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."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Missing Stairs

Sunlight streams in through the windshield of my car. Disoriented after a three-hour attempt at sleep, I try to readjust to my surroundings.

There, at the corner, is a coral rock sign and a fountain: Miracle Mile.

Fountain. The night's events start to come back to me. Juan. Salt Island. Officer Khost's rescue. I'm still clutching Bottle #3 tightly in my hands. For some reason, the song "Wow" by Snow Patrol is in my head.

Officer Khost is pacing down the sidewalk, smoking. Max stretches his feathers, perched on a nearby parking meter.

"Do you think Bottle #3's okay under the seat? I mean, I don't think anyone would want to steal my old Camry, or a bottle, but someone could, or it could overheat, if water from the Fountain of Youth can overheat, so maybe I should bring it with me..." I'm overtired and rambling. Khost stares at me.

"I think we're okay. Come on," he says, walking briskly ahead.

"Haw," says Max, flying alongside me. I give him a scathing look.

It's about eight a.m. by the time we arrive at the former wedding dress shop. The shop window has now been boarded up, so I quickly check the potted palm for the key. It's gone.

Khost looks around us at the empty sidewalk, then maneuvers something unseen in the lock. He steps back, shielding me behind him. In a second, there is a loud explosion and the door bursts open. Khost gestures me inside.

Now that the electricity has been off for days, the shop's musty smell is deathly. Covering my nose, I lead Khost to the service elevator. Creaking up to the second floor in such close quarters, I try not to make eye contact with my new boss. It's strange enough that he's seen me sleeping.

The second floor is now empty, boxes cleared away, posters of the Queen in a heap in the garbage bin. Most of the windows are boarded up, except for one, allowing a single ray of light to stream across the floor. The light seems to stop right at the spot of the spiral staircase. That is, where the staircase used to be.

"There was a staircase. Right here," I say, trying to reach the ceiling. "I don't understand...maybe they tore it down. But the trap door should still be here."

Khost reaches to touch the ceiling and knocks hard. "There's no trap door."

"But I'm telling you, that's how I found Grandma. She lives in a parlor above this office. I know, it sounds crazy..."

I search the floor, the entire corner of the room, running my hands across the paneling, but there is no sign of a staircase.

"This is a two-story building, Francie. So maybe it was all a dream? This was a bridal shop. If dreams weren't made here, where would they be?" Officer Khost looks out the open window, his gaze half-vacant. For a brief moment, his mind seems to be elsewhere, until Max flies over and lands on his shoulder.

"Good," Khost says, turning around. "Good. Now, so long as we're finished here, I'll show you how I take my coffee."