When Rosa finally got through customs, she investigated the crazy, mixed-up mob at International Arrivals looking for Margaret. She didn't pay any attention to the well-dressed and statuesque blonde making her way through the crowd until she found herself enveloped in a frighteningly exuberant hug. Rosa dropped her bags, which was intensely careless of her. She needed to pay more attention.
"Tse Tse! Yay! We're going to have so much fun!" squealed the woman.
Rosa drew back as far as she could (which wasn't very) to get a better look at the woman's face. "Penny Century?" she ventured. "Why you here?"
"Oh, you're staying at my house," said Penny. "Maggie got roaches, and then her landlord came to deal with them, and he tried to poke her, so she moved out. She and Hopey have moved in with me at my husband's house." When Penny smiled, you could almost see the light sparkling off her teeth. "I think it was all an excuse, really. Taunting Izzy about not letting them move in with her, now that she has Mrs. Galindo's house and all."
"That's very nice of you," said Rosa. "But you did not have to come get me for Margaret. You doing too much already."
"I haven't seen Maggie in days," said Penny, sounding wholly unconcerned. "Sometimes people just vanish in that big house of mine. Maggie's got lost there before."
"How... interesting," said Rosa. Penny flicked her fingers over her shoulder, and two gorilla-sized men in suits came forward and tried to take Rosa's bags. "No! No, thank you," said Rosa firmly. The gorilla-men looked puzzled, but Penny only grinned and through her arm over Rosa's shoulders.
"I won't force you to take help," said Penny, steering both of them out of the crowd. "But while you're staying with me, you should get used to being rich."
At Costigan's house, Rosa insisted on putting her bags away without the servants watching. When she came down, a looming butler escorted her out to the patio. Penny was sunbathing by the pool, wearing nothing but a huge pair of sunglasses. A teenager with a puff of improbably white hair sat crosslegged on a lounger. Despite the sun, the girl was wearing torn jeans and a thick denim jacket. Ape Sex, the jacket said in black magic marker, and Blamed Youth.
"Hello," said Rosa, extending her hand to the girl. "I am Tse Tse."
"Yo," said the girl, looking up. "Maggie's friend, right?" Belatedly, she reached out her hand to take Rosa's. "Any friend of Maggie's is probably crazy or a pothead. So, you know, a friend of mine. Nice to meetcha."
"It is lovely to meet you, too," said Rosa. "Your hair wonderful. Is wonderful." She sat down on the next lounger over. "Sorry, I am practicing my English. Forgive me. But I very much like all the brightness, the color." She gestured at Daffy's head.
Daffy's eyes lit up. "You think so? I could do yours."
"Oh, would you?" Rosa had been lectured about not being distractable, but really. Daffy's hair looked fantastic. As long as she didn't forget what she had come here to do, it wouldn't be a problem. Looking more American could only help, anyway.
"Sure," said Daffy. "We can pick a color. We'll have to bleach the shit out of your hair."
"Tse Tse is here for a nursing school interview," said Penny. "You probably shouldn't mohawk her until after the interview."
"Nursing school?" Daffy asked. "That's... that's cool. Wow. How're you doing that?"
"Queen Rena Titañon offered to pay my way to nursing school in the United States if I studied hard," said Rosa, putting her hands in her lap and her ankles together like the very picture of a studious schoolgirl. "So I can return and do good for the people of Zhato. But sure she won't mind if I do something to my hair after the interview."
"Hopey!" yelled Penny, suddenly, and Rosa turned to see a figure moving behind the big glass doors to the patio. In the sun's glare, she could barely make out a silhouette moving in the darkness of the house, but the figure approached closely enough for her to see a short figure wearing a mask and carrying something bright yellow and spandex.
"Your cook's fuckin' weird," said Hopey. "Or just into weird fuckin'. Can't tell which." She turned and vanished back into the darkness of the house.
"Where's Maggie?" called Penny after her. "Her friend is here!"
"A little tied up right now, but I'll tell her you called!" came Hopey's voice, rapidly fading into silence.
I've had quite the stroke of luck: I won't need to infiltrate Costigan's house, because I'll be staying here for my entire visit. You didn't have anything to do with that, did you?
No leads yet, except one you probably won't want to hear. I'm worried Margaret might be involved with this Costigan business, possibly through Alarma. I'll investigate, discreetly, as always.
Cover's holding very well.
When Rosa returned from the nursing school interview (no reason not to have a solid story, after all), the butler led her into a statue garden. Beneath a black umbrella, a tall, gaunt woman was perched on a bust of Benjamin Franklin, shoulders hunched, picking at her teeth with a flyswatter. Daffy lay nearby, sneakered feet propped on a marble Ganesh.
"Tse Tse! How'd the interview go?" asked Daffy, rolling onto her side, propping her dandelion-fluff head on one hand.
"Well, I think, yes," said Rosa. She was telling the truth. If she bothered to send in an application, she would almost certainly get accepted. She'd gotten the impression the interviewer had been pleasantly surprised, because he hadn't expected much from the Zhato girl -- or maybe he hadn't expected much from a girl sponsored by a luchadora.
"Kick ass," said Daffy. "Can I do your hair, now? I'll make you into a total punk rock nurse. Iz, don't you think she'll be totally punk rock?"
The tall woman lifted her head. It wasn't a smooth movement; it was more as if a string tied to the top of her skull had suddenly been yanked up, pulling up her head, then each of her neck bones one by one, followed by all of her vertebrae. Her shoulders didn't so much unslump as fall from the rising spine, and her too-thin arms dropped from her shoulders, the flyswatter slapping Benjamin Franklin in his left ear. The woman -- Izzy, Daffy remembered from both Penny's and Maggie's stories -- caught Rosa's eyes with pupils far, far too dilated, so large they made her eyes appear black as coal.
"You aren't as unspooky as you think you are," said Izzy. "And you aren't as spooky as you pretend to be. He told me so."
Daffy laughed. "Can it, Witch Lady," she said. "Tse Tse's from Zhato. She's seen the real thing. You don't impress her."
Izzy's shoulders shrugged up again in two quick jerks: one, two. She dropped her eyes. "In that case, pass me another beer."
"Pass you a beer?" Daffy laughed again. "In this house?" She snapped her fingers in the air, and another one of the ubiquitous servants appeared, carrying three cold bottles on a silver tray.
"No, thank you," said Rosa, but a hand snaked over her shoulder and snagged the bottle off the tray.
"Thanks, Jeeves," said Hopey's voice in her ear.
Rosa turned and found herself nose to nose with Hopey. Hopey's smile flashed white and wide in her tiny face, and she dropped her arm so it rested against Rosa's shoulder.
"Nice to meetcha," said Hopey.
"Er," said Rosa. "Hello?"
"You're the chick from Zhato," said Hopey, rising to her tiptoes and bending one leg at the knee, pointing her foot behind her. "Tse Tse."
"Yes," said Rosa, pressing her hand against the breast pocket of Hopey's shirt. "Where is Margaret? I not seen her since I got here."
Hopey winked broadly. "She's been otherwise occupied," she said. "But I'll tell her you were asking for her. Oye, plate captain!" This last was directed at the retreating servant. "Bring a nice big lunch to Maggot's room. Much bigger'n yesterday's. And bring pizza."
"Ohhhh," moaned Daffy, around the neck of her beer bottle. "Bring pizza out here, too."
"This food is touched by strange light," said Izzy. "We should get our own food. Hoppers food."
"Sure thing, Iz," said Hopey, barely touching the ground as she retreated to the house. Her legs, bare beneath the man's shirt she wore, flashed across the grass. Rosa watched her go silently, comtemplating the tiny recorder and camera she'd slipped into Hopey's shirt pocket, so carefully smuggled into the house in her luggage.
"You had pizza in Zhato?" asked Daffy.
"Mmm? Oh, yes," said Rosa. "Wonderful pizza, with the most delicious toppings."
"Well," said Daffy. "You'll love California pizza."
"Costigan pizza," sniffed Izzy.
"Billionaire pizza," said Daffy, with a blissful smile.
I'm worried about Margaret, but I should know more about her involvement and safety soon. I'm suspicious of her friends. I haven't met the horned bastard himself yet, but Penny thinks he make be back from his trip to Drussia this week. No further sign of Alarma or Demoña. I'll let you know when I have more.
Maybe I'll become a nurse when this is all over, hee hee.
"Aiyee! That burns," cried Rosa.
"Don't be such a baby," said Daffy, scrubbing the bleach into Rosa's scalp. "I bleach my hair all the fucking time."
"Why?" asked Rosa. She struggled to stay put. "This is miserable."
Daffy twisted around so she could grin right into Rosa's face. "Price of beauty," she said. "You love the purple, right?"
Rosa gazed longingly at the bottle on hair dye on the side of the marble tub. It was a gorgeous, rich color, and she longed to have it in her hair.
"Like I said." Daffy nodded. "That color's never gonna take on your hair unbleached, trust me." She went back to fiddling in the remains of Rosa's hair, pushing bleach into the naps of the broad mohawk. "Think how tough it would be if we hadn't shaved the sides, first."
"Hiya, chicas," said Hopey, leaning on the door and poking her head in. "Holy crap, this bathroom is bigger than all of Hoppers!" She cartwheeled into the room and stood on her hands. "Can you imagine one of the Huerta wannabe big shots like Del Chimney in this place? He wouldn't know whether to steal everything or have sex with it."
"Finally got outta bed, Hopester?" Daffy stopped scrubbing in the bleach and wrapped a towel around Rosa's hair. "Ever gonna move back home, or are you settling in as Penny's hobo friend?"
"Ah, fuck you," said Hopey, flipping back to right-side-up.
"Where's Margie?" asked Daffy.
"Sleeping it off," said Hopey.
I'm sorry about worrying you. My warnings about Margaret were completely unfounded. I was totally wrong. I've done some surveillance and what I thought was suspicious behaviour was just Margaret and her friend Hopey being, um, just odd. With each other. Nothing to worry about.
Though I may do some more surveillance to be 100% sure.
Costigan is back tomorrow, so I should be able to wrap this up soon.
Maggie woke up feeling full, well rested, and raring to go. "Rise and shine, Hopey!" she crowed, leaping out of bed and drawing back the heavy floor-to-ceiling drapes. Sun stabbed through the window and patterned the carpet and bed.
"Yeow," bitched Hopey, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. "Suck it."
"Time to face the world," said Maggie, dancing around the room, leaping onto the bed with her arms above her head. "Bath time!"
A discreet servant slipped into the room and stood at Maggie's elbow with an ewer of steaming water, followed by another with a bowl of soaps and sponges and loofahs. "And then breakfast," said Maggie, as one of the servants poured hot water over her head. "Come on, Hopey. I want to go down to breakfast before the eggs are gone. An' I want bacon. An' chilaquiles. An' hot chocolate."
Hopey moaned and pulled a pillow over her head, dislodging blindfolds and tights and bottles of cream which tumbled to the floor. "How can you even think about food after those steaks we had last night?"
Maggie grinned while the servants rubbed foaming sponges under her breasts and between her shoulder blades. "When the food is this good, I can eat as much of it as they can give me."
When Hopey and Maggie were finally dressed -- in their own clothes for the first time in a week, washed and mended and starched and fitting better than they ever had, which led to Hopey suspiciously investigating her boots and sniffing her shirt cuffs as they walked downstairs -- they went to the southwest breakfast room. Giggling over coffee and churros were Penny, Daffy, Izzy (who was maybe not so much with the giggling), and --
"Tse Tse!" yelled Maggie, and ran to her friend. Tse Tse leapt into Maggie's arms and they spun around, giggling and crying. "How long have you been here? Ohmygod, it's so awesome to see you! I totally forgot you were coming!"
A door opened and Penny rose from her seat. "Herv," she said, brightly. "I missed you." She came forward and took Costigan's hands. "Herv, you remember my friends. And this is Maggie's friend from Zhato, Tse Tse."
Costigan looked Tse Tse up and down. She glared arrogantly back at him. "Rosa Colores Arriaga Banuelos, at your service," she said.
Costigan raised an eyebrow at her fractionally. "Oh?" he said. "I believe we have something to discuss."
"We do," she said, then turned back to Maggie with a slightly watery smile. "I'll be right back, okay?"
"Sure," said Maggie, and as Tse Tse walked to the door with Costigan, Maggie turned to the breakfast table. "Ooh, ice cream!" she said.
Maggie's breakfast was somewhat disturbed by the loud argument that came from the hallway beyond the breakfast room, but she got into a pissing contest with Izzy which rapidly distracted her. When the hallway argument turned into the sound of thuds and crashes, she looked up from her coffee, but the sound of Penny moping was harder to ignore. Hopey and Daffy's loud shouting match over the merits of Ape Sex's bassist drowned out the yelling and cursing and sounds of breaking glass. At last, breakfast was finished. Maggie stood and stretched both arms behind her head just as Tse Tse returned to the room.
"Sorry about that, Maggie," she said. "So, what do you want to do today?"
"I've been thinking it's time to go home to Hoppers," said Maggie. "You want to come?"
"That sounds grand," said Tse Tse, linking arms with Maggie.
Hopey was leaning sardonically in the doorway. "Wouldn't miss it," she said. "I'm with you all the way, Mags."
The situation is resolved, and Zhato should be safe from Costigan and Demoña for the time being. In fact, I think we should definitely be safe for quite some time. If you don't need me right away, I'm going to be staying in Huerta for some extra time. Margaret and Hopey have promised to take me out to "tag" Julie Wree's house.