When I saw the creamy unstamped third envelope with its elegant red logo in the upper left corner, my heart sustained an electric surge, even though I would have been furious had that exact envelope not been waiting for me. I slipped it quickly beneath the others as Tess was conversing with the desk clerk in her sensual, tongue-tripping Spanish, which made her seem like a different version of herself. She switched back into En-glish while discussing my arrangements.
"Is Alex here, Luís? I'd like him to meet Emma." To me she said, "That's the manager I was telling you about."
"No, señora, is his bridge game Sunday afternoon."
"Oh, of course, it's Sunday, isn't it? I'm confused because we're working today, Doctor Hector is starting a root canal for a patient in pain."
As we crossed the Mediterranean-tiled lobby where Clarence waited with my bags by the elevator, an arresting family tableau caught my eye. A pretty woman wearing a pillbox hat with veil and a stylish traveling suit was reading aloud to a little girl who sat beside her on a love seat flanked by potted palms and surrounded by a stockade of matching suitcases. The girl supported two solemn-faced porcelain dolls on her lap in the laissez-faire way a loving mother might balance two well-behaved offspring who could be depended on to stay put. The aloof faces of all three seemed to be equally riveted on the woman's sprightly reading"a la tarde . . . los niños saltaban . . . Platero . . . giraba sobre sus patas"and I was elated that merely in passing I could understand enough phrases ("in the afternoon . . . the children were jumping . . . Platero . . . spun on his hooves") to recognize Juan Ramón Jiménez's tale of his pet donkey, Platero and I, which we'd studied in first semester of college Spanish. Close by them stood a strikingly handsome man in wilted white linen, frowning and looking slightly beside himself as he ticked off items on a list with a silver pencil. Meanwhile, a chauffeur carried in more luggage to add to the pile already surrounding them.
"Ah, God, here come some more," Tess murmured angrily as we passed. "If Fidel doesn't stop breaking his promises, he's going to wake up one morning and find all the good people gone."
My room was on the fifth floor of the twelve-story Julia Tuttle, and Tess, having sent Clarence away with a folded bill before I could get my purse unzipped, proceeded to check out my closet, drawers, and bathroom. I went first thing to the window above the air conditioner to see what I would be looking out on for the next few months. It wasn't the ocean view, which the front rooms had, but the vista was agreeable and in its way less lonely. The Miami River, with its drawbridge and boat traffic, was to my left, the hotel's Olympic-size pool, surrounded by blue-and-white-striped cabanas, gleamed invitingly below, and to the right was a portion of Miami skyline, including, Tess proudly pointed out, as though she had put it there herself, the top of the Star building, where I would start work tomorrow.
Tess explained that patients sometimes had adverse reactions, and she had to remain at the office until they felt well enough to travel, so she couldn't be with me my first evening. She named the eating places in walking distance, a White Castle and a Howard Johnson's, and we made plans to have dinner the next evening.
Excerpted from Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin Copyright © 2006 by Gail Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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