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IV. CITY OF MARVELS


Chapter 6

The sweet mood didn’t last any longer than the stroll down the slope to their lodgings. There, multilingual banners welcomed all to the Tenth Annual International Nipterological Conference. Though “Tubby-Con” had not yet begun, the place was already packed. Lines of people and their luggage snaked across the marble floor of the lobby waiting to check in.

They located Skip near the front of one of the lines, arms crossed. But he appeared amused rather than frustrated. He barely noticed them.

“Look who’s here,” he said, nodding at the other line. “Madame was correct.” A woman ordered a desk clerk around while an entourage including a huge Polynesian bodyguard waited at a respectful arm’s length behind.

She was a stunning, fit platinum blonde in a sleek, form-hugging white outfit with a red belt and a fur collar in which a small albino python nestled. Shushing the nervous clerk, she addressed him in a husky, unmistakable voice. Though she spoke slowly like a teacher correcting a dull student, her voice was pure, audible honey. “No, look under ‘Salvage,’ ‘Cindi Salvage.’”

While the flustered clerk checked his screen again, the woman turned. They had a glimpse of a white bejeweled patch covering her left eye. Spotting Nigel with her one right good blue one, she summoned him with a smile and the crook of her index finger.

“By God, it’s her!” Gus said. “None other,” Skip confirmed.

“Easy, boys,” Allie said dryly, but neither male paid her the slightest attention.

“Pardon me,” Nigel mumbled, embarrassed. “I am summoned by She Who Must Be Obeyed. She’ll probably want to meet you, too. Learn from my mistakes. Run now while you can and never look back, for God’s sake.” More ruefully, “Okay, at least try not to toady. Wipe off the drool, Professor,” Nigel turned away, muttering, “Why do I try? Bloody hopeless.”

She was indeed the singer called at the time, “Cindi Salvage.” Though not yet as famous as she would become, Cindi was already a celebrated female pop singer and one of the most notorious. A tall, slim, athletic dancer, she was also an occasional fashion model almost as famous for her exotic beauty and style as her exquisite voice.

The patch covering Cindi’s sole flaw, her left eye, blinded in a youthful motorcycle accident, she turned into a trademark fashion accessory and a name. This day she wore a white one matching her pageboy haircut and silver crescent earrings.

Her affairs were already equally infamous, made more so by the confessions of her ex-husband. “Certain ex-lovers one thinks of no more, others one is inexplicably drawn back time and again like a moth to flame,” Nigel bitterly wrote in his last book. “Cindi is to these as a black hole is to a candle. Entire galaxies of people encircle her; their lives’ courses warped in ways beyond control, comprehension, or often care. Doomed to be sacrificed, pierced by her solitary gaze; but is it for art, divinity, or something else altogether?”

As for this particular encounter, suffice it to say their conversation was one as often passes between former spouses. One he was thus fated to lose.

But while the lady and her entourage waited for their rooms, Skip finally reached the end of the adjacent queue, and announced his name to the clerk. Cindi caught it and so Nigel dutifully made the introductions. “Ah, there you are. Cindi – darling – may I present the Clan MacLantis: Skip, Gus, and Allie?”

She held out her hand and the boys eagerly took it, though their sister seemed somewhat less impressed. “Really, the MacLantises! Delighted; ask Nigel, I’m Doc’s biggest fan. Oh, the band is too; they’re not-so-secretly tubbers, especially Davey. In any case, I’m so glad to meet you. Months ago, Nigel said you might come, but you know how he tells stories,” she said, smiling through lips like overripe cherries. “Is it true you once saved him from a firewalking accident, Skip? I’d love to hear your side of the tale.”

“Oh it’s nothing and a long time ago, too,” Skip said. “Firewater and firewalking are not a good combination, right, Hotfoot?”

“No more dangerous than climbing without ropes, Monkey-boy,” Nigel shrugged and turned the conversation in a more useful direction. “So, darling, you’re here for the Conference, or something else?”

“I hope to drop by,” Cindi said with an optimistic smile. “But I’m here more for business than pleasure.” She shot them a crafty glance. “A surprise appearance at the Music Festival.”

She leaned forward, touching her ex-husband lightly on the forearm, surrounded by a delicious musky fragrance. “The old band is keen to get back together, too, starting with this concert,” she said in a soft, low voice. “Don’t tell anyone; it’s a bombshell, a big send-off for my next world tour. Hopefully the timing’s good. Might be the beginning of a real Barefoot Left reunion, if it all goes to plan.”

“Wow, would I love to see that,” Gus babbled, but the confirmation of Hélène’s rumor was indeed news. Even Allie cracked a brief smile.

Skip spoke, interrupting Nigel’s whirling thoughts. “What a coincidence meeting you here. Nigel seemed surprised to hear you were coming. Which is odd, considering.”

“Not really, that’s just like him.” She smiled and he remained unmoved, so she said with a slight frown, “Considering what? What else he has said?” Nigel’s eyes widened.

“Not much. He did once mention that you were a hardcore graaleur but I didn’t believe him. He’s good with a yarn, you know.” Skip winked for Nigel’s benefit.

“Indeed. He told me about you too, but failed to say you were so cynical,” Cindi said, relaxing. “What are you driving at, Mister MacLantis?”

“Call me Skip. It’s a little too co-incidental, running into you like this,” Skip said. “A more suspicious person, like my brother here, might suspect this was arranged.”

“Oh I see, you flatter yourself, not me,” she said with a wry smile. “That’s refreshing.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” Skip said with an easy smile. “Believe me. Delighted to meet you in any case; I’m a big fan.” He shook her hand, brisk and business-like.

“I’m glad. But please understand, if anyone connived at this, it’s Nigel, and I’ll deal with him later,” she said with ominous softness. More pleasantly and louder, she continued, “I’ll send backstage passes around for the show. I know the guys in the band would love to meet you, too – everybody, you surely as well, Allie. We girls must stick together.”

Allie’s sudden shyness rendered her as mute as Gus.

“Thanks, I don’t know if we’ll have time, but it would be fun.” Skip was nonchalant.

“Perhaps I’ll see you at the Ball this weekend,” Cindi purred. “You are invited, aren’t you? If not, I’ll make arrangements with the Count – for you, too, if you behave yourself for once, ‘Nigel.’”

With a knowing smile, she glanced at her former mate; a bright sapphire eye beneath her straight silver bangs, making sure she was suitably acknowledged. He did so, paling slightly, but she kept her eye on Skip.

Cindi gave them a final calculating fleeting look, spun and exited with the instinctive drama of a born actress. The eyes of the entire room followed in her wake. The sole sounds were the clicking of her scarlet signature high heels upon the marble. The big Samoan standing behind her grabbed the room keys in a ham-sized fist with a customary glare at Nigel plus an extra one for Skip. He stalked off in her wake, the rest of her crew trooping raggedly behind.

The Clan left in a daze. Gus was so blown away he completely forgot to request a room change to avoid wiretaps as he had intended. Around him, a buzz of conversation swelled.

Nigel sighed. Observing similar effects on others many times before made him objectively familiar with the intoxicating effect of the woman’s presence as well as having experienced it himself. He once wrote:

Is it glamour or reality we worship? Would the Maundy Grail be distinguishable from any other old crock-pot if not for glowing legends enveloping it with cosmic meaning? Or do certain objects and people radiate a mystic, compelling attraction? Are people drawn by Cindi’s hard, almost alien beauty, with cheekbones so sharp they could almost cut? Or is her gorgeousness an expression of the unearthly power of the Other?

The bemused looks and whispered conversations which followed her departure provided few clues. But unanswerable conundrums are best considered over drinks. The hotel bar would be a good place for Nigel to broadcast the news and think. Once at the suite, he stashed his bags in his room and bade the others a quick farewell. When Nigel broke the story later that night – as Cindi doubtless knew he would – it created an immediate sensation.

Every self-important news outlet of record which ignored petty things as ancient relics and treasure hunts scrambled to get crews to Bellegraal for this event. The one-night-only reunion of Barefoot Left, one of the most iconic and legendary transcend-metal technomystic musical acts of all time. Even if most of the gray suits didn’t have a clue what it meant, the dog days were coming and they needed stories.

“Off to seek the pub,” Nigel announced. “Don’t wait up: I need to fire off a bulletin; work up topics for interviews. If nothing else happens, this item alone is enough to make the trip worthwhile. Plus, I get to ruin the sleep of any number of music editors.

“I wonder if bringing you will along suffice to repay her for this scoop,” he said to Skip with a cynical smile, with one last word of advice: “Remember Icarus, mate. Use superglue, not wax.” With a dismissive wave, he strolled away with his laptop to file the story, bravely whistling.

 


 

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“We must be ever cautious,
for even holy things may be used for foul ends by men of guile.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas
(attributed author),
On the Well of Forgiveness,
c. 1274

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