Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Officer Khost's Proposal

The ferry docks at the quiet Old Port. It must be about five a.m. Officer Khost throws his coat over our heads, a second before the rain turns into a furious thunderstorm. He makes room for Max, who ducks under to stay dry.

"Thanks," I say, wrapping Bottle #3 carefully in my hoodie. It's probably a good thing no one's around to see us disembark -- we're a decidedly odd team.

I'm shivering a little, thinking about how serious Juan seemed about his mission to find Ponce de Leon's three points. Obsessed, really.

Khost notices my death-grip on the bottle.

"You gonna be okay with that?" he asks. "I could hold onto it. For safekeeping."

"No," I say, a bit harshly. "It's just...I know you don't believe me, but I saw my Grandma...and she asked me to deliver this bottle to the Queen Conch. So I can't be part of some crazy mission to track down the other two points. I mean, this is assuming the three points exist and assuming they can be found." I turn out my pockets for emphasis. "I've got ten, no, five dollars to my name. I need to find a job, a normal boyfriend...once this bottle's out of my hands, I'm done."

Khost angrily pulls his coat down, leaving me soaked. "Look. It'd really help if you stopped insulting my intelligence with this Grandma story. If you stole Bottle #3 from the Historical Museum, don't sweat it, I'm not gonna arrest you..."

"I'm not trying to insult you...Max knows, he was there. Right, Max?" Max, upon hearing his name, makes a sound somewhere between a squawk and a growl and flies on ahead of us.

"That is the least talkative parrot I have ever met!" I say, furiously. Khost and I glower at each other. We've found my car, which is miraculously still there.

I search my pockets for my keys. Before I can open the door, Khost grabs me, not entirely gently.

"I'll make you a deal, Francie. I don't generally like bargains, but this case of the poisoned bridal shop owner has already given me more than I bargained for. So I might as well return the favor. If you can show me evidence your grandmother is still alive, or better yet, arrange a meeting, I'll leave Ponce de Leon's mission to the Red Coral Society and mad genuises like Juan Rosado."

He mulls this over a moment. "To be honest, I'm not sure what the Queen wants with the bottle, but I'll let it go -- maybe it's for a new conquistador photo spread. But if the elder Francesca Leighton fails to materialize, as of tomorrow (or today, actually -- what time is it?) you're working for me. I've never had an assistant, but I think it might be good for me. So long as you don't ask too many questions."

Khost seems to have thought this through. He looks quite serious.

"But...you don't even like me."

"Think of this as a trial period. Plus, I'd like to offer you some protection. I don't think your friend Juan's gonna stay on Salt island forever..."

"Okay, get in." I open the passenger door. "I'm taking you to Grandma's."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Grandma Knows Best


Officer Khost and I are both leaning over the railing of the ferry, breathing in the salty night air. Max is sleeping, perched on a pile of life preservers. His left eye twitches slightly, like he's having a particularly vivid dream.

"You're lucky," says Khost, as the wind blows his greying hair, "I had almost given up on the case of the poisoned bridal shop owner. If I had, things might have been different for you and the birds."

"So what led you to Salt Island?" I ask, still reeling from the night's events.

"Call it a hunch," he says, swatting a mosquito. The mosquitos have discovered we're the only things edible in the middle of the Bay. Khost looks like he's done talking about Salt Island for now, so I let it go. We're safe. That's what matters.

"I didn't even have to call you," I mumble, thinking about the number on Officer Khost's card.

"Not an option," says Officer Khost, looking at me closely. "I don't have a number. Or a phone." He slaps his arm, leaving a bloody mosquito-print. "Dammit. I hate bugs."

"Here," I say, searching my hoodie pocket for the mosquito repellent. "Don't want anyone getting inflammation of the mind, as Grandma would say."

I hand Officer Khost the grimy glass bottle. He takes it, making a face. He starts to open the bottle, but his expression quickly turns strange.

"Francie," says Officer Khost. "Where did you get this?"

"My Grandma," I say, "Why, what's wrong?"

The ferry makes a sudden turn towards the approaching port and Officer Khost grabs the railing to steady himself, clutching the bottle in his other hand.

"For one thing, I knew your grandmother. The first Francesca R. Leighton. Your parents should never have named you after her. In Jewish tradition, you should only have been named after the dead."

"My parents thought she was dead. It was a mistake," I say, simply.

"A grave mistake," says Officer Khost, "and your grandma corrected this mistake by losing her own life in the Fire in the Glades." I'm not sure exactly what Khost means by this, but I decide to let the detective explain things in his own time.

"Second," he continues, "is this." He holds the bottle up to the moonlight, so I can see it. There, engraved in the bottle, is a heart-shaped shell.

"Agua de Ba," I whisper. "Isn't it?"

"If your grandmother gave you this bottle (which I'm not saying she did, because I do believe she's dead) and told you it was mosquito repellent...then Ms. Leighton has an odd sense of humor."

"No," I say, starting to understand. "She didn't trust me, after all. I mean, look at my track record -- first I lost the fake bottle, then I let Juan get his hands on it..."

"Don't give me this 'poor me' crap. She trusted you," says Officer Khost, "because she gave you this. The first of Ponce de Leon's three points." He hands the bottle to me, carefully. "So our trip to Salt Island wasn't a total waste." I look up at him, as an excited glow returns to his eyes. "Now, we know what we need to do."

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Peach-Faced Lovebirds

I follow the Historian as he picks up the candle and leads us to the living room. The house is poorly lit, as if electricity hasn't entirely reached the island. I'm not sure whether Juan is trying to make me uncomfortable, or if this is his natural way. He slowly places the candle on a small Moroccan table.

"So now that we know this isn't the real Bottle #3," he says, taking out Grandma's bottle and, in an instant, hurling it at the wall. It smashes into several pieces.

"Hey!" I say, so sharply that Juan turns around. "I was supposed to deliver that bottle to the Queen Conch."

"No you weren't," says Juan. "Francie, you and I both know what the Queen really wants. She's looking for the real thing, just like you and me," he says, taking a red antique birdcage down from a shelf. He sets it next to the large metal contraption I saw earlier.

"Let me show you something," he says, opening the cage door. He reaches in and takes out two little chattering birds. "These are two peach-faced lovebirds. Sam and Ilsa. They came with the house." He holds out his finger so I can pet them.

"I've been conducting a sort of experiment," he says. Before I can react, he opens a door to the metal contraption and thrusts the birds inside. He shuts the door and bolts it. "Lovebirds are social creatures," he says, pressing a lever on the side of the machine and turning another wheel. "They hate to be separated."

The birds chirp wildly and flutter around as panels and mirrors come down all around them, sending them searching for each other in different directions. Each time one bird gets close to its mate, another panel drops down, blocking its path.

One bird chirps loudly and turns in a circle, chewing anxiously on its wing.

"This is awful -- let them out!" I say. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Juan's assistant watching us from the dark hallway. I try to pry the machine open, but the lock holds tight. Juan laughs.

"Haven't you ever had pets?" he says. "I thought I'd make things more interesting. So I've placed poisoned pellets on one side of the machine. This gives each bird a 50/50 shot of coming out of there intact." Inside, I see two bowls of pellets at the bottom of the machine. One of the birds has almost reached its bowl.

"Bug poison," I say, quietly, thinking of Officer Khost's theory on Maribel. "You can't...I'll call the Humane Society. Or the Audubon Society...isn't that for birds?"

"And send out a Bird Alert for Salt Island? Francie, everyone knows Salt Island was abandoned years ago. There isn't a single boat that would come here and brave the stench," he says. "I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with my games, just as Sam and Ilsa do."

Suddenly, a horn sounds in the distance. Judging by Juan's surprised reaction, the ferry is close, maybe close enough to reach Salt Island. I look at the machine. Sam and Ilsa are still thrashing around. They're both a few steps away from reaching the pellets.

I can't leave the birds to 50/50 odds of death by poisoning. Juan sees he's won.

"Francie. If you tell me where Bottle #3 is, this could be our search...the search for the three points. No one knows more about the Fountain than I do," he holds out a trembling hand.

"Juan, give me the key. Sam and Ilsa...they're your pets, right? You don't want to bury one of them," I plead. "They're a pair."

"Just like you and Rafe?" he says, glowering.

"What did you say?" I ask, stepping closer to him. He backs off a little, seeing the fierce look in my eyes.

"I know about the Thing That Happened in the Snow, Francie. I know everything you wrote in your journal," says Juan. He takes out a key from his pocket, holds it out in front of me.

The ferry horn sounds again, closer. Juan's assistant takes out a cigarette and turns it over in his hand. I give him a desperate look.

"My journal was destroyed," I say. Sam (or Ilsa?) is scratching against a mirror, trying to reach the pellets. I step closer to try to grab the key, but Juan quickly holds it over the machine. In a second, he could drop it inside.

"Francie, you and I both need to forget the past. This is Miami. Things happen. Soon a condo will replace an old deli, someone will bulldoze Salt Island...it could be us against the future," he says, gesturing wildly, so that I'm afraid he's going to drop the key.

"Three points," I say. "Now I finally understand your theories..."

"Good," he says, brushing hair off his forehead.

"They're the crazy rant of someone on too many pain meds, or some high school dropout with way too much time on his hands..." I advance towards him as the ferry horn sounds a third time. "You call yourself the Historian, but really you're just a novelist."

Juan laughs, "I know you're trying to bait me, Francie. Nice effort, but this isn't a movie." All of a sudden, Juan's assistant dips his cigarette in the burning candle and pulls down his blue hood. It's Officer Khost.

"Who are you?" asks Juan.

"I'm Officer Khost," says Officer Khost, sticking the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. "And in one second, I'm the man who's going to take this candle and torch your entire house and all its pretty books. That is, if you don't hand that key, nice and easy, to the young lady."

Juan glares at Khost for a second, then hands me the key. I quickly pull the levers and open the machine, rescuing Sam and Ilsa. They escape my hands and fly out of the room, singing. I'm still standing there, paralyzed.

"Go!" Officer Khost yells, and I quickly comply, scurrying out of the house. I look behind me and see Khost backing away from Juan, holding the candle out in front of him. I run down the path towards the water, then wait for Khost to catch up with me. He sprints down to meet me, as the Historian stands in the doorway, clutching the doorframe, and trying to catch his breath.

In the distance, I can see the ferry starting to pull away from Salt Island.

"Wait!" I scream, almost tripping down the path. Khost reaches into his pocket and pulls out a very weary-looking Max. He thrusts Max into the air, and the parrot flies down towards the ship.

"He'll tell the captain," says Officer Khost, "That ship's not going anywhere."

I look at Officer Khost, in awe. My body is finally starting to collapse after the stress of my night in the coral rock house. "How...?" I start to say, weakly.

"It's like I say. Everyone's all dressed up for a reason, Francie" he says. I pull my grey hoodie around me and follow Officer Khost down to the waiting ferry.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Ponce de Leon and the Three Points

"Most of what I know about Ponce de Leon I read in your book," I say.

"Go on," Juan leans back as his assistant swoops in to clear the plates. He lights a candle in the center of the table. The strong floral smell reminds me of the night Maribel died. Could Juan's assistant be trying to tell me something? He avoids my gaze and skulks outside to smoke.

"Okay...well, you start out by stating the popular theory: Ponce de Leon wasn't searching for an actual Fountain of Youth when he discovered La Florida. He was seeking a sort of spiritual awakening, the birth of a new era for Spain -- power, riches, glory, and all that...rather than physical rebirth." The candle flickers.

"Now where your theories diverge from more...established thought is in regards to the Red Coral Society. Most scholars dismiss the idea of a secret society as part of the myth -- a society bound by blood tracing back to the conquistadors, established with the sole purpose of picking up where Ponce de Leon left off in his search for the Fountain...and sworn to guard its find at all costs," I say.

"But you argue that the Society did (and does) exist and spend five hundred pages trying to prove it...so when you finally give up and admit it was probably just a hoax, I don't think any reader would believe you. You've convinced us," I finish, searching Juan's face for a reaction.

"Ponce de Leon may not have been looking for a literal fountain," he says, "but sometimes we find what we're not looking for." Juan opens his journal and hands it to me. There, on the page, is a rough sketch of a bottle with a heart-shaped shell engraved in the glass.

"Ponce de Leon died in Havana in 1521 from a wound he received from a Calusa's poison arrow. Before he died, he gave his favorite crew member, the twelve-year-old son of a Spanish nobleman, a bottle. He told the boy something rather strange, something that didn't make sense to the boy at the time, so he wrote about it in his journal. The boy's name was Juan Rosado.

Juan searches the bookshelf and pulls out a second, more crumbling journal and blows off dust. "It's in Spanish. He says "Three points," over and over again. Tres puntos. It was his master's last instruction.

"Three points," I say, tracing the drawing. "Like the three points of the heart-shaped shell."

Juan's hand starts to tremble. He grips the table and leans closer. "Now it's easy to see the shell as purely symbolic. For mother, father, and child, or father, son, and holy ghost, or the three points of the tree of life -- choose your three. But I'm not a symbolist, Francie, I'm a realist. I think Ponce de Leon was giving the boy an order. Juan Rosado was to continue Ponce de Leon's search for three objects -- ingredients that together, combined in the bottle, would offer the power to heal, maybe even save. Ponce de Leon had already collected the first ingredient -- the healing water that would become the basis for one of the greatest myths. The Red Coral Society calls this water Agua de Ba. But alone, the water is just...water."

Juan pauses to let me catch up.

"And you think that together, these ingredients would become what Ponce de Leon was searching for? Eternal life?" I ask, my face lit by the candle's glow. Juan stands up and stretches his uncooperative legs. He weighs his words.

"I have to believe that the Fountain would offer greater restorative properties than any medicine known to man," he says. "Ponce de Leon's final instruction to the boy was to tell his story, and make it as grand and delusional as possible. He knew that by turning reality into myth, no one would believe that the Fountain, which could only be created by the three "points" or ingredients, really did exist. Who knew the famous conquistador had a sense of humor?" Juan carefully places the first Juan Rosado's journal back on his shelf.

"So Juan...your ancestor...founded the Red Coral Society," I say.

"Good girl," says Juan. "But now, I'm freelance. I don't trust anyone and if you're smart, neither will you. Someone infiltrated the Red Coral Society and stole the bottle containing Agua de Ba. Then, a clueless administrator of the thief's estate probably donated the bottle to the Historical Museum where it was labeled Bottle #3, forgotten in the dust heaps, and eventually stolen again."

I look closely at the drawing of the bottle in Juan's journal. The bottle in the owl purse seemed a lot smaller. Maybe my memory is blurred by the mojito I had with Brad that night. Brad! Did he think I stood him up at The Wreckers?

Juan stumbles over to me, interrupting my thoughts. "I heard a rumor from my associate that a third assistant to a pop diva came into possession of a bottle similar to the missing one. Naturally, I had to investigate," he says, darkly.

He takes a large mailing envelope from the bookshelf and dumps its contents on the table. Inside is the owl purse. I quickly open it and turn the bottle over in my hand. No engraving.

"This isn't the bottle," I say, both relieved and confused.

"Right. So now you're here and Bottle #3 is still missing. I think you know where it is. Tell me...what would you do if you were me?"

I don't know what to say, so I answer him with silence.

"Follow me," Juan says. "It's time for the after-dinner entertainment."