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Slowly, with a dedicated effort, Kirby tipped the universe back into focus. He heard the after-image of his voice going on and on, a tiresome encyclical of complaint, a pean to the scuffed spirit. The woman across the table from him was in silhouette against the windowa window big as a tennis court on edgeand through the window was an ocean, rosy with dusk or dawn. It made a peach gleam on her bare tanned shoulders and backlighted a creamy weight of blondness.
Atlantic, he thought. Once he had established the ocean, he found the time relationship simplified. Looking from Florida, it had to be dawn.
"You are Charla," he said carefully.
"Of course, dear Kirby," she said, amused, slightly guttural, almost laughing. "Your good new friend, Charla."
The man sat at Kirby's left, a solid, polished man, tailored, clipped, manicured. He made a soft sound of amusement. "A Spanish verb," he said. "Charlar. To chat. To make meaningless talk. An irony because her great talent is not in talking, but in listening."
"My great talent, Joseph?" she said with mock astonishment.
"Your most unusual one, my dear. But we have both enjoyed listening to Kirby."
Kirby nailed it all to a wall inside his head, like small signs. Charla, Joseph, Atlantic, dawn. He sought other clues. It could be Saturday morning. The burial service had been on Friday at eleven. The conference with the lawyers had been at two in the afternoon. And he had begun drinking at three.
He turned his head with care and looked at the empty lounge. A barman in white jacket stood under prism lights paled by the dawn, arms folded, chin on his chest.
"Do they keep these places open all night?" Kirby asked.
"Hardly ever," Joseph said. "But they respond nicely to any small gift of money. A gesture of friendship. At the official closing time, Kirby, you still had much to say."
It was brighter in the lounge. They looked at him fondly. They were mature, handsome people. They were the finest two people he had ever met. They had slight accents, an international flavor, and they looked at him with warmth and with love.
Suddenly he had a horrid suspicion. "Are youare you some kind of journalistsor anything like that?"
They both laughed aloud. "Oh no, my sweet," Charla said.
He felt ashamed of himself. "Uncle Omar iswasdeath on any kind of publicity. We always had to be so careful. He paid a firm in New York thirty thousand dollars a year to keep him out of the papers. But people were always prying. They'd get some tiny little rumor about Omar Krepps and make a great big story out of it, and Uncle Omar would be absolutely furious."
Charla put her hand over his, a warm pressure. "But dear Kirby, it does not matter now, does it?"
"I guess not."
"My brother and I are not journalists, of course, but you could speak to journalists, you know. You could let the world know what a vile thing he did to you, what a horrid way he repaid your years of selfless devotion."
She was so understanding, Kirby wanted to weep. But he felt an uncomfortable twinge of honesty. "Not so selfless. I mean, you have an uncle worth fifty-million dollars, there's an ulterior motive."
"But you told us how you had quit many times," Joseph said. The warmth of Charla's hand was removed. Kirby missed it.
"But I always went back," Kirby admitted. "He'd tell me I was his favorite nephew. He'd tell me he needed me. For what? All he ever did was keep me on the run. No chance to have a life of my own. Crazy errands all over the world. Eleven years of it, ever since I got out of college. Even there, he told me the courses to take. That old man ran my whole life."
"You told us, my dear," Charla said, her voice breaking. "All those years of devotion."
"And then," Joseph said sternly, "not a penny."
The brightness of the dawn was beginning to hurt Kirby's eyes. He yawned. When he opened his eyes, Joseph and Charla were standing. Joseph went over to the barman. Charla touched his shoulder. "Come, dear. You're exhausted."
He went with her without question, out through glass doors, across a vast and unfamiliar lobby. When they were a dozen feet from the elevators he stopped. She looked up at him in question. Her face was so flawless, the eyes huge, gray-green, the parted lips moist, the honeyed skin darker than her hair, that for the moment he forgot what he was going to say.
"Darling?" she said.
"I'm not staying here, am I?"
"Joseph thought it would be better."
"Where is he?"
"We said good night to him, Kirby dear."
The elevator climbed through a fragrant silken silence. He drifted down a long corridor. She took a key from a jeweled purse and let them into the suite. She closed the blinds against the dawn sunlight and took him to a bedroom. The bed was turned down. New pyjamas and an assortment of new toilet articles were laid out for him.
"Joseph thinks of everything," she said. "Once he owned some hotels, but when they began to bore him, he sold them. Kirby, dear, you must have a hot shower. Then you will sleep."
When he came back to the bedroom in the new pyjamas, she was waiting for him. She had changed to a robe of some soft fabric in a shade of gold. She had brushed her hair. She stood up and seemed very small to him without her high heels. The fitted robe sheathed and revealed a figure to fog the lenses of the little men who take pictures for the centerfolds of the more forthright magazines. It curved and cushioned into all the right dimensions and then, implausibly, curved just a little bit more. Though he felt, with thunderous pulse, as though someone were thumping him lightly on the top of the head with a padded stick, and though he felt appallingly winsome, like a boy groom, he also felt a solemn sense of responsibility. Here was a totally first-class woman, mature, fragrant, expensive, sophisticated, silken and immaculate. And one could not sidle up to her, dragging one foot and saying shucks. Heartening himself with a thousand memories of Cary Grant, he tried to saunter up to the woman, wearing a smile that was tender, knowing and suitably ravenous.
But he sauntered his bare toes into the cruel narrow leg of a small table. With a whine of anguish he lunged, off balance, at the womanclutching at her with more the idea of breaking his fall than with any sense of improper purpose. The flailing leap alarmed her and she darted to one side emitting a small hiss of dismay. One frantic hand caught the strong golden fabric at the throat of her fitted robe. For one full half-turn, the durable fabric sustained them in the beginning of a skater's whirl, but then there was a ripping sound, and as he tumbled into a far corner he caught a glimpse of her as she plummeted out of the robe, spinning, struck the edge of the bed, bounced once and disappeared over the far edge with a soft padded thud.
He sat up, pushed the ruined robe aside, clasped his toes in both hands and made small comforting sounds.
Her tousled head appeared slowly, warily, looking at him from beyond the bed, her eyes wide. "Darling!" she said. "You are so impulsive!"
He stared at her with his face of pain. "Kindly shut up. This has been happening ever since I can remember, and I can do without the funny jokes."
"You always do this!"
"I always do something. Usually I merely run away. In the summer of 1958 I went with a beautiful woman to her suite on the seventh floor of the Continental Hilton in Mexico City. Three minutes after I closed the door, an earthquake began. Plaster fell. The hotel cracked open. We had to feel our way down the stairs in the dark. The lobby was full of broken glass. So please shut up, Charla."
"Throw me my robe, dear."
He balled it up and threw it to her. He got up and hobbled to the bed and sat down. She came around the foot of the bed and sat beside him. The robe, belted in a new way, covered her.
"Poor Kirby," she said.
She patted his arm. She chuckled. "I've never been undressed quite that fast before."
"Very hilarious," he said.
She touched his chin, turned his head so that he looked down into her eyes. For the moment she looked very sad. "You do tempt me, dear. Because you are so very sweet and nice. Too many charades these days. And too many men who are not like you in any respect."
"If they were all like me, the survival of the race would be in doubt."
She pulled him closer. He kissed her, abashedly at first and then with mounting enthusiasm. When he toppled her back, she wiggled free and shook her head and made a face at him. "No, dear. Joseph and I are very fond of you. And you have had a ghastly time. And Joseph told me to care for you. Now hop into bed like a sweet lamb, and take off the top of the pretty pyjamas and lay face down and I shall make you feel very, very good."
"Darling, don't be a bore, please. I don't want to change our friendship so soon, do you?"
"If you're asking me"
"Hush. Some day, soon maybe, you will become my lover. Who can tell? Is it not more fun to guess? Be a good boy."
He stretched out as instructed. She came back after turning out all the lights but one. She poured something cool and aromatic onto his back and began to knead the muscles of his back and shoulders and the nape of his neck with clever fingers.
"My word, you have lovely muscles, dear," she said.
"Exercises anyone can do."
"Oh. Now just let everything fall away. Slide down into the darkness, sweet Kirby. Abandon yourself to pure sensation."
"Rest, my dear. Rest."
Her soothing hands stroked the tension out of him. He was so completely exhausted he could have fallen into sleep like falling ten thousand feet into a midnight swamp. But her touch, her gentle teasing voice, the awareness of her fragrant and erotic presence kept him suspended, floating on the surface of sleep. She hummed and the tune seemed familiar, as though he had heard it in a foreign movie.
He reached back through time to the previous Wednesday, at midnight. Fifty-seven hours ago? That was when the word had reached him at his hotel in Montevideo. The old man was dead. Omar Krepps. Uncle Omar. It was shocking to think that even death itself had the power to reach out and take that strange, invulnerable little man.
As he thought of the return trip he sank deeper in the pool of sleep and his images became confused, changed by Charla. The breast-nosed jet took off down a pale silken runway of tenderest flesh while the nude and shadowy hostesses gathered close around him, humming to him. In the midst of this half-sleep he was vaguely aware of Charla turning him, helping him into the pyjama top. Her mouth came down upon his, sweet, deft and heavy, and as he tried to lift leaden arms to hold her close, she was gone. He thought he heard her say, "I'm so sorry, dear." He wondered what she felt sorry about. The other light went off. The latch clicked. He fell off the edge of the world.
Kirby was hauled up out of sleep by a rangy young girl he had never seen before. She shook him awake. All the lights in the room were on. He braced himself up on his elbows. She was pacing around the bed so rapidly it was difficult to keep her in focus. She was yelling at him, and the words made no sense. She had a wildly cropped mop of palomino hair, fierce green eyes bulging with fury, a lean face dark with rage. She wore a coral shirt, striped stretch pants, and waved a straw purse the size of a snare drum.
It took him long dull seconds to realize she was yelling in a language he did not understand.
When she paused for breath, he said faintly, "No comprendo, Señorita."
She switched immediately into a torrent of fluent Spanish. He spoke it reasonably well, but not that well. He caught just enough to realize it was idiomatic, graphic and probably would have sent a Mexico City cab driver running for shelter, his hands clapped over his ears.
"Mas despacio, por favor," he pleaded when she paused for the next breath.
She looked at him narrowly. "Will English do?"
"Where is my goddam aunt, and what the hell right does she think she has pulling one of her cute tricks and getting me thrown the hell off the first decent television script I've seen in a year? She can't call me down here like I'm some kind of a slave. Where's that spooky Joseph, buddy? Don't you dare try to cover for either one of them, buster. I've handled her sniveling little secretarial types before. I want the facts, and I want them right now!"
She put a small nose with abruptly flared nostrils five inches from his and glared directly into his eyes. "Well?" she said.
She had an almost imperceptible accent, but there was an illusive familiarity about it.
"I think you're in the wrong room."
"I know I'm in the wrong room. The other rooms in the suite are empty. That's why I'm in this room. Don't stall."
She stamped her foot. "The suite! Yes, the suite! My God, start tracking, fellow. Hook up with reality. This big lush suite in the Hotel Elise, eighth floor, Miami Beach, ten o'clock on this gaudy Saturday night in April, in this suite registered in the name of Charla Maria Markopoulo O'Rourke, buster, my unsainted aunt, this suite it cost me a twenty-buck bribe to get into after steaming all the way from the Coast on a jet."
"Charla!" he said. And knew where he was, and why the girl's accent, though less than Charla's, had seemed familiar. Up until that moment he had thought himself in Montevideo. "Uncle Omar is dead," he said.
"Don't waste those sick codes on me, buster. I unjoined Charla's wolf pack ages ago. Little Filiatra changed her name and her outlook and her habits because she got sick up to here of all the cute, dirty, sick little tricks. I'm Betsy Alden now, by choice, and I'm a citizen and a good actress, and she gets me reinstated fast or I'm going to belt her loose from her cunning little brain."