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’ 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 soirĂ©e 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’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.”