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."