CHAPTER 16

Sit, sit. Coffee?

No, thanks. Lucio took one of the chairs in the sitting room of Sydney Frankel’s downtown office, a little annoyed that his agent had insisted he take time to visit him in person. He’d told Lucio he had an intriguing idea to discuss with him.

Am I getting the Erskine? Did they change their minds? had been Lucio’s first question.

No, unfortunately. Their decision to rescind the award was final.

But why? Didn’t they care that we had proof that Ilsa Knauss set me up? Lucio was dumbfounded. ?Hostia! What do they want from me?

I’m sorry, Sydney said, looking down. Their decision was final. They’ll be announcing the new winner any day.

Lucio fell back into the leather chair in Sydney’s office, crossing his legs, though he knew he’d never be comfortable. He was too angry to be comfortable.

It is unfair, Lucio said, shaking his head. That is my award.

Sydney nodded. There is always next year.

Lucio looked away, staring out the window. Any word on who’s getting it?

Sydney sighed softly. The rumor is Kieran O’Shaunessey, but it’s not official.

Ah, Lucio said, still looking out the window. He’s young, but he’s good.

Yes, Sydney said.

The two men sat in awkward silence for a moment, until Sydney cleared his throat. Well, he said, his voice noticeably brighter. You’re certainly looking well, Lucky. His agent took the seat opposite him.

Lucio said nothing.

So, Sydney said, chuckling. I’ve got to tell you, those pet portraits you’ve got up on your Web site are absolutely top-notch. They’re funny and sophisticated andI suspected this might happen because I know how good your work ismy wife wants one taken of her and her moronic Maltese.

Lucio cracked a smile, finally turning away from the window. So you called me down here to try to get a discount?

Sydney roared with laughter. I wouldn’t dare. But, since you brought it up, how much is something like that going to set me back?

Lucio snickered. It depends on how elaborate the owner wants the setting or backdrop to be. The more props and costumes, preparation, or digital enhancement a picture needs, the more expensive it gets.

Sydney’s bottom lip protruded the way it always did when he was running numbers in his head. Ballpark? he asked.

Lucio shrugged. I’ve been charging anywhere from one to five thousand, U.S.

Sydney’s mouth fell open. You’re shitting me.

No. And I am booked for the next six weeks. I am enjoying myself, though, and I’ve got a terrific staff. I am on my way toward paying off Geographica in ninety days.

You’ve got a staff? Sydney looked shocked.

Mostly volunteer, but I’m paying my girlfriend’s teenage sons a little for their work. They’ve been doing costuming, Web design, and one of them is working as my assistant in the studio and the field. My girlfriend has been doing most of the scheduling, billing, and sales. She’s phenomenal.

Sydney’s left eye squinted. You have a studio?

Lucio nodded.

You have a girlfriend?

Lucio nodded again.

Well. Sydney slapped his palms on his thighs and took a deep breath. Sounds like you might not find my news as exciting as I’d assumed you would.

What news?

I have to be honest with you, LuckyI truly never thought I’d see the day.

The day for what?

I swear it sounds like you’re settled, like you’re planting your ass right here in town and you’re fine with it.

Lucio was preparing a response to that when the left pocket of his trousers began to vibrate. Ah, un momento, por favor.

As Lucio fished for the cell phone Josh and Jason had convinced him to purchase for the business, Sydney’s eyes got big.

It is a text message. Lucio squinted at the tiny screen and tried to decipher the strange code the boys used to convey information: c u @ 7 yr crib game at8 imo we shld order za.

Lucio laughed, thinking Jason had just told him they’d be at his place at seven p.m., that the game started at eight p.m., and that they should order pizzabut Lucio could not be certain. He stuffed the phone back in his pocket.

He noticed Sydney gawking at him. The boys are coming over to my house tonight to watch American football. The 49ers are playing the Seahawks, he said.

Just then, his pants vibrated again. I am so sorry, Sydney. He fished out the phone and saw that Genevieve was calling. Digame, Lucio answered. Can I call you right back, guapa? Gracias. He snapped the phone closed, then laughed at Sydney’s increasingly stupefied expression. New phone, he said, holding it up before he shoved it back in his pocket.

Since when do you have a cell phone?

Three days ago.

My God.

Lucio dismissed Sydney’s reaction with a wave of his hand.

You’re in a relationship, Lucio. You’re in love!

Yes, I am.

You’re buying phones and hanging out with the woman’s kids! His agent’s face was red with the effort it took for him not to burst out laughing.

I am. Lucio recrossed his legs, bothered by Sydney’s level of amusement. It was almost worse than Piers’s.

Well. Sydney got up and paced his office for a moment. He went to his desk and hit the intercom button. Bernice, can you bring in that contract for Lucky Montevez?

Lucio’s fingers gripped the chair’s leather armrest. What contract?

Yes, well, that’s why I asked you to stop by. You’ve just been offered a field assignment for Nature magazine. It’s a four-week gig in Mauritius. They’re doing a piece on pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, and the island’s growing list of endangered species. It’s the same sad tale you’ve told a hundred times from a hundred different locations.

Lucio refrained from any type of reaction, because he didn’t know what kind of reaction to have. One part of him wanted to hear more. The other part of him wished he hadn’t heard a word of any of this. Sydney was staring at him, waiting for a response.

Bernice entered the office with the papers, giving Lucio the few seconds he needed to get himself together.

Sydney glanced over the pages as Bernice left. It’s a forty-thousand-dollar job, he said. As usual, they’re offering a decent daily stipend with a bonus if you get the cover. The budget isn’t enough for helicopters locally, so it looks like it will be private planes, off-road vehicles, and shoe leather, but they usually take pretty good care of you.

Lucio tried to get comfortable in the chair, which was proving to be a real challenge, since he didn’t even feel comfortable in his own skin at that moment.

This one job would be almost enough to pay off his debt to Geographica. He would be in the clear, and could come back and pick up where he left off with Petography. But, of course, he couldn’t take the job. He couldn’t leave Genevieve and the boys and his business. He did not want to. The idea was preposterous.

They’ll give you ten thousand more as a signing bonus if you take the job today.

I cannot take the job today! Lucio said, shaking his head. I cannot take the job at all!

Sydney placed the contract on the glass-topped coffee table. I’m sorryI just thought I heard you turn this down outright.

At the very least I need some time to discuss it with my girlfriend.

Sydney laughed. I’ve never heard you utter those words, and I’m especially surprised to hear them now.

Lucio frowned.

His agent balanced his elbows on his knees and peered at Lucio like he’d lost his mind. This is Lucky’s lucky day, right? When Lucio didn’t say anything, Sydney huffed in frustration. Look, I know we’ve nailed Ilsa Knauss for all that business in China, but she hasn’t been charged with anything yet, so you’re still on the hook for the cash.

I realize that, Lucio said.

And I know you just started a little side business and you’ve got a new girl in your life, but if you take this field assignment, you’re back in your element. Once you take this job, the whole China debacle will recede into the background and you won’t be walking around with ‘bad boy’ tattooed on your forehead anymore. This is the break you’ve been waiting for.

Lucio nodded. I said I needed some time to think it over. He got up to leave.

Sydney stood, as well. Hey, why don’t you see if the new girlfriend wants to go along? You’ll have to cover her air and hotel, of course, but if she’s the adventurous type it might be fun for her.

It was a romantic notiontaking his love to an exotic island paradisebut he doubted Genevieve would appreciate the reality of the flying and crawling insects, dripping humidity, poverty, poisonous plants, and scorching sun. He could set her up at the new Four Seasons in Anahita, but she’d still be left alone while he traipsed through the jungle.

How soon do they need an answer? Lucio asked.

This week.

I’ll get back to you. Lucio reached for the doorknob.

I have to say, Piers didn’t expect this reaction.

Lucio turned around. Piers? What does he know of this job?

Well, they offered the assignment to him first, but he declined, suggesting they give it to you. We just got the offer yesterday.

Really? Lucio was shocked. Why would Piers turn down such an assignment? He needs the work as much as I do.

Sydney shrugged. I didn’t ask. But apparently, he lobbied pretty hard for you. I think he just wants to help.

That is extraordinary, Lucio said, shaking his head. I am surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t be. He has always gone out of his way to help me.

Those kinds of friends are one in a million, Lucky.

Indeed. Lucio stood in silence for a moment, letting the situation settle in his brain. Truly, he didn’t understand why Piers would do such a thing, and it bothered him. Thank you, Sydney, he said, letting himself out. I’ll get back to you soon.

By the time Lucio made it to the underground parking garage where he’d left the car, he knew the reason Piers’s intervention was so puzzling: Piers knew all about his feelings for Genevieve. He knew that Lucio was trying to start a relationship with her. So why would Piers be working behind the scenes to get him a job that would send him so far away from her, for such a long time?

Was this jealousy? Was this about Sylvie, somehow?

Lucio turned the key in the ignition, shaking his head at his new level of paranoia. He could not let what happened in China make him doubt everyone in his life. If Lucio allowed that to happen, then Ilsa Knauss would have inflicted a fatal wound.

He picked up his new cell phone and, for the first time, appreciated the convenience. With two clicks of a button, he was ringing Piers’s flat.

Buenos dias, mi amigo. Would you mind if I stopped by? he asked.

Piers opened the door to his apartment with a huge grin, his eyes shining with excitement. Lucio immediately saw that Piers assumed he’d come to thank him. It was the happiest he’d seen Piers in months.

Come in! Come in! Piers said. I’ve been looking at your Web site! What fun you must be having!

Absolutely, Lucio said.

Please, please. Make yourself comfortable. I picked up another bottle of Rioja, thinking we might have something to celebrate. Would you care for a glass?

Lucio laughed. Sure, Piers. That would be nice.

He followed his friend out to the balcony, the spot that had become their private outdoor watering hole.

To new beginnings, Piers said, touching his wine glass to Lucio’s.

Salud, Lucio said, taking a sip and leaning back in the chair. He sighed and propped his feet on the iron railing, absently looking out over Green Street four stories below, with its string of Italian restaurants, and on to China Town a few blocks beyond.

So, have you just come from Sydney’s? Piers asked, his grin still as wide as when he answered the door.

Yes, Lucio said. It was quite unexpected.

Piers laughed. I thought it would be more fun for you, finding out that way. Do you have any idea how hard it’s been for me to keep my mouth shut all these weeks while Nature made their decision? You know how nitpicky Marco LaGuardia is.

He’s one of the best photo editors I’ve ever worked for, Lucio said.

So? Did you sign today?

Ah, Lucio said, setting his glass down on the balcony’s concrete floor. I did not sign. I wanted to stop by this afternoon and tell you that I won’t be signing at all.

The light left Piers’s face. His mouth collapsed and drew in tight. His eyes went flat. But why?

Look, Piers. I appreciate you thinking of me. Lucio touched his friend’s trousers, feeling a bony knee beneath the cotton. But the reality is, I do not want to leave. I am happy here. I am not even certain I will accept any more out-of-country field assignments, ever.

Piers cocked his head in surprise, then leaned back in his chair, speechless.

Lucio laughed, a little annoyed by his obtuseness. Piers, just a few weeks ago you were toasting me and Genevieve, wishing us happiness. And then you went right out and tried to have me sent away, halfway across the world?

Piers’s mouth fell open. Sent away? Since when does Lucky Montevez see an assignment as a problem? He looked mystified. It pays extremely well, and you need that money. Plus you have a good chance to make the cover, which will put you right back into the game. I do not understand.

Then Lucio saw itPiers truly did not understand. His anger left him. Piers, I wasn’t joking when I told you how I felt about Genevieve.

Piers sputtered, then shrugged. I justwell, Lucky, if I may be blunt, it never occurred to me that you were serious when you said that. I mean, when have you ever been committed to a woman? I just assumed He ran a hand over his chin nervously. My God, Lucky, he whispered. None of this is what I intended. I owe you an apology.

He watched as Piers hung his head and shook it back and forth. Lucio gave him a moment to compose himself. He retrieved his wine glass from near his feet and took a couple sips. It is all right, Lucio said.

No! Piers jerked his head up and looked toward Lucio with a pained expression. I am such a poor friend! I did not listen to you. I did not believe you. And now I have caused you grief. He got up from his chair and leaned over the railing.

Piers was so tall and so much of his torso rose above the wrought iron that Lucio feared he could topple right over. Four stories wasn’t a skyscraper, but it was enough to crush every bone in his body.

It is nothing. Forget it, Lucio said. It was a misunderstanding. Just tell Marco that you want the job after all. Tell him you mistakenly assumed I was available but I am not.

Piers looked over his shoulder and down at Lucio. You wouldn’t mind?

Of course not, Lucio said, waving his hand around. They wanted you in the first place! It was your job from the beginning. Take it. Get back to work, Piers. It will do you good.

Piers nodded slowly, then turned his gaze out toward the city. I haven’t accepted an assignment since Sylvie died.

I know, mi amigo.

I just realized something, Piers continued, chuckling softly. Maybe all that altruism was just a way for me to avoid facing my own fear. I was able to tell myself I was doing you a favor, when really, I was just afraid to get back into the world.

Lucio nodded, touched by his friend’s introspective honesty. It could be.

Forgive me, Lucky. Piers let go of the railing and fell back into his chair. I can be so stupid sometimes.

There is nothing to forgive. Lucio laughed a little.

What is so funny?

Ah, it’s just that maybe I should be asking for your forgiveness.

You? Piers seemed baffled. Why on earth?

Because I think I am more shaken up by that whole mess in China than I have led myself to believe. Knowing what Ilsa did to me has made me a bit paranoid. I even thoughtfor just a momentthat you, well, were out to get me.

Piers’s mouth went wide, then he laughed. What?

I know, I know, Lucio said. But just for an instant I worried you had arranged for me to go to Mauritius to take me from Genevieve. That you might be a little jealous because you’ve lost Sylvie and I’ve just found Genevieve.

Piers closed his mouth with an audible snap of his lips. I see, he said, looking away.

And that is why I ask for your forgiveness.

Piers nodded, but didn’t say anything for a long moment. He sighed as he returned his gaze to Lucio. I know it must sting to know that someone you once cared about could treat you so badly. Ilsa tried to destroy your life. It must weigh heavily on you.

Lucio shrugged. Yes and no, he said, sipping his wine. I know she’s under investigation and the whole thing will be cleared up eventually, but the more I fall in love with Genevieve and enjoy my pet portrait business, the less it enters my thoughts. Sometimes it feels like China was part of someone else’s life. Even losing the Erskine doesn’t seem like a fatal blow anymore. He looked up at Piers. Does that make any sense?

Piers offered a small smile. Sure.

I suppose it is no longer about how others perceive me. I am more focused on being true to my heart, being a good man to Genevieve, and being happy. Lucio noticed the incredulous look on Piers’s face and they enjoyed a laugh together.

They wrapped up their visit a few minutes later, and Piers gave Lucio a big hug at the door. It had taken a while, but Lucio had convinced Piers to join him for dinner at Genevieve’s the next evening.

Fine. I will come, Piers said, looking nervous.

You will love her, Lucio said.

Piers laughed. That’s a given! But what if she despises me? You know I’m not good at socializing.

Lucio shook his head and chuckled. Relax, Piers. Genevieve is a good judge of character. She’ll love you right back.

He settled back into the comfortable sofa in Rick’s den, stuffed to the gills with greasy pepperoni pizza and chicken wings. It boggled Lucio’s mind to see how much food Josh and Jason could consume in a sitting. Lucio knew he’d had a healthy appetite as a teenager, but perhaps not this healthy. He did not recall ever eating an extra-large pizza by himself.

A flag? What the’ Holding? The ref is out of his mind! Jason turned to Lucio, slack-jawed, tomato sauce on his chin. Did you see that?

Lucio smiled. I did. But I am not an expert with American football. I’m more of a soccer man.

Sure, Josh said. Football in Europe is soccer, right?

Right.

Did you ever play? Jason asked, wiping his hand over his chin, which only served to spread the tomato sauce up his cheek.

I had no choice, Lucio said. My father was a professional soccer player when he was younga goalkeeper for the team in Seville. He also made it to the national team a few times.

No way! Josh said.

Sounds like me, Jason said, tossing a half-eaten slice back into the box. Dad was a big baseball star in college and he pretty much forced me to follow in his footsteps, but he freaked out on me when I didn’t make the cut on the traveling team.

Lucio nodded. The same happened to me. My talent was behind a camera, not in front of a soccer goal. Unfortunately, it just gave my father another reason to make things difficult for me.

SOML, Jason said, shaking his head.

Lucio frowned. I’m afraid I do not understand.

That’s text talk for ‘story of my life,’ Josh said, scrunching up his nose as if he smelled something bad. Jason likes to use expressions he thinks make him cool.

A year on Antarctica wouldn’t make you cool, Josh.

Lucio grabbed his beer to hide his smile.

So do you still hang with your dad? Does he still live in that area of Spain you’re from? Jason asked.

Lucio nodded. He still lives in Las Alpujarras, but we have not spoken for twenty years, I am sorry to say.

Dude! Jason said. Seriously?

I am afraid so, Lucio said. He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees and pressing his fingers together as he considered how to frame this story for the boys. We did not get along very well. He was I cannot find the word anyway, he was up and down all the time with his moods.

Unpredictable, Jason said.

Volatile, Josh said.

Oh, yes. Lucio paused a moment, not wanting to say anything negative about their own father, but knowing his story resonated with them.

Dad’s like that sometimes, Jason said. It’s frustrating, because I don’t know which Dad I’m going to get when I go over therethe fun and nice one or the complete wack job.

It depends on how the ole in-and-out is going for him that week, Josh said.

Lucio coughed, nearly choking on his surprise. It was a shock to hear how jaded the fifteen-year-olds sounded. It was extremely sad.

Josh continued. Dad really thought his new pussy-puller would be drawing them in like flies, but it isn’t working. At least the flies don’t fly around for long.

After blinking a few times, Lucio knew he had to ask. What is a uh, what is this puller you mention?

The Porsche 911, Jason said. That’s what Dad calls it. I guess it’s supposed to help old guys attract young girls. Jason reached for his half-eaten pizza slice, and in three huge bites it was all eaten.

The Host! Lucio let his forehead drop to his hands. It was a complete mystery how Genevieve had remained married to that man for so long.

So have you found out who did all that crap to you in China? Joshua asked, trying to change the subject. Do you have any suspects?

Lucio looked up from his hands, seeing the curious faces of the young men. He chuckled with the realization that Josh had not succeeded in changing the subject in the slightest.

There were quite a few suspects.

Really? Who? Jason asked.

A few women, Lucio said. Unfortunately, for much of my life I did not treat women very well. I left many of them angry with me.

What did you do to them? Josh asked, frowning.

I was not very kind or respectful. I had a reputation for leaving without saying good-bye.

Jason’s eyes went huge. That’s cold!

And wrong, Lucio said. I have learned my lesson. The way you treat others will surely become the way you get treated.

Josh looked worried.

I would never do anything to hurt your mother, Lucio said. She is my heart.

Joshua squinted at him. So one of these girls decided to make your life miserable?

It looks that way. She told my friend Piers what she did. I called her a couple weeks ago, and she admitted it to me.

That’s the guy whose place we went to for all the photo equipment, right? Jason asked.

Yes. He’s coming over to the house for dinner tomorrow night, Lucio said.

Cool, Jason said.

So why was this chick so mad at you? Joshua asked.

Lucio smiled, amused by Joshua’s dogged pursuit of the truth. We had dated for a few months while we worked on an assignment together. I left her a note saying I was leaving the country, but she followed me to the airport. She cursed at me in front of many passengers, and told me that one day she’d make me pay.

So she ripped you a new one right there in public? Jason asked.

Lucio chuckled. I’m afraid so. And she could curse in several languages.

Josh nodded. She had to be really smart to pull off all that stuff in China, with the paperwork and the bank account and giving your work to the Chinese government.

Lucio nodded. Yes. She is a smart woman.

Josh blew out air, his face looking slightly pale. Well, thanks for that life lesson, he told Lucio.

How do you mean?

Dude, I’m going to try my best to never piss off a smart girl.

Lucio smiled, wishing someone had taught him that lesson when he was fifteen.

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