Authors: Lisa Brunette
Speaking of the painting, Mick had Greta send the actual triptych down from New York, and it was in police possession as evidence in the case against Pennington James.
“Instead of pine boughs, what do you think of using palm fronds?” Rose asked.
“Bring on the fronds!”
Rose went outside to gather them in the yard around the fourplex, and Grace lit a candle to melt some wax into the shell so she could affix the candle to it, upright.
In her mind she ran through the list of tonight’s attendees: Cat, Mick, Ernesto; Cat’s new friend Jacob, who would be in town through New Year’s; Rose and her boyfriend, Leroy; and Evelyn, Chester Canon’s neighbor. Grace had invited Sergeant Alvarez and hoped she could make it as well. After that were a number of people she’d met in her previous visits to Miami, people she hadn’t had time to catch up with properly.
Rose returned with an armful of tropical foliage, and the two of them spread it around the room. Then Grace set Rose to the task of making punch, and Grace herself began assembling the tofu pâté.
Soon enough, Cat and Mick came home bearing a small, potted hibiscus tree. Its tangerine flowers resembled umbrellas that would unfurl in full bloom, a decadent pistil of pollen beckoning from its center.
“Let’s set it here, in the window,” Grace said, beaming at her two lovely family members.
Mick and Cat carried the hibiscus together and set it down delicately. They stared at the tree for a moment.
“I’ll go get the other swag out of the car,” Cat said.
“I’ve got some bling upstairs to add to this thing.” Mick winked at Grace and slipped out the door.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Grace said this to Rose, who was stroking one of the soft blooms.
“It smells like tropical Christmas.” Rose stuck her nose closer to the flower and inhaled.
Cat came in, her hands full of shopping bags, which she dropped onto her chaise lounge, now clear of paperwork related to the case. She reached into a bag and withdrew a box of retro bubble lights. Together, the three of them strung the lights onto the miniature tree. Once the lights had warmed, Cat, who said she had experience with these kinds of lights, tapped or inverted them to get them to bubble. Their effervescence made the room sparkle.
In came Mick with a canvas drop cloth he placed around the bottom of the tree as a skirt. He also brought down a box, which he offered to Grace. “Will homemade ornaments work for your solstice party, Miss Pris?”
“Oh, Mick.” Grace took the box and reached inside. He’d fashioned the most delightful ornaments out of bits and pieces from his studio: a few spines of an old Chinese fan tied together with red velvet ribbon; a garland of driftwood and shells; a vintage toy car hung with glittery string. The four of them decorated the tree together, marveling over Mick’s creations.
When they were done, they stood back to admire it, and Rose said, “We need a star.” She looked at Grace and smiled. “I know you’re not hot on the Jesus story, but that star of Bethlehem, it always makes me weepy to think about it, a beacon in the night.”
“I’m not against those aspects, per se,” said Grace. She thought about the church sermons of her childhood, the fire and brimstone and talk of sinning. “There’s a reason they’re always claiming it’s the greatest story ever told. I think it resonates with us to think of God as not just a man, but a small baby in a manger. He’s nothing but potential.”
“I think I have an idea for our star,” Rose announced. “Mick, come and help me.” The two of them left.
“The studio looks beautiful, Granny Grace.” Cat gave her a hug.
“It does, doesn’t it? Oh, I do miss the old Victorian, and Seattle is quite lovely this time of year, when everyone hangs lights out so as to push against the rainy darkness. But the tropics for winter solstice? This is simply delicious!”
Grace glanced at the stove clock, which read 7:23 in retro flip letters. “We should probably get ready. And you still need to call your parents.”
“Right,” said Cat. She picked up her cell phone and went out to the balcony to have a private chat with them.
Cat hadn’t been in touch with her parents much since Lee Stone’s death, and Grace was worried that she was distancing herself from them.
Grace retreated to her own private section of the studio to change. She had chosen a peacock theme for her evening wear. She eagerly shed her casual clothes and slipped on a royal blue silk dress with a turquoise tunic over it. She’d indulged in a peacock “fascinator,” as they called them, a jeweled number with feathers that she used to secure her hair back over one ear. She wished she had her grandmother’s diamonds to wear as well, but of course those were in her safe back in Seattle.
Around the same time Grace finished dressing, Cat reappeared with a smile on her face. “Thanks for reminding me to call them,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how homesick I was for their voices.”
“Wonderful,” said Grace. “Now go get dressed.”
Grace fussed with the decorations again, and soon enough, Cat came out in a red velvet dress with a tartan-plaid sash. “Exploring your Scottish roots?” Grace teased, and then told her how smashing she looked.
Rose and Mick resurfaced, Rose holding something delicately between her hands.
“I got to thinking about the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men, bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Well, we don’t have any of that, whatever it is, but we have something better.”
She moved her top hand to reveal a star crafted out of thick white paper stock backed by tracing paper. There were cutouts in the thick top layer of paper so that the lights from the tree would shine through the tracing paper, dotting the star with glints of light. It was a six-pointed star with beams emanating downward. She shook the star softly, and fine glistening grains of sand filled the beams of light like stardust.
“Did you use beach sand?” Grace asked. “It looks sugary, like it came from Bahia Honda.”
“No,” Rose said with a glowing smile and a wink at Mick. “That’s Donnie.”
A few hours later, the party was in full swing. Cat and Jacob played a card game with Rose and Mick. Grace was catching up with Ernesto, who cut a handsome figure in a dark suit and crimson tie, when Evelyn arrived, bearing a basket of guava pastries.
“I brought your favorite,” Evelyn said, offering the basket to Grace.
Grace explained to a puzzled Ernesto how they’d met over an offering of the same.
“Grace here nearly had me convinced she used to work for that cretin Chester Canon.” So Evelyn hadn’t bought that ruse after all, Grace thought. But it certainly hadn’t mattered.
“But I knew right away she was far too smart to work for a man like that!”
The three of them laughed.
“Let me get you a drink, Evelyn,” Grace offered. “You stay here and chat with Ernesto. What’ll you have?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine with some of that punch, assuming it’s spiked, of course.”
Grace checked in with the card party on her way to the punch bowl. She noticed that Rose kept glancing at her phone, most likely anticipating word from Leroy, who still hadn’t shown up. She nudged Rose and motioned for her to follow her into the kitchen.
“How’s Leroy?” Grace asked.
“I wish I knew.”
“He hasn’t been in touch?”
“Nope. Not a word.”
“Why don’t you call him?”
Rose hemmed and hawed. “I don’t want to nag him.”
Grace flashed angry. What kind of boyfriend would think that about an important evening like this? “Nonsense. Give him a call.”
Reluctantly, Rose dialed him on her cell phone. Grace turned her back to the punch bowl and made a show of dishing up Evelyn’s punch to give Rose privacy.
“Where are you, Roy Roy? You promised you’d be here. Don’t think you’re going to show up at the end this time, with your boys in tow.” There was a pause, but Grace couldn’t hear Leroy’s side of the conversation.
“What do you mean your homies are up in your crib? Well, I hope they’re up in your grill, too. You knew this was important.” Rose hung up on him.
Grace turned around. “Maybe it’s time to let him go.”
“It’s past time,” said Rose, her chin set hard. “I know that.”
Something occurred to Grace. “Rose, may I ask you a question?”
The woman nodded.
“You have such good judgment when it comes to your friends. I mean, Donnie and Mick, others I’ve met…” Grace paused, unsure how to phrase it.
“You wonder why I don’t apply that to my love life?”
Grace nodded, feeling instantly regretful that she was butting in
offending Rose all in one go here.
“Donnie was special,” Rose said. “We…you know…once. He’s one of the few men who wanted me for me. I wasn’t a fetish for him, or a curiosity…or a charity case.”
“Oh,” said Grace. She hadn’t anticipated that.
“But he was in love with Dark Moon, or whatever she calls herself.” Rose tucked her phone in her pocket. “Not that she deserved him.”
Grace was quiet.
“And your brother.” Rose shot a look at Mick across the room. “He thinks I’m a freak show.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s true,” said Grace.
“No, it’s fine,” Rose said. “We’re friends. Man, after what he’s been through, I have nothing but sympathy for him. But if you want to know the truth, Miss Grace, it’s this. If I weren’t transgendered, your brother would have fucked me by now.”
At that, Rose turned on her heel and went to rejoin the card party.
Finding herself uncharacteristically flustered, Grace poured another glass of punch and took a swig. Then she carried both over to rejoin Evelyn, who seemed unfazed by Ernesto’s charms.
“With all due respect, Mr. Ruíz, why would I invest in art? I don’t trust it. I’ve seen wildly inflated prices for pieces one week that no one will touch the next. There’s no regulation. Did you read about that Brazilian banker who used art to launder his embezzled loot? An eight-million-dollar Basquiat was seized in the Port of Miami. The bill of lading listed it as valued at only one hundred dollars.”
Ernesto appeared a bit flustered at Evelyn’s brashness and, Grace suspected, her knowledge of the underside of the art world.
“Are we discussing money now? At a solstice party?” Grace dazzled them with her smile and presented Evelyn’s punch to her with a flourish. “Evie, dear, let me introduce you to some of my family.” She whisked her new best friend away from Ernesto, figuring he was a grown man who could take care of himself.
After introductions, the card game broke up, and Cat hooked her laptop up to a pair of speakers Mick had bought. She’d created a playlist for the party, and the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” began to play. Grace shuddered and cast a disparaging glance at Cat, who ignored her. Grace despised the song, deep down in her bones. She hung back as the rest of the crowd laughed and began to carry on. Grace hooked her arm through Ernesto’s and squired him to the balcony.
“Horrid excuse for music,” Grace said, shaking her head.
“Yes, well, it is Americana at its worst.”
There was a pause as they gazed at the moon casting a beam of light on the waves far in the distance. Then Ernesto turned to Grace, swept his arms around her and said, “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” she said instinctively, though she realized she was only being polite. She’d been so wrapped up in the case that she hadn’t had time to miss him.
“So you’ve caught the man who set the fire? And this has to do with pornography? Involving children?”
“Why, yes, I suppose you’ve summarized it nicely.” Grace felt something new, something that had been pushing at the edges of her consciousness that she’d ignored before, but it was coming in stronger. She tuned into it.
“Terrible business that must have been,” Ernesto said, as if he were inviting her to elaborate.
She resisted. That dark red energy at the core of this case began to pulse at the fringes of her vision, and again, she heard the wings beating. “Yes,” she said, meeting Ernesto’s gaze. He had deep brown eyes, sweet enough to make an old lady like her swoon. But right now she didn’t feel herself swoon. She was thinking suddenly of Serena’s false identity, and of that dream Ernesto had, the one with the winged figure, and of what Evie had said about art.
“Miami’s such a strange place,” she said, squeezing his arm. “It’s populated mainly by people who’ve been forced from their homeland, and yearn to return.”
“This is true for many, I suppose. But not for me. I would never go back to Cuba, not even if the U.S. took it away from Castro.”
“America has been good to you, Ernie.”
“You’ve forged incredible connections here.” She folded herself into him, let him circle her with his arms. Then, nonchalantly, she asked, “What do you do for the Langholms, exactly? Mick says he’s seen you at parties at their home.”
She felt his energy shrink from her, as if he were drawing wings around himself. “Not very much, really. Minor investments, stocks, bonds…”