“It’s lonely up here, when the tricks have been played.
And the spotlight has faded, and the plans that we made
have fallen apart. It’s lonely as hell.
And there’s no magic spell for a broken heart.”
-Warren Zevon, “For My Next Trick, I’ll Need a Volunteer“
NOTE: This story takes place about two months after “So Night Follows Day.” I’m planning a little break when that story finishes, however, I’m aware that I owe everyone a “Festival of Cupid” story, so thought I’d bring it to you in time for Valentine’s Day first.
La Contessa’s face filled the screens of every TV in San Finzione. She started making goofy faces at the camera, before suddenly being whacked over the head with a rubber chicken. Rita Delvecchio, in her La Contessa makeup, pretended to have been knocked silly and collapsed beneath the camera’s view. The real Contessa Helena de San Finzione stepped in and took her place, letting the rubber chicken slip from her hand onto the floor.
“Good Morning, San Finzione!” She cheered in Italian, as stagehands pretended to drag Rita off camera. Another collected the rubber chicken. The main government television channel showed subtitles in English, with a notice that subtitles in the other two official languages of San Finzione; Spanish, and French, were available on other State channels. “I don’t usually come on the air and address you like this, but it’s a very silly and very special day, so I thought I’d explain what will be happening today. On this, San Finzione’s first annual Festival of Cupid!”
Although she didn’t have an audience present in Castle Finzione’s studio, the crew cheered well enough.
“Of course, you’ve all seen the signs and commercials about how it’s going to work.” She said with a grand smile. “But since today’s the day, I thought I’d refresh everyone. To help me explain, here is San Finzione’s Minister of Science, Dr. Miguel Rocco, live from the Ministry’s Loveology Labs.”
The camera cut to a man in a lab coat with a clipboard. In the background behind him, people poured various liquids together to turn them red. A pair of men in lab coats pondered an elaborate equation with a lot of hearts and arrows in the formula.
“Gracias, Contessa.” Dr. Rocco said, being more used to panel discussions on television than this sort of thing. “As you’re aware, top ... er ... Loveologists at the Ministry have been working closely with Señor Cupid for many months; analyzing the letters that the People of San Finzione and touristas visiting our lovely nation from around the world on this day, have sent to him this past year.”
He walked as he spoke, past a man and a woman behind him, who distilled a strange fluid into a bottle marked “Attrazione.”
“Of course, although San Finzione is not a large nation, as we all know, Señor Cupid has very tiny wings; and so, we cannot possibly expect him to reach every lonely heart in San Finzione in a single day by himself. That is why science has come to his aid with this!”
Dr. Rocco approached a supercomputer that someone had stuck a big, heart-shaped sign onto that said “Agapetron 3000.”
“Behold, the Agapetron 3000! Capable of calculating over two hundred billion possible romantic scenarios per second. For months, it has been analyzing your letters to Signor Cupid to find the most ideal matches possible.” He turned to the computer. “Good morning, Agapetron 3000!” He said to the computer in French.
“Bonjour, Doctor.” A mechanical-sounding woman’s voice said from a speaker behind the sign, which lit up a heart-shaped light in time with her voice. “Je t’aime.”
“French, of course,” he turned to explain to the camera. “Is the optimal language in which to program a Love Computer.” He turned back to the Agapetron. “I love you too, Agapetron 3000. Have you calculated which lucky citizens or visitors are going to receive a surprise visit? Are you ready to send the lists to Señor Cupid’s helpers?”
“Oui, Mon Cheri.” The speaker in the computer responded. “Sending them now.”
There was a mix of whirring, spinning, old-timey computer sound effects for several seconds, which culminated in a “Ding!” at the end. Dr. Rocco blushed a little as he patted the computer and the French woman’s voice cooed from the speaker. The camera cut back to La Contessa.
“Thank you, Doctor.” La Contessa said back in the studio. “Now, of course, some have asked if there will be another ... heh...” Helen chuckled to herself. “‘Gathering in the park’ like last year. Now, the Government of San Finzione cannot condone such activities. However, as a precaution for the sake of ... er, enthusiastic revelers, St. Francis de Sales park will be closed to minors from 1800 hours tonight until 0600 tomorrow. La Policia will, of course, be making regular patrols if any citizens should require assistance; and respecting the privacy of any masked couples who do not request it.”
A page emerged from offstage and handed La Contessa a thick envelope.
“Oh!” She said to the audience in mock surprise. “It appears my own list from the Agapetron 3000 is here. Yes, I, too, will be out there amongst you, assisting my dear friend Cupid today! As will three of his other helpers in the special red Zorro masks, whom you may also see walking around San Finzione today and tonight. Please do not interrupt them with other business or attempt to remove their masks, as they will be on official business for Signor Cupid and may be secretly watched over by both him and soldiers of La Squadra de Ultimados as they perform their duties. We will not be able to get to every letter sent, and of course, there are bound to be some who have asked more than Signor Cupid’s tiny hands can deliver. But who knows? It might be me knocking on your door tonight, your letter in hand, to speak to you about your special request for my friend. I hope to see you out there today, San Finzione! And if we don’t meet today? You don’t need to wait for me or Cupid to come knocking. Get out and see what San Finzione has to offer you, too. And however this day ends for you, know that you already have La Contessa’s love. Ciao!”
Troy Equals walked back into the taverna where, a year and a few days prior, he’d performed Dean Martin’s “Mambo Italiano“ on the stage. The bartender recognized him, went to turn on the stage light, and asked “Mambo Italiano?” Troy shook his head no and ordered a Greek coffee. It was too early in the day to sample the Raki he’d had when he and Julie came here before; however, he might be a while. The bartender remembered that sexy wife of Troy’s and asked where she was. Troy told him they had plans for later. He also made a display of not noticing the emerald-green iPad that Troy carried under his arm, and told him the drink was on the house, welcoming Troy back to San Finzione.
Contessa Helena de San Finzione was known for giving gift baskets to her overnight guests, and the quality of the company and the evening was reflected in the quality of the items in the gift baskets. Her very best gift baskets contained iPads colored Emerald Green, the royal color of San Finzione. It was, therefore, common knowledge that any attractive man or woman walking around San Finzione with an emerald-green iPad was a “special friend of La Contessa’s,” and because Troy and his wife and girlfriend all owned them, the occasional complimentary drink, special discount, or “express line” opened up to them when they carried them in public in the city.
He took a table where he could see the door, fished the red Zorro mask from his pocket, and put it on. Troy turned on his iPad and re-read the letter that had been scanned into it. A letter to Signor Cupid from a customer named Giacomo, who was smitten with the waitress. He’d longed to say something to her for ages and hoped Signor Cupid might be able to have a word with Ramona on his behalf.
There weren’t many customers at this hour, and only one waitress. He drank his coffee and waited patiently for her to come by his table. The waitress took note of the mask that Troy wore and made her way to him.
“Something I can get for you, Signor?” The young woman asked in Italian, with barely-contained glee; the way she might have if Troy had been someone from television or the movies walking in and sitting at one of her tables “like it was nothing,” and she was fighting everything inside her to keep from blurting out his most famous character’s big catchphrase that everyone came up and said to him when they recognized him on the street. Troy wasn’t anyone famous, though his wife had been in the news back in the States recently.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Troy responded, also in Italian. “However, if you are Ramona, there may be something I can get for you.”
Ramona fought a squeal as Troy gestured to the seat next to him, offering it to her. Her glee made Troy smile, too.
“I must say, Ramona.” He said, standing to hold the chair for her. “I wasn’t sure what sort of reaction to expect. I mean, you’re a beautiful woman, working in a place like this, you get told as much a hundred times a day by a hundred men.”
“Oh, si.” Ramona said with a smile, as Troy sat back down and opened up his iPad. “I hear this all day. That’s why it is so flattering to know someone is sincere enough to write to Signor Cupid about me.”
Troy smiled at that.
“Well, thanks for making my first one of the day easy for me, Ramona. Now, Cupid has sent me on behalf of Giacomo. Do you know him?”
Ramona wrinkled her forehead a bit. Troy brought up a picture on his iPad and turned it to show her. Ramona recognized him but appeared to have just now learned his name.
“Him? He comes in often. He is polite, very quiet. Sometimes, he brings in a flower and just sits with it until closing time.”
“He’s been trying to work up the nerve to give them to you.” Troy said, tapping a note. “We talked last night; Cupid wanted to make certain he was a good guy before I approached you, so he sent me to meet Giacomo. He was nice, answered my questions truthfully. He said some lovely things about you, he just gets nervous when you’re actually around. I had a talk with him about that; he’s feeling better now.” He turned the picture back to Ramona, then looked at her with an intense gaze.
“However, Ramona, I need to ask you a few things too before I can sign off with Mr. Cupid on this, so it’s important that you answer me truthfully, like Giacomo did last night.” She nodded, understanding the importance deeply. “Good. Let’s start with the most important question first: Are you already married and/or seeing anyone?” Ramona shook her head no. “Ok, good. The other questions aren’t very important without that one. Or this next one, I guess. Would you like to get to know Giacomo better? Study the photo, take your time.”
Ramona took a good few seconds looking at his photo, remembering her interactions with the man, before nodding in agreement.
“Ok, very good. Mr. Cupid will be quite happy to hear that. Now, Giacomo’s going to be coming into the taverna in about half an hour, and I think it’d be a nice surprise if you took the initiative and asked him out, Ramona. Don’t be nervous, I’ll stick around for a while, just watch from here; make sure my impressions about him last night were right before leaving you two alone. For the most part, you’ll be able to pretend I’m not here.” Troy thought a second, then changed his statement. “Unless I need a drink or something, you know. Still watch for that.”
Ramona smiled and nodded again, and they both laughed.
Susan Bailey knocked on the apartment door. She reached out and squeezed the hand of the woman she was escorting for moral support before the door opened.
“Si?” The woman answered, confused by the sight of her dear friend whom she wasn’t expecting to stop by, but more so by the red-masked woman accompanying her.
“Hi, my name’s ... er ... Cupid’s Helper. Are you Angelique?” Susan asked in Italian. She nodded. Susan turned back to the woman she’d approached the door with, a look from behind the mask asking her “Is this the right Angelique?” Her companion nodded, and Susan turned back to Angelique. “I’m sorry, I only speak English, Italian, and Klingon, not French. That won’t be a problem, will it?
“No, I know English.” Angelique responded in that language. Most of the people of San Finzione spoke at least two of the four official languages of the country. Susan exhaled a sigh of relief.
“Ok, that’s going to make this much better for me, anyway.” She responded in English. “I’m guessing you know Emilia?” Angelique nodded. “Well, Emilia has had some things she’s wanted to tell you for some time, Angelique. Badly enough to write to Cupid about it, and he sent me along to help. If this isn’t a bad time, we’d like to come in and have a word. Well, Emilia would, anyway. It’s nothing to worry about; she’ll tell you what’s been on her mind, you’ll listen, and I’m just going to be here to make sure that whatever comes of it, everyone’s still friends afterwards. That won’t be a problem, will it.”
Susan stated it as a fact, rather than asking it as a question. Angelique felt the need to listen to whatever it was that Emilia needed to tell her, and she knew that whatever it was, even if she didn’t like it, everything would still be good between them.
Angelique invited Susan and Emilia in. They followed her inside.
La Contessa’s helicopter descended onto Fort Ernesto, San Finzione’s Armed Forces headquarters, and home base of La Squadra de Ultimados; San Finzione’s elite Special Forces unit, and personal guard of Contessa Helena and Lady Maria de San Finzione.
A brass band was playing the national anthem of San Finzione on the edge of the helipad below, losing the sound battle to the helicopter’s engines; and Generalissimo Hernando Ramirez, supreme commander of San Finzione’s Armed Forces, stood in his parade uniform, next to Capitan Gregorio Ortega, commanding officer of La Squadra de Ultimados. Behind them, on the surrounding field, every available soldier was in attendance. As she landed, and the engines died, the band started up again. Ramirez and Ortega ran up to assist La Contessa out of her vehicle.
“This wasn’t supposed to be anything official, Hernando.” Contessa Helena de San Finzione told the Generalissimo as she accepted his hand out of the vehicle.
“La Contessa does not make official visits to the base.” Ramirez replied, under his breath. “The troops wanted to show their support on her special day.”
Helen allowed herself a tiny smile as they walked toward an awaiting Jeep.
“It’s not my special day, it’s theirs. And yours. You and Violeta have something planned?” She asked Ramirez, debating lighting a cigarette, then deciding to wait until the Jeep had reached its destination, rather than try to smoke in an open-air vehicle.
“We have a sitter for the Niños tonight. I’ll try to be on time for dinner for once.”
“Well,” Helen replied, as they got in. “Tell her I’ll do everything I can to keep some psycho from blowing up the world tonight without you.”
Ortega remained silent but nodded sternly, as if his Contessa had just given him that order. The Generalissimo smiled and responded.
“I will tell her this.” His tone changed to a slightly more serious one. “And what are La Contessa’s plans for the evening?”
“Probably the same thing I was doing all morning before coming here.” Helen replied. “Going out there, finding people who look like they’d make cute couples, and telling them ‘Don’t move. Are you seeing anybody right now? Well, what do you think of her?’”
The Generalissimo had worked alongside La Contessa long enough to tell when she was trying to avoid answering a difficult question with humor.
“Troy, Julie, and Susan are all in town.” He replied, musing in a way that was clearly not idle. “As is Señorita Sullivan.”
“So is Jeanne, and any hot man or woman who happens to catch my eye. Well, Jeanne was at the Ministry of Science, pretending to be a computer, last time I saw her. She’s got the night off, so I don’t know what her plans are. And there’s every chance that Jeanne made dinner plans with the Agapetron 3000, so I presume she’ll be busy. The Equals, Susan, and Colleen are all busy helping with the Festival. Julie did something like this last year, so she’s got some experience; if we’d thought to make it a contest to see who could get to the most people today before the four of us left the castle this morning, she’d be winning. This isn’t about me, though, this is ABOUT the People. And right now, it’s about two very important ones to me. Apart from all the ones I usually say are important. Besides, it’s still sort-of Troy & Julie’s anniversary, so they have something planned tonight. I think Susan and Colleen do, too.”
Ramirez nodded. The Jeep came to a stop, and he escorted La Contessa to the office where two Ultimados stood at attention. Ramirez left her with them, and Helen lit a cigarette and sat behind the desk, opening her black Prada Arcade bag, looking for something.
Primo Tenente Marisol Velasquez and Dr. Tenente Paul Maisson of La Squadra de Ultimados stood at attention until she motioned for them to be seated. Maisson had just sent a text and put his phone away. She then found the item she was looking for in her purse and set it on the desk.
“You wanted to see us, Contessa?” Primo Tenente Velasquez asked after a few moments.
“Yes, I did.” Helen said at last. “You’re both aware of what a special day it is in San Finzione, right?”
The two of them nodded. La Contessa continued.
“Letters have been pouring into the address we set up for Cupid a year ago, from San Finzione and from tourists planning to visit us on this day, asking that Cupid hear their plea. We’ve been reading them, analyzing them, doing background checks where possible, to weed out the creeps and perverts. Most of the letters have been addressed to Signor Cupid. A few have been addressed to me.” La Contessa smiled before picking up the object she’d removed from her purse earlier; a small blue envelope. “And then there’s this one. Left on my nightstand about two months ago, written on my stationary.”
Velasquez began to blush as Helen took out the letter and began translating the Spanish to English out loud.