Mark's battered alarm clock made a noise like an old woman's vibrator with a broken wire. He leaned over the space his supposed "girlfriend" should have been, slapping the off-button lackadaisically. He rose as a zombie, warmth falling from his body like clods of decayed flesh from a leper while he stumped towards the shower. His still sleepy head knocked a solid crack into the flimsy veneer door as the knob failed to turn in his hand.
"Berry!" he mumbled as loud as his lethargic lungs could manage. He could hear some sort of water running inside there, but he got no answer.
"BERRY!" he called louder, banging on the door with the heel of his clumsy fist. The cardboard thin door rattled in its frame, but he still got no answer.
"Fuckin' bitch ..." he mumbled under his breath as he turned to get the screwdriver off of his nightstand. He tried not to think about how pathetic it was that he'd been forced to keep a lock pick nearby for just such an indignity in his own home.
Mark deftly picked the simple brass interior door lock with the small sliver of metal only to get a glimpse of a random twink applying some sort of dye into Berry's hair before the tiny girl kicked the door shut with a stacked knee-high boot, part of the same outfit she'd been wearing last night. He could hear her say something conciliatory to the twink through the door, but her little foot remained locked in place when he tried to force his way into his own master bathroom.
Mark resigned himself yet again to a quick shower with a sigh of disgust, yet again washing his hair and body with hand soap in the guest bathroom while Berry monopolized the bathroom that was attached to his bedroom. Sure, she was a cute girl and all, he thought to himself as he hastily applied the silk noose that marked him as a company man, but sometimes he wondered if it was really worth showing up to work with his hair frizzed to hell and reeking of that weird hospital smell of antibacterial liquid Dial.
Timmy was gently folding the tinfoil over Berry's hair when he heard the heavy ornamental oak door slam as mark made his frustrated exit.
"Girl, you're taking this man for granted. Hell, if I thought for a minute he was even a little gay, I'd be all over him like white on rice," Timmy said in a mixture between a high southern accent and a feminine lisp as his free wrist hung down expressively.
"It's hotter when I abuse them." Berry answered in desultory fashion. "It keeps the passion alive."
"Passion?!" Timmy said mockingly. "Berry-bear, that AIN'T passion, that's fruster-A-tion!"
"Same thing," Berry quipped, "he knows I could replace him with a snap of my fingers."
"Girl, you ain't nothin' but a man eater. Girls like you make me glad God made me gay." Timmy expounded with an air of superiority.
"Oh shut up and pass me that mirror, would you? Madame Berry needs a toot."
"Well yes ma'am." Timmy replied mockingly. He'd snorted enough of Mark's coke not to care if Berry was being bitchy. Being fabulous sure was hard on the nasal cavity, though...
Zag leaned hard to his left. Harder, deeper, tighter, faster... he gave it just a touch more before he redirected his eyes from his terrain and down the vibrating sights of his .22 caliber pistol, a pistol with no manufacturer's label, not serial number, and a smooth bore. A pistol so small that it barely existed, designed to be held by a hand that could later he denied to even exist at all.
Steadiness had nothing to do with accuracy, not on a fast and dirty bike, where even a surgeon's hand shook like a drunk's. Timing was everything, and it was predicting the wobble and pulling the trigger at one precise moment that made the shot count.
Zag fired once into the tree he was circling, flinging a satisfactory sliver of bark into the surrounding tree line of Pedro's large but undeveloped plot of forest where he kept his lonely trailer, far away from the prying eyes of the law. He paid close attention to the circle he was riding around the tree, waiting for the exact same spot to pull the trigger again...
A miss. Even for Zag, a trained assassin, hitting one out of three was considered good accuracy from a fast moving motorcycle in rough terrain. Patience, perseverance...
The pistol jerked gently in his hand, like a young kitten jumping from its owner's arms. Another impressive sliver of bark fell from his target. Zag tightened his spiral around the tree, a rooster tail of dead leaves flying from his rear tire as trees whirred mere inches from his handlebars.
He changed tactics, quickly spraying his last seven shots in a flurry of flying metal and empty shells. At that distance, nearly every shot met its mark. Just as he had drilled so many times in his operative training, he gunned the engine and raced back towards home to Pedro's trailer on his expansive lot, cutting through the grazing area and startling the small herd of horses there. For a brief instant, Zag was part of the herd, a young colt's flowing mane streaming tantalizingly close to his left hand. In this instant, Zag was brilliantly and vividly alive, finally capable of putting the trauma of his military service behind him, at one with his place in service of his blood and kin.
"I hate it when you do that." Angelia greeted him petulantly as he putted up towards the doublewide trailer.
"Why? Jealous?" Zag taunted, flashing a twisted and unapologetic grin toward his cousin.
"No... it's cruel. It scares the poor dears half to death. How would you like it if I chased YOU around with a pistol?"
"You know I'd never shoot your horses. They don't even know I have a gun!" Zag placated against her unreasonable comparison.
"Well, I do, and it bothers me. You can really be a beast sometimes," she whined like a pouty little sister.
Zag hopped up the stairs to the porch where Angelia stood sipping iced tea and gave her a brotherly hug.
"Since when have I ever NOT been a beast?"
Angelia melted at his honesty. He did have a point, after all. To some extent her own sweetness was a coping mechanism for the harsh realities of Maya family life. She squeezed him back, deceptively hard.
"I'm sorry. It's just... I'm still a little on edge from Caroline's. Pedro has been avoiding talking about it for some reason," the girl confided.
"Look; it's not that hard. Just tell him what you two talked about, get it off your chest, and forget about it." Zag crooned.
"You're right," she said as she pulled away, her dark hair flowing down her shoulders like black liquid silk in the fading light of the sun.
Angelia stalked silently into the living room as Pedro stared blankly into the television while soccer players ran like gazelles across the screen.
"Uncle..." Angelia said quietly in the darkness, the only illumination coming from the screen.
"Yes?" Pedro answered. His abilities in English had grown exponentially since Zag had come back as though he had somehow copied the knowledge from his nephew's mind. Angelia tried not to think about that.
"We... we never talked about what happened at Caroline's," she said sheepishly.
"I know." Pedro responded bluntly, sipping his beer while his eyes remained glued to the screen. "I watched."
Embarrassment flushed Angelia's golden cheeks, suddenly remembering as if for the first time how Caroline had... there was no better word for it... molested... her. She has somehow suppressed the memory; her main reason for this discussion was M'buto's head, not Caroline's perversion.
Pedro sighed, having feared what he would learn from his niece's mind. There had been a black space when he watched Angelia's meeting with Caroline through his bond to her in the blood, but the only reason he could think of that Caroline had allowed him to see her having her way with his emissary was humiliation. He feared what was in that black space, every drop of his blood warning him away from that knowledge. Still, with Angelia here he had no choice. At best, he could limit his exposure to this truth to merely hearing it, as opposed to delving into Angelia's mind to see it in all its explicit glory.
The silence filled the room like a pink elephant.
The spirit of Pestilence watched the exchange between them with unabashed demonic glee. The feather that would break the camel's back was coming. Rodney could almost feel the gears clicking into place. He could actually SEE Pedro's blood instinct fighting against this exchange, as if the spirits of a thousand dead Maya priests knew Pedro was too weak to handle what he was about to hear...
Angelia swallowed in the darkness.
"Look... Caroline's not what you think she is. She's just a girl, a girl like me, who got caught up in things she didn't understand. You hear her name, and all you can think about is Nate, but Caroline really has nothing to do with him. She didn't even know who he was that night at the meeting with Starburst."
"I know this. I watched, yes?" Pedro affirmed slowly, still trying to shunt off the conversation as he hid behind his beer in the dim light of the soccer game.
"I don't think you understand, uncle... Caroline is afraid of us. The first witch she met after Mrs. Black was a woman named Mama Agnes, and Mama Agnes gave her the head of the last mixed blood witch to cross her family. Think about it Uncle! That poor girl! Imagine if someone handed you Senora Maya's head!" she finished emphatically.
Pedro's knuckles turned white against the dark brown bottle. He'd heard of this mixed blood witch in the books Senora Maya had left, and things were not as poor sweet Angelia had been tricked into believing. Marcia M'buto, the ancient cannibal witch queen, was now in the hands of a NEW mixed blood witch? The only way for bloodlines to mix was cannibalism; magic could only be inherited from the mother, never the father, which was why most family heads were women. This meant Caroline's admission of being a mixed blood witch proved she was at the very least, a cannibal who preyed upon the flesh of the bloodlines. How long would it be before she followed in M'buto's footsteps? How long would she be satisfied with the power of only two bloodlines, if she were willing to kill to gain more power?
Poor naïve Angelia! He should NEVER have been so stupid enough to allow that viper Caroline so close to his sweet girl!
Pedro's body was stiff with unreleased tension, setting down his beer with the ponderousness of a man with a heavy weight on his shoulders and nowhere to put it. He had indulged his pretty niece long enough, and proved himself a fool in so doing. Ever the victim, he was a victim of his own weakness and inability to make the right decisions. If only Senora Maya were alive! If only Charlita hadn't betrayed them all to serve Nathan! So much of this wasn't his fault, yet here he was, unjustly punished for it. However, for once, he knew of someone who was NOT innocent; who had proven herself deserving of his vengeance. But he would be benevolent; he had learned the danger of acting too violently. Instead, he would merely make himself safe while at the same time humiliate Caroline in the same way she had humiliated him.
The lights flashed on and the television flicked off suddenly, without a human hand being moved to adjust either. Angelia squeaked a bit in shock, realizing that her words, which she'd meant to make peace, had only enraged her uncle even more. She opened her mouth to speak... but was cut off suddenly.
"No. You finished talking. Get me Zag."
Angelia could feel the barely suppressed anger in the words. Uncle Pedro was incensed, barely in control of himself, looking for a victim to express his emotion on. She knew better than to say a word; her family obituaries spoke volumes about the wisdom of that decision. She turned her eyes down humbly and left, not giving Pedro the opportunity to turn his focus on her...
Zag rested his weight lazily over the porch guardrail, dark blue smoke hanging in front of his face in the still twilight air as he watched the sun set in the gash the road left in the tree line. He took a deep drag and savored the dying of the day as the sun sprayed up its lifeblood on the horizon. The symbolism of the death of the day bringing the peace of the night was not wasted on him, and it filled him with a sense of contentment.
The screen door creaked open behind him as Angelia slowly paced through, barely in front of the waves of fear and relief that pushed her body almost to the point of shaking. The lights went out in the window behind her once more as the flickering light of the television regained dominance in the living room.
"Uncle wants to see you," the girl said sheepishly.
Zag looked at her, the influence of eastern culture somehow more apparent than ever as he appraised her body language. He knew in an instant her conversation with Pedro hadn't gone well.
"You're too delicate for this family politics stuff," Zag said quietly. He put a hand on her shoulder as he passed her on his way in the door. "Don't worry; I'll take care of everything."
Angelia stood on the porch, mourning for the dying sun. She knew Zag was only trying to comfort her, but there was something condescending in it that disturbed her more than Pedro's barely controlled rage.
Mama Agnes sat between her grandson Sergeant George Jackson and her ever-immaculate emissary Starburst as they shared an expertly prepared meal of pork and cabbage, with a side of cornbread and black-eyed peas. The men on either side of her were near polar opposites, but both were unified in their devotion to family despite their differences.
"Let me cut straight to the chase." Agnes said abruptly, her Caribbean accent if anything making her voice sound more severe in comparison to her boy's south southern accents. "DON'T. GET. INVOLVED." She emphasized each word with a sharp shake of her fork. "I've been praying and meditating over this for way too long to let you two get your dirty paws in it. This will all work out."
"But Mama! They found a mass grave!" George whined uncharacteristically for his rank, flabbergasted at the impropriety of it all.
"I know baby, I know. But this thing is bigger than the law, and if you get involved, you're only delaying the inevitable. What's going to happen has more justice in it than any man made law." Mama Agnes consoled casually, as if comforting a child about an unfair game instead of a Pedro's murderous reign of terror.
"And Caroline's not in any danger?" Starburst butted in disbelief.
"Not any more than usual." Mama Agnes reassured. "Pedro's got a point to prove. He's stomped around the place in muddy boots for long enough, and now he's trying to be slick." Agnes winked at her boys, knowingly, "But he AIN'T slick."
"So what's gonna happen then?" Sergeant Jackson said suspiciously.
"The police aren't going to get involved, THAT'S what's 'gonna happen.'" Mama stated bluntly.
"So I'm assuming I'm not going to give Mike that obligatory phone call?" Starburst asked smoothly.
"Exactly. Now dig in, boys. I didn't whip up his dinner just so it could go cold with you two staring at it."
Finally, the stage was perfectly set for the big move. Rodney had already insinuated his probing tendrils of disease into Pedro's mind, laying down the foundation to make his puppet dance like a marionette. Now blinded by anger against Caroline, blinded from the truth by his own prejudice, Pedro was foolishly willing to tread where someone with the wisdom of a Maya family head should never dare. Best of all, the man's foolish denial and inability to accept responsibility for his own actions made the man think he had no other choice, that Caroline had forced his hand.
Yes, yes, this was going to be sweet indeed...
Zag strolled confidently up to the recliner that served as throne to the ruler of the Maya family, a confident smile on his face. He could feel the action in his blood, the action that made him feel alive, the action he'd been trained his whole life for. He knew the chance to serve his family was coming, and he relished the opportunity as a hunting dog relishes the release of the leash to seek its prey.
"Angelia said you wanted to see me?" Zag said proudly, presenting himself at full military attention.
"Yes." Pedro said, all previous hints of cumbersomeness with the English language long gone as he and his nephew thought as one blood.
"Caroline cannot be trusted. She is a cannibal and a murderer. She has a thing in a purple velvet bag. It is hidden in her wardrobe. It is evil, and for the safety of our family, you must get it for me."
Zag's expression remained the same, not so much as blinking as he said the words.
"How should I deal with Thug?"
"You won't." Pedro answered brusquely, "My blood will protect you. They will not see; they will not hear; you will not stop."
Pedro's eyes went dead, the flickering light of the soccer game casting his olive skin in a garish caricature of a human face as his eyes entered the Maya blood trance. Without leaving his chair, he reached into an end-table drawer and pulled a razor sharp sliver of obsidian with a wrapped leather handle, an exquisite stone knife, presumably a pre-colonial family artifact.
Pedro's eyes remained dead as he gashed the stone edge into the outside of his left forearm, far away from any vulnerable veins. Zag watched in awestruck paralysis, realizing he was witnessing the ancient holy blood magic of his people with his own eyes. A trickle of blood began to seep from the wound, which ran as Pedro squeezed the fleshy part of his arm. He casually pulled a jade jar from the same keeping place as the knife. The blood was a bright delicious red as it ran in a single rippling rivulet down his arm. As the first drop began to form, Pedro deftly opened the jar to catch the precious life essence, his eyes still glassy and out of focus in the shifting television light.
Faster than Zagurio thought possible, Pedro filled the tiny stone jar with the crimson drops that fell from the smallest finger of his hand, the color contrasting sharply with the opalescent jade. As the blood neared the rim, Pedro staunched the flow of blood with a small wad of bandage, capping the jar with a crystal plug that allowed the grisly contents to be seen.
"Close your eyes." Pedro commanded, Zag obeying with military precision. Pedro gently wiped the blood from his left arm with his right pinky and rose to his nephew, placing a thin smear of blood on either eyelid with the corresponding hand, and another behind each ear, like some sick parody of eyeshadow and perfume. Finally, he placed his bloody left hand on Zag's forehead, and recited three phrases in one of the few languages Zag didn't understand.
"Open your eyes." Pedro commanded. Obediently, Zag opened his eyelids, the sticky blood squeezing from the corners of his eyes like a mockery of tears. Pedro took Zag's hands and placed the jar in them.
"Use this for the door. You will not return without the bag."
Despite his awe, Zag understood the warlock's meaning with deadly certainty.