Excerpt for Happy Hour at Casa Dracula by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

praise for happy hour at casa dracula

Cosmopolitan’s Top 10 Must Read Books by Latino Authors

"A cross between Bridget Jones's Diary and Interview with the Vampire."

Latina Magazine

"Hilarious...fresh and sassy. Top-rated."

Romantic Times

“Cool characters, witty dialogue, and laugh out loud moments in this Jane Austen channeled vampire romp.”

All Things Urban Fantasy



HAPPY HOUR AT CASA DRACULA

Casa Dracula Book One

MARTA ACOSTA



Copyright © 2017 by Marta Acosta

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever without permission of the author.



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Title & Copyright

Chapter One: The Intolerable Lightness of Being Silly

Chapter Two: Rats in the Walls, Bats in the Belfry

Chapter Three: Wherein Our Heroine Loses Her Fashion Sense

Chapter Four: Raticide (Not the Punk Band)

Chapter Five: An Old Flame Burns Down the House

Chapter Six: Survival of the Fabbest

Chapter Seven: Wherein Our Heroine Considers Her Options

Chapter Eight: To Snooze, Perchance to Hallucinate

Chapter Nine: Excuse Me for Living

Chapter Ten: Whereupon Our Heroine Confronts the Cad

Chapter Eleven: New and Improved

Chapter Twelve: A (Ratless) Room of One’s Own

Chapter Thirteen: The Arduous Demands of Country Life

Chapter Fourteen: A Million Tears

Chapter Sixteen: Freak-of-Nature Girl

Chapter Seventeen: Sense and Insensibility

Chapter Eighteen: The Wind Beneath My (Chicken) Wings

Chapter Nineteen: The Tingling Sensation Means It’s Working

Chapter Twenty: Shaken and Bestirred

Chapter Twenty-one: The Lady is a Vamp(ire)

Chapter Twenty-two: Little Fictions about New Addictions

Chapter Twenty-Three: Tequila Mockingbird

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Road to Hell is Paved with Fabulous Men

Chapter Twenty-Five: One Hundred Years of Sorditude

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Young Lady & the Aristovamp

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Truly, Madly, Maturely

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Icing on the Sin Cake

Chapter Thirty: Mi Sofa Es Tu Sofa

Chapter Thirty-One: Artist in (Ratless) Residence

Chapter Thirty-Two: Classless Reunion

Epilogue

Bonus Feature: Midnight Brunch at Casa Dracula Excerpt

Other Books by the Author

About the Author

Additional Copyright Information



Chapter One: The Intolerable Lightness of Being Silly

IF I HAD BEEN a rational human being, I would have had a normal job and I never would have gotten involved with any of them. But I was not a rational human being. I was and remain a square peg in a round world.

You would think that a girl with a degree from a Fancy University would have been snapped up by some big corporation anxious to ladle on perks and a generous salary. Sadly, my F.U. education did not lead me directly into wealth and fame. All my attempts to become a worthwhile cog in the capitalist machine were met with rejection, the type that has driven many other creative souls to despair and Great Art.

Here are the results of my attempts. No response at all from the publications that should have been interested in a columnist who focused on budget gardens. A soul-killing stint at an ad agency that concluded when the art director read my sardonic copy for fortified wine. A happy stretch writing a newsletter for a nutritional supplements company that ended abruptly when the FDA raided our warehouse. Miscellaneous temporary jobs, each more wretchedly depressing than its predecessor. Also two entry-level marketing jobs terminated after “improprieties,” which were not my fault.

Okay, my mother Regina would have said that they were my fault. My mother Regina thought that anyone with a body as vulgar as my own induced otherwise upstanding citizens to behave badly. My mother Regina had neat, discrete chichis and a tidy, ladylike bottom. When she bothered to look at me, an expression of dismay almost came over her immaculately made-up face. “Almost,” because medical procedures rendered her incapable of normal facial expressions.

My mother Regina believed my father had wasted his hard-earned cash sending me to F.U. because I was not a serious person. My mother Regina thought thusly because I always referred to her as “my mother Regina” and because I had not dedicated myself wholeheartedly to the reformation and improvement of my garish carcass. “You have wasted your father’s money,” she said, ignoring the fact that I had worked, taken out loans, and earned scholarships in order to attend F.U.

I now lived in a windowless basement flat of a nice house in a nice neighborhood of the City. My rent was low because I maintained the garden and my landlord found my bosom enchanting. While he never exactly said, “I am captivated by your enchanting bosom,” he did stare a lot and that’s practically the same thing. The dark flat had a cement floor, a dinky bathroom, and a gloomy kitchenette. At night, I heard scrabbling in the walls, which, I suspected, was caused by voracious Norway rats.

My income was earned by toiling as a reading consultant to executives and society dames who were book club averse. I garnered extra cash by filling in at a local garden center. My jobs were irregular, sometimes taking only ten hours of my week and other times taking fifty, but it was better than sitting in an office trying to keep my eyes from bleeding while copyediting training manuals.

I worked diligently on my novel every single possible second that was available after going out, thrift store shopping, spending quality time with my friends, and finding gyms that offered the first month free. In addition to this exhausting work/art/life regime, I tried to improve the world by writing letters to political leaders about Important Issues. I wasn’t picky about the issues. The world was full of pain and injustice, and writing the letters helped me keep proper perspective.

My friend Nancy had come up with the reading consultant idea because she knew how much I liked recommending books to friends. She had given me business cards on lovely ecru stock with “Bennet” hyphenated to my last name. Underneath was “Reading Consultant,” with my phone number.

“Why the Bennet hyphenate?” I had asked.

“Like Eliza Bennet, you have a fine posterior,” she had said. Nancy had been my F.U. roommate frosh year.

“Eliza had fine eyes, not a fine fanny, you cultural barbarian. You never even finished Pride and Prejudice. I wrote that paper for you.”

“And now I am showing my tremendous appreciation for your scholarship. Also this gives you credibility with society wives, my little brown amiga.” This is how we talked to each other. We thought being silly was the height of delightfulness.

I filled my days, but there were times when I awoke in the middle of the night, listened to the scratching in the walls, and felt afraid and lonely. I longed for an Eliza Bennetish existence: a house filled with family and friends, the agreeable conversation of a kind and compassionate sister, and the promise of dances and engagements.

Instead, I had my mother Regina, rats in the walls, and boyfriends who were like beach reads, momentary fun but nothing you’d ever bother to buy in hardcover. I worried that perhaps I, as a nonserious person, was only a beach read as well. I had just reread Middlemarch, and I had a deep and sincere desire to be a deep and sincere person.

Nancy had connected me with most of my reading clients, but one of my former beach reads, a Russian artist named Vladimir, introduced me to Kathleen Baker.

Like my other clients, Kathleen wanted me more for company than guidance. Sometimes she patted my head as if I was a pet and I half expected her to toss biscuits to me and say, “Good girl, catch!”

In her enthusiasm for literature, Kathleen decided to host a reception for hot new writer Sebastian Beckett-Witherspoon. She was absolutely thrilled when he accepted. I know because she said, “I am absolutely thrilled that Sebastian Beckett-Witherspoon has accepted my invitation to hold a reception for him. Are you familiar with his work?”

In a word, yes. In three words, all too familiar. In a few more words, why wouldn’t Sebastian B-W die, die, die a grisly and humiliating death? I pulled my lips into a grimace that I hoped Kathleen would interpret as a smile. I told Kathleen that we had met at F.U. “Marvelous!” she said. “Of course, you will be at my reception. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to see you again.”

“Perhaps you overestimate my delightfulness,” I demurred. I had taken up demurring like mad. I thought demurring was the last word in refinement, right behind murmuring, deferring, and suggesting.

“Don’t be a silly goose,” Kathleen said. “This will be a good opportunity for you to meet other literary people.”

So here I was at Kathleen’s soiree for Sebastian Beckett-Witherspoon, the highlight of a lackluster season of morose poets, grimy novelists, and patronizing essayists. Kathleen had a magpie’s fascination with all things shiny, so the room gleamed with polished floors, glittering mirrors, and lustrous furniture. I was afraid that if I moved too quickly, I’d skitter and crash down on my sincere and serious colita.

I wore a simple linen shirt-dress that I’d bought at a thrift store, cream sandals, and fake pearls. My straight black hair was pulled back into a low, Grace Kellyish ponytail, and I’d used a light hand with my makeup because I wanted to look good without looking like a good time.

I did what I always do at gatherings: an initial scan of the room for people of hue. There was an Asian couple in earth toned natural linens, an African-American guy in a sports jacket, and a Latino waiter.

At a real party or in a club, I knew what to do or say, but here I felt as awkward as I had my first day at F.U., hauling cardboard boxes to my dorm while almost Nordic-looking people strode confidently forward with matching luggage. The other guests seemed to know each other, but their eyes slid over me and moved on to others more important.

Then I saw Sebastian B-W, scion of one of the most powerful families in the country. He stood by a window, and most people would have thought it was merely a lucky accident that a shaft of light from the setting sun glowed on his golden hair.

He smiled and nodded as he talked to an older man. Sebastian’s skin was evenly tanned with a slight, marvelous blush of pink on his cheeks. His teeth were as pearly as ever, and he seemed to have aged very little over the last several years. He was just over six foot, slim and graceful in a navy jacket and a soft blue shirt that brought out the sea-color of his eyes.

I had thought, la, la, la, that I would come here and Sebastian would see that I had moved beyond the past, that I had matured into an urban and urbane woman, a fellow scribe, and that we could have a civil, even friendly association. But just looking at him made me panic like a hemophiliac in a pin factory.

“Yummy,” said a voice nearby.

“What?” I was startled and turned to see a small, wiry redheaded waiter with a tray of petite pastries.

“Would you like something yummy?” The waiter held the tray toward me and winked. He was as gay and pleasing as a posy of Johnny-jump-ups. He had a wide smile and big green eyes to go with his coppery curls.

“I always enjoy something yummy,” I replied suggestively, unable to stop my chronic flirting mechanism. Nancy said that my need to flirt was directly linked to the lack of a strong paternal figure in my life and the dominating presence of an unloving mother. I thought it was because boys were so pretty.

“I certainly didn’t mean him,” the waiter said, tilting his head toward Sebastian. “His novel was offensive.”

Of course, I had read Sebastian’s book, looking for secret clues to his character in every word. “I thought I was the only one who didn’t like it.”

“Please, girlfriend, it was pretentious as hell,” said the waiter. “His school churns them out like that. What’s the matter?”

“Well, I went there, too.”

The waiter grinned and said, “Present company excepted. You aren’t involved with him, are you?”

“Me, involved with him? Ha ha and ha, you make the funny,” said I. “Does he turn your engine?”

“Not my type. I like them less evil incarnate,” he said. “And also chunkier and hairier.”

Before we could continue our fascinating conversation, the headwaiter angrily gestured for my new friend to circulate. It was time for me to circulate, too, and the first person I had to talk to was the guest of horror. I grabbed a flute of champagne off a tray, downed it quickly, and grabbed another.

Moving through the crowd, I noticed that everyone was surreptitiously peeking at Sebastian, all awaiting their chance to have a clever or insightful exchange so they could relate the story at their next dinner party. He caught sight of me and his smile froze. I tried to calm myself as I walked to his side.

He continued his conversation with the older man.

“Naturally,” he said, “I only write about perversions to expose them to the condemnation they deserve. I am not a voyeur, not one who is titillated by the steamy, I mean, seamy underbelly.”

Seamy underbelly? I guess that was my cue. “Hello, Sebastian.”

He turned his head fractionally toward me. “Hullo,” he said tersely without meeting my eyes.

“Hullo? Are we suddenly British? Lord love a duck.” I didn’t know what that expression meant, but I’d always wanted to use it. “In America, we say ‘hello’ with the accent on hell.”

The older fellow said to Sebastian, “I enjoyed talking with you,” then edged just far enough away to eavesdrop.

Sebastian held out his hand and actually said, “I’m Sebastian Beckett-Witherspoon. And you are…?”

I wanted to stab him repeatedly with a tiny cocktail fork until he leaked all over like a sieve. “If you don’t cut it out, Sebastian, I swear I’ll make your evening here one of undiluted misery.”

He blanched and spoke in a low whisper. “Undiluted misery! You have no idea how much you’ve caused me. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a very close and special friend of Kathleen’s. In fact, I’m her literary consultant.

Sebastian was confused. “You mean you suggested that she have this reception?”

“Oh, be real. Did I like your incest-fest novel? I did not.” It occurred to me that this was not the most politic thing to say if I wished to resuscitate our association.

You are criticizing me? You, who write political horrors!” He snorted. “Blood and gore and monsters and tedious left-wing diatribes. Utter swill.”

“You told me you liked my stories.” I pushed away a memory of the early weeks of our acquaintance and how I felt seeing him strolling across campus toward me, smiling as the wind blew back his hair.

“I may have said it, but I didn’t mean it.”

“Did you ever mean anything you told me, Sebastian?” It was as if no time had passed since our last encounter: I was flooded by unnamable emotion, wanting to cry and shout and say all the things I’d never had a chance to tell him. I hadn’t done anything wrong, yet he had cast me out of his world. What was worse, he’d done it when I was taking a course in Milton, so I’d become utterly obsessed with finding the answer to my misery in Paradise Lost. I would have gotten better guidance from Cosmopolitan.

“Why are you here, Milagro?”

The whole history of our relationship was in the knowing way he said my name. It felt too intimate, as if he knew too many of my secrets. “I’m here to make contacts. Introduce me to your agent or your publisher.”

“You are still out of your tiny little mind.”

Before I could retort, wheedle, or threaten, Kathleen began speaking on the other side of the room. Sebastian moved away so fast, it was as if he’d been teleported.

“Your feminine wiles leave something to be desired,” said a deep voice so close to me I felt warm breath on my neck. I stepped away reflexively. Beside me was a somewhat fabulous man in a strange suit. Now, Nancy would tell you that I am overly generous in bestowing the description of “fabulous” on a man and her criticism made me doubt my own judgment.

I focused on this guy just to center myself. Rich brown hair brushed straight back, gray eyes, a strong nose, pale, perfect skin, nice cheekbones, and a lovely, rosy curved mouth. He was medium height, lean and muscled. He smiled crookedly, which either added or detracted from his charm, depending upon your point of view.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” he asked.

“As you have noted, my feminine wiles have eluded me this evening.” I was still trying to figure out what was wrong with his suit. It was well made, but the cut was about fifty years out of style, give or take a century. And the smell… under the light, clean scent of a good aftershave was cedar. My guess was that his suit had been hanging in a closet for ages.

His smoke-colored eyes took a leisurely journey up and down my body, causing my trampy internal gears to shift of their own volition. “Perhaps I misjudged.”

“So kind of you to offer your criticism gratis to strangers.” Who said “gratis”? Pretty soon I’d be uncontrollably uttering pro forma, ipso facto, and carpe diem in conversation ad nauseam. I moved through the rapt audience to the other side of the room before I said anything more idiotic.

Sebastian was now addressing the guests, droning the usual glad to be here, happy so many devoted fans, et cetera, and opening a copy of his novel so that he could read a chapter aloud. Had I ever enjoyed his writing or had I been so flattered by his attention that I convinced myself I liked it?

The other guests seemed enthralled by Sebastian’s stream of blather. He used words like “luminescent,” “tumescent,” “iridescent,” and “transcendent.” Perhaps they handed out New Yorker vocabulary lists at every graduate writing program in the country. I wouldn’t know. My mother Regina had convinced my father that liposuction on her “problem spots” was more critical than helping me through grad school. Listening to Sebastian now, I began to think that maybe she’d had a point.

The chatty waiter returned and whispered, “Warm chèvre with tapenade,” as he offered his tray.

“No thanks.”

The waiter gracelessly deposited his tray on a side table. “You seem to be attracting the attention of some of the gentlemen here.”

I wasn’t surprised at his unprofessional interest in me. I have always had a symbiotic relationship with the waiter species. “If by that you mean I imposed my company upon the guest of honor, then I guess, yes.”

“No offense, but these guys aren’t your type. I know what I’m talking about.” Coming from someone else, his statement would have sounded like a West Side Story stick-to-your-own-kind, but I assumed he was offering his assessment of sexual orientation.

I wasn’t going to insult his obviously flawed gaydar, so I said, “Thanks. I’ll take that into consideration.”

The waiter winked at me, then slipped away. I wondered why he left the tray of hors d’oeuvres. He was a nice guy, but a very bad waiter.

Sebastian finally concluded his yammering. There was hearty applause, and then I saw the fabulous man smiling in my direction. Sauntering to me, he said, “This joint is a bust. Let’s scram.”

I was still fantasizing about stabbing Sebastian, and I thought it was a good idea to get away before I did something legally prosecutable in front of numerous witnesses. “I don’t suppose you’re connected to the publishing world?”

“Why else would I be here? You’re a writer?” His lopsided smile inspired parts of my body to attempt mutiny and throw themselves at him. “We’ll go somewhere quieter where we can talk about your writing. I can tell you are an interesting writer, unique.”

“Excuse me, but exactly how dumb do you think I am?” Men seemed to think there was an inverse relationship between bouncy bazooms and brainpower.

“That did sound like a bad line, didn’t it? But I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Every writer believes she’s unique and interesting. That doesn’t mean it’s true.” But I’d come here to make business connections, so I murmured, “You haven’t introduced yourself,” as if I was a proper young lady.

The oddly fabulous man took my elbow and led me through the crowd. He escorted me down the marbled hallway, through the wood-paneled foyer, and when we were away from the chatter of the party, he said, “I am Oswaldo Krakatoa.”

“I’m Milagro De Los Santos.” Judging from his expression, I had just won the ridiculous-name contest.

“Miracle of the saints?”

“It’s a sad little story. I’ll tell you sometime when I’m feeling particularly full of self-pity. You can call me Mil.”

“All right, Mil.” We stepped outside. The fog had rolled in and the damp Pacific air was refreshing after the packed, over-perfumed room.

My bus stop was far down the street. My options were: talk to this handsome fellow, track down my pals for a whining-with-wine session, or go home and cry a million tears because my business cards were still in my handbag and Sebastian had snubbed me once again.

A limousine pulled up, and I wondered who the lucky bastard was. The driver stepped out and opened the back door for Oswaldo, who said, “I’m staying at Hotel Croft. We could talk there in the bar.”

I loved, loved the Sequoia Room at the Croft. They had silver bowls of salted cashews and the waitresses let you nurse one overpriced cocktail for hours while you listened to the pianist play Gershwin. “I’m not…” I began, and then I saw Sebastian rushing out of Kathleen’s house. He looked outraged and he was heading my way.

“Sure, let’s go, now.”

Oswaldo told the driver, “To the hotel, please,” and the driver said, “Very good, Doctor.”

Perhaps Oswaldo had a PhD. I slid into the backseat of the limo and the driver closed the door. Sebastian was in such a rush to get to me that he stumbled on the curb and fell. Through the dark window, I could see his features contort, more in rage than in pain. What in the world was the matter with him? He should have been relieved to see me go.

Turning his clear gaze on me, Oswaldo asked, “Are you a colleague of Mr. Beckett-Witherspoon?”

I supposed that technically I had been his colleague. College, colleague, and all that. “I was, but we had aesthetic differences.”

He said, “Tell me about your writing,” when I was busy noticing how nice his knee looked in his ancient trousers. Why had I never noticed men’s knees before?

“Why don’t you tell me about what you do in publishing?”

“I’m more of an intermediary,” he answered. “I handle documents, review manuscripts, ensure they get to the right people.”

Was he an agent, an editor, or a mailman? “What genres do you prefer?”

“Fiction, nonfiction, theology, philosophy,” he said. “Prose, poetry.” Well, that about covered everything from the Koran to dirty limericks. I wondered if I was being taken for a ride in more than one way. At least I could grab a cab or a bus from the Croft.

“Excuse me for asking,” he said, “but how well do you know Beckett-Witherspoon?”

I could tell this was a trick question. “How well do we know anyone? How well do you know him?”

“Oh,” said Oswaldo, “I know him more by reputation.”

“So, are you a real doctor?”

“The driver likes to make people feel important. I’ve often thought that I would like to be a veterinarian.”

And I would like to be the Princess of Mars. I didn’t bother to make small talk the rest of the way, which left my mind vulnerable to totally unwarranted images of mad lovemaking in limos.

I was so unevolved as a human being that I thought it was cool to get out of a limo in front of the Croft. One of the doormen recognized me and winked as he held open the heavy brass-’n’-glass door. “Just one drink,” I murmured to Oswaldo. I needed just one drink before I could face going back to my dismal apartment.

We crossed the cushy burgundy carpet to the entrance of the Sequoia Room, where we were assaulted by raucous voices raised loud over a hearty band. It was that traditional matrimonial celebration song, “YMCA.” The concierge rose from behind his desk and glided to us. “I apologize, but we’ve had to move a private party from another room due to a damaged carpet. Perhaps you would like to relax in the Hamburg Room?”

The Hamburg Room was a gloomy room decorated with truncheons, shields, and suits of armor. I’d had a particularly unpleasant evening there after ingesting some hallucinogenic mushrooms purely for research purposes. (I was creating a character who returns to her shamanistic roots after discovering she can shape-shift into a mountain lion to avenge a polluting chemical plant.) I said, “I don’t think so…”

“Or if you like,” said the concierge obligingly, “the Croft will send drinks to your suite, Doctor. Complimentary, of course.”

If Oswaldo had suggested drinks in his room, I would have said no. If he had tried to urge me or in any way lure me, I would have said absolutely no way. But the offer had come from the concierge, so I said, “Fine.”

“What would you like?” Oswaldo asked.

I wanted to seem sophisticated so I said, “Something tropical in a coconut with little parasols.”

We silently rode the elevator to Oswaldo’s upper-floor suite. He unlocked the door and held it open for me. Judging by the size of the rooms and the stunning view of the City, he was either very successful or very flashy. The sitting room was all coffee tones: mocha armchairs, an overstuffed espresso-covered sofa, thick latte-colored carpets, and the walls were a nice steamed milk shade. There were no obvious signs of literary business: no manuscripts on the desk, no books piled on the coffee table, no Post-its stuck to the walls.

I dropped into the armchair closest to the door. “Are you really in publishing, Oswaldo?”

“Not major publishing, but I’ve got a little publishing side business.”

“Answering personal ads is not considered publishing.”

He laughed. It was an honest, warm laugh from inside. It washed over me like spring rain and I relaxed and started laughing, too. “Really, I have been published,” he insisted. “Articles and research papers.”

“Why the ruse?”

“‘Ruse’? You have a strange vocabulary.”

“Books have always been my consolation.” I said it mockingly although it was true.

There was a discreet knock at the door. Oswaldo opened it and a waiter wheeled in a cart with a frosty pitcher and two drinks in coconuts with pink parasols and pineapple garnishes. They were so perfect I wanted to take a picture of them.

When the waiter left, Oswaldo handed me a drink and sat on the sofa.

I took a sip of the frozen concoction. It was sweet and fruity. “I’m pretty sure this is what the Lost Generation drank.”

“You haven’t told me what you write about yet.”

Still stinging from Sebastian’s criticism, I answered blithely, “Action-filled stories with political implications.”

Oswaldo leaned forward, looking at me intently. “Political thrillers, then? Like Le Carré?”

I had only read one Le Carré, but I didn’t recall any zombies. “Not quite. I use the supernatural to represent the manifestation of various life forces, good, evil, the unconscious, the id, et cetera.”

Now Oswaldo grinned broadly. He had a generous mouth, a sensual, facile mouth, and I found him more attractive by the second. “You mean horror stories? Do you believe in those things? Monsters, ghosts, vampires?”

“I’m not superstitious, but myths do serve a purpose. They symbolize and explain fears and anxieties in a way that science cannot.”

“Do you think so?” he said. “What purpose does the Loch Ness monster serve?”

Now he was teasing me and I felt defensive and said, “Do you like Sebastian’s latest novel? Because if you do, you may as well know now that my style is very different.”

“I would have guessed as much,” Oswaldo said. “I was there because I was curious about his work. I’ve heard a great deal about him. I haven’t had the chance to read his book yet.”

“The critics love it.”

“He seems rather businesslike for an artist, so establishment. Is that how he always is?”

“You’re assuming that I know him well.”

Oswaldo sipped his drink. “Um, yes, I got that impression.”

I suddenly had a shift in awareness. “I thought you invited me here because you were interested in me and my writing. But all you really want to know about is Sebastian.” I swallowed my drink quickly, feeling momentary brain freeze, which seemed appropriate for the situation. I would have bet Oswaldo was a heterosexual, but that dang waiter had been right.

I stood up and grabbed my bag. “Ask Kathleen,” I told him. “She knows where Sebastian’s staying. A man of your means can surely schedule an appointment or an interview or a tryst or whatever it is that you want.”

Oswaldo jumped up. “No, no, that’s…” He grabbed my arm. His lovely fingers were warm on my flesh. “I did want to know about him, but, you, there’s something about you and I didn’t expect to meet anyone who could make me feel…”

I could have huffed, “What kind of girl do you think I am?” But the truth is that I’m the kind of girl who can be picked up by some fake doctor bozo in a weird suit at a posh party, go to his hotel suite, become insulted, and then realize that she’s never been so attracted to anyone before. I’m the kind of girl who impulsively tugs a fake doctor bozo close and kisses him like there’s no tomorrow.

I felt as if there was no tomorrow and no yesterday and nothing but this moment and this moment and this moment. My mind shut down and turned control over to my nervous system. I lost sense of where my body ended and his began. I felt an arm stroke a back, but could not tell if I was stroking his back or he was stroking mine. Our tongues slipped into each other’s mouths, our legs tangled in an effort to meld our bodies.

We pushed together carelessly and crashed against the coffee table before tumbling to the carpet, his body beneath mine.

I became aware of a warm mineral taste in my mouth and I broke away from Oswaldo. I put my fingers to my face and discovered that my lower lip had been cut. My fingers came away glistening with blood. Oswald’s lip, too, had been cut in the fall. A gleaming red drop beaded at the corner of his mouth.

“Milagro,” Oswald said softly. He didn’t pull me toward him or push me away or laugh about our clumsiness. He just stared at me with his smoky gray eyes, his chest rising with every slow breath, the red, red drop of blood exquisitely balanced on the edge of his pink lip and his creamy skin.

I knew the dangers of exchanging body fluids and I’d always been careful before. But an inexplicable, irrational, irresistible compulsion rose in me. I lowered my lips to Oswald’s and put my injured mouth to his, tasting him, hungry for every drop, every part of him.

He tasted like the ocean; he tasted like the earth. I heard him say, “No, we can’t,” but his argument didn’t convince either of us. He grabbed me tightly and rolled our bodies over until he was on top. Our hands were fumbling with each other’s clothes and I became aware of a banging, a loud insistent banging, but it wasn’t us, not yet, and then the door flew open and someone shouted, “Stop!” Turning toward the door, I saw Sebastian, who looked furious.

I was about to tell him to go to hell, and wondering why he was even here, when some tiny part of me became aware that I felt weirdly disoriented. And while I wanted to stay with Oswaldo forever, the core of me that was Milagro De Los Santos, miracle of the saints, forced me to stand up because I had to get away before I lost all control.

Shoving Sebastian aside, I rushed down the hall. I was aware of the men shouting at each other. Then the walls began to waver and the floor roiled under my feet. I stood still, thinking that it was an earthquake. None of the pictures on the walls fell, though.

The elevator doors were open. I stumbled inside, punched the lobby button, and leaned against the mirrored wall. My mouth was red and my eyes were wild. I noticed that my dress was partially unbuttoned, but I didn’t care. When the elevator doors opened, I nearly collapsed into the lobby. The redheaded waiter was standing there and he caught me. “Are you okay?”

“No,” I said, but I was thinking that it was an awfully big coincidence that the same bad waiter was in the Croft lobby. And that made me wonder how Sebastian had found me in the hotel room. Why were we all at the Croft? My confused thoughts were slipping and sliding like eels. I couldn’t hold on to any of them long enough to make sense out of the situation.

“Come sit down here,” the waiter said, and he helped me to an ottoman. It was scarlet, like Oswaldo’s blood. I rubbed the dark leather with my thumb and licked at my lips, my tongue searching for a last drop. The waiter’s deft fingers buttoned my dress to my neck. “Stay here and I’ll take care of you. I have to do one thing. Stay here, okay?”

I may have nodded or my head may have just dropped.

“I’ll be right back.” He ran off and left me.

My fingers felt both tingly and numb and I fumbled to take my cell phone out of my purse. But my minutes had expired on the pay-as-you-go cheapie. I left the phone on the ottoman and focused on not passing out.


Chapter Two: Rats in the Walls, Bats in the Belfry

I WAITED AN ETERNITY, but it may have been only a few seconds before I forced myself to stand up and step carefully toward the hotel doors. My favorite doorman, a towering, middle-aged man, recognized me as he opened the heavy door and said, “Hey, babe, you okay?”

“A taxi. Please, don’t tell them where I’ve gone.” He blew on his whistle and a Yellow Cab swerved to the curb. “My friend is at My Dive,” I said to the doorman. My knees began to buckle and he grabbed my elbow to hold me up.

“My Dive,” the doorman told the cabbie, “and make sure she gets there. Make sure she gets there safely.” The doorman had always been nice to me and I was glad I’d often let him sneak a pat my bottom.

“Thank you.” I tried to speak clearly even though my voice seemed to be coming from far away.

Neon signs vibrated with color as the driver wove in and out of traffic on the crowded streets. Transvestites seemed painfully beautiful and the air around junkies hummed with sorrow. The cab driver jerked to a stop. “Here you go.”

I held the few bills in my wallet toward him, hoping they were enough, and I opened the cab door. The curb looked impossibly far away from the glossy black front door with the tiny magenta lettering reading MY DIVE.

Then Lenny, the bouncer, was there, holding me up. “What in hell…”

“Mercedes,” was all I could say. Lenny threw me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

“You’re a handful,” he grunted, and I knew he meant it as a compliment.

I knew I was safe, so I didn’t care if I was panty-flashing anyone. It was either very early or very late, because the club was empty as Lenny trudged through the run-down dance room to the right of the small raised stage. My head banged against the wall when we went down the dingy narrow hall covered with old posters and black-and-white photos of musicians. A few seconds later, I remembered to say “ouch.”

Lenny used his foot to push open the pea-green office door, eased past boxes of bar supplies and files, and dumped me on an itchy old mustard-colored sofa. I heard Mercedes say, “Milagro!” and I closed my eyes.

“A cab dropped her off. She’s toasted,” Lenny chivalrously offered.

“Am not,” I said. “Drugged.”

I felt a warm thumb on my eyelid as Mercedes pulled it up. “What did you take?”

Shaking my head made everything worse. “Suspect I was drugged. Kindly let me sleep.”

Mercedes released my eyelid and sighed. I didn’t need to see her to know what she looked like now: sweatshirt, basic Levis, her frizzy auburn hair pulled back with a giant barrette. She was a big, solid girl who had her Scottish father’s build and her Afro-Cuban mother’s coloring. Honest, serious, hardworking, thrifty, and brave, Mercedes was the antithesis of hip and, therefore, the coolest person I’d ever met.

She started hauling me up. “If you’ve been drugged, we’ll get you to the hospital.”

I just wanted to sleep, so I struggled against her. “No need to alert Scotland Yard, lassie. Let me be. I’m hokay.”

Mercedes had dealt with a lot of drunks and drugged customers in her line of work. She threw a blanket over me and made a phone call. I was trying to sleep when a man came in and bothered me. He took my pulse and looked at my pupils and asked me questions. He told Mercedes to keep me hydrated and to make sure I didn’t choke on my vomit, which was so disgusting because I had never, ever vomited in my life.

I fell into something that was Not Sleep.

Have you ever temporarily died and floated outside your body? There I was, hanging over myself and watching Mercedes make phone calls, work at her computer, and shuffle through receipts. I saw the clock ticking away and heard people fill up the club and shout conversations. I listened to the band warming up. The clink of change at the bar was as clear to me as the melodious tinkling of ice in drinks and toilets flushing and rain beginning to patter on the sidewalk outside.

Throughout the night, Mercedes checked on me, listening to my breathing and putting her comforting hand to my forehead.

Although only a few years older than me, she seemed ages more mature and experienced. She’d started state college at barely seventeen, and then left after a year for a computer programming job. She’d scrimped and invested so she could buy this club when it was in foreclosure. She had gravitas. Why couldn’t I have gravitas? I wondered as I lay on the ratty sofa in my crumpled linen dress.

Mercedes forced me to drink glass after glass of water. The beauty of having friends in the nightclub business is that they always remember to put a twist of lime in your drinks.

Just after the club closed at two a.m., I realized that my body was trying to keep me out of it. Like hell if I was going to let that happen. I would not go quietly into the good night. I dropped down from the ceiling and when I shoved myself back into my flesh, my body jolted with the shock.

Mercedes looked up from her desk. “About time. How you doing?”

“Not terrific, but still alive.”

Mercedes plunked a pile of letters into her outbox and stood up. “You said something about taking drugs.”

Had Oswaldo drugged me? He’d picked up the drink from the waiter’s cart and handed it directly to me; I’d focused on the cute little pink parasol the entire time. I shook my head, but it didn’t ache like a hangover. “Maybe I’ve got the flu.”

“You never get sick.”

“That’s because my mother Regina always told me there’s nothing more disgusting than a sick child. I didn’t want to give her any more reasons to hate me.”

“Your mother Regina is a terrible person. Do you want to stay at my place?”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll go home. Can you give me a lift?”

My recovery was brief. As soon as I got inside my flat, I was taken by the chills. I shivered so violently that I barely managed to brush my teeth and almost blinded myself when I removed my contact lenses. My blankets weren’t enough to keep me warm, so I took all the clothes out of my closet, piled them on the bed, and crawled beneath the heap.


Chapter Three: Wherein Our Heroine Loses Her Fashion Sense

I FELL INTO some sort of delirium. While that sounds very romantic if you go for repressed Victorian heroines, my condition was not so marvelous. Instead of wearing a lace-trimmed white nightgown, I struggled to creep into the penguin print flannel pajamas that my father, Jerry D, had given me as a college graduation present.

When I was alert enough, I’d make a cup of tea or a bowl of ramen, but I couldn’t take more than a few sips. The noodles and drink tasted revolting, and I had an almost painful craving for meat that I was too weak to satisfy.

Time meant nothing as I shifted in and out of consciousness, seeking sleep to release me from my aching bones and alternating fever and chills. Sometimes I imagined Sebastian as I had last seen him, condescending and cruel, and other times I remembered him as he had been, as beautiful and radiant as an angel, smiling at me from a distance, holding out his arms.

That vision would dissipate and Oswaldo, with his brushed-back chestnut hair and clear gray eyes would appear, irresistible and insatiable, his lean limbs wrapping around me, his full mouth grinning in mischief, draining me of all my energy and filling me with pleasure.

I had a landline that my landlord provided for local calls only, and it rang now and then, but I didn’t answer it. A few times, I was alert enough to listen to my messages. Clients wanted to schedule appointments, and the nursery asked me if I could sub for a vacationing clerk. Nancy called to gossip about Kathleen’s party.

I pulled myself together enough to call her back and say that I was sick and would share the grisly details later. She offered to bring over lobster bisque, but I pleaded with her to stay away so I wouldn’t infect her.

Maybe I’d caught the illness from Oswaldo. I remembered how he’d pushed me away from his cut lip. In my agitated state, I yearned desperately for the taste of his mouth and skin and blood again. Once, I imagined I felt his itchy wool suit against my skin, and I awoke drenched in sweat on the floor. I had gruesome dreams, too, vile visions of carnage and sex that shocked me.

The scrabbling in the walls began to sound like Morse code. I thought they might be messages about Sebastian. If I listened hard enough, I could learn the pattern and understand his secrets.

Once I hallucinated that my abuelita, my grandmother, had come back to me. I could smell the cinnamon tea she loved and feel her small brown hands stroke my hair. I could hear her murmuring prayers in Spanish and the soothing click click of her rosary beads. Those lovely moments with her were worth any amount of suffering.

One day I awoke and was able to sit up. I toddled slowly to the bathroom, pausing whenever dizziness overcame me.

Something was wrong with my vision. When I put in my contact lenses, everything blurred. My old glasses were just as bad. I saw better without either, although there were disturbing flashes when objects would suddenly come into hyper-focus only to fade into normalcy again.

I carefully stripped to take a shower and observed with uncharacteristic detachment that all my charming, decorative fat had vanished. My bones stood out sharply on my hips and my wrists. I leaned against the shower wall until the hot water ran out and then I stood under the cold water. I didn’t feel clean. I didn’t feel right.

I glanced at the clock. It was 3:00 a.m. I pulled on sweatpants and a sweatshirt over my pajamas and slid my feet into worn suede loafers, and put on a vintage tweed overcoat. I was excited to discover a few crumpled dollars in the coat pocket.

As I left the house, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. My wet hair clung to my skull and my eyes were dark hollows over jutting cheekbones. My lips looked like I’d had an amateur collagen treatment and my skin was as sallow as bacon fat.

There was a twenty-four-hour supermarket only a few blocks away. I walked slowly, counting each step, seeing my breath in the chilly air. My need for protein, for red meat, was so strong that it propelled me into the harsh glare of the store’s fluorescent lights.

At the meat section, I selected a pound of ground beef swimming in bright red liquid. The clerk had seen worse than me, so she just raised her brows a bit as my trembling hands counted out the coins for my purchase.

Honestly, I had intended to fry up a burger when I got home, but I was agonizingly hungry and so weak. I made it to the corner before I took out the package and tore a corner of the plastic wrapping. I lifted the Styrofoam tray to my mouth and sipped the blood. Then I sipped again. In seconds, I was sucking at the raw meat, trying to extract every drop of liquid and telling myself it was no different than eating steak tartare.

When I heard the footsteps behind me, I tried to hide the packet of meat. I turned to see a rough looking young guy approaching. The glint of a knife in his hand sent a jolt of fear through me. But before I could do anything, his predatory expression vanished as he saw my face. I used the only weapon I had, the package of chewed hamburger. I threw it at the man, and he hollered in revulsion and bolted away.

Sure, men had run from me before, but it was usually after we’d dated for a while.

As I trudged home, I forgot the attacker and fretted that my eating habits would probably result in Mad Cow infection. I shuddered to think of all the rude comments my mother Regina would make at my funeral.

My body must have needed the protein, though, because I felt much stronger. I entered my flat, which smelled like the men’s locker room in hell. I opened windows and lit scented candles. I changed my sheets and washed mugs of moldy tea and bowls of congealed ramen.

Then I phoned the free health center that my friends and I’d nicknamed the “Does It Itch?” Clinic. After determining that this was not a life-threatening emergency and that nothing itched, I finally got through to an advice nurse. I told her I was sick, that I’d had an unsafe exchange of bodily fluids, and that I thought I’d exposed myself to E. coli or Mad Cow.

“What’s your temperature?” she asked.

I put my palm to my forehead. “Hot.”

“Have you had any vomiting or diarrhea?”

“That’s disgusting, no.”

“How do your lymph nodes feel?”

I didn’t exactly know what lymph nodes were, but I searched around and noticed the swelling on both sides of my upper neck. “Tender and swollen.”

She told me that I could come in, but that I’d have to wait in the emergency room. That could be hours, what with overdoses and itchy things getting top priority. I promised to come in if I felt any worse and made an appointment for the next morning. She recommended that I contact the man with whom I’d swapped body fluids.

I was torn about Oswaldo. I was jonesing to see the supercute fake doctor bozo, but not when I looked like this. However, I still needed to talk to him to make sure that I had only contracted an ordinary flu and to find out if he had been as madly attracted to me as I was to him.

It was almost five in the morning, which seemed like a reasonable time to catch Oswaldo in his hotel room. I phoned the Croft, and as the phone rang, I imagined his nice laugh and the greedy way his hands had moved over my body.

The front desk clerk said they had no Dr. Oswaldo Krakatoa staying there and couldn’t disclose if one had ever been there. “We at the Croft respect the privacy of our guests.”

“Dr. Krakatoa is totally desperate to talk to me and he will appreciate it if you tell me how to contact him,” I said, but the clerk wouldn’t relent.

I would find Oswaldo later when I looked and felt better.

Now I forced myself to sort through the pile of old mail I’d been neglecting on my desk. A flyer from a wildlife action committee informed me that a group called Corporate Americans for the Conservation of America, or CACA, which purported to be an ecofriendly alliance, was actually the front for a shady multinational consortium. The flyer urged readers to contact their senators to support a workers’ rights bill that CACA was trying to quash.

I would have done this immediately if not for the incessant scrabbling in the walls. Virginia Woolf wrote that women artists need a room of their own; she should have specified a ratless room of their own. Also, I couldn’t invite fabulous men over for a romantic evening if there were rats running around the place.

I located the nexus of noise, a few feet to the right of my bathroom door. I got as far as using a screwdriver to carve a hole in the drywall before exhaustion overwhelmed me and I collapsed on the bed fully dressed.


Chapter Four: Raticide (Not the Punk Band)

I DIDN’T WAKE until sunset the next day. I had missed my doctor’s appointment. I didn’t feel sore or cold, but I was weak and hungry again. My vision had improved, I guess, if I defined “improved” as seeing everything clearly but with a heightened sense of dimension.

I checked my answering machine. I was shocked to hear Sebastian’s voice, tense and edgy. I listened to it again and again: “Milagro, this is Sebastian. Call me right away.” He left a local number.

Going into my closet, I pushed through the bright clothes to a box hidden in the back. I dropped onto the floor and rummaged through the evidence of our friendship: theater ticket stubs, museum programs, restaurant matches, and other sad little mementos. The voice on the answering machine was not the boy who had sent me these witty postcards. I deleted his message.

On the way to the bathroom, I was horrified by the sight of four dead rats lined neatly in front of the hole I had made in the wall.

A memory stirred, the image of myself squatting by the hole in the wall and waiting, screwdriver in hand. I had been filled with rage because at the vermin reducing my modest circumstances to utter squalor. I remembered thinking A girl has to have some standards! as I waited for the rats to scurry out.

A pity that I wasn’t still fueled by the kind of anger that gets you through really icky situations. I tried not to look as I used newspapers to shove the small corpses into plastic bags. I drenched the floor with disinfectant, scoured fanatically, and then threw the sponges and the screwdriver into another plastic bag. I washed my hands in scalding water, scrubbing hard to get off any contagion. Only when I had deposited the bags outside in the bin did my hunger reappear.

I called the Does It Itch? clinic again and was told I would have to wait at least fifteen minutes to talk to the advice nurse. My stomach rumbled loudly so I hung up. Tomorrow I could try to get a walk-in appointment.

After an extended search, I discovered a few dollars in a jacket pocket. My newfound wealth gave me a surge of energy, and after my shower, I did all those girly grooming things I’d been neglecting for days, like brushing my hair.

I pulled on my tightest black pants, which now bagged in the seat, and a stretchy white shirt. Tragically, my tatas lacked their usual bodaciousness, especially since my bra was too loose around them. While changing into a nubby sweater that would hide the wrinkles in my bra fabric, the phone rang.

Hola,” I said.

“Milagro, it’s Mercedes.”

“Hey, chica, I was just going to grab a meal and visit you at the club. Bailaremos y cantaremos and all that.”

“What the hell is going on with you?” she said.

“What do you mean? I’ve been sick.”

“I know that. Something else is going on. Strange people have been asking for you lately.”

Oswaldo was trying to find me! “A fabulous man, quirky dresser, hair the color of a sienna Crayola crayon, silver eyes, lithe as a cat…”

“No,” she said. “These guys didn’t look interested in dating you. Have you done anything wrong?”

She caught me off guard. “It depends on what the definition of ‘wrong’ is. Morally wrong, legally wrong, ethically wrong, a sin of omission—”

Wrong like something a cop would be interested in. Any dead bodies, any bank robberies, any counterfeit currency?”

“Mercedes, you know me better than that,” I said, all huffed up while at the same time wondering if I’d let any criminal behavior slip my mind. “What did they look like?”

“It happened a few times. One was a redhead, friendly, skinny little guy. That was maybe Tuesday or Wednesday. He was asking Lenny and the bartenders if we knew who you were, where you were. No real alarms going off with that one. Way gay, but with you, I never know.”

What can I say? Gay men liked me, and sometimes they really liked me. Nancy said it was because I radiated strong and confusing pheromones, like those used to bait insect traps.

“He seemed harmless, so Joe said that yeah, you came around sometimes,” Mercedes said.

“Gay, redheaded, and skinny?” I knew one gay carrot-top and one sexually ambiguous strawberry blond, but I had a strong instinct it was that chatty little waiter again. Which made me wonder, why did he keep showing up?

“The other gavacho looked Ivy League, blond, handsome in an establishment way. Totally The Man. He tried to give Lenny money for info on you. I didn’t believe him and I didn’t like him.”

Why was Sebastian so interested in me after all this time?

Mercedes said, “Don’t tell me you’re involved with drug selling, Milagro. The Man gave us some bogus story about being interested in your writing.”

I was irked that my friend assumed bogusness from anyone who expressed interest in my writing. “Mercedes, if I was dealing, don’t you think I’d pay my drink tab? I know who you’re talking about, and, believe it or not, he’s a critically acclaimed writer.” I didn’t add that he was also a horse’s ass. Perhaps Sebastian really did want to talk to me about my writing and I’d deleted his phone number from my machine. “Did he leave a number?”

“No, we told him we didn’t recognize you because slutty Latinas all look alike.”

“I wish you were here so I could slap you upside the head.” I was rewarded by a brief chortle on the other end of the line.

“What did you really say?”

“I really said too many people came in the club and that you weren’t anyone we recognized. That’s it.”

“Thanks for the warning, but you don’t have to worry about them.” I was profoundly disappointed that some oddly dressed nutcase calling himself Professor Pompeii Eruption hadn’t asked after me. My stomach rumbled loudly. “Who’s playing tonight?”

Mercedes launched into high praises for the country rock band she’d booked. “They’re hotter than my mami’s stove for Easter dinner.”

“Country rock? Probably country crap,” I said snippily to cover up the fact that I intended to grovel at her feet later for money. She got suspicious when I was too nice.

“You are such an ignorant bitch.”

“Yeah, well, if you insist, I’ll come by.”

“Whatever,” she said, but she said it cheerfully.

Since I was going to My Dive later, I dolled up my outfit, adding dangly earrings, a jangle of rhinestone bracelets, and a delightful cropped fake leopard-skin jacket. Fake leopard is one of those timeless classics. I slipped my feet into funky red sandals with sexy little straps. I plastered on extra makeup to hide the circles under my eyes, and I finished my look with scarlet lipstick.

I was jittery as I left my flat, and I tried to delude myself that I was just excited to go out and to be well again. Wellish. My knees were practically buckling, and the hunger I felt was so intense I almost cried out as I clattered down the street to the market. I stumbled and kept myself from falling by wind-milling my arms.

The supermarket’s meat section glowed in a red-tinged light. First, I grabbed the family-economy package of ground beef, but then I noticed that there was much more liquid in the smaller amounts. I shuffled through the packages and calculated the totals. Blood dripped from one package onto my hand. Without thinking, I licked it off and felt an exquisite tingling through my body. It was because I was starving. Looking up, I caught a butcher behind the glass display window staring at me. As I sashayed away, I thought I must be looking pretty good.

The night clerk at the checkout was the woman I’d seen before. I placed my packets of ground beef on the counter along with my money. She glanced at me and her eyebrows went up a little higher this time.


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