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.