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As you all well know, I have recently been recruited by an internet policing organization (or so I thought) called Ironfist.
DO NOT TRUST IRONFIST.
Ironfist had one of their front organizations hack my account because I was leaking too much information about their plans to bribe high ranking security officers of popular websites to monitor online forum activities.
At first, the money was good, and I didn't think anything of it, but now I realize that Ironfist is not to be fooled with.
This may be the last message I post with this account.
Madeline Mayweather wasn't thinking about her family as she did inventory on the mind-boggling catacombs of drawers inside the ambulance. It was just another day of work, another day of picking up elderly victims of high-blood pressure, kids with broken bones, overdose cases, and indigents that just wanted a free ride. Why think about family when there were needles to be restocked, IV bags to be organized, and gauze packs to be counted?
Sure, in the back of her mind she was aware she had an Uncle Thug, an Aunt Lucille, and that her great grandmother's house had Caroline Parker living in it. She was even aware that her family was more than a little superstitious, well, to be honest, downright into voodoo. She was a modern girl, though, and she lived in a world full of computers and cell phones, not a word full of weird spirits and mysterious potions. She worked as an EMT, not as an assistant to some silly witch doctor, and just because she came from a family of loonies didn't mean she couldn't be something more.
"Need any help?" Rick offered sweetly.
Madeline's face went tight as she smiled. He was so cute! He had just enough stubble, and the most wonderful little dimples...
"No, that's ok. I've got it," she mumbled, trying not to look him in the eye.
"You need anything, you just have to ask." Rick said, his brilliant blue eyes like sapphires as he looked at her attentively. He'd been driving with Madeline for a few weeks, and it was only a matter of time. He knew she had a good head on her shoulders; she wasn't going to risk her job over him until the time was right.
Finally she looked up at him, and they locked eyes.
"No, really, I'm good."
They both stared just a little too long, savoring the moment.
"Ok, I guess I'll go kick some tires or something." Rick said, looking away. She'd be sitting next to him again soon, and he was patient.
M'buto lounged on Mark's black satin sheets, gloriously naked in her new body. She rubbed a casual hand over her chest, savoring the softness of her skin. Things had changed a lot since she'd last been incarnate, and for the better. For one, showers. Oh, sweet glorious HOT showers, and a panorama of soaps and scents to go with them. She'd thought she'd spoiled herself with oils and jasmine back in the old days, but this, this was an orgy of sensual delight.
Still, she missed servants. There was a time when the idea of bathing herself was simply ludicrous. Why, the slaves were falling over themselves to volunteer, and she'd only allow an elite few to scrub her precious skin. Some days she'd even held court from her giant marble tub, with the firebox underneath. If it wasn't for prune fingers, she would have lived there.
Regarding servants, it was probably time to check on Berry. She'd left the girl as intact as she could, but she'd been expecting at least a LITTLE resistance to the possession. It was kind of eerie how dead the girl was inside, like she just didn't have the will or motivation to fight back. Sure, she was one of the soulless, but that normally made the psyche MORE vicious, not less.
"Good morning Berry." M'buto nudged inside her mind, trying to get some kind of response.
"M'buto?" Berry asked sheepishly, still disorientated from being forced into her own subconscious, now nothing more than a voice in her own head.
"I was wondering... you're not offended that I've been taking... liberties... with you, are you? You've been awfully quiet."
It was one of M'buto's favorite taskmaster techniques, role reversal. A good master understands what it's like to be a slave, understands what the slave is feeling, what motivated them. The trick was to know how to be a servant yourself, and by acting like a servant, she ensured her people's empathy and devotion.
"NO!" Berry retorted harshly, almost whining.
"Well then, sweetling, what seems to be the matter?" M'buto prodded, like she was speaking to an introverted child.
"It's just...you know what I want more than I do," Berry replied, "Like Mark. I mean, I've sliced him before, and it was hot, but you made him cut HIMSELF, and then WATCHED. You made him WANT the pain, something I could never do..." Berry's ego strengthened as she went on, becoming more focused. "It's like watching an artist when you control me; like watching a movie. Only it's better because it's really happening..."
Movies... M'buto checked the girl's mind. Ah, fake stories you watch, like a play or a dance, entertaining lies to distract the ignorant from the sad truth of their lives. Modern people were strange; they had some much freedom, and yet they made themselves slaves to such vapid frippery.
Back in the old days, a girl like Berry would have only known the toil of the fields, her greatest value merely a full belly. She would have been appalled by the perversion of blood sex, but movies had twisted her little mind to the point where not only were such things not abhorrent, but she actually WANTED to do such sick acts purely for novelty value. She should have been deliriously happy and content in her lifestyle, yet she had been corrupted to be a vicious little monster to Mark, whose generosity was the only thing she had.
M'buto smiled to herself, thinking about it. Apparently bathing wasn't the only thing that had changed since she'd last been incarnate. Now she was curious... exactly how twisted WAS this little girl the Lord of Pestilence had chosen to host as her body?
"So my little Berry, this is your world... what do YOU think we should be doing?" M'buto left the question open-ended.
The reaction was almost painful as Berry's psyche went rigid, suddenly grabbing for power she'd subconsciously ceded to M'buto.
"We need to destroy Caroline Parker."
The scarred man looked down at the scrap of paper Timmy had given him. He hadn't given the flamer much of a break on the bag, but if this number didn't work, Timmy was going to have a lot more broken. He was kind of weirded out just holding the paper. After all, who dots the "i" in "Madison" with a little circle? Still, business was business, and he tapped out the number on his phone with a gnawed thumbnail.
He stared at the numbers stupidly before he hit "send," focusing eyes blurred by a mix of Jack Daniel's whiskey, two oxycontin, and a line of crushed Adderall tablets. Yep, they were the same. Still, he had an eerie paranoid feeling, like he was forgetting something important. Really important, like "left the stove on" important. FUCK! He should have snorted more Adderall; stupid numb-dumb pills were making him loopy. Wait...wait...number...phone... Berry...why? ZAG! Cheap South American coke!
His twisted face lit up, finally motivated. Nothing was important like "cheap cocaine" important! The thumb dropped onto the "send" button right before Scar put the phone up to the "normal" side of his face so Berry couldn't hear the creepy lisp noises from where the left side of his mouth didn't close.
Star's phone lit up in its holster on his belt, buzzing like an angry bumblebee. He looked down at it: Straight Mike? That was weird; he rarely called before 9 PM. Maybe it was important?
"Shit man, shit's bad. Fucked up. Caroline just got back from Pedro's. Fucker shot her! I'm so fucking pissed at thug right now! Where the FUCK was he?! FUCK!!" Mike's voice quavered as he spoke in a rush, the words jumbling in his mouth unintelligibly.
"Whoa! Shit! Slow down, man. Where's Caroline? Is she ok?" Starburst's eyes went wide. Momma had told him Mr. Stallings was mad she hadn't been keeping a good eye on Caroline. This couldn't end well.
"She's ok, she's ok, FUCK! I can't believe it, she's ok. Showed up at my apartment, blood all down her thigh, talking all cool like she was gramma. No hole, though! She's stronger than gramma was! Fucking evil strong!!" Mike was still hysterical, and Star realized it wasn't all because of the shooting. They all knew Caroline wasn't the same as Mama Agnes, Senora Maya, or Mrs. Black, but bouncing back from getting shot was unheard of.
"God damn it Mike, chill out!" Star snapped, exasperated, "What do you need me to do?"
"Ok, ok," Mike panted, "Somebody stole something from Mama Agnes gave to Caroline, a shrunken head of some witch named M'buto. They tried tracking the thief's aura, but it was done by one of the soulless."
"Ok..." Starburst drawled slowly, letting him know he was calm, helping Mike to calm himself by knowing he was listening.
"...so Dom points out someone's poured blood on the doorknob at 1st Holiness, Maya blood, so Caroline goes to see Pedro. ON HER OWN! She didn't tell ANYbody!" Mike took another breath, realizing he was losing control again, "So Caroline shows up at Pedro's, and Pedro just shoots her! But then she doesn't go down, she just takes it, then Angelia beats the fuck out of Pedro for some reason. Ends up Pedro DID have Zag steal it, but ANOTHER soulless stole it from HIM!"
"Wait...what? How the hell...?" Star responded, flabbergasted.
"No, no, so it gets worse. Right, so ends up this head, M'buto, was a mixed blood witch, the baddest there ever was, and she was a servant of Pestilence. So Dom thinks Pestilence is trying to bring back M'buto, and that means..."
"... all four horsemen will be working together in the same place." Star finished, now every bit as scared as Mike. "What the fuck are we going to do?"
Mike swallowed, realizing it was HIS job as emissary to do this.
"We're having a coven. Pedro and Caroline have already worked it out, but they want to get Mama Agnes' opinion. She's the last of the old ones left, and she's the only one with the wisdom to stop Pedro and Caroline from doing something stupid. Well, that and her house is midway between Pedro's and 1st Holiness Pentecostal."
"Holy shit...I...I...I've got to talk to Mama..."
Caroline smiled for the first time she could remember for a long time. Dull gray rain dripped from the sky in a mist-like drizzle, covering her precious roses in a dusting of sparkling droplets. The rain soaked her hair into a ragged stringy mop, gluing her shirt to her modest breasts and small potbelly. Her chewed fingernails caressed each petal gently, sending droplets cascading down her wrist. She pressed her face into the bloom, her face nearly swallowed by the giant crimson petals. Life, life wasn't good, but life was...LIFE, and enjoying it was a choice, not a circumstance. The chill of the rain, the dull gray sky, the smell of wet manure that made those magnificent blooms possible, it was beautiful because it was REAL, and for no other reason.
"You know, sometimes I worry about her." Lucille confided in her brother Thug as they stared pensively at the mad woman barefoot in the rain, bloodstains sill covering her clothes. From her mountain of a brother came a distant rumble:
M'buto stared at the flashing lights as the small gray box vibrated its way towards the edge of the end-table, finally falling off into a round metal trash can with a "PLUNK!" She smiled kittenishly as the thing rattle with a pathetic buzz inside the trash when she noticed the remnant of Berry's mind fighting her for control again.
Really? Wow. M'buto picked the thing up and sure enough, it DID have a little screen on it, like a scrying glass on a combination of acid and steroids. She clicked a button with a manicured nail, and just as berry remembered, a cracked and zoned out voice began whispering from it. M'buto held it up to her car. Apparently there was a protocol...
"Berry?" the whiskey stained voice replied, confused by M'buto's clean cut African accent on Berry's voice.
"This is she..." M'buto answered. It was technically true, after all, and she saw no point in explaining the situation.
"Hey, yeah, Berry... so... uh... I heard Zag's back in town. I was just wondering, uh, if he was still, you know..." the wasted voice stammered.
IDIOCY. M'buto was a patient mistress, but if she had any pet peeve it was stupidity. It was always funny, after a battle, to interview the prisoners with intelligent questions. The best and brightest she saved as slaves, not willing to waste them on the cook pots, but the stupid ones... they either learned how to think quickly, or learned how to boil slowly.
"Who are you and why are you calling me?" M'buto demanded imperiously, just seconds from ending the conversation altogether.
"C'mon Berry, you know me, it's Scar," he wheedled, his voice turning smooth like a pimp's.
Scar...Scar... M'buto pumped Berry's memory. Wait, there, yes, SCAR. Nicknamed for the big rip in the left corner of his mouth, which was left by...Thug, in retaliation for selling Straight Mike some fake pills. Alarm bells went off in Berry's mind; Thug was the muscle behind the Black family, the family Caroline Parker controlled. With his underground connections and malleable drug warped mind, he was a good candidate to work as muscle in the new M'buto Empire. After all, being as dumb as he was, the chances he'd survive long enough to get on her nerves was virtually nil anyway.
M'buto shifted gears, changing her voice to Berry's club girl squeal.
"Oh, SCAR! Hey, how ya been doin'?
"You know me, every day I'm hustlin'" Scar rasped, already losing focus on why he called.
"Haha," M'buto squeaked, "Honestly, I don't feel comfortable talking about this over the phone... why don't you just come by?"
It was almost too easy. She'd been itching for a fresh meal since she'd been reincarnate, and now an expendable weapon to attack the Black family fell right into her tiny manicured fingers. She'd start small of course, picking off the weak stragglers in the Black herd. Like....
M'buto entered the trance, sensing the nearest carriers of Black blood. A large matronly woman came to mind, Lucille, the trance informed her. She refined the fog, and to her surprise a needle of pain shot into her mind, like a brief burst of intense migraine. Warded! Apparently this Lucille woman was no soft target; she was protected by Black magic. Hmm...
M'buto refined her search again, this time specifying the unprotected. Who was this? Ah, perfect, defenseless. And young, too, vibrant even! Luckily this one disdained the traditions that protected her relatives in favor of "science," whatever ridiculous upstart cult THAT was. Sadly, by the time this girl learned the mistake of taking the wisdom of her elders for granted, she'd already be making a piecemeal journey through M'buto's belly.
Scar waited just inside, the derelict doorway of an abandoned house, waiting for the siren and lights just as Berry had asked. He couldn't believe Zag would try and test his loyalty like this, but then again, no undercover cop would go so far as to rob an ambulance. Back before the war, Zag would never have done such a thing, but then again war changed people and Berry certainly had no reason to lie. Besides, it wasn't the first time he'd ripped off any ambulance. Everybody knew they had all the best dope in there, that good medical grade shit.
The sound of sirens broke his line of thought, and just as the flashing lights came through the window, he faded into the shadow of the hallway....
"You want me to go with you?" Rick asked her warmly.
"No, it's ok, just an overdose call. By this time she'll either be completely out or stoned enough to just let me walk her to you. I'll go inside, get a quick check of her vitals, and whatever she's been smoking will leech out of her system by the time she gets into the ER." Madeline answered with bored detachment. It had happened so many times a day she didn't even question the routine anymore.
"Alright, I'll just keep it running then."
Madeline trotted briskly across the crack brick walk, a black First Aid kit slung over her shoulder as she approached the paint-chipped doorway. She grasped the doorknob firmly, peering through the dirty glass as she shouted "AMBULANCE!" at the top of her lungs. The knob turned easily in her soft white hand as she pushed herself inside, knowing every second of indecision could cost someone's daughter's life.
"AMBULANCE!" she shouted again, this time her head whipping around the half-destroyed crackhouse.
"She's back here!" answered a hoarse voice as the sound of booming footsteps filled the empty hardwood hallway.
Madeline tried not to flinch as the drug ravaged man grabbed her hand, his face barely recognizable as human.
" I just came in, and she was laying there twitching," he explained breathlessly as they ran to the back bedroom. Madeline felt her skin try to crawl away from the touch of his sickly warm fingers as he spoke through blackened teeth. She pulled away the second she burst through the doorway, dropping to her knees to check her patient for signs of breathing. She was astounded at how small and cute the girl lying in a jumble on the filthy floorboards was as her fingers shot towards the victim's carotid artery. Good, there was a pulse...
It only took a blink for it to happen.
Madeline's head jerked back, sharp slicing pain tearing through her throat as a set of perfect pearly whites dug deep into her neck, severing the artery. She tried to escape, scrabbling frantically, but two tiny iron-strong hands anchored deep into her hair, taking the tiny assailant up with her as Madeline stood.
M'buto's legs wrapped with tight heat around her, the witch-queens throat pumping vigorously as it drained the still living blood from Madeline's neck. The stricken victim tried to scream, but M'buto's jaws clamped her throat shut like a vice, stopping all function of her vocal chords.
Good. The struggling was good. Keep the blood flowing, tinge it with sweet adrenaline, spice it with tangy fear, pump it generously to muscles and organs it will never reach so she could gorge herself. It had been a long time, too long, but the anticipation only made the blood that much sweeter as the sound of Scar's boots faded from earshot. The stricken girl thrashed, already losing her vigor as M'buto sucked her life blood greedily. In a valiant effort, Ms. Mayweather dug her right pinky obscenely into M'buto's eye-socket, just barely short of the force needed to pop it out of place as spots swam in front of her eyes. Bright green eyes, wide with fear, suddenly aware of the wet pressure of M'buto's naked vulva beneath the short skirt she'd been wearing. M'buto's hips pumped as she sucked, finally reaching delicious climax as the eyes of Caroline's adopted granddaughter went glassy in the dim light.
Both bodies slumped to the ground as M'buto's orgasm pulsed, shaking her with hot pink delight. Finally the witch queen wiped her chin, smearing blood across her lower jaw and arm garishly. She took a palm full of the still warm blood and rubbed it sensuously between her legs, sighing contentedly as her victim's lifeless body cooled on the floorboards.
Rick flinched as he heard the sound of the junkie's uncalloused palm slapping against the window of the ambulance. Immediately he popped open the door, knowing an instant's hesitation could mean life or death for Madeline's patient.
"Something's wrong!" the junkie lisped. Rick grimaced as he watched spit spray from the twisted corner of the man's mouth as he shouted. "She said come quick!"
Rick never second guessed as he ran past the junkie into the house, his feet following the sound of the struggle as he bolted through the ramshackle shack towards his partner. His jaw dropped to his chest when he saw the little prostitute's teeth digging into his sweetheart's throat.
It only took one second of hesitation, one brief window of vulnerability, for Scar to slip the heavy wrench out of his pocket. The cold steel glinted in the dingy light of the window...
A small chip of bone sliced through Rick's brain, and suddenly, it was over.
As you may or may not have noticed, I've reached a dry spell in my novel. I've been doing a rather intensive course in poetry because I feel my writing has lost a lot of the bounce it once had, despite having massive increases in the areas of dialogue, plot development, and world depth.
However, I'm nearly completed with these poetry exercises, and in true FUNK fashion, I've decided to release a recent work... OF HATE.
Expect the next chapter to be forthcoming in two weeks.
And now, without further adieu.....
I can save this
cleanse it with death and fire.
Life is infection
a rancid wound
to astringe and cauterize.
you were conceived in lies.
I can wash this
world of you
let only the pure survive.
Come and help me
thin this herd
ensure the weakest die.
We shall profit
from this death
beautiful dream realized
and from the ashes
use dead to fertilize.
Until the remnant
is no more
and hate alone survives.
"What the fuck are you doing?!"
Mark stared incredulously at his over-stuffed leather couch as Berry shivered and shook, her wetness soaking into the pores of its expensive upholstery. M'buto stared back at him through the eyes of her new host, all sing of her spectral apparition now gone except for the matted knot of hair and human leather laying on the table next to Berry's Hello Kitty purse.
"Exactly what I want to do." M'buto answered, her regal African accent cutting through Berry's voice as she stared hungrily at Mark's throat.
Berry's body rose from its enraptured languor on the couch, her lacquered nails continuing to caress her breasts and clit as she stalked towards Mark. Sweat glistened on her naked flesh as she reached out to him, pulling his wrist towards her flushed skin. Mark stood there in shock as she rubbed his hands over her silken body, not believing she was finally giving in to his fantasy. He stuttered dumbly, not knowing what to say, not wanting to ruin the moment, knowing one wrong word could snap Berry back to her capricious cruelty.
Before he realized it, his erection prodded her through his pajama pants, something totally unacceptable in Berry's normal power play.
However, Berry was no longer the one in control.
"What's this?" the accent asked demurely, lulling Mark with its purring tone. Berry's tiny hand reached below the elastic band, reaching inside to rub her still warm juices over his now raging erection.
"It's... it's... uh..." Mark stumbled. He had always known Berry was CAPABLE of this level of sensuality, but despite all his generosity, she'd never given it to him. She'd always found some reason to claim he didn't deserve it, always teasing, never giving him her all despite all he gave to her. He didn't know what drugs she was on right now, but he was going to find out and buy her some more the second this was over.
M'buto felt his blood throb in her hand and squeezed, buckling his knees and drawing him towards the couch where the knife glistened innocently between the cushions. This was control, the good kind, more powerful than any fear she could inflict. A few of these sessions and he'd be following her around like a puppy, only better than a puppy, with the intelligence to predict her whims, and the means by which to bring them to life. With this technique, she could hook him stronger than any drug, addict him to her in ways that made Berry's coke seem like mother's milk.
Speaking of which, she was still in her weakened state. It may not be time to feed on this one, not yet, but it was too tempting not to at least have a taste. A small taste, she reassured herself. She didn't have a big enough knife for the other kind yet.
She pulled slowly, breathing hard into his ear, reveling in the shivers that climbed his spine.
"Do you see the knife?" she whispered
He nodded dumbly.
"Do you know what I want you to do with it?"
His expression turned worried. Berry had taken a knife to him before, and she hadn't shown much restraint. M'buto read his expression, disgusted that Berry had been such an amateur. That was all over now, though.
"Let me show you..." she purred, letting go of him. That was punishment enough for not predicting her wishes. Control and precision are important parts of mastery, and the punishment must always fit the crime.
She took the knife, digging shallowly into her wrist to create a modest flow. She squeezed her forearm to increase the bleeding and nuzzled her face into Mark's neck, pushing is mouth upwards. She released a few drops between Mark's slack-jawed lips. The taste of her blood was electric, and he moaned softly at the touch of her wrist.
She reached for him again, this time squeezing hard, hard enough to hurt, but no more.
"Do you understand now?
He took the knife and gashed himself, not willing to be outdone by the tiny girl. He was the man; he should be the tough one, not her. He'd disappointed her already, and he never wanted to do that again.
The knife slipped in his hand before he realized what had happened, creating a freakish new mouth on his inner arm. It took a moment for the blood to really start flowing, but from the beginning it was clear the self-inflicted wound was too deep. The pain scared him, but the fear only added to his excitement. Hot blood dribbled into the expensive carpet, dribbling down his elbow as he stared in disbelief at what he'd done.
M'buto snatched his wrist, sucking the blood from him hungrily with Berry's lipstick-smeared mouth. It was so thick, so savory and hot, full of sweet sustaining life. She stroked him ferociously as she drank, bringing him to frantic climax with her bloody hand.
Restraint. It was too soon, too soon to feed on this one in a more sustaining fashion. Mark fell to his knees, his face paling with blood loss as the endorphins rushed through what was left of his circulatory system. M'buto had seen this before; his pounding heart was rushing the blood from him, causing premature exsanguination. Without a tourniquet he'd bleed out in minutes, leaving her without a servant for the time being. Unacceptable.
With flippant effort she entered the trance, negligently readjusting the bonds between the cells in his wrist. This virulent power, the power only the deity Pestilence could give, forced scar tissue to form, oozing from the wound just as the blood had only moments ago, sealing the gash shut like caulk in a leaky pipe.
Berry stared helplessly behind eyes controlled by the malevolent spirit of the witch queen, watching true magic flow from her mind for the first time. This wasn't like last time, when she was possessed by The Glass...
It was better in every way.
Caroline pulled into Pedro's gravel driveway, calmed from her anger by the long drive enraptured in the trance. Something was... off. Pedro was here, clearly, but something she'd expected was missing. She still hadn't reached the level where she could detect the exact nuance of what was wrong, so she stepped cautiously from the door onto the crushed stone path...
Glass shattered with the crack of the gunshot and Caroline stumbled as something struck her with blinding violence in the pelvis. There was no pain, not yet, but the ripping sensation promised that and more to come soon enough.
She looked down at the hole in her jeans incredulously, still in shock as the blood blossomed like a flower in the faded powder blue cloth. A rattling thump distracted her as Pedro and Angelia crashed through the remnants of the screen door, a slim long gun falling down the stairs of the porch just out of reach of Pedro's groping fingers.
Sweet Angelia was a tornado of violence, all swirling black hair and knuckles in a spinning whirlwind of released aggression, like the exploded boiler of a small nuclear power plant.
Pedro could do nothing but cover his head with his arms as she struck again and again, her knuckles quickly scraping themselves bloody against the hard bones of his skull. She stood up over Pedro's prostrate form and began delivering vicious kicks to his head, soccer style, yanking his neck out of joint with the deceptive power of her well-muscled legs.
Zag appeared like a phantom, snapping the girl up in a textbook full nelson as her legs flailed wildly. An inhuman shriek of hatred and despair wailed from the lips of the she-devil as she thrashed in the calm arms of the ex-operative. Pedro pushed himself up to his hands and knees, drooling blood as he spat teeth onto the deck of his trailer, pieces of broken door all around him.
With a vicious kick and fast rear head butt, Angelia dropped out of Zag's hold, using her running momentum to knock Pedro onto his back with another kick, his jaw hanging at an awkward angle from the impact with her blood spotted white canvas shoe. Pedro rushed to stop her, only to be floored with a knuckle cracking blind back fist, a move only those who were capable of knowing without seeing could deliver, a move Charlita herself had taught her daughter.
Zag rallied once more, again using soft wrestling tactics to restrain Angelia's arms as he gently rolled her to the ground, this time wrapping her up with his legs to fully control her. Blood seeped from a fresh open cut over his right eye, a memento from her precision back fist as he whispered tersely in Spanish into her ear. When that failed, he spoke the Maya dialect, and finally she stopped struggling.
Caroline used the trance to shield her from the pain of her gunshot wound, ignoring the superficial damage to her pelvic bone left by the .22 caliber slug of Pedro's target rifle. She'd learned to heal such things long ago, and already the small piece of metal was oozing its way to the surface. She'd learned this technique the hard way once she'd discovered Berry's ex-boyfriend Raz's inert body after a suicide attempt, and she'd gotten much better at it since then.
The slug fell to the ground through her pants leg as she climbed the short stairs of the porch, reaching down to lift Pedro's disjointed chin.
"Why?" she asked blankly, looking deep into his eyes as his soul writhed inside.
Pedro made an unintelligible hissing sound, his broken jaw rendering him incapable of speech.
Negligently she re-fused the bones of his jaw, adjusting them in the rainbow static first, then watching as reality twisted itself to comply with the trance.
"Marbles." Pedro answered.
"Marbles?" Caroline questioned, confused.
"You're made of marbles. Pink and black."
Pedro had become remarkably adept at English since their last meeting. Caroline made a note not to underestimate him; he was smarter than he looked.
Angelia answered her, still ruffled and bloody, having been released by Zag after calming down.
"He means your aura. It's streaked with black, like a cats-eye marble."
"Oh..." Caroline responded, confused, "But why is that a reason to steal from me? To shoot me?"
"You can't trust a mixed blood witch," Pedro and Anglia answered in unison, as if by rote. Pedro raised a hand to Angelia, a sign that he would handle this.
"It doesn't matter now." Pedro wheezed, sitting up to cradle his bruised ribs.
"Bullshit it doesn't!" Caroline snapped, instinctively using the same power that had healed his jaw to twist at his bruised ribs, crippling him with pain.
"Caroline..." Angelia interceded as Pedro's silent screams opened his mouth wide, his ribs too painful to allow him to breathe in enough air to make a sound. Her eyes widened in fear, wondering if her attack had actually saved Pedro's life.
"No! I will NOT!" Caroline responded, sounding insane, realizing her cruelty only proved everyone right about her. She punched herself savagely in the jaw, only to have Zag grab her elbow with a soft hand.
"Caroline..." he said the name softly, his Urdu accent adding a level of warmth to the words, "He means M'buto's head is missing."
"Wh-what...?" Caroline stammered.
"It's gone. We found out this morning. We think it was one of the dealers, but we can't be sure. There's no dope missing," he added plaintively. He was trained to keep his head, and he did it well.
"No." Caroline replied, "This is bigger than drugs."
And then she told them the truth.
Nate watched Caroline's explanation with interest. And to think he'd once wanted her dead! She wasn't the brightest bulb, but she'd come a long way since her run in with The Glass. He wondered idly who he'd sacrifice to mix his bloodline with hers. Unlike Dom, he had a good idea of who her original patron was, and the two possibilities were very interesting indeed. His stupid little brother didn't know what he was getting into, and it looked like he'd bet his chips on the wrong horse.
There was no reason everyone couldn't win, he considered. The only problem was in getting....
No. He couldn't even permit himself to think it, just in case. But when the opportunity arose... it was only a matter of time.
Timmy applied his false eyelashes with the expert care of the experienced drag queen as he shared the small bathroom mirror with Starburst.
"God, I would KILL for those legs."
"You should try shoe shopping with me some time," Star quipped, "These legs might come up to my neck, but they're attached to some hug feet."
"I guess...it's hard not to be envious with bulky square calves like mine." Timmy whined.
"Oh hush," Star retorted, adjusting his wig, "At least you have good hair."
"Hey girl, it doesn't come easy. I had to go to college to look THIS good," Timmy defended.
"There's no college in the WORLD that could teach these knaps to look presentable." Starburst explained with a wag of his neck.
"Touché." Timmy admitted, "By the way, did you know Zag's back in town?"
"NO!" Starburst exclaimed happily, "How is my favorite Latin cutie?"
"Still hetero." Timmy answered sadly, with a feminine flip of the wrist.
"So who HAVEN'T you told yet, Ms. Gossip?
Timmy looked at the ceiling like a schoolgirl, "Oh, I'm certain there are some people left in this town I haven't met yet."
"Don't get me started," Star replied bitterly, "God I wish I was in San Fran right now."
"Amen," Timmy agreed, "I haven't heard back from Berry since he took her out to Pedro's."
Starburst's face went serious. "What did you just say?"
"I said Zag's living with is Uncle Pedro, and he took Berry down there to hang out." Timmy answered, worried at the change in Star's tone, "Why's that such a big deal?"
Star's voice dried out, devoid of all frivolous emotion, "I don't know. But something in my gut tells me it's got something to do with Mama."
"Oh, you're just being paranoid." Timmy consoled.
"15 minutes ladies!" Straight Mike prompted, signaling the drag show was about to start.
It was in this moment that Timmy would back upon, this moment where he could have paid attention to the details instead of chasing novelty. It was here that the distractions he'd filled his life with got in the way of the harsh reality about to consume his life.
No drag show, no television show, no video game or song can ever compare to the miraculous reality that surrounds us all. Boredom is a trick, a ruse, a mask for apathy, ignorance, and laziness. Every molecule of a peck of dirt is a whirling miracle of physics, forces too complex and fantastic to be obvious balanced in a constant state of war with one another. With heat, that speck of dirt could be incorporated into a brick, and with mortar, many bricks becomes a castle. Many brick castles could for the basis of an empire, but the first step was a single man staring intently at a boring piece of dirt and pondering the possibilities.
Caroline ignored the signs of warning, and it cost her her mentor and savior, Mrs. Black. Pedro ignored the signs of satanic influence in his family, and ended up killing the only people capable of protecting him from it. Even the highly trained Mama Agnes slipped, ignoring her difficult duty to Caroline in order to bring dramatic justice to Pedro. Already Marcia M'buto has slaked her thirst with the blood of one of those willing to buy into her illusory fantasies, stealing the mind and body of another
This is the juggling act, to manage the balance of distracting enemies with rumors and fairy tales and keeping the eyes of your allies focused on stone cold reality. It is by no means an easy path, but its masters control the world at whim while those lost in fantasy languish in slavery, a slavery all the worse because it binds with chains no chisel or hammer can break.
Grey smoke curdled in the air like the ghosts of tortured children as it strained through the green light above the pool table in The Fool's Card. It curled up from a cheap off-brand cigarette, a cigarette tucked improbably into the extended slit of a heavily tattooed and pierced man's mouth. He focused a yellowed eye down the length of his pool cue before firing the eight ball into a corner pocket with a satisfying crack.
"So, did you hear? Zag's back in town." Timmy said as he pumped more quarters into the rickety billiards table.
"Zag? You mean Zag Maya Zag?" the disfigured man asked quizzically.
"That's the only Zag I know," the effeminate man clarified. "I mean, how many people do you meet named Zag?"
A sick parody of a human smile crossed the scarred man's face. "Fucking finally. Do you have any idea how much more I had to pay for a brick after that guy left?"
"Of course I know," Timmy quipped waspishly, leaning against the table where Thug had first seen Caroline. "As I remember, your twenty packs started tasting like baby laxatives."
"Hey fuck you! I don't fucking step on my shit!" the scarred man snapped. Rumors like that fucked with his money, and he'd stabbed men for less. Much less.
"Hey, hey, you know I was just kidding!" Timmy placated, although it was the god honest truth and they both knew it. "Anyways, I was out with Berry shopping for those hot stilettos she just bought, and she mentioned she was going out to see Zag. Apparently he's living with his uncle."
"Shit... I haven't seen her since..." the scarred man drawled.
"Last week, remember? We bought an eight ball." Timmy filled in.
"Oh, yeah, right," the dope-dealer recalled. At the time he'd been on two footballs of Xanax and had been more concerned with how much weight he was moving than who he was selling it to. "You got her number?"
"That depends. Are you going to give me a break on this bag?"
Caroline gritted her teeth as she stared Dom straight in the eye. "I did NOT spend the last two YEARS studying Mrs. Black's library to be Pedro, Rodney, or anyone else's victim. The Mayas aren't the only ones with a couple of tricks up their sleeves goddamn it. I'm gonna find who stole from me, and I'm gonna FUCK their shit UP."
She tilted her head to the side, and evil glint in her eye. "And Dom, I'm going to do it MYSELF, so I'd appreciate it if you gave me some room."
Dom was a mixture of proud and scared. What was Caroline going to do? He knew, however, until she had a chance to test her abilities, she'd never be fully mature. "You do what you have to, just know I'll be there for you if you call me."
Caroline softened a bit. "Thanks for everything, Dom. I need to do this for me. I'm not the punk they think I am, and they're about to find out just exactly what I am the HARD way."
With that, she gave Dom a hug and gently pushed him out of the door.
Cars rushed past the upscale downtown soul food café just as they did everyday, seven days a week, thirteen lunar cycles a year. A deceptively rundown sign read "Jimbo's Butter Fried Catfish," complete with rust stains applied by a vegan painter with a master's degree in graphic design. Row after row of expertly stained and scratched tables reflected the dying rays of the sun through floor to ceiling windows, windows no legitimate soul food cook could ever afford. In the kitchen, pasty white chefs ordered oppressed Mexican day laborers around like slaves, not a single ebony face to be seen.
At one of the tables sat the immaculate form of Rodney Cunningham, grinning at the sick juxtaposition as he watched the door. Outside, a gnarled black man in second hand clothes, his back bowed with age and years of honest work, was being pushed back out of the door by a polite but strong-armed maitre de. Rodney savored the injustice of it, his bright blue eyes twinkling before he finally spoke up.
"No, it's ok. He's with me," he shouted, waving his hand towards the table.
Reluctantly the maitre de backed off, letting the gnarled old man through with a suspicious glare.
Peter Stallings hobbled towards the table, putting the hassles of small-minded people behind him. Unlike the maitre de, he knew this place would be closed in the next six weeks, belied by the rows of empty overpriced booths. He chose this form for a reason, and he had every intention of enjoying this restaurant's slow downfall. Famine's vengeance was always slow and excruciatingly painful.
"I hope you don't mind; I ordered you a plate of fried catfish." Rodney smirked.
"Much appreciated," the old man wheezed.
It was an old joke. Peter hated rich, greasy food; he preferred an honest meal of collard greens or red beans and rice to a plate of deep fried lard any day, two entrees the white management didn't even offer at the so-called soul food restaurant.
The old man eased behind the table as the wait staff pointed and whispered in the background, the original waiter attempting to slough off the table on a newer employee now that he knew the race of his client. Peter stoically ignored them, just as he would ignore their prolonged suffering and poverty in the not too distant future.
"I noticed you been triflin' with Caroline Parker." Peter stated bluntly, his leathery face tight with irritation.
"I haven't done a thing to the girl!" Rodney defended, his hands spread open innocently.
"Bull. Just because you did it so slick you even got Mrs. Agnes to let you do it doesn't mean you got away with it," Peter drawled in his heavy accent.
Rodney's eyes opened wide with false transparency, "I have never had any contact with Mama Agnes, you know that. She's yours, and totally off limits."
"Like she didn't know. I ain't no fool, Rodney, and I don't appreciate you treatin' me like one. Now I ain't one for threats, but you and I both know Mr. Borden ain't gonna be pleased with that. Look here, I got one of mine all sideways with Mr. Borden, and she's a good one too. I'm gonna ask one time, nice and easy like, that you lay off of men and mine. We done some good work together in the past, ain't no reason to go muckin' that up now."
Rodney's ever present smile tightened with the memory of the Irish potato famine. Good times, good times, he relished, thinking of all the emaciated bodies of those redheaded vermin.
"Now now, Pete, you know I'm just setting up Pedro for the crimes he's committed." Rodney oozed greasily.
"That line might o' worked on Mrs. Agnes, but I ain't lettin' you piss down my leg and tell me it's rainin.'" Peter warned, "This is straight talk. You leave my family alone, 'cuz you and I both know Ms. Madison couldn't handle the wrong side of me any better than Mrs. M'buto did. It wouldn't be nothin' for me to nip this thing in the bud. Ain't nobody fooled by your line." Peter said calmly, meaning every word.
"Whoa there!" Rodney placated dramatically. He'd planned for this reaction, and he had no intention of breaking his old alliance. Peter had come through for him on things not even Nate would touch, and both of them enjoyed making work for Dom. "Again, I never talked to Mama Agnes; you know that. She chose to let me get M'buto back on her own."
"And you don't think she ain't gon' suffer for that? I don't like letting mine suffer, unlike you. You mess with Nate and Dom all you want; they're big boys," Peter stuck out a crooked finger to emphasize his point, "But this is ME, and this is the line, and I ain't standin' for it. Open or secret, you leave mine out of your monkey business. You think I don't know you instigated this whole Pedro mess from the jump? I'm here to tell you, you ain't slick. Don't think I don't know what you're plannin'."
"Touché brother, touché," Rodney conceded, "But you have to admit, you DO want me back around. Otherwise, you would have stepped in before this."
For the first time since he arrived, Peter displayed his eerily perfect set of pearly white teeth, remembering how he and Rodney had played the tribute paying farm nations and barbarian hordes against Nate's elitist Roman aristocracy. If he had one vice, it was his love of watching the arrogant and self-righteous get a taste of what those they condescended to suffered.
"Ya got met there, brother," he laughed.
Caroline rested her hands lightly on the steering wheel, her eyes closed suicidally as she zipped down the open road, wrapped deeply in the trance. She didn't need her eyes to sense the dangers of the road; she could read all that and more in the patterns found in the seemingly random rainbow static that lived in the darkness behind her eyelids.
Every other car, every inch of road, all of it added intricate elements to the static, elements a trained mind such as hers could easily read. It had all started when a demon known as The Glass had used that very same static to enter her mind, leading up to the intervention of Mrs. Black.
It was from The Glass directly that she'd learned her first lessons on reading the patterns in the static, patterns even normally people see when they close their eyes, patterns caused by the background radiation of the universe firing across the rods and cones that make up the human eye. The trick was not in knowing what to look for, but knowing what to exclude. It was almost algebraic, finding the value for an unknown by determining what it could not be.
Since Dom had detected Maya blood magic through the simple matter of noticing the bloodstains on her doorknob, the culprit was obvious; only Pedro Maya could do such a thing. Caroline wasn't stupid enough to warn Pedro by having Thug call Zag, either. She relished doing this for herself.
Cars whizzed around her, but she maintained perfect control of the vehicle despite having her eyes shut to the scenery around her. The other drivers were oblivious; as long as her car stuck tight to lane and speed restrictions, they had no reason to suspect a thing out of the ordinary. Every car on the road disturbed the cosmic radiation she was interpreting, each speck of gravel in the asphalt with it's own specific signature of disturbance.
Because of this, Caroline was actually more aware than the drivers around her; she had a three hundred and sixty degree view in her mind's eye. Off in the horizon of the dreamscape, a tiny speck of yellow that signified Pedro's soul acted as a homing beacon to her destination.
Marcia M'buto was no demon, despite the reputation she'd garnered for herself over the millennia. She'd studied demons, though, and the technique of possession was new concept for her, not by a long shot. In fact, in her direct training from Ma she'd learned the rudiments of the technique from exorcism. The trick to a successful exorcism wasn't the banishing of the spirit so much as it was the use of a second spirit to use as a lever to push the old one out, just as the original soul had been. Normally the original host soul was used, but in extreme cases where the host soul was terribly weakened or destroyed an exorcist would use her own soul for such a task, particularly in the face of a very strong demon.
It was this technique, of using her own soul to enter another person's body that she prepared to use on the willing mind of Berry Madison.
However shallow it sounded, there was still an element of ... style.. she wanted to incorporate. Power wasn't enough; she'd learned that while ruling the M'buto Empire. It wasn't enough to rule, to control, the greater power lay in the mastery of the subject's desires, not just her fears.
The true master understands that a beaten slave will never work as hard as an eager one. Regardless of the circumstances of service, there has to be at least a token level of consent. This subtle truth defines the line between the gutter rapist and the dominatrix, between the queen who spends all her time eyeing the shadows for assassins and sending her food off to the tasters, and the queen who walks proudly half-naked down the main street, adoring followers strewing flower petals beneath her feet.
To truly master a slave, then, is to make a possession, just as a pet is property. A pet owner takes pride in a show dog's lustrous coat, on its sunny disposition and playful antics. If push comes to shove, euthanasia is an option, but then the master is deprived of valuable property. It is not enough to own the slave, then, but to seek true mastery of the slave, being just as demanding of your own skills of management as you are upon the labor of your property.
What then would this perverted little girl want most?
...Ah. Of course....
Berry sulked. Her last bump of coke was wearing off, and M'buto just stood there, wearing that stupid serene expression. Couldn't she see the sun peeking in the window like a nosy old lady? What the hell was she waiting for?!
M'buto's expression soured, turning pouty, and her words took on a fragile edge. "Mistress Berry... don't you want your property? Am I not... am I not good enough for you?" she stammered, nearly pushing the performance to crocodile tears. C'mon you spoiled brat, take the bait...
Berry's painted on eyebrows twisted into an irritated v-shape. "What are you talking about? You're the one with all the powers." Already her nose itched for another bump of sweet powder. This sleep deprivation was making her cranky.
M'buto's full African lips formed a perfect "o" of surprise. "You mean you don't know? Why do you think I never appeared to Caroline? She's not...special, like you. My power would never be able to transfer to someone like her."
"JUST SPIT IT OUT!" Berry snapped. All this mystic mumbo jumbo was giving her a headache.
M'buto schooled the face of her avatar to hide her irritation. To think such a pretty body was wasted on this uncouth little trollop. Apparently she was too stupid to take a hint. Left-handed, M'buto reached behind her and unhooked the golden clasp around the chain holding her purple gown on. The soft fabric dropped slowly, revealing perfect black breasts, each one topped by a magnificent peaked nipple. The cloth continued to fall, sliding sensuously past her hips, her perfect stomach tapering down between her hips, finally resolving at an engorged pick clit dripping with delicious feminine juices.
"You have to take me," she whispered, her eyes locked onto Berry's aggressively.
"Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!" Berry spurted eagerly, already snuffling white powder into her nose as she approached. She recapped the vial and tossed it casually behind her, stalking up to M'buto before suckling her tit hard enough to bruise. She grabbed the apparition behind the left knee, slamming the goddess down onto Mark's couch. She dribbled a trail of saliva from her breast down the black marble washboard of her abs, farther down between legs painfully stretched apart by tiny eager fingers. Berry's little pink tongue darted between those perfect vertical lips as she kept one dark leg held high, pulling the other down to mount it wit her own moistening heat.
They ground at each other, teasing, toying, a small knife appearing in Berry's hand as if by magic. She slipped the blade into the waist of her Capri pants as M'buto's bare right foot slipped out of her sandal to caress her back behind her head. Berry jerked the blade savagely away from her hip, releasing the cloth with a jagged rip. The coke rushed through her veins, making her more frantic and desperate to be naked as she tore at the fabric. Finally, her left leg felt the glorious tingle of cool air, and she took a brief moment to pull M'buto's hips hard into her lips.
She plunged the knife into her waistband again, peeling the cloth back to her thigh before making the cut. M'buto wrapped both perfect legs around Berry's head as she worked, crushing her face into her warm dark crevice. Berry worked frantically, nearly suffocating in the sensuous embrace before being deliciously naked from the waist down. Finally, Berry thrust a hand in front of her face, squirting up through M'buto's legs as the dark woman's vagina left a trail of juice down her body.
The red head straddled the dark goddess, whipping her shirt off to reveal her own painfully erect nipples, her thighs rubbing against the bottoms of M'buto's breasts as she ground her clit onto that ebony skin.
"You want me to take you?" Berry whispered hoarsely, pinning M'buto's arms above her head.
"Yes mistress." M'buto answered submissively.
Using her left hand to keep M'buto's arms held in place, Berry delivered a resounding right-handed slap to the witch-queen's jaw.
"DO YOU WANT ME TO TAKE YOU?!" she bellowed abusively.
"YES MISTRESS!" the dominated woman screamed, her face burning from the ringing blow.
"That what I THOUGHT!" Berry cried victoriously, finally straddling M'buto's face. She plunged both hands into the apparition's intricate braids, delivering face-crushing blows from her engorged pussy. She rolled onto her back for more control, her abs flexing with the force of driving her pelvis into M'buto's face.
M'buto worked her tongue masterfully, doing her best to hasten Berry's climax. That was her weakness, the involuntary convulsions of orgasm the ultimate sign of an ego incapable of self-control, incapable of self-defense. Berry's grunts became audible, louder and louder, changing to screams of ecstasy as she neared her limit, waking Mark from his troubled sleep.
The sound of Mark's door opening excited Berry more, the danger of being caught, the...
"OH GOD!" she screamed, gushing hot juice all over M'buto's face.
Black and white skin tangled in a yin-yang of orgasmic bliss. The lines between the women blurred, their bodies fusing into one in the moment, the specter of M'buto finally absorbed in that simple moment of release...
And then Mark walked into the room.
It has been said that no man is an island, and yet some people are archipelagos, only able to see those around them in the dim distance, only able to connect through the deep and difficult waters of protocol and social structure. Caroline is one such a person, having no physical connection to anyone else, having no peers, no siblings, no one with which to share her fears and hopes, her victories and defeats, totally and utterly alone. All of this would drive a mentally strong and proud woman to the breaking point, and Caroline is neither of these things.
Even now, Caroline sits on her porch with Death her only friend, confused and alone in a world soaking her in its cold uncaring rain as a frigid mockery of her hot tears. To such a person, the only border between pessimism and optimism is a river called "denial."
Dom broke the beautiful frozen silence with an apology.
"I'm sorry Caroline."
Caroline pushed the anger deep down into her chest, glad to have a veil of tears to hide her true emotions under. Even from the first day, he'd hidden who and what he was. Although he'd never openly lied about it, his very use of the human form was a sick perversion of his true identity. Todd and Mrs. Black, both gone, gone because he had taken them. How could he pretend to be her friend in the face of that? Caroline had many illusions, but that Dom would spare her when her time came was not one of them.
"Sorry? SORRY?! Will you be 'sorry' when my time comes? Does that make any of them less dead, the stillborn children, the people with cancer, the people who die in accidents?" Caroline struggled to keep her cracking voice in check.
"You don't understand. Dying begins the moment a person is born. It's all subjective. Every life is equal." Dom explained patiently. He'd had this conversation before.
"How can you say that?!" Caroline spat, her façade cracking to show the true face of her anger. "How can you say an aborted fetus has the same quality of life as an old millionaire with countless grandchildren?! YOU CAN'T! It's not fair! It's not right!"
Dom took a deep breath, emanating calm by his example. "It's all subjective, Caroline. A life is a single unit, not a year. Years are a human invention. In order to live, you must die, otherwise life would be changeless and meaningless. Success on this earth is irrelevant, because that success is meaningless to the dead. A dead millionaire is just as dead as a dead beggar. It's the only equality there is."
"So you're telling me it's fair when some parents who love their children have their kids get cancer when dope fiends are pumping out perfectly healthy babies?!" She spat.
"Cockroaches breed like cockroaches. Their children are worth less, so they get more of them. If you're not a person, it makes more sense." Dom's expression was pained. It was a difficult concept.
Caroline broke down, not having the stamina to maintain that level of emotional involvement for very long. "I just don't understand..."
"It's both more and less complicated than you think." Dom said. He'd been expecting this. "Would you like me to start from the beginning?"
Berry teetered into Mark's house as the sun peeked over the horizon like the vengeful flashlight of an angry God. She struggled to keep her balance on her steel stilettos, finally losing the battle to sleep deprivation, alcohol, marijuana, and the body numbing vibrations of Zag's motorcycle as she fell into Mark's overstuffed leather couch.
She brought her knee up to her chin as she started work on her knee high speed laces, her foot tucked delicately beneath her body. She zipped through the laces with practiced ease, freeing the five pedicured piggies of her left foot. She took a brief moment to wiggle life back into her tortured toes before going to work on the right boot, and after some struggle, she liberated her left foot as well. Finally she flopped back spread eagle, luxuriating in the feeling of fresh air on her stifled toes.
Her eyes fluttered as she neared sleep, prompting her to grope blindly behind her for her Hello Kitty purse. She reached into a side pocket for a tiny glass bottle and a nail file, taking two quick bumps in either nostril before sitting back up. There would be plenty of time for sleep after Mark woke up. She pulled a stylish black clove cigarette from the pack, glad to be away from Zag's disgusting roll-ups. She sparked it, and pulled free the purple velvet string bag she'd stolen from Pedro.
She pulled open the mouth of the bag daintily, not wanting to touch the head before getting a good look at it. At first she only saw the knotted braids of hair, but as she spread the mouth of the bag, the desiccated fist of ancient leather became clearer.
The eyes and mouth of the head were sewn shut, a few ragged stitches pulled free for some reason. She pulled the head loose of the bag by its ropelike hair, and that's when she heard the voice in her head.
"In the beginning, there was nothing. Of course there was nothing; if there were something, it wouldn't really be the beginning, would it? This nothing we call The Void, and it is in this womb of nothingness we were conceived. And in The Void there was a spirit, because a spirit requires nothing to sustain it. It is this spirit that is my Father, and The Void is my mother."
"It was Father that created time as a way that The Void might understand existence, as a means of Father's spirit relating to The Void. Time is a bit like a metronome, making reality swing with equal amounts of positive and negative. The sum total is still nothing, but now it's nothing with complexity."
"They say Father said 'Let there be light,' but that's not actually true. Father said, 'Let there be Lucifer," the light-bringer, created in the image of Himself, kind of like how you might use a picture of yourself to explain who you were to someone who doesn't speak your language. It's complicated, I know, but bear with me."
"You've met my brother Lucifer. He goes by the name Nate Task around here, if you remember. Anyways, there was The Void, Father, and Lucifer. Lucifer had an infinite amount of time to exist in, and since he was created in Father's image, he decided to create demons in his own image. Kind of like how when you look between two mirrors you get that infinite reflection thing."
"Ok, ok, I'm losing you. Hold on. So Nate creates demons, but they're not like you think. They're just forces of nature, laws of physics. The first few were simple, like gravity and absolute zero. So these demons start to interact with each other, and start building this world where time is eternal and nothing ever dies. Kind of like a Garden of Eden, but in a much purer sense. But you see, Father never intended Lucifer's existence to be anything more than a gift to The Void, and all this was against His original intention."
"So Father creates a brother for Lucifer, an opposite, a balance to keep all of existence at the same zero it was when The Void was all there was."
"He created me."
"So my purpose, who I am, is the Equalizer, the Comforter, the Peacemaker. In the greater scheme of things, this is what I am. To Lucifer's creations, to you, I am Death, but I don't see things that way. I didn't get a choice to be created. I'd rather just be Dominick Borden."
"So here I am, systematically undoing everything Lucifer does, keeping things in balance, but there's a problem. Lucifer creates a race of things that aren't demons that have spirits like what Father is. And for the first time, Father realizes what a terrible thing Death is. What I am. These things, these people, can talk to Father, and He hears them."
"So Father has mercy on these people, and gives them an option. He can't allow them to live; that would go against His original intention to please The Void. What He does instead is creates two new beings like me and Lucifer. He creates Famine and Pestilence."
"It's a choice, see? Before, in order for something to be made, something had to die. I kept the balance, and the living things had no choice. Nothing they could do could extend their lives; they were helpless in the hands of Nate and I. Nothing had a soul back then, so this wasn't an issue. With the creation of souled animals, of people, this balance changed, and so Father created Pestilence as the path to Death, to me, by being devoured, and Famine, the path to Death by failing to devour. I no longer chose what lived and died; the living things were allowed to work that out for themselves."
"Now, Famine and Pestilence weren't like Lucifer and I. They were more... human, so they chose to ally themselves with the people who chose them. Pestilence allied with hunters and warriors, fishermen and trappers. Famine allied himself with farmers and herdsmen, with cities and civilization."
"This is how the magic bloodlines were formed."
"Mama Agnes's bloodline is pure and direct from Famine himself, who goes by the name Peter Stallings. There are other branches all over the world that know him by different names, but locally, his name is Peter and the All-Saints family are his people."
"Locally, there is no representative of the bloodline of Pestilence, who goes by the name of Rodney Cunningham, for a very specific reason. You see, time isn't forever anymore, and eventually, The Void from which we came will reabsorb all of us, me, Peter, Rodney, and Nathan. When all four of us gather in the same place in this world, the final undoing can begin."
"After Rodney and Peter took up tribes, so did Nathan. Locally, Nathan is allied with the Maya family, although Pedro doesn't know this. He doesn't even know his bloodline HAS a patron. Nathan killed his predecessor, Senora Maya, because she'd fallen under Rodney's influence in the drug trade. Pedro's Catholic, or at least he was, so he naturally assumed Lucifer was his enemy. Nate finds all this hilarious, by the way."
Caroline broke from her trance, shaking her head as she recovered from the shock of what Dom was telling her.
"So who is YOUR bloodline, Dom?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"I was getting to that. As long as only three families are in an area, there's no issue, but some time ago I allied with a midwife, Mrs. Black. That meant there were three active families, no room for any more. But Rodney was trying to move in, so Nate killed off his matriarch and abandoned the family." Dom eluded.
"So that means you're my patron?" Caroline asked pointedly.
"Yes and no. Ever since you joined the Black bloodline, I've been your patron, but there's something else in you, something I've never seen before. It's not Nate, it's not Rod, and it's not Pete."
"Look, I don't care about the technicalities. The other night, weird stuff was happening. Something killed some of my bees. Something was in here, opening my doors, killing my bees, it happened right in front of me, and then it just... stopped. I can't sit around being scared, I need to know what's going on, and you just admitted it's YOUR job to help me." Caroline was proud of herself. She'd said what she'd wanted, said it logically and without trembling. He HAD to give her answers.
"Wait, you're saying all this happened, and Mama Agnes didn't warn you?" For the first time since she'd know him, Death looked angry, and it was more shocking because of his normally kind demeanor, like watching a lap dog going mouth-frothing mad at a toddler who gets too near his food bowl.
"What do you mean? Why would she?" Caroline answered, puzzled. She'd hung out with Star on and off for a while, but for the most part she and Mama Agnes had stayed out of each other's way.
Dom's body began to emaciate, his fat jolly cheeks becoming sallow as his anger loosened his control on his physical avatar. "Do you remember Mrs. Black's funeral? When Mama Agnes promised to help you after Mrs. Black died?"
"Yeah..." Caroline answered sheepishly. This was not the Dom she knew... had she pushed him too far?
"Mama Agnes is a highly skilled diviner, Caroline. Nothing supernatural happens that she doesn't know about. NOTHING. She KNEW what was going to happen, and she broke her word to ME by not telling you." As Dom spoke, his lips pulled back from his teeth, each word more clenched and hissed with anger than the last.
Caroline was getting scared, the gauntness in Dom's face wasn't just an illusion; now the flesh was peeling away from his eyes, not just his mouth, and his nose had all but disappeared, revealing a bit of pearly white skull in the void beneath.
Then, in a flash, the old Dom was back, realizing he was scaring her. "I'm sorry... but I need to ask a question. Do you know where Marcia M'buto's head is?" The flesh filled back into his cheeks as he spoke, relaxing Caroline a bit.
"It's in the wardrobe, back left corner of the top shelf," she stammered.
Just like that, Dome was gone, but she heard things banging in her bedroom. She went inside, knowing better than to hide from what she saw there. In the room was a monster of bone and fire, ruthlessly flinging the contents of her top shelf into the wall behind it.
"IT'S NOT HERE!" the creature's twisted inhuman voice wailed like a hot wind blasting through a burning house.
"Dom...." Caroline said from the doorway, her voice trailing off. Through the trance, she saw the creature's core, the same core as Dom, and the black hole that was his true form.
The creature stopped, flesh once again covering it to reveal Dom's human avatar once again. "I'm so sorry, Caroline." Dom said, flashing to apologetics with his ward so near, like an angry father being stopped from beating a man to death by the words of his child.
"Marcia M'buto is the leader of Rodney's bloodline, Caroline," Dom explained.
"What do you mean, 'is'? She's DEAD!" Caroline answered, not understanding Dom's violent reaction.
"Not exactly. You can't just kill a mixed-blood witch. With the power of the number of souls M'buto absorbed, even her corpse had some life left in it." Dom explained.
"So you mean that head was alive?" Caroline asked, incredulous.
"Not only that, but there are traces of blood all over this place. Maya blood. Rodney's using Maya blood magic to bring M'buto back to life."
Marcia gathered the last of her reserves. Here was her opportunity, a perfect, willing avatar, soulless and craving fulfillment only she could give. It reminded her of that first day when Ma had taught her the secret of absorbing souls through cannibalism. She pulled the rainbow static, warping it to her will, creating an illusion, creating a voice with which to make her offer.
"Thank you," spoke the regal tones of an African Queen as she materialized in front of Berry Madison.
Berry set down the head reverentially, taking a good look at the apparition before her. The woman was tiny, her feet in rope sandals and her body intricately wrapped in a gown made of a single sheet of purple silk, cinched at the waist by a thin gold chain.
The gown wrapped around her just above her breasts, leaving her arms and shoulders bare, her finely boned face and arms the epitome of exotic beauty.
"Are you Marcia M'buto?" Berry asked, awed. It was everything she'd hoped for...
"Yes," the full ebony lips answered, "How may I ever repay you?"
Berry wasted no time. "I want power. I want to be the master of my own empire." She gestured to Mark's living room around her, "None of this is good enough for me. I want MORE. I know what you are; I know what you were, I know what you want from me. I talked to Rodney, and I want it all, and I want it right now."
The corners of M'buto's luscious lips raised in a subtle smile, "I would give you nothing less, mistress."
Mark lay sprawled in warm silken bliss, finally having a chance at catching up on all the sleep he'd missed during the week hanging out with Berry and her revolving door freak show of friends. Sweet dreamless sleep massaged his mind like a purring kitten, a revelry that was all too short lived as a series of short polite knocks he'd rolled over to ignore turned to much more emphatic banging.
He rolled over to find himself alone again, a situation he'd grown accustomed to despite having a live-in girlfriend. Berry almost never slept it seemed and she took sick pleasure in ridiculing him for not being able to stay up past 3 AM every weeknight. He shot his alarm clock a bleary-eyed glare, registering it was twelve in the afternoon.
He stumbled clumsy-footed from his bed, his left foot slipping haphazardly in a balled-up wad of black satin sheets Berry had insisted he buy, losing his balance for a brief instant before catching himself. He scratched his ass inelegantly, walking past Berry who was still awake on the couch. She was texting from her cell phone, as she probably had been since before dawn. His rumbling stomach gave a guttural preference for a girlfriend for a girlfriend that was more of a cook and less of a fashionista , but he squashed it. What was the point of making all this money if he couldn't have a trophy girl?
The stranger knocked again, just six feet away from Berry on the couch as she blatantly ignored it in favor of making her thumbs dance across the tiny keyboard. Mark stumbled onward, wearing nothing but striped pajama pants and a massive case of bed-head. Bright stabbing sunrays greeted his eyes as he opened the door to see a huge black silhouette, the meaning of which failed to register in his addled brain.
There was a smell of burnt sulfur and mink oil as Mark shielded his eyes to get a better look at the visitor.
"Hello?" he half said, half yawned.
"Is Berry in?" the hearty voiced stranger replied in a strange singsong accent. It was then Mark noticed the scars on the man's buzz cut covered skull as his eyes adjusted to the unrelenting morning sun.
"Yeah, yeah, she's right over there." Mark answered, pointing. He hoped like hell she was in trouble. It would serve her right for telling this smelly biker where he lived.
Finally Berry looked up, having recognized the man's Urdu inflected accent.
"ZAG!" she cried happily, running up to the hug the brick wall of a man as she pushed Mark out of the way. Mark wandered back off to bed, content to have both of them out of his hair so he could get back to sleep. If he nodded off fast enough, he could write all of this off as a bad dream.
Zag embraced the girl, picking her up and spinning her around like a child before setting her back down.
"Man, you sure seem to have moved up. You should have seen some of the looks I was getting on the way up here." Zag joked.
"Yeah, uppity neighbors apparently add to the property value." Berry giggled, "By the way, notice the boots?" She pointed down to a pair of glossy black boots with stainless steel stiletto heels.
"Yowza! How do you walk in those things?" Zag replied with a smirk, remembering countless episodes of strippers from the Velvet Glove tumbling off of ridiculous stacks.
"Walk? WALK?!" Berry defended with a sarcastic aristocratic accent. "You don't WALK in boots like these, you STRUT!" She demonstrated, cutting a perfect runway turn. Had she been about a foot taller, she would have made Tyra Banks very nervous.
"Very nice." Zag said, feeding her ego. She had her bitchy side, but she could be an absolute doll for compliments. "By the way, I love the hair."
"Thanks," she said, self-consciously twirling bright red lock with her left hand, "Timmy did a great job. He damn well better have considering how much coke I gave him."
Zag's face twisted up in disgust, "You still fucking with that shit?"
"Says the many who I used to score it from." Berry replied spitefully.
"Hey, look, I grew out of it. You know what my family does. Half the reason I joined the military was to get away from all that." Zag explained.
"The very same family you're taking me to see?" Berry giggled.
"All I'm saying is don't come in there jabbering about dope like some kind of junkie. You're skinny enough to where people might jump to conclusions."
"Sounds like someone's jealous of my sleek physique." Berry purred.
"Whatever." Zag slurred, "I bet it sounds like hobos shooting dice every time you do jumping jacks."
Berry was flattered. She prided herself on how petite she was, even if Zag preferred a woman with a little more meat on her bones. She'd seen the girls Zag looked at at the Velvet Glove, and some of them were outright fat as far as she was concerned.
"Not everyone's got a plumper fetish like you, Zag," She giggled, "this bony ass of mine suits Mark just fine."
Zag changed the subject, having made his point. He knew better than to let Berry think even for a second he was attracted to her. That was how this little spider hunted, after all, and the last thing he needed was to have her trying to string him along like Mark and Raz.
"Have you seen my new custom?"
"You got a new bike?" Berry squealed, the past train of conversation long forgotten. Already her mind drifted to thoughts of cameras and posing on Zag's motorcycle for photos.
"Come out and see it," he said, leading the way out of the door, "I had it made to spec by hand in Pakistan."
Berry looked the bike over, disappointed by its lack of ostentatious chrome or detailed custom paint. Everything about the bike was dull and square. She bit her tongue and tried to squeeze out a compliment for the vehicle she'd be taking to get M'buto's head.
"Wow...it's very... black ..." she drawled.
"Yeah, I know. I had the whole thing coated in spray-on truck bed liner. It's got zero shine and zero albedo. Check this out..." Zag cranked the engine, barely making a purr, "Hear that? I've even got the v-twin insulated with a removable fiberglass panel. You can't hear me coming unless I WANT you to," he beamed.
Berry couldn't hold in her disappointment any longer. "But...but...it's so... PLAIN..."
"EXACTLY!" Zag exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. "No noise, no shine... if I turn the lights out at night, I might as well be a ghost. It's got suped-up shocks too, so I can take it off-road like a dirt bike. The coat of bed-liner even makes it to where I can just lay it down flat without a scratch if I want to."
Suddenly Berry understood, "So it's like a stealth bike?"
"Yes! I fucking love it! It cost an arm and a leg to get it shipped here with me, but it was worth every penny."
Berry eyed the motorcycle again, this time not judging from the perspective of image, but from the perspective of function. Short low handlebars to leave the arms at a comfortable angle, wide grips for precise throttle control, the tailpipe tucked neatly underneath the frame to avoid nasty potato burns. The combination of features left an image of not so much a motorcycle as a mountain bike on steroids. She shook her head. What was function without style? It was like eating cake without icing, or ice cream without a cherry on top. Then again, it was his bike, not hers.
Suddenly Zag thrust out a petite full-head helmet towards her.
"Wait, wait... I forgot my purse." Berry trotted awkwardly off into the house on her skyscraper heels, the stiff angle of the soles pinching her toes painfully with each step. Once inside, she grabbed her largest purse, a cute black vinyl Hello Kitty backpack bag. No one would ever suspect a Hello Kitty bag for what she intended...
Mama Agnes intentionally slowed her breathing as she walked as fast as she could towards the door with Starburst following close behind, her hair still wrapped in a bright scarf, still wearing a plain floral print gown and apron she used when lounging around the kitchen cooking for her grandchildren. Her round dark face was held in tense poise, betraying no emotion while at the same time being as warm and inviting as possible for her surprise guest.
The patron of the All-Saints family was here, the patriarch himself, and she was caught unawares, a position she had no excuse to be in for someone for her abilities. Big X stared at the ragged man with his crooked back and leathery features, his brain already serving him with snide remarks and insults.
"Mama! Why's this old b-"
Sharp pain cut him off abruptly as an open handed slap from behind knocked his head clean into his chest from out of nowhere.
"You speak to Mr. Stalling with respect, or I'll slap the shadow off your black ass," Starburst hissed between his teeth, his face twisted into a false adult smile.
Big X said nothing as he tried to rub some feeling back into his skull. Something in Star's tone let him know tat his was no time for games.
"Ho there Mrs. Agnes!" the old man announced, his accent thick with deep Southern influence.
"Hello there Mr. Stallings," Mama said with queenly dignity, "Would you care for a glass of lemonade?"
"Yes ma'am, I would," the grizzled man said warmly, "I'd be much obliged."
Mama Agnes turned to Starburst, her tone hard with authority, "Watch the children. Mr. Stallings and I will be in the parlor."
"Yes ma'am," Starburst obeyed with military decorum.
Peter eased slowly down into the pheasant-print easy chair as Mama held his arm, his knobbed walking stick leaned against the armrest. Next to his right hand Mama Agnes set an ice-cold lemonade on an end table and sat down in a similar chair across from him.
"So, what brings you here Mr. Stallings?" she asked politely, doing a masterful job of hiding her nervousness.
"Times are a-changin', Mrs. Agnes. I came to tell you you're gettin' your wish. I know it was a bit cruel o'me to show up here without callin', but a spiteful twist in me wanted a lil' payback for how ya treated Ms. Caroline. Brother Borden's feathers get mighty ruffled when he trusts someone to watch out for one of his, and she lets him down." The old man explained sweetly, his mouth puckered in a mischievous smile.
Mama's mind flashed back to the day Dominick Borden had brought Caroline's comatose body to her, calling upon an old favor to Mrs. Black to watch over her. She'd promised to be a guide to the girl, to protect her from the unseen dangers of her position. She'd let that promise lapse because allowing a single harmless intrusion into Caroline's home to take a piece of property that wasn't even hers was all it would take to bring justice to the Maya family, but a witch's word was her power, and whether on a technicality or not, she'd broken it. Despite the semantics of her actions, she'd known someone was going to violate Caroline's sacred space, and she did nothing to stop it.
"So what are you going to do?" Mama Agnes quavered, fear creeping into her voice in the face of Famine himself.
Peter smiled, creasing the deep lines of his face, "Nothing Mrs. Agnes. Nothing at all. Just like you did nothing to protect sweet Ms. Caroline. I'll let Mr. Borden handle his own business just as you let Pedro Maya handle his."
"What do you mean?" Mama said as politely as she could, regaining some of her composure.
"I mean if you wanted to meddle, you could have saved Senora Maya. You didn't. No there's no one to save you." Peter said matter of factly.
"Save me from what?" Mama Agnes asked, still hiding her frantic fear.
"Much obliged for the lemonade Mrs. Agnes," the old man answered, "I think it's time for me to go now ma'am."
Mama knew better than to think she could beg, whine ,or wheedle Famine. He was by nature implacable and unsympathetic, the very qualities that made him so powerful. Peter leaned heavily on his cane as he rose unaided from his seat.
"I'll walk you out." Mama said quietly, not knowing how to react.
"Thank you ma'am," he smiled as he walked to the door.
Starburst tapped the guardrail of the porch nervously. What was going on in there? He heard the door creak and turned as Peter left. Peter smiled and extended his hand.
"Good evening Mr. Stallings." Star said carefully, knowing he was treading on dangerous ground as he took Peter's callused hand.
"You've got a good soul, boy. Not the right soul for your body, of course, but a good soul. You pay mind to your grandma, you hear? She won't be here forever." Peter advised.
"Yes sir." Starburst answered, and watched nervously as the old man walked away just as he had come.
Berry's bright red hair streamed like the tail of a comet in the bike's blustery wake as Zag weaved in and out of high speed commuter traffic, her lacquered nails tucked under his belt in a white knuckled grip. She peeked over his leather-clad shoulder and saw the speedometer read 85 as they whipped past yet another clunky, awkward sport utility vehicle. She was amazed at the agility of Zag's riding style, sometimes riding right on the dashed white line with cars only inches away on either side.
The cars around them thinned out as they got farther into the countryside, the clean crisp air a welcome change from the metropolitan smog and stale cigarette smoke that had filled her lungs for so long she'd forgotten they were even there. It was almost as if she were hitching a ride on a friendly dragon to the magical land of the giant, and all she had to do was steal the golden goose to transform her life forever.
Sooner than she thought possible they were there, pulling up the long gravel driveway past the corral to come to a slow stop next to Pedro's truck.
"Here she is, home sweet home."
Berry leaned heavily on Pedro's back as she unhooked her heels from behind the foot pegs, glad she'd worn her black cargo pants instead of a flirty skirt that would have gone better with her heels as she swung a leg over to dismount.
"The air smells great out here!" she said, filling her lungs as she struggled with her chinstrap.
"I love this place." Zag agreed. "C'mon, let's see if Angelia's got anything on the grill."
The two buckled their helmets to the bike and followed the scent of garlic, onion, and sizzling beef to the expansive deck in front of Pedro's doublewide where Angelia stood, tending the fire and sipping a Red Stripe. Occasionally she would tip the beer over onto the meat, using the alcohol to spread the sweetness of the onions into the savory meat.
"Hola," She greeted her cousin sweetly, giving him a brief hug.
"Where's Pedro?" Zag asked.
Angelia sighed. "Inside, watching football. It's Argentina against Brazil." Angelia turned to the tiny newcomer, "And you must be Berry. I'm Zag's cousin, Angelia."
Berry looked the voluptuous Latina up and down, appreciating the way her khakis hugged her hips and her tiny pink t-shirt accentuated her modest chest. Very nice, very nice indeed she thought, mentally placing her on a list of sweet girls she'd love to expose. She put on her sweetest smile.
"Hi Angelia. Nice to meet you," she made a special point of sniffing the air, "That smells delicious! What is it?"
Angelia was taken aback that the strange overdressed girl warmed to her so quickly. Normally pretty girls were competitive and catty with her, especially white girls.
"Oh, just some steaks. I'm steaming them over a bed of minced onion, and I've got some potatoes and garlic roasting in tin foil next to the coals," she answered humbly, her eyes turned shyly away.
Very nice, VERY nice, Berry thought, thinking of ways she could get the girl's confidence as she eyed the curve of her waist into her hips...
"I'm gonna go in and tell Pedro we're here. You want a beer Berry?" Zag interrupted. He had to make sure Pedro was in a good mood before bringing the gringo inside.
"Sounds nice." Berry answered, never taking her eyes off of Angelia as she poked and prodded the meat with her over-sized wood handled cutlery.
Zag grinned to himself as he ducked inside of the trailer. Angelia was so lonely out here, and the testosterone hung thick in the air sometimes. She needed some girlfriends to help build her confidence, and if there was one thing Berry was good at, it was being friendly with pretty girls. Some times a little too friendly, but that was beside the point.
Pedro sat in the dark, a cigarette in his right hand and several empty beers to his left, his eyes glued to the screen as the players zipped like lightening around the checkered ball.
Pedro shot up out of his chair, yelling drunkenly, his fist raised high.
"GOAL!" he shouted as the ball shot into the net. Zag was shocked; Brazil was SCHOOLING Argentina, 3:0. He stood there, mesmerized for a moment while the replays displayed the curve on the kick as it grazed the goaltender's fingertips in slow motion. He shook his head, remembering he'd promised to get some more beer. He darted past the screen towards the fridge. He opened the door, surveying the selection. Apparently this week Pedro had stocked up on Xingu instead of the Negra Modelo for the dark beer, along with the usual Red Stripe he'd seen Angelia sipping earlier. He popped open two of the sweet dark Xingus in the handle of the knife drawer, then grabbed another Red Stripe for Angelia as an afterthought.
He returned to find Angelia giggling like a schoolgirl to some joke Berry was telling, apparently involving some very complicated hand gestures.
"...and then I said "HEY! That's not ranch dressing!'" Berry concluded as Angelia snorted beer out of her nose.
"I see you two are really hitting it off." Zag commented with a smirk.
"Whatever. I'm pissed at you now. You've been cousins with Angelia for HOW long and never introduced us?" Berry said sarcastically.
"Hey, Charlita would have killed me if I ever took Angelia to the Velvet Glove!" Zag laughed as Angelia looked away.
"The meat's almost done." Angelia said quietly, suddenly going somber.
Too late, Zag remembered his mistake. Charlita had only been his aunt, but she was Angelia's mother, and he never considered that Angelia's heart still had open wounds after all these years.
"Damn, this Xingu is some good stuff!" Berry said, sensing the tension and artfully changing the subject.
Angelia snapped out of it, "I prefer a lighter crisper taste, especially when I cook heavy meats."
Zag took the opportunity to duck inside.
"Uncle! The meat is ready!"
Seeing the game was already in the bag, Pedro peeled himself out of his chair and marched towards the savory smells.
"Aye que rico!" Pedro complimented, inhaling deeply.
"Si. Es muy sabroso tambien." Berry chimed in with a sloppy American accent.
Angelia gave her a funny look, "But you haven't even tasted it yet..."
"Hey, I'm just spouting off what I learned in Spanish class," Berry giggled, "Speaking of which, donde' esta al banyo?"
Zag laughed at her terrible enunciation, "First left in the hallway past the kitchen."
As Berry entered the trailer, she spotted a familiar wing-tipped shoe jittering insolently on Pedro's coffee table. She walked in, her view widening up to an immaculate pin striped pants leg finally revealing the Cheshire cat smile of Rodney Cunningham. In his hand he held a piece of paper that read:
Berry stared at him silent and wide-eyed, already having forgotten the original reason she'd come here. Rodney's expression never changed as he flipped the paper behind him, revealing a fresh one that read:
Berry reached up and touched the black vinyl strap on her left shoulder, her mouth opening in a cute "o" of surprise as she remembered.
Rodney's expression might as well have been a photograph as it floated above his shoulders, the second piece of paper flung lazily over his back to reveal a single black arrow pointing to an end table drawer. Berry's lips pursed in understanding as she nodded slowly. Rodney winked in a bright blue eye, the only facial expression he'd shown since she'd entered the room, and vanished, taking his discarded signs with him.
Berry opened the drawer, barely catching herself before she gasped in surprise at a tiny blue suited Rodney inside the drawer, pointing emphatically at the purple string bag that contained the head of Marcia M'buto. She took the bag carefully, so as not to disturb the collection of strange stones, bones, leather bags, and knick-knacks, and then closed the drawer just as she had found it.
Finally she tucked the bag into her purse and went to the bathroom, returning to the barbecue as though nothing had ever happened.
In a cold, dead universe, where the only light is given off by the hypocritical laws of physics as their fundamental flaws cause the very substance of existence to eat away at itself through the fiery hatred of the stars, the concept of "normal" is a laughable one. SO many every day things are extraordinary; every birth is a miracle, every death is a tragedy, every drop of rain caused by a series of events so complex it boggles the human mind. But despite this, humanity still revels in the concept of the routine, of boredom, and of a meaningless humdrum existence.
Ask an anthropologist about birth and death, and he'll endeavor to break everything down to mathematical mechanics, of "societal pressures" and "environmental factors." Ask a father that same question and his answer will be tales of lust and perseverance, of dramatic struggles, victories, and failures. When confronted with these inconsistencies, the anthropologist will make logically fraudulent appeals to authority every bit as spurious as the father's second hand anecdotes.
For instance, right now, there are two men, one a fat Italian looking like Pavarotti's stand-in, and a thin Arab with perfectly barbered goatee and Asian-style collared dress shirt sitting in a booth in a respectable mid-priced restaurant. To the eye of someone who already assumes they know a substantial amount about restaurants and their patrons, this is nothing out of the ordinary. However, to someone in tune with the miraculous nature of existence who bothers to pay attention, this is quite the opposite...
"Rodney's been really active lately," the fat one remarked, a worried expression crossing his face.
"Well, someone's got to take up my slack," the thin one said with an impish grin
"I'll be sure and tell Peter how amusing you find the situation," the fat one replied bitterly.
"Oh, lighten up brother." The Arab laughed with a dismissive wave of his hand, "Why can't you ever just lay back and watch the show? It's not like you don't have plenty of time."
"Damnit Nate, when are you going to come to terms with the fact that if Rodney and Peter showed up here right now everything you've ever built will come tumbling down around your ears?" despite his hard words, there was almost a whiny edged to the Italian's tone.
"The day when YOU admit that it's YOUR choice should that happen. But I know you wouldn't do that to me, brother," Nathan said as his eyes twinkled merrily.
"You're a bastard, Nate," the Italian spat sarcastically, finally cracking a smile.
"Now THAT'S the brother I know," he laughed to the Italian, "Besides, you know Pete's not going to get off his ass. Why would he? He could care less about Pedro, Caroline, and Marcia."
"You're right..." the fat one said, finally catching Nate's infectious grin, "I'm just still bitter Father always loved you more."
"Hah, Dom, if He liked me so much, why did He bother having you?"
The Angel of Death was speechless. Here was Nate, Lucifer, the Creator of the World, the being who he was created to be the ultimate antithesis of, the being that he was created to cancel out and undo all of creation, joking about Armageddon. How could he not love the guy?
Dominick Borden busted out in a big jiggly belly laugh. "You're priceless, brother."
Zag looked down at his vibrating phone, amazed at the name he saw there.
"Berry?" the beefy South American mumbled to himself, amazed the girl still had his number. Perhaps Thug had told her he was in town?
Zag snapped open his rugged but battered cell phone before her call had a chance to go to voicemail.
"Berry!" he answered warmly again, happy to hear from the girl he'd spent so many good times with. "It's been forever!"
"Yeah, I know." Berry said in her cutest club-girl voice. To a man, Zag was hard as nails, but he was butter in her hands, and she knew it, "I'd heard you were back in town. How ya been doin'?"
"Believe it or not, I've been getting some quality family time in. Cashmere messed me up pretty bad, but luckily my family's been really supportive. How's the whole thing with Raz going?"
If a stranger had been listening to Zag's voice they would have been amazed such metropolitan tones were coming from his scarred bald head.
"Blah, me and Raz broke up years ago. Ends up he was all about the cocks after all." Berry pointedly left out Raz's failed suicide attempt.
"See? I always KNEW you two wouldn't make it. No straight guy could get that vicious with a girl in a fight." Zag replied, quickly taking sides in the breakup.
"Haha, yeah... It's all good now, though. I've got this new rich boy named Mark. He's a little stale, but he treats me like a princess." Berry bragged.
Zag smirked to himself. He knew what THAT meant; she'd found herself a new sugar daddy.
"You never change, do you?" Zag laughed knowingly, "Me, I've been doing some side work with my uncle. He's got a little plot of land out in the boonies, and he's been letting me live there since I got back."
Berry smiled with a wicked little grin, like a kitten might grin at a friendly pet mouse that didn't know the natural order of the food chain. That was exactly what she was hoping to hear. Now to get the invitation....
"Sounds nice. What's it like out there?" Berry asked innocently.
"Oh, it's mainly just woods. Pedro's got a couple of acres, but he's also got a field with some horses. I mean, yeah, it's a trailer, but it's a double wide and the deck on that thing is amazing. You should come out sometime. I'm sure you and my cousin Angelia would get along like gang-busters."
"Sounds great." Berry quipped, "Can you pick me up Saturday?"
In a neighborhood on the edge of town, too close to the inner city to be a middle class suburb, but too far from downtown to be metropolitan, a grizzled old man limps down the sidewalk. His face is a weather-beaten roadmap to the paths of life, like old boot leather creased and cracked by years of use and exposure to the elements. Wrapped in the gnarled roots of his right hand is a battered wooden walking stick topped by a stout knob, a stick that would make a formidable weapon should a local hoodlum decide the wizened old man is an easy mark.
Why any naïve young gangster would want to rob the old man is a mystery, because his second hand clothes and worn shoes spoke volumes as to the contents of his pockets. Those of a prejudiced mind would assume this old man was the victim of alcoholism, although they couldn't possibly be more wrong. Regardless of polite society's judgments, the old man persevered, making his plodding way down the cracked sidewalks and well-built but weather-beaten neighborhoods towards his destination.
Starburst stood on Mama Agnes's porch, watching her hordes of grandchildren play basketball, jump rope, and leap in games of hopscotch under an overcast sky. He coolly sipped his iced tea, his watchful eye backed up by a barking voice in case fair play fell to foul among the heathens, doing his best to teach civility in an environment where personal virtue is a rare gem.
It was from the corner of his eye that Starburst spotted the old man trudging down the street. At first he didn't recognize the man's coal black face, but there was something about his stance that became more and more apparent as the grizzled wanderer drew closer. Star's eyes popped wide in recognition as his heart skipped a beat and jumped into his throat. It couldn't be! The old man had always just kind of... well... APPEARED before, and normally only after meticulous preparations on the part of Mama Agnes. Normally there would be time to send the children back to their parents...
Finally Starburst picked up his dropped jaw and ran inside to Mama Agnes, leaving his flip-flops behind him as he ran.
Thug grunted as he thrust, his legs straining with the effort as sweat dripped from his brow. Despite the effort, he thrust again and again, his load slowly building. Finally, the release came, and he dumped the wheel barrow full of compost back onto the heap.
"You're sick." Lucille commented dryly as she spooned rich dark honey from the hives outside into her fragrant herbal tea.
"Huh, what?" Caroline stuttered, snapping out of her daze as she stared at Thug's shirtless swelling shoulders from the window as he turned the compost heap.
"You know what I mean. You really shouldn't look at him like that. You may not be his biological grandmother, but you might as well be." Thug's sister and one-time heir apparent to the Black clan commented prudishly. She had no interest in being matriarch, however, and had passed her blood-right to Caroline during the birth of her fourth child, sacrificing her place in exchange for a normal home life.
"Oh! NO! I was thinking about something else!" Caroline exclaimed squeamishly.
"Sure you were... SURE..." Lucille intoned sarcastically. She didn't become a mother of four by being in denial about her carnal desires.
"No, seriously, I just got this kind of...memory. Did you ever meet Raz's ex-girlfriend Berry?" Caroline asked speculatively.
"No... I can't say I have."
"Oh... she's just been kind of on my mind lately. It's like whenever I space out, her name just pops into my head." Caroline elaborated.
"Haha, yeah, that used to happen to Mrs. Black. Not about the same person, of course. She called them 'premonitions.' She said they were annoying, because they were always important, but she could almost never figure out what they meant until it was too late." Lucille recollected.
"But do you remember what she used to do about them?" Caroline asked, her face anxious like a whiny child in a toy store.
"I'm afraid the only person who knows the answer to that question rests in All Saints Cogic Cemetery." Lucille answered somberly.
The immaculate black Cadillac cruised slowly through a forest of gray stones and statuary in the honor section of All Saints Cogic Cemetery as Caroline stared pensively out of the backseat window. She hadn't been back to the gravesite since a year after the funeral on the first anniversary of Mrs. Black's funeral to place her ashes in the ceremonial urn above the tombstone after the traditional year of grieving. According to the will, she'd had to do the melancholy duty herself, reverentially pouring the ashes from one container to the other before finally locking the lid in place. There was something strange about that. She'd assumed the lock was merely symbolic, but of what she had no idea. Then again, screwing a lid on the urn like a peanut butter jar didn't seem nearly as respectful as turning a brass key, a keepsake she still carried with her.
And her she was again, the light dimming behind the layers of clouds scudding through the once sunny sky in the last precious minutes of the afternoon, sitting in the backseat of the same car she'd left in over twelve months ago. She'd done her best to forget that day, but with the familiar graveyard smell of fresh dirt all the emotion came tumbling back.
"She hasn't said a word since we left." Lucille said worriedly to her brother, finally breaking the silence of their half-hour ride.
"Maybe she has nothing to say." Thug said softly. His eyes sparked with unshed tears for the most formative and supportive person of his life.
"Oh..." Lucille trailed off, realizing sometimes there's just no right thing to say, "Maybe we should just let her go by herself?"
Thug nodded. However strong his rippled arms may be, there were certain kinds of strength he didn't have.
Caroline Parker stepped out alone onto the graveyard road, her low buckled heels making two soft knocks on the asphalt. Ahead lay her savior, her destroyer, her mentor, a stranger who had saved her from herself in exchange for her taking the burden of Matriarchy off of Lucille. She felt like she'd been punched in the face as unabashed tears fell for the woman who's shoes she now filled, a woman who's magnitude she had only begun to understand in the past two years.
"How... how... how would you have done it?" she sobbed, her eyes nearly blinded by tears. She cried not for the dead, but for herself, crying because her fate rested in her own ragged hands, not the elegant porcelain fingers that had once belonged to her predecessor. Not even her own mother had cared for her as much as Mrs. Black. To her, she'd only been a tool of spite against her father, a pawn in a war between the sexes she'd walked away from when she'd started her new life as a florist, a life already dead and gone.
A white satin touch dried her tears as a strong arm caressed her shoulders. Caroline didn't bother to turn around, still more wrapped in helpless grief than the physical touch of her comforter. Two fatherly lips pressed to the top of her head as the arms held her for what felt like an eternity before a warm, golden baritone voice broke the silence.
"Not even she could have known, Caroline," the operatic voice whispered gently.
Caroline basked in the stranger's arms for a few more precious seconds, finally gathering the courage to turn and face him, her lips pouting to form the one name she thought she could never forgive, the name of the one who'd taken Mrs. Black from her, the one who'd hidden Todd's identity from her until after she'd killed him, the name of the one Mrs. Black had entrusted not only her life, but her death as well.
"Dom?" she whispered, unbelieving.
The fat Italian wiped away her tears with a satin handkerchief from his shirt pocket.
"Strange weather today, eh Caroline?" he said, loosening his grip in case Caroline didn't forgive him, in case she'd rather fight than let him touch her.
"Yeah.... I guess..." she said between sobs, struggling against her emotions, glad for his brief anchor of reality in the stormy sea of hopelessness that tossed within her.
"I mean, it was so sunny this morning, and now..." Dom held up a hand to demonstrate as a drop of rain splashed down form the clouds above.
Caroline sniffled. "We were lucky to get all the gardening done early..."
Thunder struck and the trickle of rain intensified to a torrent as Dom put his suit jacket over Caroline's head to shield her from the storm.
"Perhaps we should discuss this over a hot cup of tea at your place?" he suggested.
"Yeah... that sounds nice." Caroline answered sheepishly as Dom led her back to the black Cadillac.
Lucille and Thug didn't say a word as the man opened Caroline's door and sat next to her without invitation. Death never asks for an invitation, after all.
Swallows wheeled in afternoon delight in the sparkling sunlight outside of Mark's idyllic suburban home, filling the crisp midmorning air with songs almost as angelic as the silhouettes they sent flying across the ground below them. It was a beautiful day, a beautiful day for Berry Madison, a beautiful day for Rodney Cunningham, and a beautiful day for Marcia M'buto.
Mark's car had begun its rush hour trek to the corporate gulag several hours ago, giving Berry plenty of time to recover from the previous evening's festivities and begin her never ending search for novelty and distraction over Mark's high-speed internet connection. This morning, however, the search would find her.
An immaculate looking salesman with a smile that belonged in a toothpaste commercial appeared from nowhere to stroll with the confidence of an oiled rattlesnake towards Mark's door, his bright blue suit matching his glacial eyes, his white blond hair slicked back across his scalp with pomade. In his hand was a briefcase, and in his stare there was an... indescribable quality, a purity and sense of purpose that never could have survived any human childhood.
The stranger's perfectly manicured hand knocked a precise rhythm on the door; shocking Berry from her Internet induced revelry. The tiny girl, never out of costume, scampered towards the window to sneak a peek at the stranger. She was in no mood to let some meter-reader into the backyard or sign for some stupid package. BORING.
She was delighted to see the immaculate solicitor, his ivory smile ripped straight from a television ad from the 1950's. Every line of his suit cried "fashion," every line of his face cried "expertise," and the very swagger of his stance screamed "confidence." It didn't matter Berry had no money of her own, it was of no consequence she had about as much authority over the household as the squirrels that nested under the eaves, the man looked interesting and her brief moment of kittenish annoyance quickly yielded to kittenish curiosity as to what he was doing here. At worst he was some Christian missionary, and even that would afford her a few minutes of diversion as she toyed with him.
She opened the door slowly, giving up as little as she could to the negotiation. She wanted this man to fight for her attention. If he didn't want to play the game, she had no time for him anyway.
The salesman struck viciously in an all-out charm offensive, one toe of his spotless wingtip shoe and every inch of his million dollar smile crammed furiously into Berry's tiny crevice.
"Good morning, madam," the smile said in a voice a radio announcer would kill for. The man smelled of soap, cologne, shaving cream, and shoe polish, mixing to make an almost plastic smell, like the smell of a freshly opened computer.
"Good morning," Berry coaxed, playing the game. She still didn't have the door open wide enough for the man to see her face.
The blue suit powered into full sales pitch mode, his foot wriggling in the door to create enough room for the handshake. Light beamed from his polished marble smile, his hearty voice speaking through it almost like a ventriloquist.
"My name is Rodney Cunningham, and you have been PERSONALLY selected for a very special business opportunity in the field of..."
Berry interrupted with the abruptness of a boxer's jab.
"Personally selected? So you know who I am?" A hard question. The door opened enough for three toes, no more.
"Of course, ma'am. You are of course the illustrious Mademoiselle Berry. Now, may I interest you in this marvelous opportunity in..." In the pitch came again like a combination punch, like a high elbow after a right hook. The man was on his game; there was no doubt about that.
"Now wait a minute. This isn't my legal address. How did you know my name?" The door opened a little wider.
"Well, madam, if you'd do the courtesy of letting me inside, I would be glad to explain our stringent selection process. Only the best of the best receive this spectacular opportunity in..." The man was a tiger, every opening paw followed by an attempt at a killing bite.
Berry cut him off again, flattered and intrigued. Most of all, however, she wanted to slow this Mr. Cunningham down. She wanted to savor this. She finally opened the door all the way, revealing the tiny girl with a bright shock of red hair hanging down to her elbows, her eyebrows drawn-on in a permanent expression of surprise as she stood there in her heels and Lolita skirt.
"Slow down, slow down Mr. Cunningham," she said in a schoolgirl voice, "Why don't you come in and talk this over some coffee? I still have some hot from this morning." Or rather, Mark had, but that was beside the point.
Rodney's million-dollar smile climbed to the billion-dollar mark, his eyeteeth glistening sharply in the morning light. "Well that, madam, sounds delightful!"
Rodney plopped down gregariously in Mark's intimate kitchen breakfast nook, his arm slung over the back of the seat next to him, his brilliantly shined wingtip shoe resting playfully on his knee as his coffee steamed jungle mist over his predatory smile.
His wasn't the only bloodthirsty grin at the table as Berry returned his expression with equal eagerness.
"So tell me more about this 'stringent selection process,'" Berry urged, fishing for compliments.
"Well, ma'am, you may recall a certain...incident... with an acquaintance of yours... a Mrs. Lillith Black, to be specific."
Berry's body wriggled involuntarily as she flashed back, thinking of the passion of the night she'd come to save Caroline from Mrs. Black's clutches. "Go on," she urged, eager to know what made her so special.
Rodney laughed heartily. He could learn to like this girl.
"Well, we were very impressed to see that it only took a bit of help from my associate Mr. Task's employee to compete with an elite of Mrs. Black's skills. Highly impressed, in fact. Mrs. Black is sadly no longer with us due to complications stemming from those events. As you know, Mrs. Black was of a certain age, and was by no means robust."
Berry's face hurt as the muscles that pulled up her smile spasmed. She fought to maintain her composure. She'd done it! She'd killed the witch! She'd murdered the old woman; she was above the rules, better than frumpy old Caroline Parker!
Rodney pretended not to notice her elation.
"Well, when Mrs. Black died, she left a certain artifact, a preserved human head to be exact, to another acquaintance of yours, a Ms. Caroline Parker."
"Wait... what?" Berry interjected, peeved Caroline was stealing her glory. She killed the witch! The hoard belonged to her!
"Don't worry, the artifact is on longer in Ms. Parker's hands," Rodney answered smoothly, "that, in fact, is what we need you for. Ms. Parker, was, well, a poor caretaker of the artifact, and it was recently stolen from her. The man responsible for the theft is also an acquaintance of yours, a Mr. Zagurio Maya."
"Zag!" Berry said, happily reminded of the good times she'd had spending Raz's money at the Velvet Glove strip club when Zag was working security there.
"And now, Ms. Berry, we come to the amazing business opportunity to which I've alluded before. Zag is currently in the employ of a franchise in competition with Caroline's current operation, and frankly I and my clients have been surveying the market for the opportunity to open a new franchise in the area. There are currently three such franchises, all of which serve exclusive clientele bases. These are run by Ms. Parker, Mr. Pedro Maya, Zag's employer, and a third, run by a Mrs. Agnes Allsaints. All of these franchises are exclusive family practices. We hope to change that and open up the market to everyday people."
The spirit of Pestilence paused, savoring the moment as Berry's eyes widened in undisguised avarice.
"My client, a Mrs. Marcia M'buto, would wish you to be in charge of the new venture, in exchange for a very small service."
Berry's eyes instantly narrowed, not at the hook, but at the challenge. She hated challenges. Why couldn't they just hand her the thing on a silver platter? She deserved nothing less!
"What do you mean, 'a very small service'?" Berry said suspiciously, like a fat child being offered candy by a playground nemesis.
"Well, Mrs. M'buto has quite a severe handicap, and she needs a person of your caliber to serve as her arms and legs, if you would. You performed a similar service for one of Mr. Task's employees, as you may recall."
Berry thought of the brief time she was possessed by the demon known as The Glass wistfully. The Glass had focused her, gave her the discipline she lacked, while at the same time giving her the freedom to live her fantasies. The demon had turned her playgirl lifestyle into a fairytale even the Brothers Grimm would be jealous of, and she still harbored a iron nail of spite in her heart that Caroline and Mrs. Black had stolen it from her.
"I'd be delighted," Berry answered, although her tone carried a touch of steel in it.
"Wonderful. There are only two things you need to know, then. The first is that in order to provide this service to Mrs. M'buto, you will need to retrieve the artifact from either Zagurio or Pedro." Rodney explained greasily.
"What's the other? Berry interjected.
"Who you're dealing with." Pestilence whispered ominously. Then he was gone, leaving the coffee he'd drunk floating in midair before it splashed onto the place he'd been sitting.
Berry reached up and wiped a splashed streak of coffee from her face, a sticky reminder that none of this was a daydream. For once in her life, she cleaned up the mess. Finally, she grabbed her treasured cell phone, and dialed the last number on her contact list.
Angelia stroked the colt's silky mane lovingly as its prehensile lips pulled bits of carrot from her hand. She may disagree with the means by which Pedro had paid for this country paradise, the horses and the trailer, but there was a certain bliss in letting Pedro run things, letting him spoil her. Sure the price was that she'd never be respected, never be free, always be subservient, but the price of freedom came with it's own costs, that of uncertainty, discomfort, and fear. Here she was safe, protected by her uncle and cousin. Without them, where would she be?
Before she could finish the thought, the sound of Zag's Pakistani motorcycle dropped into her stomach like a lead weight. What had Pedro sent him to do? Was Caroline even alive? If she was dead, would that be her fault for not standing up to Pedro?
The colt nuzzled her, sensing her tension, distracting her.
"Oh, sweetie, there's nothing you can do," she consoled the animal, and in her heart, she lied and told herself the same thing.
Caroline felt uneasy in the house. It didn't matter how many excuses she made, things didn't add up. She never left her doors open. She opened the front door, closed it, pushed on it, pulled on it, leaned on it, but it didn't just pop open, not like it would have had to. The bees wouldn't settle down, either. She had been right there, though. She'd even watched through the trance the whole time. Not so much as a cockroach could have escaped her scrutiny and yet something had. It was as if the door just magically opened...
How many times had she herself used magic? But she was on good terms with the other families she knew of. Mama Agnes had no motive, and nothing was missing. Pedro... was Pedro even adept enough to do such a thing? It was definitely no demon that was certain...
Wait... why would the phone be ringing?
Caroline looked down at her phone: Thug. She picked up the phone, unsuccessfully attempting to mask the panic in her voice.
"Hey, I was just calling in to let you know I'd be coming by to turn the compost heap." Thug said in that incongruous voice he only used when talking to Mrs. Black, now transferred to Caroline.
"Oh..." Caroline stumbled, completely caught off guard by her earlier distraction.
Thug knew better than to point out Caroline's spacey-ness. She'd never fully recovered mentally from Todd's death, or Mrs. Black's, for that matter. The girl could have an anxiety attack just thinking about an anxiety attack; it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
"I'll be around sometime this afternoon." Thug informed her.
"See you then." Caroline responded, regaining some of her false reserve, then hung up the phone.
Maybe she really was just being obsessive over this doors thing. Wasn't the entire reason Thug insisted on calling before he came over because she always freaked out every time he didn't? At what point was she going to admit to herself she was crazy?
But if she was crazy, that would mean last night she'd been hallucinating. If she was crazy, that would mean she'd hallucinated before, and would again. If she were crazy, every event of her life up to this point could have been a hallucination. How did she know she wouldn't wake up in a hospital bed somewhere, having been stuck in a coma after an embolism? How did she know anything at all?
Life is by nature subjective. The only reality is the reality of the individual. Things exist because they appear to exist, and do so consistently enough to be accepted. How many things, how many concepts exist only inside the mind? Can anyone prove the existence of love, or of justice, or of altruism?
There comes a point where such introspection is merely vanity, a point at which things must be accepted on faith, simply for the sake of practicality. Does a cow wonder why it eats grass? Does the sparrow question its endless search for seeds and worms? Of course not, because to spend that much time speculating on "why" would quickly lead to starvation. Introspection is a luxury to which the human race has been spoiled, causing illnesses of the mind just as luxurious food leads to the illnesses of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The truth is that it doesn't matter if Caroline is insane. The truth is that her reality is hers, regardless of whether or not that reality is congruent with that of the rest of humanity. If a homeless man sees himself as a king, and every garbage can meal is a sumptuous feast, and of course if his faith in this is strong enough, for him, this is truth. The mistake that most people make is not in what they accept as real, but rather, what they choose to ignore as illusion.
For children, belief in Santa Claus is functional and practical. If they are naughty, they don't get presents. Whether it is Santa for their parents doing the watching is irrelevant. As long as the cause and effect are the same, it doesn't really matter what the actual process is.
Human minds are naturally limited: incapable of carrying an unabridged knowledge of reality. A professional baseball pitcher rarely understands the physics of trajectory, and if bothered to work out all the math on each pitch, his muscles would atrophy from the inactivity.
Is the homeless man who fully understands his poverty any better off than another who sees himself as a king living off the fat of the land? The truth is an ugly, nasty thing, stealing irreplaceable seconds of its seekers life in exchange for its miserable secrets. The child who shows no faith in its parent's teachings about drugs soon finds itself a victim of addiction. Countless scientists have wasted their lives chasing truths that were simply not applicable to their own well being and happiness.
The question, then, is not whether or not Caroline is insane. Of course she is; she's human. The question is whether or not Caroline has enough faith in what she already knows to be true, or if she's willing to allow social pressure to force her to abandon the only reality she has for someone else's insanity.
The stars hung in the vast, cold vacuum of space like jewels carelessly tossed into the air by a joyous their, frozen in time and place, a snap shot of the great explosion caused by the creation of the universe from the unfeeling substrate of the Void. In them, people throughout the ages have glimpsed eternity, the wisest of whom studied them and with them discovered mathematics, the nature of the seasons, and ultimately, of time itself.
Unbeknownst to the trained operative speeding hastily down the country highways, his own Maya people had developed a calendar base on those cold stars a calendar bearing remarkable similarity in its organization to the western Tarot, a thirteen day week paralleling the thirteen card suite.
There are many things tonight that Pedro's servant doesn't know, and the spirit of Pestilence Rodney Cunningham had worked very hard to ensure this.
The sound of rhythmic slapping, like the sound of a playing card stuck in the spokes of a bicycle wheel stopped suddenly as the black leather clad biker reached up left-handed and tucked the loose end of his chin strap back inside his helmet. The hand hovered briefly over a patch of dried blood trickling down his cheek, then returned to its former resting place on the clutch lever of the left handle bar.
Zag's mind was devoid of conscious thought as the wind dried his uncle's blood onto his face, his eyes zoning out into the distance. He'd trained his entire life for exactly such missions as this, beginning under the instruction of Senora Maya, and until just recently, taking him deep into the Cashmere region near the border of India and Pakistan. He was a seasoned professional, acting on autopilot as his training took over, his conscious mind giving way to the deep-rooted animal instincts that ruled the more primitive parts of his brain.
Zag was in pure hunter-gatherer mode, his mind focused on his objective as the white lane stripes faded into the night behind his taillight. The purple velvet bag in the back bedroom was all that existed to him, just as the contact list that he had failed to retrieve not so long ago had, only this time, there was no roadside bomb, no ambush laid in wait for him, no convoy of unsuspecting soldiers being led to their deaths.
Uncle Pedro had given him this chance at redemption, this chance at regaining the faith he had lost in himself that fateful day. Not only that, but Pedro had ensured his victory with holy Maya blood magic, the warlock gracing Zag's eyes with his own life blood, hiding him from the eyes and ears of his soon to be victims. The midnight air carried a slight chill, but Zag felt nothing at all as he neared the city lights and ultimately Cottage Church Lane.
Left, right, left right, the experienced rider hugged the turns on that zigzag road to First Holiness Pentecostal Church, the church for whom Cottage Church Lane was named, the road itself so old it had to be broken into a series of jagged turns to accommodate it when the city's gravel streets had been paved and its urban designers had set the curvy paths into a respectable grid.
As he approached the historic district, small gardens turned to bushes, low bushes to hedges, and tall hedges to a wrought iron fence at least a hundred years old, the gap in which led to the gravel pathway to his final destination.
Thug's tell-tale black Cadillac was nowhere to be seen as the squat South American walked through the main gateway to the magnificent gardens that surrounded the church, his Pakistani made motorcycle tucked quietly into the shadow of one of those giant rosebushes, the size of baby maple trees, that dotted the peaceful walking path. Even in the dark chill of the night, fat black bees still buzzed industriously around the unnaturally large blooms, the bees matching the blooms in their inordinate size like a page torn from Gulliver's Travels.
The huge bees were almost invisible in the blackness, a slight buzzing through his helmet Zag's only warning as one of them infiltrated his face mask, landing viciously on his right eye under his helmet where he had no defenses. The hardened assassin scrabbled to whip off his helmet before the insect could blind him with its poisonous sting, caught off guard by the witches devious insect sentries, something no military tactician had ever prepared him for.
To his relieve surprise, he found his poisonous assailant dead inside his helmet, no more than a desiccated shell although still the same size as Zag's think brown thumb. The Maya family's enforcer laughed a silent soldier's laugh at himself. Whatever doubts he'd had of the effectiveness of Pedro's anointment fell away at that moment, as Zag realized that all his skills at infiltration and reconnaissance still were no match for the struggle of culture and magic going on between Pedro and Caroline.
Zagurio skirted around the garden path of the old church house as he searched for a back door. There was no point in using the front door if just a subtle backdoor entrance could do the same thing...
Harsh yellow light from a cheap reading lamp illuminated even more yellowed pages packed tight with cramped script as steam rose from a tannin stained porcelain cup. Caroline leaned back in her old battered computer chair, rubbing her eyes under her glasses as she stretched and yawned. She missed the old days sometimes, those good days when there was something interesting on television or at the very least there was a nice vicious flame war going on in one of her favorite forums. Was it that much different, she considered as she sat reading the dusty old book from Mrs. Black's library, than the old days anyway?
Sure at first things had been exciting, but anything, if you do it long enough, becomes yet another boring routine. Maybe that was why rock stars had such crazy antics, she thought as she smiled to herself. After all, once you become accustomed to all the parties, groupies, and drugs, how else would you keep that level of excitement going?
Still, that didn't make this dusty old place seem anymore exciting. Maybe she was just tired from staying up too late. Caroline's jaws split wide with a reflexive yawn. Bed. Yes. She'd read in one of those old books malaise was caused by a lack of certain fluids called humors in the brain, many of which were replenished during sleep. The book was a couple hundred years old, but maybe it was closer to the point than modern medicine with all its neurotransmitter mumbo-jumbo was willing to give it credit for. Still...
Caroline got up inspect the noise, a sound that wasn't a part of the pantheon of creaks and groans she normally associated with the old wooden church, coming from one of the windows...
The sound was steady now, almost mechanical, as though someone was trying to do something small and quiet, and had finally discovered an efficient system, like a Jehovah's Witness's door knock.
The window. Definitely. Caroline quickly jumped into the trance, a trick she'd learned with all the extra time she'd had since moving here. To her surprise, all she saw was the telltale signature of Mrs. Black's old bees, a pair of them, hammering at her window. Caroline had developed somewhat of a loving appreciation of those bees; they were remarkable tame for some reason. It wasn't uncommon for one to come rest on her finger for a friendly rub, almost like a tiny flying black kitten.
They never did this, though, not scratch at the window, although it was very kittenish of them. Still, it was worth popping open the window to see what they were up to...
The wooden window stuck a little as she pulled up on it, but with a grunt, she was able to get it open. A black knot zipped into the opening, swirling around her head at eye level and then finally settling on to the table under the reading light.
She inspected the bundle of black closely, realizing that the two bees had been carrying a dead comrade by its wings.
Strange. Bees were normally blasé about losing one of their own. Circle of life, and all that. The two living bees did some sort of wiggling, buzzing dance around their dead comrade. She'd read somewhere bees communicated by dancing, but she still had no idea what they were trying to say. She looked closely at the stricken bee, and surprisingly, stuck to one of its tiny legs was a flake of dried blood...
No back door. Zag couldn't believe it. Wasn't that some sort of building code infraction? Still, maybe this place was old enough to have been grand fathered in around such regulations, after all, the road certainly had been.
It was a test of faith, now, a test of faith in Pedro's magic. Either this vial of blood would open the lock, or it wouldn't. It was the last shred of his reliance on his own ability finally stripped away, his last illusion of strength finally shown to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. His success or failure came down to circumstance, to forces outside his control, and he was forced to recognize this before he would be able to lay his hands on that velvet bag.
The biker's stubby fingers gently twisted the crystal stopper from the jade jar, the lid stuck to the rim by a thin layer of gummy drying blood. Was there a right way to do this? Did the blood go into the keyhole, or just onto the knob? Compromising, he attempted both, although the jar was certainly a poor tool for injecting blood into a locking mechanism anyway. He poured every drop onto the knob, just in case. He had no idea how such things worked; he didn't want to take any chances.
Finally, the burly South American laid a fingerless glove on the bloody knob, his helmet tucked by its chinstrap into his belt and the empty jar rested just next to his pistol inside his jacket's inner pocket. This was the point of no return; once he opened this door, there was no going back. Anyone who got in his way was as good as dead...
The knob turned easily in his hand, as if the blood were nothing more than WD-40. The door opened with not so much as a creak, and Zag peeked his head in to find....
Caroline, hunched under her reading lamp, staring intently at a dead bee laying on its back on top of an old leather bound book. She apparently hadn't heard or seen him either, just as Pedro had promised.
There was barely a warning buzz as the two bees attacked. Zag knew what to expect this time, however, clapping the bees one by one out of the air between his thick, solid hands. Caroline looked up, the bees, but not him. Perfect.
Zag saw no reason to waste time, hurrying to the doors at the back of the sanctuary. Luckily of the two doors, he chose the bedroom first, saving him a fruitless search of the bathroom and it's connected basement. He was amazed at the collection of antique books that lined the walls, almost all of which were leather bound. The mattress laid in the floor squatter-style seemed so incongruous comparatively, but he had no time to critique Caroline's home decorating skills.
The wardrobe. Yes. There it was. He started at the drawers at the base, his training ensuring he left every stitch of clothing exactly as he found it. Nothing. He flipped through the cheap second hand clothing hanging from the central rod, just in case the bag was somehow hanging there. Still nothing. All that was left was...
YES! There it was, in the far back left corner of the top shelf above the clothes rack. His hand darted in like a striking snake, eager to take hold of his prey, his target, the validation of his newfound purpose in life. The new peace he had found in Pedro's service all hinged on this single acquisition.
The velvet was seductively soft in his hand as he whipped the bag open to ensure its contents were intact. He had no idea what Pedro wanted, but he wasn't fool enough to carry a package he didn't know the contents of. Probably coke, probably money, maybe both, something, anything, but....
A SHRUNKEN FUCKING HEAD!?
A shiver climbed up the spine of the hardened commando. Stupid. Was he asked to open the bag? NO. He had operated outside of orders. Blood magic had gotten him this far, of course the only thing Pedro would want was some form of voodoo. After all, it wasn't as if Pedro didn't have all the money and drugs he could ever want.
Thug tucked the bag inside his jacket and vanished from the room like smoke...
Where had those dancing bees gone? Caroline looked up from the dead insect she'd been inspecting only to see her door wide open. She hadn't heard it open! She rushed towards it, alarmed that the loud creaky antique door would just open on it's own like that.
As she did so, a sickening crunch exploded under her right foot. She slammed her door shut and inspected her bare toes. THE BEES! Stuck to the sole of her cute little piggies was one of her dead furry servants. It was then she saw the corpse of the other bee, crushed just as this one was.
But she hadn't stepped on that one.
She looked around, panicked. Something had come in her house! Something, some spirit, some demon, SOMETHING was in her house, killing things, moving in silence, opening doors at will...
Her bedroom door stood wide open, a position her nervous obsessive-compulsive mind never left it in. Whatever it was, it had not only defiled her sanctuary, but also defiled her holy of holies. Instinctively she ran to that room. Her whole home was protected by various potions against infiltration by demons and spirits of all kinds. Why had they failed?
She bolted into her room...
And found nothing out of place. Nothing at all. Her wardrobe door was closed, just like she'd left it. She checked all her books meticulously, all in order. She popped open the drawers of her wardrobe, seeing every sock in perfect place. Every shirt, every skirt, hung exactly as she'd left them. The few articles on the top shelf seemed undisturbed; there was no point in checking them.
Caroline cursed herself. She was acting crazy again, over nothing. So the bees had acted strange, and she'd forgotten to close a couple of doors properly. What was that? Nothing. Regardless, her hand sought out a single sharpened human femur bone she kept mounted in a leather sheath under her table. Sleep. She needed sleep, sleep that only finally came when she cradled that bone shiv close to her breasts after hours of sleeplessness.
Rodney pulled his tendril of compulsion softly off of Caroline's mind, amazed she'd had the discipline to chase her suspicions that far despite his subconscious manipulations. Pedro was so much easier than this; it was clear the combined power of Caroline's natural bloodline and Mrs. Black's made her a much more puissant opponent than any pure blood witch or warlock.
Interesting. Perhaps he shouldn't be so coy with his next move. Then again, now that M'buto's head had been liberated by a spiritless, soulless agent, the only kind that could penetrate Caroline's protections, he no longer needed finesse of anyways.
A chill crept down Mama Agnes's spine beneath her shift and blankets. A single phone call could have stopped all of this, and now, whether anyone knew it or not, the blame for what was about to happen ultimately lay on her head.
Unlike Caroline, there was no weapon powerful enough to give her the comfort to sleep this night as she lay awake, knowing one day perhaps this same choice could in Caroline's hands, and maybe SHE would be the one in the other position.