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.