Disclaimer: Some of you may remember me...some may not. If you've gotten this far into this tale, I would hope you would at least remember my name. I'm Mariana, and I'm here, briefly...to tell you that Morrig owns these characters. They are hers, although they may make you think of two other beautiful women. Take heed, imitating the deeds of the people in this story is highly discouraged. They're just not safe. As a matter of fact...they are downright lethal. If you are under eighteen, please go watch an episode of your favorite TV program, as I'm pretty sure the contents within these pages could be considered corruption of a minor. At least, I would think so. The language is...filthy. The violence...well, it's violence. Sex? Yes, and it's not all women on women, though there is enough of that as well. This story...may be too harsh for some sensitive souls, but if you have enough courage or resolve, and you have read Absolution and Penitencia...come, venture into the world we've built...and hear our-


By: Morrig

Everyone has that dream where they step off a curb but never reach the ground. It usually ends with a jolt and the dreamer awakes. For Magali, the ground never came and, although the jolt did, she couldn't wake from the nightmare. Along the borders of her sleep, the waves of pain loomed at a distance for awhile, teasing, before they swept over and tortured her once more.

Eddie's voice echoed in her head telling of Casey's sacrifice, and the deal to go with Julia in exchange for her life. Her hands vibrated with the feel of the steering wheel speeding along the highway, a chase through New York traffic. Have to reach her, before she goes...before...a spasm ripped through her and she dug her nails into her palm. The thought vanished. Her sight wavered, the traffic around her blurred, her shoulders ached with the force she used to try to turn the wheel in her hands. She could hear the roaring engine of the Jeep as she swerved to avoid the slower moving vehicles, in and out, almost there...when she'd felt the lurch, the sway-a malfunction in her typically faultless vehicle-as she lost control and...Madre! The accident that had destroyed her Jeep, left her gasping to breathe, almost killed her. She screamed, her gut twisting with lightning. Magali felt a brief sting, then a rush of warmth and the images faded as she dropped deeper into the darkness. How the fuck am I alive, why am I? Or am I?

Hours later, her mind again struggled toward consciousness, toward knowing. The pain and distress were almost unbearable. It would be easier to surrender...die already. She was tempted to just let everything go. She hovered on the border of indecision, stones from the edge of the abyss gave way under her feet. Waking? Or blessed relief? But there was something... Something I have to do... Her life depended on it. Mi vida... She grasped at an elusive thought and captured it with a feeling of triumph, became an observer of the events that filled her head. She could tell she was hurt bad and needed to get to a hospital. Her eyes flickered beneath the closed lids as, even now, her body flinched from the remembered pain and the desperation. No. Can't do that. Broke my parole...I'll be arrested. And then, Callie was there. Callie...It's Callie's fault I'm breathin'. There was something funny about that-putting her life into the hands of her assassin, who had taken her to the loft; but her constricting abdomen and the rising bile in her throat killed her laughter. That day, Callie used her scalpel for something other than taking a life. Fuck, who knew she could do that? The searing touch of the knife pierced her then faded into nothing. Consciousness loomed closer as her recall became more clear, more focused. Insects crawled over her bare skin. Callie, she shot me up full of dope...the bleeding, it slowed, she...Almost awake, a small rueful smile curled Magali's lip. Casey isn't going to like that. I promised... With that trigger, everything began unfolding before her as if she were the audience, watching a slow-motion film. Fuck! It was Casey...Casey hit me...And when I finally came to...have to make Julia pay...Her restless body twitched with her need-her need for action, and her need for the drug. Never made it to the airport...The Jeep...The crash... The flames licking from out of the black smoke that had done away with more than the heap of twisted metal that had been her vehicle; they had also eliminated her only chance of getting to Casey before she left for L.A. with Julia. They had set the circumstances for her breaking parole; and they had prompted Callie to learn a new skill, to do what she had to in order to save her life and now...I'm addicted. Full awareness rushed back into Magali with that realization, and the bits and pieces coalesced into painful clarity. Got to get to Casey! She struggled, futilely, to rise, but for once her body would not respond to even her strong will and she subsided. Feeling a weight on the mattress beside her, Magli's eyes opened briefly to see Callie next to her; then she felt the bite, and slipped into oblivion.

It was purgatory-- between heaven and hell-- though her position in it was definitely closer to damnation, and salvation was too far away for her to even catch a glimpse of it. For the moment, surviving the wrath of her own body was all consuming. Her anchor was, once again, the image of her Saint's smile.

The addiction was physical not mental, and she was lucky for that. Once her body learned to live without the murk that was heroin coursing through her veins, she would recover. Some didn't come out of withdrawal alive. She had long since ceased her straining against the bonds Callie had placed on her to keep her from running in a blind fury towards relief. Her body too weak to continue, she let the pain cover her, and swam in it until it melted away.

In the hopes of diminishing the icy grip that firmly held Magali, Callie had turned off the central air of her loft and left only the ceiling fans spinning. She knew it was futile, that the heat of the summer would burn more than soothe the woman, but it was the only thing she could think to do. She had felt helpless for far too long during the course of the sickness.

Callie hadn't slept in over two days, even the headphones covering her ears, blasting Korn, couldn't prevent her from thinking of what was happening in her bedroom. Lying on the leather sofa and covering her head with a pillow simply muffled the screams into gut wrenching cries of lament, and she was grateful at their cessation. Only occasional slams and the metallic rattling of chains filtered down from the platform room now.

The silence was eerie, and heralded Magali's return from the land of the dead. She pushed one padded earphone back and listened for any changes, there were none. For the past few hours Magali had done nothing but shiver. Callie had chanced a peek or two in from the edge of the steps. She hadn't dared look often; the sight of her object of worship struggling over bloodstained and sweat-soaked sheets was wrenching.

What had perturbed Callie the most was the way that Magali had screamed out for Casey, not the drug, but Casey, as if the name alone could save her from the realm of demons through which she waded. When it was over, there would be stitches to replace, bandages to re-do, and a soul-what was left of it, if any-to mend. It would be Callie that tended to these tasks during this most vulnerable chapter of Bajo Zero's life. If anyone had the desire to, and there were plenty who did, it would have been easy to kill the usually invincible woman in her current state. As it was, Callie was her only safeguard against the predators that waited for her to weaken, but she could do nothing to shelter Magali from herself.

Lying curled on her side, she shivered as if in extreme cold, though drenched in the sweat and tears wrought from her agony. It was almost over; she knew that with the shakes her body would finally collapse, and she would wake without the need, and without Casey.

"Callie," Magali's hoarse voice screamed down to her. The sudden bellow gave her a start, and Callie nervously tugged down the tank top that had managed to creep up to just under her breasts. Her skin was damp and it stuck to the leather of the sofa as she quickly stood, causing her to wince at the sticky pull, dropping the CD player to the ground. At the top of the stairs, she caught her first full view of Magali in hours. Disheveled and with the strain of suffering on her face, Callie still found her to be beautiful, magnificent even in misery. Barefoot, she padded to the side of the low captain's bed and knelt on the floor, stroking back thick, dark locks that clung to Magali's face.

"What is it, Mami," Callie questioned in a tender whisper, adding on a term of endearment customarily spoken between lovers.

"Get these things off me," Magali croaked back, feebly pulling on the chains tethering her to the bed. Their length had been enough to let her flail and struggle, often forcing her body to contort into uncomfortable positions, but not to reach the buckles of the straps and undo them.

As she undid the restraints, Callie's eyes grew wide. "God damn, Zee." Callie noted with exasperation that the eyebolts that had held the chains had nearly been pulled out, splitting the wood of the bed's frame. "You owe me a new fuckin' bed."

Without looking at the smaller woman by her side, Magali's words carried a grateful undertone. "Thanks." It wasn't an expression of thankfulness for removing the bonds that had secured her, but for having them put on.

Callie nodded; she understood. "Want a smoke?" she asked as she rose, pulling away the chains and letting them crash to the floor. "I have a pack downstairs. I'll be right back."

After the younger woman left, Magali tested her limbs. Her joints were sore, and her throat ached. The sharp pangs from her side wound were merely a dull throbbing in comparison to what she had endured. She inhaled the hot air and bit down on her lip. Everything hurt, but it was life, and she had survived her run through hell. A small breeze separated the sheer curtains of the bedroom window, bringing with it the smells of the street outside. Callie returned, two cigarettes hanging from her mouth as she lit them both and handed one to the dark woman.

Magali braced herself and pushed her trunk up to lean her back against the wall. "How long?" she asked, taking a pull from the cigarette and throwing her head back.

"Altogether, two and a half weeks."

"Fuck." Magali drew her knees up and rested her arms on them, bowing her head, the pains from her broken rib teasing her.

"Yo, you've been through worse, right? It wasn't so bad." That statement drew a chortle out of the dark woman, and Callie took a risk to further lighten the atmosphere. "I'll tell you what, though...you haven't smelled so bad...ever. By the time you wash off, you're gonna owe me a new bathtub, too...Ah, you can afford it. Let me fill it up some. You can't soak, though, not with those stitches in you still, but you can get clean. Alright?"

"Yeah," she mumbled from her lap.

"Need help?"

Magali raised her head and arched an eyebrow. "No."

Callie shrugged and left for the bathroom attached to the bedroom. Magali heard the water run, and caught the mischievous look from Callie as she returned.

"All yours."

The bathroom was a smaller platform raised from the bedroom floor by a step and separated from the rest of the room by a frosted wall of block-cut glass. Magali was pleased to find that "the tub" was really a small Jacuzzi-- large enough for two, or for her to stretch out in. Unfortunately, Callie was right, wetting the stitches would delay her healing. With all the abuse of her body apparent, she moved carefully onto the bowled step of the tub and cautiously sat. The water reached to her waist, its warmth welcome even in the heat of the summer. She ran her hand over the surface, letting the liquid form waves over her fingers. So much had gone wrong within the past few months, and she wished she could wash it all away, everything but her Saint. Two and a half weeks, she could be anywhere by now...with Julia. She kept me from killing that bitch. Why? I should have been watching my back...Fuck that was careless. But she left with her...to save me. Julia was gonna kill me, and she stopped her. What the fuck were you saving, Casey? Magali dunked her head into the water, wincing, as she had to bend her body to do it. By the time she finished rinsing off the soap, there were definite food smells wafting up to her from the lower level of the loft. From a hook on the wall she grabbed a white, terry cloth robe. It was a bit snug around her shoulders, and its length reached only to mid-thigh on her, but it would do. Her clothes had been irreparably damaged. As usual.

She had difficulty walking down the steps, her legs shaky after spending so much time on her back. The loft had once been a warehouse, and unpainted, blue steel beams rose from floor to ceiling. Magali found Callie in the kitchen stirring the contents of a large steaming pot. The kitchen was a rather large space tucked into the back of the loft, with brick walls, a polished wood floor and a wooden island. Scraps of various Caribbean tubers littered the counter's surface. One of the room's walls was no more than a barn door that opened up into a backyard, where an enclosed garden of green vines and brightly colored flowers surrounded a bricked deck. A small stereo system in a niche of the wall played Tito Puente's greatest hits, and Callie danced to the magical rhythm of the drum's solo. She turned as Magali approached and jumped back in surprise. Her hair was the light honey-brown it would turn under the summer's sun, and she still wore her tank top with a very short pair of cut off jeans underneath. Still barefoot, a delicate golden chain hung around her ankle with a tiny medallion of La Caridad.

"Puñeta, you scared the hell out of me, Zee."

"Puñeta? It doesn't look like you're jerking off. Que haces?" Magali smirked. In all her dealings with the woman, she had never seen this particular side of her. The assassin was nowhere to be seen.

"Que hago? No, Mami, what are you doing? You're supposed to be upstairs. Tssk, Ave Maria, I would have brought you up a bowl; I know you gotta be starvin'," she exaggerated and picked up a dishtowel and dried her hands.

Magali glanced down at her belly; she was pitifully empty. The struggle had left her with a rather urgent need for food, though she didn't think she could stomach any. "I don't think I'll be able to keep it down, Callie."

"You're kiddin', right? It's a sancocho, Zee. Just some yuca, malanga, platano, batata, papa, eñame...some roots and shit. Anybody can keep this stuff down."

"Sancocho, huh? I haven't had that in years." Shit, since before moms died. "I guess I can try to put that in me. It's just a soup anyway."

"Trust me. Why don't you go sit down outside? Man, you could use some sun on you," she said, taking a hold of Magali's hand and leading her out through the garden door. "Go on, take a seat. Te traigo un plato aca afuera, okay? I'll be right back wit' it."

"Just one plato, Callie! And a small plato. Don't try to bring me one of those 'you're too skinny' plates." Her voice was too hoarse to yell effectively. Somehow, even if she could, she didn't think her protest would register with her assassin anyway.

The bowl was huge, and even pushing aside the chunks of tubers in the thick broth did nothing to reveal its bottom. Callie sat across from her with her own much smaller bowl, and a cold Heineken in her hand. She had brought Magali a tall glass of ice water, which she had had to refill twice before the woman would begin eating. Still, Magali did little more than spoon out the broth.

"Where's the meat? Isn't this supposed to have, like, pork or somethin' in it?"

"I made it without meat, Zee. You'd puke that shit all over the place if I had."

"I need meat," Magali said, nearly pouting.

"You need rest. Finish the sancocho." Callie took a swallow of the bitter beer, enjoying the cool feel of the bottle and her badgering of the lethal woman.

"You sound like a..." Wife.


"Nothin'." Magali muttered, putting a full spoon in her mouth.


With the A/C back on, snuggled and naked under a quilted blanket, Magali slept soundly. The cool scent of clean sheets was comforting, and the aspirin Callie had given her eased some of the tenderness of her injuries. She could have slept for days with the sounds and smells of a home long lost cradling her-- spicy scents of Caribbean condiments and roasted meats, the slow sad tune of a saxophone dancing with percussion. In the twilight between sleep and wakefulness, she could almost feel the place, way back before she was ever Bajo Zero, before the violence and the wrath consumed her into the smoking ashes of what she had become. The sudden noise of a struggle broke the tranquility and, groggily, she forced her eyes to open, her hand slipping under the pillow beneath her head for the weapon hidden there. Two sets of footsteps sounded on the staircase, ringing in her ears. Slowly her vision focused on the sight of her bare forearm near her face, and she scowled at the red marks and long blue streak left by her "medication". Its telltale markings would take some time to disappear.

"Look at what I caught. This motherfucker says he knows you, Zee," Callie growled, an assault rifle pointed at the back of a tall form Magali recognized immediately.

"Daly..." she snarled, hefting her own gun to point at the subdued enforcer. "It's about time you fuckin' showed up. Took you longer than I thought."

"You look great, Zee. I see you've been taking care of yourself," he remarked with a sarcastic note, eyeing the track marks on her arm.

"Stop, please, you'll make me blush with all those compliments," she retorted, narrowing her eyes. "You gonna try to take me in?"

A look from Magali to Callie, and the smaller woman was poking him in the back with the tip of the rifle's barrel, forcing him to take a step forward. It had taken him days to figure out where the woman had gone, and then even longer to verify her whereabouts. The loft was vulnerable on only one side, over the garden wall, and even then it was a risk because of its openness. He had chanced it when he thought he would not be seen, but Callie's keen senses and stashes of weapons had prevented his furtive entrance. I need to run a few training exercises, I'm getting slow, he thought when Callie took him by surprise. He wished he could be tender with the dangerous woman. She looked to him like death warmed over, and it was clear to him that she was in no shape for a fight. Had he wanted to take her in, he had the chance.

"That's not what I'm here for, Zee," he said without any mirth.

"Then what the fuck do you want now?"

"There's a parole officer keeping an eye on your place. I wouldn't go near there if I were you."

"You want me to believe you came to warn me?"

"Yes. That...and...you need to establish communication with Winslow. You're out of the loop right now. If he starts to think you've backed down...we could lose him."

"You sonofabitch. You set that whole thing up, didn't you?" she barked rising from the bed.

Daly gulped at the sight of her naked form, battered yet sleek in its form. "Does it matter," he asked, diverting his eyes away from her.

"No, I guess it really doesn't, whether you did or didn't. What's done is done...Isn't that the way it goes? But you made a big mistake, Daly, when you put Casey in this shit."

Callie twitched nervously, taking in the hostile scene with a hunger for action. "Let me kill him, Zee. I've got some of that acid shit, eat his fuckin' body up when I'm done."

"No. Leave us. This sonofabitch is gonna do something for me...Go on, break out," she ordered pointing to the stairs with the gun in her hand.

Magali waited through Callie's hesitation, the desire to kill crystal in the woman's eyes. She didn't appreciate her sanctum's violation. Pouting, as if her favorite toy had been stolen away, Callie turned and stomped down the stairs.

"What can I do for you, Bajo Zero?" Daly queried, a bit more at ease without the impulsive assassin's presence.

"You are going to make that parole violation disappear."

"What? I can't do that!"

"If you don't, how do you expect me to keep turning up the dirt?" she asked coolly.

He met her with silence, digging his hands into his pockets.

"Come on, Daly. I know you can get this done." She stepped inches away from him, nailing him with her eyes, the gun hanging from her hand. "You better do something, because I swear, I will not be going back in to do another six months. They'll have to kill me first, and you can be damn sure I'll be taking some to the devil with me as tribute."

"It might take a little while, Zee. That's not exactly a department I work with often."

"When?" she asked determinedly. Time was beginning to take on a new meaning for her. A premonition that she had precious little of it left and that she had wasted too much, haunted her, leaving the urgency to salvage every priceless waking moment.

"I'm not sure. It could be a few weeks, maybe a month or--"

"Do it."

"I can't guarantee anything."

"Neither can I. When it's done...send me an email." Magali stepped back, crossing her arms at her chest, the gun resting against her forearm. "You're dismissed, Daly. Callie, get this sonofabitch out of my sight."

Noiselessly, Callie emerged from her hiding place on a lower step of the staircase, the assault rifle still in her hands she pointed with it for him to follow. Grudgingly he took his leave, shooting Magali a secret look just in time to see her step falter a fraction of an inch. He was tempted to give her a hand.

The energy it had taken to become the menacing figure of Bajo Zero bled her of her strength, and Magali sank back onto the soft surface of the bed's mattress. Pulling the corner of the sheet to cover her pelvis and, hanging her hands between her legs, she contemplated her fingers, the raised veins in her wrists, the marks along her forearm, the dark weapon she held. Over a decade spent in the shadows, running, looking over her shoulder, laying waste to all and everything that crossed her path, gave her a manner of existence and an instinct for survival that was barbaric and ruthless in nature. Yet when death came knocking, she had fought it with tooth and nail, all for a smile and a love she deemed herself undeserving of.

Is it worth it, Casey, to bring you back? Here, into my world, into this pit filled with blood and grime brought forth by these hands? I made my bed. Is it fair to have you lie in it with me?

"What ya thinking about?"

Snapped away from her thoughts by Callie's mildly concerned voice, she stuffed the weapon she was holding back under the pillow and shook her head. "Nothin'"

Callie nodded once and pursed her lips in disbelief; experience told her Zero was most dangerous when she was silent. "Eddie just pulled up. He needs to talk to you about somethin'."

"Send him up then."

"Ummm...you're type naked, Zee. He could have a heart attack," she chuckled lightly.

Magali took in her form. She was a sight, and it dawned on her that she hadn't thought of her nakedness when she had negotiated with Daly. The numbness was growing. Without Casey's presence, what little of her humanity there was left, was diminishing.

"Have anything that'll fit me?"

"Are you kiddin'? Naw, but I did get you something the other day when I went out for food. It's in the closet, I'll wait downstairs."

It amazed her that the young woman could pick out her size with the ease of a professional tailor. The loose fitting khakis were the perfect length; the pair of boots conformed flawlessly to her feet and the pack of fresh A-shirts were just the right size, snug yet supple; the Hawaiian shirt soft against her skin; she didn't bother to button it. With her mind on her Saint and the imminent troubles of life as a fugitive, the screaming protest of her body against any movement was a mere whisper. She washed her face at the bathroom sink, pushed back her hair with wet hands, and took one last look into her own dead eyes. Her demons lurked just under the ice blue coloring of slave trading ancestors, who raped and conquered for a share of wealth not given to those born second; not much had changed in the last few hundred years.

Eddie was playing a video game on the immense screen of Callie's entertainment system. The gleam from his freshly shaven head was almost comical with its red glow from hours in the sun. His goatee and mustache were trimmed into thin delicate lines around his mouth and chin; Mariana took great care of him. He growled when a zombie emerged unexpectedly from behind a column and began eating the brains of his character. "End of game flashed" in dripping blood letters across the screen. On the coffee table next to Eddie's riding helmet were her holster and gun, and the antler-handled knife she carried in her boot. They spelled disaster.

"What's up, Eddie?" she asked, her eyes darting to the weapons on the table.

He looked away from the TV, the grimace on his face becoming a gentle smile at his sighting of Magali. "I thought you would want these," he replied, pointing at the tools of her trade. "I had Nelson sneak into your place and get them." He shrugged. "Just came to ask your permission to take your nurse here on a ride."

Callie sat on an arm of the sofa, her arms crossed. "Think you can take care of yourself for a little while, Zee?" she asked with a smirk. The multi-colored leather of her riding pants crunched as she moved.

"You're a real comedian, Callie. Don't quit your day job, alright? There's work?"

Eddie nodded. "Nothing we can't take care of, Zee. Little snot nose motherfucker downtown thinks his balls grew. Word I got was he was makin' moves to take over a block. He keeps tellin' people you're dead."

Magali's eyes closed briefly as she gave a short nod of understanding, her lips tightening into a sneer. "He's mine." She had been dead.

"Naw, Zee, I tol' you. We can take care of it, man." Eddie stood to take hold of her arm, conscious that her wounds were more painful and more debilitating than she would ever admit.

She pulled away from him, pulling off her shirt and grabbing the holster that waited for her hands. "Don't play daddy with me, Eddie. I've been grown for a long time. If I don't show my face, this shit is gonna keep happening."

"What about the cops, Zee?"

"They gotta catch me first," she said, smiling wickedly at Callie's parked Ninja.

Sunlight streamed in as, clanking and grinding, the garage door of the loft opened and let out two screeching sports bikes. Their bright colors distracted from the inherent darkness of the killers that rode them, their faces hidden behind the smoky shields of their full-face helmets. Callie was settled in behind Magali, her arms secure around the tall woman's waist, careful to use only the amount of pressure needed to not fall off. Against her belly she could feel the bony handle of the sheathed knife Magali wore at the small of her back; the boots she wore hadn't been high-cut enough to hold it. They crossed the Williamsburg Bridge, a pile of cobblestone and steel that connected Brooklyn to Manhattan's Alphabet City, a neighborhood that bordered Chinatown and acted as a buffer for Wu's activities. For generations it had been the first stop of immigrants entering New York City, flashing through time as a ghetto for the Irish, Germans, Italians, and finally Puerto Ricans. Unlike the rest of the island, its streets weren't named, they bore titles of letters and numbers only, hence its moniker "Alphabet City".

Summer intensified the vile smells of the street, leeching the ammonia of urine and the rot of sewage from the concrete, the heat appearing as waves off the asphalt, cars, and bricks of tenement buildings five stories high. Rats scurried and competed for garbage scraps, hydrants washed the streets with rivers of cool water, carrying debris; in the distance, sirens screamed and faded. To get out of the stifling heat and stale air of their apartments, the populace filled the sidewalk with plastic beach chairs and card tables topped with dominoes. Small children rode their cheap bicycles along the sidewalks, plastic tires streaking the concrete black.

They called him Lager because his mother would fill his baby bottle with beer to keep him quiet while she peddled her body. A thick gold chain hung from his neck and laid a crucifix heavily against his bare caramel stomach. The black Do-rag he wore shielded his shaved head from the gleaming sun, and his baggy jeans rode lightly just above his pubic area, the muscles of his waist sharp and defined. His claim to beauty was the hazel eyes with which he had been blessed; and they never stopped moving. Magali caught the dark handle of his gun protruding from his waist as she brought the bike to a stop half a block away. Eddie rode past her and parked before the stoop where Lager was casually lounging, a troop of younger boys around him. Instantly, Lager's attention was focused on him, his stance unchanging. Eddie strolled to him, a smile on his lips when he heard the lyrics playing from a boom box sitting on a step. "If you love the money then prepare to die for it, you can lay in the flames or hug the sky for it."

"What up, Lag?" Eddie droned, stepping close to him.

"Chillin', bro'. You comin' for a piece of me?" he sneered.

Eddie widened his smile, the boys that Lager had been standing with cringing away as he did. "Naw, bro'. Not me," he spat, tilting his chin. "Her."

Lager heard the snap of the gun behind him, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed. Innocents went running for cover.

"You ain't learn to bite before you bark, huh, hijo de puta?" Magali's voice was close to his ear, and the curse stung more than she knew: he was the son of a whore. "Face me, motherfucker."

Magali took a step back as the young man turned, keeping the gun she held close to his temple. "Heh, not too comfortable with the heat at your dome? I heard you wanna be me, you little shit. I'm a show you what it's like...It's crazy simple. Get your piece."

Shaking, Lager palmed the handle of his weapon and pulled it from his waist. His eyes-- as always-searching, a trickle of sweat falling past his lips. Magali grabbed onto his wrist, pulling his hand up towards her face and pressing the end of his gun against her own temple.

Eddie stood his ground, quickly reaching into his pocket and producing a wad of money. He held it out for all to see.

"Who shoots first?" she hissed into his face, terror flashing in his eyes. "That wad of green, goes to anyone with the balls to kill you." she announced to the crowd.

Lager's lips curled into a sneer, a brief second of deliberation that ended with six inches of steel twisting its way into his guts. Magali cut into his abdomen with a deft hand practiced in death.

A warm gush of thick red wound through her fingers, dripping off her wrist, and she shrugged. "Two hands. Game over...I win."

Lager slumped to the ground, falling first to his knees before he slid onto his side lifelessly. Another life ended with the force of her hands lay at her feet, taken without remorse or feeling, the void in her growing larger without the presence of her Saint to bring her out of the darkness. Magali wiped her blade off on his jeans and stared at the onlookers. "Anyone else think they can fill my shoes?" Blank looks greeted her question, a mix of awe and fear that she knew well. In the background the discordant sounds of sirens and traffic parting cut through her challenge. It was her cue to leave, and Callie patted her back.

They were gone before the first yellow flashes of light fought the brightness of the sun, riding through the streets with the rush of adrenaline in their veins. Through the cluttered, steady traffic they swerved, edging close to the flawless paintjobs of luxury sedans, and the rusty, exposed bumpers of old, vehicles-city veterans. Sirens approached and waned, blood pumped savagely with the exigency for survival that urges on the hunted. They turned onto the highway, speeding down its lanes, revving engines that purred with the delight of speed. A closed ramp led down to a deserted park along the river's bank; there the newly built cardboard village of the destitute hid them away. They killed the engines, and those without names fled their presence. Breathless minutes later, sirens passed, leaving them unseen and with a slight reprieve.

Magali pulled the helmet off. Once Callie swung herself off the back seat, she leaned the bike onto its kickstand. Breathing in the slightly salty air of the polluted, dark roiling waters of the river, she padded to its edge. Across the murky waters towered the sheer cliffs of New Jersey. She glanced at her hands; coagulated, black blood dried under her fingernails and stained her hands. She plunged them into the winter-cooled water and scrubbed at them with disdain. A dark stain marred the front of her shirt, and she ripped it off, throwing it into the water where it was carried off by the strong currents. The blue of the sky could do nothing to reflect off the black surface, and she knew that somewhere under the celestial canopy was Casey. Without her, she was lost; the evidence of it was floating away in a crimson tinged swirl.

"What now, Zee?" Eddie asked behind her.

"Now?" she said narrowing her eyes, gazing at the expanse of water before her. "I disappear. When things cool down, I'll be back. If you need me...email me. You and Callie take care of everything."

"And where are you gonna go?" Callie asked, kneeling by her side.

"It's better if you don't know." She continued to rinse her hands, then dried them on her pants.

"You're goin' after her...aren't you?" Callie spat.

"After who, Callie?" she questioned, standing, meeting Callie face to face.

"The blonde. What the fuck's she gonna do for you, huh?"

Magali silenced her with a look, cutting short a conversation that may otherwise have ended with more violence. "I have to get a few things, then...you're dropping me off, and that's the end of it, understand?" Callie turned from her and donned her helmet. "Eddie, it's all in your hands. I'm sorry I have to do this to you again, bro'."

Eddie smiled. "Anything for you, Zee. Don't worry about it, and...tell her I said 'what's up?" he finished with a wink.

Callie dropped her off at Broadway and 231st under an elevated subway track. She had pocketed the roll of money she had offered for Lager's head, and now walked the avenue on a short shopping spree, spending a quarter of it and stopping at a drugstore, a clothing shop, a liquor store, and an optical before hailing a gypsy cab.

The Van Cortland Motel, at the tip of the border between Manhattan and the Bronx, was a haven for the anonymous. Its rooms could be rented by the day or by the hour, and rarely were its sheets changed, but there were fresh towels in the bathroom. Magali let the cool stream of water from the shower course down her body. The stitches in her side had begun to itch with the ferocity of healing, and the soreness in her ribs had been overridden by the flush of the day's activity. Rough tufts of carpet scraped at the soles of her feet as she walked across the room and towards the bed. She had spilled the results of her shopping on the mattress: a hair trimmer, a container of bleach, a freshly rolled ace bandage for her ribs, a comb, deodorant, shampoo, three T-shirts, jeans, and a new pair of riding boots-the ones she had worn were stained red.

She pried open the box containing the trimmer and tied the towel around her waist. Over the bathroom sink, she plugged in the trimmer, and took a long look in the mirror. Long dark strands fell to her shoulders and tickled her bare back. Magali pushed it away from her face and flicked the power switch on the trimmer to "on". It hummed in her hand as she took the first swipe through the thick locks; they fell to the floor, pooling around her feet. Half an hour later, she was sitting on the floor in front of the abused TV set of the room. White, sticky goo plastered the inches long spikes that were left. The pungent smell of the concoction made her eyes tear, and she took it as a sign that it was time to wash it all out. Suds lined the tub, and after four washings, the smell was finally gone. In the mirror, she took in her new appearance. Gone were the long dark tresses, replaced by a short blonde Caesar that sharpened her features and gave her naturally bronzed skin a darker hue. Opening the dual compartment contact case she poked out a dark brown contact. The counterfeit duskiness turned the piercing, endless blue orbs mysterious and forbidding, effectively hiding her trademark eyes. She smiled; someone describing her would be giving a depiction of anyone in a generation of thousands. Contrary to popular belief, it was easier to hide in plain sight.

Dressed, she pulled the thick curtain covering the window aside, and peered through the crack she created. Night had invaded, massacring the day's heat with a sweep of its feathered hand. She kept an eye out for anyone lounging around the parking lot or a stranger that seemed to be out of place, but aside from those stealing into rented rooms for an hour of debauchery, there was no one. She lit a cigarette and took a swig from a square bottle of tequila, remembering the song lyrics of Bon Jovi belting out "sometimes you tell a day by the bottle that you drink." It had definitely been a blue agave day.

Callie had been right, she was going after Casey, but she had no idea where the woman was, other than the city of Los Angeles. She had been there only once and knew it was too large a place for her to guess her Saint's location. Immediately she could think of three men who would know exactly where Casey was. The first of them had to be kept in the dark, the second would ask for something in return, but the third- he was fair game; and he owed her.


Antonio always had trouble falling asleep. Even as a child his mind tended to wander in all directions just as he was trying to relax. He envied his sister for her uncanny knack of sleeping at the drop of a dime, no matter how tortured her sleep was afterwards. Luckily his new position with Christopher Winslow left him completely exhausted at the end of the day and, even had he wanted to, he was hard pressed to stay awake. Although he could afford not to, he preferred to stay at his father's house, and gratefully he settled onto the firmness of his bed, secure that he was well guarded. When a pillow suddenly came down on his face, smothering him, it was more shock than fear that caused him to fight. Strong hands battled him, keeping him pinned as he struggled for air.

"Say one word out of turn, Efrain, and I'll slit your throat." He heard his sister's unmistakable growl and nodded in agreement as best he could. She was standing in the shadows, making it so he could only see the outline of her silhouette. The gun in her hand was obvious.

"If I'd of known you were coming, Zee-"

"You'd have prepared an army?"

"Funny. So what brings you out from that rock you crawled under?" he dared as he sat up.

"Two things. One, you let your boss know that we're still on. I'm under some heat right now, but it'll cool off."

"Okay. And the second?"

"You know where Julia Winslow went...You're going to tell me, and then forget that you did," she threatened none too subtly.

"Why should I?"

"Efrain, no one knows I'm here, and I'm in a bad mood. How about makin' this easy, and you just tell me, then I'll be on my way; or, you can keep making stupid, snide remarks and..."

He heard the snap of the gun's chamber and stiffened. "Alright, alright. She moved to Pacific Palisades. That's all I can tell you off the top of my head. I don' t know the address by heart," he pleaded, holding his hand up as a weak shield.

"Good enough. Tomorrow night I'll call you...here. You make sure you know it all, or that insomnia of yours could get much, much worse."

Then she was gone, as she had promised, leaving nothing but the scent of his own fear to keep him company through another sleepless night.


It was surprisingly cool in the garage where she stored her bike, a sleek, black Harley Davidson Night Train. She hadn't laid eyes on it since Christmas Eve, the night she and Casey had played Santa Claus to the children of the ghetto she owned. Like the Jeep, it was registered under a false name, and the extra money she'd shelled out kept its location a secret, as well as its body clean and dutifully waxed periodically. Her helmet was locked onto the front wheel with a combination U-lock, and the saddlebags, except for tools, were empty. She put her gun, and the two other T-shirts she had bought, along with an army blanket and towel she purchased last minute, into them. For the time being, it would be all she owned, along with the four hundred dollars she had commandeered from Eddie. Effortlessly she slid the key into the ignition and sat on her toy, realizing that it would be the chrome and steel horse that carried her across the country to her Saint. She would ride at night until the original thirteen colonies were far behind her, then turn ever westward into the setting sun, in search of her light.

With a powerful roar, the bike sprang to life, its growling breath echoing off the walls. The George Washington Bridge was just a few blocks away, and it would be her road out of the city and into destiny. The bike was heavier than she remembered, but she was confident that would change. Disconnecting the in-helmet speaker system and throwing the wires into a saddlebag, she pulled on the helmet. A quick flick brought down the shield. Its cushions pressed against her jaw and forehead, a security large amounts of money provided.

Luminescent, overhead lights cast a pale gleam on the black tarred surface. Harsh and cloaked in darkness, the mass of New Jersey stood as a wall at the end of the bridge. The material of her T-shirt fluttered in the wind as she crossed the divide, cooling her skin with the crisp river air. Her rosary thumped against her chest with the force of the wind. Behind her, towered millions of lighted squares, windows where someone relaxed before a TV set, worked on a computer, kissed a loved one goodnight, or ate dinner alone. A green, rectangular sign read, "Welcome to New Jersey." Its simple words eased some of the tension in her shoulders, and she exhaled, realizing that she had been holding her breath.

There was a certain degree of freedom given to a rider by the hum of an engine and the blurred pavement under the tires. Not for the first time, she was tempted never to return; it was a phenomenon that occurred whenever she left the streets and fumes that nurtured her. To abandon the streets that loved and raised her with their cruelty and blunt truths, scarring her skin, molding her spirit, freezing her heart, making her supreme ruler of an empire that thrived on blood and guts. She cursed it all for manufacturing what she was, understanding that it was an inseparable part of her being, knowing she would miss it in a few day's time. The grime and grit flowed through her veins; the pulse of the city was her own; its decay, her breath, birthplace and grave all at once. Every day in its arms threw her deeper into the abyss, to wallow in shadows that stole time away from her, forced survival the way a doomed beast fought for its life. It was an existence of hate, pain and anger without the raw sensations of unknown emotions found in a pair of emerald eyes, and gentle hands that held her for no other reason than that they wanted to.

She passed the brightly-lit tollbooths collecting the fare for crossing over into the City, and turned onto the New Jersey Turnpike headed south. A few miles later she was on I-80 headed west, mentally genuflecting into the night, out of habit.

I've lost my fuckin' mind, completely...without question. Out here in the middle of the night, ridin' like a god damned lunatic to the other side of this freakin' country, with shit money, a warrant on my head, and no I.D. Shit, I don't even know if she wants to be with me...What the hell am I talkin' about? Of course she does, you idiot. Alright, no time to doubt yourself now, Zero. Crap, I'm talkin' to myself. Heh, yeah that does it-- I'm insane. Insane or not, I need you, Casey. You make me...feel. I've done so many things wrong. God, please, let me do this right.


Somewhere a garden fountain trickled noisily. If she closed her eyes she could imagine hearing the whirling of the waters below the steep, rocky incline that led down to the river, sense the light touches of the streaming curtain touching her shoulders as she stood on the bedroom's balcony. Magali would be sound asleep, naked and draped with the soft sheen of her sweat, legs tangled in featherweight linens. She inhaled deeply, imagining the sweet odor of their lovemaking on her skin, the sounds of her breathing, the coiled energy of her body, the scars that told her story.

A firm hand softly rested on her shoulder with a gentle squeeze. Fingers she recognized not as her lover's, but as her captor's. A warm breeze blew, caressing her through the folds of the silk robe and camisole she wore, her legs exposed to mid-thigh. She wore no jewelry save for the leather collar at her neck with its heavy O-ring resting at the dip between her collarbones. Casey opened her eyes and banished the fantasy she had fabricated in her mind, gazing out onto the dropping walls of the canyons sheltering luxurious estates and residences. She stood on the marbled veranda that surrounded the house on three sides and overlooked the garden and pool enclosed by security, brick walls. Ionic columns cast curved shadows over the floor. In the darkness she could make out the shapes of tall palm trees, and wished for them to be pines. In the background a piano played, along with the mournful tone of Tori Amos singing. "I've been looking for a savior in these dirty streets. Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets. I've been raising up my hands, drive another nail in. Just what God needs...one more victim. Why do we...crucify ourselves, every day, I crucify myself, nothing I do is good enough for you..."

Julia's arm encircled her waist from behind, and her chin rested on Casey's shoulder. A hand caressed one of her bare thighs, and she could detect the aroma of Julia's diversions heavy on her skin, the scent of gin mixed with latex and lavender oil. The lassitude of the taller woman's body told her she was too exhausted to need any further entertaining.

"Come to bed," Julia whispered into her ear. "I'm tired," she sighed and walked away, her bare feet padding across the polished wood floor.

Casey inhaled the Santa Ana gust crossing the California dust and followed quietly, stripping off the robe as she did so and laying it at the foot of the Sneem Range, hand-made, Celtic bed. Its head and foot boards were of barred steel, a gold bar curved atop each, extending from brass knobbed post to post. Although it was king sized, Julia never failed to touch her while she slept, and as soon as Casey was tucked under the sheets, she threw an arm across her belly. Casey made no move to be tender; she had no desire for it, nor had she been commanded. The hand draped over her waist sported a thin bandage covering the small wound made by the micro-surgery Julia had undergone to fix her damaged wrist. The ligaments had been torn by the force of Magali's anger; money definitely expedited recovery.

Casey turned on her side when Julia's breathing grew deep and rhythmic, and hugged the pillow under her head. She had left the balcony door open to stare out into the night. Lazy hours left her listless. Her days were spent in hours by the pool, while Julia worked. Sometimes she was summoned away from her boredom to participate in the decadent scenarios Julia performed. In a week she would start her classes at UCLA medical school, then she would have something to do other than amuse the sadistic empress. Shortly after their arrival, Julia had made a few phone calls and had her admitted to the prestigious school. The house was a veritable parade ground for influential men and women.

A lone star peeked through the pollution of the Los Angeles sky, twinkling in the unusually clear air. The night was silent, and she missed the sirens and honking horns of New York. Most of all, she longed for the sense of purpose that came from speeding in her ambulance towards a crisis, the gnawing worry in her gut that a life depended on her every move-- and the feel of her Black Velvet. She thought Magali would have come after her, would have made some sort of attempt to at least get a message through. Weeks of anxious waiting had come and gone without a sign from the dark woman, and she wondered whether there would ever be one.

Did they tell her the truth? Was she angry? Did she understand why I stopped her? Does she even know? Maybe she gave up on me...She's not the type to. Where the hell are you, Gali? I can get out of here...I can...do nothing. Not with Julia monitoring every cent I spend, every move I make. And where would I go? Back to Gali? She could hate me; she could think I sided with Julia; she could think so many things. Damn it, I should conform already; every time I try to get out of this shit, I just end up right back where I started. If I could just accept that this is my life, then maybe I wouldn't be so damned miserable all the time. Stop thinking about her, she's not coming-- she's too busy killing people and making money. That's what matters to her: her damn stubborn pride, her drugs, her money, her power...No different from Julia, so different from Julia. Please be thinking of me, Baby. Christ, why do I do this every night? she chided herself, closing her eyes and searching for sleep.

When Julia's roaming hands woke her, the room was frigid with the conditioned air blasting through the vents. The woman was a creature of habit, and every morning brought a scheduled orgasm to allow her to work without the bothersome annoyance of arousal. If she wasn't there, Casey was sure that Julia would have done the honors to herself. It was of little consequence that Casey's passivity in the ordeal wasn't submission but rather silent protest, Julia would climb over her and demand. Apparently the taller blonde was in no mood for delay, and pulled Casey's camisole up to her shoulders to reveal her tanned torso. Forcefully, Julia grabbed her wrists and pinned them above her head, holding them in place with one hand while she used the other to roughly grasp her breasts and pinch her nipples. Casey gave way with an involuntary cry, and Julia straddled her thigh pushing her wetness onto the silky skin. Casey turned her face away, revealing her neck, which was immediately and painfully devoured. It was over quickly; Julia's moans grew intense, louder and then ceased in quick breaths. When Julia rose away from her, she didn't move, staying in the same position until Julia silently left the room and entered the master bathroom. After the door slammed, Casey curled on her side, biting her lip.

Julia ran the water in the upright shower booth adjacent to the old fashioned tub, and pulled a fresh towel out of the linen closet. She turned the gold trimmed handles of the sink's faucet and stared at the stream of water gushing out. Turning it back off she pounded her fist onto the marble surface around the water-filled bowl; Casey was becoming intolerable. The shock sent a tingle up to her elbow from her still healing wrist, and she scowled at it. Another reminder, as if Casey's day-long pining over the hood weren't enough. On a long, slender, alabaster pedestal sat a white princess phone, put there for convenience, and Julia stomped towards it in bare feet. She rapidly dialed a number she could have spun blindfolded. A sleepy male voice answered.

"Christopher," she crooned sweetly.

"Julia, good morning. Is that love in your voice, beautiful, or did you get my message?"

"Your message, Chris. I'm wondering what on earth you could have that would convince me to lend you the Senator's ear?"

"A tape."

"A tape? Christopher don't you have enough pictures of me to line your closet walls? Really, have you grown that lonely?" she asked, testing the water of the shower.

"It's some news footage that never aired, Julia, and I think it would be most helpful to you in your...newest dalliance."

"And what 'dalliance' would that be?"

"Come, come, love, I'm not dumb. Casey. You have her with you, I know."

"Heh. If you want to give me anything of value when it comes to my stubborn little blonde, then I suggest you bring me the head of that goon of yours," she spat, scowling and then straightening into her reserved self.

"If I'm right, you would be referring to Magali Guerrero, correct?" Her silence answered him. "This tape I have...may be a suitable substitute," he sing-songed.

"Really? She wouldn't be hanging off a cord, mutilated, would she?" Julia asked with the tone used to order an appetizer.

"Umm, no."

"Then what is it?"

"Her Jeep...in flames. I could have...just the right voice over put on it if you like. Now, when did you say the Senator would be calling?"

"Christopher? Do you practice at being such a conniving bitch?"

"Darling, careful now. Remember, we are what we eat."

Julia frowned; she had no taste for a duel of wits with Christopher so early in the morning. "Send me the tape, and you'll get your call. Toodles."

"Good morning, sunshine," she said, hanging up the phone and greeting an indifferent Casey, who grunted and grabbed a robe from a hook behind the door. Her slender form barely concealed under the string bikini she wore, Julia relished every inch of the sight when she turned and walked out of the room. "Enjoy the sun," she called after her, receiving no answer but the closing of the bedroom door.

Casey dipped her foot in the water at the edge of the Roman tiled pool as she walked along its side. It was cooling compared to the dry, hot air touching her. She untied her robe and pulled it off her shoulders, throwing it across the warm wood of her favorite lounge chair. Concha, the cook and first servant to be in the house each morning, would bring her out a plate of freshly squared pieces of fruit-- perhaps a quarter of a honeydew melon-- toast and coffee, beautifully placed on a silver tray. The sun would hang over the white gazebo's roof, then trace its customary path across the sky, bathing her with its rays and heat. Julia would yell at the chauffeur for being late, though he wouldn't be, and the immense Ford F350 with a cargo of servants in its covered bed would appear. One by one, men in dirty jeans and long sleeved plaid shirts, wearing baseball caps or straw hats, would go to work about the residence's garden. Some would return for weeks to trim and mow, dig and build, before disappearing off to another job or field to pick fruit. They were nameless, silent and smelled of hard work and earth. Casey tried not to look at them too closely; it only angered her to know that they too were being exploited for their physical capabilities. The sounds of their shoulder-hung machines disturbed the air, and Concha played classical music over the speaker system to keep their toil from spoiling the young mistress's peace. As she predicted, the day began, and with her plate of melon pieces, strawberries, orange slices and grapes, Casey imagined the warmth of the sun was her Black Velvet's stroke.


If she rode any longer, she would collapse over the tank of the bike. The day's sun had beaten down on her until she pulled off the road and cut off the sleeves of her T-shirt with the knife hidden in her boot. Sweat ran down her neck from her full-faced helmet, dampening her back. It was unwise for her to ride the major highways during the day, and although the back roads took their toll in time, they afforded her some anonymity. She followed the road, keeping her eyes on the dotted white line, trying hard not to count the blurred slashes as they passed under her. Her stomach grumbled for attention, something cold, liquid perhaps. Along the way, she passed signs with directional arrows pointing out the route to some town or another. One in particular caught her attention, Sigourney; she always did like her in Aliens.

The two-lane highway led straight into town. A few small, lonely streets branched off in different directions. They weren't the neatly patterned avenues of New York City, but she could at least identify the center of town by the small square of park and the presence of businesses surrounding it. Evening cloaked the village square with its inert stillness, and a neon sign flashed pink from a dark rectangular window, announcing the sale of Busch beer. The pub's open door let out the sounds of breaking glass and voices shouting; a man flew out and landed on his side with a grunt before picking himself up and staggering away. It seemed like her kind of place. Parked out front were two Harley Davidsons, and she slid in next to them, killing the engine and pulling off her helmet.

Inside, the lights were turned down low except for the blinding spot of white over the faded green pool table top. John Mellancamp played on the jukebox. She could make out figures sitting in the dark, their backs against the wall, and took up one of the many empty stools by the bar, grateful for the mirror that allowed a view of what was behind her. Bald and frail, the bartender eyed her while wiping down a large mug with a dirty dishtowel. She folded her hands on the counter top, and patiently waited for him to make his assessment of her. The counter was sticky.

"Whadda yer having?" he called out to her from his perch.

"Beer, whatever you got on tap. Any food here?"

He nodded, filling the same mug he had been cleaning and sliding it along the counter with a quick hand. "Burgers, fries...that's about it."

"Fries then," she replied, catching the offered mug and after draining it, slid it back down the counter to him. "Fill it back up."

"I'm supposing you have the money for it?"

She flicked a twenty-dollar bill towards him as her response, caught the second mug of beer he flung, and watched him walk away with her money towards what she assumed would be the kitchen. A commotion behind her caused her fists to clench, and she stole a look in the mirror. Leaning over a slender redhead, the man seemed to be an animated bear, pressing onto her and forcing her back onto the surface of the table. She was trying to claw away from him, pushing and punching at his chest with her small hands. Magali shrugged to herself: a hero she wasn't, but the man was annoying. His increasing demands for the redhead to surrender to his affections were becoming more than forceful. Magali wiped the sweat from the mug and took another swallow of the watered down golden fluid.

In a lucky move, the redhead squirmed out from under the bear and ran towards the bar as his chest crashed onto the edge of the pool table. He was after her before she got too far, heaving his immense bulk at her and toppling the stool next to Magali. The man's elbow nudged her as he fought to gain control over his squirming, protesting prey. She finished her beer, then tapped him on the shoulder. Turning, he scowled disdainfully at her smirk, his breath reeking of beer and cigarettes. When the empty mug came into contact with his face, it shattered, leaving only the smooth handle of it in her hand. The redhead seemed grateful. From the shadows, another equally large man approached, his sleeveless denim shirt exposing his muscled arms. Magali reached for her knife. Stabbing it into the wood of the bar counter, she crossed her arms at her chest and cocked her head.

"That guy you just clobbered is married to my cousin," he stated flatly in his deep, growling voice, pointing at the unconscious, bleeding bear.

"And?" she spat in challenge.

"And...he's an asshole. Good work."

Magali chortled and sat back down on the stool, turning her back on him, but fixing him with her eyes in the mirror, the knife still embedded in the bar's wood. The redhead swung over the counter and poured a fresh mug, placing it in front of her with a smile; she noticed with a frown the extra cleavage she was being purposely shown as the woman leaned over the counter.

"Thanks," the redhead said through her smile. "I'm Amy, that ox behind you is Carl."


"Zee, huh? You staying in town?"


"I wouldn't if I were you," the man behind her interjected hastily.

"Why not?" she asked, turning on her stool and facing him.

"Asshole there's the sheriff's son."

Magali looked down on the colossal man out cold on the floor, and cursed under her breath. "Guess not then."

"I know a place you can stay, though," he said, smiling and winking at Amy.

Magali never did get her fries, and her gut let her know it. When she opened her eyes, the first sight that greeted her were the stacked bottles emptied of beer, horizontal in her vision. A weight on her stomach told her she was not alone, and when she stuck her hands under the flimsy sheet that covered her, she found bare warm flesh. She remembered riding out into the night with Amy's arms wrapped around her waist, past farmlands and down dirt roads; Carl's bike carried a lone rider. They had arrived at what she recalled being Carl's trailer, nestled somewhere in the middle of nowhere. His wife had yelled at him, and then brought him out a bottle of Jack Daniels and a few six packs of beer. Magali could recollect sharing it all with the rowdy strangers and then passing a joint, but the rest was a fog. How she had ended up asleep on the trailer floor, with beer bottles and sofa cushions strewn about and, what was more, a naked Amy asleep on her, was a mystery.

Shit, I hope I didn't fuck her. Aww, hell, she's naked, what else could have happened? That's just like you, Zee. But I'm dressed...

"Up, get up, sharpshooter. Sheriff's coming!" It was Carl's voice raised in alarm, aggravating what promised to be a doozy of a hangover.

"What the-?" Amy complained, as Magali jumped to her feet.

"There's a road behind the trailer. You can get out of here, and they won't know better. Hurry, they're still a ways down the road!"

She scrambled for her boots and knife, the only things of hers she immediately recognized, and hoped the rest of her belongings were still with her bike. For all she knew, the entire evening and morning could have been set up. Once out the door, she could see the dust rising as the police car, still a dot on the horizon, made its way down the dirt road. As far as she could tell, her saddlebags had not been opened. Even if they had robbed her blind, she had no time to seek reparations; if it had all been a con, they didn't really know the can of worms they were opening, and Magali was in no rush to enlighten them, either.

"My helmet? Shit, where's my helmet?"

"Take mine! I'll find yours later!" Carl yelled from inside the trailer.

Magali flipped the German style helmet on and, without buckling the strap under her chin, brought the bike to life. Seconds later she was flying down the back road, leaving the trailer and its inhabitants to become one more mishap in a long line of errors.

Country hospitality my ass.

Eddie could sense it rustling in the subtle breeze, lurking in the false peace of normalcy-trouble. It bided its time in the stagnant air heavy with the season's heat, trapped between the tall buildings and concrete sidewalks. The neighborhood was a dormant ember waiting for the right wind to fan it to a blaze. If he listened carefully, he could hear the anguish of the future in the echoing voices of the past.

A black, plastic shopping bag rolled down the gutter, seemingly some sort of techno creature bent on finding cover from the sweltering sun. Business was steady; there was never a lack of customers-- fresh ones replaced those that eventually melted away. He made a mantra of Magali's words as he watched them pay for their own ruin in small dosages neatly packaged in tiny bags. "They come to you, not the other way around. It's none of our business what they do wit' it. We got it, they buy it. You think Bacardi gives a shit?" Her fifteen-year-old's reasoning had quelled his guilt when he was too young to consider his customers as children. Then, they hadn't cared much about his age: he'd been fourteen, selling drugs to so-called adults.

A moving mountain of white blocked the sun, casting a merciful, temporary shade. Eddie watched it creeping slowly across the sky, its billowing companions making shapes on an endless canvas of blue. He wondered what clouds were made of, and whether they would feel as soft as they looked. If he could muster the courage, he could ask his son, Enrique. Thankfully the boy was spending his days at a private day camp, enjoying the summer as only boys could. Eddie didn't mind the frogs, sticks or collection of rocks that appeared from time to time, and though Mariana complained, he knew she was content in knowing their son was still a child. Too often, childhood was lost early, spilt over the asphalt as a sacrifice to survival. Occasionally, that fleeting time came to whisper in his ear. This was one such time, and Eddie jumped off the stoop where he had been sitting to join in the stickball game currently under heated debate.

"Stop arguin' about the score, motherfuckers. I'm taking a turn at bat," he belted, stepping out into the street and picking up the discarded broomstick.

A few of the men groaned, then slumped their shoulders in resignation and returned to their positions along the street and between parked cars. Eddie took his stance, waiting for the small blue ball they were using to play with to be pitched. The pitcher, stripped to the waist, grinned, wondering whether he would get hit or shot if he pegged Eddie with the ball. He was a large enough target. With the wind up, Eddie held his breath-- it would be embarrassing if he missed, and he wouldn't hear the end of it for days. Small and blurred, the rubber ball came flying at him, and he had just enough time to move back out of its way and swing. The pitcher's intentions were efficiently thwarted when Eddie felt the satisfying contact. He'd just made it to the piece of cardboard marking first base when the call came down the street, "Car comin'!" To his dismay, he recognized it as his own.

Mariana pulled up next to him with a mixed scowl and smile. "You haven't been home in two days, Eduardo. Why is that?"

He stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. The laughter from his playmates drew his attention momentarily, and he spat at them, then gave Mariana a sheepish look. "I had stuff to do."

"Like play stickball?" she teased with a grin, unable to help herself; he was cute when he was boyish.

"Naw," he responded, biting the inside of his cheek and sucking his teeth. "Like that." He jerked his head to direct Mariana's attention to the hunter green BMW convertible gliding down the street.

"Zee's brother," she said, pushing the dark shades she wore down the bridge of her nose.

"Yeah. Sonofabitch calls me a little while ago and says he talked to Zee, and he needs to see me. I got a bad feelin' about this, Mami."

"He's enough to give anyone bad feelings," she whispered, leaning back in her seat as Antoñio strolled from his car to hers.

He was as tall as his sister, and though his confidence was forced, he walked with the same long hard stride. The man always wore a suit, but even dressed casually, there was the air of pompousness about him, instilled by years of private schools. He took little notice of the game he was interrupting as he crossed the street, mindful that the Guerrero blood flowing in his veins was what kept him whole and alive. He smiled his deep discerning grin when he spotted Mariana, and gave her a short nod in greeting while leaning back on her hood. Eddie spat on the ground.

"What's up, bro'?" Antonio asked, disregarding Eddie's apparent hostility.

"I'm not your brother."

"You used to be, remember? When we would play...right here on this street. What happened, Eddie?" he asked, looking almost wistful.

"Cut out the sentimental crap, Efrain. Zee has more feeling in her little finger than you have in your whole fuckin' body."

"Zee," he snorted. "Yeah, enough to kill her own blood."

Abruptly throwing his larger body on Antoñio and grabbing him by the collar, Eddie's temper showed more in the sudden redness of his ears than on his face.

"I'm sick of you always pulling that shit, Efrain. Why didn't you do anything, huh? Fuckin' coward," he spat, allowing the anger in his gut release. "You're the one who ran from him, you're the one who led him up to that roof, and you're the one who got him started on that shit in the first place." Eddie sneered at Antonio's wide-eyed look, his attempt to speak, his failing to find the words or the courage he needed. "That's right, bitch. I know. You liked getting high behind your sister's back. All your little rich friends thought you were so cool, and you thought it was just so fuckin' funny to get Jorge fucked up out of his mind, right? I used to watch you, mal agradecio, selfish bastard. When you used to go out and spend money, Zee's money, on all your girlfriends. Buying them shit, having a good time; then you'd come home and talk shit about Zee. While she stayed out in the street, getting hurt, goin' without sleep, fighting so you could have that life. We swim in shit, and you bounce on diamonds! And you have the balls to lay the whole thing on her? When she was servin' time, where were you? At your prom, graduating, driving a new car. How'd you get all that? You ever take a long look into your sister's eyes, cabron?" Eddie nodded when Antoñio looked away. "Yeah, that's how...Magali died on these streets so you could live, so we could all live, so our children could have what you have-"

Mariana, who had silently been watching the scenario unfold from inside the car, covered her face. She had heard it all before, but only in bits and pieces, never strung together in the heartfelt words her husband was innocently spitting out in a moment's fury. Both he and Magali were tight lipped about almost everything. Mariana was privy only to the major mishaps and events that plagued their lives, often picking up what was emotionally left of Eddie and coddling him into sanity afterwards. The last she had heard was of Magali's recent fugitive status, which was out of the ordinary; the woman usually paid for whatever she had done, and although she hardly ever did time for anything, she had never shied away from capture. She had enough money to bribe her way out of things. Mariana could see Eddie's speech had had its desired effect-- on Antoñio, and on her as well.

Antoñio pulled Eddie's hands away from him, scowling as he did. "Who's being sentimental now, Eddie? I didn't come here to get a lecture out of you. I came here on business."

Eddie backed away from him in disgust. "You trying to put your neck in a noose? There's no 'business' between us, Efrain. Go back to your clean office, or wherever you were, and leave the real world to real hustlers."

"You don't understand. I'm here representing someone who has...an investment and a deal with Zee. I'm sure she told you before she left."

She hadn't, but he had no way to be sure Antoñio was lying, and Eddie knew enough of what Magali dealt with to be expecting a suit to appear. He just hadn't thought it would be her brother. "Come inside, we'll talk."

"No need," Antoñio replied, pulling out a small notebook and pen from his pants pocket. He scribbled something on a sheet, ripped it out and handed it to Eddie. "This number, two days."

Eddie stared at the small piece of paper in his large hand. It was more than just a couple of zeros, '750,000'. "Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea what this means?"

"I really don't care. I'm just the messenger, and believe me...you wouldn't like where it came from," he said, stalking away.

Eddie crumpled the paper and threw it into a grated sewer opening then, leaning his head in through the open car window, kissed his wife. "I have to go, Mami. I'll call later, alright?" He didn't wait for her response. Trotting into the shaded lobby of a building, he was gone.

She was taking the car out of park when he appeared at her window, his scavenger-grin wide and perfect. "I'm sorry, Mari. I forgot to ask. How are the kids doing?"

"Sonofabitch, you used it against her, didn't you? That's why she took off. You've got something up your sleeve, I know you, Antoñio. I heard what you said to Eddie, you parasite. I can't believe I ever trusted you," she hissed.

"You should be more careful with your pillow-talk, Baby. Is he still afraid to fuck you the way you like it? Or, am I the only one you've given your ass to?" he teased, winking at her.

Mariana stepped on the gas and revved the engine in warning, glowering at Antoñio as she did. "You're an asshole. Get away from my car, before I do something stupid."

"Give my niece a kiss," he grinned, stepping back, then watched the car speed away, the lump in his throat vanishing at his own discharge of guilt back onto Mariana. Life was easier when you pointed fingers at others.

Mariana had seen Magali only on the rare occasions when Eddie brought her around the neighborhood, specifically-- the long stretch of concrete where the young woman was queen. She remembered her somber look that sparked with peril and warning, the posture that spoke of constant vigilance, but mostly, it was the adrenaline that rushed through her when Magali sneered that burned through her memory-- an inferno ever at the ready. From what had been her safe existence, she suddenly found herself in a world that flirted with the borders of instability. It had been what had attracted her to Eddie in the first place-- the excitement of living on the edge, the unpredictability of it all. Her love for Eddie was just that, he was a piece of her soul; but Magali was an animal of pure lust. And it had been a lust that crept through her whenever she had seen the young woman caress her Asian girlfriend. There had been urgency in that touch that was palpable, a searching hunger without contentment that drew Mariana like a moth to a flame. Her crush only deepened when the young woman was thrown into prison, and Mariana was left with her imagination and how it molded Magali into her fantasy, while Eddie tended to a business that knew no time limits or work hours.

With Magali's release from captivity, Mariana had thought Eddie would be able to spend more time with her and their family. As it turned out, his 'free' time dwindled to next to nothing, and she saw less of him. At nineteen, the mother of a four-year-old, she may as well have been a single parent. One hot night she decided to seek him out, and it was then that she had her first look at the woman that was Bajo Zero. Her physique had become a solid frame of muscle and bone, and although she carried herself with the same dignity, there was something missing. Magali radiated the deadly cold of the soulless, and it froze Mariana to the core; her infatuation turned to fear. Not once in all her life had she been attracted to a woman, and never again since then. Unthinkingly she blurted out her frustration and, magically, Eddie found time to be with her more often; Mariana suspected it was at Bajo Zero's insistence.

Years later, when she and Antoñio brushed shoulders at an academic gathering, she saw in him his potential to be what she had thought Bajo Zero had been. If nothing else, he was flesh of her flesh, and she sated her craving for Magali through him. She had never forgiven herself for it. Thinking him her social and cerebral equal, she shared with him what she could not share with her husband-- the atmosphere of the young intellectual. Antoñio read and understood Kafka. Reality came crashing through when Eddie survived yet another attempt on his life, and Antoñio, sensitive soul that he was, offered his condolences for the failure of the assassin.

Mariana turned up the radio, hoping to drown out the whispers of regret and the ache that arose from her culpability. Enrique would be getting home soon, and Alejandra waited for her at the babysitter's. Her children, as always would be her comfort. Eddie apparently had his hands full.


"I still don't get it. What's the big deal, and why I got to help you wit' it? You and Zee take care of this shit; just tell me who I need to shoot," she said, flipping her honey-colored hair and throwing herself against the back of the old sofa.

Eddie was sitting at the long table surrounded by black and white notebooks and sheets of paper, the furrow in his brow showing his concern. He had all the trafficking transferred to another apartment so he could work in peace, and had then called Callie for help. She, however, wasn't providing any.

"God damn it, Callie. It's fuckin' simple; you're just being lazy. I'll explain it again," he said, stretching and standing up from the creaking wooden chair he had taken residence on. He unfolded a map of the city and laid it on the floor next to the open outline of the country, and pointed at all the red dots decorating the five boroughs.

"Alright, here we go...again. See all those dots?" he asked, and waited for Callie to respond with a nod of her head while she chewed on a fingernail. "Those are all the spots we own." He explained about the distribution centers in language she would understand. "Each one has about forty people working at it. Dealers that do the selling, runners that take the shit back and forth, baggers that mix and package the stuff, guards that watch from the roofs, and accountants that add it all up. They each get paid five hundred a week. Got it so far?" She nodded.

"Each spot has an Angel that looks over the whole operation, pays off the local rookies, pays the workers, makes sure everything gets done. He or she gets fifteen hundred a week. The spots are divided into neighborhoods. See?" he asked pointing at the black lines that crisscrossed the boroughs. Again she nodded.

"Each neighborhood has a King or Queen that supervises the Angels in their territory. Manhattan has four Kings and two Queens; the Bronx has two Kings and one Queen. Now, Brooklyn has no Angels, just four Kings who look over a spot each 'til we expand, then they get neighborhoods. Each King or Queen gets a grand for every Angel. Look, Junito has three Angels, so he gets three grand a week; Carmen, in Washington Heights, gets four." He gave her a quick glance to make sure she was paying attention.

"All the Kings and Queens of a borough report to a Bishop, New York City has two Bishops, and they get three grand per King or Queen in their borough. Carlito in the Bronx gets nine grand a week. All the Bishops report to the Cardinal, who gets forty-five hundred a week for every Bishop."

"That's you," she interjected, concentrating on the map and her fingers. "Fuck, you get paid!"

"Right, I have the city. And the Brooklyn Kings report directly to me, for now. One day, one of them will be a Bishop." He shook his head; she was going to miss the point again. "Now, look at this other map. We have fourteen Cardinals in ten states down the East Coast. They make up the council, who answer to-"

"Zee!" she shouted happily.

"Yeah...good, Callie. She's the Empress," he emphasized.

"Where'd you guys come up wit' all the names?"

"Zee was in a chess playing mode when we did this, and...fuck, Callie, don't get off the subject," he bellowed, slapping his thigh.

"Fine. Damn. It was just a question," she whined.

"For every step up, the positions pretty much do what the Angels do, but much bigger. Like, I supervise supplies, payoffs, and payments for the city. Bishops do it for their boroughs and so on and so on. Ready for the numbers?" Callie gave him a frown, but he continued; it was where he needed her help. "Each spot makes eighty thousand a week and spends thirty thousand of that on fresh supplies. Each week, the entire city makes a profit of one million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."


"Yeah, well it doesn't stick around long. We pay our people a cool million a week, which leaves Zee with a million a month for herself. She pays three hundred and seventy five thousand dollars in local pay offs, and five hundred thousand to Moreno."


"Yeah, he's the one who keeps all the big shit from coming down. That leaves her with one million, seven hundred thousand dollars a month, from all fourteen cities."

"So?" Callie shrugged.

"Antoñio wants seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars in two days."

"Well, we got that," she replied matter-of-factly.

No we don't, 'cause Zee pays one million, five hundred thousand dollars a month out in rents, utilities, for families of people who died and for weapons! Forget about cars and motorcycles to transport all the shit, and armor for the guards, lawyers, bail-"

"Shit, take it easy. There has to be a way. Zee always comes up with extra cash, how she do it?"

"You think if I knew that I'd be sitting here with you going over this for the one hundredth fuckin' time?" He really wanted to choke her.

"I thought she tol' you everything?" she challenged, narrowing her eyes.

"Callie, she only tells me what I 'need' to know. Just like everyone else."

"But you're not like everyone else to her, and you know it."

"She thinks it keeps me safer. From what, I have no idea."

He stretched, at least she understood that they were in a bind, and moved back over to the table. There, numbers and figures, lists of pseudonyms and places stretched out for an eternity of paper. He had gone to the extent of fishing out records from years past, but they told him nothing. All the numbers were the same, year in and year out. He wasn't even sure how she afforded to spend all the money she did, and continued to search in vain for that mysterious wellspring of cash Magali seemed to always have. Not once could he remember a time when the cash wasn't available at a moment's notice. He was beginning to believe that she had some hidden around, if only he could find it.

Hours wasted away into the digits and Callie's complaints. The calculator screen was fuzzy, and the place reeked of cigarette smoke. He wanted nothing more than to retreat into the safe haven of his family's arms, his children's laughter, his wife's kisses. As much as he tried to come up with a reasonable answer to the problem at hand, he knew it would come down to a sacrifice, and a river of blood. He was looking at a catastrophe that would occur no matter which way he turned, and the choice was his to make-- who would suffer this round?


She had just managed to close her eyes for a few minutes when he called her, and she rolled over onto her side to look at him. "What?"

"Give me the phone, I'm callin' the Bishops."

"You found the money?"

"Somethin' like that," he replied flatly.

Two calls-- one to the Bishops to stop all payments to the local cops, and the other to Wu for extra firearms and ammunition. He was starting a war, a small one compared to what could happen if he cut the payments to Moreno, with fewer casualties than if he cut the pay of the workers. When the deed was done, Callie's final statement tolled the death knell.

"I'm gonna have a lot of work," she spoke under her breath with a smirk.


She spit in her hand and wiped the dust off the right mirror of the bike. The sun was just starting to set behind the reddish cliffs, and it glinted at her eyes from the shiny spot she had wiped clean. The gates were closed, but even if they had been wide open, she was unsure of what she would do. White walls of stone surrounded the place; only the black elaborate gate at the front welcomed any visitors, and Magali doubted she would be one of those politely allowed entry. From where she sat by the side of the road, ironically named Via de la Paz, she could see the tall, white walls of the residence, the veranda that surrounded its second level on three sides, and the beautifully arched windows sparkling in the dying light. Somewhere among its many rooms walked her Saint, exhaling air that became part of the breeze stroking her skin. At least the house matched the address Antoñio had given her the previous morning. The path of peace, and Magali wanted nothing less than a war.

Magali peeled back the wrapper of the Snickers bar she was having for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Among the many things she had discovered after leaving Iowa was the glaring absence of money in her pocket. She was down to fifty bucks and, although she could have a load of money in the blink of an eye, the new information highway made it impossible for her to have any of it sent to her safely. The transfer, she was betting, would set off alarms in every state, until it slowly tracked her and her location like a bright beacon in fog. The least annoying of her new finds was her latest decoration. Some time during that night in Sigourney, she had acquired a bright silver loop through her right eyebrow; it stung when she rode.

A strolling figure appeared around the corner of the veranda, her light blue summer dress flowing in the light wind. Tresses red in the golden light fell on tanned shoulders, slender and elegant. Even before she squinted her eyes and forced them to focus, Magali knew in her heart who it was. The walk and stance were musical notes sung in her dreams; the gestures of the hand were the pulse in her bloodstream; the manner in which the woman tilted her head in contemplation, her balm. Seconds passed before Magali realized she had been holding her breath, watching with unblinking eyes the shape and form of the woman-- near enough to call, yet an unfathomable distance away.

She dug her nails into her palm; they left imprints on her skin, but she wouldn't feel them. Magali's attentions were narrowed down to the beloved shape, the wish to feel her near and be with her-mind, body and soul.

Casey...mi vida. My life for yours, baby.

Another end to another day, and Casey breathed in the dry heated air scented with chlorine freshly poured into the blue waters of the pool. She enjoyed walking out onto the veranda at sunset, it was around the time when all the servants left, and if Julia was away working, she could be alone for sometime. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Julia had returned early from wherever she had gone, and the servants had been delayed in their chores tending to her. She had come in with a flourish of activity and unusual glee, announcing to all who could hear her that she was taking Casey out to dine. With the water of the shower running and the steam floating out into the bedroom, Casey had waited patiently for her but, getting bored, had decided to take her customary stroll and enjoy the low lying colors of the sun. Except for the interruption of a package delivery for Julia that she had signed for, the daylight hours had been peaceful. She had planned to give her the parcel when she returned, but Julia had headed straight for the shower, and Casey saw no urgency in giving it to her, certain it was simply another tool of the trade.

"Casey, are you ready?" Julia's voice came from the bedroom.

She didn't answer, simply walking back the way she had come, back into the bedroom, back into Julia's presence.

"A package came for you today," Casey supplied, adjusting the collar around her neck to hang comfortably.

"Did it?"

Casey nodded. "Would you like it?"

"Yes, I'll...take a look before we go."

Casey had left it in plain sight, but as always, Julia paid little heed to her surroundings, leaving Casey to procure it for her. It was a small box--Casey hadn't noticed its size before--wrapped in plain brown paper. She handed it to the taller woman and, sitting on the edge of the bed, crossed her legs, to wait once again. Julia took a look at the label and frowned while tearing the paper off.

"It's from Christopher. I wonder what that insensate clod is up to now," she muttered.

Inside the box was a small videotape, wrapped in bubble wrap and marked with a thin label lettered 'NBC Nightly.' Julia opened the cabinet where the bedroom TV was discreetly tucked away and popped the tape into the VCR, backing away from it with the remote in her hand. She positioned herself to have the joy of watching the film and seeing Casey's reaction to it. If Christopher had done as he had promised, it would be satisfying to say the least.

The screen went blue while a counter at the bottom counted off a sequence of numbers. Abruptly the view was filled with black smoke and angry flames, the picture panning out to show the wreck of a Jeep as a detached male voice narrated the goings on.

"Early today, along the Harlem River Drive, traffic was disrupted when the vehicle you see here collided with the concrete median separating the lanes of the highway, overturning and bursting into flames."

Casey felt the blood leave her face, her breathing halting and fists clenching as she recognized the Jeep.

"Authorities have divulged the identity of the driver as a Ms. Magali Guerrero..."

God, no, please no. It can't be...she's all right, she has to be, she can take that, she...

"...Reputed gangster and drug lord, who had recently been released after serving time on a minor charge at Bedford Hills Correctional facility."

No calls, no messages, nothing from her...

"Traffic was at a standstill for nearly two hours after the wreckage, which left no survivors...police are investigating the scene..."

The screen went blue again as Julia shut off the "play" on the VCR. Casey was silent, eerily noiseless and paled. Her jaw was set, her features tightened, the emerald of her eyes blurred by unshed tears. Suddenly on her feet Casey dashed for the open glass doors leading out to the veranda. She needed to see the light, the last blue of the sky that mirrored her Black Velvet's eyes. It was gone: the light, the color. The infinite blue that brought Magali to her had escaped to keep her Black Velvet's soul company. She ran towards where it had been. The veranda wall stopping her flight, she bowed her head. Julia was right behind her, embracing her from behind, drawing her close and whispering inaudible words. Casey turned and struggled against the hold, but Julia wouldn't surrender, instead her restraint became stronger, steely and all encompassing as a lioness would shield her young. Casey sank into it, losing sense of herself and time as the clawing pain ripped through her. She heard the gate open and the laborer filled truck rumbling out past the gate and onto the road. A motorcycle roared by, and Casey gave in to the black that crept in on her.

Magali swung a leg over the saddle of the bike, struck at the kickstand and angrily flung the candy bar she was eating to the ground. Instinctively, her hand went to the spot where she kept her gun, but it wasn't there, she had purposely kept it in one of the saddlebags. The wind against her T-shirt would have produced an interesting bulge for any highway trooper to see. Clamping down hard enough to make her jaw ache, her fists clenched as she stomped the few steps between her bike and the gate. She touched the metal of it and pulled, the feel of the bars calling back the cold steel that had separated her from her Saint. One enraged step onto the estate would call down the minions of a burlesque justice too happy to incarcerate her again. Magali squeezed the bars in fury, the metal cutting into the palms of her hands, then swallowed it down. "Relax. Take a deep breath," Magali warned herself, trudging back to the bike and kicking the rear tire. Jumping to conclusions is what started this whole shit in the first place. Trust your instincts not your eyes. Man, isn't that what Mei always said? I can't tell from this distance what's going on, at least, not what's really going on. Fuck, but I want to rush in there and break that skinny, little neck of her; just throw Casey over my shoulder and run like hell. What's that going to solve? I could be wrong...she could...damn, there I go again. Why? Yeah, I know the answer, I've always known, and yet I still react to it. Betrayal...It's what I expect, at every turn-- that knife, that put down, that instance when someone or something reminds me of what and who I am. Have to do this right, Zee, or you could lose her forever. Has to be a way I can...What's this?

The gate swung open silently on its hidden hinges as a dark blue truck stopped behind it. The driver, in jeans and a white dress shirt, stepped out to open the back door for a thin, sun-darkened man in a straw hat. Grubby hands reached out from the covered bed of the truck to help him up, and then all disappeared into the darkness of the vehicle, shut in. Familiar with the feel of it, Magali mentally identified the scenario for what it was-human contraband. She smirked and fastened the chinstrap of the helmet, a tentative plan forming as she gunned the bike and followed the truck down the 'Path of Peace.'

Burnt orange speckles of light dotted the road, while a storm raged and tossed within her. Anger battled the calm of reason, instinctual desire wrestled foresight; despair and hope tangled and overlapped, tinged with fear, colored with experiential trauma, shaking decision and enforcing resolve-her private roller coaster. She rode its brilliant beams, sweeping curves and breathtaking falls, blindly following the truck with white knuckles gripping handlebars, careful only to maintain a discreet distance. It occurred to her that Sunset Boulevard was Los Angeles' equivalent to Broadway-- crooked, corrupted, and diversified. Eventually its name changed to Cesar Chavez Avenue, and the universal smells and sounds of street life and struggle crowded around her in a familial embrace.

She nearly missed where the truck turned, stopping under a web of suspended concrete resembling a highway pretzel. One by one, the men who had secretly ridden, stored like wares headed for market, jumped out of the truck and gathered to watch their pack-mule ride away. Parking the bike under the rough graffiti decorated walls that were the foundation of the elevated highway, Magali observed their walk. Their steps screamed of exhaustion, bodies weary with work and worry. She listened as one man wished the rest a goodnight, and another replied with " a las seis." Six in the morning, thanks bro', I'll be here, she thought. Her stomach grumbled in complaint. Without the faintest idea as to where she was, Magali decided it would be best to find a place to sleep and get some food in her. Somehow, the area felt like home, and with any luck she would find the perfect dark corner to slink into.

Casey wasn't hungry, and the rich smells of the food elegantly placed before her were causing the nauseous feeling with which she had been stricken to heighten. Julia had insisted they stick to their plans, explaining that "perhaps it will make you feel better to be out of the house." It was an elegant restaurant catering to the young affluent community of the city. Julia frequented the place enough to be known by name and table. Prudently, she addressed Casey only when necessary, avoiding conversation and allowing her distraught companion time to internalize and cope with Magali's 'death.' She hadn't thought the ploy would cause as much grief as it apparently did, and hoped that, with time, Casey would come to understand what was obvious to her-Casey's attraction to Magali was a simple matter of 'slumming.'

Julia had been present during Casey's most formative and upwardly mobile years, and why Casey would discard a stratum of society they had both sacrificed much for membership in was incomprehensible. After all, in her mind at least, Magali Guerrero's life was forfeit by her very own choices and lifestyle. If not now, eventually the woman would expire in some ditch, cell or drug den-- either by her own hand or by one of the various daggers perpetually pointed in her direction. Ultimately, she would only drag Casey down with her to wallow in the slime of society's underbelly, live long enough to destroy the opportunities Julia had meticulously laid at Casey's feet, and then in a tragic blaze of misconstrued glory- cease to be. Without question the rogue was beautiful, the romance of danger in her without equal because it was real, but it was impossible for Julia to imagine her as anything other than a brief diversion.

I'll just have to help you see that, Julia thought, lifting a wineglass to sip its burgundy liquid, dark against her skin.

Casey was pushing thin slices of yellow squash to the sides of her plate with her fork. She couldn't shake the feeling of awkwardness usually brought on by knowing something had been left behind or doubting whether an appliance was turned off before leaving the house. She wanted to dispute what her eyes had seen, but like so many of her generation, it was unimaginable to doubt what was presented visually. Film was the new religion, the new truth. Mercifully, Julia was leaving her alone with her thoughts, after trying for nearly an hour to console her. Casey hadn't heard a word she had spoken; instead, she withdrew into herself refusing to cry or speak her lament. She placed the fork down with its tines leaning on the edge of the plate and, although she hadn't eaten a scrap, dabbed the sides of her lips with the cloth napkin off her lap.

"Excuse me, Julia. I need to use the bathroom."

"The lavatory," Julia corrected, "is towards the far left corner" then lifted the wineglass to indicate the direction.

Casey straightened out the crease in her dress as she stood, and gave Julia a weak smile. Her body was only material, she refused to surrender any of her emotions to the woman. Making her way through the maze of chairs and tables, a few patrons she recognized as Julia's clients nodded or smiled a brief "hello", continuing their conversation or dinners as if a business acquaintance had walked by. She, however, knew more about them than they would ever publicly acknowledge, and it gave her a small measure of satisfaction. She realized, just then, what it was like to be Julia.

Across from the polished, wooden doors to the restrooms, a series of booth telephones lined the wall. Just as her hand touched the bathroom door, the conception of an idea changed her direction and, peering over her shoulder she lunged at one of the phones. Quickly, taking rushed, furtive looks towards the dining area, she dialed a series of numbers, whispered her name into a recording and waited.

Across the country, Jesse leapt over a pile-covered coffee table, spilling books, papers, and dumping a cold mug of coffee onto the rag area rug to reach her phone. Kristin was a pack rat, and Devi enjoyed taking tid-bits of junk mail and used books to chew and rip as entertainment. The fawn pit-bull had been out of sorts after missing her mistress for months, seeing her for a few hectic hours and then not again in weeks. Magali had vanished into the cracks, and Jesse, not knowing when or if her cousin would return had brought the animal home with her for the first time.

"Aw, shit," she hissed stubbing her toe against the leg of the futon frame. "Hello?"

"This is a collect call from-'Casey'-Will you accept the charges?" a computer voice droned in her ear, Casey's human voice snared in its electronic humming.

"Yeah, shit, yeah," Jesse rushed out.

"Your answer could not be understood. Please respond 'yes' or 'no' to the following question. This is a collect call from-'Casey'-will you accept the charges?"

"Yes," she pronounced distinctly.


"Woman, where the hell are you? Stinky butt! You up and disappear, don't know how to call anyone-Aw fuck, Devi! Don't drink that," Jesse yelled at the dog lapping at the spilt coffee.

"You have Devi?" Casey asked with a note of terror.

"Huh? Yeah, she couldn't stay alone forever...I...damn, Casey we need to talk about Zee, but this isn't something we should discuss on the phone. Where are you?" Her question was followed by a long moment of dead silence, and Jesse thought that the connection had been broken until she finally heard Casey's voice again cracking with sadness.

"Umm...it's a long story, Jesse. And...I know already...I just...God, I'm sorry...I...I have to go. I'll call again when I can," she finished and hung up the phone.

Casey hesitated for a brief second on her way into the bathroom, deliberating whether she should chance a second call. The fact that Devi was with Jesse and not at Magali's and because a face to face conversation was requested, all but confirmed to her the finality of the tragedy. Yet the feeling remained-there was a missing piece to the puzzle; and Casey couldn't decide if it was real or just a symptom of her sorrow. Devi's mistress was no more; her Black Velvet had gone to grace heaven or rule hell.

Starvation had originally started her on the path through the demon realm she now claimed as her own, but Magali had almost forgotten what it felt like to be hungry. Without narcotics to deaden the desperate, basic needs of life, nature overthrew sentiment and forced a focus transcending the desire for love or the necessity of shelter. It gnawed and ached in a way that words would fail to describe; the feeble line between beast and human became threadbare. Were she a Neanderthal, she would be off on the hunt to kill something-anything she could rip apart and consume; in the modern world that translated into the acquisition of money. Gas was expensive, and the longer she rode, the more of her measly grubstake her engine ate up.

Magali passed a pawnshop and debated whether to hock off her ring and chain that she had wrapped into the rags of a T-shirt and tucked into the bottom of her saddlebags. For now, it was one solution, and she rolled the bike back towards the curb and shut off the engine. The red neon sign glowed down on a wooden bench where a plump older woman sat wringing her hands and gazing down the boulevard. A smile wrinkled the corners of her mouth as a scrawny, dirty man meandered his tired step towards her. Magali recognized him as one of the workers who had been unloaded under the highway. He took off his straw hat and gave the woman a peck on the cheek, their dark features a reflection of each other-- round dark eyes, high cheekbones and the flattened nasal bridge of native blood. They laughed at a secret exchange of words, and then grew quiet as another figure approached with a pronounced swagger. Magali tensed; his uniform of khaki pants and white, immaculate T-shirt whose short sleeves showed off a string of gothic letters down his forearm, sent alarms screaming through her. But the older woman grinned and opened her arms, welcoming him into the warmth of her bosom and kissing his forehead. A bus rolled up and opened its doors just a few feet away from them. The older couple waved at the young man as they ascended the steps, and Magali opened her bags to fish for the tiny bundle of gold that would feed her.

As the bus pulled away, a cloud of gray exhaust surrounded her. Through it the young man looked after it as if checking whether the vehicle was safely away. She caught full sight of his face-- the thin goatee on his chin and the dark round eyes that widened further as they looked in her direction. She didn't think there was anything unusual enough about her to cause that reaction from him, and her hand, already in the saddlebag, gripped the handle of the gun she kept there. Magali heard their approach, a trample of booted feet encircling the young man before he could escape. Aggressive stances were all she needed to read what was happening, and she lifted the gun out of the bag and hid it behind her back as she walked. Technically, it was none of her business, but the image of tearstains on the cheeks of the woman she'd watched carefully enfold the young man imprinted itself on her mind. She imagined her own mother much the same way, except that the tears weren't for her, but because of her.

"Joker, you're chingao, vato. Where's your clique? None of your Camaradas got balls tonight?" one of the men dressed in all black spat. He was making sure the kid knew he was fucked.

"Que hubole, Ace? Man, I'm just passing through," Joker offered. His hands open and arms spread away from his sides, he tried to back away, coming close to another rival who stood behind him.

"My ol' lady get's nervous when you come down the block. Seme va la onda, vato. I lose it, you know?"

"Vete a la madre," Joker hissed in his last stand before accepting the beating that could most likely end his miserable life.

They were on him before he could add anything to his 'go fuck your mother' curse, and landing on the ground he was doing his best to protect his head from the blows. A sharp clap that could have been thunder, but repeated, vanquished the strikes that rained on him mercilessly. He spoke a silent prayer; then it occurred to him that they could have just shot him. But there was no pain, and he would have recognized that type of ache. Daring to raise his head, he took in what might have been the Angel of Death. She was tall, with nearly white hair that showed dark roots; her hands, strong, gripped at the collar of the man who had addressed him and pushed a gun forcefully into his mouth. The sneer on her face was terror in the flesh. She whispered something, and a wet line trickled down the man's pant leg and dripped to the ground. He could see in her eyes not only anger, but ecstasy: she was enjoying what she was doing, and that scared the hell out of him. Ace dropped to the street when she let go, his hands landing in the small lake of his own urine, and the angel laughed, her voice echoing along with the footfalls of Ace's running. Her gaze fell on Joker, freezing him to his spot.

Magali's ribs throbbed with the force she had used to lift the scamp. Still weak from her recovery and without nourishment, the action had shocked her as much as frightened everyone else. Forcing her stride to remain steady, she padded to the beaten young man, noticing upon closer inspection that he was no more than sixteen. When she extended her arm down to him, furnishing a helping hand, he flinched

"Get up, I won't hurt you," she said, as gently as she could despite the heat of wrath still burning in her.

He grabbed onto her and pulled himself up. His weight, though meager, was enough to make her wince at the soreness.

"Thanks, ruca. Estabas firme. You get down for people you don't know a lot?"

Estabas firme, standing strong? Yeah, right. "No, I don't. But I think you just cost me fuckin' dinner."

He peered over to where she was staring. The closed sign hanging on the door of the pawnshop had read open before the sudden scuffle.

"There's no food in there, camarada. And I can give you a better price for that cuete, than you can get in that shop anyway," he said, eyeing the gun in her hand.

Magali looked at the gun and then at the kid. The new slang would get some getting used to. "My piece isn't for sale. Any other shops around here?"

He shook his head. "Hijole, no way. But...if it's dinner you want, I think I can hook you up, ruca."

The way he said "ruca," a word she didn't know, reminded her of the way her boys would call their girlfriends 'girl'. "Call me ruca again, and we're gonna have problems," she growled, tucking the gun into her jeans.

"My bad, ru-ummm...what do I call you, then?"

"Maga." She gave him her hand again in introduction. Jorge, her little brother, had called her that when he was too young to mouth the syllables of her name.

"Macha?" The ringing in his ears hadn't quite cleared, but the name seemed to make sense: the woman was as strong as a man, with the balls to match. He had never seen a woman act the way she had; and making a man pee on himself, it was unheard of. "I'm Joker," he supplied, shaking her hand.

"Alright, Joker. Dinner's on you then."

"That your bike?" he asked pointing at the dusty machine.

Magali nodded and smiled, shaking her head as Joker showed his age and jumped onto the back seat of the bike.

"Come on, it's not far," he shouted jubilantly.

"Fine, but you wear this," she commanded, throwing the helmet on his lap. "And tell me where to turn before we get to a corner." He reminded her of Jorge, not his face, but the bounce of life in him before things went awry.

Boyle Heights, she was discovering, was not very different from her own neighborhood in New York, other than that there were houses instead of buildings. Metal gates and fences guarded sparse lawns littered with toys and car parts; wooden porches with peeling paint sagged and leaned; telephone poles rose from sidewalks, lining the dark skies with their cables and antennas. Joker behaved and signaled where she should turn with appropriate notice, leading them through shadows and streetlight points of brilliance. On their last turn, Magali spotted the gloomy expanse of a cemetery at night. It could serve for one night's rest, she thought.

"Right here, this house on the left," she heard Joker yell over the roar of the engine, and pulled in.

He jumped off, immediately running for a crowd of boys similarly dressed. The way his hands were moving and the manner in which he pointed at her and the bike revealed that he was spinning his tale of the night's adventure. One powerfully built youngster stepped away from the crowd and directed his gaze at Magali. He gave her a short nod she took for welcome, and then flashed her a hand sign with his fingers. She was safe. They walked over, with Joker coolly leading them.

"Macha, these are my homeboys, my camarada, my family Evergreen. This is Shorty, Azteca, Blue, Riff and Gongo."

One by one they shook hands with her, with only Gongo, the biggest, clapping her on the shoulder. He didn't wear a shirt, and tattoos adorned his chest and arms like badges won in war.

"Joker, he gets in trouble a lot. Likes pedo, all the time. You got down for him, estamos firme for you."

With Gongo's blessing given, Joker ran towards the house leaping the fence rather than going through the gate. Magali nodded at Gongo and followed Joker, opening the gate and walking through, knowing her bike would be secure where she had left it. The kid, she noticed, had an affinity for doing things his own way; he leaned in through a window off the house's porch yelling, "Martina". His baggy khakis slid down lower as he did.

It was a single floor home with wooden planks and faded paint. Its roof needed work, and the windows looked older than she was. The yard, like so many others, had its share of plastic toys strewn about, and also a tire hanging from a withered tree. Magali sat on a step. Its wood was splintered and worn, but she was glad for the rest. Days spent on the bike had put a vibration in her hands that she couldn't shake.

"I'll be right back. Chingada, this woman's deaf," Joker exaggerated and crawled in through the window.

Across the street, the boys she had met resumed their game of dice; Gongo knelt, his back arched and showing the banner across his shoulders that read 'Perdona me.' They were the same two words Magali wore over the tattooed Saint on her back, a call for forgiveness-- whether from God, mother or brother. It said that the young man had done time in prison. She pulled a cigarette from her pocket and lit it. Leaning back on the steps and taking a long pull, she stared into the night sky. Mei had always told her you got what you gave, and she wondered if she deserved the stroke of luck that seemed to be reaching for her.

"I see why they call you Macha," a sweet voice whispered behind her, jerking her away from her thoughts.

Standing in the open doorway, halfway between a warped screen and the solid door, a shapely young woman held a sleeping toddler cradled against her chest. The boy's tiny leg swung over her arm freely, and his black, thick tresses poked out onto her shoulder where his head rested peacefully. He shuddered as his skin felt the cool night air, and nestled closer to the heat of the woman's body. She shielded him with her slender hands, covering the parts of him that were naked-he was clad only in a saggy diaper. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders and tickled his face, and the boy slapped at the distraction from his slumber. She crooned at him, making clucking noises behind her full lips, and adjusted his weight as she stepped out onto the porch.

"I'm Martina, and my brother told me what you did. He shouldn't be over there, they don' t like him; but he insists on making sure our Jefita gets on the bus all right. Thank you for looking out for him."

Unused to being spoken to without the specter of Bajo Zero, she remained silent at the candid speech. The word Jefita, little chief, reserved for women who were in charge and loved, stuck in the back of her throat. Callie had a way of calling Alejandra that when she thought Magali couldn't hear her, but then the connotation was different, and she suspected that the woman was referring to their mother.

"I made Joker go wash his face, he's a mess. I swear that kid wouldn't even notice if one of his arms was missing. Hey, Macha, you mute or what?"

"No." Magali croaked.

"Shhh, stop talking so much, you'll wake the baby." Martina chuckled, having a laugh at Magali's expense. "You know what? You look pretty messed up yourself. Joker said you were hungry, but you're not coming in this house with all that dirt on you."

Magali's jaw dropped as the young woman disappeared into the house, returning minutes later with a towel on one arm and the toddler in the other. "There's a hose and a tub in the back. If you go clean up, I'll bring something out for you," she said, tossing the towel at Magali and returning into the house.

After retrieving her last clean T-shirt from her saddlebags, Magali headed through the corridor--wide enough for only one car--between the house and the fence into the backyard. There were more toys and a small garage connected to the house by a sloping strip of concrete. She found the hose attached to an outside faucet protruding from the back wall of the house. Next to it was the metal tub Martina had mentioned. She stripped off the T-shirt she had worn for the past three days, its stiff material scratching her as she did, and threw it aside. Her skin felt gritty and tight, and the creases of her hands and fingernails were dark with grime. She turned the key of the faucet a few times, and waited for the jet of water to come out through the hose, aiming the stream into the tub. Inside the house a radio suddenly blared with bass and a rapid shouting lyric coated with California slang-- West Coast Rap. Martina cursed and the volume lowered.

The water spurted out hot from its time in the hose and under the sun, then cooled quickly to a temperature more tepid than cold. Magali stuck her head under the surge and over the tub, scrubbing away the dirt with her other hand. Some of the water flowed down the back and sides of her neck, and when she stood it coursed down her back in cool rivulets. She ran the stream over her arms and washed her face. It felt good to be clean, however partial it was.

"It's beautiful," Martina gasped from the back door.

Magali grabbed the towel and dried her hair with a brisk rub. She had her back turned when the woman had stepped out, and although she wore her sports bra, the tattoo of the Saint was easy to see, as was the butt of her gun at her waist.

"How long?"

"A few days, for a few hours." Magali responded noncommittally.

"I meant how long were you in?" Martina amended, tossing her a bar of soap, professionally looking the gun over. "I forgot this."

"Three years," Magali responded, nodding her head and catching the soap. "A little more here and there." She was among her own, and attempting to cover up what was obvious to them would be pointless. She used the soap to wash her hands with and dunked them into the water already in the tub.

Joker stepped out from behind Martina, the blood from his face wiped away and a fresh A-shirt hugging his torso.

"Camarada, nice letters. Sin, that your clique or something?" he asked with a quizzical expression, taking in her scars and wounds that appeared to have been recently made.

"Nah, that's just me, homie," she said to him, and pulled on her fresh T-shirt.

"Now you can eat, chola. Stay out here, it's nice out. You too Joker, I don't want Miguelito to wake up with you jumping all over the place."

Joker sneered and sighed, apparently he wasn't willing to argue with his sister. "Don't worry, Macha. She'll hook us up real nice, I saw her take out two beers from the fridge before I came out. She acts mean sometimes, but she's cool. Her ol' man's locked up, so she gets crabby and shit."

"You always talk so much, Joker?" she asked, sitting down on the concrete steps leading up to the back door. Joker joined her, lighting a cigarette.

"Yeah," he replied, offering her some of his smoke.

She shook her head and waved a hand at it. It was only a gesture of politeness, and she was expected to turn him down when he knew she had her own pack.

Joker let out a puff of smoke and flicked away the small stack of ashes on the end of the cigarette. "You're not from around here. I mean Cali. Your accent's different."

"New York. Just chillin' here for a little bit." Magali stretched, her ribs were aggravated, and she was getting a headache from the hunger.

"So, you have a place to crash?"

She shook her head, rubbing her temples and pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Martina used to live in the garage with her ol' man. Me and him put up some sheet rock and shit, turned the place into a little apartment. She moved back into the house with Miguelito when he got taken away. There's not much in there, but there's a bed. Room enough for your bike too. If you want-"

"Joker! No offense, Macha," Martina cut in, balancing two bowls in one arm and holding two bottles of beer by their necks in the other, "but we don't know you from a can of paint, and the place isn't free. Mama's been trying to rent it out for the past month-"

"But, Martina-"

"No buts, Joker, Macha saved your ass but..."

"How much?" Magali joined in.

"I don't know, that's up to the Jefita. She's gonna be pissed that Joker got in trouble again, and...you got a job?" she questioned, shoving the bowls into Magali and Joker's laps.


"Oh great, so how you going to pay for the room? Gang banging?"

Martina set the bottles down on the step and stomped into the house, leaving Joker shrugging and Magali aghast at her abrupt turn around. The bowl was warm on her lap, a steaming combination of pinto beans with chilis and yellow rice flecked with tomatoes and cilantro. Folded neatly on the side was a pile of round corn tortillas, and Magali watched as Joker tore one in half and used it to scoop out a handful of rice and beans. She copied him, stuffing her mouth with the warm combination and swallowing it down with a long swig of beer. She heard the front door open and shut and Joker wolfed down another mouthful then put the dish aside.

"Jefa's home. Let me talk to her," he said.

Joker retreated into the house, closing the back door behind him; the backyard light turned on as he did. Voices from the street floated to her, the dice game raging on, a dog barked angrily from somewhere. Another piece of tortilla and another mouthful and the bowl was clean; she finished the beer and tossed back her head, missing the weight of her mane. A square of pale light fell over her, the shadow of a woman cast in its center.

"My son says you want to rent the room. Is this true?"

In the light the woman looked older than she remembered from seeing her at the bus stop. She was plump and darker than her daughter was, with starker native features and the glow of a mother's love around her. Magali could imagine her hands carefully cutting the contents of a family dinner, or cradling her grandchild

Standing up, Magali brushed her hands off on her jeans and straightened up to her full length. "Yeah, that's true. What do you want for it?"

"Seventy-five dollars a week," the older woman voiced, putting her hands on her wide hips.

"How's forty?"

She held out her hand and Magali dug in her pocket, producing the forty dollars and placing them in her hand. "It's Wednesday, forty dollars gives you until next Monday. You go out and get a job tomorrow. Joker will be out with the key."

"Thanks, umm..."

"Concha, that's what everyone calls me," the older woman called out, waving her arm in the air and stepping through the doorway.

Seventy-five dollars, I throw that amount around as if its play money. Shit, now I'm down to nothing. But I've got an idea where I can get some work, yeah, I know exactly where.

"Orale, she gave it to you. See? I tol' you I'd take care of it." Joker bounced on the balls of his feet as he waved the key in front of her.

"Gimme that, Joker," she laughed; he had earned his nickname well.

"Come on, I'll show you the place."

It hadn't been lived in for months; dust covered everything and a few spiders had made themselves at home in the corners of the ceiling. With Joker's help, she managed to maneuver the bike into the space through the garage door left over from its previous purpose. It took up most of the center of the room. The only furniture left was an old cast iron bed, big enough for two small people and just the right size for her alone. A cramped room holding a shower stall, sink, and toilet stood at a corner, a quarter, clear plastic door closing it off from the rest of the room. Patterned linoleum covered the floor with gray lines and swirls; one window let in the night air. Overhead, a light bulb hung suspended in midair from an electric cable, a beaded chain dangling from its socket. Concha had stopped by with a set of blue cotton sheets, quietly dropping them off and saying her good nights. Joker eventually got the hint that Magali was exhausted, and left her alone. Lying on the middle of the bed, her boots and T-shirt off, she inhaled the last of her cigarette and dropped it into an empty beer bottle by the bed. In the darkness she watched the orange ember die at the bottom of the container, as she stretched out on the bed. Lumps and dips in the mattress had no effect on her; she was grateful for the fullness of her belly and the welcoming ease promised by sleep. Her hand fell on the warm stone crucifix lying on her chest; she squeezed it in her fist and then kissed the curl between her index finger and thumb. When the day's lamp went out, supplication was a well formed habit.


Martina wiped her hands of soapy water on the apron draped from her neck, and sipped at her mug of coffee two hours old. With everything that had to be done in the morning, she could never seem to finish a cup in one sitting, and it vexed her to no end that her brother slept in late if he wasn't just getting in. Joker was grumbling in the bathroom, and Miguelito, as if knowing there was someone new around, banged on the back door to be let out like a well-trained puppy.

She pulled the flowered curtain of the backdoor window aside and peered towards her once-upon-a-time home. Through the haze of the mid-day sun she pictured her husband, Esteban, shirtless and perspiring as he sat on his weight bench. His homeboys joked around him as he proudly lifted their newborn son above his head, muscles rippled under the tattooed letters across his abdomen and back, and the portrait of Christ's Sacred Heart on his shoulder. He'd spend his weekend mornings pumping iron, playing with their son, and talking to his friends until noon. Then, dutifully, almost as if he were bored, he'd work on the garage or mow the lawn. For Martina those were happy times, when the world seemed to mature and move away from the reckless days of youth. It was to become an era of nostalgia to which Martina would turn to again and again, when life played its cruel games and declared 'check'.

For an hour she had tried to get Joker to rise, reminding him of the many occasions on which their mother had insisted he find work, and of the consequences if he didn't. Martina had been tempted to do the same for the 'hero of the week', sleeping soundly in the renovated garage-turned-living space. For some reason she thought it better to let the woman rest, despite Martina's certainty that her mother had issued an identical order to her the previous night. It may have been the look of utter exhaustion on her face, or the profound sorrow in the woman's eyes, that had Martina decide an extended sleep would be better in the long run. But it was well past noon, and she was beginning to suspect that all was not well.

Though they were fading, and it had been dark, Martina had spotted the small bruise-like wounds on the woman's arm; the marks confused her. She knew from experience how to identify an addict, and she could only guess the woman was in recovery, but the injuries were relatively new.

"Joker, I'll be right back," she yelled over her shoulder while opening the door and grabbing Miguelito's hand.

Promising to be the first in a series of hot days, the heat exiled every existing cloud. Holding him by one arm, she swung Miguelito down the back steps, placing him and his bare feet on the stretch of grass between the house and the garage. He was off and running the second she let go, making a beeline for the red and yellow plastic tricycle he had abandoned the day before.

Martina pulled off the apron and wadded it between two hands before tossing it in through the kitchen window; it was too close of a reminder how much her life mirrored her mother's. Momentarily distracted by a passing butterfly, Miguelito ceased his dragging of the Hot-Wheels cycle and followed her progress toward the garage with dark eyes. When she was close enough, he reached for her, with hands made grubby in record time. He followed closely at her heels, sometimes reaching for her hand, others stretching for the seam of her jeans back pocket.

She should have knocked, she realized too late. The room had at one time been her home, and she had unthinkingly opened the door. Magali was asleep, half on her side, naked as far as she could tell, with lines of sun painting her skin and glistening with the light sheen of sweat coating her. Martina could make out the dark lines and intricate designs illustrating the cape of the Saint depicted on her back. She missed Esteban all the more.

The pitter-patter of tiny, bare feet on the linoleum woke her, but she kept her eyes closed, awaiting their approach. When squirmy, damp fingers touched her arm, she popped her eyes open and bellowed a deep, "Boo." Magali could have laughed right then and there, but the flinch, expression of shock, and the immediate bout of bawling that followed forbade her. He looked bigger awake, his thick mane of hair dark and glossy. Eyes, wide and sweetly brown, flowed with tears that ran down puffy caramel cheeks. Martina was suddenly by his side; picking the boy up and scowling, she shook a finger at him.

"I'm sorry, he got away from me," she apologized, hugging the boy to her chest and gently bouncing him.

Magali felt badly for her. She looked overworked and fatigued with worry. The boy was crying, clinging to her shoulder and she, like every young mother, seemed at the end of her patience. "I didn't mean to make him cry, just thought I-"

"It's alright, he scares too easy for a boy. He needs to get a little tough."

"N-" Magali thought better of putting her foot in her mouth, recalling the quick turn arounds in mood of the prior evening. "What time is it?"

"About one-thirty. When you didn't get up, I thought I'd come out and see if everything was all right. I'm sorry I didn't knock, I just forget..."

"One-thirty? Aw, fuck, I was supposed to be somewhere at six this morning. Sh-"

"Watch your mouth," Martina warned, covering Miguelito's ears with her hand and shoulder.

For just a second Magali nearly sneered, but she ended up smiling instead. Except for her father, no one ever dared to correct her speech, nor much of anything else, and once again she felt free from the fetters of Bajo Zero.

"I can't believe you brought your bike in here. Again, I understand why they call you Macha," Martina joked, searching the room for any hint of something that would dispute the feminized name of Macho, and grinning, shook her head. "If you're hungry, come over to the house, I can fix you a little something. You look like you could use a cup of café anyway."

In truth, she felt she could use a jolt of anything, her body still heavy with needed rest her mind was too stubborn to acknowledge. Closing the door, Martina gave her one last smile. It was genuine, not the forced friendliness of fear those not in her inner circle chose to give her. Eddie risked an attempt to make her laugh, but he had known her when her smiles were commonplace. Callie used humor only when she knew it wouldn't endanger her well being, or as a distraction. Casey could make her smile from the inside and the outside, simply because she was. The day had been wasted in her slumber, and Magali forced herself off the bed and onto the strangely cool floor. She needed a shower and, however cramped the conditions, it would be one she would enjoy.



Casey's knees would ache when she could finally stand, and she was grateful for the time being that Julia wanted her to keep her head bowed. She was part of the illusion, the game Julia so painstakingly put together so as to transform any participant into a whole new dimension of being, beyond carnality: elevating her to the status of nobility, and subjugating all others-- mere honorable servants to an exalted cause. Candles, chosen by Julia for their scents burned and flickered against a backdrop draped with purposeful colors. Dark and looming, they would add to the scene the touch of darkness needed.

Casey knew the man, was familiar with the scent of his cigars when he strode through the corridors of the house with that confident politician stride, now, suspended and hindered by knots so perplexingly tied that they confounded the sight. Had Julia wanted him to, the man would cease breathing, such was the extent of his hypnotism and surrender. She granted him absolution from all his forbidden wants, administered his penance and then hid his confession. It was an art in the exercise of controlling the human will; though bound to the point of immobility, the man exuded more power in his bondage than in his freedom. His desires spurred Julia on; Casey's humiliation, because she supposedly endured it for the benefit of her mistress, added to the fantasy that he was under the control of an overwhelmingly powerful woman.

Casey trembled when Julia's hand cupped her chin and resolutely tilted her face upwards; the aromas and sounds heightened her senses. The mythical realm of sexual sorcery, created with the flare for the dramatic that Julia carried as part of her nature, was a force unto itself. Before her half closed lids, veiled in shadow, hovered what Casey knew to be a detailed dildo mimicking the male member, held to Julia's torso by an elaborate harness of leather and gleaming metal. Softly tracing Casey's lips with the tip of a finger, the dominatrix coaxed her mouth to open, placing in its soft entrance the head of the phallus. Casey didn't have to look to know that Julia had positioned her client to endure the spectacle. She fought her desire to resist it. It wasn't long before the thrusts became steady and long, hitting the back of her throat and making her convulse. She inhaled through her nose, distending the muscles of her esophagus and allowing Julia deeper access. Casey heard the client gasp, and understood that her time in the scene would soon be over. She wasn't sure whether she wanted it to be or not. It provided for her a temporary escape from the gut-wrenching torment of her mourning, her mind becoming focused on her body and its physicality alone.

Julia's nails were clawing into her skin, their curves etching red marks onto her shoulders. She kept her hands, palm open, on her thighs, but the need to shut them tightly was approaching with more speed than she cared for. The surface of the phallus, slick with her saliva, slid against the insides of her mouth, her tongue, against the back of her throat. Her own sucking sounds, that distracted her, aroused Julia's client, and she loathed him for the pleasure he gained from her discomfort because it was exactly what Julia had planned. Abruptly it all ended, and a quick jerk of Julia's head was all Casey needed to get up from her knees and out of the room.

Julia watched her, the need to have the younger woman intensified by the game they had played under watchful, suffering eyes. She stood mere inches away from the sweating body of her client, the fragrance of his masculinity blazing into her sense of smell.

"You may come, my pet," she whispered to him. And, when the frothy white stream of his release stained her shoes, she scowled and reminded him that he would have to clean up after himself. Even for that, he was grateful. "When you're done, you'll make that phone call for me won't you?" She smiled her predatory grin as he nodded his head as best he could under the circumstances, questioning how worthwhile it would all ultimately be.

Casey walked the rugged corridor, naked, and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Outside of Julia's 'offices,' the world was real, painful and stark, plagued with memory and regrets. With Magali's death, Julia had nothing to hold over her head, and an honorable deal held little weight when made with a betrayer. Her heart raced at the thought that she could easily disappear. She had accomplished it once before; at least she had thought she had. She knew which mistakes she had made, and could be careful not to make them again. Yet, before her was the opportunity for retribution, sweet and completely hers, if she could only figure out how to hurt Julia without being snared in the web herself. Julia's obsession with her was one of proprietorship, almost maternal in a twisted sort of way. She possessed under the illusion that she was a protector, and demanded sole custody because she was egotistical.

Casey passed the spiraling stairs that led down to the foyer. Crossing its glossy floor was the newest member of Julia's menagerie--a slave boy a client had asked her to train. As was sometimes the case, Julia's clients were dominants in their own realms. He was naked, as was she, except for an elaborate collar bedecked with diamonds that was fastened around his thick neck. His sculpted torso could have easily been that of a model for a Greek hero's statue in a museum: tight, soft curls crowned his face; blue piercing eyes hit her with the precision of any whip. She smiled at his impassive face. It was one of his commands that he was to remain expressionless throughout the day, unless otherwise commanded. The blush on his cheeks was all the inspiration she required.

Magali took pleasure in having even the meager source of hot water, and had hand washed her T-shirts, hanging them on the outside clothes line to dry in the sunshine. She wore the same shirt as the day before, but the filth of it only made her blend in all the more.

Gongo was still shirtless, in the same khakis from the previous day, but there was a smile on his face that resonated with her. The hair-net on his head made her think he was on his way to work in some fast food restaurant, but she knew he didn't work, at least not the kind that hurt the back and lined one's pockets with scant wages. Magali stepped onto the concrete. Joker ran to her side to greet her, the spring in his step raising her hackles.

"What's up?" she muttered, raising an eyebrow at the impromptu glee radiating from the neighborhood and especially from Joker's squad of comrades.

"I got a plan for you, I think it'll make you happy...Well, at least you won't have to pawn off whatever it was you were gonna give away."

"Yeah?" she said noncommittally, eyeing the relaxed and contented posture of Gongo leaning on one of the numerous telephone poles that lined the street.

Joker's voice lowered as he threw an arm around her shoulders as best he could, considering her height, but catching the grimace on her face, retrieved his arm. "It's the first...you know what that means?"

First of the month held a special meaning. Welfare checks and food stamps came in the mail, and people lined up from the early hours of the day in front of check cashing places to get their bi-weekly hand out. It meant there would be extra food and extra weed for a few days--party day.

Magali nodded, crossing the street and taking a forty-ounce bottle of beer out of the hands of Blue; he didn't protest.

Joker was ecstatic; if luck would see fit to bless him with a few extra dollars he would be high all day, and he intended to share the wealth with his new found friend. "My camaradas and me, well...we were talking, and since you have a cuete, we thought you might like coming along for a ride."

"A ride?" she asked, taking a long swallow. It tasted bitter, and it was her first drink of the day. She hoped Martina would call her for the promised cup of coffee.

"A hit, you know? People got money, we need some; it's the perfect day. But we got to do it early before they spend it all."

Magali nodded in understanding. Someone would be a victim that day, more than just one, since she was almost positive that other groups had the same idea. "What they sell around here?"

"Huh?" Joker scratched his head, then understood once his mind wrapped around the question; he had already drunk too much. "Crack, weed, some smack here and there. Why?"

"Anyone wit' your family?" she asked casually.

"All of them, camarada. Except one. He does the smack"

"Then we take him, tonight, after everyone spends their money."

"You can't take him, homie. He's got, like, two guys watching all the time."

"Just two?" she smiled. "That's easy, bro', you let me worry about that."

Gongo gave her a nod of respect. He was realizing, despite his machismo that the woman who stood before him was not a force to be taken lightly. Just then Martina shouted out her name, and Magali gave back the bottle, nodding a thank you, and strolled back to the house. The kitchen smelled of cooking bacon and grease. Miguelito sat in his highchair, smashing bits of cereal onto the tray that trapped him in his seat. Martina placed the mug before her as she sat at the table; it was the first time she had entered the house. The look and feel of it brought flashes of her former home, way back when her life was simple and dictated by sibling arguments and the care taking of an alcoholic mother. Martina went about her duties in the kitchen, apparently preparing what would become dinner later in the day. She took a sip of the cinnamon flavored coffee and milk. It warmed her insides and gave her a bit of life, though the mix with the beer threatened to make her unhappy afterward.

"So, where were you supposed to go this morning?" Martina threw out as she put her hands under streaming hot water and began washing dishes.

"A job. Under the highway. I thought I could get on a truck and get a daily wage somewhere."

Martina shook her head, sucking her teeth and slamming one of the dishes harder than she should have. "That work is hard, and it doesn't pay much. You looking to stay off the books?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"Then you better put some meat on those bones. You look like you took a trip through hell and sweated half your weight away...You clean?"

Nosy, aren't you? "Yeah, why?" Magali spoke into the mug, taking another sip, her hands cradling the warm ceramic.

"Your arm, ruca. Looks like you've been riding the horse."

Magali glanced at her forearm, the marks were still there: a badge of what she had done, or in her case, what had been done for her. "Long story...but that's in the past." Magali inhaled deeply, clamping down on her jaw and then relaxing. "I don't do that shit."

"Good. 'Cause if you bring it around my family, I'll kill you."

Ire, it rose easily, and Magali had to remind herself that here she was an unknown, and Martina was only giving her fair warning. Unnecessary, but fair. How would the young woman act if she knew a killer stalked outside her home, invited? Not only one that was cajoled or obligated into an occasional drive-by, but one that strode the streets of New York City taking death by the throat, striking terror in all by her mere presence, lashing out at will. She thought it best to keep quiet, and continued to drink her coffee.

Joker stomped in and slammed himself into one of the wooden chairs around the kitchen table. "Fucking cops are coming down the street."

"Watch your mouth in front of the baby, Joker." Martina barked.

"Sorry," he offered.

"So. You weren't doin' nothing, were you?" Magali asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Naw, it's the injunction."

"Injunction?" she asked, taking another sip from her coffee.

"Court says we can't hang out in groups of more than two."

Magali nodded, finishing her coffee and wishing for more, but knowing better than to ask. Such was the way when resources were limited. "What ever happened to the right to free assembly?"

"The what?" Joker queried.

"Never mind." Magali slid the mug away from her and, closing her eyes, leaned back into the chair. Federal law, federal rights didn't reach far enough down into the pits she lived in. She could still feel the need for sleep, and was trying desperately to shrug it off when a bit of a Cheerio hit her squarely on the forehead. She opened one eye and turned it on the toddler, happy with his aim. "Good shot."

"Aye, sorry, Macha. He hasn't learned any manners yet," Martina spat through her teeth.

"It's alright. Maybe he'll be a pitcher, or something."

That last statement got a laugh from the woman, and she cleaned up the scattered pieces of cereal from the highchair tray with a dishrag and wiped Miguelito's mouth. Joker looked out the window, checking for the presence of any police officers, and smiled. With a wave of his hand, he invited Magali to join him, and they left the kitchen to sit in the shade of the porch. Some of the boys came over with a radio. It was loud, and they placed it on a high point so that the music pulsated into the street. They watched some cars drive by, wary as to whom the drivers were, always watching for the wrong car, the wrong color, and the open passenger side window with a gun protruding from it. Gongo shared a joint he had nearly crushed in his pocket, and they took modest pulls from it so as not to be greedy. Eventually, Martina set Miguelito loose on the lawn, and he abused the toys, using them for imaginary wars and chase scenes as he pumped his little finger on a toy gun, killing fancied enemies and mumbling words that could have been expletives.

Martina brought out a few bottles of beer, a plate filled with home cut and fried tortilla chips, and a mix of chopped tomatoes and cilantro to dip them in, with some cut jalapeños for good measure. Magali munched on the fried delicacies and listened to their conversation. It revolved around who was pregnant by whom, who was due for release, and the impact it would have on the community. Martina sat close to her, ruffling the short spikes of Magali's hair now and then. "I could braid this for you, if you want." she would say, then continued with her version of the latest gossip. Magali considered it; she had thrown out the clippers with the rest of her dirty clothing, and was hard pressed to pay for her hair to be cut at a salon. Martina brought out a comb and a small bag of rubber bands and sat behind Magali on a higher step. She took her time, weaving and pulling the strands together, making lines of bleached blond and black roots into a twisted design across her scalp.

"This is gonna scar if you don't take care of it," Martina said of her eyebrow piercing, and without notice, brought out a bottle of alcohol and a swab to clean the hoop with.

The boys joked about the custom paint job on an acquaintance's truck, and the fucked up job someone had done on one letter in Gongo's back tattoo. It grew warm, and Joker decided to spray the whole crowd with a hose; they all went running for cups and buckets to pay him back with. Martina hid, after she'd been soaked to the point that her bra showed through her T-shirt, then produced towels for everyone, while complaining about the amount of laundry she would have to take care of afterward. Miguelito ran around the yard, his sodden diaper sagging behind him and finally falling from his waist. They laughed, cooled by the water, quenched by the beer, mellowed by the joint, which was slowly wearing off. Whenever someone yelled "po-po," they would scatter, only to come together again when the coast was clear. Not once did they voice their annoyance at the procedure; it was simply the way it was. Magali, on the other hand, was reminded of the overseer in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The sun took its last bow and began to settle behind the distant rolling hills dotted with houses and low, square buildings. Martina went inside to finish the evening meal, dragging a sleepy Miguelito behind her. Concha and her cousin would be back soon, and it was her task to provide for them at night. Quietly, the boys dispersed. Gongo gave Magali a nod, and she stretched-- it would come soon, their foray into the dark, and then she would unleash Bajo Zero.

Back in her room, Magali held the gun in her hand, inspecting its chamber and cartridge, looking for flaws and flicking the safety on and off. She glared at the bruises on her arm and ran her fingers down the tight lines left by the braids Martina had patiently woven with her hair. The run was simple: go in, hit, and run with as much cash as was on hand; but as always, there was a myriad of things that could go wrong. Those who would run with her through the night were of limited experience, killers for subsistence not business. A robbery, out of all she had done, was new to her; but they were the cards dealt to her at the time, and she never shied away from a game. With the summoning knock on the door, the time to think was over. Now it came down to instinct and guts. She grabbed the ski mask Joker had given her from the bed and stood, heading to the door while tucking the gun into her waist. It was on.

They rode crowded into the backseat of an old Chevy, Magali's knees pressed into the back of the front seat, and she pushed for shoulder room that just wasn't available. Gongo drove, and she hated it, used to being the one behind the wheel, and the scene of the median rising before her flashed in her mind. The streets were dark, and the heat of the day lingered on them like smoke from a smoldering fire. When the car stopped, Magali searched the street for their target. He wore flashy clothing that made him stick out on the dreary street, a foolish move if ever Magali saw one. Gongo turned to face her, his face stone and eyes hard.

"So, what now, Chingona?"

Somehow she knew the insult was meant as a compliment. "That the guy?" she asked, tilting her head towards the strutting peacock she had spotted. Gongo nodded. "That the first look out?" Her questions were only to obtain confirmation. She knew from long experience who was who. Again, Gongo nodded. "Then, watch and learn, boys. I'll take the lookouts. At my signal, you guys take the dealer and break."

"How do we know the signal?" Joker asked innocently, a shakiness in his voice that hadn't been there before.

"Oh, you'll know it," she said, smirking as she exited the car.

Magali held her knife behind her, strolling casually and mimicking the stride of a junkie. She'd seen it enough. The first lookout was young, and she would be uncomfortably close to him when it all went down. She was glad it wouldn't be him she would kill when it was all over, as long as it all went as planned. He had the same dark hair, cut into the same Cesar that seemed to be protocol in the neighborhood. He took a small step back at her approach, but she caught him with one long arm and drew him into an embrace. Anyone looking would have thought they knew each other; but the embrace hid one critical detail-- the blade Magali was pressing upward against the young man's crotch. She smiled, her face near his as if she were greeting a long lost friend.

"Call your second look, and do it nice. I could kick your voice up a few notches if this goes wrong. Understand?" she whispered to him, with a wild, happy leer.

He nodded and smiled back at her. It was a nervous grin, but it sufficed.

"Rene, look who's out here!" he shouted over his shoulder and towards the house directly behind him. The dealer was paying attention to his recently arrived client--Joker; Magali grinned at the impromptu planning, thinking perhaps they would all get away alive.

Her gun was in her hand just as the top of the lookout's head came into view through the window. The young man she held, cringed from the blast; but she shot true, and the lookout fell before he could get a full view of the street. Things moved quickly after that. Suddenly the dealer looked worried, not calm and collected as he had been when talking to Joker. He made a grab for his waist, and Magali didn't need to know what it was he was going for. It could have been a comb, and it wouldn't have changed her decision. The blade was quick and smooth as it slid into the young man's thigh. Immobilizing him, she aimed her gun at the dealer, ready to pull the trigger in less than a breath's span-- breathing took too long. Joker was on him wrestling him to the ground. The others materialized out of thin air and were holding the man down. They all wore their masks, except for her and Joker. It had been the last thing on her mind, and she was accustomed to showing her face for effect when she attacked. The dealer's pockets were emptied, his watch and chain snatched as a last ditch effort to garner every dollar of possible wealth, and then they were running back into the car, speeding off with the screech of tires echoing behind them.

They were quiet--looking over their shoulders, scanning the streets they passed for a flash of light, the headlights of a following car, the beam of a helicopter. Nothing. All was still except for the speeding car and their breathing. Joker divided the money, two hundred dollars for each, and handed it out. Magali pocketed her share, patting her pocket and releasing what was left of her rage into the air in one deep exhaled breath. She had next week's rent money and some change to live off of, but it wasn't bringing her closer to Casey. On the contrary, she felt the distance between them growing. The clean world her Saint was living in was high above the sewer she trampled through. Magali made up her mind, that the next morning she would make her way to the highway, and there, for the first time ever, volunteer her body for another type of sacrifice-- what decent folk called work.

Concha was in the kitchen, drinking water from an orange, plastic cup; her cousin sat next to her, his hands dirty but eagerly holding onto a roll of food. Magali's stomach grumbled, but she deemed herself not worthy enough to enter the house and be in the presence of those who sweated for their money in a way that could not be judged against them, no matter how insubstantial it was. Tired, she treaded to her room, dark and plain, a far cry from what she had labored for through years of selling off her humanity. She pulled the cord for the light and shielded her eyes from the momentary glare of the bulb before they became accustomed to the gleam. From her pocket, she retrieved the small bundle of money and threw it on the bed, staring at it as if it could somehow disappear and erase the night's events. One man was dead, another wounded-- all for the stash of five and ten dollar bills lying on her bed. It helped no one but herself, not like the machine she had working back home where whole families survived from her efforts. This was self-preservation alone. Magali shrugged and lit a cigarette, hiding the money under the mattress as a knock and a "hello" in Martina's voice intruded on her silence.

Her dark head poked in through the half open door, and she gave Magali a wide, bright smile. "I thought you could use something to eat."

"You don't have to, Martina. Bring me food, that is."

"Don't be stupid, Macha. There's enough..." Her voice trailed off when she noticed the gun projecting from her waist, and she settled the plate of tortillas and refried beans on the bed. "You and the boys have fun tonight?" Her attitude was changing; Magali could sense it in her tone.

"It's nothing. Thanks for the food." Magali responded, hiding the gun under her shirt.

Martina pursed her lips and turned to leave. "Sure."

"Hey, would you do me favor?" Magali called after her.


"Would you wake me before your mom leaves? I need to get to that highway tomorrow."

Martina grinned and nodded, then wished her a "good-night," and left.

Light hadn't yet shown itself when Martina came knocking, holding a long sleeved flannel shirt and a bandana folded over her arm, and an old wide-brimmed hat in her hand. Magali was awake before she entered the room, dressed and showered, waiting for the sun.

"Buenos dias, I thought you could use these. The shirt should fit you, my husband's about your height, and the hat used to belong to my father. It'll hide the marks on your arm. They won't pick up a tecata, and with the hat they'll think you're a guy. Not much of a chance for a woman other than in fieldwork, and I doubt that's what you want. Those places are hell-holes." She placed the shirt and hat on the bed and grinned. "Good luck."

"Thanks, for the shirt and the hat." But Martina was gone before the words left her lips.

A crowd of men vied for space on the narrow walk under the highway. Trucks were pulling up by the time Magali found the place, and workers were piling haphazardly into the beds, shoving and pulling at each other. She half expected a fight to break out at any time; the bus ride had annoyed her enough to join in one if it did. Shouldering her way in, she made it to the front of the curb. She didn't want to be pushed onto just any truck, there was a particular one she had in mind; and she could see it at the end of the line. Concha's cousin was up on a truck and giving a hand to a friend. He saw her and tilted his hat. She nodded back. He didn't speak very much. Magali shoved back when the crowd pushed her forward, waiting for the right moment to hop up onto the black Ford that crept closer with every passing minute. The sun was still hiding, and in the dark it was hard to see who she was hurting with her strength, but they hurt back, and her sore ribs weren't helping.

They do this every fuckin' day?

With the wheels crunching broken glass under its treads, the truck she was waiting for finally pulled up. She thought she would have to kick her way to it, so many bodies were desperate to take a place and earn a wage for the day. The crowd had dissipated somewhat, and with one hand she hauled herself into the confines of the truck, a dozen men following suit. She pulled down the brim of her hat, hiding her face from the foreman who suddenly appeared to close them in. Everything went pitch black, and for the first time she noticed that there were no windows in the camper shell. She panicked, biting her lip and clawing at the smooth sides of the bed coated with dirt, her heart rising into her throat. She couldn't breathe. The heat was stifling, and the desire to choke the men who were stealing her air shook her. Sweat beaded on her forehead and dripped down her neck. The truck was moving, but she couldn't tell how long it had been. Magali hugged herself, grateful that the lightlessness kept the other men from seeing her weakness. Whenever the truck stopped she prayed for the doors to open, and when they finally did, she was on the brink of losing hope that they ever would.

Bright beams of light struck her eyes. The verdant green of the lawns outside blinded and confused her, but she forced her body to move and jump out of the truck. The foreman didn't take a second look at her, and she followed the rest of the workers toward a white painted shed that could have fit three of her current living quarters inside of it. Air was different here, clean almost, despite the L.A smog that hovered overhead. Everywhere she looked, white walls gleamed against green. The house towered at the center of the property, overlooking it all with a majestic air. It was hot, but she didn't dare roll up the sleeves of her shirt. She would have to endure it; it didn't seem to bother anyone else. A worker tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to a row of hand pushed power mowers.

"Coje uno," he commanded, and she nodded, taking one of the machines and rolling it out of the shed. Outside, the foreman was yelling in Spanish, ordering and commanding, directing the workers to where they should spend the next few hours laboring. He pointed towards the back of the house and cursed in English. Magali pretended not to understand his speech, but headed to the area he had appointed her to. Ruthlessly the sun beat down on her as she moved, and once she pulled back on the cord and started the motor, she could have sworn she heard classical music playing somewhere. After awhile, the grass all looked the same to her, only lighter lines marked where she had passed over; and the smell was making her sneeze. A V-shaped stain of sweat darkened her shirt, front and back, and she was ready to kill for a drink, when a call went out to stop work for lunch. She hadn't brought any with her, and instead chose a tree to sit under and smoke a cigarette. Half the day was gone, and with the work and the heat, she hadn't had time to worry about seeing Casey. She wasn't prepared to be caught wandering around the grounds.

Sure that no one was looking, she pulled off the hat and wiped her brow. Her hand came away wet with perspiration, and she fanned herself with the hat. The strain of pushing the mower for hours, non-stop, was making itself known between her shoulder blades, and she leaned her head against the trunk of the tree and breathed in what was presently the coolest air of the day. Hunger, it seemed was her constant companion lately. Eventually it would slink away, only to come back and taunt her at the most quiet of times. She gazed up at the leaves of the tree shading her; they were still, picturesque, as if she were looking at a photo shot by Ansel Adams. Something strange in them caught her attention, blue specks of glittering light, the reflection of water like what she had seen as a youngster swimming at the 'Y'. Behind her, hidden by rows of tall, thick bushes and surrounded by Romanesque statues was a beautifully tiled pool. Magali could see through the narrow spaces between the branches of the foliage, its surface shimmering with light, its depths alluring, and could hear the faint melodic tones of a violin solo.

Crawling on her hands and knees she crept towards the greenery, gently pushing aside some of the leaves to get a better view. Paradise on earth, a fantastical mirage haunting a dehydrated traveler in the desert flooded her sight. A plastic bottle of tanning oil bounced with a dull thud just on the other side of where Magali knelt, and she drew back a fragment of an inch until what she swore was a celestial voice halted her retreat.

"Damn it."

Magali recognized the hand reaching for the oil as surely as if it were a part of her own body. She shuffled closer, taking a quick glance over her shoulder, and pushed more leaves out of her way. Only an arm's length away lay her Saint, draped with the luminescence of the sun, shining with oil, tiny beads of sweat glistening on her skin. Sharp branches pricked her arm as she reached in through the bushes, her fingertips inches away from Casey's shoulder, her heart hammering in her chest. She could speak if her voice hadn't suddenly disappeared, or if her brain would function and form some coherent phrase. Casey moved, accommodating herself on the lounge chair and reaching for a tall glass of water sitting on a small table by her side. Magali felt the heat of her skin, and it only worsened her abrupt muteness. If only she could reach her, let her know she was near and that she wanted nothing more than to be with her. She reached out as far as she could without falling through the bush.

"Looking for something?" a gruff male voice proclaimed harshly.

Magali pulled her arm back, cursing to herself and pulling the hat back on before turning around.

"You come here to work or ogle at what's way above you to have?"

She stood, sticking her hands in her pockets and lowering her head; it kept her from seeing who was speaking.

"No, speakie English? Cocina, trabajo, comprende? Come on."

It was possibly the worst imitation of Spanish she had ever heard, straight out of a bad movie featuring a bigot idiot. Magali nodded and followed him towards the house and the servant's entrance that led to the kitchen. Concha was busy over a pot of boiling water, hastily throwing in sliced vegetables and condiments. Her apron, stained and partially covering the red dress she wore, looked ridiculous with its frilly shoulder straps, and Magali stifled a chuckle. Off in a corner a half dozen black garbage bags slumped, heavy with whatever the household servants had packed in them. The idiot pointed at them and mumbled a command Magali understood as "throw those out into the bin out back" as he left. She hadn't taken a step when a painful twist to her ear bent her over. Concha was much shorter, and to hold on to Magali's ear meant she would have to pull her down as well. Magali squeezed her hands closed, bridling her instinct to lash out; it was comical.

"Hijole, are you crazy?" Concha barked under her breath. "If the mistress catches you reaching for her young friend like that, you'll be picking your nose with you elbow. Sagrada madre."

It was serious; the small plump woman was invoking the help of the virgin, and Magali had to bite her lip to keep herself from laughing in spite.

"I just dropped something, Concha. I swear," Magali managed to get out without snickering.

Concha released her ear and slapped the back of her head hard enough to make her hat drop to the floor. Bajo Zero was a killer, a drug dealer, and cruel to anything that crossed her path, but it was just plain bad karma to strike out at a mother. Magali stooped and picked up the hat.

"Well," Concha grinned with a shrug, "at least you're working. But," she said pointing a finger at Magali's chest as the tall woman stood, "you can't mow lawns forever. You know anything about building?"

Magali raised her eyebrows in question, slapping the hat against her thigh and plunking it down on her head. "Building?"

"Yeah, you know, construcion? You did time, no?"

For the first time Magali felt shame in the admonishment, and lowering her eyes, nodded.

"Then you take up some job in there, no? I know they teach women strange things in la carcel. Building is one, right?"

Magali nodded once more. She had never had a grandmother, but she sure felt as though she were in her presence.

"Good. Then I have a better job for you than cutting grass. You have to pay my rent, you know?" Concha nodded, wiping her hands on her apron and returning to her pot. "You throw those bags out, like mister say. Then I send you to Adalverto."

Adalverto, it turned out, preferred others to call him Delbert. Stocky and wearing an immaculate white shirt, he walked as if he had spent his life riding horses. His thick hands, built for hard labor, were rough and scarred, his dark hair shone under the sunlight, and the thick mustache he obviously combed daily hid his upper lip. Delbert's first words to her, after she introduced herself and gave him Concha's message, were: "God damn those prisons teaching women a man's job! I'm gonna end up with a pussy crew!" He was a fraction away from having to get dentures, when he put his hand on her shoulder and passed her a pick-ax. She scowled but he didn't notice, his attention on one of the male workers who was taking a smoke break. From what Magali could surmise they were breaking ground for the foundation of a house-- a small one in comparison to the residence proper, most likely a guesthouse of some kind. It didn't surprise her that they were doing it all by hand; the costs of machinery were high, and the noise would probably disturb the tranquility of the community. Better to have a few poor workers straining their backs while they ripped through the earth.

No longer needing to keep up pretenses, she stripped herself of the flannel shirt Martina had provided her and tied it around her waist. Wearing an old A-shirt she had found in a corner of her room, she let the sun hit her full force; by any measure, it was much cooler than wearing the shirt. Dirt would cover the marks on her arm. There were ten men working the hole in the ground that was slowly becoming a perfect square, and one other woman. Magali rolled her eyes. Some pussy crew. She joined them in the pit; squaring her shoulders and planting her feet, she swung the pick ax above her head and brought it down. Soil crumbled at her feet, her hands rang with the force of the strike, and her lower back screamed. She would regret it all in the morning. Something cold tapped against her arm. It was Delbert grinning at her as he offered her a bottle of water. She swallowed it all down without breathing, and handed it back empty. He wouldn't return until the workday was over, and judging from the light, that was far from arriving.

Swing by agonizing swing the soil gave way, releasing as it fell its rich, musk fragrance that whispered to her of missionaries, farms, wars, and the distant cries of prospectors searching for their fortune in the dirt. Magali's mental wanderings were an enigma to her, she wasn't sure where the thoughts were coming from: perhaps something she had learned in elementary school or read in prison. Either way, they prevented her from thinking about Casey and the scent of her sun-warmed skin, and the burning soreness growing in her own back. She swung each strike with a purpose, bending to the task single-mindedly. When the others stopped she continued blindly, until Concha's laughter broke her rhythm.

Magali glanced up to find a ring of workers looking down at her with bewilderment, and casually she threw the pick-ax up to lean on her shoulder.

"What?" she asked pointedly.

"You," Concha replied, directing one plump finger at her. "I sent you out here to build, not play in the dirt." She put her hands on her wide hips; her round belly shook with laughter. "I have to ride on the bus with you like that? You sit far away from me, okay, Macha? Ha! I'm a cook, not a pig farmer!"

Her laughter was infectious, and soon all the workers were joining in the guffaw, their faces wrinkled with mirth. Magali took a good look at herself; her clothes were stained brown and flecks of soil filled the pores of her skin, darkening the creases of her hands and arms; and the A-shirt she wore had changed color. A tender warmth filled her chest and she smiled, shrugging sheepishly. One of the men reached down to give her a hand up, and Magali had to force away her suspicious nature before grabbing onto it. Refusing would have been an insult to an expression of camaraderie.

Concha patted her on the back and swatted away some of the dirt. Magali almost expected the older woman to spit in her hand and wipe the grime away from her face. Thankfully she didn't. Delbert ushered the workers away, but instead of leading them all back to the truck Magali had crowded into earlier, he led them to a less menacing Ford Explorer. Some of the men piled into an old Chevy, waving their good-byes and cheering the end of the day. Magali followed Concha into the Explorer, curling herself up to as small a length as she could. Everything was covered in plastic, and Magali had no doubt as to why that was. Except for Concha, they were all filthy.

Through the rear window she watched the residency grow distant, and stared at the pavement of the road as they moved out. Her hands felt rough, and sitting still brought home the full force of her exhaustion. She was asleep before they left the grounds. Concha woke her when they reached the bus stop where she had first seen the woman and her immigrant cousin, and where she had first met Joker. He didn't show up, and Concha made a comment as they waited that he probably thought she was safe enough with his new 'partner in crime.' When her cousin, Avelino, didn't appear, Magali learned the man had taken a job on a farm and wouldn't be back for weeks. She filtered it all through her grogginess, directing most of her energy into surveillance of the area; the last thing she wanted was a fight. The bus was the same old vehicle she remembered. She took the three steps up, wary of anyone who might come running in after her, and sat at the end of the bus over Concha's protests. The feisty older woman made it clear that only troublemakers sat there, with their backs to the wall, but to Magali it was the only way she knew to avoid trouble--and that meant being able to see it coming.

By the time they arrived at the house, it was late. After the bus trip they had to walk a ways, and Magali wanted only to take a shower and go to bed despite the gnawing hunger in her belly. She left a trail of soil stiffened clothing across the floor and squeezed into the small room that served as a bathroom. The ceiling was low, and she had to be careful not to knock herself unconscious as she showered. A hard stream of water came out, more like a hose than any gentle sprinkle, but she didn't care as long as it washed away the filth of the day's work; a puddle of weak mud formed around her feet. Magali tilted her head back and let the water run through her braids. Her back stung, but fatigue hampered her caring for it. She dried off with a towel she didn't recall being there before, and trudged to the bed, falling on it and sprawling under the covers face down. Pushing her hand under the pillow she sought the familiar feel of her weapon, placed there out of habit and the vigilance she knew she would have to keep anywhere she found herself at. The cold metal warmed quickly under her hand, and she closed her eyes, calling from memory the feel of her Saint's naked form near her, made more real by the sight of her by the pool earlier that day.

Magali was on her back with her arms stretched out and the gun aimed before the squeal of the opening door ended. Martina smiled at her, half her torso visible from behind the door, a small round jar in her hand.

"Don't you ever knock?" Magali exasperated.

Martina shrugged and, closing the door behind her, ambled to the side of the bed, and sat on a corner. "I saw you come in. Hijole, I could see you glowing in the dark!"

"What are you talking about now?" Magali asked, turning over and pushing the gun back under the pillow. She jumped when Martina poked her back. "Yo!" she scolded slapping away Martina's hand.

"Sunburn. Didn't you wear the shirt I gave you? Or did you just throw it around?" Martina shook her head as she spotted the clothes lying on the floor.

"I got too hot. Did you want something, or did you just come to torture me?"

"Funny. No, I have some pieces of aloe, I thought I could get some of this goo on your back and shit. It'll feel better...if you let me."

"Why?" Magali mumbled into her pillow.

"Just because. Shit, I gotta have a reason? You know what? You all are so damn suspicious, you know that? Cabrone, thugs...always thinking some shit or another-"

"Alright already...Fuck, you can put it on if you'll just shut up and let me sleep."

"Then sleep, nobody's stopping you," Martina snapped, opening the jar and squeezing on a small green spike.

Magali shook her head; her skin did feel too warm now that she thought about it. Then there were the stitches still in her side. They would have to be cut, and she would have to do it-in the morning. The slick sap Martina was gently applying to her back and shoulders soothed away the heat. There was no malice to the touch, no arousal, simply a helping hand-a faint childhood memory of what had been, cradling her. She tried to keep from slipping into the arms of Morpheus, but the comforting touch and the weariness of the day worked on her.


Sitting on the edge of the bed, Casey watched a breeze rustle the curtains draped around the open glass door leading out to the veranda; it was warm and scented with the ripening fruit of a nearby orange tree. Julia hadn't returned the previous night, and it was the first morning in as many weeks that she had awoken alone. As if she were a young child waking to stumble into the living room to watch Saturday morning cartoons, the end of her sleep began with a sense of purpose. There would be no servants shuffling through the corridors; no workers tending the landscape, no banging and scraping from the small construction site abruptly conceived and erected on the grounds; best of all there was no Julia, at least not for the time being. She bent to buckle the straps of her sandals, sucking her teeth in complaint. The soft linen of the blue trousers she wore rubbed against the skin of her thighs when she moved; she had grown unaccustomed to clothing.

Dressed, she felt suckered, without a place to go but wanting more than anything to be away from the house. The longer she sat within the confines of the stately residence, the more time she had to dwell in her thoughts and memories of brief moments spent in arms that comforted and secured her. Images of blue eyes surrendering a soul bound in rusted chains, its links forged out of the steel of pain and self-loathing, held suspended in time for her to gaze on in tormented longing. She checked her hair in the oblong mirror hanging above the bed, adjusted the straps of her white cotton tank top and frowned. Lying back onto the mattress, she curled onto her side. Tears came easily.

"Why so sad?"

Deep and soft, the voice surprised her, and she wiped at her face before sitting up. She hadn't heard him come in, and although she didn't recognize the voice, she couldn't forget the eyes. The black dress pants and tight black silk T-shirt he wore threw her off. He was a fixture she was used to seeing wandering the house, working on small chores in the buff save for a choker around his neck. He never spoke to her, he wasn't allowed to, and when he briefly caught her looking and turned his eyes on her, he frequently blushed.

"How'd you get in here? No one buzzed at the gate."

He shrugged. "I never left. But...I was about to, then I heard you moving around in here as I passed, I didn't know anyone was home."

"Home's a funny word," she replied, half under her breath.

"I don't get it," he said stepping further into the room, his step cautious as if he were a misbehaving child.

"Get what?"

"I've seen you around, and whenever I do...you've got this look on your face like someone killed your dog or something. If you're not happy here, why stay?"

"Good question. I'm not sure...Maybe, because I have nowhere else to go." She wished it was as simple as she made it, but facing the city that had brought her Black Velvet down wasn't something she was up to, and leaving meant rebuilding everything Julia had effortlessly dismantled. Her job was gone, her matriculation transferred, and she had nowhere but her mother's trailer to return to. There wasn't a place she could hide where she wouldn't eventually search for Magali's face in the crowd, or listen for the pounding music that preceded her.

"So you don't want to be here? It's not your choice?"

"No, it is...My choice, that is; I just don't want to be here."

He smiled and pushed back the short strands of black hair that fell across his forehead, and pointed at the space on the bed next to her. When she nodded he sat, crossing his legs with an ankle at a knee. "Daniel...name's Daniel," he grinned.

"Casey," she smiled back.

"So...what do you want?"

It was Casey's turn to shrug. "My life, I guess."

Daniel chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yeah, me too."

Casey's eyebrows shot up in question. Daniel's smile deepened.

"Ah, I think...you and I...have a lot more in common than I thought. I heard Mistress talking about you attending UCLA Med. I'm there too, and I thought 'Cool.' Now...look, whatever is bothering you, shake it off. I mean, you've got to like this just a little, there's no way you can fake that much, and well...juice it for all its worth. Get everything you can out of it...and enjoy it." His smirk was wild.

"You're evil," she laughed.

"I try, but I did get you to smile. How about you join me today?"

"In what?"

Daniel stretched his arm towards her, offering her his hand, and shrugged. "We'll make it up as we go?"

Cool and dark, the interior of the movie theatre recalled the feel of phantoms and the sounds of opera tenors with its old-world décor. The stadium seating made viewing the screen easy, its chairs fitted to mold the body into a lounging posture. Buttery popcorn perfumed the air-conditioned chill, a fragrance so much a part of the experience it would have been unreal without it. Immense and bright, the screen captured the eye, transporting all who looked on it through a celluloid gateway and into a world created for public consumption. Daniel held an oversized bucket of white kernels on his lap. He had foregone the oily butter as a conscious move to preserve one of his dearest assets-his body. He laughed at the events transpiring on the screen, sometimes nudging Casey with his elbow as if they shared some private joke. Casey sipped at the soda cup sweating in her hand; it was mostly ice, but after eating some of Daniel's conservative treat, it was a welcome refreshment. They enjoyed the film together, neither taking much interest in the other, their focus on the movie, but content to have company all the same. Casey hadn't left the house in weeks, and the outing made her think of how her Black Velvet may have felt at her release from prison, only to die soon after. She pushed the thoughts away, closing off that part of herself that was cloaked in mourning.

Sensing her change in mood Daniel threw his arm around her shoulders, gave her a squeeze and a goofy smile, and then returned to his popcorn. He stole a few sips from her drink between laughs, made interim remarks about the actors, and while the credits were rolling grabbed her hand and hauled her from the theatre.

"The day's still young, we'd better not waste it," he cried with a gentle teasing as he dragged her behind him.

Daniel drove his red '68 mustang with its top down for the sheer pleasure of feeling the wind. He covered his piercing blue eyes with black Calvin Klein shades so that he looked like a vampire out on a forbidden ride. Scorning L.A traffic, he wove around other cars who were "slow as cold molasses," a deep southern drawl coloring his speech. To Casey, his seeming lack of ulterior motives and zest for living eventually allowed her to let go and concentrate on the moment; for one brief drop in time, she could be free.

Universal Studios was packed with as many locals as tourists. Billboards announced upcoming attractions, promoted programs and lured consumers into specialty gift shops. Everywhere, overhead sprinklers sent out a fine cooling mist over the crowds lined up to wait their turn for rides and spectacles. Daniel wanted to do it all, going so far as renting a wheelchair to skip to the front of the line using the handicapped entrance to the attractions. Casey scolded him jokingly and chuckled at his conniving nature.

"You're being very naughty, Daniel," she said shaking a finger at him.

"You are so right, and I should be punished," he retorted with a wink. "Oh, please make sure to tell Mistress."

She laughed; for a submissive punishment was half the fun, and she had no doubt Daniel was completely intent on enjoying his time on earth.

Night's descent phased out some of the heat and began dispersing the mobs of young children that plagued the daylight hours. Casey sat on an old-fashioned wooden bench with her knees drawn up, watching parents walk by with sleeping young ones clutching their shoulders. A little one with tight blond curls and sunburned cheeks sucked its thumb and stared off sleepily from a stroller; Casey waved but received no response from the dazed toddler. Another stomped past lamenting the loss of a large swirl lollipop, her father's patience wearing thin. Casey looked around for Daniel, who had left her at the bench holding his enormous dinosaur-headed soda mug, to chase an item he just had to get. What it was, he wouldn't say; she spotted him leaving a souvenir booth.

His stride was all charm and grace, a perfect model of a body trained in control and movement; Julia did fine work. The dark shades he had worn were propped atop his head, revealing the intoxicating blue of his eyes and lending a beautiful partner to his mischievous grin. From a few feet away he tossed a small bundle at her; green legs flopped wildly through the air and plunked down on her lap in the form of a tiny cloth frog wearing a small gold crown.

"What's this?" Casey asked tenderly, picking up the toy and holding it near her face for inspection under the flaxen lamplight.

"It's a frog...And you're in medical school?" he asked, feigning disbelief. Sitting down next to her he retrieved his mug and greedily drank down its sickly sweet contents.

"I know it's a frog," she snapped, poking him in the ribs. "But what am I supposed to do with it?"

He faked shock, and let his jaw drop in mock exasperation. "Why, you kiss it, of course."

Casey arched her brow and pursed her lips, giving the stuffed animal a scrutinizing look of inspection. "And why would I want to do that?"

He took one last gulp from the mug and shrugged, an almost boyish expression gracing his fine features. "Maybe, if you do it right...the frog will turn into that prince, or rather in your case, the princess you've been missing."

"Queen." Casey's eyes darkened and she bit onto her lower lip nodding. "How'd you know?"

"In those emerald eyes...who could mistake heartbreak?" Daniel paused brushing back dark strands of breeze ruffled hair from his face. "What happened?"

She heard his words drift to her, crowded by the sounds of carnival and the scents of amusement. By a red and blue wagon, advertising cotton candy, a small red-haired boy stood up on his toes, sniffing the sugar-sweetened air, a balloon hovering above him. The fringed canopy sheltering machine and vendor swayed; a mild wind blowing, rocking everything that was light with its tender force. Reaching for the billowing cloud of spun, baby blue sugar his mother held out to him, the boy let go of the shiny cord of silver in his plump little hand. The balloon fled upwards, spinning as it went. Its mosaic of metallic colors melded into one, while it disappeared into the night sky.

"Can we go now?" Casey whispered, looking on as the boy began to wail and the balloon sailed further away.


She wasn't sure how it had happened, Magali couldn't remember the last time she had slept a day away-naturally, but when she finally opened her eyes and rolled over, the sun was setting and the air was cooling. A siren's screaming echoed from somewhere close enough to make her heart race with adrenaline, and she waited an eternal second for the flashing of lights to crash through her window and color the walls. The sound faded, and was replaced by the raucous laughter of Miguelito in the yard, Concha's cackle, Joker's warning to the toddler to "Stop chasing it," and Martina's shrieks of delight. Magali rubbed her eyes and stretched, then reached down to the floor and grabbed the pack of cigarettes she had left there next to the beer bottle that was currently her ashtray. There was one left and she lit it with the sense of finality that she always found at the end of a pack, part of the lasting tendrils of prison that had stuck with her through the years: enjoy every last one, there may not be another.

Swirls and streams of gray floated towards the ceiling from the cigarette. She blew into the changing pattern a cloud of her own, temporarily shattering the flow. Not really listening to the particularities of the banter from the yard, she let the totalities of it settle around her with a strange comfort--the sounds of a family at play. She feared moving and destroying it with her presence, felt her silent eavesdropping of it to be sacrilegious, undeserving. It hissed when she dropped it into the bottle, dying with one last plume of smoke among the other soaked and brown butts she had discarded. Her skin stung, but she knew it would have been worse if not for the careful ministrations of Martina the night before. Magali ignored the smarting the way she ignored everything else that hurt, with a sneer and a force of will. Neatly folded at the foot of the bed she found her jeans and a clean T-shirt. Although grateful for them, it bothered her that she had slept through an intrusion. She chastised herself for it while she pulled on the garments. Concha noticed her first, standing at the doorway of her lodging, barefoot and with tousled hair.

"Heh, look what the cat dragged out!" Concha laughed.

"That's dragged in, Jefita," Martina corrected, strolling over to Magali and inspecting her shoulders. "Not bad, Vata. You'll be fine. Hungry? The old lady made some huevos rancheros earlier, I thought you'd be up, but when I didn't see you I kept them on the stove for you. Want them?"

Magali nodded, blinking at the sight of Miguelito desperately trying to catch a yellow-feathered chick. Running and dodging, the tiny ball of fluff dashed for its life, avoiding as best it could the boy's sticky, dirty hands. Martina patted his head as he raced by her on her way back to the house, momentarily distracting him long enough for Joker to reach out and grab him.

"Hey, you. I said stop chasing it, you gonna kill it."

Miguelito squirmed, crying and punching at his young uncle's chest to get back to his hunt. Magali scooped the chick up and held it in her hand. Miguelito stopped thrashing and stared at her with his big brown eyes. With the tip of her index finger she softly scratched the top of the chick's head, clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she did. The chick settled into her palm, exhausted from it plight and in need of the warmth. She took a seat next to Joker on the steps, Miguelito still and in awe, and offered the boy a view of the bird from her hand. Carefully, he leaned over, whispering some inaudible words to the chick as he did, trying to imitate the sounds Magali had made to it.

"Cuidado, Miguel. If you're careful, it will stay in your hand, if not, it'll run away. Okay?"

Slowly, he cupped his hands and held them out. The chick stirred as she deposited it in his hands, but kept sleeping. Quietly, Miguelito sat on the grass, holding the chick and watching it as it slept. Joker grinned at her and leant his elbows on his knees, darting his eyes between her and the boy.

"Wipe that fuckin' smile off your face, Joker. I don't want to scratch my knuckles against your teeth if I have to do it for you."

Joker cleared his throat and managed to put the smirk away, just in time to laugh out loud at Martina's expression when she saw her son.

"How the-?" she started, then caught the furtively pointing finger of her brother directed at Magali and pursed her lips. "So, Macha, you like chicks? Ha!" Martina roared, handing her the plate and playfully pushing the back of her head.

"Very funny. Is it pick on me day or somethin'?"

"Well, you're the one who slept all day. We gotta get something out of you, homie."


Martina settled down next to her and handed her a fork. The eggs were cold, but Magali wouldn't have complained even if she had wanted to. It was more than she had had for days. They were all quiet as she ate, both Joker and Martina marveling at the little form of Miguelito noiselessly sitting in the grass holding the chick. Concha was busy in the kitchen, cutting and preparing-- another day, another meal.

The slow progress of the car passing just barely in view stopped her breathing. A slight thrum in the air warned her, the hair on the nape of her neck stood on end; it was a rhythmic vibration she could feel down into her bones. The plate she held on her lap shattered in half when she dropped it and jumped for the boy, shielding his small body from the heated projectiles seething through the night, following the explosion of ignited gunpowder and hot metal. Time slowed, then sped up to a blur, leaving silence. Unarmed, she could do little else than curl her torso around Miguelito--who cried because the chick had escaped. A knot in her throat choked her as the familiar scent of blood poisoned the air. She shut her eyes wishing she could wake and find herself splayed across the lumpy mattress in the garage and start all over again. Martina was screaming, which could have been a good sign if it hadn't been accompanied by Joker's voice rising in a primal growl.

Just a few short steps away from the fence, staggering and slumped over, his white T-shirt and khakis darkening with a dark stream of thick blood, Shorty reached out for Joker. He was the youngest of the group and his stature fit his name-- small and thin, with the large hands and oversized feet preceding manhood. Pain and macho-calm took turns showing on his face. Joker was running to him, jumping the fence and grabbing onto him before he fell to the ground. Magali filled her lungs with the tense air, the darkness of death brooding over his work. The culprits were gone, but it was by no means over. She held Miguelito crying in her arms, and carried him over to a hysterical Martina. The effect that achieved was what she wanted; Martina cooled and focused on the life of her son instead of the carnage at her doorstep.

The street filled with people crying and running in all directions, shouting to the heavens in vengeance and hate. Shorty's aunt, strangely tearless, knelt at his side in her nightdress, cradling his head and humming an old ballad as she rocked. Magali stepped into the war zone, the commanding step of Bajo Zero radiating through her the way the moon cut through the night sky. Shoulders pushed at her for a look at the boy becoming a corpse on the sidewalk. She watched the steady pumping of the fluid staining his garments, blood trickled from his mouth and nose; it would soon be over. He was drowning in his blood; his eyes showed the fear of suffocation and the desperate struggle to survive. Gongo stared at her, their eyes communicating a conversation more felt than heard, a fire shooting between them that bellowed with primitive instinct and wrath. He gave her a nod and took off. One last look to Joker, who couldn't see her through his anger, and she was headed back to her room. At any minute the police would show up, ready to harass and pick up pieces.

Magali pulled the cord, turning on the bare bulb in the center of the room and went for the weapon hidden under her pillow, pulling it out and leaving it flat on the mattress. She couldn't shake the barely averted images of a slain Joker, Martina, Concha or Miguelito from her mind's eye. They burned in her as predictions, warnings of passivity; she'd give them a show that would turn their thoughts elsewhere, make them think twice about hitting her current residency. Out of the saddlebags hanging from her bike she searched for and retrieved the antler-handled knife she favored and threw it on the bed next to the gun, then she pulled on her boots. She was back out on the street and meeting Gongo at the corner as the yellow and red flashing lights of the police car came around.

Joker wrestled the uniforms away, getting a stern warning to stay out of their way, and glanced by chance at the figure of Magali getting into Gongo's car. He ran for it, but Magali stopped him in his tracks with a look that would have frozen hell. He'd seen the stare before, on the night he had met her, and it had scared him just as much then as it did now.

Gongo was quiet as he drove. He wasn't searching or looking for answers, he knew exactly where he was headed. His hands gripped the wheel of the old Chevy, eyes centered on the road ahead of him; he may as well have had blinders on. Magali recognized the streets they rode past; it was the neighborhood where she and Concha took the bus, and where she had first seen Joker. The snake had turned to bite back.

"There," Gongo snapped, and pointed to a corner where the car she had seen drive by was parked.

Magali watched them as they approached. They were already turning towards the car, ready to bolt out of its way. They had been expecting them...but not her. Their most morbid imaginings could not prepare them for Bajo Zero. "Stop the car."

"What? You're crazy," he protested.

"I said stop the fucking car, Gongo. Let me show you how we do it back east...and stay the fuck down, or come with me, just leave the car running."

He rubbed his hands together and smiled. He liked her more with every passing second. "Alright, Camarada, you got them big. It's a good day to die. A la madre," he whooped.

The smile was on her face as she opened the door. Her boots hit the tar-covered street securing the ground beneath her. She watched their faces, seeing the mixture of confusion and suspicion, all at once. Her knees hit the ground. Using the body of the car for cover, the pebbled tar of the street ground into her knees, and she let the first of the bullets from her only clip fly. They scattered. They hadn't been ready, and she laughed deep down from her gut. None of them would die; she was aiming for their knees, hands, and shoulders. A few went down, crying in pain and praying for their lives. She was on them before their words reached heaven or hell, her knife in hand, Gongo following in pursuit. The work was quick, the sharpness of her blade holding true as she carved through ligaments and bone, severing fingers that pulled triggers and lit cocktails for fun. Beside her, a fragment of asphalt lifted at a "pop." With one hand still firmly clamped around her victim's neck, she lifted a bloody hand and with a quick flick sent the knife hurling through the air and into the chest of her would-be shooter. His gun crashed to the ground and Gongo, leaving the bloody form he was kicking around the street, grabbed for it. Magali went for the man, her gun nearly slipping through her sanguine fingers as she held it up to his face.

"Eat me," she hissed, and pushed the gun through his lips with enough force to break the man's front teeth. The trigger was fluid under her finger. Smooth and cleansing, she watched his eyes as they went dead; this had been Shorty's killer. "That's how you kill, sonofabitch," she said, spitting at him as she did. When his body hit the ground, she whistled for Gongo: the screams of his fallen comrades had brought out the shooter, retribution was taken tenfold. Gongo smiled. Blood splattered his face and stained his hands. The slaughtering was done, and the requisites of an unspoken law fulfilled, kill or be killed. They ran for the car.

Still hot, she let her head fall on the side of the car door, the hard wind hitting her face and cooling what was left of her rage. Streetlights formed puddles of light on the ground as they went, sliding through back streets and alleys leading back to their starting point. The houses were hands reaching for them, hiding them, and slapping them onward. She felt the grave coming for her--the blood drying on her shirt, crackling on her hands, overwhelming her sense of smell with its stench. Gongo cleared his throat. The car had come to a stop but her mind was yet racing, expecting another foray into her infernal throes of wrath.

Martina was on the porch, hugging Miguelito to her chest, a light from the living room spilling a bright square at her feet. She looked away from her as Magali approached, letting her eyes fall to the ground. Magali hung her head and walked back to the garage, her heart sinking, unfamiliar words catching in her throat. She had left the light on in the room. It seemed pale and cold to her, a solitary confinement of her own making. Magali ran the shower, sticking her hands under the stream and rubbing them to get the blood off. There was more of it than she had previously noticed--it stained her skin and crawled up her arms, turning the water pink. She pulled off her boots and stepped in under the stream. The warm flow coursed through her braids and down her neck, wetting her shirt and weighing down her jeans. She pressed her palms against the white plastic wall of the shower stall and let her head fall forward. The fury was leaving her, its farewell leaving behind an emptiness that wrenched at her guts with a loss that was excruciating.

Martina heard the shower's burst of water through the garage's thin walls as Magali turned the stream on, and half expected to hear the sounds of breaking glass and crashing objects being thrown against fragile walls. The coiled turbulence she had seen on Magali's face was something she was unused to. Her husband often went on rides and came back in much the same state as he had left, fuming and inconsolable, his anger unassuaged. The garage door next to Gongo's house opened, a black hole swallowing his car. She watched him strip off his shirt and close the clanking network of metal planks that served as a rolling door. Even at night his tattoo was distinguishable from afar, the muscles in his back moved the Saint as he moved. He never walked; it was always more of a stomp than a stride, a step that was all warning and hostility. He crossed the street the same way she had watched him do it thousands of times. She had known him since they were children, and many had wondered why it hadn't been he that she had married. Gongo sat on a low step of the porch, resting his back against the railing and tilting his face up to the stars.

"That ruca's nuts, Marti. I ain't seen shit like I saw her do since I was away, and not even that bad then either. Fucking diablo on earth, homie. Fucking diablo."

"What the pinche' are you talking about, Gongo. Chingon like you? How many times you been on a drive, eh?"

"Not like this, Camarada. This was no drive. That ruca put her ass on the line just to make a point. Scared me so bad I thought if I didn't join her...I'd be next." He took out a cigarette and lit it, inhaling it quickly and desperately.

"You, Gongo? Scared? Get the fuck out of here." Miguelito stirred and she shushed him, rocking a bit and making sure he hadn't awoken.

"Don't spread it around, ruca."

"Yeah, your secret's safe with me," she said unbelievingly.

"Not for nothing, but...Macha, yo...she's got my back for life, camarada. What she did...that shit saved this hood a few bodies, maybe more. They won't be coming back here 'til they forget that shit, and that's gonna be a long time, ruca. They don't make cuete's for finger-less motherfuckers."


Gongo nodded. Pulling on his smoke and exhaling it, he spat on the ground. "She was high on that shit, Marti. Like a psycho. But I ain't never seen someone get so sad after, like she regretted it or something."

"She cut off their fingers?"

He stared at her, as if she were hard of hearing, and sucked his teeth. "Yeah, ruca. Just got out of the car and snapped. Didn't you hear me?"

"But why?"

He shrugged. "Maybe so they wouldn't hit you, this house, anybody in it. She didn't do it for Shorty, I can tell you that without even asking why."

"But they didn't shoot-"

"Not this time, but maybe the next time. You know better than that, ruca. It's not what's already happened that pushes us. It's the 'maybe', the 'what could be.' Can't do nothing about Shorty except cry for him, and get some payback maybe. Just the future, ruca, that's what counts. Can't do nothing about a beat down except keep from getting beat again."

"Yeah, Gongo. The future, yeah, that's what counts, vato. That's what counts," she whispered, planting a small, quiet kiss on her son's forehead. "You better go get washed up, Gongo. I'll go see about the psycho."

"Alright, Marti, but...remember what I told you. On the way back, ruca, she looked like something was killing her from the inside. So be nice, Marti. I know how you get."

She swatted him away, coming to her feet carefully and entering the house to put her son in his crib. Her mother had long ago gone to bed. An early riser she went to sleep soon after sunset through habit. No matter what the circumstances were.

A clicking of the door brought Magali upright. The shadow crossing the floor made her clamp down on her jaw and breathe in relief when she recognized Martina's form in the light, a passive look on her face.

"That's the wrong way to wash clothes, Macha."

Magali had remained in the shower, her fingers numb with the cold water that had once been warm. She hadn't noticed the change, so lost was she in her thoughts.

"Take them off, I'll wash them for you," she said turning away as Magali lifted the sodden shirt off herself.

"Thanks. You alright?"

Martina nodded and took the clothing Magali handed off to her. "Just a little shook. I'll get over it."

"Where's Joker?"

"He went to the hospital with the other guys. He was pissed you didn't take him with you. Thank you for that," she said twisting the clothes into a manageable knot. "He's never gone you know, on a ride like that. I'm scared for the day he does. Miguelito will follow him, just like Joker's following my husband and all the other vatos on this street."

Magali nodded, the water hitting her bare skin and warming her somewhat. "You could leave, get you and Miguelito out of here."

"And go where, Macha. How far you got, eh?"

"Nowhere. But you're not in it, Marti. You can get out. The world won't forgive me, but you...they ain't got shit on you."

"What makes you so sure, eh?" she questioned, pulling aside the collar of her shirt to reveal a long scar down her collar. "We're all unforgiven, Macha. Some of us are just excused."

The muscles of Magali's jaw tightened. She had hoped that, of everyone, Martina had been unscathed. She should have known better.

"I brought you some fresh clothes, they're my husband's...The pants might be a little baggy, but the length will fit you, and I washed another one of those rags you call a T-shirt."

"You didn't have to, you know?"

"Yeah, well. If you walk around naked in this neighborhood you're gonna end up kill-- I...ah...you'll just give some guys heart attacks that's all. And the Jefita will have a coronary too, so..." Martina's humor never failed her; she used it as cover, a shield and a comfort, like laughing at a funeral.

"Okay, I guess I'll just have to wear some clothes then." It felt good to smile, even if it were just a small reprieve, and Magali dunked her head back under the water feeling not as alone as she had just a few minutes before.

"I'll let you finish your shower. If you decide to go to the hospital let me know. I wanted to go but there was no room. Alright?"

"Yeah, sure," Magali mumbled from under the water. "I'll let you know."

When she left Magali wriggled out of the shower, the space too small to give her much room for maneuvering. She found the clothes Martina had left for her on the bed, folded in the woman's customary fashion. Magali reminded herself how short of a time she had spent with the family, and how easily they had taken her in. In one sense, it offered her a place long lost to her; in another, it only reminded her of what she could never have again. Before she let her emotions confuse her she hid them away. Better to deal with things in the mind then in the heart-- everything except for Casey. The deprivation of her Saint's presence cut deeper with each passing day. The spark in her was fading, craving fuel it desperately needed from a source she wasn't sure needed her as much. She seemed happy. Maybe she is.

The moon, white mystical orb that it was, followed them, tracking them through every curve, every stretch of highway. On those rare occasions when the night sky was clear, she was accompanied by hundreds of tiny fires, stars winking as he drove. Casey was quiet, holding the stuffed frog he had bought her closely, as one would guard a talisman against evil. He had managed to make her smile, laugh even, hopefully dispelling the fiends that had her in their hold, leeching away her joy. Still, she had returned to her cocoon, draping herself in melancholy and gloomy silence.

"So...you like the frog, huh?"

Casey nodded and smiled at the small green rag, its shape barely discernible within her grasp.

"Have you given it a name?"

"Yeah, I have," she replied softly, holding it tightly against her chest.

"No, don't tell me. Let me guess...Kermit." Casey shook her head. "Alright, then...Daniel, he's cute enough."

Casey rolled her eyes. "You really are vain, you know that?"

"Only a wevit," he said, mimicking what he thought a frog would sound like in her grip. Her laughter made him smile; it was a soft chuckle, light and sincere. "So are you going to tell me, or will I have to torture you with more of my corny jokes?"

"No, please don't," she pleaded with feigned horror. "It's Heathcliff."

"Wuthering Heights? Who's chasing you through the moors, Casey?"

"No one."

That's great, Danny Boy. Stuck your foot in it again, have you? Well, can't make it any worse. Heathcliff. "Casey?" He called for her with the green light from the dashboard illuminating the sharp planes of his cheeks and the strength of his jaw.

"Yeah?" she replied mechanically, staring out through the window at the blurred sides of the road. Palm trees loomed tall, and curved, directing towards nowhere in particular. White stone fences, solid and strong, interrupted her view of sandy hills cloaked with night. Images of Magali's black Jeep arose unbidden, black as coal against white sand.

"I...umm...Did you have a nice time today?" Daniel asked with a gentle smile.

Casey grinned. Her elbow on the edge of the car door, she leant her chin on her hand. "I did, Danny. Thanks, I needed that, and this," she said holding up the frog. Midnight, when the sky turned dark liquefied into her lover's hair stained with blood, dark and aching from the wound she had caused to keep her from killing Julia and returning to prison.

"You're welcome. I...I'm glad you had a good time," he responded, his voice dropping with a barely discernible trace of reflected dejection.

"What's wrong?" Casey asked, eyeing him inquisitively.

Daniel sighed, inhaling deeply. "I...can be a real ass sometimes. Can't see the forest for the trees," he mumbled shaking his head vigorously. "I just wanted you to know that I...think you're really a special person, and-"

"Julia put you up to this." Casey's tone was flat and emotionless. It had occurred to her earlier, but his charming ways and genuine laughter had caused her to doubt her conjecture, and she had dismissed the idea as paranoia. She should have known better. Julia was the short circuit in her life that set everything to flames, like the flames that had consumed her Black Velvet. Pluming columns of smoke that billowed from the mangled Jeep destroyed her mind and soul, erasing all but bitterness and conniving retribution.

He bit his lip. The implied betrayal in the lack of tone in Casey's voice caused his normal mirth to disappear beneath his embarrassment and regret. "I'm so sorry, Casey. I didn't know...I wouldn't have...." He paused, collecting himself and tried to apologize. "I don't want to hurt you. Please. Don't blame Julia; she thought you could use a friend. She told me you were depressed, and that maybe I could cheer you up, but I-"

Her voice didn't change; it remained detached and cold. "It's alright, Daniel. You don't have to-"

"No...no. Casey, please...I was only trying to help. I'd be your friend now even if she commanded me not to be. This just wasn't a very good start, and...I hope you believe me, Casey."

Casey's eyes narrowed as if she were assessing the truth of his plea. After all, he would be very good at begging. "Is that all, Danny? She just wanted you to befriend me?" Things you want, Julia. You do always get them, don't you? You wanted me back, because in your own sick way you do love me. She could have killed you; she could have gotten away with it. God knows how many bodies she's lain to rest. I stopped her-- and because I did you got the upper hand, and brought me here. Could I have done any more to betray her? She's dead, and both you and I are responsible, 'my sweet.'

"Uh, she told me to see if I could get you to come out of your shell a little. She didn't really give me any specifics, just said to take you out. I'll pay for having you out so late," he finished with a smirk that was a little more in keeping with his character.

Casey nodded to herself. "So will I." And I deserve it.

Driving up into the circular driveway, Casey could see that only the light to the study was on, the rest of the house was lifeless. Julia was home, most likely sitting behind her antique oak desk reading the news on line, or taking a phone call with her feet up on the desktop. Daniel slipped the car into a space along the side of the driveway; Julia's was probably one of the only residences in the area with parking spaces for visitors. Casey squeezed the small stuffed frog lying on her lap. Her throat felt tight. Hell would be given its due; she could feel it thrumming inside her, the anxiety of Julia's retribution. Daniel opened the door for her, and reached down to help her out, she hesitated but he grinned softly, giving her silent support.

"What's the worst she can do?"

"You don't know her the way I do, Danny." By the end of the night, she won't know me either.

"You're right. Besides, I'd probably enjoy it. So should you."

He said it was such seriousness, she couldn't help but laugh. It was a rolling shake that came from within and vanquished the fluttering in her gut. The feel of her Black Velvet couldn't be replaced; she could only try to recapture it through her own fantasies, and drag herself through what was left of her life.

"What?" he asked incredulously. Taking her hand and placing it at the crook of his folded arm, he chuckled.

The porch light turned on, illuminating the elegant oak door of the house with its stained glass fan-like window. Noiselessly the door swung open, and Julia stepped out into the open with her arms crossed before her. She brought a chill with her.

"You kids have fun?" The tone of Julia's voice changed her words from an inquiry to an accusation.


"Yes, we did." Daniel spoke first, squeezing Casey's hand against his rib cage as he did.

Julia descended the three steps down to the driveway and strode to Casey, lifting her hand towards her and finally cradling her cheek with her palm. "Come inside, dear, I have something for you both."

Although her words were softly uttered, tempered and with sweetness, Casey felt her insides tangle up into knots at the seemingly innocent invitation. Daniel was undaunted, comfortable in the presence of the tall, imperious mistress. Julia turned and entered the house; Daniel followed leading Casey at his side. Her pulse raced and a chill ran up her spine, making her shudder in its wake, but Daniel held her closer. She took in his fragrance, still fresh as if he had bathed in rose water and cloves all his life, and the scent was an inseparable part of him. His presence and secretive comforting, relayed his message to her wordlessly. This might have all been planned, but anything that happened on his part would be genuine.

Julia walked the spiraled staircase in measured steps, confident and controlled. A metal sconce along the wall anchored candles to light the way; they dripped wax in dark colored tears, their light pulsing, bright circles on the ceiling. Casey followed without resistance, but her mind was racing. Incense flavored the air with spice, and music floated into the hallway with Gothic melody and heart-mimicking rhythm. Daniel stroked her hand with his fingers keeping it firmly in place at his bent elbow. Julia wanted her to break free of the memory of Magali, be more amicable; instead she was going to be so out of Julia's control.

You planned this. Fine. You want me to forget? You begrudged me anyone I called friend, envied anyone who set eyes on me unless it was at your direction. I'll give you what you want, Julia, and more than you bargained for. The one thing you never did, would never do, was share me. 'Look, but don't touch.' Teased your clients with me, but always kept me to yourself. I wonder how you would feel if that was taken away from you.

The door to Julia's offices was open, the room beyond was candle lit and perfumed, her equipment much the same as what she had in New York. The beauty and allure of it was indisputable.

"The clothes, Daniel. You know I dislike them." Julia stopped at the center of the room, commanding without looking at them. "Take them off."

Gently, Daniel let go of Casey's hand, reverting openly to his role in the house. Her arm hovered for a brief time span, then fell to her side slowly. She made no other move, Julia would tell her what she should do. Daniel disrobed, folding his clothing and placing it in a corner of the room. He could find his collar without the aid of light and, on his knees, he lifted his hands holding the collar open and flat across his palms and waited for Julia to acknowledge him. Julia stroked the wood of her whipping posts, placed closely together so that her subs could be chained spread between them if she wished. When she finally turned sharply on her heels, Casey nearly winced with the sudden hunger in her eyes. Restrained and portraying an anger that was illusory, Julia outstretched her hand to Casey, curling her fingers and beckoning her wordlessly.

It was a practiced move, one she executed with all the assuredness and pride of a well trained submissive. Gradually, Casey knelt and placed her hands on the floor, arching her back and crawling cat-like to Julia's feet. The hand that ran its fingers through her hair and then snatched at it was meant to soothe and demand contemporaneously. Casey rose to her feet, a shining curved blade inches from her face. It was a game, and she was to show trust and faith in the one who commanded her. Julia sliced through her garments with ease and certitude, a skilled and balanced move of her wrist. The flickering flames of candles reflected off its metal. She left her standing naked, vulnerable, to take the collar from Daniel's hands and place it around his neck. The young man kept his hands on his thighs and tilted his head, eyes closed, to expose his neck to her. When Julia returned, it was with Daniel crawling by her side, keeping pace with her, careful not to touch her legs but staying dutifully near.

Tenderly, Julia yanked on Casey's collar; a permanent decoration she wore at all times. Reverentially, Casey parted her lips as Julia exploited her mouth with a kiss exacting surrender and abandoning her to drift in its call, a summoning from beyond.

"To the posts, Pet," Julia snapped and Daniel reacted, standing and stretching his arms and legs out within the enclosure of the freestanding posts. "Manacle him for me, dear one."

Casey did as she was told, firmly holding Daniel's wrists and ankles as she bound them in the leather straps attached by chains to the posts. His head was bowed, the posture of his muscled torso screaming acquiescence. She stepped away when she was done. Letting her own head fall, she waited for Julia's next command. Casey could see the shadow of the flail Julia held dangling from her hand, and closed her eyes when she heard the strips slap against the bare skin of Daniel's back. His tumescence responded to the touch, growing and straining with each stroke; Daniel flung back his head, biting his lower lip to keep silent.

Julia circled him, making rounds of his body with the flail, striping his legs, chest and back with linear welts that, once faded, were quickly replaced. His dark hair stuck to his forehead, wet with his perspiration; Casey endured his gentle cries with aroused agony, the timber of his voice stroking memories of passion under her lover's contradictory hands. A whispered voice by her ear filled her with the warm tendrils of Julia's hypnotism. "Enjoying yourself?"

Oh, I will, because I will enjoy making you squirm; but I don't think you will like this much, Julia. "Please, Mistress. May I join him?" Casey murmured. She couldn't see the tall woman's reaction, but Casey was convinced that, however much Julia might not want to allow this, she would be forced to maintain her image and hide behind her stoic role. Casey wanted to laugh, to revel in the turmoil that would be roiling behind the blue orbs Julia used to scrutinize the world with. You'll give me everything I want, and more. Julia's silence assumed her permission. Your weakness, Julia. You can't deny me anything.

Casey stepped close to him, his scent, combined with the musk odor of leather, filled her senses. Discarded and miniscule, she caught sight of the small terry-cloth bundle of her Heathcliff, lying lifelessly on the floor. Her lover was gone, but she could bring her back, and as she abandoned herself, she rescued from deep within her the touch that was Black Velvet. Branching electric waves cascaded through her, hardening her nipples as they came in contact with a heaving chest. She threw her arms around broad shoulders, drawing a chin down to her shoulder and stroking the nape of a corded neck. Taut and muscled, they were the embodiment of the strength she had felt wrapped in Magali's arms. She clung to her illusions as Julia continued her work on his back, setting a cadence in tune with the setting she had begun. Daniel shuddered against her, his arousal pressed tightly against her abdomen.

Julia would hide her anger behind the force of her lashes, brutal up to the point of damaging, then pulling back. "Cry for me," she commanded, burning to feel her control, and Daniel obeyed, groaning into Casey's shoulder and biting into the slope of it. Casey tossed her head back at this puncturing of her skin. She clamped down on her lips to keep quiet, she wouldn't give Julia the satisfaction. Julia was playing sound games.

Casey strained to keep her hold, Daniel's sweat making his skin slick, and she had begun to perspire under the pain of his biting. He was granted a reprieve when Julia walked around the posts, but the striking of the flail continued, falling instead on Casey's back; teasing Daniel. Punishment. Punishment for her part in bringing her Black Velvet down. She welcomed it. Her back was aflame. Every inch of her was touched by some part of the magic Julia was dispensing, either touching Daniel's skin or marked by Julia's methodical stroke. Casey dug into Daniel's shoulders, her lips pressed against his collar, the salt of his skin inundating her with his taste. Her clawing marked his skin; she gripped him, his skin morphing into the bronze of her Black Velvet, ravaged by the sensations Casey's mouth and hands pierced Magali with.

Swirls of reality and dream wove themselves into one, and Casey, trapped within the weave, surrendered. Julia wound her way around them both, lashing their skin and watching them writhe against each other as her punishment fueled their desires. When they began to cry in unison, she made a few rapid sweeps at them and then let them bask in the absence of her, Casey hung halfway to oblivion from Daniel's bound body, pain and ecstasy wielding their own enchantment. Lightly, Julia rubbed the welts of her work with a finger, smiling at their reactions to the painful caress. Carefully she pulled Casey away from her trainee, cradling her to keep her from falling.

My little one, if this is what it takes for you to move on, so be it. Hate me, but forget her. I'll have you any way I can, so long as you're with me.

Casey felt her, touching them, reveling in their dazed condition, knew the arms that held her and guided her to the raised four poster bed covered in rose petals. Protest of any kind escaped her. She had been reduced to a bundle of raw, wanting nerves, and in this condition there was room for nothing else but what was physical. The ceiling seemed closer than she knew it really was; her back throbbed with the friction of the sheets and petals under her. Julia had carefully placed her supine, her legs bent and her center exposed. Hot wax dripped down her sides from the candle Julia held over her, she agonized beneath its scorching. Daniel's approach, commanded and directed by Julia, heated the inside of her thighs; his closeness reinforced what had been the solitude of his absence. Without him, she was alone, trapped within herself, adrift without an anchor of comfort to deal with her own demons. Julia was merely an outside force, a goddess at play, into whose mouth Casey groaned Daniel's intrusion, his length filling her in one steady push at Julia's command. Her connection to a ghost complete and encompassing, her soul's power transcended death and brought forth the dead inside herself; to feel against her skin what was lost to her forever.

"You shared his pain, dear one. Share his pleasure."

Casey clutched at the sheets, arching into Daniel's thrusts against her, timing the movements of her hips with his as if she had always been in such a position. Her hands grasped satin and crushed roses, liberating their aroma. Their bodies danced, and Julia watched, seated in her armchair, witnessing Casey's deflowering by a man, distanced to receive only what Casey would give her.

"Touch yourself," Casey heard in Daniel's voice, a relayed message brought to her from the goddess.

Her hand wandered her own belly, sensations coursing from her fingertips through her skin and into her muscle. She found her center, her hand brushing against Daniel's coarse pubic hair as she found the nub of her own pleasure and arousal. Finding there the touch of her Black Velvet, entering her, caressing her, loving her. The feel of long, black hair brushing her stomach, her voice near her ear, her breath on her skin. Her conquering, the coiled anger and violence she held at bay so carefully that it became sensual.

Casey heard it, inaudible, no more distinguishable as words than was the wind-- Julia's voice releasing Daniel. Braced above her, he plunged deeper into her, venting his excitement and sensuality into her, shuddering when his essence entered and mixed with her own. His final lunge choked the air from her throat, and she opened her eyes to fall into a sea of blue a fraction away from hers. Her breath fled, her lungs emptied at his exit, the pain of separation serrated with the loss of her dark lover. She ground into his lips that had wandered down to respectfully clean away his own residue from her entrance and nether lips with his mouth. Julia was next to her, sitting near and stroking her skin, pinching her nipples as Daniel's tongue surrounded and licked at her core.

"Let go, dear one."

Give in to me, Casey heard in Magali's voice, clear and resonant.

He covered her with warm lips and, suckling her orgasm tenderly, groaned as she came screaming into the abyss. Rapture. Her joy faded, drowning in tears of sorrow as reality crashed in, and Casey curled on her side, Daniel settled behind her, soothing her as Julia stroked her hair and neck.

"You'll forget, sweet...you'll forget," Julia whispered.

But you won't, I won't let you. You cost me Julia, and you will pay for it.

The music died.

Why did you leave me?

In the half darkness, lying on her side, Casey could make out the curve of his shoulder, slowly lifting and falling as he breathed in his sleep. His face was buried in her neck, dark strands of his hair tickling her cheek, the warmth of his breaths softly brushing her skin. Julia slept behind her, her bare chest covering Casey's back. They cradled her between them with long arms and soft hands on her abdomen and waist. Their legs were intertwined with each other's, so that at a glance they seemed a multi-limbed creature sleeping under a tangle of satin sheets; their scents mingled, creating a heady perfume that was difficult to ignore.

Sometime during the night Julia had moved them into the master bedroom, Casey's memories of it were obscure and wrapped in her own fabrications, but the soreness and feel of her body told her the true story through her visions of it. Spent, Daniel had carried her to the room and had placed her on the bed, where he kissed and caressed her as Julia took pleasure from her body. The skin of her thigh was tight with the residue of Julia's arousal; handprints on her forearms, the soreness of her nipples, still heated from where Julia had gripped and suckled her as she came into Daniel's mouth. He had entered her once more, emptying himself into her from behind as Julia kissed and held her, swallowing her cries.

Casey smoothed his hair back and stroked his cheek; the stubble of his beard scratched the back of her hand. Carefully she squirmed for a space to herself and sat up. Her lovers didn't move, continuing their slumber in the early morning hours. When she left the bed, Daniel simply grabbed on to Julia, who rolled over onto her back and crossed her arms under her head as a pillow. Daniel's collar was all he wore, its large o-ring laying on Julia's stomach. They could have been an erotic painting with the predawn light casting shadows over them. She pulled on a terry cloth bathrobe and strolled down the hall, descended the stairs and went out the back door to the pool. Its underwater lights were on, painting the surrounding statues with blue, flickering waves of flowing water. Sitting on the edge Casey dropped her legs in; its waters were still warm from the previous day's sun. She gazed down to the colored tiles on the bottom, its shades creating patterns of snakes, dragons and morphed creatures swimming within lights and currents. Drawing up her knees and hugging them, she closed her eyes, listening to the lapping of the water against the pool's sides. A breeze chilled her wet skin, and she shivered as it crawled up the bathrobe to brush the rest of her naked body.

Magali was dead. She could no longer deny it as much as she wanted to. Had she lived, she would have come for her by now. Casey had counted on it. The life she had made for herself-- sacrificed and gone. The independence she had striven for-- given away, her body easily falling back into its whoring for material gain. One set of chains cut off, only to be exchanged for the shackles of another. As a young girl circumstances had forced on her the responsibility of caring for her siblings. To escape that snare, she had embraced Julia and her world with all its sins, to gain what her background could not give her, liberating her from the bonds of surrogate motherhood. That behind her, she had willingly given her heart to a woman who held her freely, only to trade the enslavement of her body for that woman's freedom, gambling that she would not have to keep the bargain when her lover would come for her. She had lost the gamble in one swing of the reaper's scythe. Casey looked up to the sky, the night sky's fires fading in the dawning sun. Star-crossed, a term coined and phrased by the master, couldn't be more appropriate, but still she could attempt to twist destiny and fate to her will. Daniel had all but spelled it out for her; it all lay in her hands, in her skin. She had only to forget herself in his body, his company, and Julia's riches. Tears of rage drowned her eyes, and she buried her head against her knees, giving way to uncontrollable shudders and sobs.

"You must really love her, your Heathcliff," Daniel stated, sitting down next to her by the side of the pool.

Casey wiped her eyes on the sleeve of the robe and smiled at him. She hadn't heard his approach; he was as sneaky that way as Magali had been. "You asked me what happened, remember?" He nodded, and put his own feet in the pool's water. "She died, Daniel. She died, and it's all my fault."

He swung his legs slowly, making the water ripple along his calves. "I'm sorry. But I'm sure that whatever happened, it wasn't your fault. Things just happen sometimes."

"Yes, I can. She was in a car accident...she's not...she wouldn't have had an accident like that unless she had been less than her best. That's my fault."

"Are you telling me she was drunk and went driving or something?"

"Drunk? No...I hit her over the head with a statue...hard. She probably had a concussion from that; she was hard headed. That's all I can think of." Casey hugged her knees closer to her; the conversation was making her colder.

"Then...she had to have been hurting you, Casey. A woman like you wouldn't strike out like that unless-" His voice, filled with anger, gave away a piece of himself. His eyes flashed with a desire for vengeance that was personal.

Casey shook her head at his attempt to exonerate her from her blame. "I hit her to stop her from killing Julia."

"Killing Julia? What the hell kind of woman were you involved with?" he asked incredulously.

"It's complicated. I...had...given myself to Julia, while she was...in jail." God this sounds worse by the minute. "And...well, she had that crazy Latin jealousy thing, I guess, and when she found out, she went after Julia. She was probably stoned out of her mind."

"Jail, Latin, jealous, stoned, killing. Doesn't sound like she was very good for you."

"Julia was going to shoot her, Daniel, while she was unconscious." Casey spoke with a frigid air. "I promised to go with 'our mistress', in exchange for her life. She was the only one in my whole fucked up life who ever loved me without conditions, who I ever loved without reservations. Okay, maybe I didn't like her using drugs, and her business..." She was talking out loud, and Daniel's face spoke of his disbelief and disapproval.

"Whoa, hold on. So far, from what you've told me...she was...a jealous, convicted, drug dealer, user?" he gasped, pushing back his hair.

"Not just a drug dealer, the drug dealer. The biggest on the east coast, Bajo Zero. Ever hear of her?"

"I think so. Was she in the news not too long ago? Something about a cop killing?"

Casey nodded and smiled; remembering the bestial grin Magali had worn attacking Webster. "That's her."

Daniel had no idea what to make of Casey's grin since none of what he had heard sounded ver amusing to him. "And...I'm supposed to be sad that you're away from her?"

"Things aren't always what they seem, Danny boy. Alone with her...I've never felt safer. She's like...was like...a sandpaper teddy-bear. She did what she did in order to survive, and believe it or not, she helped more people then you could imagine." The air was warming, and she let go of her knees, sticking her feet in the water next to his.

Daniel hung his head, the morning sun's first rays hitting his shoulders. "I can't believe that. How the hell does a woman like that help any one?"

"Money. ...Last Christmas Eve, you know what we did? We rode around New York's poorest neighborhoods giving out toys. She and I rode her motorcycle, and her...cronies were on ATV's loaded with bags of toys and ribbons. You should have seen those kids' eyes light up when they saw her coming." In her mind she could see it all, feel the icy air, their breath on the wind.

"Toys for tots doesn't make a hero, Casey."

"That's just it. She didn't think of herself as a hero, not even close. She just did stuff like that, just because. She loved me--just because. When we spent time alone in her apartment...you wouldn't have believed she was this...ominous figure. She was like a big kid--playful, smiling, happy. I'd give anything to hear her playing that guitar of hers."

"I still don't like it."

"But you accept Julia? Her motives are selfish, Danny," she said facing him.

"Maybe, but so are mine." He put his hands in the pool, making swirls in the water

"I miss her, Danny."

"I know, you were thinking of her last night. I could feel that from you. You weren't there."

"Sorry," she apologized, hanging her head.

"Don't be. I don't care much for the person she was, but you cared for her, and I care for you. Take what you want from me, Casey." He spoke softly, his fingers playing with her hair, brushing the reddish strands away from her face, lightly touching her jaw. "Any comfort I can give you, it's yours to have."

She grinned, and almost laughed when she finally realized that he was sitting by her naked. "Danny, where are your clothes?"

"Don't need them," he shrugged, grinned wickedly and jumped into the pool. "I thought you were down here for a swim, and I thought, 'How cool, skinny dipping.' Haven't done that in a coon's age." He laughed, his accent slipping once more.

"Danny? Where the heck did you pick up that accent?"

He blushed, and turned a few times in the water before facing her again. "Don't ya know? I's jus a po' country boy." He chuckled, letting the drawl of his speech out in full force. "Sweet home, Alabama," he began singing, then, grinning boyishly, splashed a wave of water at her.

Casey's jaw dropped, her hands held out from her body she looked at the soaked robe she was now wearing, and pointing at him yelled, "You're dead meat, Danny boy!"

"Oh yeah? What ya gonna do, little girl?" he teased, sticking his tongue out at her.

Casey stood up on the metal grate surrounding the edge of the pool and stripped off the robe, cannon balling into the water. She surfaced just at his side, his laughter loud and clear.

"You'll be needing a lesson in that, Casey. Here let me show you," he exclaimed, lifting himself out of the pool and quickly jumping in; water splashed around her in the early sun.

"That's it," she screamed, pushing water at him with cupped hands. It was returned in kind, every wave bringing him closer to her.

They panted with the activity, smiling at each other when they both finally quit. He was inches away, and Casey bit her lip, looking up at him and his blue eyes. "Help me, Danny. Help me lie to myself," she pleaded.

He bent his head towards her, his warm lips covering her cold ones, mouthing "Forget with me." Daniel pressed against her, water between them only where their bodies didn't touch. He tasted her neck, nipping at the skin there. "You know what?" he asked in a whisper.

"What," she groaned.

"I'm starving," he growled and made as if he were going to snack on her.

She pushed him away, laughing as she did and splashing him with water again. Their play was interrupted by Julia's annoyed voice from the veranda. "Will you two put some clothes on! The construction workers are on their way in," she reprimanded and flung down the garments in question.

They scrambled for them, shorts and T-shirts thrown down from heaven, and raced to see who could put them on faster. Danny kept snatching the shorts away from her, and by the time she succeeded in donning them, Julia was exiting the kitchen door with two mugs of steaming coffee.

"Children, I've taken in children," she complained and handed them the mugs. They drank some of the hot liquid and placed the cups down on a nearby table, Casey's grin mischievous and puerile. Danny winked at her-- roles were temporarily abandoned. "What are you two smiling at?" Julia questioned, crossing her arms. "No!" she bellowed as they grabbed onto her arms and pushed her towards the edge of the pool.

"Aw, come on, Mistress," Casey giggled. "You can punish us later..." she taunted, and gave one strong push.

Julia flew in feet first, her head plunging below the water. When she swam up her face showed her annoyance, her capacity for speech failed, and she pointed an accusing finger at them. They gave her a weary look and ran for the house. Julia grinned, and wrung her hair. "What have I started?" She shrugged, and walked to the steps of the pool.

The line of bushes surrounding the tiled area of the pool reached her shoulders, tall enough that she could hide behind them but still see. Morning had begun with its beaming resilience, summoning forth another day, another reason for the heart to beat, the lungs to expand. Magali had spent most of the night in a hospital waiting room, sitting with a dozen or more members of Joker's gang, who floated in and out in shifts. She hadn't had time to change before getting on the truck headed for the house, and with the sun out at full strength she had tied the shirt around her waist. The A-shirt Martina had given her enough cover for the temperature.

The scene she came across would have been funny if it hadn't ripped her in two. Casey's hair was wet as she sipped on the mug; her eyes beamed with mirth and her smile was the envy of the sun. She had hoped to find her there, to call out to her and let her know she was nearby, explain why she was waiting; her violation had to be lifted before they could be together again. When Casey pushed Julia into the water and then laughed, the knowing look that passed between her and her companion crushed her chest. Casey was enjoying herself, smiling and living in the sun.

Magali clenched her fists, and looked over her shoulder to where the crew was beginning to unload beams of wood and tools from a truck. She pushed down the scream in her throat and stomped towards the supplies. The men that stepped away from her and her scowl watched in silence as she lifted a beam onto each shoulder and hauled them away. Bundle after bundle she lifted them, carrying them the few yards over to the site and dumping them to the ground. When the unloading was done, she set herself to the task of building the frame along with the others. When the building was done it would be a fairly large place, much larger than Concha's house, and definitely bigger than her garage home.

She lost track of time, focusing on the sounds of the hammer she wielded hitting nails, bringing wood together to form a usable object. Sweat dripped down her neck, glistened on her arms and chest, dampened her short hair making it curl at the ends. From time to time someone gave her a bottle to drink from, tried to talk to her in a casual tone, but they mostly left her alone. They had seen it before: labor wiping the mind of whatever it was that was troubling it. When the day was over and it was time to leave, Magali helped them put away the tools, and wiped her hands on her jeans. The ride back was a replay of what it had been before, she slept through its bouncing.

Julia watched them roll out of the driveway, the beams of the headlights cutting through the darkness of her driveway. She had just finished talking to her client and setting up an appointment for him. The Senator had decided to retire, and Julia had no doubt that her conniving ex-husband had everything to do with it. Daniel and Casey were in the entertainment room, curled around a bowl of popcorn and watching rented horror movies. She could hear Casey scream every so often, and wondered if it was from the film or something Daniel was doing to her. She had never shared her, and it was a strange feeling. It burned in her belly and made her head ache, though the scotch she was sipping seemed to help somewhat. The younger woman was smiling, laughing, taking joy in the things around her, and that was something Julia couldn't take from her.

The contrived death of her lover had settled an unrelieved gloom around her, and what Julia had meant as a onetime distraction with Daniel now seemed to be working itself into a long-term plan. She could get used to it if she had to, Casey's distraction. It was an atonement she was willing to make to lift the woman out of her mourning. There had been no one in Casey's life that had cared to look after her, to see to her needs, and it was something Julia was all too familiar with. Her own aunt, a guardian to her estate while she was too young to manage it, had conspired with her lawyer and abused her inheritance. Giving her in return the training that now formed a goodly part of her life, and had managed to provide her with the income that lifted her back into the good graces of financial security. When she had first met Casey, she decided that she couldn't watch Casey go through a comparable abuse by her family. Though there was no birthright or good breeding to speak of, she would not allow the ignorance of others to dictate the path of Casey's life.

Poor uneducated fools would have had her settle in poverty, but I knew better. I knew I could care for her and make her happy. So what if she strayed? All young people do; she was nearly lost when that infernal woman made an appearance in her life. Misguided Casey, you almost ended in the same trap you fought so hard to get away from. Is it that bad with me, dear one? Haven't I given you everything you ever asked for? Led you into a better life? She gulped down the contents of her glass and poured another. I know, he resembles her, her look. Eventually, you'll love me again. The way you did when you looked at me with those beautiful green eyes of yours and entrusted me with your well-being. I won't fail you, Casey. I'll make sure, you get what you have always desired, even if right now...you've forgotten. Someday, I'll walk into your office, and you'll tell me what ails me.

They were throwing pillows at each other when she walked into the room, and she could only lean against the frame of the doorway and smile at them. Daniel's training was complete, but she didn't have to tell his master that. She could keep him for as long as she wanted; the young man was ambitious enough to put his own preferences aside and do what he had to get along. The backwater, petty thief he had been was a far cry from what she had groomed him into. Her client would be pleased. Yes, Senator Pruitt will love you, and you...will love being a kept man.

"You have an uncanny source of energy, my pet."

"All the better to serve you with, Mistress," Daniel replied, and bowed his head.

Julia grinned, and crooked a finger at him, her posture turning regal as he obeyed. She handed him her glass, and walked over to the couch where Casey sat. "Fill that for me, pet," she commanded kindly, cupping Casey's face. "It's good to see you smile, dear one. I've missed that from you."

"You make it so, Mistress."

"Do I?" Julia smoothed her pants and leaned back. "Is there anything that could bring you any more happiness? Anything you wish for?"

"If it pleases you, Mistress. I have no way of moving around without the use of your car. The commute to the school is long, and I would hate to trouble you with my needs."

Yes, well trained...both of them. "Take Daniel with you tomorrow, and choose a car for yourself. Think of it as my gift to you, for your smile."

Casey kissed her hand, and hearing Daniel's return glanced up at him. He winked in conspiracy.

"Your drink, Mistress."

"Good boy, Daniel. Come, sit with us. By the way, that stunt earlier is going to cost you both. It's the floor for you tonight." Daniel groaned in complaint and she gave his ass a whack. How in the world does anyone live without this?


Around the kitchen table Joker intermittently laughed at nothing, he was stoned. Concha frowned and ate quietly; Martina fussed over her son. She hadn't stopped to breathe, taking bite after bite of the re-fried beans and tomato flavored rice. There had been some meat, but it was in such a small portion that she had devoured it first before it grew cold. Miguelito coughed, spewing rice all over Martina who ignored it and cleaned his mouth. The boy's cheeks were flushed.

"I better get to the store and get some cough medicine for him, Jefita. He's been like this all day." Martina worried.

"He looks like he has a fever, hija. Let me see." She touched the boy's forehead with the back of her hand. "Dios mio, he's burning up. You better hurry. Get some aspirin too, the baby kind." Concha ordered, and lifted the boy from his chair, hugging him to her.

"I'll be right back. Look after him for me?"

Concha looked down at her grandson and then up at her son, she scanned the mess in the kitchen and the plates on the table, then nodded her agreement.

Magali stopped chewing and sneered at Joker, pushing her plate away. "I'll look after him." They were the first words she had spoken all evening and they were taken aback with her sudden responsiveness. "Trust me, you don't want me doing anything in a kitchen. I can look after him. Jefita has enough to do."

Martina extended her arms out to her son, and when the boy crawled into them she deposited him on Magali's lap, giving her a small smile. "Thank you. I'll hurry back, I promise."

Magali frowned when her cheek came in contact with the boy's; he was a small radiator. "No problem."

It had been late when Martina had set out for the medicine. Concha had cleaned up in the kitchen and then checked up on her. The stout, older woman, had touched Miguelito's head and, feeling him cooler, had given her an approving look for the alcohol bath she had given him. She gave him a peck on the cheek and stroked Magali's hair, saying, "You should let this grow, Macha." She had smirked then, and gone to bed, leaving Magali alone with the toddler and a sleeping Joker, who had crashed on the couch. Time had been when Magali would have cringed away from the touch; strangely it gave her a longing for Concha to return and sit with her. The old Lazy Boy Magali was reclined in was comfortable, the kind of comfort given by worn in jeans and cushions. An out of date TV in the living room wasn't new enough for a remote control, and the channel she had flicked it to earlier was still on. Miguelito was resting on her chest, his small hands on her collar, his tiny legs dangling over hers. If he hadn't been asleep, she would have slapped Joker silly, the nodding he had done before falling asleep told her exactly what he had taken into his system.

I'll kill him, I'll strangle him, I...I'm dead. Martina's gonna think it was me.

Magali hung her head and rested her chin on the boy's head. He still smelled of baby powder and Johnson and Johnson's baby lotion. His pants had fallen down under his waist and she picked them up, giving him a hug and breathing the scent of him in. Children were always sick, at least all the ones she knew--ear infections, colds, strep throat, lice, and ringworm. Alejandra had never had more than a cold; Eddie and Mariana had always taken good care of her. The little girl and her brother were some of the fortunate children of the neighborhood-- they had money at their disposal. Miguelito coughed and Magali rocked him, her chest tightening with the thought that she had never done this with her own child; he worried her. The screen door slammed shut and Joker grumbled. Magali tensed. Unable to clearly see who was coming in, she hoped it was Martina.

"I'm sorry I took so long. The store was closed and I had to walk to the next one."

"Far walk?"

"Twenty-five minutes one way, or something like that. He feels better." Martina said, touching the boy's back.

"Yeah, he does. Did you get what you were looking for?"

"They had this cherry flavored stuff, but it was too expensive. So I got him this." She put the brown paper bag she was carrying on the coffee table and pulled a box out of it. "It's no frills, probably taste like crap. Will you help me get this down his throat?"

"But he's sleeping."

"Have to wake him up, Macha. Come on, bring him to my room." She started to walk away when she spotted Joker. "Hijole, what's wrong with him?"

"I dunno." Magali answered, and pushed herself up away from the Lazy Boy.

She hadn't been in Martina's room before. It was a small place crowded with children's clothing and toys. The only adult thing in it was a twin-sized bed pushed against a wall. Magali placed the boy in his crib, and Martina tucked a rag under his chin, tickling the boy's neck until he opened his eyes.

"Hold his head, Macha."

He squirmed and fought, spitting out the dark green liquid, but they succeeded in getting him to swallow some of it. After wailing his complaint he fell back to sleep, with Martina leaning over the wooden rail.

"Thank you for looking after him."

"My pleasure."

"Pleasure? You are nuts, Camarada," Martina chuckled, stepping in towards her. "Looking after my brat was fun? I have better ideas for having fun."

"Umm...I meant-"

"I know what you meant." Martina whispered, laying a finger over Magali's lips. "I've never been with anyone other than my husband. No one has touched me since he left."

"That must be hard on you."

"Is there someone you love?"

"Very much."

"Why aren't you with them?" Martina asked, stroking Magali's neck.

"She." Casey smiled by the pool, laughing at Julia as the woman surfaced. "She's with someone else...someone who's better for her than me," Magali replied, choking on the words.

"I knew it," she said, touching Magali's arm, and pushing up close to her. "It gets lonely, doesn't it? Wanting, waiting, and knowing you can't have them."

"It kills me...inside."

Martina nodded. "You're a mystery, Macha," she said in hushed tones, hovering closer.


"No, don't tell me. Not with words, let me...feel who you are."

She tasted of sun-ripened fruit, her full lips teasingly soft and strong. Martina's hand wandered down her chest and onto her midsection, resting on the buckle of her belt.

"Marti, we shouldn't...I shouldn't-"

"What's one night?"

"Without her, an eternity."

"An infinity without him."

Magali brought her hands up to the nape of Martina's neck, kneading the muscles there. Her fingers ran through her hair, and she grabbed onto it forcefully, pulling back the woman's head.

"You don't know what you're asking for."

"Try me."

When Magali took her mouth, her body fervently responded.

Twin-sized beds were not made for two people, unless they were sleeping on top of each other, and Martina had found that putting half her torso on Magali's stomach while the rest of her lay between her legs was a comfortable position. She hadn't slept very much after the woman had sent her screaming into her pillow, mostly drifting in and out of slumber. Though the cords of her muscles sculpted her body, Magali was thin, and her skin was illustrated with various scars-- some much scarier than others. Her hands were rough from work, powerful and demanding. Martina had felt her strength, the lust of her, and now looking at her in the dim light from the street, she knew her to be a warrior. Her husband had been much the same way, lost but strangely confident and strong of spirit, as if their purpose for living was for the fight, the struggle to endure and they thrived on it.

Miguelito coughed and Martina pulled her sheet off to get up. She picked up a T-shirt from the floor and threw it on, padding over to the crib. He was asleep, his little face buried into his miniature pillow, but he felt cool. She breathed a sigh of relief and tucked him into the blanket he had kicked off, restless even in sleep. Hands landed on her bare pelvis and pulled her back; Magali nipped at her neck, giving her a chill.

"Is he alright?" she hushed.

"Yeah, just coughing. You didn't have to get up."

"Just wanted to make sure everything was okay."

Martina turned around and flung her arms around Magali's shoulders. "Are you leaving?"

"Do you want me to? I mean...I should, I guess."

"It'll be morning soon. Looks like rain. Stay...stay the night with me."

Magali took her hand, and led her back to the bed, making space for her and pulling her down. She pulled the sheet over them and held her close, her body offering solace. Martina snuggled in, her hands roaming and playing, her lips soon followed, and Magali arched into them instinctively. Life could wait.


The bar bit into her collar. It had taken days to get a release for the body, and as she walked with a corner of the white coffin supported by her shoulder, her anger grew. Gongo walked on the other side, holding up the left corner. Joker was on the end sporting his fresh haircut-- another green shirt holding the body of a fallen friend in a procession of wailing. There were six pallbearers, and all of them-- including Magali-- wore khakis, a green flannel shirt and dark shades-- a uniform that melded with the hundred or so other green shirts flaunting their colors in mourning, guns tucked into their waistbands. Women surrounded them, throwing flowers, their heads covered with embroidered veils, rosaries dangling from their hands as they prayed for a volatile soul to reach heaven and be forgiven. They leaned on each other sobbing, lamenting, and weeping for their deliverance. The virgin, her golden crown shining on her head preceded them on a small pedestal a young boy carried before him. Little girls held long altar candles protected from the wind by paper Dixie cups; some burned their fingers with the wax, but no one complained. Another street and the procession would reach the entrance to the graveyard, where Shorty could look out over his neighborhood for eternity, and wait for his friends to join him, one at a time. She'd seen too many funerals, too many burials for the cries to touch her. There was only fury at the loss of another life, a wrath wracked with the guilt of her own bloody hands.

Water through open fingers. So much had been lost within the past few weeks; she felt the burden weighing on her with every step. Casey was close to being another link in the chain of loss and regret she was forging. An unnatural rain had settled on the area, soaking everything for days, cutting her work and giving her a vacation from a newly acquired and much needed source of income. It only riled her the more; God had a dark sense of humor. Magali took the chance of being seen and rode out to Julia's residence, waiting around corners and walls to catch a glimpse of Casey. To see her alone. Casey had a new friend, a handsome educated companion who attended classes with her and made her smile. One stormy morning that eventually broke and set loose the sun, she followed her, riding at a fair distance behind the new car Casey was driving with a smile into a gas station.

She pulled off the sunglasses that shielded the dark brown of her eyes; the tiny loop decorating her eyebrow sparkled. She sat sidesaddle on the deep leather seat of her bike, the discarded leather bandana hanging from the German, World War Two helmet she held against her thigh. Her skin itched with the grit of the road, and her jeans, stiff in places from grease and grime, stuck to her damp skin. The black, Harley-Davidson boots had seen better days, and the fading to brown, sleeveless T-shirt clinging to her back was begging to be put to rest. The collar stretched wide around her neck, exposing the sinewy ripples of her trapezii.

Any minute, the strawberry-blonde in the light cream blouse and immaculate white dress pants would catch her staring. Part of her fervently wished she would. Her eyes raked the woman's body, and she found herself wishing they were hands. Casey was patiently filling the gas tank of a sleek BMW convertible, her nail scratching off a bit of dry wax that had remained on its gleaming black surface. Now her Saint was bending over to pick up a fallen coin, and Magali smirked at the view. A pink tongue darted out from sun darkened lips, and she ran its stud across her mouth unconsciously. The thought of running her hand along the tanned skin of those inner-thighs and up to cup the woman's sex was dizzying. She had been watching her for days, each time approaching closer. Magali regarded her seemingly content Saint, trying to figure out whether or not she was deluding herself. Her pilgrimage was becoming an excursion into futility.

When the young man in his immaculate suit joined her, giving her a bear hug and a tickle, Magali growled to herself. She hadn't returned to the house since then. The sporadic rain kept them from working, and she couldn't afford the gas for the trip.

The coffin was down; laid over bars that kept it from falling into its six-foot-deep resting-place while, in Spanish, the priest spoke of violence and its destructive force on the community. Magali ignored him; her hands folded in front of her. The women nodded, except for the young vatas, and the men stood stoic and steadfast. Miguelito was crying to be let down from his mother's grasp, so she carried him away from the gathering. Miguelito's small green T-shirt, stained with his breakfast, formed a solid square against Martina's black and green swatch shirt. She wore it untucked over her jeans. Magali watched her walk away, cradling her son and whispering to him to behave. She saw the entrance crowd with police cars; trouble was brewing and if she bolted it would only arrive earlier.

Long ago cemeteries stopped dropping coffins into the grave at the end of the funeral service because of the trauma it caused the families. But Shorty carried in his fiberglass box all the gold and weapons he ever owned, and it would be the pallbearers, not strangers, who would lower him into the ground and cover him with dirt, their right to do so enforced by the weapons that surrounded them. The priest sprinkled the coffin with holy water and gave his final benediction, making the sign of the cross in the air with a wave of his hand. Shorty's aunt fainted. As if it were coordinated, Magali and the others grabbed the ropes to the coffin and pulled the bars. They lowered it gently, making sure that Shorty didn't get any final jolts, and watched it settle on the bottom. A line formed, hands cupping dirt. A few of the green shirts would stay and watch the truck dump in the mounds of dirt that the hole required.

Magali didn't know how long it took for the line to finish. She was the first of seven to throw in soil, followed by Gongo, Joker, the other pallbearers, and finally Shorty's resuscitated aunt. She carried a rose, one she threw in before Gongo passed her a handful of dirt for her to finish the ordeal with. She could hardly stand, and Joker had to give her an arm to lean on. The police watched it all from afar. The court injunction included funerals, and they had all known beforehand how it would all end. When the last thud of soil hit the coffin, Gongo leered. Spitting in the direction of the waiting police officers, he drew the gun he had hidden in his pants and fired four shots into the air-a one gun salute to a fallen comrade. The assembled officers came running, lights flashing, and black uniforms closing in on the crowd in riot gear.

The stampede began, and those that could held on to the older women, pushing the rushing bodies away from them as they went. Joker had a hard time keeping Concha safe; Magali's eyes darted between the high fence and the pair struggling through the horde. Concha lost her footing and nearly collided with a tombstone, Martina was far ahead, climbing the fence and pulling Miguelito up and above with her. She darted out of the way of a policeman who lunged for her, then a stocky boy who slapped him in the back of the head and laughed quickly distracted him. Martina got away. The uniforms were everywhere, coming in on them like a pack of wolves to feed. Magali cursed under her breath and caught Concha's other arm. The older woman scolded her for the profanity as she stumbled ahead in the slow run Joker and she were dragging her through. A hand grabbed for Joker, pulling him away and hauling Concha with him.

"Fuck you, fuckin' pig!" Magali screamed, grabbing for the cop's nightstick and wrenching it away from him. She struck him in the chest, but the blow wasn't enough, and she repeated the swing to come down on his elbow-- an unprotected area.

"Run, Joker! Get the fuck out of here, and take la Jefita wit' you!"

The policeman fell, clutching his arm and Magali could see them descending around her.

"I said run, stupid!" she yelled at Joker, who was doing a great imitation of a deer caught in headlights. Her bellow snapped him out of his awe, and he grabbed onto his mother and pulled her away. Magali saw Concha reach out to her, a look of fear on her face. An electric sting hit her calf. Stun guns. She hated stun guns, and the bite only made her swing all the more at the possessor of the small black device and its blue current. She was surrounded; bees in black official uniforms stung at her, hitting her arms and legs. One landed a hit on her back, which should have frozen her. Her continuing resistance only made them the more desperate to take her down. A sea of black surged over her, and she swung for them, striking where she could until she could be sure Concha and Joker were away. At last, her legs buckled, the currents working on her nervous system. She could have reached for her gun, safe at her belt, but thought better of it.

I'll take the beating behind door number three, please. And it came down hard until she was face down and unmoving, her hands behind her back trapped by plastic straps that belonged on loaves of bread not humans. She was lifted and dumped, and after she caught her breath from her chest crashing into the ground, she opened her eyes. Gongo smiled at her, his mouth wreathed in blood that was flowing from his broken nose, spattering onto a grave.

"I got two, you?" he asked, gloating.

"More than you, cabron," Magali coughed back, a drop of blood flowing into her eye and dislodging the contacts she had worn for way too long.

Gongo was silent for a moment while he looked around the cemetery, assessing their situation. He gave a small shrug, then smiled again. "Hey, those eyes? They get you pussy on the inside?"


"'Cause I think you going to have to use them again, Chingona," he laughed.

"Well, at least I don't have to give my ass up." Magali said, responding to his teasing in kind.

"That's low, vata."

Then they both laughed, loud and hard, until a police officer gave them both a quick kick. It only made their laughter rise in volume all the more; there was power in having nothing to lose. If she were lucky she wouldn't have to face charges here, but would be extradited to New York. At least a year waited for her in the system back home, far away from Casey and her adoptive family, back into a cage and her fury. Shake it off, there are things you will never have. Bite the bullet on this one.

"You didn't shoot anybody?"

"Nah, too many pinche cabrones running around. I could've hit one of my camaradas."

Magali shrugged as best she could with her arms tugged down tightly behind her. If not for the pull on her hands that threatened to yank her arms from her sockets, the conversation would have continued. With her stone face firmly in place, she took a glance at the nearby butt of her captor's gun, and wondered which one of the many uniforms had taken charge of her own weapon as she was pushed into a van already loaded with quiet prisoners.

They had been watching the standoff for the past half-hour; tempers balanced precariously on the edge of a precipice. With the temperature high and the humid air suffocating them all, the street had filled with topless young men and scantily dressed young women. Eddie's shirt hung from his back pocket and his baggy jeans slumped on his waist. The bottle of water he was nursing was warm, and he dumped its contents over his head. It gleamed in small pebbles off his skin. He fished in his pocket for a toothpick left over from the previous night's dinner at the corner restaurant, and stuck it between his teeth, watching the corner.

An argument over a girl between two young men had sizzled quickly the night before. Their friends had separated the two rapidly enough that they had not come to blows, but too late for sparing their wounded dignity. Had they been left alone, the fight would have happened and there would be a bloody loser. Long hours of festering had brought both men to the boiling point, and there was no doubt that there would be a fresh body for the morgue sooner rather than later.

"Five hundred says he talks shit and then bites it," Callie said, patting the front pocket of her jeans.

"Bet," Eddie snorted and scratched at the prickly hairs that had begun growing out of his scalp.

Callie puffed on a blunt. The sweet mingling of tobacco and marijuana floated around her and perfumed the stoop.

"What the fuck you lookin' at, motherfucker?" came the expected shout from one corner, and Eddie hit the ground when the first gleam of a weapon flickered in the sun.

Callie stood to her feet, smiling and crinkling her nose in anticipation. "Woo, baby. It's on."

"Fuck you, hijo de puta. Go ahead, shoot. You ain't got the balls for it, sonofabitch!"

Clack, clack, and they were running for cover, children and adults screaming for safety. Blood smeared a car and ran down to the asphalt, dripping into the slowly pooling gore around the fallen young man who had chosen bravado over pulling his own weapon. The shooter was grinning, strutting and holding up his hands as if he had just won a boxing match, the gun back in its hiding place at his waist.

Callie held a hand down to Eddie, the blunt held between her teeth. "See, tol' you," she smiled.

"Yeah, yeah. Put it on my tab. Fuckin' cops gonna come around now. Remind me to smack that stupid ass later."

More than one sleepless night had gone into dissecting the contents of the frayed notebooks that held endless numbers and the unrevealed secret of where Magali stored her money. Eddie had all but given up on the idea of finding the store, focusing instead on hoping for Magali's quick return. Antonio hadn't appeared in days, apparently assuaged by the large sum of money Eddie had provided in a duffel bag. But that money had been intended for other pay-offs, and they were missed, the price high-war was declared. Hot, dark nights descended, with raids on distribution sites and shootings by what the mayor called 'justified police officers.' Phone calls and urgent messages on beepers were never ending, and Eddie prioritized them by monetary worth, leaving hundreds trapped in downtown cages and families scrambling for income. Brooklyn had toppled first, under the heavy hand of a special task force built and financed by money recently allocated to the city. It was rumored that independent survivors of the raids were filling the vacuum. The empire was falling, crumbling into bloody dust and fragments of bone.

Callie coughed out a puff of smoke and pointed to the corner. A police car was taking the curve and speeding past to the opposite end of the street. Spinning blades of a helicopter beat down on the air above them, and the screeching wheels of an official armored truck rounded the street and came to a stop. Eddie swallowed hard, and pulled on Callie, running into the dark lobby of the building behind them. The panic rang behind them in a cacophony of voices raised in alarm and fear.

"Raid! Po-po!"

Metal scraped closed behind them with the slamming of the lobby door. They raced up the stairs, Callie grimacing at a bad twist in her knee as she ran.

"Where the fuck were the lookouts? They should have shouted this shit out!" Eddie yelled between breaths.

Trampling boots pounding on the hollow stairs above them answered him; the police had taken out the lookouts before they executed their sudden maneuvers. Callie brushed past him, darting to the left and down one of the various long, dark hallways. He followed her. If there was anyone who could find a route out, it would be Bajo Zero's assassin. For all her seeming frailty and femininity, Callie was deceptively strong. Her violent core served her well when needed. She was never without a weapon, and the few overhead lights that were on along the hallway became targets she shot out as they stampeded through. Although the sun shone brightly outside, poorly placed windows and blacked-out panes created a cavernous feel to the buildings they worked in. Glass shattered and fell around them and, in the dark, Eddie was left with only the sound of Callie's footfalls to guide his way.

An echoing clatter just ahead of him cast out light, and Eddie skidded to a halt just past the door Callie had kicked in. The tenants shrieked at their entrance, but Callie silenced them with a finger to her lips and a gun to their faces. Eddie shut the door; white beams from flashlights circling through the darkness and highlighting the paint peeled walls of the corridor through which they had just fled. Ruddy faces peered up at him from behind a flowered skirt. They had apparently interrupted an early dinner, and one of the four small children was having trouble keeping a slice of bread in his mouth. Callie tapped Eddie on the shoulder and cocked her head down the apartment's hallway towards an open bedroom door. He could just make out the illegal gate barring the fire escape.

"We can't go down through there, they'll fuckin' see us."

"No they won't, watch. Come on."

Callie pushed aside the gate, a remnant left over from the sixties, its pattern reminiscent of the gates of freight elevators. The window was already open, and she crawled through it, legs first, and out into the open, then disappeared.

"What the fuck?" Eddie gasped and, forgetting the danger and puzzled at Callie's escape, poked his head out.

"Here, stupid." Callie's voice called from the flat brick wall.


"Step out and over the banister. There's a hole in the wall, come through it. Quick!"

The height was dizzying. As children, he and Magali had run over roofs and jumped gaps to land on others, but what Callie had instructed him to do felt as if he were jumping into the void. He held his breath and swung over the railing. A protruding brick column blocked his view, but he leapt for where he had heard Callie call. Surprisingly, he landed on a narrow plank. It squealed with his weight and Callie sneered, her face half in light half in shadows. Beneath them a chasm billowed with musty air-- the vacant tunnel of an old garbage chute no longer in use and boarded up.

"Over on your left there's like a steel ladder. Get over to it, fatty. This shit ain't gonna hold us forever," Callie barked. Sirens screamed through the streets outside and echoed into the tunnel, bouncing off the walls and playing an eerie tune.

He felt his way in the dark, his hand finally finding the dusty rung of an escape ladder; its rust bit into his palm. He found a footing and began his descent, Callie a few feet above him. Bits of the decaying metal fell onto his face.

"Where the fuck this shit goes to?"

"The floor's knocked out, can't you smell it?" she asked, biting down on the collar of her T-shirt and pulling it up over her face to cover her nose.

"Smell-aarrgghhh. What the hell?" Eddie cringed, covering his mouth and nose with a hand.


A few steps down later Eddie splashed into the slimy mire, Callie cruelly laughing at his discomfort.

Everything they ever showed in movies was absolutely true. Eddie expected an alligator to swim by any minute, and he had no idea how or where Callie was going. She tiptoed along a narrow brick walkway, filthy water and muck lapping the sides of her boots. His broad shoulders scraped the wall, and his sneakers slipped every few steps leaving him to claw at the wall for balance. His fingertips were bleeding with the effort.

"How much longer," he coughed.

"Not far, Eddie. Just a little more."

"How the fuck you know where you're going?"

"Well, Zee takes all her fucks to hotel rooms...she takes me into the sewer."

"That's nasty, Callie." He winced, watching a rat swim by.

"Yeah, and you are retarded. We didn't fuck here, Eddie. This is her escape route; we plotted it years ago. She made me do it blindfolded once, that was fucked-Here we go," she smiled. "Right up this ladder and out to the street."

Sewer covers were as heavy as they looked and then some. He was already exhausted from lack of sleep, and the raid had set him on edge. It was all the worse when he peered through the slit of the sewer cover to find they had merely traveled a square block. He could hear the sirens above it all, and could imagine the scene from within. Bodies would be lined up face down on the ground-- arms tied behind them, guns in their faces. Children crying from open windows; innocents begging for their stories to be heard while they were carted away with the rest.

"This shit just cost us a ton of money, Callie."

"A ton? Like how much is that?" she questioned, standing close to the wall, waiting her turn to ascend up to the fresh air.

"We won't have money for the Bronx. We'll have to cut them loose. Back to square one."

"Zee's gonna have a fit."

Eddie nodded, and pushed the cover completely off, the grime of its sides flaking and falling, hitting Callie's shoulders. "Yeah, and she's gonna have it all on my head."

Callie climbed out behind Eddie, dusting herself off in vain; the stench had infiltrated the threads of her clothing permanently. "I'm going home. Call me when you need me," she sneered, sniffing her T-shirt.

"It'll be sooner than you think. Why don't you just come over to my place? Mariana's shit should fit you."

"Nah, go home to your wife. She won't be too happy to see me. Anyways, I have a tail of my own waiting at my crib." She smiled and winked at him, walking away without an outward trace of the nervousness he felt in them both.

Uncommon as it was, Callie was headed home, a term she used loosely; the streets were home. With the weather holding up she had taken to riding her Ninja wherever she needed to go. It kept her closer to Zee, though it reminded her acutely of the woman's absence. She pressed her seat into the saddle and leant forward, recalling the feel of her chest against Magali's back, the wind and her scent. Racing through traffic at breakneck speed, she kept the mirrors well in focus. No telling when flashing lights would appear. Her hand itched on the throttle, waiting for an excuse to go faster, closer to death where she could taste life, there on the edge where it could vanish. Adrenaline nourished her. The way water and food were a human sustenance, she breathed danger and recklessness.

The Williamsburg Bridge connected the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the coast of Brooklyn, and it was her favorite part of the trip. The bridge was all metal and beams of steel, spanning the length of the East Side River at one of its widest sections. Its grated floor, designed to keep the bridge from flooding in the rain or freezing over, made the bike wander and float as it crossed. The unstable feeling of it and her close proximity to the railing caused her blood to pump in her ears; one mistake and she would plunge into the waters. To Callie, the bridge crossing was far too short.

Pedestrians fled from her approach, her engine's high pitched screaming their only warning of her. She slowed once she hit the corner of her street, looking for anyone who might be lying in wait for an ambush. She squeezed the small box hanging from her belt and the door to her loft lifted open. The stereo was blasting, beating bass against her chest as she shut off the engine and pulled off her helmet. She shook her head to loosen her hair; it fell around her face and stuck to her neck.

"Charlotte! God damn it, the whole fuckin' neighborhood can hear that shit playin'. Charlotte!"

The volume decreased suddenly and the wide, radiant smile crowning dark full lips that greeted her almost made her forget she was angry. Charlotte was as small as Callie was, with skin the color of polished mahogany and eyes envied by onyx; they suffered brilliantly. When she was miffed, her Jamaican accent filtered into her speech, and Callie would lose track of what the woman was spouting off about, so trapped would she become in the spark of the woman's eyes. Soon it would be time to let her go. Better to do so when she was still a distant figure than a piece that made her whole.

"I didn't expect you back, boo. I'm sorry." Charlotte smiled wider, throwing her arms around Callie's shoulders and then cringing away. "Me God, you be needing a shower, bebe. W'at da bambaclat you been in, eh?"

"Nothin' some water and some ass won't get rid of," Callie leered, wiggling her eyebrows. Charlotte gave her arm a slap, and she wiggled her eyebrows in the delight of it.

"Tssk, and to tink ya kiss me wit' dat mout'."

"That's not all I do wit' dis mout'," Callie mimicked back, and pinched her bottom as she did.

"Go on, ya nasty," the woman yelped, pushing her playfully towards the stairs and the bathroom. "Git, now. I'll bring ya sometin' to eat, and then we be ire."

"Sure, sure, whatever you say," Callie replied with a grin, and began her ascent up to the bedroom and as much water as New York could supply.

She left her clothes piled in a corner, as far away from her as she could get them while she dried. The thought of trashing them crossed her mind more than once whenever she caught a good whiff of them, but money was scarce and she could remember with stark clarity what it was like to steal food for survival.

Curry. It was more than a spice. Properly used, it could clear up any type of congestion, or bring the diner as close to instantaneous combustion as was possible. Charlotte lay on her side at the center of the captain's bed, the plate of yellow rice and peas bordered with the dark gravy of Ox-tail stew beside her, midway between her lap and chest. She was playing with the sticky lumps of rice with a fork, hungrily leering at Callie's naked form as she emerged from the shower and dried. The scent of the dish lured her out of the bathroom wrapped in a black towel, her hair wet and straight down the middle of her back.

"Hungry?" Charlotte mouthed, insinuating everything but the food as the target of her appetite.

Callie melted. With her emotions locked away from the act for safekeeping, she gave her body free rein. Her hands gripped at Charlotte's arms, pinning the woman down for the onslaught; she tasted her lips, sultry and trembling. A willing sacrifice, open and in wait for the taking, Callie was deaf to all but the discordant symphony begun; a sweet escape. Their bodies feeding and rocking; sensations that wracked her with the need for more gave way to a richer hunger. Sounds became tangible, felt not heard, in a tangle of flesh and pulsing. The line separating pain and pleasure disappeared, what should have been uncomfortable-- transformed-- electric. Ensnared in slick embraces, devouring kisses, sweet and intoxicating. Bestial instinct and want conquered-- biting, clawing, gripping-- vanquishing thought and swaying caution. Sweat and heartbeat, flame and touch, all one, all encompassing, rising and flaring to a celestial boundary, flooding the senses and creating new ones. Breath quickening between lips, touches urgent, taking and giving, blood racing, carrying jolts of heaven, and exploding into the shakes and groans of undoing. Free.

Callie lay on her stomach, her arm hanging off the side of the bed, a cigarette between her fingers, Charlotte's torso draped over her back, asleep. She hated after-sex, the contact too intimate for her tastes, preferring instead a shower and a quick, "See you later." The warmth of another body reminded her that she too was human; it awakened desires and needs she equated with weakness, and they disgusted her. It was always easier with Zee, who used with impetuosity and then abandoned with the skill of a child bored with an old toy. Charlotte had stayed around for far too long, yet, without known reason, Callie hadn't turned her away. Often she thought of it, then a touch, a well-placed kiss on her neck, or the simple act of a wordlessly brought drink when it was hot crushed the intent.

The phone rang, and Callie stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray by her hand to pick it up. Charlotte slid off groaning in complaint.

"Yeah?" she answered her voice hoarse.

"You need to get back over here, woman.

The tip of a finger lightly traced the middle of her back, and she caught her breath with the seductive touch. "Not now, Eddie. Can't it wait?"

"You can get laid whenever you fuckin' want, Callie," he argued. "I need you here and now. There's a shipment coming in and if it gets bagged, we're done." He had the same ominous note in his voice used by doctors in a crisis.

Wet lips teased at her neck and Callie arched into them, smiling lustfully.

"Callie! God damn it! Cut that shit out! If I want phone sex I'll call for it!"

Callie rolled over, gently pushing Charlotte away from her as she did. "Alright, Jesus fuckin' Christ, I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Good. Later then."

Callie slammed the cordless phone onto the mattress, staring, as she did, up towards the ceiling and its puzzle-like shades of white. Sunlight was fading, taking with it the warmth of its brightness and bringing on the cold dimension she moved in, the darkness of night. Charlotte slid beside her, caressing her midriff with playful lips and haunting hands.

"Don't go," Charlotte whispered into her skin, her voice black magic, bewitching her.

"You know I have to. Besides," Callie voiced, turning her head and gazing at the needle and spoon on the night table next to her, "you have plenty to entertain yourself wit'."

"I'd rather have you."

"You don't have me, Charlotte. I tol' you that before," Callie hissed, a fire sparking in her gut. She pushed her witch away and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed; the plate of food slid under the bed. Gentle hands held onto her shoulders, kneading the taut muscles there carefully and lovingly.

"But you can have me," came the whisper by her ear.

Callie shook her head, a chill running down her spine. "Not now, I have to get back to Manhattan."

"No, love. If you go...you no cum ba'k."

Callie heard the warning in her voice, not a prophecy, nor a threat, but uttered as a fact. Her anger flared with it, and her body, responding as it did, hurled itself towards the woman, easily throwing her down; Callie's hands pressed near Charlotte's throat. "What the fuck are you babblin' about?"

Charlotte's eyes dimmed, it had been a sore subject between them whenever she brought it up. Her brother Frank had remained loyal as long as he could, but when the raids began and the death toll rose, it was a fight to the finish. Small factions around the city had sprung up from the remains of Bajo Zero's empire, struggling for power and territory, fighting each other for the largest holds, and most importantly to take the crown for themselves. "Zero's dead, and if you go, you will be too. Her right hand is marked."

Eddie, she's talking about Eddie.

"You can take his place...under Frank. He'll pay you for what you're worth. Never the shadow again," Charlotte bargained.

Callie released her, pulling away and walking to the closet, opened the sliding mirrored doors. Charlotte watched her, sitting up and covering her naked form.

"Cum now, Callie...nuttin' lasts forever. I know you loved her, but she's gone and you are not."

Callie bit her lip and reached into the closet, she fingered the cold steel of a gun hanging in its holster from a hook behind her clothing. Her jaw clenched and she pulled the weapon from its sheath. In her hand it was weightless, the silencer a comforting extension. When she turned to face Charlotte the weapon was cocked and loaded, held straight out by an arm attached to her numb body.

"You're right, Charlotte...nothin' lasts forever."

It was quick, the fear in Charlotte's eyes and the wisp of exploding air one and the same. The woman had opened her mouth to plead, and the lips that had caressed her body lost their color in silence. A black spot on the sheets grew crimson and spread, staining the bed in a splash of morbid art. Callie dropped the gun on the floor, and cracking her neck went down to the kitchen for the jugs of acid she liked to refer to as detergent. If she timed it all right she could be rid of the corpse in her bed by the time she was dressed.


Mariana always hid whenever Eddie was in a mood. She could read him from a distance--the strain on his face, the heaviness in his step. Their bedroom was a safe haven from whatever plagued him. Baby powder tickled her nose and she sneezed from it. Alejandra giggled up at her, turning onto her back and off the quilt to leave white butt prints on the blue sheets of the bed. The girl's long wet hair curled into ringlets, and Mariana playfully pulled on one and watched it spring back smiling. Alejandra was looking more and more like her birth mother, the piercing blue of the eyes unmistakable. Enrique, her son, abandoned the TV show he had been watching to join her on the bed, tickling his little sister and then her. He had inherited the playful character of his father, who at the moment was slamming something in the kitchen.

"Don't worry, Mami. He'll buy you a new one," Enrique responded to her concerned face. His smile and exaggerated wink earned him a head rub.

"Do you like your new teachers? You haven't said anything since you started last week," she asked, turning her attention back to the rolling toddler on the bed. Alejandra sat up and stretched her little arms up, waiting for Mariana to pull the small nightshirt over her head.

"They're okay. But they give too much homework," he complained, then sat back on the rug in front of the TV.

Mariana nodded, the boy had begun his first year of high school, thankfully at a Catholic all boys school. Eddie had thought to delay his adventures with girls that way, hoping to keep his son from following in his footsteps, though he never framed it in that way.

"Don't worry...it'll get worse," she chuckled, ignoring the sound of the opening front door. Someone was visiting, and with her husband's mood, she wasn't interested in who it could be.

"Maybe-" A loud crash from the living room interrupted him and he turned quickly to face his mother as she jumped off the bed and ran for the door.

"Stay here, Enrique," she whispered, swallowing her sudden anxiety as she did. "Watch Alex," she instructed giving him an encouraging glance and, carefully opening the door, stepped through it. The short hallway ended at the living room, from it she could see the front door of the apartment and a quarter of the room. A lamp lay broken in half on the floor, some of its porcelain pieces scattered around it. It had been a floral lamp Eddie had given her when they had first moved into the place. He had said the violets printed on it had reminded him of her-"small and beautiful."

"Eddie?" She called out for him, but there was no answer. A mysterious silence had fallen, and it shook her from within. "Who's there?"

"No, Mari! Get out!" She heard her husband's voice, riddled with terror and forewarning. The sound only made her run to him, maternal instinct ruling everything that had to do with her family. Callie, that dumb bitch, she's lost her mind again. This time I'm kicking her ass. Show her to come into my house and disrupt-

When she saw Eddie she fervently wished it had been Callie in the apartment with them. His larger body was being held at bay by a shorter, darker man, with the abhorrent leer of triumph on his face. The business had come to roost in their domain, the blue tinted metal of the man's gun formed a lump in her throat, and she prayed that Enrique would stay where he was.

"I didn't know you had a wife, Bishop," the man said smiling at her, then waved her to Eddie's side with the weapon.

"What's he want, baby?" she questioned softly, wrapping her arms around his waist.

"His retirement. Maybe you can get him to agree, eh?" the man answered in Eddie's stead.

Mariana's hands shook; he could see them as they tightened around him, keeping him close. Eddie was sure she was thinking his thoughts, seeing the children in the bedroom. His heart raced. If Magali had been there, the man would have been dead before he had spoken. She could always spot trouble, knew it by name and face. When the knock on the door had come, Magali would have shot through it. He, on the other hand had opened it to let in someone he knew to be a worker, a man deemed to be loyal despite the recent upheavals. Eddie held her tightly, hoping that in some way his body could shield her, though he knew what would come, and his shielding of her wouldn't be enough.

Boom, boom.

Eddie recognized the pounding on the door, and wanted to laugh when he saw Frank jump. No one in New York knocked that way except for the police, and Eddie had never thought he would be glad to hear it, but there it was.

"Police, open up." The demand from behind the door was clear-open the door or else. Eddie couldn't help but smirk. He was probably holding his wife for the last time in what would be years, but she would be safe and he didn't care if he would pay an eternity for it.

"Put the gun down, Frank. If I open the door now, they'll take me, and that'll be the end of it. You can walk away...forget you ever stepped foot in here and you can have the whole fuckin' city for all I give a fuck." Mariana's arms squeezed him; she knew perfectly well what he meant. They were there for him. They had always expected it, hoped it was just a nasty fear.

"And what's gonna stop you from snitchin' on me?" Frank spat, gritting his teeth. Things weren't working out the way he planned.

"Open the fucking door, Eduardo! Last chance." The voices in the hallway were getting louder; the sirens in the street had begun.

"You think I want you comin' back here? Or one of your boys? Drop it dumbass, and you walk," Eddie barked back.

Law enforcement had a nifty tool they called a "here we come." It was a long, thick metal pole with a flat end designed for knocking doors down with the help of only two men. When it crashed through a door, not only did it leave a gaping hole in the wood or dent in the metal, but it threw the hinges right off the wall. Eddie's lips formed the words 'too late, stupid" as they stampeded into the room, guns held at head level, darting in every direction. He would have grinned if he hadn't felt Mariana's arms slip away from him, his heart sank, her actions were too quick, too desperate. He saw their faces, alarm and decision flashing in grim omen. His peripheral vision caught Frank's fate as it played out, his gun still in hand as he fell dead. The scream that ripped from Eddie's throat was drowned in the popping; a searing tracer burned its way through the air and through Mariana. His breath stopped, his soul shattered into fragments, and tears that had been staunched by years of disastrous scenarios fell from his eyes.

God, no, his mind pleaded. Words wouldn't leave his mouth; they were trapped, ensnared in the nightmare unraveling before his eyes. One step and he was closer to her, she was still breathing; he could see the slight lift of her chest through his blurred vision.

"Stop, don't move!" Far away voices commanded.

"My wife..." he cried softly, repeating the words as a litany, a spell that could keep her alive. He reached out for her; a uniform knelt by her side, turning her over. Mariana's eyes turned to him, begging, pleading for her life as if he could wipe it all away. "Please, Baby," he choked out, "please don't go." He tried, as gently as he could to get closer. His legs wouldn't carry him, he was weak with it all. They were reaching for him, taking his hands and pulling them behind him as he fell to his knees and was pushed down to the floor. She was near, her lips struggling to speak, the air in her lungs wheezing in her chest. Eddie fought the hands, pushing his body to crawl the last few feet to Mariana's side, to touch her, to keep her earthbound. Uniforms blocked him. They pounded on her chest, breathed into her mouth, prayed, and then closed her eyes when she surrendered.

He wanted to curl up and die with her. If he could only stop himself from taking in oxygen, or get them to shoot him too, to take his life and send him to her. He clenched his fists, pulled on the cuffs that bound his hands, strained to lift his body from the floor. A pair of bronze bare feet, their toes and heels red with warm blood, chilled what was left of him. Enrique's face was cold, his brown eyes flooded, his mouth stern and pursed. An officer embraced the boy, and Eddie couldn't see his face.

"Get the fuck away from my son!" he yelled, kicking and rolling his shoulders to get up from the floor and get to the officer. "I'll fuckin' kill you, you sonofabitch. You killed her! You fuckin' killed her!" A foot landed hard on his back, stealing the breath he had borrowed from the sanguine air. He pushed against it.

"Papi!" Enrique cried, wrestling against the officer who was pushing him away only to see the policeman above his father swing a dark stick and silence his protector. "You killed her!" rang in his ears.


Callie kicked at a loose piece of concrete on the sidewalk. Everywhere she looked there were uniforms. Some were smiling; others were relating the tale of what had happened to their colleagues. She hid her face from the yellow flashing lights whenever they passed by her, though no one would recognize her. As Charlotte had told her earlier-she was the shadow. Two ambulances drove up and stopped out front. She had watched them cart Eddie away earlier, unconscious and manacled, and was waiting to see who else would come out of the building.

Minutes later a stretcher was pulled through the front doors--a body draped in white, too big to be any of the children. The second was similar, but the frame hidden much smaller. A woman she thought looked familiar entered the building, an officer close at her heels. Callie waited, long after the blue and white trucks raced away with their cargo, until only three police cars remained. She pushed her hair away from her face and took a deep breath. Walking towards the building, she held her head high. Enough officers had left to make her comfortable, and she entered the building with only a few concerned glances directed at her. The crackling of the radios echoed in the lobby.

"Going somewhere?" a male voice spoke from behind her.

She froze in her tracks; turning with what she thought was her best, worried expression. "A neighbor called me and I-Moreno," she spat when she recognized the detective. His hair as always was slicked back to straighten his natural curls, and his dark beard was meticulously combed and cut near his face. She had only seen him in passing once or twice within the past few years. There had been a period when he had spent a great deal of time by Magali's side; it wasn't until much later that Callie had come to know what he truly was and despised him for it. "What are you doing here?"

"My job. I'm guessing you are too. No?" he queried, putting his arm around her shoulder and leaning close down to her. "Now pretend I'm telling you bad news, and I'll take you upstairs."

Callie nodded slightly, listening intently as they walked.

"Where's your boss?" he asked into her ear.

"I don't know...Like I would tell you bastards if I did."

He pretended to comfort her by rubbing her back, and they took the first few steps up the stairs. "Listen, you little shit," he crooned, "see all this shit blazing everywhere? It's because she's seriously missed, understand? Now her man's locked up, these kids' mother is dead; every fucker in the city wants a piece of the apple, and my pocket's looming empty. Besides, I'm really getting worried about her. I heard she's dead."

"You have your ways, find out for yourself, you sonofabitch. And don't fuckin' act like you care about her either. You were the one who bounced, when she needed you." Callie hid her face with her hands, shaking her head, and giving any onlookers a good show.

"Needed me? She was the one-Look, that's way back in the past. I don't expect you to understand shit about it. She got what she needed from me, and I got what I wanted from her, end of story. Just find her, and get her to surface," he demanded.

Officers parted for them, and Moreno led her through the apartment, past the drying puddle of blood at the entrance of the hallway and to the bedroom. Alejandra was asleep on her brother's lap, her thumb in her mouth. Enrique looked pale, his blank look when he spotted her struck a cord. He took her glance as a sign to keep quiet and obeyed.

"Mrs. Bradford, this is..." Moreno offered, gently pushing a distraught looking Callie into the room.

"Califia Santos, detective," Callie interrupted; the man wouldn't know her real name.

"She's the children's aunt. I think it would be alright to remand them to her custody."

Callie stepped closer, inspecting Alejandra and laying a hand on Enrique's shoulder. The boy was in shock; she knew the empty glare, and the shot of loathing he gave Moreno. Alejandra stirred and opened her eyes, sleepily reaching up to Callie; hers was a grown up face the girl recognized. Callie picked up the toddler, cradling her face and staring into the blue, half-closed eyes. The girl took a look at Moreno and stuck her thumb back into her mouth, letting her head fall on Callie's shoulder.

"I'll take care of them," she said dutifully to the social worker, then sneering at Moreno when the woman wasn't looking, added, "someone in their family should."

Moreno looked away, blanching and, closing the door behind him, left them alone.


Magali fingered the four dry stitches puckered on her forehead. They had been kind enough to take her to the hospital before throwing her into a holding cell apart from the others, and though at first she had been grateful for the quiet, it was slowly working on her nerves. The nurse who had cleaned the wound had made no effort to hide her disdain as she wiped away at the cut with bloody swab after bloody swab. A small part of her cherished the hatred in the woman's eyes, took it as a fitting and deserved treatment for the many things she had been unrepentant about and would remain so. If Magali hadn't been so exhausted, and handcuffed to the railing of the stretcher, she would have given the woman something to look down on. Perhaps a bit to fear and loathe in her private hours. Thinking of the whole scene only made her angrier, and Magali tried to focus on something else. Believably, the metal toilet of the cell was a counterpart to every other toilet she had ever seen in a jail, and it smelled just as bad as it looked. The walls were the same putrid green and the floor the identical pebbled poured concrete she had lain on in New York. Somewhere there was an architect making a shitload of money from the single blue print he had worked on once a long time ago.

The only difference in this fuckin' place is the way they twist the law around. No fuckin' wonder LAPD has the worst reputation in the country, she thought, spitting at the wall and watching the foaming saliva drip slowly down to the floor. That's disgusting...Well, so's that sandwich, she told herself, glancing at the neatly wrapped, dry bologna and white bread sandwich on the cot next to her. It was the twenty-eighth of its kind, and without a watch or a window she estimated her stay to have stretched out to fourteen days. Breakfast was a small plastic cup of apple juice and a wanna-be donut; lunch and dinner were bologna and more bologna. I could have sworn that a prisoner had the right to a speedy trial. Shit, I haven't even seen a lawyer yet. Every fuckin' dick wit' a badge that comes this way just fuckin' ignores me. What the hell? Can I see a fuckin' judge already so I can at least get something other than a sandwich! Okay, so I got printed. They should know who I am by now. I've never been extradited; maybe this is what it's like? They could at least let me make a fuckin' phone call! And who the hell would you call anyway? I don't want to be here...Fuck this, I won't be. Just wait 'til I get my hands on you-

The space was large enough to allow her pacing room, and she used every square inch she could to stomp her heels against the ground and envision its shaking under her. She needed to be angry, she decided, furious at the lot she had drawn and gambled on. Weeks of patiently waiting for the right opportunity to see her Saint--though anything but patient--just to know that she was safe and happy. The chance to speak to her for one solitary moment, gone because she had chosen to care for the fate of a foolish old woman and a brassy kid who couldn't wipe his own ass to save his life. It had gone against her grain, not to march headfirst into the palace where Julia stashed her jewel and steal Casey away; prudence had been a virtue painstakingly won under Mei's tutelage, one that never quite took full hold. But she had taken the safest course, not for herself, but for her Saint. A life on the run was the last thing she wanted to give Casey...and what if I had? Julia would have set the cops on me, and I would be...right the fuck where I am now. One more day, another hour, shit, that's all I needed. So close I could touch her, find out for sure...she's alright.

Magali crossed the room again, rubbing the spot behind her head where the ache from Casey's bludgeoning had been. She could have changed her mind that night, seen me for what I really am...she could have decided to leave with Julia because...who in their right mind would want to step into my hell? Willingly? But, God I love her for that, because she's not part of my world. She's the dawn to my night, and I'm forever chasing and wanting her, knowing full well I can never have her or the day she gives. Oh, good, poetic shit, and I can't even tell her that. Stop fooling yourself, Zero. Count yourself lucky that you had the time with her that you did; some don't even get that. Right? You saw her, she's happy where she is. Why take her away from that? Her school, her friends? Isn't that what Julia did?

She took hold of the bars denying her freedom and tried to rattle them; they were unmoving. What Callie and Eddie said...they could have exaggerated, it wouldn't be the first time...Fuck, why can't I make up my mind? Everything else is so cut and clear, but when it comes to her...it's as if I had two minds. Very fuckin' funny, God. Show me everything I can't have...a love like Casey's, a family like Concha's, Eddie's...You gave me this plate! Cursing, she kicked at the bars and slammed herself onto the small cot, staring once more at the nondescript ceiling.

She heard the whistling, similar to the one the day before-- high pitched and off tune-- but not quite the same. The sound of jangling keys leapt with the promise of something new, small metallic vows breaking the monotony. Magali remained still, sitting with knees bent on the cot, the green shirt she had worn during the funeral crumpled at the foot of the small bed. Black shiny boots kicked the bars to her cell, and she looked up into the implacable face of the current guard, who was trying his best not to scan the exposed curves of her chest displayed over the seam of her A-shirt.

"Let's go, Guerrero," he commanded coldly.

Ooh, conversationalist. She threw her legs over the side of the bed, her boots hitting the concrete floor with just enough force to relay anger and warning, and grabbed the wrinkled plaid shirt. Her fists clenched, hidden by the fabric.

"Step back. Hands out, drop the shirt."

She complied, pressing her lips together and forcing down her desire to whale against the bars. Concha had reached out for her, deep brown eyes whispering expressions of regret and trepidation, fingers outstretched to catch her and keep her safe, tombstones lining the landscape behind her. An instant of decision on Magali's part had brought her to this, choosing in that singular slice of time to accept a sealed fate for the welfare of another, and for that she felt no remorse.

This ends now, one way or the other.

With the metal clamped around her wrists, she took her first steps out of her metal coop, keeping the officer within range of her peripheral vision. There were no other voices to be heard down the narrow corridor, no uniforms in sight. A few feet away, a solid metal door separated the hallway from the rest of the station--a place filled with noise and working police officers intent on their files and prisoners, taking phone calls, and dealing with stories the tellers shouted for emphasis. She smiled at the stupidity of having been restrained in a position that left her arms free.

He knows nothing but my name; idiot didn't bother to look at the file.

"Straight ahead, slow, Guerrero. Nothing funny."

Heh, maybe he did.

Through the door was the main room of the precinct, just as she remembered it, chaotic and busy. Heedless of her proximity, officers walked by, their hip holsters inches from her bound hands. They took no notice of her wandering eyes measuring the place, taking in its details. A prostitute begged for a drink of water. Her shaking hands clenching and wringing, her fix badly needed, Magali was reminded of a young Callie. A detective in a discolored T-shirt slammed a phone down, cursing epithets under his breath. Someone demanded a lawyer, a door slammed, phones rang endlessly.

"Step in," the guard barked at her, pointing at a dark stained wooden door bearing the faded golden words 'interview room'.

She held her hands up, smirking as she did, and glanced at him with sarcasm. "Can't open the door. Wanna play gentleman?"

He sneered, leaned across her to reach for the knob, turned it, and gave the door a hard push open.


Mirrors the size of the one in this room were meant to provide viewers with a safe haven from which to watch. Ironically, they also forced the interviewees to observe themselves, and it was no secret that behind the very same reflection they were under the scrutiny of strangers' eyes like specimens under a lens. The room had seen countless hours of anxiety and shattered expectations, it echoed in the very substance of the place. Magali stood before the glass, her image clouded on its oily surface, the blond tips of her short curls blurred.

I wonder if they'll just shoot through the glass.

She squinted, trying to see if she could make out any figures behind the pane, though she knew she wouldn't be able to. The officer was holding her wrists, taking a key to the manacles, and unlocking the spring held mechanism. Magali grinned, winking at the mirror, and cleared her throat.

"You almost had me fooled, officer."

"What?" he queried, sticking his thumbs under his belt.

She pursed her lips and shrugged. "For a second I thought you might actually be competent."

"Fuck you, and sit down."

She peered again at the mirror, her coy grin quickly turning into a sneer. The impact of her knuckles hitting the man's jaw sent a satisfying jolt up her shoulder. It hadn't faded by the time she had his gun firmly in her hand. She cocked her head and tested the weapon's weight in her palm, kneeing him in the midsection as she did, and felling him.

"Nice, but you really ought to clean it more often," she scolded. "This could be quick, or we could be here for a while, depends on how twitchy your friends are. Want to beg now, and get it over with?"

A bang from the other side of the mirror made her muscles tense.

Sounds like they are real antsy in there, this won't be long at all. Can we say suicide by cop? Aww, fuck. "Do you have a wife?"

He wouldn't look at her, kneeling as he was at her feet, but he managed to nod. A small whimper of a breath escaped his lips in what could have been an attempt to speak.

"Kids?" Another nod. "Do them a favor and quit."

She stiffened at the loud crack of wood splitting away from the doorframe.

"Someone thinks you're worth bargaining for." His silence angered her, and she cocked the gun, pointing it at his head.

Any further movement on her part was unnecessary; everything from here on out would happen as it would, without any aid from her. She kept her eyes on the man at her feet and held her breath, waiting for the last pop of gunpowder and lead to bring on the darkness. I will always be with you, Casey.

The officers who held their guns, raised and braced in furious hands, aimed at her with death ready to strike at their will. Magali had expected them to fire immediately, and the unforeseen standoff set her mind whirling into plans and schemes.

"Don't move," they shouted.

"Or what? You'll shoot?" she sneered. "If I move...you won't have time to think. Come on, boys," she urged. "I suggest you do it now, and get this done," she ordered, widening her stance and, squaring her shoulders, firmly planting her feet. With her back to them she wouldn't have to see them pull the triggers, any day was just as good as the next for dying. Enraged tears threatened to take her; she held them back, finding in their hazy retreat her Saint's smile and warm embrace, the scent of Miguelito after a shower, the laughter of a family gathered around a table, the solid grip of a hand given in friendship rather than fear. The gun warmed in her hand, heavy with power, its feel intoxicating, reminding her that it too was a part of her, a need and a want she could no more hate than love. If it were in the shadows that she would live and thrive, then she would do more than exist in them...she would reign.

A small, rectangular speaker hanging from a corner in the ceiling crackled. It stuttered with static before clearing.

Annoyed, a familiar voice broke through the speaker's rustle, and she leered at it. "Zero. Put the gun down. I worked too hard to get you out of the mix for you to do something stupid now."

"What's up, Daly? This better be good," she said without shifting her focus or the gun.

"I'm coming in," the speaker whispered.

"Careful now, boys. You don't want me getting crazy now that we might just all walk away from this." She jerked her shoulders violently, and laughed when the officers jumped in startlement.

Daly sidestepped into the room, squeezing past the high-strung officers and their withdrawn weapons. Wispy strands of dark blond hair floated free from the pony tail he usually wore, undoubtedly from pulling at his hair when he had witnessed Magali's desperate actions. Under his arm he held a large flat manila envelope. He threw it dramatically onto the small table at the center of the room and stepped as close as he dared to Magali.

"Somebody I know doesn't follow her own directions." When he didn't get a rise to his bait, he grinned. "E-mail. Didn't you tell me to send you a message via the Net, Zero? Where the hell did you stick yourself at, Babylon?"

"You wanna lecture me, or do you want me to drop this gun? Make it simple, Daly."

The agent stuck his hands in his pockets and took a look around the room, zeroing in on the taut faces and the officer groveling at Magali's feet. "Well, can't ever say you don't know how to start a fire. Your parole, Zero, I cleared it...but, um, they have the death penalty over here, you know? And they use it. So, how about we settle this without blood spill, huh?"

"Get out of here," she growled at the bundle of nerves at her feet and opened her hand slightly, taking her finger away from the trigger. The officers took a hesitant step closer and she waggled a finger at them, grinning. "I wouldn't."

Daly sat on one of the chairs and waved his hand, dismissing the officers and leaning back. They backed slowly out, keeping their eyes on the tall dark menace. Magali stepped around the table and laid the gun flat between them, giving the envelope a curious stare. Flicking it with his finger, Daly made it slide towards her, his smile widening.

"Your package arrived. I had to go through hell to get it out of your box, but there's enough in there to hang Julia Winslow up by her toes for a while. But then, she might like that," he commented to himself.

"Why go after her?" she questioned.

"You think I can bring down the Gauntlet with just you? Hate to break it to you, but there are people mixed up in this that wouldn't be caught dead in an elevator with your kind."

Magali pursed her lips and nodded, taking a seat across from him. "Covering your bases. I suppose you want me back in New York?"

"Want you? Shit, I need you back there. The bloody place is going up in smoke without Bajo Zero."

"Yeah, sure. So what now?"

"Well, I thought you'd like to come along on the ride to snare Winslow, since...she stole your girlfriend away and everything." It was the right button to push; he could see it in her eyes--the fire that he admired in her. He was alone in this, and her firepower, honed and harnessed, he knew he could count on.

"Only if I get to kill her if she refuses."

If the looks she received from the officers as she left with Daly had the power to kill, she would have been stone cold before she saw the outside of the station. His green sedan was something out of Dragnet, and Gali nearly cringed at the smell of its interior. He had apparently been living out of it for awhile.

"So where are we going?"


"That part of the deal too?"

"As much as I would like that, no," he said regretfully. "You need a shower."

"Oh, you noticed. And here I thought the smell of your car would cover mine up."

"Funny. You're a regular comedian, Zero."

"Yeah, I was thinking of quitting the drug business and going on the road. Whadda ya think?"

He smirked. "That was suicidal...what you did in there."

"I know," she said staring out the window.

"You can't die yet, Zero." The engine sputtered and he grimaced.

"No? Why? You want to do it yourself? Get in fuckin' line," she said matter-of-factly.

"Like I said...comedian."

She thought for sure the car wouldn't make it, but surprisingly it got them to the hotel, though motel was more like it.

"You're a classy guy, Daly," Magali harangued as she slammed the creaking door of the car. "This place have mirrors on the ceiling?"

"Probably, but at least no one will look at us too much here." He spat out the toothpick he had been chewing, and tossed her the key. "Go on in. I'm going for a soda."


Magali hated the floral patterns on motel quilts, they reminded her of the curtains that kept light out of her mother's bedroom. She was filthy and she knew it; the itching of her skin was driving her mad for a shower. A simple rotary phone in its cream color on the nightstand stood out from the rest of the dark stained wood furniture.

Have to call Eddie, have him send me some money and let him know I'm alright. Let him know I'm alright? Where the fuck did that come from? I've been hanging out with Martina too long.

She tapped into the long distance access and dialed Eddie's number. The phone rang, she waited; it rang some more, and she hung up. Beeper. What the hell is the number to here? She looked around the phone, finally finding a small scrap of paper with the motel's address and number on it that had fallen off the phone, and dialed Eddie's beeper. Punching in the number of the hotel she added her own code to the end. She waited. Daly returned with his soda and an extra for her; he sat quietly on the edge of one of the beds after turning on the TV.

He never takes this long to call back. What the fuck? Office, maybe he's there. Again she picked up the phone, and called. No answer. It was annoying: whenever she didn't need him, he was all over; when she did, he was nowhere to be found. He should have been a cop. I'm gonna kill him. Maybe Callie knows. It was amazing how she remembered all the numbers. Digits were so much a part of her life that they were simply another language she added to her repertoire. No answer. No answer?

"What the fuck? I go away for a while and everybody goes on fuckin' vacation!" It was a simple case of too many things going wrong that caused her to lift the lamp and smash it against the wall. Daly flinched, but remained silent, watching her stomp into the bathroom.

If I tell her what's going on over there, her mind will be elsewhere. I need her focus...for now.

Grime rolled off her and stained a ring around the tub. She couldn't complain, even if the showerhead was more like a hose; she had grown used to poor plumbing. Towels were always too small in run down motels. She bit down on the stud in her tongue in frustration, using two of the towels to dry herself off. The clothes she had worn were piled on the floor, filthy, and there was no robe. She shrugged and opened the door, walking casually out into the room, water dripping from her hair.

"You're buying me clothes," she demanded, spotting Daly's wallet discarded on the TV set. Judging by his expression, he wouldn't refuse.


Casey had taken to sleeping with Daniel at the foot of the bed, two pets Julia kept snuggled closely while she watched their slumber. They were both fit and tanned from days spent at the pool, enjoying the day as friends and taking the night to entertain her. She had the best of both worlds, and she could choose to delight in them separately or as one. For Julia it was a small price, of almost no consequence at all, to pay to bring back the girl she had known. Soon Daniel's training would be complete, and she would have Casey to herself. Whether or not the younger woman took other diversions was irrelevant. She would be happy, content and a part of Julia's life.

Though the sadness remained a fixture in Casey's emerald eyes, it had become much more common to hear her laughter or her intelligent debate with Daniel over the newest treatments of modern day diseases. Time, Julia thought, is the best of all cures. Slowly it would remove the residue of grime and grit that had been left by Casey's brief affair with the underbelly of society.

Julia flicked the power button on the kitchen TV and poured herself a mug of fresh coffee. Through the window she glanced at the plastic draped wooden skeleton of her would-be guesthouse. Weather had stopped its progress nearly a month earlier, but with the return of the California sun, it had resumed its noisy pace with its scent of sawdust. She enjoyed the early hours, before the house filled with servants and the grounds were abuzz with the labor of men. A creature of routine, she waited for her cook every morning, sipping her dose of caffeine and watching the morning news. She wasn't much for fraternizing with the help; nannies and maids had left their mark on her youth, and she had learned it was best not to befriend any of them. Concha was as close as she got to mingling with the hired help, but the sullen change in the woman's demeanor had put a damper on her mornings for the past two weeks. She had thought it best not to pry, lest the conversation become too intimate.

Daniel padded into the kitchen in bare feet, a white towel knotted around his pelvis. He knelt by Julia and kissed her hand. Then wordlessly rising and getting a glass from the cupboard he poured himself a cup of orange juice from the refrigerator. The young man was always thirsty, as if thieves in the night ritually dehydrated him. Julia smiled to herself; she was the brigand.

"Daniel," she called over the mug, "wake Casey, dear. I think we'll do some shopping today. You two may shower," she said, throwing it over her shoulder like a treat for a dog, and drank from her coffee. "Separately, Daniel. I don't want to waste the day waiting," she added, turning up the volume on the news and leaning forward onto the counter. She had had her fill of them the previous night.

"Yes, Mistress." Daniel softened his voice when he spoke to her. He liked the effect it had on her, and if they were to spend money then it was for the best that she be pleased with him. He was a good boy, and did as he was told.

The cool wood of the floor was smooth under his feet. As a boy he had refused to wear shoes. Running through fields of corn and wheat with the sun warm on his chest and back, a breeze through his careless black hair, and the call of his mother's voice from the porch of the old wooden house were pieces of his fondest childhood memories. He missed the pebbles that stuck between the spaces of his toes and the moist dark soil that clung to his heels. They were soundless memories he kept close and dear, chasing away the specter of his stepfather's belt and the smell of the tool shed behind the house. Within its walls, his tastes for pain and pleasure had been conceived.

Casey's hair hinted to him of the sun on the fields. He could see the upper swell of her breasts just above the edge of a blue sheet, her hair fanned out on the pillow under her head. She tended to grip the blankets in her hands, holding them to her as if they protected her from the night's shades. Her sleep was always peaceful when she slept by him, curled in the blankets and quilts they laid on the floor at the end of Julia's bed. On the occasion that Julia demanded she sleep with her, he often heard Casey's whimpers in the dark. Helpless to give any comfort, he feigned sleep and waited through the hours until the sobs faded. Julia hadn't noticed--she slept heavily, and he didn't dare to ask his friend what it was that tormented her so much. Heathcliff was his only clue, the stuffed green rag of a toy that resembled a frog. It was the name that haunted him, and somewhere under the mass of cloth that had covered them through the night, the toy was hidden. He had felt it rub against the bare skin of his back.

"Casey," he whispered to her, kneeling on the downy rug of the floor. "Wake up, Casey. We're going shopping," he crooned.

She rolled over and covered her head, hiding from the light that filtered through the sheer curtains of the veranda doors. "Danny, only you would be happy to be up at this time on a Saturday," she groaned from under the quilt.

"Shopping," he sang to her teasingly.

"So what? Sleep," she sang back.

"Shopping," he pouted.


"Spending Julia's money," he sang again and waited for Casey's tawny head to reappear and smiled when it did.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and shielded them from the light with a hand, smirking at the half naked man kneeling by her with a goofy grin. "I swear, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were a closeted gay man."

"Me? Nope. Do I have to prove it to you...again?" He leered, closing the distance between them and nipping at her neck.

Casey pushed him away, gently and tenderly as she would a playful puppy. In the dark she could disguise him, make him who she wanted, but in the light of day he was Danny--her friend and companion, a goofy prankster who made her laugh when all she wanted to do was cry. He took her out in the sun, where she could lose her sense of time in his pale blue eyes, and think of other places and times. "Behave, Danny boy. I'm sore enough as it is."

"Where?" he asked, pretending ignorance, and pushing her over on her stomach to straddle her.

She rolled over, his weight not nearly enough to withstand her strength. "Danny," she accused, pointing a finger up at him. "You know perfectly well where, and I thought you wanted to go shopping."

"Shopping," he echoed and jumped off her. "I get the shower first!" he yelled, dashing off for the bathroom and shutting the door behind him.

Casey shook her head and searched under the sheets for Heathcliff. He was stuck under a wad of cloth and she had to pull hard to get him out, but once free, he was in her hands and she held him up to her face. "You would have liked him...I think," she whispered to it. "That's if you didn't try to rip his head off." She smiled, giving the frog a kiss on the nose. "He's nice to me, and he keeps me from being lonely. I know, that's not such a good excuse, huh?" She shrugged. "But in a way, he kind of reminds me of you. More than just the eyes, Baby. He cares for others without thought for himself; you hid that behind that scowl of yours. He's what you were deep down, without all your scars. The ones on the inside. Self sacrificing, self loathing."

It was early enough that the servants hadn't started their duties around the house, and quiet enough for her to hear the crunching of tires on the driveway. Someone was visiting. Nothing unusual, though, she surmised, unexpected--since Julia would not have invited them out if she had other plans. Daniel had closed the door to the bathroom, which meant he either wanted his privacy or Julia had ordered him away from her. Julia would be busy. It gave her excuse to stick her head under the pillow and doze off for a bit longer.

Julia's voice rose in anger, a strange sound Casey couldn't distinguish as a lament or frustration. It stirred her from that place where sleep and wakefulness collided; even Danny popped his head out from the bathroom. His hair stuck up and slanted in all directions, dripping water on his face and bare shoulders.

"What the hell was that?" he asked, peering out from the doorway.

"I don't know. But it's none of our business. If we go check, she'll only get angry that we're interfering without being summoned," Casey assured him from her safe haven on the floor.

"Do you think there's a problem?"

"Nothing she can't handle. It's all right, Danny, trust me. And finish up already so I can get in."

He shrugged and closed the door; she could hear the sink faucet go on and knew that he would be shaving. He was meticulous about his appearance. At times they behaved like siblings. This was one of those times, and she wished he wouldn't take so long. Her bladder was complaining painfully, and she had half a mind to simply throw him out of the bathroom.

California made for strange weather. At night it was all she could do to stay warm under the blankets, even with Daniel's body heat near her. It helped that they slept in the nude. But by daybreak the sun would heat the air and she would begin the process of peeling away the covers. They used enough to cushion the floor so that the pile looked more like a nest then anything else, and as she sat up now, she chose a sheet to wrap around her naked form. The oval mirror caught her image in the makeshift toga, and she wanted to laugh at the reflection. Only the milder acts that happened in the room could be considered Romanesque, despite their excesses; she was sure most of the others were actually illegal in most states and countries. Nero would have been proud.

"Bella!" Daniel yelled, startling her. "My, my, don't we look good in a sheet and nothing else."

"Are you talking about yourself again, Danny? The vanity, geesh," she said. Shaking her head and padding into the bathroom, she let the sheet fall behind her; it earned her a whistle as she closed the door.

Daniel smiled behind her; Casey seemed to be in a good mood. He was grateful for it, as rare as it was, and couldn't help feeling elated at her disposition. It was a bright day, and he intended to enjoy it. No better way than with my two favorite women. Clad only in a pair of dark cotton pants, he drew the curtains and opened the veranda doors. The air was dead, without a breeze or delicate rustle wafting through the leaves of the peach tree. He walked out to the stone platform that circled the house and overlooked the driveway. A green, four-door sedan was parked in front of the house. He thought it odd that whoever was visiting hadn't chosen one of the parking spaces instead. Leaning on the passenger door was, from what he could tell, a rather tall woman.

Her hair was short and curled at the ends. It crowned her face loosely and swirled down her neck. The tips gleamed in the light, as if she had dyed it at one point and then had changed her mind; the rest was the darkest of blacks he had ever seen. The most striking thing about her was the white suit she was wearing, white right down to the button down shirt. If Lucifer could choose an image for himself as female, she would have been it. Thankfully, her shoes weren't white, and he gave her a nod for good fashion sense. He could just make out the shine of silver from the hoop in her eyebrow over the rim of the dark shades she wore. She was smoking a cigarette, nonchalantly looking over the grounds, and pushing back her hair. Her body moved with the grace of a predator, ready to strike out at its prey.

The front door opened, and a man's voice called to her. As she stood away from the car, her blazer fanned open and there was no mistaking the dark butt of a gun at her waist. She looked up as she walked towards the door, and Daniel moved out of her line of vision, a lump of fear in his throat.

He reached for the knob to the bathroom then withdrew his hand, trying to string words together to form a coherent sentence to explain what he had seen to Casey. The woman's presence had been strong enough to send shivers down his spine, and despite the numerous implements he had ever seen in the house, to his recollection there had never been a gun. After the initial shouting he had heard, there had been silence. Nothing else to indicate trouble, but he knew that the quiet could be deceiving.

Casey walked out into the room toweling her hair, and strolled over to the walk-in closet. Expecting to get some commentary from Daniel, as was his custom whenever she paraded around nude, she was disappointed by his lack of a play by play description. It was always good for a laugh or two.

"Are you okay, Danny?" she asked as she searched for a pair of jeans.

"Something's wrong, Casey."

"What?" She picked up a pair she found folded on a shelf and shook it out, holding it against her.

"There's a woman downstairs with a gun."

Casey swallowed down her initial reaction to his flat statement, and sought a plausible explanation other than the one fueled by her hopeless desires. Any one that wouldn't give rise to hopes she knew to be futile. "Police maybe?" she questioned, trying desperately to remain calm. Her heart betrayed her, wildly beating and infuriating her pulse rate so as to make her breathing difficult.

"She didn't look like a cop, Casey."

Not a cop...by the looks of him, not a client either. He's frightened. What could she look like to have given him that expression? "You're letting your imagination run away with you, Danny. I'm sure it's nothing. It could be part of a role-play for all you know." She voiced the words, but her hands shook with the possibilities, and she pulled on the jeans and tore through another pile of clothing looking for a light sweater.

Her hair was still wet when she walked back out. Daniel hadn't moved, his face pale with worry. "If it'll make you feel better, I'll go downstairs and make sure everything's all right."

He nodded his agreement as she opened the door, adding "If you're so sure that nothing is wrong. Why is your voice shaking?" She didn't reply, stepping out quietly into the hallway and softly closing the door to the bedroom behind her. Faint and ungraspable she heard their voices; one was distinctly Julia's. Her bare feet allowed her to walk down the corridor and take the steps soundlessly. If she could avoid being caught peeking in on Julia, she would.

The door to the study was closed, and through its thick wood she could only make out a few words. From what she could understand of the droned syllables Julia was making some sort of arrangements, and although there was an incensed note to her voice there didn't seem to be any danger. She listened for a woman's voice, but heard only an unidentified male's and Julia's, and so turned to tip toe away. A deep thud she had heard on more than one occasion coming from the study halted her step. Julia was angry and banging her fist against the top of her desk, but the barrage that followed made her blood run cold.

Daly had called her into the house, and the weight of the gun at her hip called to her. On the way over he had given her scant information: Christopher was pandering to the vices of incumbent Senators, then netting them in and forcing their retirement. Making room for like-minded individuals who would fill the Congressional ranks and pass stiffer laws for first time offenders and longer sentences for repeaters. At first glance, this would see, to hold the most attraction for the true "law and order" faction. However, it would actually have the opposite effect. Felons couldn't vote, and prisoners were counted in the census as residents of the counties where they were being held, and wealthy crime lords would pay higher fees to keep themselves and their workers from indictment. The advantage of the new laws was that they would eventually create more money for certain counties, and that meant there was more for the taking. Money, as always, made the world go 'round; Julia, Winslow's connection to the politicians, serviced many of them as her clientele and gave him the hold that he needed. She could also be the weak link in his chain, and Daly wanted Bajo Zero to help him exploit that possibility. Standing outside, she heard the workers hauling materials and banging away at what would be a guesthouse, the same edifice she had helped to begin. She knew the young man watching her from the veranda. He thought she hadn't seen him, but her eyes were quicker than his body.

A fear rumbled in her, cramping her insides and tying her in knots. Her scowl kept it at bay. The dread built when she entered the house and walked through the foyer towards the study. Somewhere, Casey was standing, or sitting, alive and doing very well without her. Magali knew, if she saw her she would crumble. Rejection she could take from anyone else; but Casey's would destroy her.

Seeing Julia sitting at her desk with her unshakable air of sovereignty made her want to vomit, or shoot the woman, whichever came first. The blonde sneered at her. The look only made her shake her head; Magali had felt more threatened by a five year old.

"She doesn't want you," were the first words out of Julia's mouth. Magali did not respond, merely wandered over to the window, wondering if she threw the woman through it how much damage that could cause.

"That's not what she's here for, Winslow."

"Call me Julia, Mister Daly. All my enemies do," she replied, cocking her head. "What is she here for then?"

"You mix with the right people, she mixes with the wrong people, all corrupt, all on my list. I know there has been some...sour business between you, but considering both of your positions...it serves both of your interests to call a truce."

"She tried to kill me," Julia objected flatly.

"You're incredibly lucky she didn't succeed. Exactly how did you manage that? I'm curious." He reached in his pocket and produced a toothpick; the man was addicted to them.

"Casey clobbered me on the head. Knocked me out," Magali murmured from where she rigidly stood.

Seeming to come to Casey's defense, Julia jumped in. "Only because she realized how much of a worthless animal you are."

Magali spun from the window and pounded her hands on the top of Julia's desk; she hovered over the woman, making a point of being menacing. "You're right, okay," Magali spat through her teeth. "She's better off with you, than she is with me! I'm an animal, worthless, whatever you fuckin' say...just remember bitch, you're in the same pen with me now, and here, I'm top dog."

"That's the same temper that drove her away from you. You should learn to control it." Julia grinned; it reminded Magali of a hyena.

Still, she knew it for the truth. It had been the very same poison that had cast Casey away from her, and she would be damned if she would make the same mistake twice. Jealousy stampeded through her the way Spanish rolled off her tongue. "This temper keeps me alive...it could have the opposite effect on you."

"You expect me to work with this? You're insane, Mister Daly."

"Just plain Daly is fine. If I were you, I would learn to placate her. I don't completely control her. You're in a cage with a lioness, Julia. Play nice."

"A lioness, you say? Don't trainers use whips?" She arched her eyebrow at Magali. "I can handle one if necessary."

"So I've heard," Magali retorted, walking away from the desk.

Julia considered the implications and decided her control of Casey gave her a definite advantage. "She likes it, you know. You can't do for her what I can."

"I don't want to do for her, you stump! You've got her, so stop gloating." The tone was tight and filled with threat


Daly shot glances at both women, his jaw clenching and working as if he were swallowing down a bitter fruit. Both women were strong enough to poison a man with just their looks, and each was equally menacing in her own way. Standing by the bay window, with her hands in the pockets of her new suit, Magali's glare threatened to pierce through him. After making a few fruitless phone calls from his room, she had become frustrated and destroyed the lamp on the night table, her legendary temper well-founded in fact. She had showered then and, dripping water across the rug as she made her way to his wallet in the buff, extracted his credit card. Her shopping spree had been short and decisive, a perfect example of how she lived the rest of her life.

They should make this part of the Academy's entrance examination. If anyone can survive with these two in a room, and not have them turn on each other...or whoever is in there with them...

"I'm not working with her, Daly. Just put my ass back in jail."

"Easy now, you two won't really have to see each other at all." The man's voice was cajoling, intended to pacify.

"Fuck that! Are you out of your fuckin' mind!"

"On this, I agree with her!" Julia spat out through her teeth, standing from her leather office chair and leaning over the desk.

"You're both blowing this out of proportion. We need to establish a clear connection between these people, and you two are the only ones who have any chance of pulling it off," he nearly pleaded.

"Pull this, Daly," Magali barked, flipping him off.

"I wouldn't quite use that gesture, but-"

"As if either of you had a choice! Let's remember the situation here and-"

"Can it, Daly. We'll finish this another time," Magali said, walking past him to the door, swallowing the hungry need to indulge the rage that begged her for release. Images of Casey's body intertwined with Julia's had invaded her mind when she had first laid eyes on the woman. The mention of the whip had not improved matters any. The knob substituted for the needed feel of a gun in her hand.

Fine doors and fine locks make scarcely a noise when they are well taken care of, but hinges always squeal. When Magali stepped out into the foyer, her nightmares became reality. Had heaven opened and all its angels broken loose, the shock of it would not have resulted in a more pallid expression then the one on Casey's face. Panicked confusion drained the color from her lips, and Magali would have sworn the woman was about to faint, had it not been for the flush of angry color that suddenly suffused her cheeks.

"Casey." Magali swallowed; her stomach spasmed. The door clicked closed behind her.

"I'm better off with her?! You don't want to do for me?! What am I a trading card?!" Casey yelled.

Magali recoiled from the verbal lashing. This encounter she had not wanted to happen, though it was worth her life to see her Saint again. "I deserved that. I'm sorry, Casey. I shouldn't have come here. I knew you didn't want to see me. Now, I've only made things worse...for myself."

Knowing that the next words could shatter or bind her forever, Magali rigidly held on to herself for whatever shock was about to pass her way. One hint of rejection from your lips and I die right here. Casey's eyes had locked with hers, and she couldn't, for all the power she could muster, tear away from the stare. People walked, but her Saint floated on unseen clouds that brought her closer, and froze Magali where she stood. When the open palm slapped her face and flung the sunglasses she had perched on her head across the floor, ice solidified in her veins and chilled her from within. Casey had struck her with an angry hand guided by tearful eyes, emeralds in an ocean. She absorbed the heat of the blow, the stinging of her skin and the sour taste it left her with. Julia laughed at something Daly said from inside the study, a sick low chuckle that bit right into her very self; but lips that would have viciously responded to the sound were busy being devoured and sanctified by her Saint's kiss. The searing, desperate and seeking, drew her downward into the embrace and warmth of Casey's body; her hands came free and gripped fiercely onto her dearest hope. Eternity made real and tangible. Small hands smoothed out the lapels of her jacket, touching her with uncertainty and the care given to fragile things.

"I didn't want to see you? I...do you have any idea, the hell I've been through?" Casey touched her face, the angry print of her hand glowing on Magali's cheek. "What in the world would make you think I didn't want to see you? What, Gali?"

"I...I saw you. You were laughing by the pool. And later...I followed you. You seemed happy." The shrug was self-effacing, and it broke Casey's heart.

Casey hung her head, the color in her cheeks there from humiliation rather than anger. "I thought you were dead." Then the import of her lover's words struck her. "You've been watching me? Why didn't you call to me? Why didn't you come..."

"Dead? Why would you think I was dead? Because I didn't come? No...I...I violated parole, just to be near you. I was only waiting to get cleared, Casey. I didn't want you on the run with me," she hurriedly explained.

"But I saw a news tape, your car blew up; and Jesse has Devi."

"That's how I violated, but I survived that, and yeah, Jesse has Devi, I've been away for over a month. Who showed you the tape?"

Casey's eyes narrowed; they pierced through the wood of the study door, as if seeing through it towards where Julia's desk sat. The door swung open then, and Daly walked out into the hall, Julia smiling behind him. Apparently, he had won her over, but her grin faded when she realized that her hidden fear had come to pass and the truth of her deception was known.

Magali felt the true weight of loss when Casey tore away from her; chest heaving and nostrils flared, the gaze of wrath fell on Julia. "You made me think she was dead! You bitch!" Casey hissed, and lunged at the taller blonde. Julia backed away, nearly colliding with the wall behind her.

"It was for the best, Casey." Julia retorted. "She admits it herself, she's not the sort of person you want to be involved with," she added, pointing a finger at Magali.

The language behind Casey's stance was feral and raw, and Magali smirked, crossing her arms at her chest. "Like you are?" she chortled, taking pleasure in Casey's outrage; the tables had turned. I love it when that happens.

"Stay out of this. We can do without any of your brilliant commentary," Julia spat at her, then softening her tone, smiled at the angry blonde aiming for her jugular. "Casey, let's talk about this like civilized people. Can't you see what her mere presence does to you? For God's sake, you're a step away from the trailer, around her."

"Julia...I'd rather spend the rest of my life in an RV with her, than be in a palace with you for another minute. Can't you see how fake everything around you is? You force everything into an image you create, rather than love it for what it really is. You don't love me. You love your perception of me. You deceived me-- and it didn't even matter to you what it would do to me. Did it? Did it?" Casey yelled, her timber becoming increasingly agitated as she spoke.

Daly stood motionless; the hairs on the nape of his neck rose to the subtle movement adjacent to him. The motions of Magali's body always either excited or chilled him, and in such a situation, he feared what her hands would do. It was awe, he realized, that ran through him; the ruthless killer he knew so well wore a different face on her approach to the outraged blonde. The hands she laid on Casey's shoulders, tools often used to unleash chaos, settled gently, with comforting intentions. Tenderly, the tall woman drew Casey towards her and, with her chest pressed to her back, lowered her head and whispered soft words into Casey's ear.

Low and sweet the sounds brushed the skin of her neck, shelter against the storm that brewed violently within her. "You are your own, Baby. Beautiful, true, and real. She didn't trick you...without you, I am dead." Casey's body relaxed upon hearing the words, spoken by a voice she thought would never again grace the air. Bringing her hands up to touch the fingertips resting on her shoulders, she shut her eyes and took in a long breath. "Gali, please take me home."

"Whatever you say, Baby," Magali uttered gently, taking Casey by the hand.

Julia didn't take loss well; it made her vindictive and spiteful, and she let it control her. "Your Zero, Mister Daly, seems to have a taste for used goods..."

Casey's body stiffened next to Magali. She could feel the tension in her dark lover's hand, and she stopped in her tracks.

Not noticing the coiling power presaging a cobra-strike, Julia struck out blindly in retaliation, biting her lower lip. "Oh, don't worry...she enjoyed every minute of it."

When Magali turned to face Julia, Casey instinctually hid behind her, Magali's words and their tone stinging. "Watch your fuckin' mouth. I doubt she'll even try to save you this time."

Julia shook off the threat, waving her hand in dismissal of it. "Oh, well see there...good intentions are always misread. I was only going to give you some simple advice...You really should learn to use a whip...She writhes under its touch."

Magali shrugged. "I tried," she breathed and landed an uppercut to Julia's jaw that flung her crashing into the wall, knocking down a painting that hung there.

Daniel didn't know what to make of it. The yelling had brought him down from his hiding place, and no one had noticed when he entered. His Mistress flew against the wall, grabbing her jaw as she slumped to the ground. Lucifer was beating on Julia and was now taking Casey. With no thought for what he might actually accomplish, he raced down the stairs towards the intruder, screaming as he did.

Magali saw him out of the corner of her eye; a running figure headed straight for her with obviously malignant intentions. She whipped her blazer open and grabbed for the gun, holding it out towards the young man and sneering.

"No!" Casey yelled, charting an interception course with Daniel.

Déjà vu. Casey protecting a young man from her, from her gun. Pressure on the trigger, her finger squeezed, her anger pouring into her hand. Casey's back was towards her, and a hair's breadth away from firing she pulled back, watching her Saint hug the man and pull him away whispering in his ear. He looked as if he were about to cry. Glancing over at her his mouth formed the name "Heathcliff." Casey let go of him, giving him a kiss on the cheek and extended her hand out to Magali.


She pushed the gun back into the waistband of her pants, and took the outstretched hand. They walked out the front door, Daniel staring at their backs until the door closed and the light of the sun they walked into disappeared.

"Daniel, I think it's time you went to your Master," Julia said, rubbing her jaw and standing to her feet.

He nodded, and turned for the stairs. He didn't have much to pack, but he wanted the frog to be among his belongings when he left.


Daly hadn't been happy about putting more money on his credit card. Magali had spent a large amount of his line on her suit, but there had been little he could do to stop her, and he didn't exactly want to share a room with the reunited lovers. With a little legwork and some indulging, he would finally be able to connect the pictures on his graph at home. Years of work would pay off, and then he could seriously start the business of bringing down the Blue Gauntlet. It made him happy, even if he knew that the body he had lusted after for years would be sharing her bed with another. After all, she had been little more than a child when he had first been assigned to her. It was a strange twist of luck, that out of all the agents and assignments working towards the same end, his had hit pay dirt. Who would have thought that the common street hustler he had griped about being handed would be the one with the key to bring it all tumbling down? He had felt sorry for her at first, he knew well her situation; but as the years passed, the young con had grown from a victim into a menace. A public enemy number one that was a part of a vicious food chain he was sworn to put an end to. He settled down for one of the two pies of pizza they had ordered-more precisely, a half of a pie, since Magali had commandeered the rest.

She's probably not even eating it...Probably...No, don't think about that. It'll do you no good.

The TV in their room had a small dial radio that if played with enough eventually tuned in to some station. Magali fidgeted in front of the bathroom mirror, listening to the sounds of faint music filtering in from the room. Her Saint waited there, along with a pie and a half she no longer had an appetite for. She pushed back the length of hair that had grown since she had shorn it all off. It was awkward, and though Casey hadn't said a word about it, she had fingered it curiously on their way to the motel. It took a few seconds for the water from the faucet to warm, and she splashed some on her face; her cheek still stung from Casey's slap.

I can't believe she's here...with me, not Julia. Me. Damn, I've done so much...would she forgive me? Would I? Thankfully the blue marks of her veins had faded. Only small scars where the skin had broken remained. If she was careful, Casey might not ever notice.

Casey, waiting for her, was experiencing her own moments of insecurity. What's taking her so long? She was watching me. I wonder how much she saw. God...I should just tell her. What if she turns me away? Would she have brought me with her if she knew?

The bed canted downward in one corner. Casey sat on the fuzzy yellow blanket Magali had uncovered when she pulled the bedspread off. The wallpaper matched it, but Casey was unsure if that was because of its age, or by design. Nervously, she cleaned under her nails, though they were immaculate. She still wore the collar Julia had claimed her with months before, and she hoped Magali had brought her knife so she could cut the thing off her neck.

A strange light cast a square beam of yellow light onto the carpet when Magali opened the bathroom door. She had taken her blazer off and detached the gun from her waist, leaving it on the nightstand by the bed. It made Casey tense.

"I thought maybe you drowned in there."

"Huh? No, I..ah...You hate it right?" Magali queried apprehensively, running her fingers through her hair.

"Your hair? It's...something different. Did you dye it?"

Magali nodded and frowned, rubbing the strands of her hair as if that would make it grow. Casey walked to her, a small grin on her face.

"Oh, Honey. I'm just not used to it. But if you want to wear it like that..."

"No, I just kinda cut it to...you know...hide, I guess."

"Then don't worry about it," Casey said, sliding her hand down the middle of Magali's chest. "It'll grow back. What I really want to know, is...why the hoop?"

"Hoop?" She followed her Saint's eyes, and touched the piercing in her eyebrow, suddenly remembering the piece of jewelry she had become accustomed to. "You mean this?"

Casey nodded, and Magali averted her eyes, padding instead over to the dining table where the pizza box waited.

"It's umm...would you believe me if I said I didn't remember how it got there?" That was the truth, she didn't; at least, she didn't remember getting pierced.

"Sure I would, though I really don't know if I want to know why you don't remember. You broke your promise...didn't you?" Like I should be pressing this issue right now. "Drugs, Gali?"

She had opened the box, but decided she really didn't want any and, keeping her eyes to the ground, sat on the bed.

"There are some things you should know, Casey. Then...if you want to leave, I won't stop you," Magali said self-effacingly, and patted the mattress next to her. "You should sit."

Casey complied, frightened by the tone Magali had used. A long moment of silence made her guts tighten; Magali was preparing herself as if her confession were mortal, and it only made Casey feel worse about what she too would have to tell.

"I didn't tell you exactly the whole truth about that car accident. Callie and Eddie told me what happened that night, and when I woke up the next morning, I tried to get to you. But...there was something wrong with the Jeep, and I noticed too late. I was going too fast, and the wheel locked on me. I was hurt...badly, and I was unwilling to get any real help, because I knew the violation of speeding would have gotten me locked up again." Casey shuffled closer to her, laying a hand on her lap as she listened. "Callie had to cut me open and pull a rib away from my lung."

Casey cringed and cleared her throat. "It was pressing?" she questioned, understanding the gravity of what they had done as only a student of medicine would.

"Yeah. We didn't have any anesthesia or anything, so...Callie used the only thing she could to kill the pain, and then she kept me on it for too long afterwards to keep me from feeling anything, then to keep me from suffering from not having it."

"What was it?" Casey asked, knitting her brow.

Magali undid the button of her sleeve, and rolled up the cuff, showing Casey her forearm and the small scars dotting it. "Heroin."

"You got hooked?" Casey whispered gravely.

She nodded, head low as she did.

Casey trailed her fingers softly over the healed tracks. "How did you...?" Her voice drifted off.

"Cold. I had to get to you, and I knew if I could pull through the first few days I would be all right."

"That could have killed you. I can't say it was smart, but that first shot probably kept you from bleeding to death."

"You're not mad?"

"No," she said, wrapping her arm around Magali's waist.

Might as well keep this going. "The night I went after Julia...I was stoned that night and I...you-"

"I know, and I know what you thought. Nelson had made you think I brought Julia to the apartment, that must have...driven you insane. I should have told you what was going on." Casey shook her head, clearing the 'what-could-have-should-have-beens.'

"I don't care about that anymore. Stupid jealousy! I almost lost you because I-"

"Gali, I...you might know already, but...when I was with her, here in L.A...I-"

"Doesn't matter," Magali interrupted. "Whatever you did...go along, to get along."


"It's no different from anything I've done. Sometimes you have to do shit, just because it's what you have to. And even if you see a different way in retrospect, it wasn't there when you needed it, so it doesn't make much of a difference. Don't you get it? All I care about is having you by my side...and, if you had done anything that would have...If Julia had hurt you, even if you wanted to be with her...nothin' would have stopped me from killing her. Besides, it's not like you wanted...whatever. You didn't have a choice."

Casey's hand fell away; her eyes grew solemn and dark. Magali brought a finger under Casey's chin and, gently, made her face her. "Heart and soul, Baby. As long as those belong to me completely, nothing you've done could take my love away from you."

But I wanted, Gali. I wanted to lose myself in his embrace, his eyes, to put you away from my mind so that your ghost wouldn't torment me in my waking hours. Casey didn't give voice to her confession, its bitter taste leeching the energy she needed to speak it.

"Do they? Do they belong to me, Casey?" Please God, let her say yes.

Casey grinned, a gesture that trembled when tears streamed down her face. Her words were punctuated with gasping breaths. "One...hundred...percent."

Magali had waited light years, it seemed, to have her lips, to feel her Saint's mouth pressed against hers and take in the warmth that was her Saint. "Siempre te adorare, mi vida. La mia por la tuya." She could taste the salt of her tears as they kissed, and she wrapped her arms around the smaller woman, trying to convey with her body what her words could never express with any semblance of equity to what she felt. My everything, always I'll adore you. My life for yours.

The touch was how she had envisioned it night after night. Loving and passionate, it took her spirit and mind. Magali undressed her with gentle hands that simultaneously commanded and pleaded for access to her skin. Her fingertips left the tingle of lightning in their wake, pleasant shocks that ran through her unfettered. Her Black Velvet's mouth worshipped her, taking slow samples of her body; her tears retreating before her groans. Naked and supine her back arched when long fingers entered her easily through her slick folds, Black Velvet feasting on her breasts. She choked on her breath, her lungs on fire from the heat of Magali's closeness, and she clawed at the broad, muscular shoulders.

When hungry lips trailed a path down her stomach and along the insides of her thighs, she moaned out in relief. It was real, not an illusion she'd created; Black Velvet devoured her, her tongue caressing the hardened nub that recognized its long awaited petitioner.

Deeply, Magali's fingers dove into her, riding her with a rhythm that matched her racing pulse. She drank from her Saint's nectar, an oasis in a desert, saving her life and giving her sustenance. Magali felt Casey tremble, her muscles contracting around her fingers as she stroked the delicate skin inside her. Her release was explosive, and Casey's groans filled the air as her clit hardened further and thrummed against her tongue.

Casey sat up, reaching for her, exploring her mouth with her tongue, frantically conquering. She felt for the buckle of Magali's belt, quickly undoing it. When she was naked from the waist down, her Black Velvet latched onto her. Laying on her back and pulling Casey onto her. Magali pushed her center against Casey's thigh, stroking her back and gripping her ass to push in harder. She opened her eyes, desiring nothing more than to look into her Saint's eyes as she rode the waves of ecstasy her body was sending forth. Blonde strands of hair fell around her face, enclosing them in a veil of gold, leaving her breathless. She flung her head back, her body becoming weightless in the gust of heaven that rushed in on her. Nothing could bring her closer to flying.

Magali blanketed her lover with her arms, pulling her down to cover her own body and kiss her first breath into her mouth.

"I love you, Casey. I'm torn apart without you."

"I can love no other; you have me, and everything you want from me."

While Magali slept, Casey ran her hand along her body; the loss of weight wasn't difficult for her to notice. She followed the lines of the tattooed word across her stomach, 'SIN'. You sure are, Honey, and when I go to hell, I'll spend my time there with a smile. She cuddled in to her, and Magali threw her arm around her shoulders in her sleep, bringing her closer. With the scent of her Black Velvet near, and warmed through by the heat of her body, Casey let sleep take her.

The smell of something burning woke her with a start, and a soft hand caressed her hair as Casey's eyes opened to the sight of her Black Velvet's thigh under her head. Magali was sitting up in bed, smoking and staring off into space. She, apparently, had acquired the use of her leg as a pillow. The white shirt Magali had worn and slept in, too eager to have her Saint to have taken it off, was unbuttoned. White cotton draped her shoulders and fell to her sides, exposing her torso in an erotic framing of her form. Even relaxed as she was, the danger promised by her appearance was piercing. Casey let her eyes wander over Magali's body, inspecting her newest tattoo in the light and noticing the freshest addition of scars to her body. There was a deep, wide scar just under her right breast, and Casey touched it lightly, tracing its path.

"Did you sleep well?" Magali asked, stroking her neck and back.

"Like a baby," Casey answered in the raspy voice of waking. "Was this it? From the accident?"

Magali nodded and took a pull from her cigarette, flicking the ashes into the square clear ashtray on the night table. "Jesse tried to fix up the stitches as best she could. Still left too wide of a scar."

Casey nuzzled her leg, and sighed. "And the tattoo? When did you get that?" The last time they had been together their bodies had danced in the dark, and she had been too consumed with her Black Velvet's return to focus on anything other than the ecstasy of the night.

"Prison...I was in one of my...moods." Magali shrugged, finished the cigarette and tamped it out.

Casey continued her exploration, noting a healed puncture wound on her side. "This wasn't here before."

"Stabbed, when I was up in Bedford."

"Stabbed? Who would be-"

"It was on purpose. I had someone do it so I could get into the infirmary and steal those papers Daly needed."

"On purpose?" Casey repeated, shaking her head. "I don't know what's worse--what you do on your own, or what Daly has you do."

Magali slid down and lay on her back, pulling Casey towards her. "When this is over...with Daly, I'm leaving."

Delighted, Casey sat up at her side. "Really?"

Magali held up a hand and pressed her lips together. "Don't go jumping for joy, hear me out first. I'm tired of the hustle, but it's what I do best. I own some land, in Latin America...big plantation. The towns around it..." she explained making a circle with her finger, "they live off the work I give them-- schools, hospitals, you name it. I only go there once a year, and no one knows about it. But it's beautiful, and the government leaves me alone. There are mountains everywhere, huge and green, ice capped, and the sun is always shining." Magali's face lit up as she spoke, and Casey buried her head in her shoulder to listen. "No shootings, no one goes hungry...people there die of old age. When I'm done with Daly...I'm going there, and I want you to come with me."

Casey rubbed her stomach; her ribs showed a bit more than she liked. "You said it's a plantation. What kind of plantation?"

Magali sighed; there was always a down side to everything. "It supplies my businesses in New York and a quarter of the East Coast. I get more money from it than anything I run in the States."

Casey lowered herself, and kissed her lips. "I don't care where we go, as long as I'm with you." She looked into Magali's smile and narrowed her eyes. "What am I supposed to do there?"

"Do? You're a doctor, woman. You can go to work like everyone else. God knows they need every little bit of help they can get down there. Most doctors leave for the States where they can make more money."

"I'm not a doctor yet, Gali."

"You will be," she said, her smile widening. Take that Julia.

A banging on the door interrupted anything that could have been, and Magali growled as she got up to open it, grabbing her gun as she did. With the door a jar, she saw it was Daly, busy chewing on yet another toothpick, and opened the door enough for him to see her. His jaw dropped momentarily before he gathered his composure.

"This is becoming a habit. Not that I mind, but are you ever dressed?"

"What do you want?" she rumbled.

"I hate to break up the reunion, but we need to get back east. Get dressed and I'll fill you in."

She slammed the door and shrugged at Casey, who was hiding herself under the sheet. "Life's a bitch, and so's Daly."


He was sipping his coffee watching the lot of the motel across the street for Magali and Casey to emerge from their room. In front of him was his plate of half-eaten pancakes and scrambled eggs; he would have given anything for a decent bagel. She was easy to spot wearing all white, but then Magali Guerrero rarely hid, the past few weeks being the exception. Even as a youth she had made a point of letting people seeing her do her dirty work; Daly always thought it self-destructive of her. Casey seemed out of place next to her in simple jeans and a cotton blouse that made her look a peasant next to Bajo Zero; though she made a beautiful one at that. He had a few pictures of her in his collection.

When they walked in, every head turned to watch them, especially the tall woman who looked every inch a hit man and capable of the deed. Someone dropped a fork.

Magali waved Casey in first, then took the end of the bench in the booth where Daly was sitting, making sure she had a clear view of the door. Grease and frying bacon scented the diner, and the incessant ringing of the cook's bell calling to the one waitress added to the noise of the place.

"Okay, Daly. Spill it," Magali ordered, no nonsense as always.

"Aren't you hungry?" Daly asked, playing with the cold eggs on his plate.

Casey gave her a weary look, having already made a few passing comments about her weight. Magali snatched the fork from his hand and slid his plate over, took a few hasty bites of what was left and swallowed them down with his coffee.

"Happy?" she asked sarcastically into Daly's aghast expression.

The waitress came by them, huffing her annoyance over yet another customer at a table she had already had trouble with. Daly was a picky eater.

"Can I get you anything?" the woman asked, her eyes focused only on the pad in her hand. Magali cleared her throat and gazed out the window, ignoring the woman, while Casey spoke to her.

"Do you have fruit?"

"What kind?"

"Honey dew melon, strawberries?"

"Nope. How about some oatmeal?"

"I don't want oatmeal."

"It's good for you, take the oatmeal," the waitress encouraged.

"But I don't want it." The woman was beginning to annoy even the patient Casey.

"It's-" she began, only to have an angry Magali lean close and hiss at her.

"She said she doesn't fuckin' want it." The metal stud on Magali's tongue caught a gleam of light as she spoke.

"How about what he's having?" Casey amended, feeling the roils of tension radiating from her lover.

Without a word the woman jotted it down on her pad and walked away as fast as she could. Casey breathed in relief.

"She's gone, Daly. Now talk," Magali said, leaning back and throwing an arm around Casey, giving the diner a once over. Any funny looks they would have received were shot down by her stare.

"New York's gone crazy," he said pointedly.

"So what else is new? It's always nuts there."

"Not like this, Zero. Your...friend...Eddie...he's locked up, everyone thinks you're dead, and...every goon who thinks he has balls is vying for your spot."

Magali chewed on the inside of her lip; it was her fifteenth year all over again: war in the streets, blood running in the gutters, the city out of control. "What is it with everyone and me being dead, huh? So what am I supposed to do, Daly? Rein it all back in for you?"

"As much as I hate to admit this...without you at its head, there's more violence and more innocents dying than with you in charge. As long as there's corruption in the force and hungry people, this shit continues, whether or not it's you doing it."

"Can we get him out?"


"Eddie, you dolt. Can we get him out?"

"If you can scrounge the money for his bail, sure. But from what I hear, you're broke. All your distribution centers are in the hands of other dealers; your brother is soaking up anything that's left over; the Gauntlet and every other corrupt cop are fighting over funds. There's nothing for you to scrape up. Pardon the expression, but you're at ground zero. Still, I don't know anyone else who would be able to make it happen."

The waitress arrived just then with a heaping plate of pancakes, eggs and a few slices of bacon, and put it in front of Casey. Magali smiled, took a piece of the smoky meat and, popping it in her mouth, began to laugh.

"Oh, this is going to be fun," she said, licking her lips. Casey choked on a morsel. "How are we getting back?"

"There's a flight out tonight, I booked both of you on it." He passed her an envelope and gave her a nod.

"Fine. See you in New York, Daly," she finished, saluting him, and he took it as her final words. After he left, she watched Casey eat, occasionally taking bites from her plate. Dark coils wound themselves within her. Her Saint would have a rough ride, before they would have any peace.

It would take Casey some time to get used to her again, the way she moved in obscure circles. Magali kept things to herself, spoke in code over the phone, constantly looked the street over for anyone approaching in a strange or suspicious manner. She was different in public; she wore her robes and title as proudly as any nobility, cut-throat royalty on the seams of society. As Casey watched her talk on the public phone, perpetually moving and scanning, she admitted to herself that there was an attraction to it all for her. That her tall, dark lover held death by the hand and led it wherever she desired, danced with the devil in the moonlight, commanded minions motivated by greed and blood-thirst, all for some good only her blue eyes saw, was an intoxicant all its own.

Daly had left, leaving them on foot, but not for long. A few phone calls later, and a trip to a Western Union, coupled with a back room conversation with a rental car agent, and they were moving. Casey giggled at the prospect of Magali offering the agent a 'deal he couldn't refuse.' Magali preferred her vehicles big, Casey realized, when they left the agency in a Ford Explorer. They made their way through LA traffic, through streets Casey didn't recognize, and towards neighborhoods Julia had warned her to stay away from; with Magali, everything rode on the edge. Clean streets and majestic buildings turned into broken down houses barely standing on their foundations, and old telephone poles lining the warped sidewalks. Casey looked out to the faces that walked the streets and congregated in crowds on corners and stoops. These were the workers Julia haphazardly employed.

Magali parked the car in front of a small fenced-in house with a toy-littered yard. Shirtless men across the street spat and eyed the vehicle. They made Casey nervous. She heard them whoop and cheer when her lover opened the door and stood out in the street, throwing her hands up in the air with some sort of sign her fingers made.

"Macha!" they cried out, and Casey wondered exactly how many names her lover was known by.

"Orale, Vatos," Magali shouted at them, and looking back, spoke quickly to Casey before shutting the door. "Stay here, you'll be alright inside the car."

The boys were making a big deal of her homecoming, and Magali was almost worried that they would start firing guns into the air and scare Casey half to death. She shook hands with some of them, giving a short explanation she made up of how she was out on bail and the suit was her 'court suit.' They bought it all, her story not an uncommon one among them.

"Hijole, Macha!" she heard from the porch of the house, and turned just in time to see Martina run through the yard and then throw herself on her. "You're alright! We looked everywhere for you. Shit, we must have gone to four different police stations looking for you. They didn't have any records or anything, Cabrone. Where the hell have you been?"

Magali pried her off, furtively directing her eyes towards the car and the person inside it.

"The girl?"

Magali nodded. "It's a long story, Marti, and I don't have time to tell you, but-"

"Good, then maybe she'll give me a hand in fucking you up, Macha!" Martina yelled and began to rail down on her with open and backhanded slaps.

"What the...? Marti, stop!" Magali yelled, ducking the woman's blows.

"I told you, Macha...if you brought it into my house, I would kill you."

The boys laughed until she glared at them, grabbing Martina's flailing hands.

"What are you talking about?" she spat.

"Joker. He's in his room right now, probably shooting up, the bastard."

"No," Magali whispered, and clenched her jaw. She had known he was dabbling, had meant to talk to him after the funeral, put him straight before it was too late. "I'll fix it, Marti. I swear."

"You better," she barked, struggling against Magali's hold.

Casey rolled the window down and poked her head through, confusion written across her face. "Everything all right, Gali?" She wasn't sure she liked the beating Magali was getting from the strange woman.

Martina stopped fighting and gave her a quizzical look. "Gali?"

"Magali Guerrero, Marti. That's my name...my real name."

Martina froze. Stock still, she flinched inwardly. "I know that name. My man kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, he...Bajo Zero." She whispered the pseudonym as if saying it too loud would call hell forth.

"That's right, Marti. And now...your brother's about to find out, too."

Miguelito ran to her from where he had been playing, and Magali picked him up and kissed his forehead. "Keep him out here," she commanded, and handing him over to Martina, stomped through the yard and into the house.

It was quiet; the scent of cleaning solvents and baby lotions perfumed the house. Martina hadn't started cooking yet. She felt the burden of the furious woman's change in expression; the look in her eyes had transformed into fear--the same look everyone else looked at her with, everyone but her Saint-- and it injured something inside her. A newly formed artery was severed then, and its bleeding emptied her of the sense of belonging the family had given her. A feeling she had lost once before when she found herself alone and in a courtroom, surrounded by strangers, silently crying out for a familial face.

Joker's room was the furthest back, and through the closed door she could hear the music he was playing. She didn't knock, simply pushing the door open and walking in. He barely moved from where he was splayed over the bed. A quick glance around the room, and she spotted what she was searching for. The large, clear bag of powder she had lifted from the drug dealer the night they had robbed him laid openly on his dresser. At the time it hadn't occurred to her to ask what they would do with the drugs--she was only interested in the money-- and now she kicked herself for it. Pinching her fingers along the plastic locking seal over the top of the bag, she closed it and wandered over to the bed where Joker had yet to recognize her. She dangled it over his face.

"You like this shit, motherfucker?"

He made to grab for it, but his movements were sluggish and she snatched it out of his reach. "Hey," he drawled out. "Gimme that, Vata."

"I ain't giving you shit. This...is going in the toilet, and you...are going to a rehab."

The boy shook his head, the side of his mouth dripping with drool. The beast stirred inside her, and she kicked the bed before walking out of the room. In the bathroom across from his room, Magali lifted the lid of the toilet and undid the bag, pouring it carefully into the bowl so as not to let any of the crystalline powder fall to the floor. Joker would try to sweep it up. She almost lost her balance and crashed into the wall when Joker jumped on her back, desperately trying to grab the bag away from her. She threw back an elbow, flinging him off of her and continued her disposal of the lethal drug. It floated on the water in small clumps before dissolving into the liquid and disappearing.

Joker roared behind her and charged at her again, aiming for the bag. Quickly she turned to ward him off, and her abrupt movement made the bag in her hand swing uncontrollably. White powder briefly clouded the air and Magali cursed when she felt it hit her face and coat Joker's chest. She threw a fist, a quick jab that put an end to Joker's fight, then wiped her face. There was no mistaking the bitter taste in her mouth, the tickle of it in her nostrils, the sting in her eyes, and she dropped the rest of the bag's contents in the toilet before it could take hold of her. Her heart raced and her face went numb, the room seethed and wavered under her feet.

"God damn it," she hissed and held onto the wall. It would be over soon, the initial flow of the drug into her system, and then the euphoria would settle.

"Macha? Shit! Macha!" Martina cried, putting her shoulder under Magali's arm and holding her up. "What the fuck happened?"

"It sprayed...I breathed some in." She was panting, her gut warming to the feel of the intoxicant. "Just get me to the couch, Marti. I'll...be alright in a few minutes."

"Joker," Martina gasped.

"He'll be fine...I just knocked...him out."

They got to the couch, and Martina helped her slump into it, a smile creeping onto Magali's face.

"Your girl. What's her name? Let me get her."

"No!" Magali heaved. "Tell her...I'll be right out. Keep her outside...Just give me a few minutes. Okay?"

Martina nodded, and Magali laughed at her as she left, grabbing her midsection.

Damn, damn, damn. I could kill that little sonofabitch. Why didn't I wear something over my face? I knew this could happen. I must be getting dumber in my old age. Fuck..have to catch the plane. She had never noticed the beauty of the living room's curtains nor the pattern of brush strokes on the wall's paint. This is going to hurt later.

"Macha? Hey, Macha? It's been more than a few minutes. You alright yet?"

Magali nodded. The euphoria was there, and if the sky had decided to fall at that moment, it wouldn't have bothered her, but she could walk. She fished in her pocket for the wad of money there and peeled off a few of the bills and put them away. The rest of the bundle she pressed into Martina's hand.

"Take this and send him to a rehab. You tell the guys to take him and leave him there. A good one, Marti. He's underage, so you can sign him in. Make sure it's a good one, or they'll let him out too early. Got it?" she insisted. Had she been old enough she would have been able to sign her youngest brother into one as well, before it was too late, but that hadn't been possible at the time. Instead, she lived with the pain of it and the guilt of her own hand in it.

"Yeah, Macha. I got it. What about you, homie. This going to make you sick?"

Magali nodded and patted her leg. "It's alright, Marti. I'll take care of it later. Right now...I have to get to the airport."

"What about your things? Your bike?"

"I'll send for it later. Just...there's a T-shirt rolled up on the bottom of one of the saddlebags, and my knife. Can you bring them to me?"

"Sure, no problem. Macha?"

Magali only grunted.

"I told her what happened, she's worried sick about you."

"Casey? You tol' her?"

"She had to know, Macha. How the hell were you going to explain that look in your eyes?"

Magali slumped, burrowing into the cushions of the couch and hoping to vanish. "Call her in."

Martina left quickly, the screen door slamming behind her. When it opened again Casey padded carefully to her, sitting cautiously by her and stroking her face.

"Honey? What can I do for you?"

"Nothing. It'll pass."

Eventually it would, and then she would crave it. She could wean herself away taking smaller doses of the stuff and larger doses of pure will, deal with the pain of it, or purchase stolen methadone. At the moment she couldn't think which would be worse. Martina returned with the bundle she requested, and she pulled her ring and necklace from the cloth, putting them back on, where they had always adorned her-- the vestments of Bajo Zero were complete with the gun Daly had returned to her. Casey picked up the knife that fell to the ground and placed it at her own throat. Magali thought to stop her but was slow in saying so, and Casey flicked through the leather collar that hung on her neck. The departure was a fog. Martina kissed her cheek and smiled at her; it was filled with the same care she had always received from the woman, and if it had mattered then Magali would have felt the loss of the family she had grown to care for. Miguelito placed his slobbery version of a caress on her other cheek.

"Vaya con dios, hermana."

Sister. Magali raised her hand as the truck pulled away from the yard.

Casey drove, and she slept on the way to the airport and, by the time they arrived, her mind was clear enough to meet her contact and give him her weapons for smuggling onto the plane.

Racing into the air, above the clouds and smog of Los Angeles, Magali looked down to the city. It surged across the landscape, blanketing the land with squares and long sand-colored lines. Casey sat next to her, her head leaning on her shoulder, her hand in Magali's lap. She closed her eyes and let the serenity fill her-- the humming of the plane, the perfume of her Saint. When she opened them next, the accusing finger of the Empire State building would be pointing up at her.

Callie paced across the living room floor for the umpteenth time, watching where her bare feet stepped as she went. More than one piece of candy corn had been squished into the seams of the polished wood, and she was tired of scraping them up. She didn't know where the boy was, and it was killing her. If she had any hair left by the time he came back it would be a miracle.

Enrique hadn't talked about the night of his father's arrest since she had brought him to her home. He was mostly quiet and withdrawn, making special appearances every now and then. Callie couldn't blame him; she had never spoken of her father's death, nor the bloody tiled floor she found her mother lying on. They were simply things best left alone. Time would obscure them until they were nothing more than a dull pain in the depths of the soul.

Alejandra slept crookedly, leaning against the arm of the couch, the frilly skirt she wore over her miniature jeans pulled up high, her tiny mouth decorated with melted chocolate. Callie had dressed her up as an undead fairy for the holiday, and although the face paint had taken an hour to put on, it had endured no more then fifteen minutes on her face afterwards. Enrique had disappeared earlier in the day, and Callie hadn't thought of asking him where he was going. She had been his age when Magali trained her to kill, and if he wasn't as bad as she had been then, she figured he was all right. With his continued absence, she was beginning to have second thoughts. Parenting, it turned out, wasn't as easy as she had originally thought. She was perfectly aware that children rubbed her the wrong way, but with Eddie in jail and Mariana in the grave she had thought she could handle it for a while-- at least until Zero returned and figured something else out.

Bad enough I forgot it was September, and they were supposed to be in school! Now this kid is running the streets, doing God knows what. Where the hell is he? Shit...I can't leave Alex here alone to go look for him either. Strap her to the bike? No, that would not be cool. I bet you he's with those fuckin' little wannabe thugs I saw him wit' the other day...I'm gonna kill him...Eddie would. He was such a sweet kid. What the fuck happened? Stupid question.

Alejandra complained and pulled the sleeve of her costume down over her hand. With the weather as unseasonably cold as it was, Callie had over-dressed her a bit. And after finding that Enrique hadn't come back, she had forgotten to peel the layers off the toddler, simply letting her eat her way through her candy bag while she ranted over the boy. It was a guaranteed stomachache for the morning, and Callie had developed one just from watching the little girl greedily devour all the sugar.

The door to the loft was made of metal, and every knock created a sound reverberation that echoed way back into the garden. Alejandra whined and rubbed her eyes at the noise, and Callie tried to shush her back to sleep before answering the door.

Little shit probably forgot the keys I made for him again. "Run, you little fuck, 'cause I'm gonna kill ya!" she yelled, realizing too late that it would only further wake the toddler. "Aw, shit, see what ya made me do?" she protested, and stomped to the front door. "Where the fuck have you been?" she screamed, swinging the heavy door open.

"Having woman problems, Callie?" Magali asked, looking at her breath in the cold night air.

"Zee! Oh, thank God you're back." Callie waved her in and was closing the door when the taller woman stopped her and opened it back up to pull Casey in. Callie gave her a once over and frowned. "I see you found her."

"Be nice, Callie. I'm not in the mood."

"Mood? Mood? The whole fuckin' world's gone nuts, and you're not in the mood? Ain't that some shit. You go off after this-"

Magali hated to do it in front of Casey, but if she allowed Callie too much free rein she would quickly become dangerous, and her hands were already shaking slightly. She was careful not to slap her with too much of her strength. Callie stopped yelling and palmed her cheek, swallowing hard and looking away from Casey.

"Now. Are you going to stop acting stupid and get your head on?"

"Gaga, bad," Alex gurgled sleepily, pointing at Magali.

Her heart sank down to her knees, then stopped beating altogether, as Magali stooped to pick up the little girl and hold her close. She turned to gaze at Callie, angry and hurt.

"What's she doing here, Callie?" she hissed, then looking at the little girl smiled. "We were just playing, wild one, go back to sleep." Alejandra laid her head on Magali's shoulder and played with her hair.

"It's a crazy story, you got some time?"

Her tone had changed, it was distant and calm. Magali recognized it for the cover up it was and nodded. Callie took the toddler from her and climbed the steps to put the babe to sleep. "I'll be right back down. Sit where you like."

"Gali, that's Alejandra. What's she doing here?" Casey asked, putting her arms around Magali's waist, warming herself against her Black Velvet. It was much colder than it had been in L.A, and they weren't properly dressed.

"I don't know, but I don't like it." The pangs in her stomach were getting harder to overlook, but she was grateful they weren't the kind that sent her screaming. They were more like the discomfort of hunger unsatisfied. She hugged Casey to her and thought of other things, guiding her Saint to the leather couch decorated with candy wrappers.

"Would you look at this? I'm surprised the kid can sleep at all," Casey exclaimed, trying to ease the strain showing on Magali's face.

"If she's anything like her parents, she'd be able to sleep in a night club while it's open, and wake up at the sound of a pin dropping."

"Really? Eddie does that?" Casey played dumb, something she wasn't particularly good at, and sat on the couch with her hands between her thighs.

Magali twiddled her thumbs; her shoes were suddenly an interest point. "No...I do. She's...she's mine, Casey."

The smaller woman smiled and threw her arms around her lover, nuzzling her neck as she did. "I knew already, Gali. I got it out of Jesse. I was just waiting for you to tell me."

Magali crossed her arms and raised her brow. "And how did she know?"

"Figured it out when she saw her one night. Why do you hide her...besides the obvious reasons? I mean...I know she'd become a target...but..."

"I could have protected her from my enemies." Magali shrugged, wringing her hands in an attempt to rid herself of the tension she was succumbing to. "But, I wouldn't be able to stop her from following in my footsteps, directed to by either her own will or...another's. I didn't want that for her. Besides, what kind of a parent would I make? Think about it...about my life, and how I live it...or lived it," she added as an after thought, smirking at Casey.

Callie took the steps quickly and, slumping into the armchair, threw her leg over its arm. No one could ever accuse her of being a lady. She had brought a bottle of tequila with her, and before offering it to Magali, took a swallow from it.

"Have some, Zee. Ya look like ya need it, and if ya don't...you will."

She took the bottle by the neck and gulped down a good shot. The liquid burned on the way down, but it was the expensive kind, an añejo, that left the smooth taste of agave behind. Briefly, she closed her eyes and breathed air that cooled her throat, the liquid killing some of the craving in her chest. When she put the bottle down on the coffee table, her hand quivered, and Callie gave her a suspicious glance.

"You've got the need, Zee."

"It's nothing. Tell me what the fuck's going on already."

Callie leant forward, bracing her elbows on her knees and dropping her head.

"Anthony came around looking for money..." Callie twitched in places along the tale she spun, her face contorting with anger when she came upon an occasion where she wished she had used her skills but hadn't. With about as much accuracy and detail as she could muster, Callie relayed the events of the past weeks. How she and Eddie had spent countless hours looking for the wealth of money Magali used to pay everything off, emphasizing how the numbers never changed; she could rattle them off by memory alone. She explained how Eddie had paid Anthony, but couldn't pay off the low-level cops who patrolled the streets and worked 'buy and bust' operations without starving the workers. She described how the 'spots' fell to raids one after another, leaving vacuums of power that were quickly snatched up by others, and the secessions of boroughs and then cities, until the empire had dwindled away to where it had originally begun. "Then they went after Eddie-- cops and dealers. When I found out what was gonna go down, I tried to get there first, but I was too late. If the cops hadn't raided his house, Eddie would probably be dead, but they arrested him and drag away the body of that sonofabitch that was gonna blow him. I tried calling but there was no answer and by the time I got there, they were putting him in a car. I hung around for a little while watching what was going on, and then I pretended to be Eddie's sister...so I could get the kids before social services did."

"Why would-" She didn't get to finish the question, dreading the only answer that made sense.

"They killed Mariana...the cops. Enrique saw the whole thing go down; Alex was in the bedroom. So...I brought them here."

"Shit." Mariana had been a part of their lives virtually since they had started. She had been the light in Eddie's eye, the root that grounded him, and Magali knew with no uncertain terms that her death would kill him slowly. "That was good thinking, Callie. Thank you, for looking after them."

Bajo Zero rarely gave her thanks, and Callie soaked in her appreciation as if it were diamonds from heaven.

"What now?" her assassin, and erstwhile babysitter asked, pushing back her hair.

Casey was next to her, creeping closer as she had listened to Callie's story until she was nearly sitting on top of her. "I can't stay in the city, not without an army around me, and it doesn't sound like I have one right now." She smiled and leaned back on the cushions, the spark of planning that was Bajo Zero's alone shining, in her eyes. "We'll get it all back. One fuckin' block at a time," she sneered.

"What about the kids?" Callie questioned, knitting her brow.

Magali glanced at her Saint pressing her lips together tightly, and Casey gave her a nod. "We'll take them. But you'll have to leave, too. They won't leave you standing for long."

"They will as long as they think I'm for hire."

"Are you?" she asked arching an eyebrow.

"Have to make a living somehow, Zee. And with these motherfuckers playing like they're another you, they're all trying to take each other out. I don't mind putting it to them either, back-stabbing-bastards."

"Keep as low as you can," she said nodding. "I'll get everything going, and then I'll call for you."

Callie grinned, wide and evil. "And I'll come running."

"You better," Magali threatened jokingly. Some small part of her had changed in the time she had been away; she wasn't sure what it was, but it was comically alarming Callie. "Hand me the phone; I need to get some wheels, and then we're off. Pack up any of the kid's shit you got and get Enrique up," she instructed, her mind working at the scheme slowly forming in her mind.

"He's not here, Zee."

"Not here? Where the fuck is he then? I thought you had them both?"

"I do. But that little shit's been hanging out, and he just waltzes in here whenever he fuckin' feels like. I'm tellin' you I'm this close to just..." she complained, pinching her thumb and index finger together.

"If he's not here by the time I'm ready to go...I'll find him. Have any idea of where he could be?"

Callie nodded, rubbing her hands together in anticipation of the reaming Enrique would receive at Magali's hands. "Two blocks up, probably."

"Good. Get me the phone."

Casey dozed off on the couch watching Magali furiously rant on the phone-first, in Chinese and then Spanish. She wasn't sure who she was talking to, but the set of her jaw and the cold in her eyes told her things she wasn't sure she wanted to know. After thinking Magali dead for so long, agonizing and mourning over her, she was thankful just to be by her side. It gave her an unwarranted serenity she couldn't explain, given the circumstances. The last thing she saw before her eyes closed was Callie lighting a joint and Magali snatching it away from her.

"Alex is upstairs," she growled, then continued with her conversation. Callie pouted and turned on the TV.

They were both sleeping, Casey on the couch and Callie in the armchair. Magali shot brief glances at them both and sighed, envying their peace. Wu would supply her with the weapons she needed, money was on its way by the cartload, and her father, who had greeted her with a loud reprimand, was glad of her returnm if only because he wanted his share. Her last instruction had been to hike up the price of supplies her people brought in from Latin America-- the price would rise on the street, and dealers would be forced to cut the number of people they had working for them. It would choke their business and leave them weak; they would be ripe for the picking. That was the secret Eddie and Callie had not been able to find, the key being that the numbers never changed year after year: it was her supply, her profit, and she controlled the expenses.

It was near morning, and Enrique hadn't returned. She expected a car at first light; Wu would send a man with it, efficient as always. He was furious at the turn of events; the war had begun to filter into his backyard, and it seemed that he was a step away from sending out his own troops when she called. His market in human smuggling was in peril, and it set him into fits of rage uncommon for the usually stoic, older man. The balance was in chaos, and it landed on Magali's shoulders to manipulate all of the pieces back into their proper dirty places.

She wiped her hands on her pants and stretched; she had been sitting in the same position for too long and her lower back was cramping. Casey sighed in her sleep, and Magali brushed away some of the hair that had fallen across her face and laid a soft kiss on her cheek. Dreamlike, she gazed at her Saint, coming to terms with her presence in her life once again. Her hands had stopped shaking at some point; she wasn't positive when but was content with the reprieve.

What the hell have I gotten into now? Back in the fight, anything could happen...This is going to be bloody. Casey...I have Casey back...and Alejandra and Enrique-- Can I take care of them all? Fuck--will I live long enough to? I better make sure I do. This is too weird. Add water and mix-- instant family? Is that what this is? Damn it, Eddie's locked up. That boy's never been locked up...Mariana's dead...She's probably rolling around in her grave knowing who's been looking after her kids...her son...my kid. Sagrada Madre, help me out here, huh? I'm running blind.

Magali was on her knees, aiming her gun at the door, and sheltering Casey's body before it was fully open. Callie had hit the floor just behind her, lying on her stomach; it was always best to stay out of Bajo Zero's way. Enrique had pulled the hood from the sweatshirt he wore under his black bubble jacket over his head, and was trying to quietly sneak in. It had never been successful before, Callie always heard him, but he couldn't help but try. When he saw her pointing the gun at him and grinning a warm stream crawled down the side of his leg and he blushed.

"Some thug, hanging at all night, pees on himself at the sight of a gun," Magali grinned, standing to her feet.

"I think he peed 'cause it was you, Zee." Callie chuckled, brushing herself off; it was a habit from having to do the same type of maneuver on the street.

Magali smirked, and in her long stride, walked up to the boy and grabbed him by the ear. "Who said you could come and go as you please, runt?" He was tall, like his father, with the same brown eyes and the same spiky black hair. Thirteen--around the age when Magali had killed for the first time, but although the depthless creep had started in his eyes, Magali knew him to still be an innocent. Still salvageable, more so than she had been.

"No...body...tells me what to do," the boy stuttered defiantly, as Magali dragged him into the living room area of the loft.

"Really?" she crooned. "Well, guess what? I tell you to breathe and you do, I tell you not to and you don't, tough guy."

"I'm not my father...I don't follow your orders. And you're not my mother...she's dead," he yelled, pulling away from her.

"No...I'm not your mother...I'm your godmother; that means I'm all you've got right now. And your father...that's the whole point, Enrique, for you not to be like him. That's what he always wanted, that's what your mother always wanted."

"I know what you are...I know what he was, they told me, my friends...and nobody's scared of you Zero...nobody!" he screamed, tears starting in his eyes.

He swallowed when she lunged at him, putting her face inches away from his. "You better be...you better be very afraid. And to you...it's Magali, got that?"

Her lover badly needed training in dealing with children. Casey had heard them laughing, then the yelling, and it was what had awoken her. She hugged the boy to her, separating him from Magali who looked as if she were about to spit fire. "It's okay, kid. She was just worried about you," Casey whispered in his ear, making a face at Magali as she did.

"Who the hell are you?" he spat, and was quickly pulled by Casey out of range of Magali's hand.

"Think of me as your guardian angel, okay?"

"My guardian angel? Then where were you when they killed my mother? Where was she?" he cried, pointing at Magali. His tears had started in earnest, leaving light colored paths down his cheeks where they ran and cleaned off the soot of the street.

"If I could have been there, Enrique, I would have laid down my life to stop your mother from dying." Magali's jaw clenched. "But I wasn't, and there's nothing I can do about it now, except make sure that you and your sister live the way she wanted you to." She crossed her arms, and any sentiment that was on her face faded. "Now get your things, we're leaving."

Casey walked with him and helped him put what meager clothing he and his sister had brought with them into a duffel bag Callie supplied. She shuddered to think of what could have occupied it at one time. When the car arrived, she was dressing a sleepy, grumpy, Alejandra, who was a bit green around the gills. Magali called up to them from the ground floor and, with Alejandra in her arms and Enrique carrying their bags, they bade their farewells to Callie. The vehicle that waited for them couldn't have been a safer model, a fully armored, black Hum-Vee, with tinted windows and bulletproof glass--life with Magali Guerrero.


Click, clack, scrape, click...one glided into the other, clean and oiled, as Magali fit the pieces of her .45 back together in a practiced cadence that boiled in her blood. Casey rested peacefully behind her, Devi stretched out over her ankles, with the sheets and rabbit fur blanket half covering her body the other half falling to the floor. Sleep had been elusive. Even after her Saint had drenched her body and sent her quivering into the darkness she had lain awake watching the night stroll by-- listening, calculating, planning. Her refuge, solitary up to the day Casey exploded into her life with fearless devotion and unmotivated care, was suddenly teeming with a life long forgotten and sorrowfully conceived. Eddie, her closest friend, suffered alone in misery separated from the world by concrete and steel, while her fortunes turned, benefiting from his calamity. It tore through her and exposed the raw anger hibernating just under the surface.

Alejandra sighed in her sleep and rolled over, her little arm landing over Casey's shoulder. The girl had taken up residence in the middle of the bed just before dawn. Magali reached out to brush an errant curl away from her cheek, but withdrew her hand at its slight shaking and, instead, stared at the trembling. It was there; no matter what she focused on, the gnawing hunger begging for attention clawed at her mercilessly. Blue stained and heavy, the gun in her other hand quivered with the involuntary moving of her fingers. She doubted whether she could shoot straight if the occasion called for it.

Slipping the loaded cartridge into its place, she carefully rose from the bed, carrying the gun loosely in her hand. Through the window she could see a great distance away between the autumn stripped trees. There was nothing for miles around, and any intruder would have difficulty approaching stealthily; the home was safe from the outside. Devi opened her eyes and flicked her cropped ears towards her mistress, but didn't move. Something was wrong with the tall woman, an edginess the animal could sense. Faint, like a light breeze rippling over long blades of grass. Magali ran her fingers through her short hair, gripping a bunch of the curls in a tight fist at the back of her head. Her throat felt constricted, and swallowing the invisible obstruction in it made her jaw clench. A panic in her chest sent her breathing into high gear; she pinched the bridge of her nose and, closing her eyes, violently shook her head attempting to cast away the images rushing through her mind.

Blood splattered brick walls and concrete steps; shards of glass sliced through her skin and embedded themselves with jagged points. Her knuckles were raw and bleeding from fighting; the fallen lay around her moaning in pain and crying for a god that had learned his lesson the first time he ventured down to earth. Laughter, her own, rumbled in her ears. Her body was sore with fatigue and wounds not given time to heal. When she opened her eyes the visions were gone, but the need to feel the power of destruction clung to every fiber of her being. It roared in her depths and ignited waves of fury that pushed the desire to punch the walls until her hands were swollen with pain and scraped bloody. To rip the boards from the walls and fling them across the room, kick the doors of the cabin down, stab and rip at the furniture with her favorite knife; annihilate. She glared out into the wide open spaces and the scream that ripped upwards out of her soul died on her lips. She wanted it, needed the agony, wanted it all to end, was anxious for its beginning. Her knees felt weak, the burning in her flaring, her control slipping. Her focus eluding her; and creeping away in the face of her craving. Plunged into the darkness she grimaced, waiting for her wailing to start, uncontrolled, unreasonable.

Easy...you'll scare the shit out of them. God, I'm fuckin'everywhere...I could go for a run, just fly the hell through those woods...jump the fuck right over that cliff. Stop! Shit...just stop. What if they come? I couldn't do shit, could I? I'll fail...I can't even hold this fuckin' piece straight. It's the sickness Zero...you're losing it. You can put an end to it right now...you know how. Just a little and it stops, only a little while...until everything's back where it's supposed to be.

Magali padded over to her jacket and searched the pockets, laying her gun flat on the low dresser. She had frowned at Callie the previous night when the woman had stuffed the tiny bag into her hand, but she hadn't refused it. There wasn't much. "Just enough to stop you from sweatin'," she had said. In the golden light of the morning Magali inspected the crystalline clump flattened into a corner of the clear bag. She would need more than half of what there was just to get her hands to stay still. A quick look over to the bed to make sure Casey was asleep, and she was closing the bathroom door behind her.

This is temporary...just for now, she thought.



Outside, the last leaves of autumn hung heavy in their bright colors near the bedroom window. Large oak trees surrounded the house and sheltered it, their branches lightly scraping the exterior walls in the wind. The cabin was warm, and the fragrance of seasoned wood burning in the fireplace perfumed the room. Theirs was a large loft bedroom on the second floor. It had its own bathroom and fireplace, and Magali had put in a door at the top of the stairs to give them privacy. She always needed a project to keep busy during the lulls in planning over the phone and on the net. The first floor had a guestroom that Magali quickly furnished for the children, a spacious living room, and an open kitchen separated from the rest of the floor by a long wooden counter. The cabin was one of Magali's secrets, a place she had bought two years after her release from prison when she had spent time incarcerated for the murder of her youngest brother. It wasn't the ostentatious dwelling one would think a drug lord would own, and Casey was finding that the woman had many such secrets.

At night they would lay in bed, wrapped up in each other and the country quilts Magali favored. She would listen again and again to stories about the places surrounding the plantation Magali owned, the sights she wanted to show her, local dishes whose name's were foreign but imagined tastes welcome. Their touches would grow intimate, and the world would pause for them. By morning Casey would find her long comfortable pillow had been snatched away by Alejandra. The little girl would sneak into the room somewhere just before dawn and sprawl herself over Magali's chest. When she had asked her lover if it didn't make her uncomfortable, she had simply said she had grown used to it. During the weekdays Magali drove Enrique and Alejandra to the end of the road where a bus picked him up and the car pool whisked Alejandra away, taking them to the local school a few miles away. When she returned she set herself to the tasks of organizing numbers, sometimes leaving Casey alone for a day or two while she went off 'to take care of business.' Casey kept busy entertaining little Alex and looking over Enrique's schoolwork. The boy was bitter, but every now and then he would talk to her of his mother, and his eyes would smile.

Devi followed her into the bathroom, as she had every other morning and alternate night for the past week, the animal's nails scratching against the wooden floor behind her. She was amazed that Magali never woke when she took her trips, perhaps grumbling and rolling over once or twice. Casey was glad she didn't; the light-headedness that overtook her with unpredictability had her dodging for the toilet and spewing anything that was in her stomach at the time. Her throat ached with the force of it, and she tried to stifle the cough that followed. Devi whined next to her, sitting on her haunches and begging for attention by pawing at her.

"You're disgusting, Devi. Really."

She felt the running water with her hand before splashing it on her face; it was cool enough to relieve some of the nausea without making her fingers freeze. A long shadow scared her and she jumped, clutching her chest as she did. Magali leaned against the doorframe, clad in the black T-shirt and baggy boxers she had slept in. Her hair had grown enough that it fell to her shoulders in wild ringlets and waves, and with some cajoling Casey had managed to make some of her weight return as well, though not as much as she thought should have.

"You alright, vida mia?"

"Yeah, I just...must have eaten something that didn't agree with me. That's all," Casey replied, drying her face and hands on a small towel hanging near the sink.

Magali narrowed her eyes and raised an eyebrow wiping at her nose with the back of her hand and roughly sniffing back. "Must have been something you ate last week then," she said with sarcasm. "Did one of the kids give ya a virus or somethin'?"

Casey paled. She had hoped that Magali hadn't noticed, had wished it true that the woman was sleeping while she was sick. She had denied it to herself the previous month when her cycle didn't come, dismissing it as a simple effect of stress. It had been known to happen. But with the onset of the dizziness, the vomiting, and faint feeling she would get throughout the day, she was fighting off the fear of it and tossing over it at night. "Maybe, who knows what they've brought back besides all those construction-paper Christmas ornaments." Casey smiled and put her arms around the lean waist; Magali's lips were sleep warm against her forehead.

"I have to go into town. I can bring you back somethin'. Maybe some Imodium?"

"That could work," Casey nodded, her cheek rubbing on the cotton of Magali's shirt. She loved her scent, a mixture of soap and mountain air. Nothing's going to help, not with this. God, this can't be happening...please, just let it be nerves. I can't do this. She's going to go crazy. I don't have to go through with it...She doesn't have to find out. I'm not ready for this...I'm not ready to tell her. She thinks it was just Julia, she doesn't think I had a choice. But God, Gali, I did...and I fucked up. Would you still look at me that way if you knew? Used goods, that's what Julia said...you don't know how right she was.

"Casey? Baby? Hey, where did you go?" she asked, looking down at her.

"I just love the way you smell."

"You're nuts." She smiled then and embraced her tightly. "Let me get in the shower. The faster I get everything done this morning, the quicker I can get back to you. Maybe we can go for a walk with the kids?"

"Sure. Except I doubt you're going to get Enrique away from that new Play-Station game you bought him."

"Oh, yeah. Remind me to beat the crap out of him on that. Little shit thinks he can shoot better than me," Magali laughed, drawing back the sliding door of the shower and turning the water on.

"In his dreams," Casey giggled, smacking Magali's bottom as she undressed.

"Hands off, lady. Don't start something we can't finish right now." Magali pointed an implicating finger at her and stepped back into the shower.

"What was I thinking?" What was I thinking?

One of man's stupidest inventions had to be soap-on-a-rope. What exactly is the fuckin' rope for anyway? And why do I have one? It was a mundane thought, far from the nuances of weaponry and map details that engrossed her mind the rest of the time. Callie was busy laying out who was who for her, and Wu was waiting patiently for the shipment of armaments he had promised her. Her father had finally quieted when he received his monthly allowance from her overseas investments. It was the least she could do as tribute to him and his tutoring, and it kept him from being a constant nagging presence in her life. Eddie refused help from her. Blinded by his hate and grief, he preferred bars to freedom; apparently convinced that his son was lost as well and there would be no better guide for him than Bajo Zero. She continued to work on the problem without his knowing.

She had sent a telegram to Martina, giving her instructions as to what to do with her bike, and wiring her more money. She didn't dare chance a direct phone call and implicate the family further than she already had. They had given her a glimpse of what could be, and the good graces had gifted her with what she had never realized was missing. Family, lost once--transformed into the forms of Casey, Alejandra and Enrique--gave her tranquility and a will to overcome that transcended the darkness she dwelt in.

She turned on the red heat bulb, nestled into the ceiling of the bathroom. She was always cold now, the feeling clung to her the way frost covered windows in the early morning. From the medicine cabinet above the sink she took a slender metal nail file and knelt on the floor just beside the toilet. Behind the porcelain bowl, a loose, concealed tile on the wall hid her wares: a small plastic bag of crystalline hell and a tiny golden spoon no bigger than a hairpin. Although it would have been better, more efficient to inject the stuff, it would leave marks on her body her lover would be sure to see. Magali grinned, there wasn't an inch of her skin Casey wasn't exposed to, and with that in mind she sniffed her daily dose.

"Chocolate covered cherries," she heard Casey call out from the bedroom.

"What?" Magali asked, stalling for time to re-conceal the drug, but she could hear Casey's approach, and stuck the package into the pocket of her robe instead.

"Chocolate covered cherries. Can you bring me back some?" Casey repeated from the doorway.

"Ummm...yeah, sure. Whatever you want, vida," she said, wiping her nostrils with her thumb and index finger. The dose was working--quickly as ever, and it brought back the heat to her body.

The incongruity of her situation suddenly struck her as amusing. Dios mio, I'm in a flannel bathrobe and there are two kids playing around downstairs, she smiled. Who would believe it? Ooh, big, bad drug dealer, killer. She wiped the moisture from the mirror and took a look at her reflection. Yup, that's me. What did Scarface say again, 'Make room for the bad guy, bad guy coming through!' Yeah that's it.

She could hear the beeps and alarms of the video game Enrique was playing, and Alejandra screaming at him for her turn, when she opened the bathroom door. Casey was lying on her side, facing the window, the sheet drawn up to her neck. There was no mistaking the sniffle and the rapid swipe of her hand over her face. Magali padded over to her and sat at the edge of the bed, worry making creases on her forehead.

"What's wrong?" she queried, rubbing Casey's back. "Does your stomach hurt?"


"You must really be sick, if you're crying."

Casey pulled the sheet over her head and mumbled into the pillow.

"I couldn't hear, baby. What'd you say?"

Casey rolled over and uncovering her face, sat up, pushing the pillows up behind her to support her back. Magali laid a hand on her leg and waited.

It had been a small incident that brought Casey to this moment of indecision. The day before, she had walked Alex downstairs and had poured the little girl a bowl of cereal. And when she spilled it and blamed it on her brother, Casey felt obligated to tell her it 'wasn't right to lie.' The echo of that had been ringing in her ears ever since. Their secrets had torn them apart once before, lies ripped at the very fabric of their relationship and they weighed down on her now. "There's something I need to talk to you about. But you have to promise me not to break anything, or scream, because you'll scare the kids."

Shit. Busted. She knows. She found the stash, or she heard me doing it. She'll understand, she has to...she's almost a doctor, right? "Okay, I promise."

"I...umm...I think I'm pregnant."

Her first thought was one of relief. Not the drugs... Then the full import of what Casey had said registered and Magali withdrew her hand, her eyes darkening and her face turning to stone. Then she smiled and laughed and pointed at her. "Very funny. I'm good, but I'm not that good!"

"Gali, I'm not playing. I don't have a virus, I have morning sickness!"

Her heart lurched as possessiveness and jealousy reared up. "Stop joking around, Casey. That's not funny."

Casey flinched; Magali's expression had reverted to impenetrability, her body sending signals that yelled "stay away." The stark reality that it had been more than Julia who had touched her was darkening Magali's eyes and chilling her features. Cinching the robe tighter around her waist she walked to the window and turned her back. Through clenched teeth she ground out, "Do you know whose it is?"

The pain lanced her heart-her lover's pain and her own--and her reply stuck in her throat. Oh, God...I deserved that, I know I did. I should have told her that first night. She thinks I was whoring...I was. "Daniel's," she finally whispered to the rigid figure.

It looked thicker than what it really was because Magali's fist pierced through the pane of the window as if it were nothing more than paper. "Who the fuck's Daniel?" she yelled. Devi scurried under the bed. Drops of blood from her hand sprinkled the floor, as a trickling rivulet ran down her forearm.

Afraid to approach, to offer help, Casey still felt that she had to make some effort to keep their exchange from alarming the children. "Gali, you promised."

"I lied!" she screamed, the veins in her neck bulging.

Her eyes riveted on the escaping lifeblood, trying to assess the severity of the wound without getting closer, Casey paled. "Gali, you're scaring me," Casey's voice pleaded, wrapping her arms around her mid-section to give them something to do.

"You're scared!" the injured woman yelled, pointing a sanguine finger at her. "You let that sniveling little fuck touch you, make love to you, and now you're scared of me?" She took a step closer. "I swear Casey...." With a supreme effort of will she stopped her advance on her frightened partner and stood stock still once more.

Casey pushed herself off the bed, her legs weakened by the anger that was showing on Magali's face, and she was glad Daniel was on the other side of the country. "Gali," she whispered gently, "let me look at your hand, please," she pleaded, slowly reaching for Magali; blood was staining the floor, and the robe she wore.

"Don't touch me, Casey," she spat pulling away from her. "Just...don't fuckin' touch me," Magali commanded backing away from her and throwing her hands to her sides. "You thought I was fuckin' dead, so you threw yourself at him, just like that...How grief stricken were you exactly?"

I died with you; he only used a body that was a shell. It was always you; but I don't know how to make you understand. "Gali..."

Alejandra sucked her thumb at the top of the stairs, staring at the two women trapped in each other's glares. "Gaga, gotta booboo," the little girl cried out, her curls in disarray atop her head, her bottom lip quivering.

"It's okay, wild one. Gaga's okay," Casey said, using Magali's pet name for the girl and picking her up to give her a bounce. "I'm going to take care of her right now, aren't I, Gali?" She turned back to where her lover had stood, but the room was empty. "Gali?"

Magali was gone, and the bathroom door was closed behind her. She had left a drawer open, and a few of the shirts in it were hanging from its edge. Casey could hear her slamming things as she got dressed.

"Go on, downstairs, Alex. And tell Enrique to give you a turn on the game he's playing." The little girl obeyed, her thumb back in her mouth as she descended the stairs. Casey laid her hand on the wood surface of the bathroom door. It wasn't locked, but in the state her lover was in she didn't want to intrude on her 'space.' "Gali?"

"Casey, just leave me alone right now...God damn it!" she yelled through the door as something fell to the floor. "I need to think, okay? I...I...have shit to do. I can't deal right now, alright?"

"Okay, Honey," she acquiesced, and stepped away from the door. There was nothing she could do while the woman's temper was flaring. Not even bandage the gash. Magali would deal with it herself, she knew. Alone. She sat on the edge of the bed and put her hands between her lap, her head hung in regret. Magali emerged, fully dressed in her leather pants and black button down shirt, her leather holster firmly fastened around her shoulders. She stomped to the closet and pulled out her boots and leather blazer, putting them on furiously and in silence.

"That won't keep you warm, Honey," Casey ventured gently, also eyeing the stripped pieces of towel with which her lover had bandaged her hand.

"Like hell it won't," Magali hissed. "Don't worry. What I've got running around in my head will."

She was quick at leaving, it was one of her many talents, and Casey could do little to stop her. "Be careful, Gali. Please."

"That's advice you should have taken yourself."

Alex's tiny fingers struggled to get the remote away from Enrique's larger hands, but the boy simply held the console above his head to keep it away from her while he pressed at the buttons. Magali walked past them and opened the refrigerator, swigging a draught of orange juice from the carton. Casey had followed her downstairs and gave Enrique a stern look, biting her tongue as she did to keep from reprimanding her lover.

"Enrique, give her a turn...and I'll make brownies," Casey bargained.

Magali grumbled, low, but loud enough for Casey to hear her. On her way to the door she snatched the console from the boy and deposited it into Alex's hands, then ruffed up his hair.

"Behave," she ordered, and slammed the door behind her.

For its speed, she chose the metallic silver Turbo 911 Porsche she had ordered customized for her a week prior. Its black leather interior reflected her mood, and she increased the volume from the sound system to ear-blowing magnitudes. An hour and a half later she was skirting the corners of Chinatown's dingiest streets, and double parking in front of Wu's restaurant.

People crowded the narrow streets carrying wrapped packages of meat and fish they bought from local vendors, who counted off the prices in Chinese and threw their produce into large steel pans for weighing. The odor of garbage floated on the wind, mingling with the scents of frying foods from corner vendors.

Magali shut the door to the car and shrugged her shoulders to settle the harness carrying her gun, then pushed her sunglasses further up the bridge of her nose. She cast brief glances up both sides of the street and took one last pull from her cigarette before flicking it away. The black clad guard at the front door to the restaurant gave her a nod, and she tossed him her keys. He opened the door for her, and she stepped into the lobby's red lighted glow. Another guard there patted her down, but when he reached for her gun and she grabbed his wrist, he only smiled and waved her in. Bajo Zero was safer if she was armed; otherwise, anything around her became an instant weapon.

Wu was playing the friendly patron, greeting and conversing with a few stray tourists who had found their way into his place thinking they had discovered an authentic Chinatown attraction. They had, but exactly what it was they would never know. She made her way past them, not giving them a second look, and entered Wu's back room office. It was empty, and the light from his exotic fish tank with its eclectic collection of rare fish lit the room. The water cast shimmering waves on the red velvet, wallpapered walls. When Wu found her she was sitting in the dark on his couch, her head back while she gazed unblinkingly at the ceiling.

His eyes flicked to the injury on her hand, but as courtesy dictated, he did not question its origin. "What troubles you, Zero?" he asked, his Chinese slow although he knew she would understand him at any speed.

"Business, grandfather," she said, sitting up and bowing her head momentarily.

"Patience, young one. You've lost much in your absence...possessions that took years to accumulate. You can not expect to gather them up all at once. It will take time."

"Time, grandfather, is something I have very little of." She spoke gently, though her emotions were running rampant and her control was skating on thin ice.

"Are you still running your life as if you will die at any moment, Zero?" He fed his fish bloodworms from a canister sitting at the side of the tank, and took a seat behind his desk, turning on the stained glass shaded lamp waiting there.

It was impolite to disagree with elders, and statements were sometimes better formed as questions. "We can all die at any moment, that's just the way things are, no?"

He played with a small paper umbrella then set it down, smoothing out his jacket and leaning back in his chair. Mild colors from the lamp shone on his face; he had gone grayer in her absence. "Is that something you learned from my niece, Zero?"

They had never spoken of it. Mei had simply disappeared one day, deported, or so she had been told. Though that meant that her uncle had sent her back to Hong Kong for whatever reasons he deemed compelling at the time. Magali had always thought it was because he had found out about them, and her life had been spared only because of the control she held over Alphabet City. That control was now forfeit, and she stiffened inwardly waiting for a cord to suddenly drop around her neck. "No, grandfather. That's just something I've come to learn on my own."

"Do you miss her, Zero?" He sat with his hands folded over his stomach; the Chinese were impeccable at hiding their feelings, she had learned well from them.

"Mei?" She cradled the name, one she had not voiced in years, the single syllable last spoken in the throes of passion. "She was a childhood friend, grandfather. Important then, a fond memory now, nothing more."

A soft knock on the door preceded a humble waiter carrying a tray. Bowing deeply he set a small cup of tea on the desk, handed Magali another, then quickly left. "She's grown into a fine woman, honorable, powerful...married. She's brought the family much honor in Hong Kong. I, too, have missed her...As to our business, Zero...it is on the water."

She drank down the tea as custom demanded; it burned her tongue, but she ignored that inconsequential pain. "Then...I am glad for your good fortune...and mine, as well. Respectfully, grandfather, I take my leave," she said, bowing her head once again.

"As always...a pleasure." He continued sipping his tea, not bothering to follow her with his eyes as she left.

Outside the sidewalks remained the same, crammed and filled with fragrances, not all pleasant. She started the car, half expecting to have it blow up when she turned the key, and lit another cigarette. Brooklyn wasn't far away, a few minutes ride through traffic and over a bridge. She dialed Callie's number and before the woman could give her a proper greeting, told her she was on her way and hung up. In the light the neighborhood looked like an area only fit for overseas cargo warehousing, and those who walked the sidewalks belonged in Central Park exhibiting their paintings along the cobbled paths.

Callie waited for her at the door, wearing only a white T-shirt and a pair of blue thong underwear. Her assassin had little modesty.

"Hey, Zee. What's up?" she asked grinning at the new, metallic gray car. "Nice. I should get me one of those."

"You? Get off your bike? I'll believe that when I grow a motherfuckin' conscience."

Burgundy sheets half covered the black leather sofa, and partially covered the nude form of one of Callie's newest conquests. The young woman sat up wrapping the sheets around her and gave Magali a tentative smile.

"Zee, Day...Day, Zee. She was just leaving. Weren't ya, baby?"

She had dark straight hair that fell down her back and caressed her shoulders. Deep gray eyes gave her a ghostly gaze, and Magali sat down next to her patting her bare leg. "No, she doesn't have to. Stay."

Callie's eyebrows shot up, and she gave the young woman a quick nod of her head, motioning her to stay as she was. Her girlfriends were always obedient.

"Can I get ya anything, Zee?"

Magali took a deep breath and leaned forward, pulling off her blazer and unbuttoning a sleeve, which she rolled up to her biceps. "You can hook me up."

Callie's smile dropped away, replaced by a somber expression of defeat. "Zee, you-"

"Shut up and do what I say," Magali barked. The girl next to her jumped and she rubbed her leg, giving her a wink. "She's difficult sometimes, Day. Keep that in mind, alright?" The young woman nodded obediently.

The case wasn't far, and Callie removed and prepared its contents expertly. She handed Magali the beige rubber tubing and watched as her savior tied it to her arm and held one end between her teeth. When the concoction was ready, she passed her the needle, staring as it punctured Magali's skin and the tube filled with blood. When the red liquid disappeared back into her vein, Magali threw her head back and pulled the syringe out. It slipped through Magali's fingers and dropped to the floor, where Callie quietly picked it up. She was near enough to her to take a good look at the gashes that were peeking out from the hasty bandages Magali had wrapped her hand with, and Callie frowned. She looked to the phone, thinking briefly of giving Casey a call, then decided that the price she would pay for it later was too dear: Zero would be angry.

I can't have you, Zee. You're that fantasy that's only that...a dream. But...I know you can be happy...with that little blonde of yours...I can't stand her, but she loves you. And she would never do to you what I just did, she'd die first. What the fuck is wrong with you?

Casey picked up the pieces of brownie that had fallen from Alejandra's hands. The little girl was asleep on her lap, the sticky cake crusted on her fingertips and around her mouth. Digital Cable made it easy to find an appropriate movie they could all watch, and though Enrique complained about it being 'too kiddy,' he had watched with as much enthusiasm as Alex had. She'd had trouble all night ignoring Alex's blue eyes, so much like her mother's that it hurt to look at them. Enrique flicked through the channels, looking for something other than kids' shows to watch, and she pulled a quilt up over her legs to cover her feet and Alex's little body. The girl snuggled into her when she did.

Her outward calm belied the inner turmoil that was tearing her apart. Where the hell is she? She hasn't even called. She always calls. Fuck...I shouldn't have told her, I should have kept it to myself. Casey closed her eyes, and burrowed into the cushions of the couch; she was bored with watching the channels surf by.

Magali sat on the couch and let the drug take her. She told me...She could have lied, she could have kept it a secret...My hands are really cool, amazin'. Callie had vanished, and Magali didn't really care where to. She had swaddled her girlfriend in the sheets and left, leaving her alone in the loft's living area. Awww, shit...I'm being stupid again. So what she might be pregnant? She might be...having a baby...Three kids? Fuck. What the hell am I going to do with...Three kids? This is crazy...Any day now I'll be shootin' up all of New York...all of New York is gonna be shootin' at me. And if I don't...I go to prison? Daly kills me? And I care because...? Because of Casey, because of the kids...because it's not just about me any more, is it, Zee? A family...I have one...and it might be getting bigger...and I'm being a complete asshole. What did I do when I thought I lost her? I fucked her out of my mind in someone else's arms...anyone's arms. At least she was more selective. And now there might be a little Casey. And what did I do? Walk out like a shit head. The euphoria was lifting, and she could feel her heart pace, hear it thrumming in her ears. She needs me now. I have to get home.

The cabin was a quiet place, peaceful that is until the phone rang. Enrique was asleep on the floor, the Playboy Channel playing at a low volume on the set. Casey frowned and plucked the remote from his fingers, then turned the TV off while she picked up the phone.


"Caught you sleeping?"

She had hoped it would be Magali, but the deep male voice that spoke from the other end was far from being who she wanted it to be.

"She's not here, Daly."

"Oh? Where the hell is she then? I keep trying her cell, and she doesn't pick up."

Casey hadn't tried to call her, figuring instead that when the woman had cooled down she would get in touch. "She's doesn't?" Her pulse picked up, and the fear that lurked just outside the door suddenly invaded her new home. "I don't know what to tell you. She was kinda...pissed when she left here. Maybe she turned it off or something." She was making it up as she went, grasping at straws. Magali rarely turned off her phone, a device she despised.

"Pissed? How pissed? She didn't seem...out of control, did she?" His words rushed together as his anxiety overrode his earlier disgruntlement. If anything happened to Zero, all of his plans would go up in smoke, and so would New York City. "You know, after that stunt she pulled in LA I get a little spooked when she gets wacky. If I hadn't been there-"

Casey could hear his concern, and the fact that it was uncharacteristic spread his alarm to her. "What stunt?" she interrupted.

"She didn't tell you?"

"No." Casey sat up, sure that she didn't like the tone in his voice.

"When she got arrested, she nearly got herself killed, I swear she was doing it on purpose. You have to be nuts to hold a gun on a cop in a police station. Might as well sign your own death warrant. I'm telling you, if I hadn't been there-"

Oh Gali..."Daly, I really don't want to talk about this, okay? Call later," she finished hastily, hanging up the phone and chewing on her nail. Shit, shit...she was going to hit me, she could have hit me, but she put her fist through the window instead. She won't hurt me...but she'll hurt herself. Damn it! Suddenly Casey became frightened, frantic to know where Magali was, that she was all right. Unconsciously Casey started at her thoughts, and Alejandra woke up from the mild jostling. She cradled Magali's child against her chest and tried to shush her back to sleep, but she only sucked her thumb and put her head down. Casey stroked the dark hair and wished it was Alejandro's mother lying there beneath her soothing touch. Rising, Casey shook Enrique's shoulder and told him to go to bed; the boy grumbled but marched sleepily into his room. There was no use in putting Alex into her bed, the little girl would only find her way into their bedroom eventually, and there was no telling when Magali would return.

Casey's hands shook as she put the babe down on the bed, Devi immediately curling up next to the toddler. She padded to the window and squinted through the darkness, looking in vain for any sign of headlights down the dirt road of the cabin. She heard the pitter-patter of little feet on the floor followed by the scratching of Devi's nails; Alex was heading to the bathroom. At least she had been spared the ordeal of potty training, she thought, and glanced down at her stomach. Laying a soft hand just over her belly button, she grimaced.


Devi was growling, and Alex scolded her. Casey dismissed it, but it caught her attention when a crash from the bathroom punctuated the argument. She walked over, confused as to why the animal would growl at her little companion in the first place. Alex was sitting in a corner on Magali's robe, her small hands tugging at something in Devi's mouth, and Casey stepped in to take a closer look at what the disputed possession could be. Dangling from a corner, between Devi's fangs, hung a clear bag partly filled with white powder. Casey's eyes widened and she snatched for it; Devi dutifully let go and stepped away panting.

"Oh my God, Alex, where did you get this from?"

"Gaga's, robe," she explained, pointing at the flannel cloth under her.

"Okay, sweetheart, come on, let's get you into bed," Casey breathed, holding back tears of frustration. Though a potential disaster had been averted, her thoughts now were for her lover, and the pain she must be in. Please don't let this be what I think it is. Please. She laid the bag on the dresser and curled up next to Alex, stroking her soft hair and waiting for the girl to fall asleep.

Gravel under tires crunched in the stillness, Casey wanted to leap from the bed, but she didn't dare wake Alex up again. Carefully, she removed her arm from under the girl's head, and sneaked away from her. As quietly as she could, she crossed to the dresser and took the bag, then tiptoed down the stairs.

Magali was slinking away from the closing door, her hair sticking to her face and neck. She was sweat-soaked, looking as if she had run a marathon, but when she saw Casey standing at the bottom of the steps, she stood up straight, her stance wavering.

"You drove in that condition?" Casey hissed, vacillating between anger and fear.

"Casey...I needed to...I'm an asshole."

Casey held up the plastic bag and it shook with her emotions. "You swore to me, Gali. You swore you would never use this again," she whispered infuriated. "Cocaine, Gali? It's going to kill you. How many times do I have to tell you that?"

Magali grimaced. She had practiced various reconciliation scenarios in her mind during the entire drive back, but she hadn't expected to be greeted with this newest drama. Her less-than-sensitive response showed that this was a contingency she had not prepared to deal with. "That's not cocaine," she shrugged, her step faltering as she walked towards the couch. "It's heroin."

"Heroin? But you...that day in LA, you got some of it in you, but you said...you would be all right? You haven't been high, Gali, I would have been able to tell," she protested almost to herself.

Magali dropped heavily to the couch. "I've been taking just enough to keep me from getting sick. I couldn't just stop, I have things to get done...Look at all the shit that's happened, I just can't let things go and focus on what's wrong with me. I just needed to get through...I needed..." I needed a crutch, something to lean on, to chase away the pain. Fuck...just like you did. The realization and admission, even to herself, only added to the weight of her guilt.


"You're sick now, aren't you?" It hurt her, to watch Magali in the condition she was in and know that her lover was helpless against the demands of her own body.

Magali nodded and put her face in her hands. "Yeah." Her head hurt; a banging in her temples that struck her vision and blurred it. She rubbed the sides of her head, her stomach churning. "God, Baby, it just hurts so much. I can't do it...not again."

Casey's face softened, and she stroked her lover's hair away from her face. "You don't have to, Gali. We can do it. I won't leave you alone," she whispered sitting close and taking the chance that Magali would accept her embrace, Casey pulled her in. Her lover crumpled in her arms. "I'm sorry you didn't think I could be there for you, Honey."

She wanted to cry, to melt into her Saint and fade away. "Don't...don't take the blame for this. I'm the one...it's my fault, I should have told you...I should have just admitted that I couldn't handle this on my own," she cried, her voice hoarse; she gripped her lover for dear life.

Casey cradled her; the invincible Bajo Zero was falling to pieces in her arms. "You have to quit, Gali." She knew her lover hardly ever did anything for herself, it was always for someone else, whether she was laying her life on the line or destroying someone else's, and she pondered whether to tell her about the incident with Alex. "This isn't just hurting you, Honey. It's killing me and...I didn't find the bag...Alex did."

Magali was silent, her body tensing and shaking. "Alex?" she whispered. Casey felt her grasp tighten, and the dark head shook in denial, as if that would make it go away.

This will either kill or cure you, and I just have to make sure it's the cure..."I'll do whatever I have to do to help you, Gali. I love you, Honey," she spoke to her softly, near her ear. "I know I hurt you...I'm so sorry, and I'm not going to keep it, Gali. We don't need to deal with this right now, and-"

"No!" Magali exclaimed, sitting up and swiping at her face. "That won't solve anything, Baby. I was being stupid, as usual, before and I over reacted. I know that's not what you really want to do. And, I love every part of you, every part of you. I'm sorry for what I said before...about you not even missing me. I'm just as bad...I...I..." she sputtered, a low rumble started deep in her throat and erupted in incongruous laughter. "I fucked up, too," she sniggered. "Casey, I...I wasn't exactly...faithful to you."

"Excuse me?" It was Casey's turn to be angry, and with the emotional tightrope she had been walking for several hours, it wasn't much of a leap.

"I slept with other women...I thought...I thought you didn't want to be with me, and..." a chortle escaped her then, and she rubbed the back of her neck ruefully, "And you thought I was dead."

"You...you..." She caught herself doing what Magali would have, stopped and grinned. "Can I get away with slapping you twice?"

"Baby, you can get away with doing anything twice and then some. Can we just...start all over?"

Casey put her arms around her and drew her in, kissing and biting her lips. "What exactly do you want to start, lover?"

"With you...anything."

"How about if we begin by getting you out of these clothes, and..." she said lightly scolding, "taking care of this hand for you?"

Magali nodded, smiling sheepishly. "That's a good idea."

Their mouths met, lips touching softly and grinning until Casey pulled away.

"Let's get upstairs, huh?"

Casey tucked her arm under Magali's; she could feel the weakness in her body as they stood. A step at a time they climbed the stairs, Magali grimacing with every other step. Alex was sound asleep, Casey knew that Gali would be carefully controlling her actions since she had seen the baby in the room. When Magali entered the bathroom to change, Casey carefully ran down the stairs with the sleeping toddler to put the child in her own bed and dispose of the drugs that held her lover's mind and body in thrall. Running water in the kitchen sink quickly washed the poison away. Casey sighed. If only it were that easy. By the time she was done and returned upstairs. Magali was stumbling towards the bed, and she arrived just in time to keep her from falling.

"Careful, Gali. If you hit the floor now, you'll wake everyone up."

Magali laughed and lay on her side. Casey pulled the sheets and blankets over her, kissing her forehead. "Don't go anywhere, Magali Guerrero. I'll be right back."

Casey found her lover's clothes piled in the corner of the bathroom. It was the only way she was messy, everything else about her was immaculate. She rummaged through them, looking for her gun, and when she didn't find it, stepped into the doorway and cleared her throat. "Where is it, Gali?"

"Heh. How'd I know you were going to look for it?" she chuckled, pointing to the space between the bed and the night table.

"I'll be taking that," Casey demanded. Magail thought to protest that she might need it for the protection of the family, but understood that this was necessary for her Saint's peace of mind. She reached for it and handed it over butt first.

"I wouldn't hurt you, Baby."

"I know you wouldn't, Honey." But you just might use it on yourself, I can't believe I didn't see it before--passive suicide. "But the kids could get to it there. Thank you, sweetheart," she said, rewarding her with a kiss. Casey hid the gun, promising herself to move it to another location in the morning. It would be difficult to keep it away from her Black Velvet, but if she didn't...there was no telling what she might do when things got bad. Casey crawled into bed, the events of the day finally catching up to her. Magali had dressed in sweats, but still she shivered. It was going to be a long night. Her Black Velvet nestled into her, resting her face against her shoulder and her hand on her stomach.

"We'll figure it out, vida. Together." But I'm still gonna kill him. Casey nodded and rubbed noses with her, their moment interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Reluctantly Casey eased her hold on Magali to allow her enough room to reach for the offending instrument.


"The shipment is here...Yun-Fo." The endearment hadn't changed and neither had Mei's voice, and Magali gulped down the shock from hearing it.

"Then it begins," she stated flatly, wishing she knew what Casey had done with the lethal powder.



Yes this is the end of this story, and the end to the first "book" in Dark Sacraments. However, it's not the end of the girls, nor of the series...there's much more to tell. I give thanks to my betas. To Dawn, whose infinite patience and questioning helped refine this story and keep me on track. To Day, who's own marvelous bard talents have greatly contributed to the structure and impact of this tale. Of course, without my partner Dee, my ultimate inspiration for all that is beautiful, none of it would have materialized. Big ups, to Midget and Mary D and Bill for housing these scribbling notes. (Sorry, I think that was Devi talking.) For all you readers who sent me feedback on the first two pieces, my deepest thanks, those responses helped pull me through tough spots. By the way, the Spanish used in this series is correct, though I played with the translations of it a bit in certain places. Literal translation being what it is. Hope you all enjoyed the ride...if it ain't rough it ain't right...and I'll 'see' you all on the next round. Any and all comments are more than welcome, you can email me at Pitipup@aol.com with them. Laterz. --Morrig

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