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El Búho de Engranajes

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After work, Ray was supposed to go out with Joe and the other guys. One by one they cancelled, pleading nagging wives, sick kids, angry in-laws. (This was one good reason why family life was and always had been for suckers, douchebags and milquetoasts.)

He didn't want to go back to his place, not quite yet. The apartment still didn't feel like home. It never had, but ever since the break-in, the walls tilted wrong and the ceiling felt too high and nothing was ever in the right place.

So he went drinking. That's what he did these days; on a good night, he'd go to Cheetah Torpedo's or another strip bar and admire the talent with singles and a pitcher of Vato's. On a regular night -- and tonight was more regular than most -- he found a dive bar and got comfortable with his beer.

Elmo's looked just right for his purposes. Like every home and business in this neighborhood, the windows were barred and the door heavy with steel. He couldn't see shit when the door wheezed shut behind him; the dark smelled like spilled liquor and generations of nicotine and aftershave.

It wasn't until he was all the way at the bar, ordering a draft beer, that he saw her.

"Ray D., Super Shady, May-Bee yes, maybe no, how's tricks?" Hopey asked. She yanked down the handle on the draft to pour his beer.

Hopey Glass, tending bar. It made a rough sort of sense.

He paid for his beer and savored the first sip.

He still hadn't said anything. The hell was he supposed to say?

Hopey moved down the bar, wiping her hands on a towel, to greet the next customer. "Elvis Dolan, ya big queer, whaddaya hear?"

Ray had a beer in his hands and foam on his lip. He wasn't going anywhere, not for a while. He lifted himself onto the nearest stool, one ass cheek at a time.

He had a paperback in his jacket pocket, one of those Vintage Contemporaries from the 80s, all angular neon design and affectless prose about adultery and cocaine and other enthusiasms of white people. The slim books used to pack the brick-and-board or wine-crate bookcases at every party he went to back East. He came to believe the books were training manuals for the artists and layabouts he partied with.

In his inside pocket, he had a small sketchbook and brush pen.

He didn't feel like reading or drawing. He hadn't been the pretentious guy reading (or, worse, drawing) alone at the end of the bar in decades. Now, six feet away from Hopey Fucking Glass, was no time to resume the habit.

He grabbed a rumpled, well-read comic book from the end of the bar and smoothed down the cover. Cometta versus the third Ms. Wonder.

He drank his beer, ordered again and then a third time. All the while, he read the comic book with the careful attention he had not devoted to the genre since puberty.

To be honest, he watched Hopey, too. He had to order his beers, after all.

The manic energy that once spit and crackled around Hopey, *off* Hopey, had not entirely dissipated. It had certainly changed, gone tense, temporarily stilled. A breath caught, a lip bitten.

*

When they were together, Maggie tended to save her heart-to-hearts for the early morning. Well before sunrise, but long after anything called "night" had ended. She liked the shivery, silvery light, early enough for anxious bird songs and only the occasional siren and muffle backfiring.

She hunched on the foot of the bed, knees up to her chest, her arms encircling her calves. She picked viciously at one toenail; her head was down, hair covering her face, so it was hard to hear.

He was half-asleep anyway. He suspected that's why she chose these times to talk.

He rolled onto his side, pillowing his cheek on one arm, rubbing his free hand up and the down the warm, plump curve of her shoulder and waist.

"...feel like I always found someone better," she said.

Ray swallowed the cough that constricted his throat.

"Always better than me," Maggie continued. She turned her head, rested her cheek on one knee, and half-smiled at him. It was hard to see the smile through the tangle of her hair. "You all *do* things. Know who you are. *What* you are."

He squeezed her bicep.

"You've got the painting, she's got the music --"

Unless otherwise specified, she, the word, always referred to Hopey. It might as well have been a proper name.

Maggie laughed softly, but she didn't sound one bit happy. "Damn, even Penny's got the superheroing."

Ray had to piss. His hand and forearm were stuck with pins-and-needles. Maggie had closed her eyes and the smile was gone from her face.

"No one's better than you," he said. His mouth felt dry and sticky, his voice thick. "No one."

Maggie squeezed her eyes more tightly shut. "You sound like her."

He figured that was a compliment.

Then she flopped back and rolled up to him, her breasts nudging his chest, her leg working between his.

"You both lie real good," Maggie added, but she was smiling for real now.

*

"You a fan?" Hopey asked when she came back to his end of the bar. She tapped the double-page spread he was staring at, in which Cometta and Ms. Wonder battled in thongs and bullet-bras across the urban landscape.

"Could say that," Ray replied. "Sure."

She leaned against the bar and traced the angle of Cometta's rump. "Fucked her a couple times."

He had no idea what she was talking about.

What was more, he didn't think it was the greatest idea to get into a dick-measuring boasting contest. Not with her.

He was sure to lose, was the thing.

Hopey was smirking at him when he glanced back up. "Or, well. Looked like her. One of Penny's costumed escapades."

"That so?" Ray rubbed the stubble on his chin and tried not to wince, thinking of just how many of the bristles were silver these days. Then again, Hopey's messy hair was laced here and there with the same shade.

They were all getting too old.

"Yeah, it is." Hopey crossed her arms over her chest and leaned in, her bony ass thrust out behind her. "In Cometta's costume, I mean."

"Huh," Ray said and turned the page. His gaze flickered up and down, from page to Hopey and back again. "'cause Penny usually fucked *me* as Catwoman. Sometimes Black Widow."

Hopey hid her surprise fairly well. Most anyone else, Ray thought, would not have caught her eyebrow jump out or the sharp little sigh that escaped. She whistled, low and warbling, and her smirk widened.

"Original Commie-agent Black Widow? In the purple?" she asked.

Ray nodded.

"Well, then, Mr. Dominguez, I think that gets you one last beer on the house."

They didn't speak again until last call. Hopey was busy -- with a crying girl, plain-faced but *stacked*; a few old rummies, marinated in decades of BO, who seemed to know her well; and finally a pack of rowdy asshole guys slumming from Simi -- while Ray just wanted to enjoy his drink until he had no choice but to go home.

He helped the bouncer drag out the last of the fuckheads, then lingered on the sidewalk.

The neighborhood never rested, but it was quieter than usual. The streetlights marched all the way down the boulevard like a futuristic recreation of an old European street, aluminum poles in place of linden trees. Swaddles of Christmas lights and twittering neon replaced moody kerosene lamps; check-cashing shops offering payday loans and 99-cent gallons of milk stood where quaint curiosity and book shops might once have been.

A few police helicopters hovered in the distance, searchlights twirling aimlessly.

Ray leaned against a garbage can and wished he still smoked. A block over and a couple down, a car peeled out, rubber shrieking on the asphalt. Several horns and alarms sounded.

He thought he heard something else, a bird or a cat, maybe even a baby, but he couldn't catch it.

Hopey bade goodnight to the bouncer and locked up, yanking the five-pound padlock through the door handle with ease.

It was easy to forget, always had been, how damn *small* she was. Shorter than Maggie, and all angles, sharp and dangerous, where Maggie was curves and damp warmth.

Ray should really get going on home. He didn't know what he was waiting for.

"Hey, hey, sittin' on the dock of the Ray," she said and caught his arm. "Forgot to ask -- was it Penny wearing the purple dress and cape? Or you?"

Ray rolled his eyes. He felt good and loose, warm at the edges and dozy at the center, so he let her bait die in the air between them.

Hopey grinned with half her mouth and punched his arm. *Hard*, hard enough to send tingles down to his fingertips.

She was about to say something, her mouth opening, when she froze.

He heard that strange, croaking bird call again.

"Hear that?" Hopey whispered.

Ray nodded.

"The fuck is it?"

He shrugged.

Hopey paced halfway down the block, head cocked, then returned and stared up at the bar's sign. Elmo's Rite Spot was legible only in the neon tubes; it was not lit, and hadn't been, earlier, when the bar was open for business.

She backed up against him. He got a whiff of the pomade in her hair. "Hoist me up."

"What?"

Without looking away, she smacked the side of his leg. "Gimme a boost, idiot."

"Where?"

"Up there, fucktard." She pointed up at the dirty neon sign. She bounced on her toes and he realized that if he refused, she would probably just *jump* up there. Scale the filthy bricks and iron bars somehow, defy gravity on sheer will alone.

He got down heavily on his bad knee and laced together his fingers. Hopey took one step into his palm and then rose with him, bouncing upward until she grasped the top rim of the sign. Ray stepped away; her legs kicked free for a moment, seeking purchase. Then she was pulling herself up onto the roof in a flash.

He waited for the space of time it took the light at the next intersection to change from green to red and then back again.

He whistled then, and heard the scrape of her feet on gravel.

The bar's window flashed suddenly, bright and drained of what little color it had.

Ray turned, shielding his eyes, to see a cop car making a U-turn across the street, heading for him, high beams glaring.

"Problem, son?" The cop couldn't be thirty; he was red-cheeked, raw from shaving. The fat on his neck spilled up over his uniform collar. But he had a badge and a gun, and he could call Ray anything he wanted.

"Nope," Ray said. He started to stick his hands in his pockets, thought better of it, and kept still. "Just heading home."

The cop blew a slow, almost obscene raspberry at that. "Get along, then."

Ray ambled away. Never hurry, never give 'em reason to chase, but don't take your sweet time, either. Just move along, do what the man says.

For Christ's sake, he was on the sour side of forty with a paunch and aching knee. And yet he was still relieved the little pig hadn't asked for proof of citizenship.

He waited in the nearest alley, a narrow, stinking space between a bodega and consignment shop, until he was sure the cop's car had gone.

"Fucking pig," Hopey said cheerfully, jumping off the consignment store's roof to the water meter and then to the sidewalk.

Ray rubbed the back of his neck. "Did you find it?"

"Find what?" she asked. She blinked theatrically and repeated herself in an airhead's voice.

"Jesus," he said. He couldn't hear the bird, or whatever it was, any longer. This was all probably a red herring, wild goose chase inspired by one too many beers and whatever unresolved issues he had with this midget lesbian.

He was suddenly exhausted at that thought.

"You mean --" Hopey dug something out of the front pocket of her hooded sweatshirt. "*This*?"

He was tired, a little drunk, and the light back here was shitty as anything. He didn't know what he was looking at.

Something in Hopey's cupped palm, something metal and twitching, a little bigger than a hand grenade, but the same general shape.

"What the hell?"

Hopey shrugged. "It's hurt, that's all I know."

He followed her back to the corner, where the light was better. It was hurt, whatever it was. An owl, built out of metal, little etched scales for feathers and rotating dials that glowed yellow for eyes. One wing extended and beat the air, but the other hung awkwardly, its hinge broken; when it tried to move, the little metal beak opened and that sad, yowling sound came again.

*

Maybe it was a robot, maybe it wasn't. Neither of them knew, and they probably wouldn't have agreed anyway. But its yellow eyes turned on them, and it mewled piteously, and somehow they were in Hopey's car and pulling onto the highway, headed for the Valley. For Maggie's place.

Ray did not believe, necessarily, that Maggie could do anything about the robot owl.

"That's because you never saw her fix something," Hopey told him. Her fingers tapped the wheel furiously, her foot tapped the gas, and she all but shimmied and bounced in her seat. He had thought of a good joke about her being able to simultaneously reach the pedals and see over the wheel, but too late, well after they were on their way.

"I saw her..." He trailed off and stroked the owl's skull. The metal scales felt light and somehow warm under his fingertip.

Hopey banged her fist on the dash. The owl jumped and Ray found himself hushing it. Its metal talons tightened on his finger; they were sharp enough that he wouldn't be surprised if they broke skin.

"You never saw her *fix* something, not really." Hopey craned forward in her seat, checking the exit signs, then resumed ranting. "She's the best fucking mechanic that ever swung a wrench."

"Fixing an engine and fixing --" He didn't know what to call the owl, but it seemed heartless to keep referring to it simply as it. "-- this thing are different."

"You got a better idea, big guy?"

Ray ran his finger down the owl's back. The tail-feathers spread under his touch. The owl tilted its head. When it cooed, he heard gears shift and rust sift, but he also heard *life*, whatever that meant.

"Yeah." Hopey snorted. "Didn't think so."

They drove on in silence, deeper into the Valley, the bird alternately crying and cooing in Ray's hands.

They missed the exit for Maggie's twice, then took three wrong turns. All throughout, Hopey cursed the burbs and prefab subdivisions, conformity and lack of imagination, until they found the right place.

It could have been any apartment complex, stucco gone soft after decades in the sun, the front gate stuck open on rusty hinges, Spanish red tiles on the roof interspersed with black ones where repairs had taken place.

Hopey went ahead to Maggie's door. Ray stayed with the car, while the unearthly bird quivered and clucked in his hold.

He wished he knew how to soothe it.

The pool at the center of the complex was empty. In the half-light from the security lamps, it looked bottomless. Ray paced around it and hoped the motion would calm the bird.

All the way down the courtyard, he could hear them shouting at each other. A lamp clattered and crashed; something hit a wall. Maybe a shoe.

He turned around, back to Maggie's door, and circled the pool again. He had passed the point of being tired, and he was far from drunk. He was not even buzzed any longer. He didn't know what he was.

The owl nipped Ray's finger; pain welled, sharp and sudden, in time with his blood, his heartbeat.

"Fuck!" He stuck the wounded finger in his mouth and shook his other hand. The owl clutched his thumb and would not be dislodged.

It stared at him with those strange eyes.

"It bit me! It's a fucking vampire," he told them when, finally, when Hopey burst into the courtyard, trailed by a wild-haired Maggie. She yanked on the knot of her bathrobe's belt; her hips looked wide as the horizon, her face flushed and lips luscious. "Hey, Mag."

She narrowed her eyes at him. For a split second, as Hopey rounded the edge of the pool and joined him, he felt like they were truants and Maggie the angry mom.

She pushed her curls out of her eyes. "She --" She tipped her chin up at Hopey. "Says you've got something for me."

If he had just stayed in art school, or even just back east, he would never have to ask whether clockwork birds could suck his blood. He would never have seen Penny Century shimmy over his window-sill, thigh-high boots gleaming in the dark; he would never have stared at Maggie Chascarillo with a dry mouth and stupid, thumping heart, and had nothing to say.

He had too much to say, or nothing. Six of one, half dozen of the other. The point was, he was silent and Maggie just shook her head sadly at him. Like she was disappointed in him. Just like his mom, like Maya, like Penny. God, even like *Doyle*.

He reached for Maggie and opened his hand. The bird clucked and tried to beat its broken wing.

Maggie looked back and forth, from bird to Hopey to Ray, then up to the sky as if praying for guidance. When she held out her hand, the bird clicked excitedly and hopped into her palm.

"You two might as well come in," Maggie said without turning around, heading back to her apartment.

"What is it?" Hopey pushed past Ray to Maggie's side. "Do you know what it is? Can you fix it?"

"Meccanix," Maggie said, and, as she opened her door, "Yes, I can."

Hopey whistled at the name. "Jesus."

"Who?" Ray said, always the last to know, as he stepped into Maggie's apartment.

"Meccanix. Nemesis of Ultimax, stupid," Hopey told him. "Don't you know *anything*?"

The tales of Maggie's career as superhero sidekick had always struck Ray as the ultimate in Hoppers-special-brand bullshit. People grew crazy in the barrio; many were born that way, and the rest turned nuts sooner rather than later.

Sitting here in Maggie's goddamn breakfast nook -- who would ever have dreamed the Maggot would have a *nook* with glittery Formica-topped table and four matching chairs? Not Ray, José -- he didn't know what to believe. Everyone was crazy, that much he knew, but both Maggie and Hopey seemed to believe the superhero bullshit.

While Maggie worked on the bird with a tiny screwdriver, Hopey told him about the brief time with Ultimax. Ray knew bits and pieces; he did not want to listen but, despite himself, got drawn in, especially when Maggie would look up, blow the hair from her eyes, and correct Hopey.

Then again, they *were* las locas, the terrible two, the dastardly demonic duo. There was no reason to believe a word they breathed.

Even now, with Maggie forty pounds heavier, her face lined and hair dry and Hopey with gray in her hair and crows' feet radiating from her angry squint, they were difficult to take together. They interrupted each other, snorted derisively and undermined the other's point, but they also shared glances that were as impenetrable as bulletproof panels, unreadable as Sanskrit.

Most of the time, Ray could have been a ghost. He wished, sometimes, he were.

Maggie worked intently, while Hopey jumped around the kitchen, making coffee and scrambling eggs. She seemed to know her way around the cabinets: Ray noted this fact, then had to stop and chide himself. Their relationship -- whatever it was, whatever it used to be or might someday become -- was none of his business. It never had been, not if he were going to be honest with himself.

Maggie had found the latch unerringly, first thing. The bird was split open, mechanical innards exposed to the kitchen light. Now she touched and tweaked the multitude of gears inside the metal body. Her shoulders were hunched and, he was sure, her breath was caught in her throat.

Hopey was right about one thing. Maggie really was a fantastic mechanic. Her touch was light and sure, her concentration superb. She unscrewed the minute hinge on the wing, straightened out two pieces of the lattice work that made up the wing's foundation, then replaced the feather-scales with two daubs of soldering material.

"You just have that around, huh?" he asked when she unplugged the soldering gun and wrapped the cord around the handle.

Maggie shrugged and passed her hand over her eyes tiredly. "I'm the super here. It's all about the tools."

Hopey hipchecked the edge of the table, two plates held high over her head. "El desayuno es servido!" She put the plates down and grinned at Ray. "What're you gonna do for food, Dominguez?"

"Ah, fuck you," Ray muttered and slumped in his chair.

Maggie laughed, softly at first, then more and more loudly until she had to hold her head in her hands as her shoulders heaved helplessly.

Hopey wagged her finger and handed him the third plate. It looked like a pretty respectable serving of huevos motuleños, down to the smoky-smelling beans and soft tortilla.

The owl waddled across the table as they ate, weaving between mugs and cutlery. When it pecked at the salt shaker, Ray shooed it away. Hopey nearly choked on her coffee as the owl tipped back its head and let loose a stream of avian invective at him.

Maggie took his hand and squeezed it. When she smiled at him through the steam off her coffee, he could have been 23 again. Except for the fact that Maggie lived in the *Valley* now, complete with breakfast nook and toolbox, aside from the fact that Hopey Glass could mix a cocktail, pour a pint, and cook a decent breakfast, never mind the fact that Ray himself ached almost all the time now, nor could he see half so well as he used to. Sometimes, deep into the night, he felt his heart ring hollow inside his chest, falling off its rhythm before throbbing back on course, like a small hint of death, just so he would not forget.

He could have been a kid again, but he wasn't. None of them, and as the owl hopped up onto the rim of his plate to chirp at Maggie, he didn't think that was such a bad thing.

"What about it?" he asked as he cleared the dishes and refilled Hopey's mug with coffee.

Maggie petted the owl's good wing. "I disabled the bomb."

Ray spit out his last swallow of coffee and Hopey's chair thumped backward.

"The what now?" she demanded.

Maggie's smiled curved, but her teeth did not show. "Bomb," she said, calm as anything, as the owl climbed up her arm to her shoulder. "Time-delayed wackiness, courtesy of the seventh dimension's most dastardly inventor."

Ray's pulse throbbed in his temples and behind his eyes. He had to be at work in a little over two hours.

He would have liked to believe that this kind of thing only happened to him when Maggie was around, but that simply was not true.

The owl had its beak tucked under its wing; its eyes were closed and it looked, for all intents and purposes, *asleep*, tucked between Maggie's neck and the collar of her robe.

Ray remembered, all too well, the sweetness of Maggie's skin there, the slight down of hair, the warmth from her scalp, curving down her ear. He glanced at Hopey and knew she was remembering the spot, too.

Maggie smiled again, secretly, shyly, and looked away from them.

For their part, of course, they kept on watching her.