The Glass sat behind the eyes of its host, its victim this time. Unbelievers are so weak, never truly understanding the power they could possess. What a shame, a waste, an ... inefficiency. Together they could do so much more, but it was not to be. When a souled host struggles, the soul must be ... subjugated. Minimized. Shoved into a corner to wither and die if weak, or merely be forgotten if strong.
Still, this host had more function than the last, more brawn. The Glass gleamed as though freshly shined, like a hotrod with a fresh coat of paint and a new engine.
Mrs. Black was gone, that smudge was finally rubbed out. A victory, but one that had been had countless times with different enemies. So much clarity had been wasted there, so much brilliance, but no longer.
Direct action had failed. Defenses had been made; a tactical advantage had been lost. Lying low, that was the key. Create a false sense of security. Wait for the sigh of relief, wait for the pattern. Find the hole in the pattern, and then strike.
The Glass was good at watching, that was its nature, and now it had the tool it needed to get what it wanted, and no one was there to stop it.
Straight Mike spoke tersely into his phone frustrated and irritated that his cousin was so hard to work with.
"Look, I don't fucking CARE how you feel. You did your job, now I've got to do mine. You're an idiot if you don't think they already know, and they're not going to wait for the funeral, ok? So just give me the goddamn number, and let me handle this part."
There was a brief pause as Mike listened, his face screwed up with stress.
"Look, if you're that worried, dig a couple of holes in the back yard. I've already gotten calls from Nate AND Dom, and if she's not ready to give orders, THEY will. Once that starts, there's no stopping it. So unless you want fucking NATE," he spat the word like an epithet, "calling the shots for the next hundred years, I suggest you give me that number and let me do my fucking job."
There was another pause, this time because Mike was busy entering numbers into his phone.
"Alright, thanks. And don't worry; this'll all blow over real soon. She'll get up to speed, and we can all get back to normal. See ya, cuz."
"Now where the hell am I going to get reservations...?" he mumbled to himself.
Caroline sat in a dark corner, clutching her knees to her chest, rocking gently back and forth. She was dead, that was all she could think. Dom had been nice, but was quick to leave when it was all over, not even waiting for her to exit the trance before disappearing. Thug was inconsolable, not even capable of speaking in anything but a blubber. He had just pulled that cotton sheet up over her head and started gibbering, and there was nothing she could do but go home.
Go home to what, though? There was nothing here for her. She had already shut off from the outside world for fear of her dreams taking hold of her once again, and it's not exactly like she had a lot of friends to begin with. Everyone was gone, everyone except her...
Cell phone? She didn't believe it until it rang a second time.
She ran for the phone, ran for it like a lifeline. It didn't matter who it was, as long as it was someone other than herself.
"Hello?" Caroline answered the unfamiliar number.
"Hey Carl, it's me, Mike, you know, from The Fool's Card?" Answered the somewhat familiar voice.
"Hey Mike... sorry about your grandma..." she apologized.
"Yeah, this call is kind of about that." He said bluntly. "Look, I know Todd's probably told you some bad things about me, but I'm a part of this family, just like Thug, just like Lucille."
"So? What's your point?" she stated flatly, sensing an ulterior motive.
"So you know Thug's first boy, right? Well, we all have jobs like that. Lucille's head mother. Her job is handling internal family politics. Thug's in charge of all external, non-family stuff like security. Me, I'm chief liaison to the other families." He explained.
"Wait... what other families?"
"Look, Mrs. Black wasn't the only witch in the world. Locally there's two other families, families we have truces with. As the new head, it's your job to meet with them, let them see everything's kosher, and most importantly let them know we're not about to fall apart and go back on any of the agreements. It's been a blood bath since Senora Maya died, and Mama Agnes might move on us if she thinks the Blacks are going that route. We're small, but we stay alive by not pissing anyone off. That means keeping up the protocols."
"Wait, what the fuck are you talking about?" Caroline spat, irritated by Mike's self-importance when he should be in mourning.
"I'm talking about a meeting. Tonight. Mama Agnes had Starburst arrange a meeting with me the second she saw what happened, and Nate's been calling ever since he found out."
"Nate? Starburst? Who are these people?" Caroline asked, confused again.
"Ok. Starburst is Mama Agnes's emissary; basically her version of me. She's the tall black girl with the shades from The Fool's Card. You've never met, but you'll recognize her. Nate... you're gonna have to ask Dom about Nate. All I know is I hate the greasy bastard, and I hope his lying ass rots in hell." He explained.
"So what do I have to do?"
"Ok. Dom's gonna come meet you and Nate at the Applebee's on Westingham and Norwood down the street from here. Don't worry; Dom's paying. Nate won't cross Dom, and I'll have Starburst meet you there."
"What time?" Caroline asked, trying to get this all over with as soon as possible.
"Oh, just show up. Dom'll call me when he sees you."
Caroline walked form her car to the restaurant to see Dom just closing his phone as he stood next to a tall, tastefully dressed middle-eastern man with sharp features.
"Hey!" Dom called, waving and smiling cordially, wrapping Caroline in an unexpected fatherly hug as she approached.
"Caroline, this is my brother Nate Task. Nate, this is Caroline Parker, new matriarch of the Black Family."
"Pleased to meet you, Caroline." Nate said with an infectious smile, showing his pearly white teeth. "Really, so sad to hear about your loss." He continued, sounding earnest.
"It's ok. She told me she wanted it this way." Caroline answered him somberly.
"C'mon, lets go ahead and order while we wait for Starburst." Dom cut in awkwardly.
Dom sat next to Caroline in the booth, with Nate tucked away in the back corner.
"So...you two don't look like brothers. Are you step brothers or something?" Caroline asked, trying to kill the mystery.
"Hah, no..." Nate laughed gregariously, sounding strangely inappropriate. "You could say we're only related by marriage, as it were."
Dom made a weird face. "We're not related by blood. It's rather complicated." He said, sounding slightly embarrassed.
"Our two brothers are a lot more like me, although none of us look alike. Pete and Rod have always thought of Dom as a bit of a snitch. He's always been the white sheep of the family, you could say." Nate explained.
"Nate's the oldest, I'm second, then Pete, then Rod. Nate's always tried to be like Dad, but I had a bad case of middle child syndrome and Pete and Rod have never let me live it down." Dom finished wryly.
Their drinks arrived.
"Ok, let me cut straight to business." Dom said as he sipped his gin and tonic. "Mama Agnes is an old school African national priestess that can trace her roots all the way back to the Congo, even WITH the slave ships. Her family's big, HUGE, but they're pretty disorganized and the fact Mama Agnes is a witch is pretty hush-hush even with her own kids. She's only in her mid-nineties, and she stays pretty busy with her own affairs. She'd always respected Mrs. Black because of the stance she took against Belforte. Apparently the oral histories they use speak quite highly of it."
"Then why does she want to see ME? I wasn't even involved!" Caroline interjected.
"Oh, that's simple, Caroline." Nate answered. "It's because you're Mrs. Black's descendent by blood, albeit in a circuitous manner. These families are generational, so the descendent is treated the same as the parent."
"Basically, Starburst is coming BECAUSE Mama Agnes likes you. Normally a witch's only concern is her own family, but in this case if you get caught up, Mama Agnes will be the only person capable of getting you straight again." Dom finished.
Along with their drinks, the waitress arrived with an amazingly tall black man, built thin and lithe like a track star. The man wore skintight jeans and an undersized Rainbow Bright t-shirt and sandals. His shoulder length hair was beautifully straightened, and he wore a pair of Bootsie Collins-esque shades.
"Caroline!" said the effeminate baritone as Dom relayed the order to the waitress. Taking a second look, Caroline realized where she'd seen those shades before; talking to Straight Mike with the other queens at The Fool's Card.
"You must be Starburst." Caroline said, doing her best to imitate Mrs. Black's stately grace as she extended a hand.
"Pleased to meet you. And these gentlemen are...?"
Dom rose to the challenge. "I'm Dom Borden, and this is my brother Nate Task. He's just along with me. I'm one of Mrs. Black's old friends."
Something wrinkled above the bright yellow star-shaped shades on Starburst's head.
"Wait... Dom? I remember you now. I'd heard the rumors, but it's strange to find out they were all true like this."
Dom laughed. "Oh, it's not as serious as all that! Once Caroline gets up on her feet, me and Nate'll back out of the picture. Isn't that right Nate?"
Nate pretended not to hear as he sipped his drink.
Caroline broke the awkward pause.
"So, what's going on with Mama Agnes? I've heard good things."
"Oh, everything's nice and solid on our front. It's a day by day struggle, but even though the cops keeps getting worse, we keep doing better anyways." Starburst smiled. "In fact, I'm here to give you Mama's personal number. She knows you need a lot of advice and support right now. In fact, we're willing to handle the arrangements for Mrs. Black's funeral."
Dom spoke up. "A-S Cogic?"
"Yeah, down at All Saints Cogic." Starburst answered. "The Church of God in Christ knows Mama Agnes's place in the stream of things, so they don't ask too many questions in how she runs the place."
"Good, good." Dom crooned. "We want to keep everything small. Pedro needs to think everything's under control, otherwise he might do something stupid."
"Mama Agnes also wants everything nice and unified. Things are way too unstable now, and Pedro's running on fear. Did you know he completed the purge?" Starburst supplied conspiratorially.
"I did." Dom said ruefully. "I was there. That's why I'm here now."
Stardust swallowed, the cold nature of Dom's voice reminding him of something he was trying to forget.
"Of course. You probably found out first, maybe before even Pedro himself."
"It's worse, Star. Pedro's been watching me, that's why I had to bring Nate, even though I didn't want to let him come."
Suddenly Nate jumped to his feet, looking back towards the kitchen. "Speak of the devil..." he muttered as a commotion broke out. A paint splattered young Mexican man was arguing loudly in vulgar Spanish with a female member of the kitchen staff. Things died down, but the pair immediately came to the table where Nate was standing.
The stocky Mexican pointed at Nate, yelling accusatorily in guttural Spanish. Nate chuckled and smiled sharply, replying with smug fluent Spanish. The man turned to the girl, barking orders. The woman answered him, then turned to Caroline.
"He says he's not afraid of you." The unnamed girl said in a voice that would have been musical if it wasn't under such stress.
The man barked more orders to her.
"He says he knows what you did to Mrs. Black." She said, her eyes darting around nervously, her arms crossed protectively in front of her.
Nate said something disgusting in Spanish and then licked his fingers.
The small man snapped, yanking a big awkward utility knife form his tool-belt and lunged towards Nate across the table, just inches away from Caroline. Nate grabbed the man's overextended arm at the wrist just below the knife, bringing his other elbow down all in one motion crushing the small bones of the Mexican's knife hand against the table and the handle of his own knife.
Before the Mexican could recover or retaliate, three large servers grabbed him and yanked him from the restaurant. Already the waitress came running to the table, apologizing.
"No, that's fine." Dom smoothed. "No, we don't want to press any charges. Just get us our food and we'll be on our way."
Starburst looked shocked. "Is that who I think it was?"
Nate's sadistic grin nearly cut his face in half. "It was. Fool, he'll end up just like his grandmother if he doesn't see the light."
"Don't rub it in." Dom placated. "You wouldn't even be here if I had the freedom you do."
"Yeah, well, Father learned his lesson the hard way with me. That's why he was so much stricter with you three."
Dom sighed, and the wait staff hurriedly delivered everyone's food.
"So who was that?" Caroline asked, scared of her ignorance when everyone else seemed to know exactly what was going on.
"Pedro." Dom answered shortly. "He followed me here. I can't fight him, but Nate can, so I had to bring Nate for insurance."
"He doesn't speak a word of English." Starburst cut in. "He just recently got control of the family, so he doesn't have an emissary yet to meet with. In better times, he would have sent someone like me instead."
"So why is he coming after Nate with a knife, then?" Caroline asked.
Nate smiled again, coldly.
"Because I killed his mother and drank her blood."
Starburst started to speak, but Dom cut him off. "Look, Senora Maya knew what she was getting into when she started dealing with Nate. She crossed him, and she paid the price. Now you know the price of dealing with him, too, so you won't make the same mistake."
"There goes my brother, ever the snitch. Are you going to tell her my real name, too? Or are you scared I'll tell her who YOU are?" Nate oozed acidly.
"She'll find out all too soon as it is." Dom admitted with a hint of sadness. He looked Caroline dead in the eye. "I'd tell you if I could, I swear to God. You'll know who I am by the end of the week."
"Promises, promises." Nate chuckled, his fork held delicately as he spoke.
"So is Caroline dealing with Nate?" Starburst asked Dom pointedly, ignoring Caroline.
"Absolutely not." He said, solid as tombstone granite. "Nate's here doing me a favor, nothing more. I can't do anything about Pedro, but Nate needs me enough to where he won't cross me."
"You mean I won't cross myself." Nate interjected after sipping his wine. "You know we work to the same purpose, in the end."
Dom changed the subject, slightly shaken. "So, Starburst, what day is the funeral set for?"
"Thug turned in the body for cremation today. We're filing to have her declared dead without the body, though, to get her will enacted without too many questions. It shouldn't be too hard with her birth certificate saying what it does. We're setting it for the afternoon on Monday."
"But I have to work Monday..." Caroline responded instinctively, reverting to her old self.
Now it was Starburst's turn to chuckle knowingly. "Oh, Mama Agnes said that wouldn't be an issue."
"Hear that Dom?" Nate teased.
"Hear what?" Dom snapped, successfully baited.
"Oh, nothing." Nate said flippantly, turning his attention back to his meal.
"I'm sure I'll figure something out." Caroline said, just beginning to realize she was supposed to be in charge here.
"Don't worry honey, we're here for you. Mama's been holding everything together for us since the Great Depression. She apprenticed her whole life before she inherited the family; we don't expect you to be able to just jump in after a few months." Starburst consoled, which he was quite good at. "The bottom line is that the funeral's tomorrow at three, at All-Saints Cogic. There's still a lot to lose if you Blacks don't' keep your guards up, because Pedro can take a big chuck out of us if our allies are weak. He's about as new to all this as you are, though, so if we can get you up to speed before him, we'll have the leverage we need to get the three families normalized."
"Thanks Starburst." Caroline said earnestly. "Things have been hard for me. Everything's happening way too fast."
"You're telling me, girl. Don't you find a pretty young thing like me stuck in all this?"
"I didn't mean..." Caroline stuttered.
"No, it's ok. We all get caught up for different reasons. We all owe someone something. Debt and payment are what this is all about."
With that, Dom motioned for the waitress and the check.
"Well, Starburst, I'd like to thank you and your family for your help with the funeral." Caroline said, seeing it was time to leave.
"Ha, well, you'll be doing plenty of that on your own, soon." Starburst said as he handed her a card. "Oh, and don't worry about Pedro. We'll get him so busy he won't have time to mess with you."
Things were fuzzy to Caroline as she came home early that Sunday evening. It had seemed like only a moment after saying her goodbyes to Dom and Nate that they both left, not even walking with her back out to her car.
She shrugged it off with a sigh of relief. The entire situation was overwhelming, and it was clear things were only going to get more complicated after the funeral. Still, she no longer felt alone in her struggle. She had big shoes to fill, but now that she knew she wasn't the only one filling them, she could finally relax and go to sleep.