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.