The Norselands, A.D. 850…
Only the strongest survived in that harsh land…
Sigurd Sigurdsson sat near the high table of King Haakon’s yule feast sipping at the fine ale from his own jewel-encrusted, silver horn. (Many of those “above the salt,” held gold vessels, he noted.) Tuns of ale and rare Frisian wine flowed. (His mead tasted rather weak, but mayhap that was his imagination.)
Favored guests at the royal feast (He was mildly favored.) had their choice amongst spit-roasted wild boar, venison and mushroom stew, game birds stuffed with chestnuts, a swordfish the size of a small longboat, eels swimming in spiced cream sauce, and all the vegetable side dishes one could imagine, including the hated neeps. (Hated by Sigurd, leastways. He had a particular antipathy to turnips due to some youthling insanity to determine which lackwit could eat the most of the root vegetables without vomiting, or falling over dead as a stump. He lost.) Honey oak cakes and dried fruit trifles finished off the meal for those not filled to overflowing. (Peaches, on the other hand, were fruit of the gods, in Sigurd’s opinion.) Entertainment was provided by a quartet of lute players who could scarce be heard over the animated conversation and laughter. (Which was just as well; they harmonized like a herd of screech owls. Again, in Sigurd’s opinion.) Good cheer abounded. (Except for…)
In the midst of the loud, joyous celebration, Sigurd’s demeanor was quiet and sad.
But that was nothing new. Sigurd had been known as a dark, brooding Viking for many of his twenty and seven years. Darker and more brooding as the years marched on. And he wasn’t even drukkinn.
Some said the reason for Sigurd’s discontent was the conflict betwixt two warring sides of his nature. A fierce warrior in battle and, at the same time, a noted physician with innate healing skills inherited from and homed by his grandmother afore her passing to the Other World when he’d been a boyling.
Sigurd knew better. He had a secret sickness of the soul, and its name was Envy. Never truly happy, never satisfied, he always wanted what he didn’t have, whether it be a chest of gold, the latest, fastest longship, a prosperous estate, the finest sword. A woman. And he did whatever necessary to attain that new best thing. Whatever.
‘Twas like a gigantic worm he’d found years past in the bowels of a dying man. Egolf the Farrier had been a giant of a burly man in his prime, but at his death when he was only thirty he’d been little more than a skeleton with no fat and scant flesh to cover his bones. The malady had no doubt started years before innocently enough with a tiny worm in an apple or some spoiled meat, but over the years, attached to his innards like a ravenous babe, the slimy creature devoured the food Egolf ate, and Egolf had a huge appetite, in essence starving the man to death.
“Sig, my friend!” A giant hand clapped him on the shoulder and his close friend and hersir Bertim sat down on the bench beside him. Beneath his massive red beard, the Irish Viking’s face was florid with drink. “You are sitting upright,” Bertim accused him. “Is that still your first horn of ale that you nurse like a babe at teat?
“What an image!” Sigurd shook his head with amusement. “I must needs stay sober. The queen may yet produce a new son for Haakon this night.”
“Her timing is inconvenient, but then a yule child brings good luck.” Bertim raised his bushy eyebrows as a sudden thought struck him. “Dost act as midwife now?”
“When it is the king’s whelp, I do.”
Bertim laughed heartily.
“In truth, Elfrida has been laboring for a day and night so far with no result. The delivery promises to be difficult.”
Bertim nodded. ‘Twas the way of nature. “What has the king promised you for your assistance?”
“Naught much,” Sigurd replied with a shrug. “Friendship. Lot of good that friendship does me, though. Dost notice I am not sitting at the high table?”
“And yet that arse licker Svein One-Ear sits near the king,” Bertim commiserated.
I should be up there. Ah, well. Mayhap if I do the king this one new favor… He shrugged. The seating was a small slight, actually.
A serving maid interrupted them, leaning over the table to replenish their beverages. The way her breasts brushed against each of their shoulders gave clear signal that she would be a willing bed partner to either or both of them. Bertim was too far gone in the drink and too fearful of the wrath of his new Norse wife, and Sigurd lacked interest in services offered so easily. The maid shrugged and made her way to the next hopefully-willing male.
Picking up on their conversation, Bertim said, “The friendship of a king is naught to minimize. It can be priceless.”
Sigurd had reason to recall Bertim’s ale-wise words later that night, rather in the wee hours of the morning, when Queen Elfrida, despite Sigurd’s best efforts, delivered a deformed, puny babe, a girl, and Sigurd was asked by the king, in the name of friendship, to take the infant away and cut off its whispery breath.
It was not an unusual request. In this harsh land, only the strongest survived, and the practice of infanticide was ofttimes an act of kindness. Or so the beleaguered parents believed.
But Sigurd did not fulfill the king’s wishes. Leastways, not right away. Visions of another night and another life and death decision plagued Sigurd as he carried the swaddled babe in his arms, its cries little more than the mewls of a weakling kitten.
Despite his full-length, hooded fur cloak, the wind and cold air combined to chill him to the bone. He tucked the babe closer to his chest and imagined he felt her heart beat steady and true. Approaching the cliff that hung over the angry sea, where he would drop the child after pinching its tiny nose, Sigurd kept murmuring, “’Tis for the best, ‘tis for the best.” His eyes misted over, but that was probably due to the snow flakes that began to flutter heavily in front of him.
He would do as the king asked. Of course he would. But betimes it was not such a gift having royal friends.
Just then, he heard a loud voice bellow, “SIGURD! Halt! At once!”
He turned to see the strangest thing. Despite the blistering cold, a dark-haired man wearing naught but a long, white, rope-belted gown in the Arab style approached with hands extended.
Without words, Sigurd knew that the man wanted the child. To his surprise, Sigurd handed over the bundle that carried his body heat to the stranger.
“Take her, Caleb,” the man said to yet another man in a white robe who appeared at his side.
“Yes, Michael.” Caleb bowed as if the first man were a king or some important personage.
More kings! That is all I need!
The Michael person passed the no-longer crying infant to Caleb, who enfolded the babe in what appeared to be wings, but was probably a white fur cloak, and walked off, disappearing into the now heavy snowfall.
“Will you kill the child?” Sigurd asked, realizing for the first time that he might not have been able to do it himself. Not this time.
“Viking, will you never learn?” Michael asked.
He said “Viking” as if it were a bad word. Sigurd was too stunned by this tableau to be affronted.
“Who are you? What are you?” Sigurd asked as he noticed the massive white wings spreading out behind the man.
“Michael. An archangel.”
Sigurd had heard of angels before and seen images on wall paintings in a Byzantium church. “Did you say arse angel?”
“You know I did not. Thou art a fool.”
No sense of humor at all. Sigurd assumed that an archangel was a special angel. “Am I dead?”
” That did not sound promising. “But soon?”
“Sooner than thou could imagine,” he said without the least bit of sympathy.
Can I fight him? Somehow, Sigurd did not think that was possible.
“You are a grave sinner, Sigurd.”
He knows my name. “That I freely admit.”
“And yet you do not repent. And yet you would have taken another life tonight.”
“Another?” Sigurd inquired, although he knew for a certainty what Michael referred to, and it was not some enemy he had covered with sword dew in righteous battle. But how could the man…rather angel… possibly know what had been Sigurd’s closely held secret all these years. No one else knew.
“There are no secrets, Viking,” Michael informed him.
Holy Thor! Now he is reading my mind!
Before Sigurd could reply, the snow betwixt them swirled, then cleared to reveal a picture of himself as a boyling of ten years or so bent over his little ailing brother Aslak, a five-year-old of immense beauty, even for a male child. Pale white hair, perfect features, a bubbling, happy personality. Everyone loved Aslak, and Aslak loved everyone in return.
Sigurd had hated his little brother, despite the fact that Aslak followed him about like an adoring puppy. Aslak was everything that Sigurd was not. Sigurd’s dull brown hair only turned blond when he got older and the tresses had been sun-bleached on sea voyages. His facial features had been marred by the pimples of a youthling. He had an unpleasant, betimes surly, disposition. In other words, unlikable, or so Sigurd had thought.
Being the youngest of the Sigurdsson boys, before Aslak, and the only one still home, Sigurd had been more aware of his little brother’s overwhelming popularity. In truth, in later years, when others referred to the seven Sigurdsson brothers, they failed to recall that at one time there had been eight.
Sigurd blinked and peered again into the swirling snow picture of that fateful night. His little brother’s wheezing lungs laboring for life through the long pre-dawn hours. His mother Lady Elsa had begged Sigurd to help because, even at ten years of age, he had healing hands. Sigurd had pretended to help, but in truth he had not employed the steam tenting or special herb teas that might have cured his dying brother. Aslak had died, of course, and Sigurd knew it was his fault.
Looking up to see Michael staring at him, Sigurd said, “I was jealous.”
Michael shook his head. “Nay, jealousy is a less than admirable trait. Your sin was envy.”
“Envy. Jealousy. Same thing.”
“Lackwit!” Michael declared, his wings bristling wide like a riled goose. “Jealousy is a foolish emotion, but envy destroys the peace of the soul. When was the last time you were at peace, Viking?”
Sigurd thought for a long moment. “Never, that I recall.”
“Envy stirs hatred in a person, causing one to wish evil on another. That was certainly the case with your brother Aslak. And with so many others you have maligned or injured over the years.”
Sigurd hung his head. ‘Twas true.
“Envy causes a person to engage in immoderate quests for wealth or power or relationships that betimes defy loyalty and justice.”
Sigurd nodded. The archangel was painting a clear picture of him and his sorry life.
“The worst thing is that you were given a treasured talent. The gift of healing. Much like the Apostle Luke. But you have disdained it. Abused it. And failed to nourish it for a greater good.”
“An apostle?” Sigurd was not a Christian, but he was familiar with tales from their Bible. “You would have me be as pure as an apostle? I am a Viking.”
“Idiots! I am forced to work with idiots.” Michael rolled his eyes. “Nay, no one expects purity from such as you. Enough! For your grave sins, and those of your six brothers…in fact, all the Vikings as a whole…the Lord is sorely disappointed. You must be punished. In the future, centuries from now, there will be no Viking nation, as such. Thus sayeth the Lord,” Michael pronounced. “And as for you Sigurdsson miscreants…your time on earth is measured.”
Michael nodded. “Thou art already dead inside, Sigurd. Now your body will be, as well.”
So be it. It was a fate all men must face, though he had not expected it to come so soon. “You mention my brothers. They will die, too?”
“They will. If they have not already passed.”
Seven brothers dying in the same year? This was the fodder of sagas. Skalds would be speaking of them forever more. “Will I be going to Valhalla, or the Christian heaven, or that other place?” He shivered inwardly at the thought of that latter, fiery fate.
“None of those. You are being given a second chance.”
“To live?” This was good news.
Michael shook his head. “To die and come back to serve your Heavenly Father in a new role.”
“As an angel?” Sigurd asked with incredulity.
“Hardly,” Michael scoffed. “Well, actually, you would be a vangel. A Viking vampire angel put back on earth to fight Satan’s demon vampires, Lucipires. For seven hundred years, your penance would be to redeem your sins by serving in God’s army under my mentorship.”
Sigurd could tell that Michael wasn’t very happy with that mentorship role, but he could not dwell on that. It was the amazing ideas the archangel was putting forth.
“Do you agree?” Michael asked.
Huh? What choice did he have? The fires of hell, or centuries of living as some kind of soldier. “I agree, but what exactly is a vampire?”
He soon found out. With a raised hand, Michael pointed a finger at Sigurd and unimaginable pain wracked his body, including his mouth where the jaw bones seemed to crack and realign themselves, emerging with fangs, like a wolf. He fell to his knees as his shoulder blades also seem to explode as if struck with a broadsword.
“Fangs? Was that necessary?” he gasped, glancing upward at the celestial being whose arms were folded across his chest, staring down at him.
“You’ll need them for sucking blood.”
“What do you think? From a peach? Idiot! Fom people…or demons.”
“What? Eeew!” He expects me to drink blood? From living persons? Or demons? I do not know about this bargain.
“Thou can still change thy mind, Viking,” Michael said.
Reading my mind again! Damn! “And go to hell?”
“Thou sayest it.”
Sigurd thought about negotiating with the angel, but knew instinctively that it would do no good. He nodded. “It will be as you say.”
Moments later, when the pain subsided somewhat, the angel raised him up and studied him with icy contempt, or was it pity? “Go! And do better this time, vangel.”
On those words, Sigurd fell backwards and over the cliff. Falling, falling, falling toward the black, roiling sea. He discovered in that instant that there was one thing a vangel didn’t have. Wings.
Sometimes life throws you a life line, sometimes a lead sinker…
No one watching Marisa Lopez emerge from the medical center in downtown Miami would have guessed that she’d just been delivered a death blow. Not for herself, but for her five-year-old daughter Isobel.
Marisa had become a master at hiding her emotions. When she’d found out she was pregnant midway through her junior year at Florida State and her scumbag boyfriend Chip Dougherty skipped campus faster than his two hundred dollar running shoes could carry him. When her hopes for a career in physical therapy went down the tubes. When she’d found out two years ago that her sweet baby girl had an inoperable brain tumor. When the blasted tumor kept growing, and Izzie got sicker and sicker. When Marisa had lost her third job in a row because of missing so many days for Izzie’s appointments. And now…well, she refused to break down now either, not where others could see.
And there were people watching. Looking like a young Sophia Loren, not to mention being five-ten in her three-inch heels, she often got double takes, and the occasional wolf whistle. And she knew how to work it, especially when tips were involved at The Palms Health Spa where she was now employed as a certified massage therapist, as well as the Salsa bar where she worked nights at a second job. Was she burning the candle at both ends? Hell, yes. She wished she could do more.
Slinging her knock-off Coach bag over one shoulder, she donned a pair of oversized, fake Dior sunglasses. Her scoop-necked, white silk blouse was tucked into a black pencil skirt, belted at her small waist with a counterfeit, red Gucci belt. Walking briskly on pleather Jimmy Choos, she made her way down the street to her car parked on a side street…a ten-year-old Ford Focus. Not quite the vehicle to go with her seemingly expensive attire, a carefully manufactured image. Little did folks know that hidden in her parents’ garage was a fortune in counterfeit and knock-off items, from Rolex watches to Victoria’s Secret lingerie, thanks to her jailbird brother Steve. A fortune that could not be tapped because someone besides her brother would end up in jail. Probably me, considering the bad luck cloud that seems to be hanging over my head.
It wasn’t against the law to wear the stuff, just so long as she didn’t sell it. To her shame, she’d been tempted on more than one occasion this past year to do just that. Desperation trumps morality. So far, she hadn’t succumbed, though all her friends knew where to come when they needed something “special.”
Her parents had no idea what was in the green-lidded bins that had been taped shut with duct tape. They probably thought it was Steve’s clothes and other worldly goods. Hah!
Once inside her car, with the air conditioner on full blast, Marisa put her forehead on the steering wheel and wept. Soul searing sobs and gasps for breath as she cried out her misery. Marisa knew that she had to get it all out before she went home where she would have to pretend optimism before Izzie, who was way too perceptive for her age. Marisa’s parents, on the other hand, would need to know the prognosis. They would be crushed, as she was.
A short time later, by mid afternoon, with her emotions under control and her makeup retouched, Marisa walked up the sidewalk to her parents’ house. She noticed that the Lopez Plumbing van wasn’t in the driveway; so, her father must still be at work. Good. Marisa didn’t need the double whammy of both parents’ reaction to the latest news. One at a time would be easier.
Marisa had moved into her parents’ house, actually the apartment over the infamous garage, after Izzie’s initial diagnosis two years ago…to save money and take advantage of her parents’ generous offer to baby sit while Marisa worked. Her older brother Steve, who had been the apartment’s prior occupant, was already in jail by that time, serving a two to six for armed robbery. The idiot had carried an old boy scout knife in his pocket when he’d stolen the cash register receipts at the Seven Eleven. Ironically, he’d never been nabbed for selling counterfeit goods…his side job, so to speak.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t Steve’s first stint in the slammer, although it was his first felony. She hoped he learned something this time, but she was doubtful.
Marisa used her key to enter the thankfully air-conditioned house. Immediately, her mood lightened somewhat in the home’s cozy atmosphere. Overstuffed sofa and chair. Her dad’s worn leather recliner that bore the imprint of his behind from long years of use. And the smell…ah! The air was permeated with the scent of spicy browned beef and tomatoes and fresh baked bread. It was Monday; so, it must be Vaca Vieja, or shredded beef, her father’s favorite, which would be served over rice with a fresh salad. No bagged salads here. No store bought bread.
Izzie was asleep on the couch where she’d been watching cartoons on the television that had been turned to a low volume. The pretty, soft, pink and lavender afghan her grandmother had knitted covered her from shoulders to bare feet, but even so, her thin frame was apparent. There were dark smudges beneath her eyes. Even so, she was cute as a button with her ski-jump nose and rosebud mouth, thanks to her father. But then, she’d inherited a Latin complexion, dark dancing eyes, and a frame that promised to be tall from Marisa, who was no slouch in the good looks department, if she did say so herself. No doubt about it, Izzie was destined to be a beauty when she grew up. If she ever did.
Marisa put her bag on the coffee table and leaned down to kiss the black curls that capped her little girl’s head. She and her daughter shared the same coal black hair, but Marisa’s was thick and straight as a pin. At one time, Izzie had sported a wild mass of dark corkscrew curls, all of which had been lost in her first bout of radiation. A wasted effort, the radiation had turned out. To everyone’s surprise, especially Izzie, the shorter hairdo suited her better.
With a deep sigh, Marisa entered the kitchen.
Her mother was standing at the counter washing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes that she must have just picked from the small garden in the back yard. She wore her standard daytime “uniform.” A blouse tucked into stretchy waist slacks, and curlers on her head. Soon she would shower and change to a dress and medium pumps, her black hair all fluffed out, lipstick and a little makeup applied, to greet Daddy when he got home. It was a ritual she had followed every single day since her marriage thirty-two years ago. Just as she maintained her trim, attractive figure at fifty-nine. To please Daddy, as much as herself.
As for her father…even with the little paunch he’d put on a few years back and a receding hairline, when he walked into the house wearing his plumbing coveralls, Marisa’s mother had been known to sigh and murmur, “Men in uniform!”
Marisa’s mother must have sensed her presence because she turned abruptly. At first glance, she gasped and put a hand to her heart. No hiding anything from a mother.
“Oh, Marisa, honey!” her mother said. Making the sign of the cross, she sat down at the kitchen table and motioned for Marisa to sit, too.
First-generation Cuban-Americans, they’d named their first-born child Estefan Lopez. He became known as Steve. Marisa Angelica, who came five years later…a “miracle baby” for the couple who’d been told there would be no more children…was named after Grandma Lopez “back home,” and Aunt Angelica who was a nun serving some special order in the Philippines.
“Tell me,” her mother insisted.
“Doctor Stern says the tumor has grown, only slightly, in the past two months, but her brain and other tissue are increasing like any normal growing child and pressing against…” Tears welled in her eyes, despite her best efforts, and she took several of the tissues her mother handed her. “Oh, Mom! He says, without that experimental surgery, she only has a year to live. And even with the surgery, it might not work.”
Izzie’s only hope, and it was a slim one at best, was some new procedure being tried in Switzerland. Because it was experimental and in a foreign country, insurance would not cover the expense. Marisa had managed to raise an amazing hundred thousand dollars through various charitable endeavors, but she still needed another seventy thousand dollars. That seventy thou might just as well be a hundred million, considering Marisa’s empty bank account, as well as her parents, who’d second-mortgaged their house when Steve got into so much trouble.
She and her mother both bawled then. What else could they do? Well, her mother had ideas, of course.
Her mother stood and poured them both cups of her special brewed coffee from an old metal coffee pot on the stove. No fancy pancy (her mother’s words) Keurig or other modern devices for the old-fashioned lady. They both put one packet of diet sugar and a dollop of milk in their cups before taking the first sip.
“First off, we will pray,” her mother declared. “And we will ask Angelica to pray for Izzie, too.”
“Mom! With the hurricane that hit the Philippines last year, Aunt Angelica has way too much on her prayer schedule.”
“Tsk-tsk!” Her mother said. “A nun always has time for more prayers. And I will ask my Rosary, Altar Society ladies to start a novena. A miracle, that is what we need.”
Marisa rolled her eyes before she could catch herself.
Her mother wagged a forefinger at her. “Nothing is impossible with prayer.”
It couldn’t hurt, Marisa supposed, although she was beginning to lose faith, despite being raised in a strict Catholic household. Hah! Look how much good that moral upbringing had done Steve.
That wasn’t fair, she immediately chastised herself. Steve brought on his problems, and was not the issue today. Izzie was. Besides, who was she to talk. Having a baby without marriage. “Okay, Mom, we’ll pray,” she conceded. If I still can.
She let the peaceful ambiance of the kitchen fill her then. To Cubans, the kitchen was the heart of the home, and this little portion of the fifty-year-old ranch style house was indeed that. The oak kitchen cabinets were original to the house, but the way her mother cleaned, they gleamed with a golden patina, like new. Curtains with embroidered roses framed the double-window over the sink. In the middle of the room was an old aluminum table that could seat six, in the center of which was a single red rose in a slim crystal vase, the sentimental weekly gift from her father to her mother. The red leather on the chair seats had been reupholstered twice now by her father’s hands in his tool room in the basement. A Tiffany-style fruited lamp hung over the table.
A shuffling sound alerted them to Izzie coming toward the kitchen. Trailing the afghan in one hand and her favorite stuffed animal, a ratty, floppy eared rabbit named Lucky in the other, she didn’t notice at first that her mother was home.
Marisa stood. “Well, if it isn’t Sleeping Beauty?”
“Mommy!” Dropping the afghan and Lucky, she raced into Marisa’s open arms. Marisa twirled Izzie around in her arms until they were both dizzy. She dropped down to the chair again, with Izzie on her lap, both of them laughing. “Dizzy Izzie!” her daughter squealed, like she always did.
“For you, Isobella.” Her mother placed before Izzie a plastic Barbie plate of chocolate-sprinkled sugar cookies and a matching teacup of chocolate milk. Her mother would have already crushed some of the hated pills into the milk.
“I’m not hungry, Nana,” Izzie whined, burying her face against Marisa’s chest.
“You have to eat something, honey. At least drink the milk,” Marisa coaxed.
After a good half hour of bribing, teasing, singing, and game playing, she and her mother got Izzie to eat two of the cookies and drink all of the milk.
“What did the doctor say?” Izzie asked suddenly.
Uh-oh! Izzie knew that Marisa had gone to the medical center to discuss her latest test results. “Doctor Stern said you are growing like a weed. No, he said you are growing faster than Jack and the Beanstalk’s magic beans.” At least that was true. She was growing, despite her loss of weight.
Izzie giggled. “I’m a big girl now.”
“Yes, you are, sweetie,” Marisa said, hugging her little girl warmly.
Somehow, someway, I am going to get the money for Izzie, Marisa vowed silently. It might take one of my mother’s miracles, but I am not going to let my precious little girl die. But how? That is the question.
The answer came to her that evening when she was at La Cucaracha, the Salsa bar where she worked a second job as a waitress and occasional bartender. Well, a possible answer.
“A porno convention?” she exclaimed, at first disbelieving that her best friend Inga Johanssen would make such a suggestion.
“More than that. The first ever International Conference on Freedom of Expression,” Inga told her.
“Bull!” Marisa opined.
They were in a back room of the restaurant, talking a break. They wore the one-shouldered, knee-length, black Salsa dresses with ragged hems, La Cucharacha’s uniform for women (the men wore slim black pants and white shirts). They were both roughly five foot eight, but otherwise completely different. Where Marisa was dark and olive skinned, Inga was blond and Nordic. Where Marisa’s figure was what might be called voluptuous, Inga’s was slim and boylike, except for the boobs she bought last year. The garments they wore were not meant to be revealing but to accommodate the restaurant’s grueling heat due to the energetic dancing. They needed a break occasionally just to cool off.
Inga waved a newspaper article at her and read aloud , “All the movers and shakers in the Freedom of Expression industry will be there. Multi-billion dollar investors, movie producers, Internet gurus, actors and actresses, store owners, franchisees—”
“Franchisees of what?” Marisa interrupted. “Smut?”
Inga made a tsking sound and continued, “—sex toy manufacturers, instructors on DIY home videos—”
“What’s DIY?” Marisa interrupted again.
“Do It Yourself.”
“Oh, good Lord!”
“A made-up name if I ever heard one.”
“Please, Marisa, give me a chance.”
Marisa made a motion of zipping her lips.
“Martin Vanderfelt, the conference organizer, told the Daily Buzz reporter, “Our aim is to remove the sleaze factor from pornography and gain recognition as a legitimate professional enterprise serving the public. Freedom of Expresson. FOE.”
Marisa rolled her eyes but said nothing.
“This is the best part. It’s being held for one week on a tropical island off the Florida Keys. Grand Keys, a plush special events convention center, offers all the amenities of a four-star hotel, including indoor and outdoor pools, snorkeling and boating services, beauty salons and health spas, numerous restaurants with world class cuisines, nightclubs, tennis courts—”
“I’d like to see some of those over-endowed porno queens bouncing around on a tennis court,” Marisa had to interject.
“I thought they always held the pornography thing every year in Las Vegas.”
“The Expo is held there, but that’s more for public show. They have booths and stuff and even an awards show like the Oscars. This is more for industry insiders.”
“Inside, all right,” she said with lame humor.
“So cynical! Becky Bliss will be there. You know who she is, don’t you?”
Even Marisa knew Becky Bliss. She was the porno princess famous for being able to twerk while on top, having sex. “Are you suggesting we might learn how to do that?”
“It wouldn’t hurt. Maybe it would enhance your non-existent sex life.”
“Not like that!”
“Okay. Besides, Lance Rocket will be there, too.”
Marisa had no idea who Lance Rocket was, but she could guess.
“Anyhow, this conference isn’t for your everyday Joe, the porn aficionado. It costs five thousand dollars to attend. The only access to the island is by water. You can’t drive there, of course. They expect to see lots of yachts and seaplanes.”
Marisa was vaguely aware of the private islands comprising the Florida Keys. An unbelievable seventeen hundred islands, some inhabited, others little more than mangrove and limestone masses. The islands lie along the Florida Straits dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico.
“Okay, I give up. Why would you or I even consider something like this? Oh, my God! You’re not suggesting I make porno films to raise money for Izzie, are you?”
“Of course not. Look. This article says they’re looking to hire employees for up to two weeks at above scale wages, all expenses paid, including transportation. Everything from waiters and waitresses to beauticians to diving instructors…even a doctor and nurse. Waiters and waitresses can expect to earn at least ten thousand dollars, and that doesn’t include tips, which could add another twenty K or more. Upper scale professions, much more.”
“Why would a hotel have to hire so many employees for just one event? Wouldn’t they have a staff in place.”
“The company that owns the island went bankrupt last year, and the property is in foreclosure. In the meantime, until it is sold, the bank rents it out at an exorbitant amount. You know how abandoned properties deteriorate or get vandalized. Plus, the bank probably hopes one of the wealthy dudes or dudettes who attend this thing might fall in love with the place.”
“You know an awful lot about Grand Keys Island.”
Inga shrugged. “I checked it out on the Internet. Hey, here’s an idea. You could even work as a massage therapist. Betcha lots of these porno stars need to work out the kinks. The big ones would leave hundred dollar tips.” She grinned impishly at Marisa.
Marisa couldn’t be offended at Inga’s teasing her about the popular misconception of professional masseurs and masseuses. “Kinks…that about says it all. Pfff! Can you imagine what they would expect of a massage therapist at one of these events?” She lowered her voice to a deep baritone and added, ‘My shoulders are really tight, honey, and while you’re at it, check out down yonder.’”
Inga laughed. “I’m just saying. If you worked as many hours there, let’s say double shifting between waitressing and therapy, you might very well earn close to thirty thousand dollars. In less than two weeks! When opportunity comes down the street, honey, jump on the bus.”
“You say opportunity, I say bad idea. Honestly, Inga, I can’t see us doing something like this.”
“Why not? We don’t have to like all the people that come to the Salsa bar, but we still serve them food and drinks.”
“I don’t know,” Marisa said.
“There’s something else to consider.”
“If you’re going to suggest that I might find a sugar daddy to pay for Izzie’s operation, forget about it.” But don’t think that idea hasn’t occurred to me.
“No, but there will be lots of Internet types there. Maybe you could find someone with the technical ability to set up a website for Izzie to raise funds.”
“I already tried that, but every company I contacted said it has been overdone. There’s no profit for them.”
“Maybe you’ve made the wrong contacts. Maybe if you met someone one on one…I don’t know, Marisa, isn’t it worth a try?” Inga was serious now.
“I’ll think about it,” Marisa said, to her own surprise.
“Applications and interviews for employment are being held at the Purple Palm Hotel in Key West next Friday,” Inga pointed out. “Don’t think too long.”
They heard the Salsa band break out in a lively instrumental with a rich Latin American beat. A prelude to the beginning of another set of dance music.
As they headed back to work, Inga said, “I’ll drive.”