most hidden places of the city. This way, if they did not succeed, all would not be lost -- their descendants could follow their map, leading to the Fountain.

Khost turns on the lamp, and the three of us gather around my notebook.

“Bradford,” says Khost.

Brad adjusts his glasses: “‘I am like an owl of the desert.’ That’s it. That’s all there is. I think it’s some sort of riddle.”

Khost starts to smirk, then his smirk turns into a slight chuckle, and then the chuckle into a full-blown laugh. Max joins in, squawking.

“Come on,” says Khost. Didn’t they teach you anything in Hebrew school?” Brad and I look at each other.


Khost reaches under the table and opens an unseen compartment. He pulls out a large, dusty bound book that couldn’t possibly have fit inside. He thumbs it open to a page and slides it over to Brad.

“The Bible?” asks Brad.

“Psalm 102:6. A psalm of David, from the Old Testament. Go on,” he says, pointing to a verse.

“I am like an owl of the desert./ Like a little owl of the waste places./ I lie awake./ I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.”

“Okay, so it’s a psalm. But where does that get us? The Second Point has to be something real, something we can combine in a bottle with Agua de Ba,” I say.

“It’s a psalm and a riddle,” says Khost, “every word in the scriptures has layers of meaning that run deeper than your Prada bags and text messages. This is a psalm about unimaginable suffering, the end of the known world. If you try to translate this verse from the Hebrew, you end up going around in circles. It isn’t even clear what type of bird David is referring to -- pelican, owl, sparrow? Owls, by the way, are not typically found in the desert, nor were they there in 500 B.C. So you’ve got a bird, an owl, lost in a place it doesn’t belong, a bird that can’t sleep, crying out from the housetop.”

“A poor city bird,” says Brad. I give him a look.

“David is looking up at the heavens and declaring that he is utterly alone. I hope that neither of you will ever have to see such a place,” says Khost.

“But maybe if we get to a place of despair, we’ll find the Second Point. Maybe it’s like a test, of our strength,” I say, not too happy about this prospect.

“Maybe,” says Khost, staring deeply at the psalm, “but if that were the answer, many saints and poets would have found the Second Point by now.”

“‘Saints and poets, maybe,’” I say. Brad and Khost look at me. “Sorry, it’s from one of my favorite plays.”

“Let’s think about this,” says Khost.

“‘I am like an owl of the desert.’ Who’s the speaker here? Not David, I mean the real speaker. What is like an owl but is not an owl? That’s your answer.”

Brad and I sit silently, trying to wrap our heads around this. Max flies over to my bag and starts rifling through it.

“Hey, get out of there!” I say, as Max grabs my favorite Chanel lip gloss. “Come on, I paid $30 for that!”

Max ignores me and, after a minute, emerges triumphantly, holding Luis Delgado’s book of children’s stories in his beak.

“Bring that here, Max,” says Khost.

“It’s just this book of stories the Librarian gave me,” I say. “I figured since we already found the Second Point...”


Brad flips through it, then tosses it to me.

“Start reading,” he says.

“Okay, where should I start?” I say, and then it hits me. I flip to page 102, then turn to the next page. There’s a pull-out section that seems to have been pasted in. It’s marked 102:6.

“102:6,” I read, “Fragment of the Native’s Tale.” I read the story aloud, then grab the Bible.

“I’ve got it,” I say, “or at least I think I do.”

“It’s actually quite simple. What’s like an owl of the desert? What hangs over us, like a bird on a housetop, every night, watching over us, over the waste places we’ve created? It has no companion, and it never sleeps.”


Brad, Khost, and I turn and look at the framed article on the Fire in the Glades. The moon hangs somberly over the scene, a light in the darkness.

“Nice work, Francie,” says Khost. “Now find us our moon.”

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Mysteries of the Soul, or, the Talking Opossum

Khost hands me a small, inlaid box, like the one we saw him give the red-haired woman. Max flutters over and perches on the chair next to Khost. Khost lights a cigarette, then begins to speak.

“I believe the soul like a Chinese puzzle box. When we are born, it is the easiest to open. But as we grow older, the box starts to take on a new shape, like a vast forest, unfurling layer after layer. For reasons that we do not know, some people have souls that become...locked, for lack of a better term. Impenetrable. Unravelable. Spreading out further and further into a person’s frame, like tangled branches.”

“Like a cancer,” I say.

“I prefer the term 'spiritual growth,'" says Khost.

“And you think I have one of these...locked souls?”

“Did anything happen to you while you were up north that could not be explained? Anything strange or terrifying, that could have sent your soul spinning in all different directions?”

“No,” I say, flatly, after a moment. “Nothing.”

Brad looks like he’s about to say something, but Khost silences him.

“It was no coincidence, Francie, that you discovered the first point. Or that opossums are starting to talk to you. The world’s greatest mysteries always have a human counterpart.”

I get up from the table and walk over to the row of framed articles. The world’s greatest mysteries.

“So...what does that mean exactly?”

“It means,” says Brad, “that we’re never gonna find Ponce de Leon’s three points, or any answers, unless we also...unravel you.”

“That’s crazy, how can I have anything to do with...with the Fountain?”

Khost approaches me, turning into a detective.

“Tell me about New York. Where you lived. Was it an old brownstone or a hi-rise? What did the fall feel like, when the leaves started to turn? Were you happy there?”

Khost stands so he is right in front of me.

“You don’t remember, do you?”

“I remember in the fall, the leaves changed.”

“Because you read it in a book,” says Khost.

I start to panic. What sort of apartment did I live in? The room starts to turn a little, and I reach to steady myself on one of the frames. I turn to look at it. It's titled: “The Thing That Happened in the Snow.” The frame is empty.

“I remember what happened,” I say, holding onto the frame. “I remember this. But it’s the last thing I remember.”

“Come on Khost, enough. Let’s just...focus on the second point.”

“This was your idea,” growls Khost.

“It’s too much,” says Brad.

“Oh, now it’s too much?”

“Stop!” I say. “I have one more question.” Khost and Brad both look at me.

“What happens if my soul...can’t be unraveled. What if it stays locked? What if we never find the three points?”

“We’ll find them,” says Brad, uncertainly, and in my mind, I can hear a great howling noise, getting unbearably close.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Officer's Line of Work

“So?” asks Khost, excitedly. “Did you find it?”

Khost leads us down a hallway and pushes open an old wooden door with the letter K carved neatly in it.

“We found it,” says Brad, taking out the notebook, “but I’m not really sure what it means.”

“Wait,” I say, backing away from Brad, “Wait, no...you’re working for him?”

“Actually...” says Khost.

“...he’s working for me,” Brad finishes. “My firm, Hart & Murk, hired Officer Khost as a consultant on this Bottlebrush case I’m working on. Khost is the best D.S.M. this side of the Glades.”

“D.S.M.?” I say.

“Detective of Spiritual Mysteries,” says Brad, as Khost clears a space on a long work table. “When it comes to solving mysteries of the soul -- even the most unsettling, the most unravelable, the most dangerous -- Khost here is the best there is.” Khost pulls out a chair for me, but I don’t move.

The room is shaped like a half-circle, and on the half-moon wall is a curved row of frames. I step closer to the frames and find that each holds an article from the Battersea Dirt. I brush dust off of the first frame and read its title: "The Fire in the Glades."

The scene is dark, hurricane-ish. For a second, I feel like I'm being drawn towards it, the swamp glowing, first by lanterns, then fire, tearing through the sawgrass, people screaming, howling, their hands and faces burning. Then something, some sort of person, starts towards me, through the flames.

"Francie," it says, and I know this voice. I heard it in the Great Library. It lifts its hand, or what is left of its hand. Though the skin is almost entirely gone, I can still see outline of a heart-shaped shell.

"Francie." Brad's voice pulls me back into the room and I shudder.

“Because of the sensitive nature of our case, I can’t tell you what brought us to hire Officer Khost -- I can only say that under his guidance, we’re finally on the right track.

“A track,” interjects Khost, “leading straight to Ponce de Leon’s second point.”

I’m trying to take this all in as Khost and Brad take their seats at the long table and look up at me, expectantly.

“Spiritual mysteries," I say. "So all this talk about needing an assistant...you didn’t need me, you only needed the first point. So why not just ask for it? Why drag me into all of this...a neurotic -- slightly neurotic -- third assistant to a pop diva...I've got a soundtrack following me around, opossums talking to me...”

Khost lifts his head, suddenly interested.

"Opossums?" he says.

“Telling me to stay away from Brad, having him follow me to the Great Library, to spy on me, all the time, pretending he had no idea what I was looking for...”

“We needed you,” Brad says quietly.

I turn to leave, before the two men see that I’m fighting back tears.

“Francie,” says Khost.

“Maybe I should go back to stuffing envelopes.”

I can hear Rafael’s deep, guttural laughter, somewhere outside the door.

“I’m gonna be late to the Queen’s book signing,” I say.

“We needed you,” Brad repeats. I turn around, my arms tight across my chest. Khost gives him a strong look.

“Come on, you have to tell her.”

“Did you see where I left my reading glasses,” says Khost. “I think maybe Max has them. Max!” Khost calls, and Max swoops in, like a deflating balloon, from down the hallway.

“Tell me what?” I say.

“It’s you--” says Brad.

“--Bradford” Khost says, sharply.

“Francie,” says Brad, as Max swoops in behind him, as if in quiet concert, “it’s your soul that’s the problem.”

Sunday, June 10, 2007

An Unexpected Detour

"Here -- pull over here!" Brad grabs the steering wheel as we swerve past a row of red-tile roofed houses, barely missing an abuelita on her lawn chair, engrossed in the tabs and taking a slow sip of her iced tea.

“What are you doing?! You almost--”

“Detour,” says Brad.


A crumbling sign tells me we're on the border of the three towns: Little N, Little Relica, and Little Memoria. Brad gestures for me to pull into a small lot next to one of the houses, set apart from the rest by an overgrown hedge of yellow hibiscus.

The sign on the door says "Rafael's." I've read about this place. Cigar shop, former underground safe house for the out and out, now a sort of art bar for the haze-inclined.

Rafael seems to have weathered the change rather well; inside, the old-timers mix with a younger, more passionate crowd. But the place never really lost its reputation, and as we pass by, the regulars size us up, not entirely friendly.

A dark-haired woman in cut-offs hits the jukebox, and an old recording of Lydia Mendoza's "Mal Hombre" starts to play.

The back room is for the no-names, the ones who'd like to disappear in a haze of smoke and fine cognac, away from the trend-setters and new-names, eager to inscribe their lines in books and in the slow-moving clouds.

Brad leads us past Rafael, still a formidable figure in his open white shirt, showing a new patron the difference between a cigar and a cigar, past the no-names to a narrow wooden doorway.

Brad knocks three times, then pushes open the door. I follow, sucking in the smoke-free air.


“I don’t know how you do it,” says the voice. “You were right, about everything. It was the goldfish.”

“Madam,” says a deep, familiar voice. “If it’s any comfort, it’s always about the goldfish.”

Another door opens and out steps Officer Khost, leading a fragile, red-haired woman past us. He searches his pockets and produces a small, inlaid box.

“Remember,” says Khost, as if Brad and I aren’t even there. “This is not about wrong or right. This is about answers within answers.”

The red-haired woman shuffles out, nodding and sniffling.

Khost shuts the door and bolts it.

“Well,” he says, “it’s about time you two showed up.”


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Diverging Roads

"I can't believe you took the train here," I say, leading Brad through the dense foliage to my car.

"Library stop," says Brad, "right before Government Center. Everyone usually sleeps through it."

I check around the wheels to my car before I get in. Opossom is gone.

Max settles between us as Brad directs me back to the city. I'm actually glad to be with someone who knows where he's going.

Brad finds my stash of alligator bars in the glove compartment, tosses me one. "Crunchy outside, swampy inside," he says.

"Thanks," I say. "For getting us out of there." Max sniffs.

"No prob," Brad says, "I wasn't about to let a famous playwright burn to death in a library. That'd be...ironically messed up. Besides, I told your brother I'd look after you."

"Keith? When did you see him?"

"Ran into him at Cafe Mauricio's, a few weeks before you moved back. He was telling me all about his sister, the poor city bird, unable to survive on her own in the wilds of Miami."

"Please, my brother still has mom iron his boxers."

"So this was just...brotherly humor? Nothing more?"

"No...I...He thinks if you drive a Camry you're D-list. It's all about attitude. And not caring. I highly recommend the not caring. Plus, it's not like I'm in the tabs." Brad smiles uncomfortably. "Sorry, I didn't--"

"No, no, it's refreshing. Really. This not having to care." Brad runs his finger across the dust on his side window.

"So which way now?" I ask, quietly, as we approach a four-way stop.

"Left," says Brad, "or right. It doesn't matter."

We drive on in silence.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Battersea Dirt

This is a space for gossips, lurkers, detectives, and other travelers to post theories, tips, or parrot seed. But a reminder: don't trust everything you read in the tabs.

Monday, May 28, 2007

In Transit

Sometimes, it takes longer than you'd expect to get from Point A to Point B.

Other times, there is no Point B.

Or Point A, for that matter.

--F.L.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Goodbye, For Now

"Francie," the Librarian calls, breathlessly, from the doorway. "Don't forget your promise."

"We'll be back to check on you soon," I say, aware of Brad's eyes on us, and I can see that the Librarian understands the "we" I meant. She pulls the mosaic doors closed.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Owls Again

Somewhere deep inside the library, shelves groan to make way for a figure who has slipped past the Librarian and into the maze.

At the same moment, a clock chimes, and I realize we're still standing in front of the writing on the wall. I feel like I could have turned thirty in the time we've been standing here, and yet, according to my watch, no time has passed at all.

Brad's voice registers in the darkness: "Are you gonna tell me what's going on here?"

"El Segundo Punto," I read aloud. As each word forms and parts from my lips, the letters glow, then quickly dissipate like ashes.

"Hand me your notebook," I say, reaching out to grab it. Brad crosses his arms over the notebook as the remaining words starts to fade.

"Not until you tell me what this is all about."

"It's...part of my research," I say.

"Right, and I'm here to learn about Miami's club scene. Francie, this library is full of mysteries. Which one is yours?"

"I'm not sure," I finally say. "I think it's a clue. Part of a much larger puzzle." Brad gestures for me to continue.

"That's all I can tell you."

"Right. But it's not all you know," he says, tossing the notebook to me. He reads aloud and I quickly copy: "Estoy como un búho del desierto. I am like a bird...an owl...of the desert. Desierto...desert."

"I am like an owl of the desert," I say. "Sounds familiar, like something I've heard before."

"It's old," says Brad, "judging by how fragile the words are. Probably been around since Luis Delgado's time."

"You know about the Architect," I say, surprised.

"I've taken the tour," says Brad. Brad's phone starts to light up in his pocket and he steps away from me to check it.

"No reception, but it's probably Eva. I was supposed to go to some book signing with her tonight. Shouldn't you be there?"

I had completely forgotten about the Queen. But I'm sure Eva hasn't forgotten.

"We've gotta go," I say.

Just then, the Librarian's voice echoes, somewhere close. At first I think she's calling to us, but then I realize her tone has an odd, strained character to it.

"How did you get here? These stacks are off limits to visitors," she says.

"I'm not exactly a visitor," a raspy voice answers.

Brad and I move closer to the voices. There is a space between a row of books and I can barely make out the outline of a dark coat and the Librarian's pursed lips.

"I know what you're hiding here, Anya. Give me the key."

"I do not have it," says the Librarian.

"Of course not. But there's one way to find a needle in a haystack." There is a quick flash of light and the Librarian jumps out of view.

"You cannot do this," she says, "the key is hidden and has been for centuries. You'll never find it." There is another flash of light and a fierce scream, from my own lips, as the figure sets a book on fire and holds it out before him.

Brad covers my mouth and pulls me back away from the stacks.

"Who is that?" The cloaked figure peers through the gap between the books.

"I heard nothing," says the Librarian, looking in our direction.

"One more time," the figure says. "The key."

"I'm telling you, it is not in my keeping."

"Fine. Then you'll help me smoke it out."

The figure tosses the book into the darkness and fire spreads, quickly, as the shelves move back and squeal, as if to dodge the flames.

"Follow me," says Brad, "there's only one way out of here."

"We can't leave the Librarian." Brad stops a moment, then pushes me between the shelves before they seal shut. The Librarian is trying to calm the flames with her scarf.

"Librarian," says Brad, as flames shoot up the shelves, "We need to get out of here."

"No," she says, her face flushed, "I must stay with the books. The Architect built the Great Library to withstand any fire."

"Forget the Architect," says Brad. "Come on." Brad reaches out his hand, but the Librarian floats defiantly above us.

"There is a sprinkler system built into the roof beams," she says. "It will work." With that, the Librarian disappears above the stacks. I look for a way to follow her, but Brad pulls me down a corridor.

"She knows this library better than anyone," he says, "she'll be okay." We wind our way upward, until we can see a dim light marking the entrance. Behind us, the shelves groan and bend as the fire consumes book after book, mystery after mystery. I run my hand across each spine.

"We can't save them," he says. It is then that I remember something.

"Max," I say, "my parrot. I have to go back for him."

"There's no way, you'll never make it out."

I hand Brad the books and start to run back in, past the statue of python swallowing gator.


"Francie!" I turn around, caught by something genuine in Brad’s voice.


Brad leans on the python's jaws to catch his breath.

It may be that the world is still spinning, but the python's mouth starts to move and he opens one beady stone eye. Brad sees this too, and pulls away his arm.

We step back, slowly. The python's mouth opens wide as he finishes swallowing the last bit of alligator. He lets out a loud belch...and grins. Brad looks at me.

"Run!"

Brad and I sprint away as the python belches again, then explodes, raining stone pieces everywhere around us.

One of the stones rolls towards a sundial in the middle of the courtyard. It presses down on the sundial, setting off an underground system of creaking levers and pulleys. Several stone tiles flip over like dominos.

Almost immediately, the sprinklers turn on. Water soaks the courtyard. Water runs from the ground into the Great Library and pours out the windows. Brad kicks off his shoes and holds them up in the air.

"Woohoo!" he screams.

Max swoops down and lands on my shoulder. He's a little worse for wear, his left wing singed, but otherwise in good spirits.

"Where have you been?" I ask, and as usual, get no reply.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

El Segundo Punto

Estoy como un búho del desierto

Monday, April 30, 2007

Tales for Children by Luis Delgado

I. Fragment of The Native's Tale

Our tale begins at night, as the bright summer moon shines over the dark waters of the Bay. This is a Florida moon, a moon half-hidden in the smoky night air as our land burns to make way for the new settlement. Yet, it hangs so fully, I feel as if I could reach out and press my palm against it.

But dear children, do not be fooled by appearances. Things are not always what they seem. Beneath the calm waters lie many things that may harm you: the deep ocean fish with their fierce knife-teeth, the man-o-war, and the fire coral, born of Medusa's blood, and luring you closer and closer with its brightness. Stay far from this shiny bait, releasing its toxins upon touch.

Beware, my children. The moon shines down upon all of God's creations.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Writing on the Wall

"I'm lost," I say, simply, as Brad extracts the Architect's book from my hand. He holds a glowing roach close to the cover.

"Tales for Children," he reads.

"Research. For a new children's play. I thought, maybe The Great Library would give me some new...or old...material."

I bend down to pick up the two books Brad dropped.

"Secrets of Florida Flora," I read aloud. I start to pick up the other book, but Brad beats me to it. He pulls a lever and in a second, the shelves move to reveal a small reading room, with a few wooden tables, chairs, and reading lights. He leads us to a table and the shelves close behind us and recede into the darkness.

Brad thumbs through the plant book. "I've been doing some research myself. My client, he's been losing all his Bottlebrush trees to some sort of disease, thinks it's the city's fault."

Brad opens the book to a page displaying, on one side, a blooming pink Bottlebrush tree and on the other, the same tree, dead and blackened.

"Bottlebrush tree," I say softly, thinking of my favorite store. I pull out the other book he has hidden beneath the plant book.

"Oh," he says, quickly. "That's all my mom...she told me I had to start...planning."

I leaf through the book entitled "An Unenigmatic Engagement."

"Bring her a bouquet of red roses and bend on one knee because she will expect one, not two knees. Two knees might puzzle her," I read slowly.

"It's really old-fashioned, but you met my mom. She loves Eva."

"Shhhhhh!" A fellow Great Library-goer glares at us over her book.

"Sorry," I say to her. Then to Brad: "Eva's very...well-dressed."

"And she doesn't generally trip over people or read children's stories," says Brad, thoughtfully. "Which is okay, I guess." Brad takes the engagement book from my hand, pausing a second.

"Your hands are like a dead person's." He presses a glowing roach into my hand and the warmth starts to spread across my skin as my face also turns pink.

Francie, read the writing on the wall! Brad is engaged to Eva. If you're ever going to be more than a third assistant, you can't forget what you're looking for....

The writing on the wall...isn't that what the receptionist said? Read the writing on the wall. Then, follow it to the end...

I practically fly from the desk, looking for a door out of the room.

"Brad...The Great Library...does it have any walls?" I ask, excitedly.

"I know it has shelves, shelves everywhere...but no real walls...Francie?"

"Come on," I grab Brad's arm and pull the lever. The bookshelves creak open to let us through.

Sure enough, in a couple of minutes, we end up back in front of the portrait of Juan Rosado I/Luis Delgado.

"Help me here," I say, feeling my way around the edge of the portrait frame.

"What are you doing?" Brad asks. "Didn't the Librarian tell you not to touch anything?"

I lift the framed portrait off the wall and Brad runs over to catch it before it falls. Together, we set it on the marble. Behind the portrait is another frame, this one older, wooden, less ornate. Instead of framing a portrait, it forms a boundary around a blank, crumbled wall.

"Glowing roach," I say, breathlessly.

"What?" Brad looks confused. I grab the roach from him and shine it towards the wall.

Nothing happens. We're still staring at a blank wall.

"Are you gonna explain to me what's going on?" Brad is losing patience.

I look around us at the bookshelves, then up at the ceiling. The glowing letters are still swirling around in the sea of the dome. Without thinking, I lift the roach up towards the dome. The roach emits a sigh and lets out all the light it possesses. Its glow somehow reaches the ceiling and pulls the letters down towards the wall, filling the empty space, word after word.

"How...how did you..." Brad and I step back from the wall, so that we can get a clearer view.

"I'm not sure," I say, "but I need to read the writing on the wall."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Librarian's Suggestion

The Librarian pulls a rusty lever and one of the highest shelves begins to descend towards us. She floats up to meet it and runs her fingers across the spines.

"No one's checked this book out in several years," she says, "so it should be here."

She grabs a thin volume that looks more like a pamphlet than a book. She hands it to me delicately, as if the pages might disintegrate.

"Ponce de Leon and the Fountain: Tales for Children. By Luis Delgado," I read aloud. The Librarian clutches my arm earnestly, anticipating my skepticism.

"In his spare time, when he wasn't designing libraries or mazes, the Architect published several books of children's stories. This is the only known copy of his conquistador tales. As you might imagine, Luis was not especially popular as a children's writer. Most of his characters came to a rather bad end. But his tales of Ponce de Leon are so vivid -- I think they might just point you in the right direction."

Looking into the knowing, dark eyes of the Librarian, in which several long years and maybe a few hurricanes have left their mark, I'm inclined to believe her.

"Do you need my library card?" I ask, searching my bag. I hand her Officer Khost's card and she unravels it, looking at all the titles.

"Ahhh, this list, all these strange titles, from the highest shelves, reminds me of our Officer Khost." The Librarian clutches the list tightly and looks at me with immense seriousness.

"Francie, I know we've only just met, but I need you to promise. Look after the Officer. His line of work is most dangerous. I have been lighting candles for him."

I start to speak, but the Librarian quickly stops me.

"I'm sorry. Of course, you're the Officer's assistant. So you know more about his work than anyone. Please, find a quiet nook and I'll be back with your stamped card." She picks up a glowing roach and presses it into my hand before I can protest. In a second, she has floated away down a dark corridor.

I turn around and try to head back the way we came, but the shelves seem to form a sort of maze, leading me further into the bowels of The Great Library.

It seems that no matter which way I turn, I end up back in front of the grinning portrait of Juan Rosado I/Luis Delgado. I set the glowing roach down on the marble, thinking that it might lead the way, but it sees its chance at freedom and scurries between the shelves, leaving me in total darkness.

"Librarian," I call, trying to stay calm. The word echoes in the darkness. For some reason, the lack of light sends my mind spinning. Max -- where was he, anyway? He'd been skittish since the opossum incident, then disappeared. Officer Khost -- his connection to The Great Library and its Librarian, and what kind of detective was he? The Historian, The Architect, The Queen, Grandma...and Ponce de Leon's three points -- connecting (or disconnecting) us all.

I feel my way around a corner. Above me, I can barely see the glowing letters swirling around the dome. I try to follow the letters, like a beacon, and pull the levers that move the shelves in their general direction.

I seem to be making some progress (haven't seen the portrait in a few minutes) when I hear footsteps. Somewhere close.

"Hello?" I say, but no answer. I start to back away, instinctively.

I turn a corner and stumble into the arms of a man in a grey coat. He drops his pile of books.

"Francie?" says Brad, shining a glowing roach at me. "What are you doing here?"

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Shelves of Unreachable Mysteries

"Most people who come to The Great Library are looking for something," says the Librarian, "but they don't always know what it is."

She takes out something glowing from her pocket. It looks like a round glow stick, like the ones you get at concerts. But the glow stick flutters its wings and falls to the marble floor with a quiet thud. It scurries ahead of us, leading the way.

"Glowing roaches," she says. "If you can't get rid of them, you might as well put them to use."

We descend into the shadows, as rows of bookshelves turn mechanically to let us pass. I'm glad the Librarian seems to know where she's going; without her, I'd be completely lost.

"The Great Library doesn't follow the Dewey Decimal System. This is, in part, because of the predilections of its patron, Juan Rosado I," says the Librarian.

"Juan Rosado. Founder of the Red Coral Society?"

"The same. So, you already know Juan's story. But what you may not know is that after Ponce de Leon died, Juan Rosado returned to La Florida. He commissioned Spain's most renowned architect, Luis Delgado, to build him an elaborate library that would house not only his master's correspondence, but a collection of books and papers never before catalogued. The Architect (as he was called) was known throughout his native country for designing several of its architectural disasters, such as the Palace of Cracked Mirrors and the Maze of Sorrows. The Architect was a notorious drunkard, had a crippled thumb, and expressed his bitterness towards authority by constructing elaborate tunnels, secret passageways, and trap doors in all of his structures. Many a patron disappeared after touring his new commission, never to be heard from again."

"Sounds like a real charmer," I say. The Librarian pushes back one of the shelves to reveal a rather gloomy-looking portrait.

"Another example of the Architect's sense of humor. His portrait of Juan Rosado I."

My entire body turns cold. The first Juan Rosado's family resemblance to the last Juan is unmistakeable. But the eyes -- so similar to Rafe's, they could be brothers.

"I'm not seeing the humor," I say.

"Turn a bit. See? One step and voila! A second profile -- of the Architect. Luis inserted his own image, like a signature."

I step back and forth, watching the two images merge into each other, the Architect grinning all the while.

The glowing roach scurries by and ducks between the stacks. The librarian pulls a lever and moves a shelf to follow it.

"This system of levers and pulleys. I think I've seen it before," I say, recalling the cage in the Historian's house.

"Really?" she asks. "That is most interesting. You see, Luis Delgado died of malaria before he finished The Great Library. That's why the letters on the ceiling swirl around. He didn't have time to engrave them."

I look up at the letters, still swirling aimlessly and running into each other.

"I'm sure you're in a hurry to begin your research," says the Librarian, "so here's the abridged tour. The Great Library is divided into mysteries. Each tower of books holds a different one. For instance, many of our visitors are delighted to explore our equivalent of the "relationship" section of your mega-bookstores. Men seek to find out all the mysteries of women and vice versa. I'm sure one day I'll understand all this, but it seems rather silly, if you ask me."

"Mysteries..." I pull a book off the shelf. The cover reads: "Why Didn't He Call?" The librarian grabs the book and quickly reshelves it.

"The most obvious mysteries are on the bottom shelves, or easily reachable with a normal-sized ladder. But the library's greatest mysteries...well, they might as well be unreachable. Some are even locked up, and I have never found the key."

Far across the library, I can dimly see the books locked behind the metal cage.

"So, mysteries like..."

"The Fire in the Glades, for example. I have been looking and looking for books on the Fire and my mama, but I cannot reach them. So I must depend on gift-books from my dear Officer Khost for all my psychic nourishment."

The Librarian looks thoughtful, then scoops up the glowing roach and points it towards a dusty shelf.

"I think I know just what you're looking for."

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Great Library

I climb the stone steps to The Great Library, past the statue of python swallowing gator, and pull open the mosaic doors.

Though I've never been to The Great Library, I'm starting to get why Khost sent me here: the towering structure tucked away from the city and surrounded by oak and gumbo limbo is large enough to house more than a few answers.

Entering the foyer, the first thing you notice are the towers of books, stretching up towards the domed ceiling. The dome reminds me of a planetarium, except that instead of stars, the inside of the dome is dotted with letters of the alphabet that somehow swirl in silent motion, like ghostly projections.

As I look closely at the towers of books, I can see that they also move slowly, in a mechanical motion, to make way for other rows behind them. There is one tower of books set apart from the others, locked behind a gnarled metal cage.

There are few visitors to The Great Library, and the ones I spy seem to appear between the rows of books, then disappear just as quickly, as if swept under.

Drawing myself away from the hypnotic rhythm of the books (I always fall asleep in libraries), I revisit Khost's instructions. Find the Librarian.

On the far side of the Library, I can see a desk with a tiny figure sitting at it. As I get closer to the desk, I notice that it floats a few feet above the ground.

"May I help you?" The figure at the desk is a girl, about ten years old. She pushes back her long, dark hair, engrossed in a large, leather-bound volume.

"May I help you?" she repeats, in a shrill voice.

"I'm not sure," I say. "I'm looking for the Librarian."

"I am the Librarian," says the girl, a bit haughtily. "Clearly this is your first time in The Great Library."

The girl steps out from behind the desk, where she floats for a couple of seconds before drifting down to float eye-level with me.

"Who sent you here?" she asks, her arms folded across her chest.

"Officer Khost," I say. "I'm his assistant."

The girl's aura of gloom seems to melt away.

"Ahhh, Officer Khost! He is a most brilliant detective. Just the other day, he gave me this book, as a present from my dead mama, and I have learned ever so much from it." The Librarian swoops over to her desk to show me the large volume she's been reading: Letters of the Soul: Volume 1.

"That seems like a...heavy book," I say.

"Oh it is," says the Librarian. "But I am a fast reader. Not to mention my other talents. Unlike most librarians, I am also quite good at reading between the lines. This has become a popular area for private tutoring. I charge $10 an hour."

The Librarian reaches into her pocket and hands me her card. On the front: The Librarian. On the back: a child-scrawl map to The Great Library.

"Follow me," she says. "I'll give you the tour."

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Dying Opossum

I'm driving slowly down a cobblestone street somewhere on the outskirts of Little Havana. It's been about a half hour since Max and I set out for The Great Library and I'm starting to doubt Khost's directions.

The map I've unfolded onto my steering wheel isn't much help either. I could swear I've twisted and turned my way to this same cobblestone street a hundred times.

The few houses I've seen are set back several feet from the road. Maybe we're nowhere near Little Havana, or The Great Library. It's hard to tell. Most of the road signs are either covered by sea grape leaves or completely gone.

I'm trying to get my bearings, but the tropical foliage drapes itself over the road, shutting out all the light. If I'm reading Khost's map correctly, we may be on Tome Court, a few blocks east of the Library, or we may be lost.

I turn down Broadcast's "Corporeal." It's not helping me feel any more at ease.

My Camry makes a slight groaning noise and I instinctively pat the steering wheel.

Please don't die on me.

I hit the gas and hear a loud thump in front of the car. Oh god. I pull my car over and step out to investigate.

At first I don't see anything except a few dead branches. Maybe all this driving in circles is starting to get to me. But before I turn back to my car, I see it. It's an opossum. I crouch down over it as it breathes in short, raspy breaths. A dark red pool starts to gather beneath it. Him.

"Oh god! I'm sorry," I say, helplessly. I thought opossums only came out at night.

I look at Max, as if he's going to tell me what to do. He turns and flies back into the car.

I can't leave the opossum. It's like when something really terrible happens, an accident, and it takes you a few minutes to take your eyes off of it. Something terrible has happened.

"Francie." Maybe because I'm still in shock, I think Max is calling me, but I can see him peering out from inside the car. I look down at the little lump of fur.

"It's okay," says Opossum. "I needed to speak to you. So now I can. Don't look at me like that. I said it's okay. But listen. I only have a minute."

"Okay," I manage to say.

"Your grandma," he gasps. "Said. To tell you. It's the order. Someone. Has upset. The order. Of things."

"I don't understand," I say. "Grandma...?"

"Questions. No time. For questions. Francie. The order. Has been. In place. A long time. Longer than you. Or me. Or any of the others. Longer even. Than. The Great Library." The opossum weakly cranes his neck to look up. There, above him and the smooth red bark of a gumbo limbo tree is the towering dome of a building.

"But my grandma. She shows up, disappears, then sends you...?"

"The bottle. It's. Not safe. Because. Of you. There was. No delivery. Now. The order. Has shifted. Now. Someone. Lost. Has. Been found." Opossum's eyes start to turn glassy. Though hardly coherent, his words have their intended impact.

"Someone lost," I whisper. I place my hand over Opossum's trembling side.

"Good night," says Opossum, staring up at the dark canopy of trees. "I mean. Good day."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Never ask a Half-Blind Detective for Directions

We're sitting in the back corner booth of Mariposa y Luna, an old-school Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. Even though it's mid-day, the corner is dimly lit, as Khost seems to like it. Everyone's polite, not unfriendly, but quick to leave us.

Khost is devouring his arroz con pollo like he's never seen lunch before, while Max eyes the chicken with disdain. Next to us, an unusually tall, model-thin woman in sunglasses picks at her salad. Our waitress, a dark-haired teenager, brings Max a plate of cut up mango.

"So, no trouble? Not from Juan or anyone?" Khost growls. The woman in sunglasses glances up.

"No," I say, glancing nervously at Max. "Nothing."

Khost tosses a photo on the table. It's of the guy in the Bentley brandishing his shotgun. His face is obscured by the camera's glare.

"Oh, yeah, maybe a little trouble," I say. Khost leans forward, his look serious.

"I know you're thinking you can outrun a guy in a fancy car. But Francie, this car chase, it wasn't real...it was more like a...publicity stunt. I've been investigating the Red Coral Society for a long time, long before Juan Rosado came along. And I'll tell you...for a society built on protecting the secrets of eternal life, they can't seem to get away from death. It's at every corner, every part of the city they frequent. Now death is onto you. So take care, Francie."

Khost signals to the waitress. "Dos cortaditos."

If Khost's trying to make me uneasy, he's doing a good job.

"I thought you had an idea of where to start our search," I say. "I don't have time to worry about every maniac on the road. Juan knows we have Bottle #3, but he hasn't come looking for it. So maybe he's one step ahead of us. Maybe he's trying to find the second point before we do."

The waitress brings our doll-house sized cups of cuban coffee. I take a sip and feel the caffeine searing through me.

"The Red Coral Society can't just kill us," I add. "It's not like they own this town."

Khost doesn't respond. He takes out a faded and crumpled map and uncrumples it onto the table.

"Once you're done with your cortadito (which most people don't sip for hours, by the way), you're gonna drop me off at the corner. It's a short walk to my office from here. Then, you're gonna take a left, and another left, and follow this map to the Great Library. It's at a dead-end street, flanked by two mega-bookstores, so no one thinks to look inside. Climb the steps, past the statue of python swallowing gator, and ask for the Librarian."

"That's it? That's your fabulous advice -- go to the library?"

"The Great Library," Khost corrects me. "Everything can be found in books. Plus, they have the world's largest collection of documents on our man: Ponce de Leon."

Khost hands me a library card. It unravels, accordion-style into scrawled list after list of book titles. I quickly stuff it in my purse.

"And Francie?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't get lost."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Quiet Comfort of the Known

In the morning, as the sun streams in, I find a safe hiding place for the Falcon Box. I can't tell you where, in case Juan or the Bentley guy find out about this journal, but it's in the safest place I know.

Driving to the drycleaners with a silent Max perched on the seat, I think about how I'm actually looking forward to the Queen's book signing tonight. For some reason, the known strangeness of working for the Queen is far more comforting than the unknown of disappearing grandmas, red coral, and a life-giving broth.

I plug in my iPod and listen to "Safe Travels" by Peter and the Wolf. Max doesn't sing. He keeps his parrot eyes square on the road.

"So, when Officer Khost says he'll find me, what exactly does he mean?" I ask Max, not expecting an answer.

I hand the Russian drycleaning lady the slip. She searches the racks and pulls out about ten pale blue guayabera shirts.

"You want scent?" She takes out a spray bottle filled with a cologne-like liquid.

"What is it?" I ask.

"Is lovely," says the drycleaning lady, smiling reassuringly. Like it's totally normal to spray someone's drycleaning with cologne. She starts to take the plastic off one of the shirts.

"Wait...does Officer Khost usually have his shirts...scented?" I look at Max for guidance.

"Francie," says Max, like he's scolding a foolish child. For a second, I'm delighted that Max knows my name, but then I see the drycleaning lady holding out the spray bottle and looking dangerously trigger happy.

"Wait...please. I'm gonna call him." I take out Officer Khost's card. I know he said he didn't have a phone, but now I'm wondering if that was just detective humor.

Even though the guayabera shirts aren't Prada or Hermes, I don't want to ruin the detective's entire wardrobe on my first day of work.

I dial the number on the card. Outside, the grey sky turns to black, and a fierce thunderstorm arrives suddenly, pounding the parking lot with heavy rain.

The signal's low, almost dead. The phone emits a few crackling rings before--

"Hello, Bottlebrush Tree." The sing-song voice at the other end is full of bottled cheerfulness. "Hello?"

"This is...?" I turn the card over in my hand. It's definitely Khost's. There are still faint burn marks from the night at Havana. "This is Bottlebrush Tree?"

"That's what the sign on the door says." There is brief silence, then a rustling of papers. Then, the receptionist almost whispers, "Great weather we're having."

"Sorry?" I look outside. The rain shows no signs of letting up.

"I said, 'great weather we're having,'" she says, urgently. Max and the drycleaning lady are looking at me, trying to figure out what's going on. I step outside and shield my phone under the awning, trying not to get wet.

"It is great," I say, "for Miami."

"I'll get the Buyer," she says, putting me on hold. Before Stevie Wonder finishes crooning, the Buyer picks up.

"Order?" she barks, coldly.

"Three," I say.

"Three," she says, approvingly. "Pick-up or delivery?"

"Pick-up," I say, automatically. Somehow, I'm starting to get the feeling we're not talking about shrimp chow mein.

"Know the drill, starry-eyes?" she asks.

"Explain it to me," I say.

"If it's time, it's time. Read the writing on the wall. Then, follow it to the end."

"Okay," I say. "Follow the writing. But...how did I get this number? Or how did it find me?"

"Safe travels, sugar," she says. I hear a click and the phone flatlines. I start to put the card away, but it crumbles into dust in my hand.

Just then, Officer Khost appears in the rain, holding a black umbrella.

"Need something from me?" he growls.

"Oh...yeah. How do you feel about scent?" I ask. He gives me a look and steps into the drycleaners. I see him exchange a few words with the drycleaning lady, then he steps back outside carrying shirts in each hand and Max on his shoulder.

"I gave you a simple task, but you didn't follow through," he says, handing me the umbrella. "I didn't hire you so I could pick up my own drycleaning."

"I'm sorry," I say. Fortunately, Khost seems more amused than angry.

"So what exactly have you been up to, Ms. Leighton?"

I think about the car chase, the guy with the shotgun, and now my deal with the Buyer. I guess it's probably better to let Khost think I can take care of myself.

"Chasing a lead," I say, finally. "Leading I don't know where, but I think maybe we should follow it."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Night Parrot

I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain hitting my windowsill. My eyes try to adjust to the light filtering in the open window from the cruise ships far across the Bay. I don't remember leaving my window open.

I can hear a faint rustling near my desk. I pull the covers over my head, trying to dream the noise away. Rustle, rustle. Okay, I'm not a kid, and lots of things crawl and make noises in Miami, most of them benign. So this is silly, this being afraid of rustlings and rain.

I push back the covers and slip into my sandals, shuffling over to investigate.

I bend down to look under my desk. Two glowing eyes stare out at me from a pile of old plays and other things I've stuffed down there. It's Max. He drags out a doll, her hair and dress mussed from being buried alive.

I have to tell you, it's a strange sight, this parrot nudging the doll's porcelain arm, as if he's trying to wake her.

"Max," I say, "What on earth are you looking for?"

"Heart," says Max, almost sadly.

"Heart," I say, sleepily, curling up on the floor next to Max. "Me too."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Eva's Invitation

"You okay back there?" I check my rear view mirror.

Max is contentedly snacking on the bag of parrot seed Khost gave me. He lets out an affirmative squawk.

"So how come you don't live in a cage like all the other parrots?" I ask. Max spits a sunflower seed shell in my direction.

"Hey!" I say, laughing. I decide to create a new mix on the fly (no pun intended). Parrot Mix #1:

(1) Julieta Venegas, "Primer Dia,"
(2) Iron & Wine, "Bird Stealing Bread,"
(3) The Killers, "When You Were Young."

For some reason, I start to really miss my family. I haven't seen my parents in a long time, even though we live in the same city. They must think I'm busy slaving away for the Queen Conch.

I dial my mom's cell and get a cheerful "Hi, I'm not here right now..." That's right, mom left me a message a few days ago saying she and dad would be in Maine for a couple of weeks. I hang up before leaving a voicemail.

"Go," says Max, interrupting my thoughts.

"Go? That's a nice way to talk to your new friend."

"Go," says Max, more urgently. "Go!"

I turn around to yell at Max and my eyes focus on the rear view. Behind us is a silver Bentley with dark tinted windows. The driver hits the gas so he's right on our tail. I speed up a little and he follows. The front passenger rolls down his (or her?) window and leans out, pointing a shotgun in our direction.

"Right." I step on the gas. My Camry's not so excited to pretend it's a sports car, but it grumpily complies.

We spin around Cocoplum Circle, dodging honking drivers. Because this is Miami, no one notices the Bentley's gun or my backseat parrot fluttering around. We're just another couple of bad Miami drivers.

"Max, could ya settle down?" I'm trying to zip around a Hummer. I can hear Bottle #3 rolling around the front seat. I try to grab the bottle, but it rolls away.

I can see another obstacle: traffic. I honk, but the woman in front of me is eating an ice cream cone. Every driver in Miami is either on her cell or eating ice cream. It's amazing.

The Bentley catches up, close enough to take a good shot. In fact, I think I can hear Puccini blasting from the car's speakers. The bullet shatters my right side view mirror. I instinctively duck.

"Hold on." I turn my steering wheel sharply to the right, towards a side street.

Behind me, I hear the crunch of metal and glass as the Bentley rear-ends the ice cream lady. She stumbles out of her car cursing in Spanish.

Heart pounding, I turn onto the side street and head the back way to my building.

I check behind me as we pull into my garage. Coast is clear.

Ralph, the doorman, doesn't bat an eye as Max and I head to the elevators. Like it's perfectly normal to be walking around with a parrot on one's shoulder.

I'm about to open my door when I notice a heart-shaped envelope taped under the peep hole. My hands are still shaking, so it takes me a couple of minutes to open it.

It's an invitation. To a book signing: Men, Mojitos, & Song. There's a hand-written note attached.

"She's over it. The dress, that is. Be there: Tomorrow. 7 p.m. sharp. There's work to be done. Eva."

The Queen's book signing. I'd completely forgotten.

I throw my keys in a ceramic frog bowl and collapse on the couch, staring at the invitation. I look at Max, making himself at home on my loveseat.

"I can't go. I made a deal. I'm Khost's assistant now." Max looks at me. "Of course, this was before people started shooting at me."

I reach under my couch and pull out a rusty metal box with a drawing of a falcon taped to its cover.

I take out a broken compass, an old journal, and a map of the Everglades. Beneath the map is a picture of Rafe and me, taken a long time ago. I'm looking up at him, as if I'm afraid if I look directly at the camera, he'll disappear.

There's a smaller box inside the falcon box. I open the smaller inlaid box and take out a shiny red box of matches, turn it over in my hands, then quickly return it to its box.

I hold Bottle #3 up to the artificial light, so that the light reflects off the facets of the heart-shaped shell insignia.

Ponce de Leon's first point. Hidden for centuries. If Juan's right -- and this is the first of three keys to unlocking the Fountain...how many people have been willing to kill for this?

I place Bottle #3 gently in the falcon box, then the odds and ends.

I've made up my mind. I start to toss the invitation, but before it hits the trash, Max flies over and catches it in mid-air. He drops it back on my lap.

"Okay," I say. "I'm Khost's assistant. But maybe Eva doesn't have to know."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Mayor of Battersea

I'm balancing Khost's nonfat half-splenda dark roast coffee and my decaf (full-fat) caramel macchiato and trying to prop open the Cafe Mauricio's door.

On my way out, an attractive middle-aged woman in a crisp white designer suit pushes past me. She looks really familiar.

"Careful, mom, or she'll ruin your new suit," says Brad, appearing behind her. Of course...Brad's mother, the Mayor of Battersea. Though I hate to admit it, Brad looks especially well-tailored today, in a pale green shirt that almost matches his eyes and, of course, the glasses.

"Oh," I say. "Hey. How's work? Still saving the palm trees?" Trust me, it sounded just as painful when I said it.

The Mayor looks me up and down. I'm a mess -- last night's wrinkled clothes, make-up smudged, hair unbrushed and ratty from the salt. It's official: no invitations to fancy Battersea dinners anytime soon.

"Do you know her?" asks the Mayor, addressing her son.

"Yeah, Francie and I went to high school together. You remember, mom, she's the famous playwright. She wrote that play, about the girl who couldn't swim..."

"Yes, yes. So what are you doing now? Certainly not playwriting. I had a college roommate who wrote plays. There's no money in it. She committed suicide last December. Left her family a terrible pile of half-finished novels to sort through."

The Mayor shakes her head in my direction, but continues before I can respond.

"Brad was top of his class at Yale Law School, he could have gone anywhere, but he loves Miami." Speechless, I look at the Mayor, then at Brad, who is trying his best to stay serious.

"So do I. Miami is the only place where I'd commit suicide," I say, and Brad loses it.

"Mom, honestly. No one loves Miami," he says. Officer Khost steps over to grab his coffee and tries to back away unnoticed. He brushes past the Mayor, whose face registers her surprise.

"Officer Khost," she stammers. Khost stops in his tracks and ventures a small grin.

"Hello, Sara."

"It's been a while," she says. "I didn't know this was your territory. Coral Gables."

"It's not. For some, it's business or pleasure, but for me it's all business, as you know." Brad and I exchange looks. If Officer Khost wasn't Officer Khost, I'd almost say he was flirting.

"Well, the good work never ends. In fact, we'd better get going. My son and I have important things to discuss over lunch -- business and otherwise." She clasps Officer Khost's arm briefly, then signals to the waiter for a table.

"Yeah, I'm, ah, meeting someone too. Nice seeing you, Sara" Khost says, turning a little red.

"Better go then," says Brad. "It sucks to be stood up." He gives me a pointed look, then quickly joins his mom before I have a chance to explain. Or maybe I'm better off letting it go...it's not like I can tell Brad about Salt Island. He'd think I'd really lost my mind.

I follow Khost out the door. I'm about to tease him, but his look is all business.

"I have an idea about where to start our search. But I need to trust you. I don't think we're the only ones trying to find the three points. This search...you can't tell anyone, not your family, not your friend Brad..."

"Brad's not my friend," I say.

"Keep it that way," says Khost. "Tomorrow, we'll go over the plan. I'll find you. 'Til then, keep your doors and windows locked. Keep Bottle #3 in a very safe place. Got a gun?" I shake my head.

"Good, you'd probably kill someone with it. I'm sending Max with you. He'll let me know if there's any trouble." I look skeptically at Max. He's nibbling his feathers.

"For now, I have an important errand for you," he says, searching his pocket for a slip. "Drycleaners."