Author's note: I was going to write a disclaimer for this section of the Sacrament series, but I thought it best if you heard it from one of my favorite character's instead. So here she is.

"Hey, Yo. Wassup? Devi in da house! Yeah, it's me the dog, who'd you expect? Huh? This here's the second Sacrament, and if ya don't remember dat it all started with the first...then I'm remindin' ya. Ummm, dat would be Absolution. My mistress, and her...girl...the one she, you know...may look like you know who, but they're not, alright? So I own 'em...okay, so Morrig owns 'em. There's lots of heavy shit, what is it you humans call it? Yeah dat's it...violence in this story, and yeah lot's of sex too...I'm waiting for my turn, since it's like...I'm the only one who isn't gettin' any in this friggin' story. There's some mushy stuff, some steamy stuff, some whips and chains too. If ya can't take know girls doin' girls...take it to someone who cares. Oh, yeah there's bad language, come on, my human talks like a truck driver sometimes...ghetto! If you're looking for a story that gives ya the fuzzies all the way through ain't here, these streets are mean and so's my mistress...I like her like dat. Now...grab your biscuits and your bowl of beer and sit! Rough rider comin' through! Bring a toothpick too, the grit gets thick....Here's a little something to start you off, I found this in a book I'm chewing...hey, the cover's leather, I couldn't help it...the page this is heavy with my mistress' scent."

William Henley
Out of that night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years,
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matter's not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



The Second Sacrament

By :Morrig

Part 1

Morning was a black and white documentary. Hazy winter light filtered in through the curtains of the glass balcony doors and fell timidly on the occupied four poster bed. What was 'morning' to the restless figure staring dazedly at the blank ceiling, was, in reality, well past noon. The last thing the dark-haired woman wanted to do was move away from the incredibly comforting presence nestled at her side. Casey slept peacefully on her shoulder, steady breaths warming the skin of her neck. A small tender hand lying at the center of her bare, bronzed chest radiated tranquility, but did little to calm the pounding in her chest. The stark walls began to close in on her, and her breathing quickened, sweat dampening her brow. Fuck, this is what I get for sobering up? I must be in love with you, she thought glancing at the sleeping woman. A rumbling in her stomach announced her body's intentions, and she grimaced. Withdrawing from the securely attached blonde was painful, and the chill air struck against her skin, momentarily distracting her from the tenacious cramping gripping her. Holding on to one of the bedposts, she found some balance and moved on unsteady legs towards the bathroom.

Her senses rebelled and, thankfully, she found solace in the cool feel of the tiles against her back as she leaned on the bathroom wall. A long dark bruise across her shoulder blades marked the impact of the fire escape, where she had fallen with the weight of one angry corrupt cop on top of her the previous night. She replayed the scene in her head, how she had twisted from under him and straddled the frightened man, images of what he had done to Casey vivid in her mind. She knew them well, had seen them done, had been on the other end of the blue current. She thought of how close she had come to slitting his throat before a soft voice had called to her and challenged her rage with calm. My Saint, pulling me away from Hell's gate. Bile crept up her throat; a stabbing in her center made her buckle and the room spun. I hate this shit...Fuck, when did I eat last?

It would be worse with an empty stomach, she knew. The drugs and the alcohol would be safely tucked away in her blood stream, and she would have to wait for them to run their course. It would take longer, and her head would ache from the force of her efforts to purge herself before her body realized there was nothing to expel. Gritting her teeth to keep silent, she curled into herself, holding her midsection while the spasms wracked her frame and her muscles contracted. One more heave, one more wrench, it echoed in the belly of the porcelain god, and she clutched its sides praying for a cease-fire from her body. The last stitches in her chest pulled achingly, and she fleetingly thought of cutting them away herself. Taking a deep breath to still her irregular panting, her face received a wet, hot lick. Devi had sauntered in, peered at her mistress then down into the bowl, gave a lion's roar yawn and smacked her lips. "The breath,'s not helping," she said pathetically, rubbing the dog's head as she stood, glad the animal had survived the shooting that had threatened both their lives.

She opened the cold water tap and let the sink fill half way. Unceremoniously she dunked her head into the cool liquid, whipping back her wet hair as she straightened. Water dripped down her torso, and she shivered with another cramp. Mercifully they were winding down. A soft groan in a familiar voice drew her attention to the other room and, swallowing a mouthful of cold tap water, she meandered towards the sound.

Casey held her pillow in a death grip, her jaw clenched and her brow furrowed. Slowly Magali crept to the moaning woman, lying by her side and gathering her up in trembling arms. "Shhhh, Casey, it's me. Wake up baby, you're dreaming," she whispered to the small blonde.

Casey abruptly clawed at the arms holding her, green eyes suddenly opening and taking in her surroundings. Pale blue eyes regarded her with trepidation, and she relaxed against the firm body that embraced her against an imagined threat.

"Gali...I was so scared, I thought you weren't coming and I..."

Magali rocked her gently, soothing away the fear and the night's demons she felt more than responsible for. My fault. The smaller woman clung to her, returning the affection and giving Magali a squeeze. Nausea gripped her once again, and she held her breath to counter the feeling and need to bolt from the bed and away from Casey. Stay put, it'll pass.

The blonde sat up, looking over the long torso half-naked by her side. She took in the pale lips, the absence of color, and the small beads of sweat clinging to the woman's forehead. "Baby, what's wrong," she asked smoothing away some raven strands that fell across Magali's face. "You're sick," she asserted to a silent head that shook in denial as the face betrayed the lie with a small wince.

"Have you eaten anything?" she continued, pulling the covers up and around the shivering form.

"Can't," Magali replied, curling herself into a ball.

The medic in Casey became concerned "Well, you have to at least drink something." Shit, is she going through withdrawal or something?

"It's not withdrawal, Casey." The blonde was surprised to hear her unvoiced question answered. "Just had a little too much," she croaked into the pillow.

"Define too much?" She stood barefoot on the floor, ignoring the chill of the wood beneath her feet, her hands were on her hips.

"A few grams, a bottle or two, I'm not sure really. Wasn't keeping count. Must have been the pain killers," she half groaned.

"Pain killers! Please tell me you weren't on medication as well, Magali Guerrerro!"

Okay, she's yelling at me. Who ever yells at me? Feels good kinda, if my head weren't about to explode.

Magali dug herself into the pillow and rode the latest wave of pain and nausea. Every sound was in stereo, every move felt like a ride on the Mambo at Disney. The shorter woman's steps, more like stomps, vibrated as she left the room in a huff. Magali lay on her back and draped an arm across her eyes; a quick slump of the mattress and a heavy thud on her thigh announced the presence of a sly Devi. Normally she would shoo the animal off the bed, but the energy necessary eluded her, and she felt some comfort in the warmth of the animal resting against her leg. I wonder who's been lettin' you sleep with them, Devi? were suckered. Stone still she listened to the clatter from the kitchen.

Casey searched the kitchen looking for nothing in particular, but mentally taking note of what she would need to make something edible. So many things had happened within a few days, that she was having trouble coming to terms with something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich. She slammed drawers and cabinet doors, frowning at the shape the kitchen was in and at the empty bottle of Glenlivet in the trash. What am I so angry about? How reckless she is...that she's going back to prison...that she won't stop...that she'll be dead before she's thirty? Daly? Webster? That I don't know what the fuck is going on?! The sagging bag of cocaine on the coffee table leered at her, and she stomped towards it, trash can in tow. A low voice stopped her before she could dump it.

"Not in there. Gimme." Magali leaned against the arched doorframe of the living room, clad only in a T-shirt and high cut-off sweats. She held her hand out, palm up. Grudgingly Casey put the bag in her hand, and she paced away into the bathroom. A few seconds later Casey heard the toilet flush, and Magali walked in, dragging herself from one room to the other with little enthusiasm. She deposited the now empty, wet bag in the trash. Tenderly she took hold of Casey's wrists and pulled her close, wrapping her long arms around the smaller woman. "When you want to talk about it, or just yell at me some more...let me know. You don't have to wreck the place to get my attention, okay?"

In truth, there had been little else that had held her attention for several days, beginning with Casey's witnessing Magali unmercifully beat a man in the street with a bat. She had taken off, and Magali had chased her, to explain that the man had raped a young girl. However, when she caught up to Casey at her apartment, their ensuing argument hadn't given her the chance. Instead of pleading her case, Magali had angrily left. With Casey left alone in her apartment, Webster took advantage of his opportunity. Webster, an officer whose plan to steal money from her had failed, had taken Casey. Subjected her to a night of terror. Magali's involvement in the drug trade and her dealings with corrupt police officers had made a hostage of her Saint; a situation she had remedied by effecting a rescue.

Casey snuggled into the strong chest before her and buried her face in the soft cloth of the T-shirt Magali wore. The dark woman's scent gave her a sense of security, the steady beating under her ear providing some sort of peace. With her hands around the solid waist, she felt the back muscles go tense, as Black Velvet's body reacted to a change in the sounds coming from the hallway outside the apartment. Magali put a finger to her lips, and darted off into the bedroom, returning with a gun in one hand and a clip in the other. Quickly she snapped the pieces together and waved a hand at Casey motioning for her to lie on the floor while she silently slid to the door. Her back against the wall, one hand resting on the door, and the gun pointed at chest level, she waited. The watch Casey wore ticked loudly, and she chanced a look up to see Devi waiting with her mistress, haunches ready to spring. Three deafening knocks and Magali called out nonchalantly over her shoulder. "Who?"

"It's me, Eddie," came the muffled reply.

Magali whipped the locks open and stormed into the kitchen. The pane shook as she slammed the lower window up and poked her head through the opening. "Nelson, you shit! Why the fuck didn't you tell me Eddie was on his way up?!"

"It's just Eddie...I didn't think..."

"That's your fuckin' problem, Nelson, you don't think! Get your ass up here!" The window clattered shut.

The anger on her face was plainer than mud on a white car in a desert, and as Eddie entered, he inched away from her and nearer to Casey. Eddie wore a large Jets football jersey over a black hooded sweatshirt, and he had recently shaved according to the red bumps on his face. He sat on the couch and put a thick, hard briefcase down on the surface of the coffee table. There was silence until a meek head appeared at the door, eyes downcast and ready to take a hit. Long forceful strides brought Magali the few feet from the kitchen door, where she had remained fuming, to inches away from a cowering Nelson. Unexpectedly a small body intercepted her path, and she stopped short.

"Nelson, hi. You remember me, right?" Nelson nodded, relieved to hear the sweet sound of Casey's voice, instead of the stinging slap he had expected.

"Now, you wouldn't let anyone sneak up here, would you?" Again Nelson nodded wholeheartedly. "So next time, anyone," she emphasized the word 'anyone', "comes here, you will let us know right?" Magali looked from Nelson to Casey, an expression of pure bewilderment on her face.

"I...I swear, the fuckin' Pope won't get here without you knowing, Zee. I swear to God."

Casey laid a hand on Magali's chest soothingly and maneuvered herself into a position where she couldn't help but look into her eyes. "He can go back downstairs now, right, Zee?"

Magali nodded, her soul swimming in emerald green depths and, with the flick of her wrist, dismissed the terrorized guard. The door shut quietly while both women silently regarded each other, unveiled passion gleaming from blue eyes. The smaller blonde leaned upwards, grazing her lips gently against heated crimson ones.

Eddie cleared his throat, disrupting the moment of calm. "Um...Zee, I just need you to look at this and then I'm out."

Regretfully, Magali tore herself away from Casey and flung her solid frame next to Eddie. "Could you excuse us, Casey?"

Casey crossed her arms and squared her shoulders in the best imitation of Magali she could muster. "No. I can't. You are stuck with me, so I may as well know what I'm in for."

Magali frowned and patted the space next to her, then directed her attention to the briefcase and snapped it open. Casey was tucking her legs in underneath her when she caught sight of the case's contents. Stacked in neat bundles, a white band stamped with a blue hand securing each stack, were crisp one hundred-dollar bills. Atop it all, in a clear bag, shining flakes of crystal sparkled in a solid block of white. "This what you wanted to see, Casey?"

"Shit! Eddie, she just got out last night! Can't this wait!" Casey's explosion was aimed at the defenseless man and, without looking back, she sulked out of the room. Chewing on the inside of his lip and stifling a laugh, Eddie glanced at Magali.



"Let's make this quick okay," she said as she gave him a slap to the back of the head.

"Owww, fine. This is the new stuff that just came in, and Khamal said I should give you this money...said you would know what to do with it? I counted it, Zee, it's 250,000, man."

"Yeah? No duh idiot. Give me your pocket knife."

Eddie fished in his jeans' pocket and produced a small Swiss Army knife, pried a blade open and handed it to Magali. With it she poked a hole in the bag and licked the dusted blade.

"That's fine, pack it all up and move it out."

"You're not going to try some?" The expression on his face was priceless; a customary routine had been broken.

"Nope. Oh, and save some for Brooklyn."


"You heard me. Now go about your business. Leave me with my raging little blonde, will ya? And take that bag with you."

It was all he could do to keep from laughing as he ducked a blow, which hit him regardless of his efforts, and trudged out of the living room and out the door.

The few steps down the hall to the bedroom seemed like an interminable distance, and Magali gathered her strength and her wits about her. How much do I tell her? Should I tell her? If I don't, what will happen? She'll leave? Casey sat defiantly in the middle of the bed, a pillow on her lap, glaring into space.

"Hi," Magali ventured cautiously. I make grown men shake, and this little woman scares the hell out of me. In return, she received an unwavering, icy green stare. "Want to yell some more?" Please say something, anything.

"Yes I want to yell! I don't want that stuff around." She came face to face with uncertain cerulean eyes.

"Okay. I'll make sure it isn't. When you're here, I'll just step out."

"No, I mean ever. Even when I'm not here."

"Casey, I..."

"Ever, Gali."

"But..." It was the eyes, she had decided, that melted her reserves, and allowed the blonde to ask anything of her. "Alright, it won't come in the house, but I can't stay away from it, Casey. That's impossible."

A tentative smile slowly worked its way across Casey's features and Magali's spirit soared in its warmth, satisfied with the temporary reprieve. The smaller woman knelt, bringing her level with a strong neck. She wrapped her hands in the dark tresses and pulled the woman down into a kiss; instantly Magali's tension disappeared. Casey buried her face in the bronze skin. Fighting back tears of fear and longing, she whispered, "Nothing is impossible. This stuff is going to kill you, one way or the other...please, baby, I need you here. When, Gali, when will you be able to stay away?"

The words were soft-- barely audible; but they were thunderclaps in Magali's ears. Shit, she's not talking today...or tomorrow. She's talking longer...way longer. Her heart raced with the implications of the plea.

"You'll have to trust me on this one, Case. Let me do what I have to, and I promise... you will never live in fear again."

Casey was at a loss and unwilling to press the issue further. It was a small battle and she had won. "Honey, why don't you lay down, you're not looking very well. Let me get you a glass of juice, okay?" While Casey ambled off, Magali grimaced at the cramp she had been holding back and punched the pillow to release it. The sheets were cool, smelled of a certain blonde, and they lent her some solace in Casey's absence. Not much time passed, before Casey returned with a rather large glass of orange juice, and held it to Magali's lips. She drank eagerly and lay down once the glass was empty. Casey curled next to her and she pulled her closer, draping herself with the smaller woman's body. Sleep came easily.


In the young hours of the night, the phone began to ring, breaking the silence and the serenity. Groggily Magali reached for the phone on the nightstand, but a slender arm gently pulled her away.

"Please don't pick that up," Casey murmured seductively in her ear. Gladly Magali's attention turned away from the irritating noise of the ringing, and she wrapped herself around the smaller woman.

"Good idea, I'd rather pick you up instead." A wicked smile formed on her lips, and she nuzzled into the blonde's neck nipping gently at the skin there. It was warm, a little too warm, and she withdrew, peering closely at green cloudy eyes. "Did any paramedics take a look at you last night?"

"I didn't feel like sticking around." She rolled over on her stomach and hid her face in the pillow, golden hair streaming down her back.

It was a definite pang of guilt that stabbed sharply in Magali's chest, and she turned on her side to spoon Casey with one long leg. The fine, golden hair slipped through her fingers as she stroked it. Tenderly she kissed Casey's shoulder where she knew the small burn from the stun gun would be. The smaller woman shivered slightly against her, and she pulled the covers further up to cover her, lovingly tucking them in around her neck. "I'll be right back," she whispered, and Casey moaned in protest of her leaving.

The kitchen was as foreign to her as Sunday Mass, or the Girl Scouts, and she stood for a minute in the middle of the floor looking around at the alien place. Okay, you're not that much of an idiot. You can figure this out, hell it's just food, and you've cooked up worse things. Thankfully Casey had done some shopping a few days earlier, and had stocked the cabinets with easy cooking items Magali could handle. Up on one of the shelves was a neat row of soup cans, and she scanned them for one that looked healthy. Ooh, chicken soup, perfect. She found a small pot and dumped the contents of the can into it, reading the directions before tossing the can away in the trash. Her patience lasted all of ten seconds, and she scowled at the pot. How long does this take? The phone began to ring again, and she padded into the living room to pick it up. Too many damn phones in this fuckin' place. "Yeah."

"Zero, don't you think it's time you came out of there?"

"What the fuck, Moreno? I know you like watching, but come on now...I'm gonna have to start charging you a fee." With phone in hand, she strolled to the window and pushed the blinds open a crack to look out onto the street.

"Brooklyn, need to take care of that before...your little holiday away."

"Yeah sure...come get your money." She strolled back to the kitchen and raised an eyebrow at the slowly heating pot.

"You have it..." he remarked with a degree of satisfaction, "the Senator will be very happy."

"Whatever...go to the park, you'll see this kid with a yellow Yankees cap on, he'll put a briefcase under a bench, and it's all yours from there. Now goodbye, Moreno, I have a pot of soup to take care of."

"Soup?" Click. She dialed Nelson's number and stared at the pot. Wonder what would happen if I threatened to shoot it? Little holiday he says... fuck, two months away from Casey...shit, two months locked up.. "Nelson, come upstairs. I'm leaving a case out in the hallway for you. Go to the park, ya know those benches by the street? Put it under one of 'em and walk away. And wear that yellow Yankee's cap. Got it?" Click. She placed a hand over the pot and scowled at the continuing lack of heat. What the? A knock on the door made her jump, her nerves on edge from the sound of Moreno's voice. Hurriedly she grabbed the case and a gun off the table and headed for the door. Nelson opened his mouth to speak, but the case was shoved into his chest and the door slammed before he could get a word out. She stomped into the kitchen pulling back on the gun and loading it. Damn soup.

The sight of Magali in a T-shirt, scowling and pointing a gun at a defenseless pot, gave Casey an attack of the giggles. "Uhmm, what are you doing? Did the pot try to attack you?"

"Uhmm..." She flipped the gun over in her hand and inspected it closely. "Just making sure this piece was clean that's all." Busted.

"Aha...I see," Casey chuckled under her breath and stepped closer to the pot sitting on the stovetop. "Ooh, chicken soup." She eyed the board of knobs and smirked as she turned one of them on. "You might be able to clean that piece better over a flame."

"I knew that," she said, sitting on the windowsill and hanging her head. "I was just..."

"Trying to be nice, I know." Casey stepped into her, using a thigh to part Magali's legs and occupy the space between, placing a soft kiss on her lips. "Honey?"


"Stay out of the kitchen."

"Deal," she said giving Casey a wicked smirk.

Magali shook her head at the bubbles rising on the yellow liquid, and ambled into the living room, Casey shooing her out of the kitchen She sat back in the leather armchair, stretched her back and heard it pop in a few places. Flicking on the computer she watched it boot up, her chin resting on her hand. With a few clicks of the mouse she was opening her electronic mail and sorting through the junk as the sounds of clinking glass filtered in from the kitchen. Sitting near the window she could hear the winter wind blowing outside, the faint crunching of cars passing by. A message on the screen was tagged 'Brooklyn,' and she sighed as she clicked it open. The piece was encrypted, and it took a few seconds for the computer to decipher it all. That settles it, Daly... you have me bugged, don't ya?.

Do what you have to do Guerrerro, it read simply. She hit delete and it disappeared just as Casey shuffled in with her bowl firmly in hand. Devi was seduced by the aroma and followed her closely, eyeing the bowl hungrily. Magali leaned out of the chair and tackled the dog to the ground, holding on to the sturdy, thick neck. Devi licked her wildly, her stubby tail flicking side to side and thumping on the floor. "Damn, Devi, you need breath mints, girl," she gasped, but continued to push and pull at the muscular dog.

The soup settled Casey somewhat, and she lounged drowsily on the long couch, an afghan of Native American design tucked around her. She flicked through the channels of the TV, occasionally flipping between MTV and VH-1, while Magali wrestled on the floor with a happy Devi. The tussling duo momentarily blocked her view of the screen, and she craned her neck to get a view of a trailer for Xena: Warrior Princess. "You make a better door than a window, Gali."

"Yeah? Well, I think I make a better blanket." The dark woman smirked as she crawled panther-like towards her, straddling her and making her statement truth. "Your fever's gone down. How do ya' feel?"

Casey snuggled into the warmth surrounding her and smiled into the strong chest. "Much better now."

"Good," she said, mouthing the word against Casey's lips. "I better put some more of that cream on that burn you have."

"You know, don't you?" A flickering expression of worry crossed Casey's fair features, and she averted her eyes from the cerulean blue staring at her knowingly.

"Yes, I do...I've seen that type of burn before...I know what makes it, and I know Webster." He tested my loyalty to the Gauntlet; I thought I was gonna die every time he put that damn stun gun in the water.

They had had to make sure the wild card they were drawing was safe enough to be trusted. On the pretense of a broken taillight, smashed as she watched, four police officers arrested her. They promptly deposited her into the clutches of Webster, who took his time, patiently administering electric shocks to her body for more days than she cared to count. When she hadn't offered the names of those she knew involved with the Gauntlet, they had tattooed her wrist and set her free.

Casey nodded her head and let it hang onto her chest; subtly her body began to shake with a silent sob. Magali could feel the heat in her own breast start to rise, a temptress rage that beckoned. When the first tears ran down Casey's cheeks, her hand was there to catch them, staining her skin with Casey's misery. Shit, what do I say? What do I do? I suck at this, I really, really suck at this. You're dead, Webster... you are so dead, I swear it. Magali held her, nearly crushing the woman against her as she felt Casey's release dampen her shirt. Time stood still and, as one woman relinquished a bit of heavy agony, another added the weight to her broad shoulders.

Magali laid on the edge of the couch next to Casey and wrapped her long frame protectively around her. The heat of the contact and the soft weave of the blanket enfolded the smaller woman in a cloak of safety. She drifted in a shallow twilight, where Magali's presence guarded her, undaunted. Breathing slowed and a semblance of serenity returned with Devi curling at their feet.


Patrick Ewing hobbled across the screen and Eddie wanted to scream from the boredom. The game sucked; the Knicks were losing badly, again. He sipped on a Heineken long gone flat, and pushed restlessly on the footrest of the open Lazy-boy. Sprawled out on the floor, still in his blue polyester uniform, was his dark-haired ten-year-old son. A book was open in front of him, and a large fan of papers surrounded his space on the throw rug. He chewed on the end of a pencil, his brows crossed over a problem he could not solve. It was rare for his father to be home at that time and relaxing in front of the TV. "What's the matter, Enrique?" the smooth dark voice of Eddie questioned gently.

"I can't figure this out, Papi?" Oh yes! He's going to help me.

"Well, what's the problem?"

"I forgot how many grams go into a kilogram."

Eddie smiled as he waved him over, and the tall boy scuttled over on his knees, placing the book in Eddie's lap. "That's easy, look I'll show you." He made a few marks and winked at the boy when a sudden look of amazement crossed his young features. Bet you thought this guy was a dummy, huh? You're gonna have it better then I ever could, I promise. "Shouldn't you be in bed, little man?"

"Yes, he should." Mariana's voice was made for angels, and he was sure she had stolen it on her way down from heaven. She was a small woman, with high cheekbones and dark skin; her black hair fell in long curling tresses. He had met her in high school; at least, she had been in school, while he was loitering outside of it. It had taken one look from her ebony eyes, and he had sworn off all others. She had been a bright student, he was told, with a secure future if only she stayed away from him. One night and one mistake burned her future down, and although she didn't agree, Eddie blamed himself. She could have done much better than me


The mistake turned into a delightful gift when nine months later Enrique was born screaming into the world, and at fifteen Eddie was a proud father and husband. He cooed over his son, coddled his new wife, and agonized over their future. Magali was in prison, newly sentenced to three years, and he was in charge. She would issue orders from prison in her daily calls limited to twelve minutes at a time, and he would follow through on them. Once a month he would make the trip to visit her and, separated by a thick pane of glass, they spoke in code over a one-way phone line. The visits left him in a melancholic mood, his the only signature on her visitors log under Jesse's, and he watched helplessly as his friend became what they said she was. The steady, healthy growth of his son made his efforts worthwhile, and the small boy provided a spark of hope in an otherwise dark world.

"Go on, Enrique, or your mom is gonna punish both of us, aren't you, babe?"

The boy reluctantly picked up his scattered books and received a pat on the butt from his smiling mom. Mariana joined Eddie on the Lazy-boy, his large body a perfect mattress. "You're staying home tonight?"

"Yup, I'm all what ya gonna do with me, huh?" he leered.

"Make you take out the trash," she said poking him in the ribs.

Mariana rested her head on his shoulder, breathing him in and content. They had moved into the two-bedroom apartment shortly after the birth of Enrique. It was comfortable and cozy. Their furniture wasn't spectacular, kids did things to furniture that made them old quickly, but the place had its collection of luxuries. Eddie kept strange hours, and usually Mariana would be tackling her own books along with Enrique. Eventually she had returned to school, received her G.E.D and applied to a city college where she attended part-time. The couple rested, satisfied with the sounds of Enrique getting ready for bed, trying his best not to wake the three-year-old toddler with whom he shared his room. Alejandra was a handful of dark hair, plump flesh and pale blue eyes, who imitated her godmother with uncanny accuracy. Magali would crack her small smirk for the child, and in return would receive a mirror image as a reward, and sometimes, sometimes, the dangerous woman would smile for her in secret. Eddie closed his eyes and sighed deeply, peace was its own luxury.


Casey heard Magali shuffling about, pushing through the bedroom closet in a huff and stomping into the bathroom. The light filtering into the room through the blinds cast an orange glow across the room, and the rest had done her a world of good. Contrary to what she had expected, the stuffiness in her chest had dissipated slightly, leaving her nothing more than uncomfortable. Two days of hibernation with tall, dark and dangerous-- some kind of medicine. She stretched the stiffness out of her limbs, Devi's heavy body weighing down her legs, and turned the TV on. A commercial for the newest toy fad flashed across the screen, the words 'five more days 'til X-Mas' running across the pictures. Shit, I have to get to the stores. A hunting knife for Russell, a video game for Clifford, Becky would probably like make-up or something. Mom...something expensive. Gali...hmmm?

Magali stormed into the room wearing a tight pair of black jeans and sports bra but barefoot. Her hair was tied back and wet, and it shone in its sleekness. "Hey sleepy," she said playfully.

"Mmm, what time is it?" Casey groaned.

"Two in the afternoon...I ordered a pie. Are you supposed to go to work tonight?" She continued to search the apartment, and let out a breath of exasperation when she spotted what she was looking for peeking out of Devi's kennel. "Devi! My last fuckin' pair of boots!" At the sound of the reprimand, Devi dug under the afghan and hid her head, half of her body sticking out from under the earth colors. Magali pulled the boots out from the crate and was relieved to see nothing more than a bit of slobber on the leg.

"Yeah I am, as a matter of fact. I need to be there by five. Did you say pie? As in pizza?" Magali nodded in response and padded into the bedroom.

Casey found the half-eaten pie on the kitchen counter, next to a half empty liter of soda. Some eating habits you have, Gali. She pulled off a piece and stuck it into the microwave, found a glass and poured what was left of the pop into it. "Where are you going?" she yelled over the beep of the microwave. The plate was hot and cheese dripped off the sides of the slice. She took a bite and swallowed some before she caught her breath and nearly choked. Magali entered the room in all of the splendor and treachery of Zero. She had pulled a taut black thermal shirt over her torso, showing off the curves in her shoulders, the menacing bulge of her biceps and triceps. A thick leather belt with a large, square, golden buckle circled her waist, and her eyes were once again hidden behind blue lenses. Strapped to her shoulders was the dark brown leather holster she favored, gun safely tucked between her arm and ribcage. Peeking out from her waist another brown holster held a firearm as well, and Casey was sure a knife was tucked unseen in one of her boots. "Uhm..."

"What's wrong?" Magali asked, her brows knitted above the mirrored lenses.

Casey held her breath; as much as the dark side of Magali was intimidating, it was just as sensual. Jesus...I may not like what you do, but you look so fucking hot. Great, now I'm thinking the way she talks. She forgot about the slice of pizza waiting, and her hands roamed up to Magali's shoulders and neck. It was all the invitation the taller woman needed, and she bent her head slightly to lick seductively at Casey's lips, the stud barely visible, letting her own hands run smoothly over tantalizing curves. Her heartbeat picked up steadily with the increasing contact, and with a deep sigh of heavy regret, she pulled herself away from her siren.

"Case, we can't do this right now, babe. You'll be late for work, and I have to go." Damn, what I wouldn't give to just stay here with you.

The blonde pressed her forehead to Magali's chest and inhaled her scent, a mixture of leather and soap. "Will you pass by the post tonight? We should be at the park, as usual."


After one last steamy kiss Magali went for her jacket, Devi close on her heels. "Not today, Devi, Nelson will come walk you, all right?" She patted the dog's head and closed the door gently behind her.

Dog and blonde stared at each other, and Casey broke the standoff by reaching for the pizza slice.

"She didn't take you, girl. That worries me."

She finished her slice, feeding some of it to Devi, and resolved to start her day. Magali's closet was a mess, clothes were scattered on the floor and shoes had been flung everywhere. A lot of black in here. She sifted through the clothing for something small enough to fit her. The clothes she had worn needed washing, and although she was planning on returning home, she refused to step out into the street looking like something the cat dragged around and left. Other than the obvious reasons, she was developing an affinity for the tall woman's clothing, especially shirts that somehow maintained some of her fragrance in their weave.

The shower welcomed her, and she regretted leaving its warmth to get dressed. She called a cab, not wanting to face the train just yet, filled Devi's bowl with food and another with water, and gave the animal a sturdy hug before leaving. "Later, Devi."

Security faded the minute Casey stepped out of the cab and went into her apartment. She wore a borrowed turtleneck and sheepskin loosely on her smaller frame. Large shards of glass, as well as tiny glittering specks, littered the floor beneath the window. The futon, from sheets down to the foam mattress, was soaked from the miniature avalanche of snow cascading through the shattered pane. Articles of clothing, books, and papers littered the floor, and her TV was conspicuous by its absence. Void of any enthusiasm, Casey began the arduous task of cleaning the apartment. Carefully she taped a black garbage bag over the jagged remains of the windowpane, and used a dustpan to shovel the snow away and into the tub. By the time she had arranged the scattered books, some semblance of warmth had returned to the room. Though the old-fashioned, iron steam radiator sputtered in a corner, her breath remained visible on the air. She blew into her cupped hands and briskly rubbed them together. I won't be able to stay here, will I?

It was as if Webster were a stalking phantom looking over her shoulder every second she was there. The feeling brought flashes of blue currents and splashing water, and the rotting smell of the New York coast. She searched for her uniform and changed quickly, leaving behind the apartment and its wisps of memory. The air was brisk and there was a slow wind that whipped her when she rounded the corner towards the train station. Down one flight of stairs into the underground station, she passed a man clothed in tatters, stinking of urine and bile, lying still on his cold concrete bed. She bought a token to put in the turnstile and walked out onto the platform. Grey tiles fell in some places, exposing the asphalt and steel of the tunnel walls. She was alone in the station, all alone, save for the booth attendant. She peered over her shoulder, checking the darkened ends of the platform, and watched the columns for some fictitious figure to emerge. A low rumbling preceded the silver bullet that rushed on thin rails of steel, and filled the station with its gush of air and noise. Casey stepped into the car hurriedly, inspecting the faces of the seated passengers who were oblivious to their surroundings, eyes staring at anything but each other. She opted to stare at the floor and buried her face in the collar of Magali's sheepskin jacket, finding comfort in the smell of leather.

The hospital was located on 168th street, over an underground labyrinth of train tunnels, stairways and lobbies that stretched for two blocks and across two avenues. She took the elevator up to a higher sub-level and then the stairs to the street. Broadway wound it's way up through Harlem, past the hospital, and died at the northernmost tip of the island. Along its tar veins, cabs and buses floated by-- a cacophony of engines and brakes leaving behind the smell of burning rubber. The odor filled the air, and again Casey was reminded of her ordeal at Webster's hand-- the burning, the aching, the screams ripped through her mind. She half trotted into the emergency room where the blue and white rig would be parked outside and where Jesse, and safety, would be waiting. In her stark white uniform, her gleaming silver badge pinned to her chest, Jesse leaned against a wall by the service entrance. Her brown eyes narrowed at the sight of Casey rushing up the ramp towards her. Her partner, Magali's cousin, was a source of relief with her perpetual jovial moods.

"Hey, Casey, I wasn't expecting you tonight." she blurted in mild surprise.

"Why not?" she asked, shaking off the cold.

"I ran into Eddie not too long ago by the bagel cart, and he told me what had happened. Come to think of it...I'm kinda mad at you."

"Me? What did I do?"

"Well, one of you could have called me and let me know you were alright. I should kick your butt."

Casey flung herself around Jesse, who chuckled and pushed the blonde away. "I'm sorry, Jess, we sort of got caught up in recovering."

"Recovering? I was referring to Magali getting arrested," she replied, her eyebrows rising into her forehead.

"Let's get this shift started and we'll talk." Casey looped an arm around Jesse's and began her long tale.


The holidays were always extra busy; everyone wanted to get high. Magali found Eddie cooking a concoction of water, bleach and cocaine over a small flame-- the newest batch of crack in the making. The 'office' was closed, and two other apartments in the building were being used for the heavy nickel and dime jobs that went on throughout the day and night. The triple beam scale had been removed from the table and replaced by an oversized map of Brooklyn, as she had requested earlier. Four men sat on the beat-up couch; some sniffed their share of white crystal electricity or puffed on a cigar filled with weed. Their smoke and the pungent odors of the cooking cocaine filled the small space with an acrid aroma.

"Did you get the bags from Wu, Eddie?"

He nodded, intent on his project, and Magali gave one of the men an icy stare and a tilt of her chin. He sat up straight, recognizing the wordless command, and went into the adjacent room pulling another man behind him. They returned with four large duffel bags and laid them at her feet. She opened one and pulled out a heavy black vest with a high collar. She tried it on for size and smirked in approval. Bulletproof, and not bad looking either. With a quick motion, she opened a second bag and leered in satisfaction at its contents, her tongue flicking across her lips, the stud shining momentarily. One, long, wooden-handled and arched clip assault rifle slid out from the bag under her control. Oooh, China's AK 47-assault rifle; you're wonderful Wu, really. She counted ten of the rifles, five in each bag, with an equal number of vests for the small army she was mounting. The fourth bag was filled with extra magazines of ammunition, black masks, belts, a few bowie knives and ten black flight suits. Pleased with the equipment for the night, she strolled over to the table and leaned over the map.

The graph was littered with red dots, indicating where the drug distribution spots were and to whom they belonged. A thick black line showed the division of neighborhoods with Red Hook her intended target, highlighted. The scene would be crazy in a couple of hours, and the waves caused by her actions would be felt in the outlying neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Caroll Gardens, where the majority of the population were of New York's landed middle class. It would make those taxpayers nervous, and they would request police support from the Mayor, who just happened to have recently had the money for a special task unit allocated recently to the city. It wouldn't take long for the semi-affluent communities to see their requested enforcement, but somehow the expenses wouldn't be consistent with the number of uniforms, and no one would notice. It was her deal with Moreno-- in exchange for taking an officer's life, she would cause chaos to reign in Brooklyn. The officer, Webster, had gotten off easy, thanks to Casey's calming presence.

Eddie finished cooking the paste and stuck the whole mess into the oven to bake, then joined her at the table. "This what you wanted, right?" Eddie asked in a whisper.

Magali nodded, running through a million different schemes and scenarios in her mind all at once. There were angles and names, streets, and advantage points, strengths and weaknesses to consider.

"Did you get the truck?"

"Yeah, it should be here any minute."


She waved the lounging men over to where she stood. They gathered around her, outfitted in black, all dark-haired and tan, five o'clock shadows on their faces. Her finger traced an area on the map and came to rest on a building surrounded by a network of alleys. The ring on her finger, with its crown of diamonds surrounding an onyx glimmered. "We hit here." She pointed at two of them and locked them in with her eyes. "You two come in this way; there should be a fire-escape in this alley. Go up to the second floor and in through the window, but not until you hear them firing. That means we made it up through the front. I can't have this mother-fucker running; he has to be there when I step in, got it?" The men nodded, while the remaining two waited, anticipation clear in their expressions. "You two come in through here. Go up in through the building, out to the roof, then cross over. There's a landing right here. Throw down a cocktail, and it's on. Once in, make your way down to the second floor. Careful you don't end up shooting me, eh." She left them to run over the plan with each other and become familiar with the layout, and with the possibility of dying.

"Are you sure you want to run the point with me, Eddie?" she asked putting an arm around his shoulders.

"I always run the point with know that."

"Yeah, you have a family and shit"

"So you sayin' it's all right if you get killed but not me. You have a family too."

"No I don't." she let out, one dark eyebrow raised.

"Who's Casey then?" he said smugly.

Although her expression did not change, a slow blush crept up her neck and into her cheeks. Eddie smiled at her, but she characteristically stuck her hands in her pockets and walked away towards the window without a word. She produced a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket and, leaning against the frame of the cardboard covered window, she lit one. Change the subject.

"Did you tell the guys to get the gas?"

"Yeah, twenty cans right?"

She nodded and pulled on the cigarette, inhaling the smooth smoke sharply. "I'll be right back," she said, stepping away from the window and moving out the door. She climbed the flight of stairs up to the roof and pushed the metal door open. A young guard-female she ascertained by the shadow cast from her blowing hair-- stood rigid, then relaxed upon recognizing the tall, dark form. The city's outline glared at her with millions of bright eyes. Small blinking lights of a helicopter swam in a starless sky of endless black, scanning the city with a long bright beam of white. Someone was cooking, and the smell of rice and beans wafted through the dark air. She inhaled it-- the fragrance of a home, a family waiting, and someone's care. Casey? My family? People like me don't have families, we have business partners, socios, homeboys. What the fuck do I have to offer her, huh? Nada, nothing man, nothing. And if you let her go Zee, then what? She'll make her own decision in time; she's too smart to stick around someone like you. A large, white delivery truck pulled up in front of the building, and she spat over the side. Show time.

Nine men waited for her, nervously hyped on drugs and anticipation, feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders. Soldiers waiting for a landing on a foreign beach, they fidgeted, worked their jaws and fingers, bit off nails and cursed.

"Relax, boys. Just another night out. You four, grab a bag and head downstairs." The men did as she asked, and she waited a minute or two before sending the rest. "Eddie, if it gets too hot, you break out of there as fast as you can.""


"No buts...leave me if you have to...tell Casey I loved her," she finished in a whisper, her eyes downcast.

His face was one of pure shock. The words, given life by a voice that had never before formed those requisite syllables, left him speechless.

"Pick up your jaw, Eddie, or you're gonna trip over your bottom lip. Now stop staring and let's get going." She pushed past him, and set herself on the task ahead.

The truck had no heating in the back but, wisely, all the members of the party had worn thermals and donned the flight suits ahead of schedule to fight the cold. Magali rubbed her hands together in the light provided by a few flashlights, occasionally looking at her watch, and rubbing the blue tattoo underneath it. The ride would take forty-five minutes, and each second had to be used to run over the plans once more, and make last minute preparations. Ammo clips and knives were placed on belts, vests secured under suits, masks and gloves fitted, bottles filled with gasoline and rags. Each man held a rifle, cocked and locked, eyes blank and cold. Screeching brakes, a jolt, and the truck stopped. Magali opened the side door and four men slipped out into the darkness and faded away. The truck rolled on, and Eddie smiled at her, only to receive the ice that was beginning to take a firm hold in cerulean eyes. Bajo Zero.

They waited, hours it seemed, after the truck came to a stop once more. The sound of labored breathing was heavy and echoing in the hold of the vehicle, mixing with the heady fumes of gas. Magali released the safety on the rifle and held her breath as mimicking clicks were heard around her. Thankfully, the winter cold would keep the innocents inside, making the job easier. Still, she issued her usual warning, "Careful who you shoot out there-- no kids, no women...unless they're holding a gun." Silently her entourage nodded, and one coughed. They were scared-- of dying and of failing. Each man was familiar with the prescence of death-- a killer virus running through his veins, put there by stupid decisions. She picked these men for that one reason, promising them large amounts of money for their families, when in any other case they would have been left destitute. The explosion rocked the truck, and Magali's hand was on the latch instantaneously. She opened the door, and was face to face with the heat of a fiery hunk of metal that was once a car.

Night was a Jekyll and Hyde potion with which time injected the city. It turned the buildings into blocks of black and gray; the people became stranger, and a general air of suspicion ran rampant. The Molotov cocktail broke against the car and set it aflame; a truck door slid open and five dark figures, blurred against the flames, brought chaos on the wind. Shots rang out, littered the street with bullets, and junkies and dealers became friends as they ran to cover themselves from the fury. Evenly, the figures crossed the street: no rush, their steps timed, bursts of light flaring from raised rifles. As if they were one body, they moved towards the two-story brownstone, hunters on the prey. Four wore masks and followed a tall, menacing figure, her raven hair unfurled on the wind, a stony expression on her sharp features.

Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, no matter where they squatted, these buildings all looked the same, smelled the same. Dark lobbies, urine and bleach, cracked and peeling paint, broken windows, discarded foil and needles in the corners. It was a classic drug den, where not one apartment was in use, except for an occasional junkie too stoned to leave the premises. Magali reached the steps and peered around the cornering landing, Eddie breathing down her neck; she gave him a shove backwards. The other men turned their backs to her, watching for anyone crazy enough to follow them. A whizzing passed her head and thumped into the wall behind her. She ran up two steps, aimed into the darkness and emptied a clip, released it as Eddie moved up ahead of her, and reloaded.

She scowled, "Sonofabitch."

Intent on getting to Eddie, she ran the last few steps up to the second floor. A barrage followed her, spraying the wall at her side with large flaking holes. She fired in return, the AK pulsating against her rib cage. A heavy door slammed open and a fresh round began, arching tracers of green light slamming their way towards Eddie. She lunged at him, taking them both to the ground. He curled in, grabbing for his thigh and a rip in his suit that spurted fresh blood. She felt a sting on her upper-arm, and then she was sitting up, firing at the open doorway, the vibrations sending sharp pains into her shoulder. Just a graze. Glass broke, running footfalls echoed down the stairs, a rain of metal shredded the door, and a silhouette shook and fell limp to the ground. Silence descended, and Eddie moaned. She reached for him and pulled him to his feet.

"Take him," she ordered to a masked form. "Bring him inside." Sweat trickled down the side of her face; she licked her lips, stepped cautiously to the door and kicked the new corpse lying across the threshold. She veered in, leaving a smear of red on the wall; her rifle pointed down the long dark hallway of the apartment. The wooden boards of the floor creaked under her, and she heard a shuffling a few feet ahead of her, then a light went on.

"Zee! We're in!"

"About fucking time! I told you to come in when the firing started!" she yelled back at the men.

The room could have been her 'office' back in Manhattan. One long table was overturned, a triple beam scale was tipped over on the floor, and a raggedy couch leaned against a wall on three legs. The foul smell of human excrement reached her, further sickening the diseased air, and she kicked the table out of the way. Dressed completely in white-- almost completely-- a rather large man huddled where the table had been, his head tucked into his knees. His dark skin contrasted with his light attire, and short dred locks poked topsy-turvy from the top of his head. Magali grabbed him by the nape of his neck and flung him onto the couch, a disgusted sneer on her face. The third leg gave out and left the piece of furniture lying at an awkward slant. She handed off her rifle to one of the masked men and pulled her knife from her boot. Raising one dark eyebrow, she eyed the blade with a smirk and used the point to lift the man's chin, forcing him to look at her.

"Do you know me, Bati-boy," she asked in a low growl. Good Zee, call the man a faggot in his own slang, get a rise out of him...maybe you won't feel bad for killing the poor bastard then, right?

"Me not not want to know," he replied in a heavy Jamaican accent.

"That's good...but I think you play nice and tell me where the money is."

Shakily he lifted a weary hand and pointed to a small closet at the far end of the room. Magali cocked her head, and one of the men rushed away to the appointed door and retrieved a large paper bag. She pressed the knife into the soft flesh, a small crimson drop immediately appeared, and the man flinched, swallowing hard. Her pulse quickened with the taste of power, and the darkness crept up, slowly burning and urging her on. She flattened the blade across his neck, watched as his eyes grew wide with fear, and her grip tightened. I'm no better than Webster, I enjoy this too much...that has to be wrong. What would you do if someone were holding a knife to Casey's throat?

"You're out of business, little man...this place belongs to me now, got it?"

Before he could answer, the wailing sound of a siren echoed in through the building, and booted steps ran up the stairs and into the apartment. "Cops! Four cars," came the shouts. Slit his throat... now or never. He's not fighting me, God, why won't he fight me? Magali grabbed him; choking him with one strong, angry hand, she lifted the man from his seat. She searched the room with frantic eyes and settled on a white gleaming Ziplock bag. You're getting soft, Zee. Reaching for it, she dragged the frightened man with her. She picked up the sought after object and shoved it into the waistband of her captive's pants, then gave him a shove through the doorway.

"Go on, get out of here! Run," she yelled after him; and he scampered down the stairs and into the darkness. The outside door slammed open and slammed closed. She waited and listened for the voices from the street that told her he had been spotted.

"Burn it down," she said with an icy ring in her voice, and four men lit rag tailed bottles. They disappeared down the long hallway, and glass popped as the cocktails were thrown about, the smell of burning paint quickly filling the air. "Everyone up to the roof, now!" One by one they exited out through the shattered window, ascended the fire escape, gathered on the roof and lay on their bellies. She crawled to the ledge and peered down, two blue and white cars, lights spinning, blocked each entrance to the street. Eddie cringed silently next to her, surveying the scene with a pallid expression, the strain of climbing the stairs taking it's toll on his injured leg.

"You alright Eddie?"

He nodded, biting his lip. "It's no big deal, honest Zee."

"Think you can run on it?"

" way they're taking me down, not tonight," he replied with a grin.

"Give me a cocktail," she whispered roughly, and was handed a fiery bottle. This will look nice on the news. She flung the concoction with deadly accuracy towards the abandoned truck on the street, the explosion rocking the shaky surface of the brownstone roof where they lay. Uniforms scattered, and the street was bathed in light from the, now, two burning vehicles. "Let's go," she commanded and the team rose, jumped to the connecting landing and crossed to an adjacent building. They ran, wordlessly over the rooftops, jumping and flying over gaps left by alleyways, bats out of hell. The Olympic jumpers had little on them. They jumped weighted down, one wrong step threatening a free-fall down to the concrete. Magali ran last, remaining behind a slower moving Eddie, watching his steps grow weaker with each jump. It was the last roof, and she held her breath as he came up short and smacked into the side of the building, hanging from the ledge. Pushed by adrenaline, the asphalt a black blur several stories beneath her feet, she flew through the air and landed a few feet away from him.

"Don't look down...give me your hand man. Mariana will kill me if you fall."

He grabbed for her, first with one hand and then the other. She strained against his weight, and her footing slipped on old ice; blood poured from her wound and her hands grew slick. Shit, shit...pull, Zee, don't let him go. He kicked at the wall, using his good leg to give her some leverage, and she pulled back once more with all her strength. Her shoulders popped, joints ached and the bullet's graze burned. She saw the flash of fear on his face followed by resignation.

"Come on, Eddie!"

"Let me go, Zee...I'm not worth it," he yelled back, a fatalistic toll in his voice.

"The hell you aren't...sonofabitch, pull. You quit now, and Enrique will have to make the same choices we made. You want that?!"


With new determination at the mention of his son, Eddie forced his limbs to work. They worked in unison, with the strength of friendship giving them renewed energy. In one glorious moment he was over, knocking them both to the ground; he landed on top of her and rolled over.

"I never thought I'd be laying on top of Bajo Zero," he chuckled lightly.

"Very fucking funny, Eddie...remind me to smack you later," she said getting to her feet and pulling him up.

Their flight had taken them to the furthest corner of the opposite street, to a building that connected with a gas station via a shared basement. They stumbled down the stairs into the stonewalled rooms of the subterranean labyrinth, and then into a storage room. The rest of the men were already there, stripping off their flight suits and shoving them into huge garbage bags, along with their weapons. Magali threw off her vest and unzipped her own suit, glad she had dressed in all black. The thermal she wore stuck to her skin in a mixture of sweat and blood. She inspected the rip on her arm, nothing but a deep gash, irritated by the force she had used to pull Eddies' heavy body. He was being helped out of his vest and suit, and she knelt by his side to look at his injury. His blue jeans had turned crimson, and using her knife she ripped open the pants leg to stare at an ugly black hole oozing red.

"Damn, Zee. You had your guns on under that suit," he asked mockingly.

"Shut up Eddie...looks like the bullet went in and out. Lucky you have a thick thigh, motherfucker; I don't think it hit your bone. Give me one of those flight suits!"

She ripped at the offered black cloth and tore off a few strips, pressing them into a makeshift bandage.

"That ought to slow down the bleeding...we need to get out of here."

They collected the bags and surfaced out onto the sidewalk through a cargo elevator, where a city garbage truck waited. They flung the bags into the disposal area, and immense metal jaws clamped down, crushing and compacting the deadly debris. Magali gave the side of the truck a slap, and it took off rumbling down the street. She looked at her watch, then wiped the smear of blood off its face with her thumb. Small red specks littered the sidewalk; some were hers, but most were coming from Eddie. The cold night air chilled her lungs, but it tasted like life-- something suddenly important to her.

Two dark vans pulled into the station, and the group split, with each section entering one of the vehicles. Eddie limped, and Magali gave him a shoulder to lean on, furtively glancing around the area for anyone who may have been watching the strange parade. Not one pedestrian was out, all the neighborhood residents enjoying the fire show not far away. When the door slid shut, they all exhaled in relief, and Eddie finally moaned. A bulging paper bag made its way, hand by hand, to Magali and she opened it to look inside. This is going to be a fun Christmas.

"Back to the block, and don't speed."


Yellow streetlights covered the park with a soft glow, shadows moved with the wind, and a small Terrier lifted his leg while his master watched. The circular driveway, which served as the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, gave the mile long avenue a thermometer-like shape. In the middle of winter the children's area was desolate; twisted metal shapes covered in ice made interesting sculptures of the playground. Old-fashioned street lamps lined the sidewalk, and cobblestone added to the illusion of days long gone. An iron-gate marked "Subway" was discreetly tucked away next to a stone L-shaped building. Idly sitting at the apex of the driveway, its engine humming with heat, a square vehicle sporting the word 'Emergency' bided its time.

Casey listened to the ramblings from the CB radio and stared out the window wondering about what her dark lover could be doing. Jesse's recent purchase of a small portable TV set was keeping her entertained and quiet. There were no words being spoken between the two EMTs; everything had already been said. Casey's retelling the story of her captivity with Webster to Jesse had lifted an unseen weight off her chest. She was unable to share the entire litany of horror with her lover, knowing that it would burden Magali with a need for vengeance that the woman could not yet control. Instead, she had shed tears of frustration and related her peaceful yearnings to her her ambulance partner and had watched her face grow ever more impassive. She suspected Jesse was flicking through past warnings she had issued about an involvement with her volatile cousin, but once the decision was made to disclose the events of the terror-filled night, Casey found it hard to stop the torrent of thoughts from flowing out of her. Sharing it with Jesse had been a tough choice; it had been the right choice to make, but it had also created the silence in which they sat.

"Damn, Brooklyn's on fire," Jesse stated, almost to herself.

"What?" Casey leaned over to get a look at the small blue screen lying on Jesse's lap.

"Yeah, look. Two cars are on fire...wait one is a truck...and looks like a brownstone too." Jesse pointed to the fiery spots being aired by the local news.

"Turn up the volume, Jesse."

The dark-haired woman rubbed at a corner of the small set, and the newscaster's voice came out. It related the story of a fierce shootout, attributing the events to a gangland war that police had been predicting would explode in the neighborhood for some time. The camera panned the scene: the faces of the residents intent on the fires, the running police officers, and firemen braving the flames. With an air of elation and sincerity, the newscaster related the success of the fire department in controlling the inferno, but went on to reveal the discovery of at least four dead men within the building, apparently killed by gunfire.

"That neighborhood isn't all that great, but you usually don't hear anything about it on the news. Weird... Where's Zee tonight?"

Casey shrugged her shoulders. "I have no idea, she doesn't tell me where she's going. She did say she would pass by tonight. Why?"

"Just wondering that's all. And...I'm worried about you," she said keeping her eyes on the screen.

"Oh...but, it's strange Jesse-- when I'm with her I"

"Safe? Are you nuts? She's dangerous Casey, is she that good a lay?"

"Actually, yeah she is...but, it's more than that...I think I'm in love with her." Casey could hardly believe she was admitting it out loud, when she had scarcely acknowledged it herself.

"You're what? Did I just hear you right, you're in love with her? Has she..."

"No, she hasn't. So you can keep what I just said to yourself, please."

"Then how do you know if she feels the same way? Hell, does she feel at all?"

"She doesn't say much of anything; it's just little things, like her trying to make me soup." Casey chuckled at the memory.

"She burn the house down?" Jesse couldn't forestall the smile on her face at the thought of her dark cousin doing anything remotely domestic. "When she was young her brother Jorge did all the cooking."

"No chance of her burning the house down...she forgot to turn the burner on. Can I ask you something?"


"Has she ever been in a relationship with anyone?"

"Once, a few years ago, but the lady was deported back to China. Zee hasn't mentioned her since. I heard a rumor she was pregnant once, but I doubt it, although I couldn't begin to count the 'liaisons' she's had. Careful you don't end up on that list, Casey."

"Somehow I don't think so."

Jesse reached for the vibrating beeper attached to her belt, and pressed the side button to light the screen. "Speak of the devil and she comes. I think this is for you," she said handing off the gadget to Casey. "There's a phone inside the subway entrance. Better give her a call back, she's an impatient one."

"Tell me about it."

The frigid air contrasted with the heat of the ambulance cab, and she could see her breath on the wind as she crossed the street. The station was lined with white and turquoise tiles, and was well lit. She found the wall mounted phone and dialed the familiar number of Magali's cell phone. It rang twice before it was answered, and she could hear music and the murmuring of men's voices coming through the receiver.


"Hey, Honey, where are you?"

"Casey? Where's Jesse?" She was rushing through her words without thinking, blood pouring through the bandage she had rigged to Eddie's leg.

"She gave me the beeper to call you. Why? You didn't want to speak to me?" Casey was stunned at Magali's reaction to her voice, and she gripped the coiled wire of the phone.

"Uhmm...yeah, I uh...listen can you girls meet me on the block, 164th... I need a suture kit."

"A suture kit? Magali Guerrerro, what have you been doing to yourself now?"

"It's not me, it's for Eddie." The tone of her voice had turned to that of a child explaining some wrong doing.

"Take him to the hospital," she stated matter-of-factly.


"Okay...we're on our way then." Worry was easy; getting answers from Magali was not.

Traveling was slow through the ever-present Manhattan traffic without using the overhead lights, but a call from Magali asking for a suture kit seemed to be commonplace according to Jesse. Peculiar as it was for Casey to deliver medical supplies to a place exactly four blocks away from a hospital, she took the woman's word for it. As always, there was a smattering of young men and women standing in front of the building where Magali held council, shivering and smoking in the cold of the night. The scene reminded her of the first time she had seen Magali as Bajo Zero, beating a man nearly to death as he ran from her. She shook off the image, replacing it with another memory of a much more tender Magali. Casey was about to step out of the ambulance when a young woman approached the door, something like a frown under her hazel green eyes.

"You have the kit?" She was out of breath as she spoke.

"Where's Zee," Jesse questioned from the drivers seat.

"She said I should get the kit and take it upstairs, but she said she would need more than three or four. So can I get it?"

"Not 'till I see Zee." Casey used her best no-nonsense voice, the one she utilized for scolding her siblings

"What do you want to do, get me in trouble? If she don't get this shit soon she's gonna blow her top. You ever see her do that?" The girl swung her head as she spoke, emphasizing her words with her eyes and lips.

Casey went in the back and retrieved three other kits and handed them over to her. "Here, tell her Casey wants to see her, and she's not leaving until she does." You better be all right, or I'm gonna hurt you Gali.

"I'll tell her," the girl yelled over her shoulder as she faded away.

Minutes later she reappeared, as breathless as before, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. Casey lowered the window, letting in the cold. The girl's expression had changed somewhat, and Casey was unsure whether she saw anger or discomfort on the young, pretty face.


"She should meet her home when you get off from work." So you're the bitch. She wouldn't fuck me...'cause she's fucking you. I bet I'm better. Does she show you her dark side? The one that can eat you up and make you scream for more?

"What floor is she on?"

"Fuck that, think I'm going to tell you? I'm not stupid, lady."

Casey shoved the door open, pushing the girl out of the way with the same motion. "Out of my way, kid."


Callie had enjoyed playing messenger, Magali could tell by the appreciative look she received from the girl. She had stripped her with her eyes, bold she had thought, although she left little to the imagination clad only in her jeans and sports bra. She had given the girl a reply to carry, not one that had pleased her, and it offered a bit of information she had not been happy to give. That's trouble in the making, I can feel it. It had been merely days since the girl had lain on her bed panting, willing to offer herself up for whatever Magali cared to dish out. Big shouldn't have been, you shouldn't care. What did Eddie say, family?

Eddie had been laid out on the table, bleeding all over everything, while the others counted and bundled the money. Some of the bills, stained with red, were being washed over the sink. Magli removed the bandage from around his leg and scrutinized the wounds closely. She had sprinkled some white powder over the gaping holes, and was waiting for the powder to do the work of one of its positive roles. She washed her hands under hot water and opened up one of the kits.

"You ready?"

Meekly Eddie nodded, closing his eyes and taking a swig from the bottle of rum in his hand. A voice in the hallway, sharp and angry, caused the men to jump from their seats. "Zee!"

"Aww, fuck. That woman just doesn't listen, does she?" She had started the first stitch when she recognized the voice, and scowled. "Open the door fellas, and get that woman in here before she scares the whole building awake."

"Ooo...Zero's in trouble," Eddie sang and chuckled between clenched teeth.

"Shut up, Eddie," she warned.

Casey entered the small apartment with suspicion, not knowing exactly what to expect, but with full confidence in her safety with the knowledge that she walked on Magali's turf. Half-naked, her skin streaked in crimson, a cigarette dangling from her lips, Magali leaned over an injured Eddie carefully sewing an ugly hole.

"Zee? What the hell happened?!"

"Hey, baby...just a little fun that's all," she mocked, her eyes on her task.

"Fun, fun? You call this fun," she asked in exasperation, as she walked closer to the table.

"Eddie, give me that bottle." She took a hard swallow and gave the rum back, not once looking at the fuming woman by her side. "And they say I have a bad temper," she said with a smirk that got her a round of laughter from the unruly men busy counting.

"Let me see." Casey inspected the sewing job Magali was working on, it was satisfactory, the stitches straight and neat, tight enough to close the skin but not rip through. "Where'd you...never mind."

"Casey, go on and get out of here. Baby, this is not the place for you to be."

"Not until I get a look at you. Zee, some that's yours, isn't it," she directed her question to the brown stains drying on her arm and torso.

"Do you know where you are? Take a good look around." she hissed, not comfortable with Casey's prescence in her den of cutthroats.

Two men washed bloody bills over a kitchen sink, handing them off to a third who promptly took them into a bathroom, where a hair dryer was working at full speed. Three others counted bills and wrapped them, placing them carefully into a case. Three plastic bags rested in a corner, easily containing a 20 to life sentence, behind a triple beam scale. Magali's shoulder holster was at her feet, and a gun protruded from her waist just under the image of three men in a boat inked into the skin of her back. A compact stereo played gangsta hip hop under a cardboard covered window, its volume just loud enough to hear the bass. A hard knock on the door interrupted Casey's survey, and Eddie grimaced as Magali put in the last stitch and pushed him over on his back.

"Eddie? Are you in there?" came the voice from the other side of the door.

"Ooo...Eddie's in trouble," Magali mimicked as she strolled towards the door and opened it to face a hysterical Mariana. "Hello Mari, he's in here, relax."

Mariana started to say something, her jaw busily working silent words, but was stilled by the pale blue of the imposing woman's eyes. She had known Zero for many years, trusted her with her children, but was as intimidated by her as anyone else. She dodged under Magali's arm and ran towards the table, where her husband was hiding his face in his hands.

"Eddie! I knew it...when I saw the news, I just knew it."

"Honey, go home. I'm all right."

"All right? She's going to get you fucking killed one day, Eddie." She turned on Magali who was being inspected by a concerned Casey, love and worry devouring her fear. "It was you, wasn't it? That shit had your name all over it, were in Brooklyn, weren't you? Weren't you?"

Magali froze, the monster within stirring, caught between Casey and Mariana and other lookers on. "Out boys, go take your AZT or something" The men dropped their chores and rushed out the door as Magali stepped closer to Mariana. "Watch your mouth, Mari,"she growled. "Who are the kids with?"

"Enrique is old enough to look after himself and Alex, like you care anyway."

She bit her lip holding back her words. "Let me stitch finish stitching him up, and then he can go home with you."

"This time, right, Zee? What about next time, huh? Or what, you don't want your girlfriend to know the truth about you?

Casey's brow lifted, and a ghost of defensiveness took possession. "I know everything about her; all I need to know." Brooklyn? That mess was her doing?

"I'm sorry, we haven't met have we? Mariana, Eddie's wife," she said offering her hand to Casey. "Take my advice, run, run as fast as you can before you start caring. This one," she pointed at Magali, "she doesn't give a fuck about anyone or anything."

Magali narrowed her eyes, and padded over to Eddie, resuming her work silently. She's lucky she takes care of Alejandra.

"Casey, a pleasure. And that's not true," Casey shot back, surprised at Magali's passive demeanor.

"Don't let her fool you, Casey. She's nothing but a cold blooded murderer...who can't even love her own--"

"Mariana! That's enough!" Eddie lifted half his body off the table, and nailed his wife with a stern look as a firm hand gently pushed him down.

Magali did not raise her eyes and continued to stitch the wound meticulously. "Lay still, Eddie, I'm almost done. know I'm grateful for everything you and Eddie have done for me. But if you're going to air my dirty laundry, then I might as well..."

"You can't have her back! You should have died in that hospital, Bajo Zero."

"That's not what I was going to say. Get up, Eddie; it's done. I're right, I'm all those things. Happy? But, who are you hurting here? Me? You just said I don't give a fuck about anything, right? Go home, Mariana. You're just shook up right now. Go cool off, before something happens that we will all regret."

Eddie limped towards his wife and put an arm around her waist, whispering in her ear. "She's right, Mari. We go through this every time something bad comes down." He pushed her gently towards the door, while she cried into his shoulder. He turned to look at Magali who was visibly shaking with controlled rage, and mouthed an apology.

She raised a hand to wave him off and hung her head, taking deep breaths. Casey ambled over to her, kissing her cheek lightly. "Let me take care of that for you," she said, picking up the third suture kit. Magali sat on the table; her eyes to the ground she struggled between sadness and fury. She felt the first sting of a stitch on her arm, but the pain was far away, dreamlike.

"She's right, Casey. You don't need this, you deserve better."

"She's not right. She doesn't see the woman I do, capable of so much. And I do deserve don't ask me for just...besides it's too late."

"What's too late?" She knit her brows, feigning confusion.

"I''re stuck with me, Magali Guerrerro, and that's that." Wordlessly, Casey continued sewing the deep, angry gash, and planted a soft kiss on her lips. It was returned with a long heated moment of playing tongues and hands. The little things. Magali's skin was fevered under her touch as she pinched the skin together and ran the hook-like needle through it.

"Gali? Doesn't this hurt," Casey asked frowning at the thought of doing the job without any Novocane.

"Nope. My mind's elsewhere," she smirked, raising an eyebrow, and closing her eyes. Letting the deft fingers of her caretaker do more than close her physical wound.

"Yeah? Where is it," she persisted grinning.

"It's...on how your hands feel on me." And melt everything away, how they wash me clean, make me human. She opened her eyes to gaze briefly upon the emerald ocean that swallowed her completely, then surrendered to the tender feel of Casey's touch sending warm tendrils of fire through her. Pain made it real; Casey turned the nightmare into a dream of security, a smoky peace. Her shoulders relaxed, her breathing slowed, and the apartment, the guns, the ringing in her ears slipped away into oblivion. There was only her Saint, and her caress turning fire into dust.

Casey felt the shift, could sense the distance Magali had thrown up like a wall, enclosing them in their own world. Her strokes, pulling the thread through the reddened skin, became an embrace transporting her into another world, where only she and her Black Velvet existed.

A horn from the street blared through the mists, pulled the curtain aside; Casey put in the last stitch. Magali turned her face up to look at her, the loss blatant in her eyes. She cupped Casey's chin, tenderly brushing her lips with her own; the blond stood between her legs and, leaning into her, put her hands on strong shoulders.

"You should go now, baby. I have stuff to finish here. I'll meet you back at my place...if you want to go there."

"I do. And, more booboos tonight, okay?"

Magali rolled her eyes and smirked. "Promise."

After Casey left, she called the washers back, her usual icy expression plastered over a whirlwind of emotions, hiding them from the world.

Part 2

Devi met her owner at the door with a long yawn, gave her a sniff and crawled into her kennel. Magali stopped in front of the altar to light a candle, the golden crown on the virgin's head shimmering. Bowing her head for a quick moment, she gave thanks and ambled into the living room. Running her fingers through her raven hair, she frowned at the loss of yet another shirt. She had discarded the ripped and bloody garment into a garbage dumpster and, wearing only her jacket and sports bra, came home shivering. She shrugged her jacket off and rubbed her bare arms, the leather of her holster cold against her skin. Her neck popped as she tilted it to the sides and rolled her shoulders, getting the same effect. The freshly sewn gash on her arm ached, and the night's events had left her skin sticky and rust-stained. I need a shower, big time, she thought, walking into the bathroom.

The water was warm, and she breathed in the steam. Letting the torrent wash over her, she thought of Casey's touch. Seven days left of freedom, then two months without her. They're going to be longer than I thought, fuck. She rinsed the soap off and stepped out into the dim light of the bathroom. Fresh, dark blue towels had been slung over the rack behind the door, and she smiled. A terry cloth bathrobe hung off a hook on the wall, and she pulled it over her long frame. I could get used to having her around... though I shouldn't. Sticking her hands in the pockets of the robe, she found a neatly folded paper and held it up to the light to read. Simply written there in neat script were the words "come to bed", and her smile broadened.

The sheer curtains draped in front of the balcony doors let in the moonlight reflecting off of the black currents of the river below. The sheets had been changed from satin to solid flannel, and a quilt she remembered buying but never using laid in neat folds at the foot of the bed. Peeking out from the dark colors of the sheets, a fair contrast in blue depths, she could make out half of Casey's bare form. Her arms were tucked under the pillow on which she lay, and strands of hair fell gently around her face and shoulders. Magali's breath caught in her throat, her pulse jumped into high gear, and she gazed at the sight before her-- admiring the deep crease down the middle of the woman's back.

Quietly she stepped closer, the clean smell of the sheets mixing with her Saint's mild scent. Magali knelt by the side of the bed, tentatively touching the warm skin, tracing a line with her finger down from her shoulders to the edge of the sheets. Casey moved slightly at the touch; still asleep, she emitted an uninhibited moan. The temptation produced by the low sound was enough to make Magali bring her lips to taste the woman, and she planted small kisses down Casey's spine. She stirred slightly, a humming in her throat and a small gasp for air as she turned onto her back and grabbed for dark hair, tangling her fingers in the wet tresses. Magali's hand skimmed her skin, ending its journey at her breast; her lips, never losing their contact, followed. Her mouth captured a hardened nipple, and she licked it teasingly.

Casey gasped as a second hand burned a pathway down her belly, stopping over her mound and pressing lightly in a circular motion. Her hands wandered over to strong shoulders, pressing her Black Velvet closer, seeking the skin hidden beneath the robe. The hand left her briefly and found the small of her back, lifting her up to sit and then kneel on the edge of the bed. Magali stood before her, and she lifted her hands to the knotted belt around her waist and undid the binding. The robe fell open, and Magali pulled it off her shoulders, letting the dark cloth fall to the floor. Casey licked at her navel, breathing deeply the musk of her skin. Her hands wound their way around Black Velvet's waist as Magali's hands grabbed her hair pulling her head back gently, and devoured her with a desperate kiss.

Disentangling herself and climbing onto the bed, Magali placed herself behind Casey. Pressing her chest to her Saint's back, she let her hands roam and found Casey's breasts, her fingers twisting the nipples tenderly and kneading them. With one hand, she trailed her Saint's midsection down to taut thighs and spread her legs wider. Magali felt the wetness smeared on them and headed for its source, finding silky folds saturated with need. She longed to crawl inside of her and be enveloped in her silkiness. Intently, she pushed in two fingers, groaning at the sensation of being inside Casey as the woman writhed. She leaned close to her ear, and in a husky voice whispered, "Touch yourself for me." Casey inhaled sharply, the tone commanding and seductive and, with a shaking hand, she reached for her own heated center.

Her fingers circled her swollen clit, the touch making her buckle, and Magali pressed another finger into her opening. "Yes, baby...please, more." Black Velvet latched herself onto Casey's neck, sucking the tender skin and grazing it with her teeth. She shivered with the strain of holding back, not wanting to release the beast that raged within her and, in a moment of weakness, pushed in a fourth finger harder than she intended. A whimper escaped Casey's lips, and she reached for Black Velvet, arching her back in the process. Fiery tendrils worked their way up from deep within Magali, and she pushed harder as Casey thrashed against her and clawed at her shoulder.

Black Velvet groaned, squeezed her thigh, leaving a mark there. She raked her nails up Casey's body, roughly gripping at a breast. Without warning she pulled her hand out, and pushed her Saint face down, laying over her and biting into the skin of her back as she pushed her legs open and entered her. Casey's head whipped back as an open palm struck her skin. Her cheek on fire from the heavy stroke, she buried her face in the sheets. Magali could feel her fingers hitting the wall inside of Casey, watched her back move in labored breaths and a roar reverberated within her mind. Black Velvet extricated herself, and Casey squirmed, clutching at a pillow, her hands trembling with effort. Magali reached for the robe and pulled the belt free from its loops. She flipped Casey over, her chest burning, and captured both of her Saint's hands, binding them together with the belt, and raising them above her head. Her mouth fell onto her breasts and she feasted on them hungrily, pressing her hand into the woman forcefully, lost in the aching. Her thumb circled Casey's center, and she bit on a nipple, twisting her wrist to accommodate her position over the woman. What are you doing? You're going to hurt her. She centered her thumb on her palm. She won't be able to take this; stop, Zee, don't show her this. The tip touched the fold of her entrance-- another twist, and she would be completely inside her. Magali placed her hand under her Saint's head, lifting enough to arch the woman's neck and see the lip she was biting, Casey's eyes tightly shut as she gave a whimper. The taste of salt came to her lips, an icy grasp around her heart.

"Casey...I'm sorry," she rasped.

"Please, baby...don't hide from me."

A shudder went through her, and Magali bit down on her own lip, the metallic taste of blood flooding her senses. No, Her hand moved seeking what her soul desired, and she entered Casey fully, the smaller woman arching her back in response to the intrusion. Magali wound an arm under her and around her waist, cradling her torso as she thrust. Her Saint's silky wetness coating her wrist. Beads of perspiration formed on her skin from the effort. Slowly Magali made her way down to the light triangular patch with her lips. Her tongue tasted the sweetness between Casey's folds, and she delved deep, surrounding her with lips and tongue as her hand continued the stroking steady rhythm. She pushed the bottom of her tongue to her lip, pressing the silver stud there onto the hood of Casey's clit, heightening the sensations of her tongue's caresses. Casey shuddered; her bound hands gently pressing Magali in, she shook and her hips came high off the bed. The dark woman felt trembling muscles contract around her wrist, the pulsing of Casey's nub against her tongue, her movements urgent. Black Velvet drank her Saint in.

With great care Magali removed her hand from inside of her Saint, one finger at a time, while firm thighs pressed down on her shoulders. Chills ran through her body as Casey's small whimpers reached her ears, and she laid her length over the smaller woman, placing her own heated center over Casey's thigh. Strands of fire curled around her as she began a furious rhythm, Casey's nails clawing the skin of her back adding to the intensity. Wave after wave hit her, capturing her in powerful crests of combined pain and pleasure. For a brief moment her lungs stalled, and her chest exploded with a tearing guttural scream. Spent, she lay over her Saint gasping for air as the beast subsided and slunk away into a dark corner.

Casey could feel her ragged breathing and stroked her back gently where, moments before, she had dug her nails into the tender flesh. She felt her Black Velvet shake, silent sobs on her shoulder where Magali's head rested. The breathing slowed and, exhausted, Magali began falling asleep, Casey underneath her in a protected embrace.

"I...I..." Magali began in a hoarse voice, Casey's lips stopping her mid-way.

"I know...I love you, too."


Toys-R-Us four days before Christmas was a place of nightmares; one Magali would have gladly exchanged for one of her own, as she and Eddie strolled the crowded aisles. The traditional trip to the toy store had quickly become one of Eddie's favorite days of the year, with Magali only occasionally scowling at some errant push by a harried parent. With a small entourage of haggard looking boys, who scared the daylights out of the store clerks, the pair pulled toys off shelves and threw them into carts already brimming over. By the time they reached the cashier, there were six carts following them-- filled with stuffed animals, small cars, dolls, and electronic gadgets. Frustrated shoppers watched them suspiciously, as they made their way to the front of one of the lines. Magali eyed a tall man in a dark suit standing at the head of the line with a large teddy bear firmly clasped under his arm, and gave him a wicked smirk.

"You don't mind if we skip ahead, do you?" she asked, slightly opening her leather pea coat and exposing the gleaming silver of the gun hanging at her side. Sheepishly he glanced away from her and around the store for some invisible savior but, finding none, he took a step back and allowed her to pass. She raised a hand, waved to the cart-pushing boys to follow her, and stepped up to the cashier. "Cash," she deadpanned, raising an eyebrow.

Casey shouldered her way through the crowd of bitter faces in time to see her dark lover scare the hell out of a customer and force her way to the cashier, her cerulean eyes gleaming in silent delight. She took a deep breath and cut a path towards Magali who, with crossed arms, was watching her troop unload the toys onto the moving counter. She felt the blue eyes turn on her, a secret smile meant for her alone, and Casey was suddenly wrapped in warm arms and pulled into the taller frame of Black Velvet. She patted the strong chest breathing near her, and gave her Black Velvet a conspiratorial smile.

"Was that necessary, baby?"

"Hmm? What," Magali asked, raising her brow.

Casey gently kissed her cheek and darted her eyes over to the shaken, suited man who was still clutching the bear tightly. Magali frowned, taking in the scene around her, the dark eyes watching her every move from behind toy- filled carts, and the looks of anticipation from her haggard troop. Her resolve slowing melting in the presence of expectant emerald orbs, she stretched her hand out towards the man and pointed a long finger at him.

"Hey, you!" Startled at the attention, the man took a step back, pointing at his own chest, terror in his eyes. "Yeah, you...give me the fuckin' bear...I'll take care of it," she added with a smirk and snatched the toy away.

"Well, it's not perfect, but better," Casey whispered to her as Black Velvet planted a wild kiss on her lips and smiled.

Magali slung the bear onto the counter and swaggered away, pulling Casey behind her "I'll meet you boys later," she shouted over her shoulder as she maneuvered through the parting crowd and towards the exit.

"Who's going to pay for the toys, Gali?"

"Eddie has my money. Don't worry, we wouldn't hold up Toys R Us...not at Christmas time, anyway." Magali's laughter was a deep rumble, and it imbued Casey with a warm mood despite the night chill.

Fifth Avenue turned adults into children under blinking lights and huge wreaths decorated in red and gold. Holiday music flooded the streets from department store doorways, and people rushed by in their attempts to purchase last minute gifts. Grates on the sidewalk gushed warm air from underground train tunnels, and traffic was at a near standstill. Angry cabbies honked at the two women weaving their way through the cars-- one dark and smiling, the other with a look of exhilaration. Magali hopped onto the sidewalk, laughing defiantly at the infuriated drivers stuck in an immovable chain of metal and headlights. With childish abandon, she pulled Casey under her arm and into an embrace, breathing in the cold and the soft scent of her Saint. Looming over them, brilliant with billions of tiny colored lights and immense ribbons, a giant from a far off forest spread its branches over an icy rink. The golden landmark statue marking Rockefeller Center gleamed in the spotlight over fumbling skaters, and winter blew around them, arctic wind and the music of the city

"Oooh, ice skating." Casey piped, a wicked grin splashed across her face.

"No." Magali's dark features went serious, and she bit her lower lip in restraint against the pout meeting her glare. "Hell no..." and the pout thickened, "no way?" You're a sucker for that look from her Magali Guerrerro.

The skates were tight around her ankles; the front of the boot cut into her toe and her backside was wet from having slid onto the ice saving Casey from a wanna-be hockey player. The slender arm around her waist tightened as Casey struggled to maintain her balance, and she eyed the other skaters with narrowed eyes.

"Would you stop that, Gali. You're scaring people."

"That's the point," she sneered spinning on her blades and picking the blonde up off her feet. Tilting her head, she seized Casey's lips with her own and grinned. "That'll give 'em something to look at."

Casey gave her a slap to the arm and grinned back. "You are just evil."

"Born that way," she agreed unrepentantly, kissing her deeply.

The music faded away and a young voice over the speaker system announced the end of the round. Slowly the rink emptied around the two figures bathed in the yellow light of the season, tangled in a kiss in the center of the rink. An attendant in a red jacket slowly neared the two, wary of how to approach the impassioned pair. Gali heard his blades cutting the ice and tenderly released Casey back onto the surface. "Case, we better get off this ice...I think it's melting." The blonde nodded, her eyes closed, senses raw with urgent need, and followed Magali out of the rink.

They unlaced their skates and handed them over to the pimple-faced teenager behind the rental counter. Fresh customers were piling in, eager to seize their turn on the ice. Magali's jacket began ringing, and she retrieved the ever-present cell phone from a pocket and pressed it to her ear. "Yeah..." Scratchy silence from the other end brought her nostrils into a subtle flair as she disconnected the call. Immediately it rang once again, and she suppressed the impulse to fling the small device across the rink.

"What," she growled.

"Hey,'s me, Eddie. What the hell happened to you?"

"Nothing...what do ya' want," she replied harshly.

"We're wrapping all this shit we bought...damn. It's gonna take a few more ATV's this year, Zee."

The thought of her thuggish-looking troop, fumbling with gift wrapping paper and strips of scotch tape amidst bags of cocaine and loaded guns, brought on an irresistible urge to giggle that she was barely able to suppress. "Then get the extra bikes, Eddie, and get my baby out of storage. gonna be fun," she said shutting the call off, and pulled Casey behind her up the stairway to the street.

"What's going to be fun?" a small voice questioned.

"Oh, just a little job I'm doing." Magali's eye's danced secretly in her poker look face.

"Gali! Haven't you caused enough havoc this month? I better not have to sew you up again, or I'll..." Her ranting was stilled by a pair of firm, warm lips and a velvet tongue that departed as abruptly as they had arrived.

"You won't have to sew me up...I promise, as a matter of fact..." she grinned wickedly, "you'll be coming along for the ride."

High atop Magali's tower of safety, where the child in her played secretly with video games and her collection of CD's, Casey hibernated with a naked, relaxed Magli, momentarily putting the dark world where the woman lived at bay. Two days and nights of silence, peace, wine, and take-out-food made the scene all the more surreal for a dazed Casey. The clouded winter sun had disappeared behind the city skyline, and the humming of twenty, idling ATVs, piled high with red cloth bags filled with toys, drowned the sounds of the night. They were lined up neatly in two rows, stretching from corner to corner at 164th street, manned by the motley troops in a myriad of colored riding suits and voicing shouts of pure adrenaline. At the head of the vibrating battle columns, a Harley Davidson 'Night Train' patiently waited. Its handles jangled with bells and its sleek black body, dark as its leather clad mistress who stalked the columns issuing orders and laughing at rude jokes, reflected the dim street light in golden streaks. "Yeah, your mother likes my engine between her legs too," a rough male voice yelled over the cacophony. Magali chuckled.

A delivery of two long boxes earlier in the day had produced two tight-fitting leather suits-one, white and the other midnight black. Casey could still see the lust in her lover's eyes as she watched her don the lighter suit over a set of thermal long johns, and slip into the matching riding boots. Casey approached the bike she had earlier watched Magali caress as if it were an old familiar lover, and swallowed hard at the thought of straddling the warm engine, her chest pressed against Black Velvet's leather-covered back. Children crowded the street reaching for the joyful riders and the gifts they were patiently passing out. Above the din she could hear Magali's voice, clear and strong, commanding the riders to mount and, as her voice grew nearer, the warm presence of the dark woman touched her. A strong hand at her midriff pulled her into an embrace, and soft lips brushed her neck above the collar of the suit.

"Ready to go?" The husky voice whispered in her ear.

" do this every year?"

"What's money for?" Black Velvet shrugged and straddled the bike, beckoning to Casey with an open palm. "Come on, wild child."

Casey smiled and pulled on her helmet, taking her place behind her dark lover, and settled in for the adventure. Twenty-one headlights turned on simultaneously and flooded the street with white. A roar of engines vibrated, and Casey felt the bike begin its glide, the power of the machine seeping into her bones.

They knew the sound of the approaching army; they had been listening for it through half open windows, and when the column turned the corner, they pulled on worn shoes and ran down into the street. "It's Santa Claus! It's Santa Claus," their voices lifted in unison. "I told you, I told you, Santa don't have no damn elves, they thugs like us and they have bikes!" Riders dismounted and handed packages of gold and red to shivering children, who ran back inside to yelling mothers leaning out of windows. Magali scanned the buildings, always vigilant for something to go wrong, some gun, some bad ass, and was glad to only find grateful faces looking down at her instead. Faces that had prayed for her to arrive and fill empty spaces under plastic trees, to make their children believe, hoping they had not lied when they had told them "Santa brings all good children presents." Casey glided off the bike under the watchful gaze of Magali, whose raven hair was whipping around her face, her breath visible on the wind. Happily she dug into the red bags and handed a square box to a ruddy-faced little girl.

"Is it Pokemon, Mrs. Santa?" she asked meekly, but with a tinge of hope.

"I don't know, sweetheart." Casey replied, suddenly taken with a bout of worry.

"It's 'kay if it's not, Mrs. Santa. I didn't think I would get anything, 'cause I told mommy about Julio's pipe and she threw him out, and I thought Santa would put me on the bad list..." Her small confession was interrupted by a call from a window, and Casey watched the little girl disappear into the darkness of a lobby.

She returned to Magali, who patted her thigh and looked at her watch. "Merry Christmas, Baby," Black Velvet grinned. Casey squeezed her and leaned in closely, "Merry Christmas, Gali," she whispered, as the bike began its smooth push forward.

The ATVs broke formation, slipping through traffic and riding haphazardly onto sidewalks and off again. Their riders hollered, stood up on the seats and pulled on the handles to bring up the front wheels, shouting and competing with each other. They raced the city streets, headlights cutting through the darkness and orange glow of the lamplight. Coolly Magali rode the middle of the street, Casey hugging her waist just above the nestled holster, indifferent to the stunts happening around them. Yankee Stadium loomed over them in all its bright glory and tiered columns as they crossed a small metal bridge into the Bronx. Its Romanesque influence presiding over the small rambunctious legion. They filed into a narrow passage, Magali the last to enter, and emptied out into the open space of an underpass, broken only by the massive supporting columns of the highway above them.

Scattered metal barrels burned brightly with plumes of smoky flames, while fiery ashes floated upwards and disappeared into the acrid air, effectively warming the space. Dozens of men and women milled around the fires, some drank, laughing and pushing at each other, while others were locked in passionate embraces. A large pine decorated with beer bottles and tinsel towered off to the side, casting its shadow against the peeling concrete ceiling. The intrusion of the riders sent the crowd into a frenzy of shouts as the riders continued their tricks, weaving through the columns and finally parking in neat lines behind Magali. Casey surveyed the scene, all at once understanding the immensity of the empire under her lover's care. There were easily over a hundred people gathered, all looking towards the dark woman with a sense of respect, awe, and fear. She recognized some of the faces, and wondered who was left to sit abandoned on the stoop waiting for customers to pass in their hour of need. A wave of Magali's hand brought silence to the throng, and another produced a stream of young men carrying black sacks over their shoulders from a parked van. "Remember who does for you," Magali shouted, as wrapped boxes were flung out into the horde and snatched by hungry hands. Slowly the mob dispersed with cries of delight at their gifts of shirts and polar fleeces, as the impervious Zero graced them with a rare smile.

A warmth in the air, not of the bright fires, but of a moment of camaraderie, seeped through the den of rogues. Solemnly a few spilled some beer onto the littered ground, hanging their heads momentarily in a whispered prayer for those who were gone from the world, the names light on their lips. Zero too, hung her head briefly, too many names to mouth running through her mind at once. Just as quickly, the gleam in her eye returned, and she crooked her finger towards a laughing Eddie and whispered something in his ear. As she swung a long leg up and over the bike she pulled on Casey's arm for her to dismount as well, a wicked grin on her face.

"What are you up to now, Gali?" Casey asked, catching a glimpse of the mischievous look on Magali's face.

"Oh nothing, just well...everyone has something, except for the one person that means the most to me," she replied, giving the smaller woman a squeeze and, positioning herself behind the blonde, wrapped her long arms around Casey's midriff.

With her heart hammering in her chest, Casey watched the crowd move to clear the center, creating a passageway of human bodies pinned closely together. At the far end, a set of angled headlights beamed right at her and grew larger as a vehicle was brought slowly forward. She could feel the heat of Magali's smile behind her, the strong arms nearly supporting her weight against the taut body she knew as her lover's. The lights blinded her momentarily as the shining VW beetle stopped a mere three feet away from her. Across its canary yellow body a cross of thick red ribbon rested, ending in a huge bow on its curved hood. "For you, my love," she heard the husky voice of her Black Velvet murmur, as Eddie opened the driver's side door and slid out with a huge smile on his lips.

"Please say you love the color, or she's gonna kill me," he said pleadingly, inundated with a roar of laughter from the onlookers.

"Love it? I...I...don't know what to's too's..." her words ended with the contact of warm lips pressing against hers, Black Velvet's welcomed custom for shutting her up.

"It's yours. If you don't like it...I'll just kill Eddie; he insisted you'd like the color," she replied pursing her lips towards a worried looking Eddie, her dark eyebrow arched over her left cerulean eye.

"No, it's not the color...I mean, all I got you was..." Meekly she handed a small box to Magali, who quickly ripped the wrapping off. "Eddie said you would be able to wear it in..."

Prison, Magali thought silently, as she fingered the long hematite rosary in her gloved hand and slipped it around her neck with an uncommon tenderness. The heavy symbol hung lightly on her chest, its mirror-like beads catching the red light of the fires. How many times have I seen a rosary given by a mother or a wife to the condemned? Never thought anyone would care enough to want me protected from harm. Wonder if she knows...

"I didn't know what to get you. Then Eddie told me about how Marianna had given him a rosary when he was 'away', and what it meant. I want you back safe, Gali, and I want you around for a long time. As long as you wear it, I'll have you."

"I will always wear it." To the grave. "Now...are you gonna get in, or what?" she demanded, pointing a finger to the car and smiling broadly.


Casey gave a small squeal and grabbed the offered keys from Eddie's hand. She settled herself into the bucket seat behind the wheel, touching the dashboard with loving fingers. Married to the mob. She turned the key in the ignition and thrilled at the gentle humming of the engine. The passenger side door opened and Magali threw herself into the seat, feeling around the interior, including the blonde who wriggled under her touch.


"Cut that out, Gali, everyone's watching," the blonde said, slapping away the roaming hands that teased her, while Magali chuckled. "Where to?"

"Well, I thought we could spend a day at the could see your family in Walden if you want.'

The sudden thought of arriving at the old trailer home with the new car and the long dark form of Magali next to her, sent a chill down her spine. "We'd have to pack first."

Magali rolled down the window and shouted for Eddie, who promptly trotted towards the car.

"Yeah, Zee, what's up?"

"Put my Baby away. I'll see you in two days; I'll be up in the cabin if you need to reach me."

Eddie nodded and gave the side door a pat as the car veered away. A thin form sidled up to him, barely nudging his side, the sweet scent of the small woman sending the taste of bile into his throat. "The little brat likes expensive gifts, huh?" He heard resentment in the small demanding voice that he knew could belong to only one woman. Callie.

Her hazel, green-specked eyes followed the yellow bug weaving through the columns towards an open gate. She cocked a hip to the side and flipped her head, sending long tendrils of her brown hair flying, while she sucked on the tip of her index finger thoughtfully.

"Stop dwelling on her, Callie, you saw it wit' your own eyes. Zee loves her, and not you or anyone else is going to put an end to that." He said the words without looking at her, afraid that the sight of her would unleash the hate he felt for the seductive woman.

"No, but sooner or later 'the little brat' will. She doesn't have the balls to deal wit' someone like Zero...and I'll be here to pick up the pieces." Callie shrugged, walking away and hoisting a 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor to her lips, she melted into the mob of men and women tangled in a mass of arms and legs, high on ecstasy.

Eddie glared after her.


It was just after five in the morning when they reached the cabin, the indigo blue of the threatening sun changing the color of the lake's water. Somewhere along the line Casey had begun to yawn and, at the behest of Magali, had pulled off onto the side of the road and turned the wheel over to her. The bumpy road jarred Casey awake in time to see the darkened structure of the cabin tucked away amongst the lifeless trees of winter. The cold rushed in when Magali opened the door to get out, pulling on her leather pea coat as she did; Devi followed her mistress faithfully into the arctic air. Her figure disappeared into the shadow of the cabin, and lights quickly illuminated the porch and the front lawn. The clean scent of snow hung lightly in the air as she made her way back to the car. Frosted bits of grass crunched under her boots, and she opened the trunk and shouldered the bags, before opening the door for a sleepy Casey.

"Come on, Baby. There's a fireplace in there beggin' for you to lay in front of."

Casey complied sluggishly, fighting the sudden chill of the crisp mountain air. She rushed inside finding, with dismay, that the cabin was just as cold as it was outside. She settled on the couch while Magali gathered wood and piled it into the fireplace. When the first flames licked cautiously at the dried logs, she turned the thermostat up and warm air gushed noisily through the under-used vents in the floor. Casey had curled herself in a corner of the sofa; still in her coat she had fallen back to sleep with Devi slumped against her. Magali gathered some blankets from the upstairs bedroom and a few pillows. She arranged them before the flickering fire, and gently picked up the small blonde. Laying her on the makeshift bed, she stripped the coat off of her and curled around her, pulling a quilt over them. Devi settled at her feet, glad for the warmth of the fire.

She thought of their first love-making: it had happened in the cabin, in front of the fire. At the time, she had been a fugitive, running from a potential death sentence. One, which she had thought, was inescapable. A police officer's homicide, New York's greatest crime, was being blamed on her. Her name was once again in the papers, and she had sought out the peace of the cabin to gather her wits, and prepare for the then inevitable. Casey had found her way to her, and it had been her presence-- at last-- that had given her the strength to face it all.

Morning found the two sleepers unmoved, shaped perfectly into each other with the muscled mass of Devi soundly asleep across their legs. Magali groaned; unwilling to let go of the comforting presence of Casey by her side, her back and neck had become stiff from sleeping in the same position. The small sound stirred a peaceful Casey, who enjoyed the safety and warmth that surrounded her in the form of long legs and strong arms.


"Good morning," Casey moaned into the leather-scented neck of her Black Velvet.

"Past morning, Baby. More like afternoon now. Did you want to head over to Walden, see your family?"

It was just too easy to refuse with Black Velvet so close, so warm, so...have to cut that out or we won't make it out of here. "Yeah, I should make an appearance, shouldn't I?"

Magali nodded and began to move, slowly stretching her muscles and displacing a weary Devi while dodging the blonde's grasp. "Don't you guys celebrate Christmas Day, or somethin' like that?"

Missing the opportunity to wrestle Magali back under the covers, Casey held on to the offered alternative of a happy Devi. She wrinkled her brow at the strange question and, before she could bite the words off, was replying with "Yeah, doesn't your family celebrate Christmas Day?"

"I don't Hispanics party on Christmas Eve, get drunk, spend money and then sleep all of Christmas Day." And I did spend it with my family... the guys, Eddie, "That means they'll have food at your mom's, right? I'm starvin'," she finished with an evil grin and tackled an unsuspecting Casey, who gratefully took her back under the covers.




It was the time of the day when Maxine would have gratefully been in bed nursing a hang-over. Instead she found herself pacing the small living room of her trailer home, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth as if it were a natural extension of her lip. She glared at the slightly leaning Christmas tree in the corner, safely tucked into the overcrowded space between the wall and the worn, brown sofa. Some of its lights had burned out, and only a small strand of blinking bulbs stubbornly persevered among the plastic, colored balls and silver tinsel. Idly she picked up a discarded bag of microwave popcorn from the littered coffee table, only to discover the overflowing ashtray for which she had been searching. She hissed through her teeth and, snatching the ashtray, stomped into the kitchen to empty its contents into the garbage can.

"Clifford! Get yer ass up and come take this garbage out, damn it! I tol' ya to do it days ago, Clifford!"

He had heard her steps creaking against the warped wood of the living room floor for the last half-hour, and had successfully feigned sleep. His head swam, the need for insulin and food growing in its intensity from the moment consciousness had grabbed him. Christmas Day had started with a bang at the stroke of twelve, when a call from the local police station kindly informed them of Russell's latest arrest. After spending some time silently listening to his mother rant and rave, he had left her looking for some object to pawn and hid under the blankets of his bed. Fortunately, for her, his sister Becky had not returned home the previous night, and he was left to deal with the rhetorical questioning of his birth and his siblings all on his own. The mattress caved in at its center as he hauled his body up and over the side, plucking at the wedgie from the boxers he wore. A copy of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban slid to the floor. His short blonde hair stood up on end in places, and somehow his T-shirt had managed to crawl half way up his chest exposing the stark ribs underneath. A short trip across the closet-sized room he shared with his brother and down the narrow hall, he faced his disgruntled mother still in her Walmart uniform.

"I'll do it right now, mother."

"I hate it when ya use that tone with me, Cliff, and ya know it. Where the fuck could yer sister be?"

As if on cue, the screen door slammed shut, and a chill breeze followed the haggard-looking Becky into the kitchen. Her jeans barely reached her navel and the flannel shirt she wore, a favorite of her older brother's, hung wrinkled over the black sports bra that propped up her chest. She crossed her arms at the angry gaze of her mother and flounced away into her bedroom at the far end of the hall, her dark brown hair swinging behind her.

"I could care less where the hell ya' been, and yer just lucky yer brother is in trouble again, or I'd take a cane to that little ass of yers, missy!" Maxine had a way of standing in a doorway as if she were talking to someone facing her, and usually it was when she yelled at her children who seemed to disappear into the woodwork.

"Trouble?" Becky yelled from her room. "Call Casey! She solves everything, dun't she?"

Cliff pinched the skin on his abdomen and pushed the needle in. Pressing the clear fluid from the syringe into his body, he gazed through the kitchen window and caught sight of a yellow Beetle turning the corner onto the pebbled driveway. Unmistakable golden hair shone in the afternoon light behind the steering wheel; he could recognize the posture of his oldest sister at a distance, and pulled out the syringe awkwardly as he did.

"Shit," he yelped at the sting.

"Stop cussing, Cliff. I..." Maxine retorted giving him a slap to the back of his head, as a small knock from the front door interrupted her speech, and she padded over to the door and opened it. "Who the hell...Casey!"

She could hear the yelling from down the street as she had pulled into the trailer park. The sight of her mother disheveled and in her uniform served to heighten her sense of dread. Behind her Magali leaned on the curved fender of the new car, as out of place as the classical CDs she owned scattered among her gangsta' rap collection. Oh boy, Casey, this is bad. Why did I come here? Because it's Christmas, and you felt like you had to. A loud shout of glee told her Clifford was awake and on his way to tackle her. His lanky form, half-naked, pushed its way past their mother and out onto the icy welcome mat in bare feet. His long arms clutched her in a bear hug, her head crushed against his chest.

"Shot up a few inches, did ya'?" One second in front of this trailer and I sound like mama, argghhh.

Clifford's boyish looks gleamed down on her, but the immutable weariness of his sickness darkened his eyes, and she swallowed down the sudden sadness.

"I guess so, big sister. Ha, you're not so big anymore!"

"Oh sure, crack on my shortness, beanstalk" she replied, following his eyes to where they rested on the dark woman nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. "Let me introduce you...and I dare you to say something about her height," she whispered in his ear as she landed a smile on her lover.

Magali could cut the tension in the air with a knife, and she wondered what was going on behind the eyes that stared at her. She caught the prologue to introduction and flicked the cigarette away, reaching Casey's side in a few long strides, and extended her hand out to the tall boy with his arm around the small woman's shoulders. His grip was firm and gentle, and she thought how similar his smile was to his sister's, though his eyes were the deep color of mahogany.

"Come inside, y'all are creating a scene out here," the raspy voice of her mother commanded, as she let the door slam behind her.

"What's going on?" Casey questioned, her brows knitting.

"Russell's in jail again. We better go inside. You know how she gets." It was the conspiratorial whisper her brother used when he didn't want his mother to hear him, and Casey cringed inwardly.

Maxine wasn't bad looking, Magali decided. Her blonde hair was stringy and oily, and she could stand to put on some weight but, other than what stress and age had done to her, she was an older version of Casey. The sofa was lumpy and threadbare in places, and a gray cat at her feet was demanding attention. Go away cat, or I'll feed you to Devi. The soft sound of percolating coffee and its rich scent floated in from the kitchen. Casey sat next to her smiling at her brother, who slumped in an arm chair; their younger, dark-haired sister Becky sat near him on the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest, scowling. No one had spoken to each other since their wordless gathering in the living room, and Magali was beginning to fidget in the silence. She surveyed the room, took in the dusty knick-knacks scattered about the place and the empty soda and beer cans occupying every spare inch of furniture.

"Clear that coffee table, Becky!" Maxine's sudden shout made her children jump, and Becky shuffled away with an armful of garbage.

Minute's later Maxine entered the room carrying a loaded tray of steaming mugs, and placed it squarely on the center of the table. Deliberately she placed herself on a corner of the sofa, facing Casey with a skeptical glare.

"I'm guessing yer brother already told you what happened." Maxine handed out the mugs while she spoke.

"Yeah, not everything though. When's Russell gonna learn Mama, he just can't do what he wants to all the time." Casey sipped from the mug, steeling herself.

Maxine lowered her head and shot her daughter a knowing gaze beneath hooded lids. "Now you know, Casey Lynn, he just needs a firm hand 'as all, and with you gone...well, there's no one here to keep an eye on 'im, seeing as I have to work all the time. We're not all as smart as you."

"It has nothing to do with that, mama, and you know it."

"Maybe yer right...but we sure do miss you, baby. I just don't know how I managed things before ya came along and grew up to be such a help. Sure could use some help now. I would hate for yer brother to spend the holidays in there. Just ain't right. Maybe the Lord will send something our way," she finished off shrugging.

Casey shook her head pleadingly, grasping her mother's hand gently in her own as she leaned forward hoping Magali's hearing wouldn't pick up her words. "Mama, I don't have the money for another bail."

"So...where'd ya get the car?"

"Umm..." Casey stuttered, thinking of how to forestall the inevitable response she would get from her mother.

"I bought it for her. It's a Christmas present." Magali fought to keep from clenching her teeth and smiled smugly instead. She wasn't at all sure that she liked the look Maxine was giving her Saint. Yeah, I see what you're about lady. You should hook up with my pops; you'd make quite a pair. Then again...I'd have to hustle a lot harder with you on the team.

"Oh." Maxine was priceless; dollar signs lighting up in her eyes couldn't have made the evident interest flashing across her features any more obvious. Suddenly the fact that her daughter had walked in with a dark, mysterious woman, who was apparently her lover, was unimportant. Magali could hear the ring of a cash register, and clamped down on her jaw.

"My family's in the restaurant business. We...cook," she volunteered before Maxine could go further with her line of questioning, and Casey coughed, clearing her throat.

"Yeah mama...umm...Magali's family has a chain of Cuban restaurants. She manages everything for her dad." And now that you know she has money, I could kiss her into a fervor in front of you and you wouldn't flinch, would you?

"Well, that's real nice. Taking care of family is important don't ya think, Maggie?"

Maggie? "It's Magali, and yes, family is important...but sometimes we have to stand on our own two feet." I kill my family...

"She wants you to bail Russ out." Becky snapped from the floor, and met the cold ice of Magali's eyes.

"Hush, Becky," Maxine barked, leaning menacingly towards her youngest child.

"Can I talk to you outside, Baby?" Magali whispered to Casey, standing quickly and heading for the door.

"Excuse us." Casey followed.

Magali lit another cigarette and tilted her head back to watch a few storm clouds gathering in the distance. The cool air felt good on her face, and she breathed it in deeply with a long pull of smoke. She heard the crunch of Casey's footsteps on the gravel of the driveway, felt the woman's arms tighten around her waist. Absentmindedly she licked her lips, her stud gleaming in the light.

"Do you want me to bail him out?" The arms tightened, and Casey snuggled her head against her, burying her face against Magali's chest.

"I don't want to use you like's not what we came here for..."

"If I bail him out...will it get her off your back?"

"She'd be happy...but...I don't know..." Not her money, Casey, not that, not ever.

"Then it's a done deal. Let me call Eddie and have him Western Union some money to me. Go find out how much it is," she said and playfully whacked Casey's bottom as her Saint walked away. She reached into the car, where she knew her cellular was and, finishing her cigarette, waited for Casey to return, admiring the openness of the sky. She was stomping out the embers when Maxine's head popped out through a small window, a huge smile on her face.

"Maggie, ya get in here now, yer'll catch yer death out there." Then she was gone.

"It's Magali," she scowled back, shaking her head and shuffling over to the door of the small home.


Police stations in upstate New York were very different from the precincts of the city. They were clean, well ordered, and there was no sign of vandalism on the furniture. The sound of metal doors clanging shut somewhere gave Magali a chill. Too soon I'll hear that sound shut me in. She walked to the counter, half expecting to see a sliver of hay sticking out of the attending sheriff's mouth, and cleared her throat.

"I'm here for Russell Bridges."

Her voice disturbed the uniformed man, who gave her a weary look before looking away from his paper and glancing at the clipboard lying under his hand.

"Are you his lawyer?"

Great, now I look like a fuckin' lawyer? "No, I'm just posting bail for 'im." A whole big whoppin' hundred bucks, oooohhhh, bad boy he is. Had that shit in my pocket.

"You have the cash, I'll get the kid." He grabbed a large ring of keys and disappeared in through a small doorway, grinning at Magali's obvious discomfort.

Magali had nodded her answer and leaned her back against the counter, her arms resting behind her. Casey waited outside; she could see her through a huge bay window in the waiting room, tapping restlessly on the steering wheel. Holy mother, she looks so good in that little car. Then again...she'd look good in anything little...or nothing at all. A heavy door shutting wiped the wicked smirk off her face, and she replaced it with her usual unreadable countenance. A tall, husky, young man with long dark hair and a lighter goatee followed the sheriff in. The smug black T-shirt emblazoned with a Metallica logo hugged the man's shoulders and hung loosely around the waist of his faded jeans. Oooh, bad biker movie...anyway.

"This nice lady bailed ya out, Russ. Now be a good boy and go home, huh. The judge is gonna have a field day with ya, son, if ya keep this up." He gave the prisoner a shove in Magali's direction and resumed the reading of his paper.

"Who the hell are fairy godmother?" Russell asked scratching his head and shoving his hands in his pockets.

I definitely don't like him. "Funny you should mention hell," she drawled, delivering a thinly-veiled threat. "Now let's go, your family's waiting for you."

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the bright color of the VW beetle outside and, taking a long look at its driver, smiled broadly. "Well, well, sis' has a new sugar mama, huh?

She stopped mid-step and turned on him, bringing her eye to eye with a suddenly shaken Russell. It took all of her meager control not to swing on the kid, and a few seconds to get the mental picture of splitting his mouth open out of her mind. "Say one more fuckin', stupid shit sentence, and I'll be the fuckin' tooth fairy come to pry ya fuckin' jaw open...stick my fist down your god damn throat and rip your fuckin' beatin' heart out, understand?"

A moment of dead silence and edgy awareness passed between them. Magali wrestled with her temper, feeling the weight of the hidden gun on her hip growing, while Russell's pride warred with his common sense. The sheriff at the counter glanced at the Mexican standoff, his own hand slowly reaching for the revolver at his side. Static over the station radio. Russell shrugged and turned away; shuffling towards the doors he murmured under his breath "Suit yerself, tooth fairy."

Casey watched her brother amble out of the station and jumped out of the car, glad that his fee had been minimal. She hadn't been in the mood to face any police officers, knowing that her Black Velvet would soon be locked away from her, and had chosen to wait outside. When her mother had told her that it was an actual fine he had to pay and not bail, she had giggled at the simplicity of the charge. Apparently Russell had had too much to drink at a local bar and had been arrested for being underage and intoxicated, wandering the main street of town. Knowing his mouth...he probably had something smart to say and made the cops angry. He was the local bad boy, breaking hearts and stealing cars; the kid in the back of the class with the constant brooding air about him. The sudden disappearance of their father had affected the boy beyond repair, and Casey ached for him to find some peace or, at least, a job.

"Hey, little brother," she smiled into his neck as she gave him a bear hug. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Thanks for the 'get out of jail' card, Sis. Who's the new money bags?" he whispered to her while Magali was well out of range, paying the sheriff for his freedom.

"Listen, Russ, it's not like that...Did you...say something to her?" She pushed away from him and caught his eyes in hers, looking for a lie.

"Who me? Naw, no way...she looks like she can kill a bear with them eyes of hers."

"haha...eeyah. Come on, get in; mama is gonna drown you in kisses." You better not have said anything, you rug rat.

The ride back to the trailer park was silent, with Russell splayed out in the backseat and Magali staring out the window, her eyes hidden behind her blue Ray-Bans. Casey sang along with the new Vertical Horizon song being played on the radio, intent on keeping her brother's words from flaring into memory. True to her character, Maxine received them at the door, yet another cigarette in her mouth, kissing and hugging her son before slapping him into the house.

"Well, you girls better stay for dinner. It's a long ride back to the city with an empty belly."

Christmas dinner consisted of some sort of casserole and a turkey, a few cans of beer and plenty of belching. Magali scratched at her plate, wondering why there were potato chips mixed into the green beans, and where the spices for the meat had gone. She had kept quiet most of the evening, occasionally looking at her watch and gauging what time they would get back home if they left right away. Devi waited at the cabin, and she wanted some time alone with Casey before turning herself in for sentencing the next morning. Halfway through the passing out of presents Magali excused herself and walked out into the night. She sat on the hood of Casey's car and looked for the joint she had tucked away for emergencies. Casey had not wanted her to take any drugs, but somehow she managed to tolerate the weed. The sweet fragrance of the burning plant permeated the air around her and, as she closed her eyes and relaxed, she heard the screen door bang closed.

"That weed I smell?"

It was Russell's voice, arrogant and condescending-- the kind of voice that tweaked her in just the wrong way.

"Did I invite you out here...boy?"

"Well...this is my house yer standing in front of." He pointed with a thumb lazily thrown over his shoulder. "You ain't bought all of us yet," he added smugly, crossing his arms before his chest.

She exhaled the smoke she was holding in her lungs, and spat on the ground near Russell's feet. This one thinks he's a bad have no idea. "Just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"You rich people are all the same-- think you can come in and flash some money around, and we all will bow down to yer fuckin' feet. sister might be fuckin' you fer yer money...but I could..."

"Shut the fuck up!"

It was instinctual, to reach for the comforting piece of metal that sang in her hand, an extension of her body and being. Russell's dark eyes widened and his breath caught in his throat. The practiced movement eluded him, and he found himself staring into the black barrel of death come early.

"You piss ant wanna-be. You think you're big enough to come and play big kid's games, motha'fucker? What the fuck did I tell ya' about ya' mouth, stupid?"


"I, I, nuthin'. Shut up! I've fuckin' had it wit' ya' talking shit about ya' sister, maricon." The beast was close enough to the surface to rip its way out of her chest, spittle glistening on the edge of her lower lip as she let words fly, portraying her anger.

"No, it's...I just ladies...she's into that, ya' know, and I just don't want her to get hurt again. That's all...I didn't mean to...."

She took a step closer to him, needing to see the fear clearly etched upon his face. Her chest heaving in fury. She had endured the looks of deprecation from him, and the snide remarks during dinner, but the line was drawn at Casey.

Casey had gone into the kitchen and, placing a dirty glass in the sink, glanced out the window. She caught the flare of danger crossing her lover's face as she engaged in a conversation with her brother. It was the same look she had seen her wear when she had wielded a bat on a nearly unconscious man. A lump rose in her throat when the tale-tell gleam of Magali's gun shone from her hand. She watched Russell fall to his knees and, moving quickly, ran towards the door. She has got to learn to control that temper.

"Gali...Stop!" Magali heard in the hushed yell as Casey ran towards her, exasperated. "What the hell is going on?" Casey breathed.

She nestled the weapon back into its holster, and Russell rose to his feet cautiously, his eyes steady on Magali's hands. "Your brother has a real big mouth on him."

"So you try to shoot him?" She raised her arms in exasperation, letting them fall to her sides with a slap.

Russell swallowed, his eyes darting back and forth from Casey to Magali.

"I wasn't going to shoot him," she said shaking her head. "He's got to learn to be careful who he fuckin' talks to like that. Right, you little pussy?"

Casey knew that if Magali had really wanted to hurt her brother, nothing would have stopped her. She knew that she should just let it go; but, the guilt of her past wouldn't let her. "So you were going to teach him? He's just a kid."

"Yeah, a kid that thinks he's a big shot."

Oh, this is good. Just like Julia...she didn't like me either, maybe I can get 'her' to hit me. Poor Sis, you're about to get an ugly flashback. It's for your own good. Calling up the memory, he made his voice mimic the sound of a wounded boy as best he could. "She was, Sis, she was. I begged her not to hurt ya', and she said ya were just a piece of nice ass. When I said I would tell ya', she pulled out on me!"

Her brother was pleading with her on his knees, and it confused her. The vision of a younger Russell, in the same position, surfaced from Casey's memory and, in a flash, she was reliving that past. An expanse of light-colored marble under him had made him seem smaller; dark strands of hair stuck to his damp forehead. A red mark across his cheek had slowly begun bruising. Standing firmly above him, in her tight black jodhpurs and high shiny boots, was Julia. Crystal blue eyes sparkled under her short, neatly arranged, blonde hair. She held a riding crop in her right hand, her left rested authoritatively on her hip, just under the flap of a white shirttail. Her mind flashed between the images of Julia and Magali standing over Russell, the faces and stances overlapping, forming and melding. Casey held her breath, willing the resurrected specter of the memory back into its dark corner.

Magali was staring at her, mindlessly chewing her bottom lip, letting the expression of hurt displayed on her Saint's features sink in, not knowing that it wasn't really because of her. Casey began to speak but, with a look of terror, hesitated. Her words failed.


"You lying sack of-" She believes him. I'm gonna bleed the fucking truth out of you, you sonofabitch.

Magali's worst fear was becoming reality. Frayed with tension, the fine cord of control she held snapped, and in one sudden powerful move, she leapt at him. Casey had a split second to think; her impulse to protect took over and made the decision, and quickly she stepped into the way of a savage Magali gone cold. Blinded, her heart pounding in her ears, Magali produced her weapon while lunging for Russell, knocking him and Casey to the ground. Twisting her body, Casey grabbed for her from behind. Magali had straddled Russell's cowering body and pressed the gun's muzzle into his mouth. Her nostrils flared, colorless eyes narrowed; she bared her teeth in a show of dark delight. A familiar hand grabbed for the gun. A soft click, one she felt more than heard, told Magali that the safety had come undone.

Shit, shit, this thing is hair-triggered. Damnit woman, a little more pressure and this baby is gonna blow a hole in this kid's head. " Get off, Casey! You don't understand." Fuck, just let me scare 'im. Tell the truth, asshole. God, please make him tell the truth.

She's going to kill him! Too angry...why is she so angry? Casey lunged for the gun once more, slamming her chest into Magali's back, pinning the dark woman more tightly against her brother.

One chance...have to get her off me. Have to break her grip.

Magali threw back an elbow, aiming for her Saint's arm, just as Casey came at her again. She froze as her Saint's thrashing threw off her aim, and she struck the soft tissue around Casey's mouth. Instantly she recognized her error, and abandoned the attack on Russell to cradle her Saint. Relieved at the chance to run, he escaped with faltering steps into the house, a satisfied smirk curling his lip.

"Casey...I'm sorry," she pleaded, cupping her Saint's face, gazing in horror at the trickle of blood running from her lip and the small tears brimming in the woman's eyes. "God...please, don't cry, Baby, please. That was dangerous...I..." Magali shook her head, trying to organize her thoughts. "I didn't know what I was doin', I was...he made...fuck." Now more than ever, she could see the fear in Casey's eyes, the betrayal, and her pride reared its stubborn head. "You should have left him in jail a while longer...maybe he would learn..."

The rusty tang of blood in her mouth and the sting of the accidental blow coupled to bring the past into a vicious collision with the present. Not again, I can't do this again. "Learn what? To be like you?" she nearly yelled, pointing a finger at Magali's chest as they both rose from the ground. Cerulean eyes winced in a momentary display of inward pain, reminding her, too late, of who stood before her. Fuck...I can't believe I just said that. She's not Julia.

It was her heart that dropped first, its beating stopped; her soul took flight as the world crashed soundlessly within her, leaving her empty, and alone once again. Truth, from your lips-- a knife. No judge, no jury, had ever rendered a decision that brought her to such a low. Their opinion never mattered, she had seen herself through their eyes, and had accepted the image. Fragile, the new image she had begun to see reflected in an ocean of tender, emerald green faded under the destructive onslaught of waves fashioned out of four words. To be like you. Zero had never been more welcomed to take possession, and willingly Magali stepped aside, letting Zero swallow and numb the pain shredding her spirit.

"I think I better go, Casey," her voice devoid of emotion.

Her words, intended for another, weighed heavily, their import stunning and rendering her speechless. With repentance stuck in her throat, Casey lost her one chance to recant and explain. Her Black Velvet disappeared in the dark shadow of Zero, along with her chance to make amends.

"I think you're right." She said I, Casey. Not we, but...I.


The cabin had been dark when Eddie arrived, the flicker of a fire from within splashing against the pane of a window-- the only sign of life. Magali sat on the sofa fully clothed, her legs wide, feet firmly on the floor, with her head bent back, staring at the ceiling. Images of the silent ride back with Casey flashed mutely in her mind. "About fuckin' time," was her greeting to him before she extinguished the fire and pushed past him in a liquid rush, Devi at her heels. He barely had time to get back in the Jeep, his injured leg slowing him down, when she put it in gear and began to back out of the driveway. He dared to ask after Casey, his concern answered with the brief, cold retort of, "She's spending a few days with her family." He knew her moods, had braced himself through enough rampages and surges of anger from the dark woman to know when to stay perfectly quiet. She played turbulent music, loudly, and didn't speak until they hit the corner of 164th Street.

"Go upstairs, and get me my party bag," she ground out through clenched teeth.

"What's going on, Zee?" he pleaded, finding courage in the knowledge of what she was planning.

"Eddie..." she growled menacingly as she pulled the Jeep to a full stop.

"Fine...I'll be right down," he breathed and winced inwardly as the door slammed behind him.

What the fuck? Damn it, don't act so surprised, Eddie. This is what I am, all I am. I see it...she sees it. It was just a matter of time, Zee. You were fooling no one but yourself, stupid. Thought maybe she was it, naw, there's no way a woman like that could stay around a fuckin' animal like you. From the cradle to the grave. Try not to forget again. What sin did you commit, Casey... to have me as your penance?


He hobbled up the stairs, unsure whether he should be upset or worried. The party bag. He had not thought he would be gathering her party favors ever again; he had seen the smile that crossed her face when she looked at Casey, and the gleam in the blonde's green eyes. Yet, almost without thinking, he retrieved the brown leather backpack she kept in a closet of the "office", and began to fill it. A bottle of Glenlivet, a roll of cash, a twenty dollar bag of weed, and a half of a kilo. With his errand finished, he made his way back down the steps-- the ache in his leg a sharp stabbing-- to find a familiar scene. Two women sat in the backseat of her Jeep, leaning over each other to put their hands on her, while she fondled a third in the passenger seat. These women worked for her, would die for her, and regardless of their usual preference, would sacrifice their bodies to her every whim. He was relieved not to see Callie among them.

"Here, Zee," he yelled over the blaring music cascading out of the open window.

With three pairs of hands caressing her, stroking her hair, she turned her eyes on him. They were empty. He nearly choked on the tears he stubbornly held back, and patted Devi's head while he listened to Magali's instructions.

"Get me a limo for tomorrow, and get a suit out of my closet. Meet me at the Hilton no later than eight in the mornin'. I get locked up tomorrow...don't want to be late." She scowled and grabbed the bag, the tires of the Jeep screeching away.

The ride went by in a blur of roaming hands and heart pounding bass. The deep potholes of the city streets occasionally jarred the riders as she pushed purposefully on the gas pedal. Her eyes caught the glimmer of the 'Z' pendant hanging from the rearview mirror; it flashed a golden reflection onto her hand, where her ring caught the light with glittering diamonds. She called ahead to the hotel and made her reservation for the night. Light fingers touched her neck. A garage attendant in a dark jacket met her with a smile and an outstretched hand. She pushed the Jeep keys into his palm and motioned for the women to follow her in. Catching the moment of hesitation from the valet when he spotted Devi, she slipped two hundred-dollar bills into his other hand. "I'll call down when I have a room; send them up the back way, Bro'." He nodded, his smile wider than before, and gave her a wink.

She registered in the lobby alone, the backpack hanging from her shoulder, and wordlessly took the small card offered to her as a key. The elevator played easy listening music as it ascended to the tenth floor, and she watched the numbers light up one by one on the door panel. Low lights cast a soft shadow over the hallway, the plush carpet muffling her footsteps. The room was spacious with one king-sized bed, its dark blue quilt matching the coloring of the wallpaper and rug. A lounge chair and coffee table were placed near the window; a large screen TV filled an open cabinet. She picked up the phone and dialed the valet, giving him her room number and hanging up the phone in the same instant. Quickly she searched the edges of the furniture, the sprinkler system, TV and lamps for any surveillance devices. Satisfied that there were none, she prepared for the night. She opened the backpack and, taking advantage of the smooth surface of the mahogany furniture, opened and spread the white crystalline powder on the coffee table by the window. A quick dip of her fingertips into the mound and she was breathing the substance in, shaking her head as the bitterness hit the back of her throat. She pulled her jacket and holster off and, throwing them into a corner of the room, placed her gun by the deadly white heap on the table. She finished emptying the bag, placing the roll of cash in a drawer, the weed on the table with its book of rolling paper and, with the bottle of Glenlivet open and in her grasp, she slumped into the lounge chair.

A small click from the door, and Devi loped in; settling her self by the door as it closed behind the three women, she yawned. Their bodies were sleek, shapely from shoulder to calf, strong sharp features in the tradition of those of mixed race. Coffee- and cream-colored skin graced the tallest of the three; the other two, although equal in height, mixed in a beautiful blend of caramel and bronze.


"Mmm...Coffee, Cream and Berry... take what you want." Magali smirked and waved her hand over the table.

Magali took a long swallow from the bottle, watching the women separate the powder into long thick lines and inhale them with a rolled bill. Cream packed the web of skin between her thumb and index finger with some of the powder and, straddling her lap, held it up for Magali to snort. She pressed her lips onto the dark woman's, her hands wandering down Magali's chest, patiently unbuttoning the denim shirt she wore. Stripped of her shirt, Magali pulled the white T-shirt out of the waist of her jeans and sighed, leaning further back into the chair. Coffee sat on the edge of the bed, Berry kneeling at her feet, while she rolled the shredded weed into two sheets of paper. Berry lit a match and held it up for Coffee, who puffed on the end of the joint until a small orange ember appeared. Coffee leaned over, placing the lit end of the joint in her mouth, offering her lips to Berry, who closed her mouth around the other end. Their lips brushed lightly. Berry plucked the joint from Coffee's lips, passing it to Magali, her lips and tongue exploring Coffee's mouth.

Magali watched - Cream suckling the skin of her neck, grinding her hips against her, as the other two women relieved themselves of their clothes. Hands searching and cradling. She took in some of the smoke, holding it in, her lungs on fire as she finally exhaled it. They knew exactly what she wanted. To lose herself, fill the cold emptiness, forget. She felt Cream remove her top and bra, fling them to the side, and press her bare chest to her as she continued to grind. Coffee and Berry knelt in the middle of the bed their bodies tightly pushed together, their mouths locking, lips glistening. Their small moans reached Magali's ears, and she put the joint in an ashtray.

She brought more of the powder into her system with the edge of a matchbook, and pulled back on Cream's curly, long black hair, grazing her neck with her teeth. "Get up and take everything off, Cream," Magali demanded. When the woman stood before her, naked, she grabbed her waist and turned her, forcing her to sit on her lap, facing away from her. Cream's legs spread open. A strong bronze hand grabbed and kneaded Cream's breast, a second wandered down her taut belly, stopping momentarily to pull the silver ring piercing her belly button. Magali explored the woman's folds with her fingers, caressing her center, entering her when she found her more than amply wet. "Watch them, Cream." The woman squirmed on her lap, rubbing herself against the rough cloth of Magali's jeans. Coffee and Berry touched each other, their hands making small urgent circles at their cores, beads of sweat shimmering on their skin. Berry bowed slightly; capturing a dark erect nipple in her mouth, she suckled lustfully.


"They're getting close, Cream...can you see it?" she whispered into her ear. "I think you should do something about that, don't you? It's too early for the show to end."

Magali pushed the woman away from her and up to her feet. With one hand she pulled the belt off her waist and handed it to Cream, giving her a small nod of permission. Cream circled the bed, swinging the doubled belt first on one woman's buttocks, then the other. Each flung her head back in response to the strikes; red welts rising on their skin, they continued to rub and touch, emitting deep moans. Magali picked up the joint and pulled from it, her eyes intent on the display of passion being exhibited for her entertainment. Sensed her own heat rising between her thighs. When nearly every inch of their firm globes had turned bright with color, Magali commanded "enough", and beckoned Cream to her side. Standing up from the chair, she clasped the woman's hands and placed them on the buttons of her jeans. Delighted, Cream began the process of disrobing her.

Bereft of clothing, Magali sat once again, pulling the woman towards her to straddle her lap as before. Cream writhed at Magali's touch, pinching and rolling her nipples between strong, fiery fingers. The sight of Coffee burying her mouth in the plush darkness of Berry's triangle, as she - knelt -- spread over Berry's own mouth, was propelling Cream forward. Magali felt her shiver as the women's bodies rose in waves, their climaxes making their imminent appearances. "Come for me, ladies." They shook, groaning into each other, their breath drawn and ragged in final release. Magali pushed herself onto her feet. Cream turned, wrapping her legs around Magali's waist. Cupping her hands under Cream's ass, supporting her weight, she made her way to the bed and laid over her.

Soft, warm lips on her back made her shiver. The feel of flesh both beneath and above her scalded her skin. Cream's thigh found her center, and she ground against her. The smaller woman under her arched her back, offering herself, as two pairs of hands and lips scorched the skin of her back, shoulders, neck, and legs. She was surrounded, every nerve on end, yearning filling her. She rolled onto her back and pulled Cream over her shoulders. Her lips sucked on the woman's hardened nub and, tasting the honey moistening Cream's nether lips, felt it dripping onto her chin. Two tongues and two pairs of lips kissed at her own core, exploring her folds as well as each other's mouths. Hands caressed her legs and stomach, and she slapped her palm onto the buttocks above her, causing a small yelp to rise from Cream's throat. She rode the crest, giving both pleasure and pain as her body was worshipped. The ice within her melted momentarily and, as Cream rocked and quivered, an inferno of sensation overtook her. Ripping through her. Brutishly she grasped the thighs at her shoulders, the mouths and tongues teasing the rush of orgasm out of her.

Cream lay to her right, Coffee to her left, her tight bleached blonde curls tickling her neck, both their heads on her shoulders, their legs tangled with hers. Berry stretched herself out on her stomach, laying her head on Magali's belly, her shoulder-length, auburn hair covering Magali's pelvis, her arms wrapped around the dangerous woman's waist protectively.

"Plenty of blow left...don't let it go to waste."

Berry planted a wet, tender kiss on Magali's thigh, crawled off the bed, made a white line and took it in. She padded into the bathroom, returning with a glass she quickly filled with Scotch. As Cream took her turn at the table, Berry lifted one of Coffee's breasts in her palm. Tipping the glass and wetting the woman's nipple with the golden liquor, she offered it to a casual Magali. Coffee leaned in closer, bringing the treat to Magali's mouth. To be like me. The dark woman's lips surrounded Coffee's areola, licking the strong liquid cleanly off the flavored nipple, as her other hand caressed its partner. Berry bit at the tender skin of her inner thighs, smoothing out the nips with loving kisses. Coffee's mouth met hers, allowing Magali to ravage her lips and mouth with tongue and teeth. Coffee savored the feel of the warm stud running across her lips. A dip in the bed announced the renewed presence of Cream, who eagerly took in one of Magali's nipples, as Berry's lips closed around her clit. The sensations began anew, with Magali surrendering to the attentions of her three playmates. An open temple to the devoted few, who prayed licentiously, while the goddess smiled.

Early in the morning Eddie knocked on the door, a garment bag flung over his shoulder. Wisely he had chosen to use his cane after over using the wounded leg the day before. He heard the running hum of a shower cease, and the slamming of a door. Magali appeared in the doorway, a towel wrapped around her torso, her wet, black hair clinging to her skin. He could tell she had not slept yet.

"Great fuckin' timing, Eddie," she huffed and returned to the bathroom.

The room was a mess with empty glasses and discarded towels strewn about. A heap of white powder remained on the table, Magali's gun, black as coal, next to it. He could smell the heady scent of marijuana and women after sex, something akin to the smell after a hard rain, and debated whether or not to venture further into the room. Shrugging off the thought, he stepped foot into the room proper and gazed at the large bed. The three women he had watched Magali leave with were asleep. Their naked bodies tangled in a collage of white sheets, skin, hair and limbs. He caught a glimpse of a few bruises, long and angry, some clearly finger and hand prints. Eddie chewed on his lip, imagining the goings on of the previous night. He kicked the side of the bed and the women stirred, mouthing whispered complaints and groans.

"Get up and get out," he stated flatly, pointing at the door with his cane and throwing what he found left of the roll of cash at them. "Quickly."

"Aww, Eddie, you're not gonna take her away from us already, are you? It's too early, what's the rush?" The dark blonde-headed woman stretched herself away from her groaning companions, and knelt on the bed. Eddie took in her length before turning away with a smirk.

"Nice try, Violet. But the big mean in there has a court date."

"A court date?" groaned the mass of auburn hair from under a pillow.

"Morning, Shy. Yeah, she's got a court date, and we can't be late."

"Why? It's not like they're gonna lock her up again right?" A surprised black-haired woman jumped out of the sheets, a thread catching the ring on her belly and making her flinch.

"She's going in for sentencing, Vicky, I don't know when she's coming back. So just be quiet, get dressed, and leave. I don't think she's in the best of moods."

"Who's gonna take care of things, Eddie?" a startled Violet exclaimed.

"Don't worry about it, it'll all get done. Now move, before she comes out."

"Aye Dios mio...Eddie, tell her I'll light a candle for her alright?"

"Yeah, sure."


By the time Magali emerged from the bathroom, the room was cleared except for Eddie, who was packing away her gun for safekeeping. Slowly but surely she was being stripped of herself. Left, eventually, with only her name and, then, within a few hours she would be nothing more than a number.

"You got rid of 'em...good," she said removing the gold chain and medallion her father gave her, and the gold ring crowned with onyx and diamonds from her mother. It was an heirloom passed down from colonial days. She left the heavy, hematite rosary to hang against the skin of her chest, and frowned as she twisted the screw ball off her tongue bar.

"I bought you this plastic thingie you can put in there, Zee." He handed her a tiny, clear plug. "Oh, and Vicky said she would light a candle for you."

She replaced the bar with it and gave him a nod of approval, and knitted her brows. "Good lookin' out. Who the fuck is Vicky?"

A hard slap hit him on the back of his head, and Magali gave him her wicked smile. "Love you too, Zee," Eddie smiled back, rubbing his neck.

Devi padded to her side, and she rubbed the dog behind her ears. "Tell Jesse to take good care of her for me, alright?" As if knowing her mistress was leaving her for more than a few days, Devi let out a low, deep howl. "And you...look after Casey."

Eddie nodded and brushed an errant speck off the shoulder of her dark blazer. She looked as menacing as ever in a black turtleneck and pantsuit, her hair wild and loose. Taking a last look around the room and rolling her shoulders, she took one last deep breath of the scent of freedom.

"Let's go."



She rode in the limousine Eddie had procured, alone, stretching out on the polished leather, sniffling briskly from the effects of using drugs once again. Busy downtown streets bustled with activity; she watched the people and buildings with dead, ice blue eyes. The long vehicle made its way through traffic, and came to a smooth stop in front of the court building, finishing its delivery of previously ground meat for the butcher. It wouldn't be the first time she was put through the justice sytem's grinder. Steep marble steps flowed upwards, ending on a small platform lined with columns, a frieze above it in the Greek style of public buildings. Amongst all the boroughs, it was the grandest of court buildings; the others were monstrosities of modern architecture. Without windows or style, they were mere blocks of brown brick compared to the Manhattan branch; it stood out on its own in a city full of elaborate and varied structures.

Daly waited for her at the top; his blonde hair had recently taken a cut. Finding her bearings, she took the steps one at a time, pulling on her Ray-Bans. He spoke to her in hushed tones, while she ignored him but nodded her head, feigning interest. Inside people of all types milled around. He found her docket number posted on a board and instructed her to follow. The courtroom was loud, with more then a dozen offenders waiting to be called to judgement. Legal Aid lawyers scampered about like rats, holding piles of papers and folders. The benches were wooden and well worn, and quietly she took a seat next to a young Hispanic man wearing the latest in thug fashion. He opened his mouth to speak, and she nailed him with her eyes.

"Say one word to me and I'll fuckin' kill you right here."

Disguising his unexpectedly shaken confidence he wordlessly slid away from her, trying to look very much the part of a hardened criminal.

Hers was the first case up, and she, practiced in the procedure, went through the motions blindly. She opened the small swinging door of the low wooden wall that separated the benches from the courtroom floor; it creaked, and then took her place behind the left table. Standing numbly next to a straight-backed Daly, she removed her shades and trained her eyes on the wood grain of the table before her. This was a sentencing, and she needed only to utter one word during the entire process, a word that had rung repeatedly in her head throughout the ride there. Guilty.

From a distance, she heard her cue. "How do you plead," she was asked. "Guilty" slipped easily from her lips as she focused her eyes for the first time judge seated on the high bench. Who the fuck is that? The dark-robed woman, with graying red hair, peered over the file before her through small reading glasses.

"Daly, where's the other judge?" she whispered to him, panicking.

"I told you...he had a heart attack. Weren't you listening?" he whispered back out of the corner of his mouth.

"Fuck," she breathed under her breath. The judge looked up.

"I see here you have a long list of arrests. Only minor convictions, except for something when you were younger. I would know what that was if you had not been a minor at the time. But do you know what that tells me, young lady? It says you haven't changed much, and you've probably just been lucky...and have gotten away with much more serious offenses since then. These charges you have just pled to carry a penalty of up to a year in prison, with the possibility of parole within six months. However, for some reason I do not understand, the generous D.A has asked that the maximum sentence be foregone and replaced with a maximum of six months for you. That means you could be out in two to three months. Somehow I doubt someone of your apparent temper could manage, I'm willing to abide by his strange wishes, and sentence you to a maximum of six months...maximum security." She closed the file and, looking straight into Magali's eyes, lifted the gavel and slammed it home.

The sound thundered.

Her eyes never left the judge, and she felt, more than saw, the two guards closing in on her. With a casual, but tight-lipped, air, she held up her wrists and the cold steel clamped down on flesh and bone. When they went for her arms she pulled away, and walking in the direction of the scarred wooden door tucked into a corner of the room, spat on the floor.

Hours later with both wrists and ankles manacled and connected by chains to another on her waist, she was pushed out through a steel door chained to ten other women. A bus waited, with enough steel bars and armor to scare the woman behind her to tears. Down a narrow alley, just beyond the gates opening up to the street, she could see people walking by, going about their daily business. A tug on the metal lead pulled her forward, as she searched for any glimpse of golden hair. Magali flared her nostrils as another tug forced her up the stairs of the bus. It was useless she knew but, despite herself, she took one last look over her shoulder, and allowed hope to die. Fucking me for my money. The cries behind her grew louder. If she doesn't shut up, I'm gonna wipe the floor with her. The grates on the windows sliced the light into squares and, as the door slammed on the cage dividing driver from prisoners, she let her head lean against the Plexiglas window and shut her eyes. Home away from home. Right where you belong.

Part 3

Thunder, lightning, a tsunami crashing: some sort of tempest had definitely made the space between her temples home. A squirming reptile swam and coiled within her guts, cramping and swirling. Casey had returned to a quiet trailer sometime after driving and losing herself along the country back roads. With only the light of a half moon and the focused beams of the Beetle's headlights touching and outlining the tops of silhouetted tree lines, she allowed the darkness of the mountainous night to engulf her. Over and over she replayed the scene of Magali holding a gun to her brother's head, heard the words she had spat out in maternal anger and instinctual protectiveness ring through her mind. She rambled to herself, trying to assemble her thoughts into some coherent order.

Dear God, how do I explain to her how much these kids mean to me? Everything I accepted and submitted to for years, for their sake, until they were my only reason for breathing. And now, even though I'm finally free, I still can't stop myself from acting on their behalf, regardless of any consequences I might have to pay...or how much of an asshole my brother is. I hurt her, and that's exactly what she was waiting for, wasn't it? It's not enough that she tells herself how much of a lowlife she is, or that the rest of the world shows her nothing but contempt, she had to hear it from me! Damn it, just when I thought I could coax her out...make her a place where she's safe, where she doesn't have to be the cold monster everyone wants and believes her to be...I wedge her into the definition of her own devising. I'm no better than anyone else.

Unanswered questions, self-torment and thoughts of Magali's world had followed her from the car into the trailer's living room. Mercifully, her mother had failed to drain the complete bottle of gin, and it offered her unconditional succor. She had welcomed it at the time, but now it was the source of her discomfort, along with the incessant beeping of her sister's alarm clock. She turned her wrist in, squinting at the tiny digital numbers on the face of her watch. A number changed as she watched, making the official hour 9:30am, and forced her gut to quiet in a moment of panic. Shit, shit, she goes to court today...court! Fuck, she's getting locked up...and I'm not there.

Pulling away from the lumpy cushions of the sofa, Casey swung her legs over the side. The afghan covering her fell to the floor and tangled itself around her feet. Hastily she tugged it away and flung it behind her. Bile in her throat crept slowly upwards, as she stumbled towards the bathroom.

The door was locked and she banged on the hollow wood, getting a sleepy, grumpy, Becky-response back from its confines. With her shoulder leaning against the wall, she made her way to the kitchen and opened the cold water faucet up to full force. She dunked her face into the chilly stream. God damn it, she's going to think I've abandoned her, fuck, fuck...I just needed to get my thoughts straight... figure out how to tell her...about Julia. The water pooled in her hands and dripped down her neck, making a wet path down to the cleavage of her breasts. She ignored it, her heartbeat increasing with every passing second.

She has no secrets, what she is, what she does, what she's been through...I know it all. She knows precious little about me. A half-empty bottle of aspirin, strategically placed next to the supply of liquor bottles in the cabinet, offered a potential solution to her hangover. She swallowed down three with a handful of water, and shut the stream off, running wet fingers through her hair. She found her jacket slung over the arm of a chair, and squeezed herself into it, wincing at the ache invading her body.

Outside, the icy air filled her lungs and renewed her somewhat. Under her feet, the gravel of the driveway crunched, and she dropped herself into the driver's seat of her yellow chariot, cursing under her breath. Gali would never pry; she'd wait for me to tell her. Why can't she just discuss things like a normal person? The engine hummed to life and, without waiting for it to warm up, she pushed it into reverse and hooked out of her parking spot. The road leading out of the trailer park was bumpy and potted, occasional speed bumps slowing her progress. It was frustrating.

Oh crap, she won't have any way of figuring out why I snapped like that. Casey sped down the empty New York Thruway, her eyes searching for a trooper around each bend. The action brought the thought of Magali alone and surrounded by uniforms into visual clarity. A suspected cop-killer, although she had been acquitted of it; the boys in blue would not believe it had been one of their own and would treat her accordingly. This much Casey had learned. "No rest for the wicked," Magali would say. "Eventually you pay for shit you do and shit you don't, just because of who you are, understand?" It was one of the many lessons she drilled into those that dared follow her, not as a threat, but as a simple fact.

The George Washington Bridge loomed in the distance, and Casey turned to head down to the Lincoln Tunnel; it would place her closer to downtown Manhattan, and she could avoid the craziness of the West-Side highway. All she knows is how I helped raise my brothers and sister; not what I had to do to keep them and myself going. Not about Julia...I have to get to her. Driving through the tunnel was enough to make anyone's nerves stand on edge. Its multicolored tiles changed in hue under the cast of orange light, and the floor always seemed to be wet. Although it was a masterpiece of engineering, crossing under the murky waters of the Hudson River with four lanes across, every driver scanned its walls for a leak. On the other side, the streets were busy, as always, but the early traffic was tolerable. It would get worse the closer she got to City Hall, but she could dream that it would not be chaotic and she would find a parking spot and get to Magali before she was led away.

"This is fucking impossible! Who designed the parking down here!" Casey yelled as she lost yet another spot to an ever eager New York driver. For an hour she had been circling the area, hoping against hope that there would be a parking spot. Every now and then she considered just leaving the Beetle to be towed away, and running into the overwhelming building that was the criminal court of Manhattan, confusingly named the Supreme Court of the City of New York. The traffic had grown denser, allowing movement of only a few feet at a time, as she passed the court building yet again. A boxy, blue and white bus, its windows grated and the blazing, bright orange words "Department of Corrections" on its side, halted the line of cars as it pulled out of a gate-guarded driveway. Casey could barely glimpse the human forms inside, but she cringed at the idea that one of them was her lover. An unbidden tear formed at the corner of her eye. Gali.

It was just after twelve when she spotted the familiar form of Daly leaving the court building, his feet heavy on the steps, the New York look of ignoring the world on his face. He wore a long black trench coat, and the sight of him told her she was too late. A guilt-laden sigh of surrender escaped her lips, and she rolled down the window yelling his name.

"Daly! Daly! Over here!"

Miraculously he heard her tiny voice over the din, and quickened his step, dodging cars to get to her. She opened the passenger door and he slid in, his face hard and without emotion.

"She was looking for you," he stated flatly, closing the door.

Casey let her gaze fall, eased her foot off the brake to glide ahead into the small space offered her by the car in front. "She told you that?"

"No, I watched her go from a window. I saw her eyes...and now that you're here, I know what she was searching for." He produced a toothpick from his coat pocket and bit on it, leaving it hanging from the corner of his mouth.

"She's gone?" Her voice cracked, and Daly nodded wordlessly, not looking at her. "Where'd they take her?"

He shrugged, "Won't know 'til she calls me; she won't know 'til she gets there."

"Daly, I have to know where she is...please, I can't let her...I won't see her for two months, if I don't know whe-..."

"Two months? Sorry, kid, but she got six, and we were lucky it stopped there." He chewed on the toothpick, spitting out a small splinter.

"Six months!" An eternity. "Why? I thought..."

"That's just what it is, kid," he replied, cutting her off with a raised hand. "I have to go...her 'friends' will know where she is in a few days...ask them." With the words falling from his mouth, he exited the car, walking away without so much as a look behind him. Casey sank into her seat. It's over. Traffic moved, but she didn't, eliciting the angry honks of cars waiting behind her. She didn't hear them, too busy listening to the sound of her soul being torn asunder and flung away into the void left by Magali's absence. Pushing her back violently into her seat, Casey banged her palms against the steering wheel.



The abrupt stop jerked her awake, and the clinking sound of the chain around her waist reminded her where she was before she opened her eyes. A narrow, square booth stood off to the side of a gate topped with barbed wire, and a large white sign reading "Caution, electrified fence" was plastered in the center of the crisscrossed metal. After a few words from the driver, the bus moved ahead, through the square opening of the fence and down a narrow path that opened into a large courtyard. A block of white, straight-line architecture, with a break here and there for office windows near the top, squatted in the middle of a field of green. It was a collection of boxes stacked on top and to the side of each other, like a discarded load of cargo on a pier, rather than a building. Double fences, with coils of barbed wire threaded through the top and in-between, surrounded the expanse of green. The dead green of grasses struggling to survive through a hard winter. High, white towers their octagonal roofs dotted the fences at intervals, the dark protrusions of large light lenses and high-powered rifles marking them for what they were. Guards waited outside in dark jackets marked with stripes and emblems, the white collars of their shirts stark against their necks, rifles in hand.

Magali squinted at the dim light coming in through the windows, and kept her wince from becoming visible as a guard slammed open the door to the holding area. "Up and out, ladies!" he barked, clutching the clipboard hard and banging it against the gate. She felt the pull of the long chain shortening as they were led out into the icy air, past the guards and into a long corridor ending in a large square room. There, three female guards and a nurse waited; two held rifles across their chests, their fingers light on the triggers. The metal door clanked shut behind them; the woman to Magali's left began to whimper anew. The leading chain fell loose, clanking to the floor as each of the women was freed from their joint bond. One by one the restraints were undone, collected, and placed in a plastic basket for holding. The women rubbed their wrists, all except Magali, who held on to the dull pain as a reminder of the outside.

"Everything off. Place your clothes in the baskets behind you, jewelry in the manila envelope. Down to skin, ladies." Bored, the guard issued the orders she gave every day as if she were reading a script. She watched carefully as the women disrobed. The crying prisoner hesitated, and she gave her a hard shove; newcomers were the most trouble. When they were all naked, she pointed to the white stripe on the concrete floor and commanded, "Toes on the white line." She made a mental note of the tall inmate who accepted her demands as if she had borne them before. "Hands out."

Magali looked down to the floor, made sure her bare feet touched but did not pass the line, and raised her chin, her eyes set above the guards she dwarfed. Lock down, Zero, put everything away, here you're less than human. She set her jaw, knowing what would come next. The hematite beads heated against her skin, the heavy crucifix swung between her breasts, thumping softly against her chest, as she held her hands out in front of her.

"What's this?" the imperious guard inquired.

A steady hand reached for the necklace, when she knew the cuffs should have been circling her wrists instead, and before she could think, her hand had grasped the wrist of the guard with painful pressure. The crack of pumped rifles resounded, and she saw the guards twitch nervously as they held the rifles to their shoulders, aiming them at her.

"It's religious," she hissed through her clenched teeth, let her eyes bore into the guard and flung the hand away, resuming her former stance. The metal of the cuffs crushed the tender sides of her wrists as the guard, angry with herself and determined to re-establish authority, restrained her hands.

"Hands behind your heads, feet shoulder width apart...squat and cough."

Magali did as she was told, and braced her hands to the back of her neck, spread her legs and crouched down into a squat. The position forced her back to straighten, chest lifted upward. The Saint etched on her back moved as her muscles strained to keep her balanced. The nurse approached, eyeing the neatly sewn gash on Magali's shoulder. It's going to be a long examination. The woman next to her began crying, twisting Magali's gut with the frustration of having to restrain her desire to smack her. Mother of God, when the hell is she going to stop that shit?

Thoroughly searched, probed, prodded and inspected, Magali stood on line, naked and chained. Freed and restrained numerous times, the aching in her hands increased while thin blue lines began to form under the metal trapping her wrists; she was filed into a shower. A hose doused her with barely lukewarm water, gushing at her with enough force to sting her skin but leave no mark. Soapy water followed, flung at her with a bucket, as she was ordered to scrub down. The hose rained down on her once more, a towel thrown at her to dry with, before she was deloused, re-cuffed, and led to a long table. Quickly she was asked for a size and given a dark gray two piece uniform, that made her feel more like a surgeon than a prisoner, until she caught the stark white word 'inmate' printed on the back. Two black canvass slip-on shoes, as well as a pair of thick white cotton socks and a set of underwear with a tank top, were passed to her while a guard undid the cuffs. She dressed, pulling her head through the v-neck of the shirt, donned the socks, which suddenly felt warmer than the floor and slipped the shoes on. The cuffs came on again, biting into her flesh, letting her know that grabbing a guard would not be tolerated. Her stomach grumbled in complaint. Shut up down there.

They were led in pairs, a stack of white linen and a small towel balanced across their manacled wrists. Magali followed the guard blindly through the maze of corridors and rooms that lead to even more hallways and doors, and gates, bars, guards, security beeps of opening, the slamming of steel against steel. Luminescent light flickered in spots off white walls, with barely a shadow anywhere. She'd lost track of time, and the absence of windows left only her exhaustion to gauge the hour by. Finally they reached a thick steel door, and the guard stepped aside while a beep opened the lock and the door swung open. One huge room, its floor painted battleship gray and surrounded by rows of cells along three walls in a set of three levels, loomed around them. Next to the door, a shielded room of bulletproof glass enclosed two guards in safety. Along the far wall a rack of rifles, restraints, and a first-aid kit hung by a fire extinguisher served as the room's only decoration. Two swivel chairs, a desk, a phone, and a TV set were the guards' sole furnishings. Next to the entrance of the room two public phones, scratched and dented, covered with armor, patiently waited for use. Magali waited for the guard to step ahead of her; he exchanged a few words with his co-workers and then motioned her up the stairs, while a second led her partner elsewhere, crying.

Up on the last level, Magali looked down. Gone were the days when one could be toppled over the side; long gates from floor to ceiling blocked the railing. Instead, one could wait for a shank to be casually pressed through flesh in the narrow corridor formed by the gate, railing, and bars of the closely ranked cells. The guard released one of her wrists, and attached the cuff to one of two U-shaped bars on the side of the cell door. He pushed in a key and slid the door open, released her other wrist and flicked his thumb towards the cell. She took one step in; the shutting of the bars behind her rattled down to her bones.

It was smaller than she remembered, or maybe she had been smaller. The eight by six room was efficiently equipped with a steel, lidless toilet and sink. A steel bunk, softened by a rather flat foam mattress, hung a few feet off the floor. To its side, a fold down shelf served as a desk. An unsheathed pillow had been discarded on its cold surface. Bare, white cinderblock walls surrounded her on three sides; above, a dull, flat steel ceiling provided extra security. It seemed to mirror the gray painted, poured concrete floor. She set about tucking the seamless linen around the mattress, fitting the sheets and cotton blanket neatly into hospital corners, and threw the pillow against the wall. It landed squarely on the center of the bunk.

With nothing left to do, she pushed her arms through the bars, resting her elbows and forehead against the cool steel. Wet, raven hair fell over her shoulders, partly covering her face. For the first time since entering, she shut her eyes, and let the numbness ebb. She took in the smell of too many human bodies living in close quarters, mixed with the sting of disinfectant. The sound of murmurs and shouts coming from the cells-- some calling to the new members of the block, others whispering, her name-- floated in the stagnant air. A large, round clock high on a wall above the guards' station ticked the seconds away, tormenting all in the vicinity. It read seven o'clock and, if she remembered correctly, it would be two hours before the lights were turned off, and the populace would feign sleep. Briefly she paced the room and settled on the bunk; her legs crossed at the ankles, arms under her head, she pulled the numbness back. The steel ceiling stared back at her, and she filled its blankness with the image of Casey's smile, then Casey's look of fear when last she saw her. With a deep breath she closed her eyes and pretended she was no one.


Pit-bulls' sense of smell left much to be desired and initially Devi growled at her, forcing her to open the slowly door. Casey dropped her bag off at the front door; she carried some of Magali's belongings and, getting a scent of her mistress, Devi wailed.

"I know exactly how you feel, girl." God, she's locked up somewhere, thinking I...

She approached the altar by the door and, striking a match, lit the candle there and shut her eyes. She had watched Magali do this every day, but was unsure what the woman said as she bowed her head in silence, or whether she said anything at all. In the end she spoke not to the robed Catholic Saint, but to her Black Velvet.

Gali, God I wish you could hear me...but you can't. I don't know where you are, and this is worse than knowing you are out on the street somewhere doing God knows what. At least there you're the one in control...aren't you? I always pray that you won't get hurt, arrested, killed...but're not the one doing, it's being done to you, and I doubt you have any control over it. I can't forget the image of your hands being cuffed as you lay in the street bleeding that dark night: you were dying, and they treated you as if you were nothing more than a beast for hunting. What are they doing to you now? Christ, what are you doing to yourself? Please, be safe, Honey. I don't care what you are, I love you completely, accept you completely...I only hope you can do the same for me. I'll be waiting for you.

Devi was curled on the couch, and Casey joined her, the thought of entering the bedroom alone overwhelming. She had passed by the hospital to get her new schedule, volunteering for extra hours just to have something to pass the time until classes started up again. Jesse had seen her and sadly given her a hug, when she had related the happenings of the past two days. For the time being, it was enough to be around her lover's belongings, to feel her presence in the form and shape of the things she owned and touched. It was early evening, but the day had exhausted her and she curled up next to a very warm Devi.

Morning had a way of making the troubles of a night gone by seem fictional. A bright sun cascaded in dust-filled lines through the blind of the livingroom window. Casey stretched, sniffing the air for the telltale scent of fresh coffee, that would signal Magali had arrived home from a night's misadventures or had woken before her. There was none. She scanned the armchair for the black leather peacoat, the space under the coffee table for the Harley-Davidson boots; her other senses sought the sound of a running shower, the smell of leather, maybe the screeching halt of a Jeep. Anything that would mean Black Velvet was home and not where she had dreamed her: locked behind metal, beaten, broken and alone.

Devi yawned and pawed her leg, a subtle way of relaying the message that she had to go. Casey rolled her shoulders, stretched her neck and rubbed Devi behind the ears. She hadn't bothered to climb out of her clothes and, getting into her jacket, she grabbed the animal's leash. She was sure most of the early hours had floated away, and she had only to keep herself busy until the start of her shift, then there would be no time to think.

Together, dog and woman walked towards the park in silent mourning. The trees remained dormant, their thin, leafless, branches reaching in all directions. In this section of the neighborhood, traffic was light. Most were working or in school, and the noise of the ghetto below the hill top community was muted by distance. Where the road turned into cobblestone, they turned into the park. The tower of the former, French cloister, now a branch of the Museum of Art, ventured up towards the cloudless sky marking its place amongst the trees and hills. It was an easy walk through a sleeping garden and out onto the leftover platform of the once strong Fort Tryon of the Revolutionary War. Casey looked over the ramparts, surveying the frozen river below, the cliffs of the Palisades across the water, dark and forbidding. The bright sun seemed out of place. Devi stood up on her hind legs, her front paws resting on the edge of the wall. She nuzzled the side of the quiet woman next to her, sensing the loss and absence of her mistress shared.



The buzz of the morning alarm made her feel sick to her stomach; it was a child's nightmare come to life. Sometime during the night she had stripped off the uniform and lay in her white panties and tank top, the sheet and thin blanket tossed to the side. Exhaustion had won out. The lack of sleep and food, as well as her de-toxing body, had rendered her nearly unconscious. Cold, the tips of her fingers had gone numb, and her skin ached from the chill. Rushed, she pulled on the wrinkled uniform.

Why is it always either too hot or too cold in these fuckin' places?

With a rhythmic banging and one final slam, the doors of her row slid open. Unrestrained, Magali stepped out onto the walkway, along with thirty-one other similarly dressed women. Some were in work clothes, sporting the ever-fashionable blue jeans of stiff denim and light blue, short sleeved shirts. Others wore the plain cut, gray dress of women in prison, their only alternative to the gray uniforms; religion did have its uses. One by one the guard counted off the number of prisoners standing on the platforms. He barked out a number quickly to which each inmate responded in turn with a grunt or something like a "here". Magali heard her serial called out, followed by a whispered voice next to her murmuring "Zero".

She sensed a vague familiarity in the tone, the husky prepubescent voice, and fought the urge to turn and face her caller, knowing the eyes of trigger-happy guards scanned the aligned bodies for sudden movement. Slowly she let her eyes wander to her left, and faked a cough to get a better look at the short woman standing by her. The short hair closely shaved on the sides, and the boyish look of the woman, brought a small smirk to her lips.

"You haven't changed, Smoke."

Smoke smiled, revealing the yellowish tint of her teeth left by years of waking up on the sidewalk. She was small in stature, and many had been deceived by her small boned structure into thinking she had little strength. Her face was that of a thirteen-year old boy, small, round and dark, with a glint of mischief that only faded with anger. Masculine, she walked with a dip, more from a knee injury than bravado, though she tended to exaggerate it.

"Yeah, I see you haven't either. How long?"

"Six months. You?"

"One more year. What for?"

"Gun. You still working on the same bid?"

"Four and counting. Just like you to get brought in on some chump charge. What's the deal?"

"No deal, Smoke. Just on vacation."

"Looking to make some commissary money? I've got a lil' somethin' somethin', if you're interested."

"Maybe, if I get bored. Let's see what the caseworker does with me first. You work?"

"Laundry. If ya do get 'bored', let me know. Pussy around here likes to get shit in trade, unless ya force the issue."

"We'll see...but I never trade for pussy," she replied with a smirk.

Finished with his tally, the guard folded his clipboard and re-entered the confines of his station. Another siren, and the lines were on the move, lining up in the square of the block according to their destinations. Some would be taken out to their workstations, others into morning classes or appointments with social workers, therapists and lawyers. It was the latter grouping that Magali filed into, along with the woman who had tortured her the previous day, but had apparently finally run out of tears. The sectionalization continued, with guards who appeared at the entrance with yet more clipboards and spirited each line away, until Magali was left alone with her "fresh fish" partner. A half-hour later, a guard called their numbers and bade them follow him.

After a long walk through the prison, they arrived at a set of closely guarded offices packed with desks, file cabinets, and a budding computer network. Well-intentioned workers slumped over piles of papers, outnumbered by the bitter faces of co-workers who had become prisoners themselves after too many years of working behind the cinderblock walls and dealing with incorrigibles. They were unarmed. Magali took in the scene with a sense of dread. She had heard the lecture before, refused the advice, left with a placement for work and told them all to fuck off enough times that she could time her responses. She was laughing to herself when a slender blonde called to her and motioned for her to sit by her desk. The first golden streaks of sunlight Magali had seen in hours highlighted the woman's hair; she swallowed the sudden feeling of regret down with a good dose of anger, it showed in the pale of her eyes. The caseworker caught the look and, glancing at the windows, thought she understood the reason behind it.

Wooden chairs never agreed with her unless there was an arm she could fling her leg over. Feeling uncomfortable with her life splayed open in the form of a file on the desk, she did her best to look indifferent, and wondered exactly how much was written there.

"Look, Lady," Magali began. "Save your breath. By now you've deduced in that pretty little head of yours, that the secret to getting me out of a life of crime is in getting me to take my G.E.D, right? Someone like me doesn't need one of those, so forget it. I don't waste my time, or other people's." Magali leaned closer to the woman and, catching a cautionary stare from a guard, brought her voice down to a whisper. "Everything I need to know I can read about, and no stinking piece of paper is going to make any difference for me or anyone else. me a favor, find me a spot I can grind my time away in here, and I'll let you move on to other projects, okay?" She hissed the last word through her teeth and raised her eyebrows in question, then settled back into the chair.

Taking a deep breath, the woman closed the file and fixed her eyes on the small black computer screen in front of her, quickly scanning the list of green lettered occupations available. She chewed the end of a pen she held lightly between her thumb and index finger, occasionally glancing at the defiant figure before her. Finally she spotted what she had been looking for, and jotted down the number on a work form as Magali looked on.

"Here you go...some work outside may do you some good. Good day."

At hearing the uttered words of dismissal, a guard stepped up behind Magali, reminding her she had very few options available. With a hardened scowl, Zero took the form she was handed and left the office, the guard close on her heels, directing her steps.


Night didn't settle on the city, it crashed down upon it mercilessly with one dark stroke, slaughtering the light of day. She had been waiting in the stillness of the rooftop, watching the business of the street impassively. Patterns were the same, day in and day out. From her vantage point, human forms became puppets pulled along by invisible strings. At the moment there was only one form that interested her, well-- any one out of three. Cigarette butts littered the tar-covered surface at her feet; she had been waiting for hours: emptying her mind, steeling her spirit, focusing solely on one goal. Just as she had been taught. A long brown strand of hair whipped at her face. She pushed it back behind her ear, and rubbed the back of her neck.

She knew every dip and scratch on the metal covering the top of the roof's protective wall, each crack in the sidewalk, every stain on the bricks of each building. Twenty-six years of breathing the same air, twenty of running the same streets, thirteen of walking the same roofs, irrevocably changing with every passing minute. She could remember every exquisite event, each pain, joy, and lesson that had brought her to where she now stood. Has it been that long? With neither regret nor sadness, she thought back on the one day that started it all, a slight smile illuminating her sharp, beautiful features.

Hot air in the apartment, thick in the hallway and stifling on the street, caused her mother to open all the windows and prop the door open with the long, heavy rod of the police lock. Nearly every door on the floor was open, bringing various smells and sounds out into the long, tiled hallway, where children ran from apartment to apartment screaming and laughing. Spanish voices, Spanish words, and Latin music wove into the musical tapestry of the life of the third floor community. Fathers came home dirty and greasy from construction sites and makeshift sidewalk mechanic shops, where they toiled the day away if they were lucky enough to have landed a job. Mothers reprimanded their children and yelled across hallways for an onion, a cup of sugar, a bit of oil, or a beer from a neighbor.

Small and barefoot, in her thin flowered dress, Califia sat on the cool, tiled floor of the hallway, bare thighs exposed by the short hem of the handed down garment. Her face hidden by her tiny hands, she counted away in her high, little girl's voice as fast as she could. The quick pattering of feet and the squeak of sneakers surrounded her as her playmates ran for their hiding spots. She lifted her head, cheating for a peek at her friends' whereabouts, just in time to see her father's boots stomp past her. A fleeting frown crossed her face.

"You cheated, you cheated, Callie! Tramposa, start again," a small boy cried as he ran past her, calling her a sneak.

Grimacing, she began the count again. Her ears no longer heard the sound of running; instead, her hearing picked up the sounds of breaking glass and angry yelling coming from her apartment. Her heart raced in her bony chest: he was too big for her, and he was going to hurt her again. Maybe the food isn't ready? Did I leave my doll out on the sofa again? The numbers stopped in her throat at the thud from her doorway as her mother came flying out, landing on her back, screaming. The boots came after, near her head, kicking at her sides and legs. Her father's voice bellowed; its echo bounced off the walls. Not one of Califia's friends came out of hiding, and she knew they would stay where they were. Silently she wished for Jose, her young uncle, to come out of his apartment and stop it all. Daddy said he would kill him if he got in his business again. The memory of the threat made her take her wish back, and slowly she rose to her feet, her fists clenched to her sides. I'll do it. She had not taken a step when Jose leapt over the rod holding the door of his apartment open and out into the hallway. Bare-chested, his long hair flying behind him, he grabbed for her father, who with little effort threw the boy against the far wall. The boots stomped away into the apartment, and Califia swallowed, knowing what would happen next.

"You okay, hermana?" He always called her "sister" as if she were younger than he was.

"Run, Jose, get out of here. He's gonna kill you. Por Dios, Jose, run." Her mother choked on tears, pushing her brother away as he leaned over her on one knee.

"You sonofabitch! I tol' you stay the fuck out of my business." Her father was sweating; she could tell he had already been drinking. He never cursed when he was sober. Drunk or not, he was a huge unshakable oak, and he was holding a gun in his hand. An old revolver Califa knew he kept by the bed.

The door to the apartment at the end of the hallway, where people walked in and out constantly, which was always closed regardless of the temperature, abruptly opened with a slam. Califia turned at the sound, her breath caught by the sight of the young woman, not much older than she, who marched confidently out into the hallway. Tall and dark, the girl wore nothing but a cropped tank top and jeans; her heavy boots thudded on the floor. The midnight-black hair surrounded her bronze face, piercing blue eyes shot a hard stare, her visage emotionless. In contrast to her father's, the young woman held a long gleaming gun in her outstretched hand. A large ring under the trigger guard shimmered with sparkles. Not a flinch, no sign of hesitation, showed on her face, in her step, nor on any inch of exposed skin. The spark from the barrel of the gun was soundless, a wisp of air and nothing more.

Her mother screamed, and Califia faced the spot where her father had been standing. She let her eyes fall to the ground where her mother knelt by the fallen body of the man who had been recently kicking her and threatening her brother. Uncle Jose stood behind her, a satisfied grin on his lips. A strong arm wrapped itself around Califia's waist, lifting her into the air. She knew who it was that carried her. The arm covering her eyes smelled of cordite, and the skin of her neck warmed near the heat of metal. Roughly she felt the floor come up under her feet, the arm was pulled away, and she was in the living room of her apartment. Before the door closed, locking her in, she saw the back of her savior, gun hanging from her hand as she called back to her.

"Stay in here, kid," she said. Then the darkness of the apartment closed in around her; night had fallen.


Callie sighed with delight at the memory of her first sighting of the mighty Zero. She hadn't earned her moniker yet at that time, but Callie had made the decision, as the door had closed, that she would be as strong as her someday. A light wind blew over her, bringing her out of the heat of that long ago summer. The memories of flowers, coffins, cemeteries, and her mother's suicide, faded away. They left behind the residual image of Zero standing next to her as her mother's coffin was lowered into the ground, and the awesome presence of the woman as she pressed a roll of money into her hand.

She spotted the target she wanted leaving the brown building she faced across the street. Callie rolled her head and took a deep breath, as she lifted the silencer-tipped rifle lying at her feet. She took one quick glance around to the other roofs; the guards were too busy watching the street for cops to notice her. No one but me. Catching the flip of auburn hair within the cross hairs of the slender scope, she squeezed the trigger; a strong push against her shoulder, and she watched as her victim fell. In less than a minute, she had disassembled the rifle and packed it away; leaving the roof by way of a rear fire escape she disappeared into the darkness.


Work, work work. As she had expected, the emergencies flowed in relentlessly, day after day, week after week, and she was glad of it. Jesse never slowed her pace, or her talking, sharing every moment of her new relationship with a woman by the name of Kristin. Casey swallowed a constant supply of coffee, pushing food aside and speaking only in relation to her duties as a paramedic. During the day, she attended her classes, seminars and residential training sessions. A short ride in the car brought her back to the apartment, where Devi waited for her. A walk, something to eat, her books, and writing papers on the computer rounded out the day before she headed for work.

It was nearing the stroke of three in the morning, and a call for response to a shooting sent the duo scrambling once again. The address was familiar; it was Magali's stomping grounds, her absence from the kingdom causing an increase in random violence due to unsettled disputes over money. A momentary glimmer of hope passed through Casey's mind at the possibility of coming across Eddie; Magali's right hand man would know where she was, and her professional presence wouldn't raise any eyebrows. She had heard his insistent voice over the answering machine, as she screened the calls, waited for her to answer. Too embarrassed by the whole situation to pick up the phone and talk to him, she merely stood by and listened. When the calls stopped, she figured he had taken for granted that Jesse was caring for Devi, and that she had simply disappeared.

As usual, the scene was chaotic: a mixture of innocent onlookers, and a few disappointed by the disruption to business, bathed in the blinking lights of police cars. Children, who never seemed to sleep at any time of the day, pushed themselves through the crowds, squealing and calling out to each other to have a look at the body. It was poverty at its best.

Jesse grabbed the kit from the cab and pushed at stiff bodies blocking their way to the scene, Casey close behind her. What she found at the center was exactly what she had expected, but had never grown accustomed to. Sprawled on the floor, face down, her auburn hair fanned out about her, was the broken body of a young woman. A pool of dark blood sluggishly spread under her. Deliberately, the two paramedics checked the woman's vital signs. Finding none apparent, they began a rescue, fighting the dark lord that came to claim the maid. Minutes passed without any reaction; somberly Casey and Jesse surrendered. Unfolding a white sheet, they placed it over the body and placed the call to the medical examiner for pick up. In the meantime, the attending officers had been searching the crowd for anyone who could identify the victim, to no avail. They met silent faces, couched in bitterness and loathing.

Casey looked around the crowd, sometimes squinting in the darkness. She found a few familiar faces, but no Eddie. Downhearted, she collected their materials from where they lay on the ground-- some stained-- and made her way back to the ambulance while Jesse spoke to one of the officers. Quietly she sat on the edge of the rear bumper, the doors to the cabin open and shedding a weird white light down on her. She began the arduous task of cleaning and renewing the equipment.


Eddie's voice scared and delighted her at once, and Casey nearly jumped out of her skin, dropping a plastic oxygen mask to the ground.

"Eddie, God it's good to see you. I was looking for you..." she replied smiling while stooping to pick up the dropped mask.

"Her name was Shy."


"The girl...her name was Shy. I don't know if it was her real name, but it's what we called her. She lived across the street with two other girls; they kinda just hang around, but I dunno where the hell they are right now."

"Tell the police, Eddie. They need to identify her, or she'll be a Jane Doe."

"Can't do that, Casey, I'm allergic to blue," he smiled sheepishly. "Besides...if I do, they're gonna start asking me questions I just can't answer, you know?"

Casey nodded her understanding; feeling saddened to know the girl had a name but would not bear one.



"Do you know--"

"Where Zee is," he finished for her. "Yeah I do, why don't you?"

She bit her lower lip and cast her eyes downward, avoiding his questioning gaze. The confusion concerning her lack of information about her Black Velvet, she had expected, but not the direct questioning of it by a man practiced in beating around the bush. Briefly, she entertained the thought that Magali had related the story of their argument but, reassuring herself that it was not something Zero would share, quickly dismissed the thought.

"Have you ever been so surprised at something that you blurted out the first thing that came to your mind? Something you didn't really believe about someone, but you were caught up in the moment, and you said something meant for someone else. Then you regretted it, but were so shocked that you could say something like that...that you couldn't even begin to put together an apology quick enough or adequate enough?" She barely inhaled as the words tumbled out of her.

"What?" He was confused. Casey was reminding him of when he had caught Magali talking to herself, and he hadn't been able to follow her diatribe then, either.

"I said something I didn't mean to Zee, I just reacted because of something that had happened to...oh never mind, Eddie. Zee is pissed at me."

"Now it makes sense."

"What makes sense?"

"Umm...Nothin'. Look, Zee's in The Hills, but you can't let her know I told you, alright? And why didn't you ever return my calls, huh? I know you were there.

"I was kinda...I didn't know how to face you; it was stupid. The Hills?"

"'s..." Eddie struggled to remember the proper name for the prison, let's see, it's in Bedford Hills, I know "Oh I got it! It's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility; it's up in Westchester County.

"Bedford Hills, thank you, Eddie, you're the best!" she squealed, throwing her arms around Eddie's neck and squeezing.

Eddie looked around, embarrassed by the show of affection, and worried that someone might see and tell Mariana. Since the night he had been shot, she had not stopped insisting that he retire from the game, and they move away. With her graduation from City College nearing, and job prospects lining up, she was determined to change their lives. He wasn't so sure that he did not agree with her completely.

"Casey...just remember, I didn't tell you," he pointed at her chest once he managed to unglue her arms from his neck.

"Cross my heart," she said, making the puerile motions of the promise with her hand.


When the coroner showed up and put the body in a black, zippered bag, the crowd dispersed. Casey and Jesse finished the paper work on the scene and headed back to the hospital. The entire episode took up a few hours, and left them at the tail end of their shift. Right away, Jesse noticed the change in the slender blonde's demeanor-- her grey shading had brightened, and her smile was quicker. Rather than ask her questions and dampen the mood, she let Casey be.



Wake in the early morning, make the bunk, dress, file out, count off, line up, go to work. Work. Her surgeon-like uniform had been exchanged for prison jeans and a blue shirt. It was winter and, as a measure taken towards meeting humanitarian regulations, she was issued a pair of black, work boots and a black, wool seaman's coat emblazoned with the word "inmate" on the back. Thankfully, her job detail also gave her the right to wear a long sleeved T-shirt between her shirt and tank top. Her unit included twenty other women, who toiled a few hours a day on the loading docks of the prison. They grunted and complained as they pulled on heavy bags and carried in boxes from the supply trucks, while guards watched their every move. Magali bore her labor in silence, the annoying drizzle of the morning seeping through her coat and down into her undershirt. Water dripped from the ends of her hair, down her cheeks and neck, but she was grateful to be under the open sky. The ground was slick with the rain that froze everything, including her gloveless hands. She had been at it for two hours when the whistle blew, signaling the prisoners to stop working and line up in their designated blocks. Breakfast...yum.

The mess was a mass of clanging trays and vicious odors; women crowded onto tables with attached benches too small to sit on comfortably. Magali was in no hurry to dirty the shining surface of her food tray, with all its little squares, with what they tried to pass off as food. Unfortunately, the line moved ahead, and she had no choice but to lift her tray, and watch as a pile of grayish scrambled eggs was slopped onto it. Finally, she made it down the counter; ignoring the substances tainting her food tray, she followed the line back to a table. Everything in this place was done in some sort of order. It was a maximum-security prison, and one wrong move could cause complete chaos in a room full of cutthroats. She picked at her food, occasionally taking a bite from one of the runny piles. Her beverage, a half-pint of so-called orange juice, was gone in one swallow, but she savored the barely warm coffee, imagining that it was piping hot.

Two tables away, Smoke ate ravenously. Her taste buds must be dead by now, Magali thought. Fuck, first time I did a bid...after a while I ate anything. Wonder how long it'll take before I eat this shit again? Smoke sucked on the ends of her fingers, greedily looking around at the trays of her tablemates for any worthwhile leftovers. She stared at her, knowing eventually she would feel her eyes and look her way. It was a well known fact that anyone who had been behind bars long enough could call someone with just a look, or maybe it was just a wicked coincidence. Smoke lifted her eyes away from the food and glanced at Magali. Giving her a wink and a brief smile, she casually pointed at the woman next to her. Her latest conquest. Magali winked back and popped a piece of bread in her mouth; her hair dripped water onto it. A siren blew once into the din, and the women rose, walking in lines towards the garbage bins Magali would later empty. Back to work.

The rain had tapered off, leaving behind patches of thin ice and a shivering group of women. With the supplies loaded away, they began to pull at the garbage bins brought out by the kitchen crew. The warmth of the incinerators represented a welcome, albeit smelly, chore in the current season. It would be hell itself when the weather was warmer. Magali lifted bag after bag onto the running conveyor belt; tips of flames periodically lashed out of the vaulted chamber of the incinerator; a few ashes scattered about. Feeling began to return to her numbed fingers, while the heat of the fires slowly dried her hair. She smelled like a sewer gone bad by the end of each day's detail. Fuck, I hate this smell. Think of something else, Zee. Wonder what Casey's doing right now?

Eventually the whistle blew again, signaling the end of the workday, lunch, and the hardest hours of the day, fast approaching. After being inspected, the women were dragged off to the mess hall, then led away to the showers in ordered groups. Magali kept her back to the wall and her eyes open under the luke-warm stream of water. It was like bathing under a hose. The tiles always managed to remain ice cold, and the air was chilly despite the constant stream of water fogging it. She touched the brown scar at her shoulder. Despite her insistence, the prison doctors had the stitches removed too early and, what should have been nothing but a thin white line, became more pronounced. Battle scars. Casey. She focused her mind on the tender touch of her Saint as she had sewn the wound closed. The sooty water at her feet spun down a drain, and she thanked The Virgin for the water running down her face.

Pulling on a fresh pair of jeans and tucking in the clean tank top, she ran her fingers through her still wet hair. Her boots, devoid of shoelaces, felt loose on her feet. Anything resembling a cord was not allowed outside of the work area, and her shoelaces were confiscated at the end of each workday. Three o'clock. Time to wander. Half the day was gone, and the longest hours waited. She took her time lining up for the short trip into the yard. Around her, others who had been trapped inside working or taking classes that would shorten their time, eagerly filed out into the open area.

It was a simple square of green, guarded on all four corners by towers and walled in by fences. The ground was muddy, but no one seemed to mind; they sloshed along in their canvas shoes and boots around the perimeter. It was a large enough area that one could stroll some time away, traveling the circumference of the yard in one hundred passes over a period of twenty minutes. Magali had counted them. Blocks were let out, one at a time, into one of the many walk areas shared by four out of the one hundred blocks. Each block was composed of a group of one hundred women living in an arranged set of cells around one central room. Magali lived in block D, and shared the yard with blocks A, B, and C, significant only because it held the most hardened of repeat offenders. Within minutes, the yard was crowded with over four hundred women walking; overcrowding was a bitch.

Without bags to haul or boxes to lift, Magali filled her lungs with air, clean mountain air after a rain. The green of the dying grass reminded her of Casey's eyes when they had last looked at her, so she decided to keep her sights on the cloudy sky above. She walked alone, purposely keeping as far away from the others as possible. They all did, making for themselves some sort of semblance of privacy, away from voices and other human sounds. It was a quiet walk. Soon they would be led back in to their block's rec-room, and there they would have no choice but to recognize each other's existence. She pulled the collar up on her coat, and pulled out her highly valuable pack of cigarettes. It was the only one she was allowed during the day, though no guard could really tell who among the one hundred cells was illegally smoking after lock-down. She lit the cigarette with a match, shielding the small flame from the wind with cupped hands. Matches were a commodity, and they were given out in extremely small rations, making the tiny sticks precious beyond their real monetary worth. She inhaled deeply; the nicotine and lack of oxygen made her light headed at first, but it was a dreamy sensation she enjoyed. It made her wish she could be unconscious for a while, and, in thinking it, she strolled closer to the electrified fence. What would happen if I just touched this thing?

Weights, the feel of them, the sound of their clanging, the way they ripped against the skin of a palm as they were lifted, the amount of stress they relieved, were without a doubt the biggest of all luxuries. Magali assaulted them as soon as she stepped into the rec room, beating her competition to be the first to use them. Not a soul bothered to make any commentary. She had established herself as the heaviest lifter, and no one was eager to feel her strength battering down on them. It helped that they knew exactly who she was on the outside. A few had worked under her in earlier days, had served time with her in other places, or had simply bought some of her product. Still, she was surprised at the relative peace she had been granted so far.

One hour left to go; then it's just me and my mind. I hate that. Her shower had been in vain after working up to a light sweat in the rec room. She wiped at her face with a hand towel Smoke had somehow procured. It was the most dangerous time of the day, with prisoners walking in and out of cells, engaging in bartering and gossip, as well as some clandestine activities behind stairs where guard's eyes didn't reach. Magali made out a muffled moan coming from one of the cells on the second tier. Someone's getting laid...or...keep out of trouble, Zee. She leaned her back against the wall near the public phone, crossed her legs at the ankles and her arms across her chest, surveying the central room. Should I call Eddie again? I have enough money on my roll...could ask about That boy needs to come see me anyway, I should remind the dolt. Fuck, I used up all my credits the last time I called him. The door to the guard's room opened and prisoners stilled; the uniformed man carried a box with the word "mail" printed on the side. They gave him room to walk out, backing away from him as if he were a poisonous snake. Magali stood her ground, her mind elsewhere, blanking out as she usually did around mail time. While the others waited for their names to be called out by a fellow inmate, who was given the task, she ignored the calls knowing her name would not be one of them.

"Hey, you never get anything. Make yourself useful." the guard barked at her just before throwing the box of mail at her chest. Magali caught it as it fell against her, a plastic corner scratching the skin of her exposed collarbone. She heard a small pop; warm specks trickled down her chest. Beads landed on the floor and scattered. A cutting sensation at the nape of her neck advised her as to what had happened before she glimpsed the fall of the dark grey crucifix as it crashed to the floor.

He caught the look in her eyes and, if not for the badge on his chest and the stick by his side, he would have stepped back. Instead he voiced the first idiotic thought that came to his mind. "You shouldn't be wearing it God would have anything to do with someone like you..."

Smoke counted herself lucky to have an acquaintance with Zero; the mere fact that the dark woman spoke to her, gave her an edge in a crowd of hard asses. She was among the crowd waiting for a piece of news from the outside world, anything to remind her that she had not been forgotten. Although the number of letters and packages she received had increasingly dwindled over the years, she, nonetheless, waited for each day's mail call. Her spirit lightened when she saw the guard come out with the mailbox, but witnessing what followed made a heavy lump form in her throat. She knew Zero was going to attack. She had seen the expression in her eyes as a prelude to enough massacres to be fairly certain.

Magali attempted to calm herself, fully aware where she could easily end up, but the sight of the small beads spread at her feet propelled her beyond reason. She felt the hand at her chest, heard the voice she knew belonged to Smoke; it had no bearing on her ill-advised decision. Smoke was slammed against the wall with one forceful push from her. Other bodies interceded, reaching and pulling at her arms and legs. If she reached the guard, it would be open season on them and they knew it. Smoke was up and trying to talk to her; she could make out just a few of the words in her rage. "They...Kill...fix it." Magali flailed at the bodies, striking out with her fists and elbows, lunging at the one uniform she wanted to shred to pieces.

I have to get her to stop. Shit, they'll fuckin' shoot her right here. What the fuck...these motherfuckers still don't get what those rosaries mean? "Chill out , Zero. They'll fuckin' kill you, man. We'll fix the rosary, it's alright." Ten women blocked her way, ten women that had run the streets with her. Women who owed her one thing or another: a paid doctor's bill, the dismissal of an abusive boyfriend, vengeance for a raped sister; and they refused to let her die in this place of no sun. Smoke watched the second guard as he quickly sneaked up behind her, his nightstick held over his head.'ll be over soon; at least they're not shooting her.

Magali felt the thud at the back of her head just as the intervening bodies backed away. She took one last lunge, and spiraled into darkness. It wrapped her in a cold embrace; devoid of sound or light, she drifted. What was that about being unconscious? She smirked at the smile that greeted her there. Basked in the warmth of emerald eyes. Screamed in agony when they disappeared.

The block inmates were rushed into their cells ahead of time; there were at least another thirty minutes left on the clock before lock-down. They accepted it silently and without complaint; preferring the sight of Zero being dragged away unconscious, a small trickle of crimson staining her back, to having to witness one of their own mopping away a pool of her blood. They watched from behind bars, their heads hung low.



However surprised at the details it gave on a route to a state prison, Casey thanked the Internet for having mapped instructions. Surprisingly traffic was light; after all, she was heading north on the Bronx River Parkway when the rest of New York's workers were heading south towards the city. The drive was an easy one, winding up through Westchester County, dipping with the hills of New York State. The light rain that had fallen the previous day had frozen in a light layer of crystalline ice. Snow flurries dusted the shimmering coating, creating a crisp, clear picture of tranquility. She played with the radio; finding some gut wrenching lyric in nearly every song that was played, she toggled from station to station.

Other than bailing her brother out from the local police station, Casey had never been near a facility of incarceration. She was unsure as to what to expect, and had changed outfits at least five times that morning, finally settling on a red sweater and a pair of jeans. Jesse had been concerned; she had visited Magali in prison once and had sworn it off afterwards. Her reasons she had kept to herself, but she had warned her partner not to look shocked at whatever state she happened to find Magali in. That had frightened Casey-- not so much the words, but the sense of foreboding in Jesse's statement. For good measure, she had brought along a picture she had taken of Devi in a pair of sunglasses, hoping it would bring a smile to her Black Velvet's face. They had parted on less than good terms, and Casey had rehearsed how she would explain herself to a skeptical Zero. Explain about Julia.

Young Casey delighted in reading. She entertained herself writing long essays on any topic that caught her attention, mostly discussions on her mother's newest ailment. Her teachers were proud, and took every opportunity to place the girl in the spotlight, entering her in writing contests and the state science fair. Before she knew it, the Storm King School at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson invited her to attend, offering her a partial scholarship to their preparatory boarding school. Luckily her father agreed to enroll her; he had recently opened his own mechanics shop and business was good. With the school picking up half of the bill, he decided his oldest and brightest should have a go at it.

In September of her fourteenth year, Casey moved into the girls' dormitory at Storm King. Her parents dropped her off with a small suitcase in front of the largest house she had ever seen. Two small faces pressed themselves against the rear window as the car drove away. Her brothers were crying, not sure of what was happening, other than that they were leaving their caretaker behind. Her sister, a babe still in her swaddling, slept soundly in her mother's arms.

A girl a few years older escorted her up to the second floor and into a rather large room with two twin beds and a huge bay window. It was as large as her living room at home. The side of the room near the window was cluttered with books and clothing; the bed, however, was impeccably made. By the door, closest to the room's bathroom, was a bare bed. Furnishings around it-- shelves, a chest and desk-- were devoid of any signs of occupation. She guessed it was 'her side' of the room. Casey unpacked, placing her clothing in the footlocker and her school supplies on the desk. Her side, in comparison with the rest of the room, seemed naked. She was sitting on the bed, pensively quiet, when a soft, melodious voice disturbed her peace.

"Don't think too hard, you're liable to go mad...You must be Casey Bridges." The girl was tall for her age, and she moved with a strong confident stride that displayed strength of will and mind. Short blonde hair framed her tanned face, accentuating the pale coloring of her eyes, more white than blue. The sleeveless, black shirt she wore showed off sensually muscular arms, a small diamond hung midway down her chest off an elegant, thin gold chain. Leaning down close, the girl placed a finger under Casey's chin and tilting her face up towards her whispered "...Julia Stanton." Remaining perfectly still, her lips dangerously close to Casey's she smirked, winked and then walked away.

"How'd you know my name?" Casey queried, stammering. .

"I make it my business to know as much as I can, Casey. Please, call me Julia...after all, we will be sharing this small room." She smiled as she walked across the chamber.

"Small? Are you kidding? This place is huge!" she cried, indicating the space with her hands.

Julia leaned her shoulder by the window, and ran a hand through her hair. Crossing her arms at her chest, she gazed out into the front yard, sunlight catching the white in her golden tresses. "Dear Casey, you and I are going to have so much fun," she sighed in satisfaction, a playful glint in her eyes. "Have you taken a tour of the campus yet?"

Casey shook her head, indicating she had not.

"Well then...shall we?" she asked, extending a hand out to her, a full, brilliant smile playing on her lips.

Taking her hand, Casey let herself be led out of the room and back down the winding stairs. They ended up in a garden, flowers carefully arranged around a bubbling fountain. Julia took care to point out the windows of certain undesirable classmates as they strolled away from the dorm and into the larger courtyards of the school.

"That's where the science classes are held," Julia said, pointing at a brown brick building. "Last year Claire, a good friend of mine, I'll introduce you later, nearly blew the damn place up!" Julia's laugh was intoxicating, a sweet and vibrant music that hummed in her slender throat.

Casey's curious nature caught up with her as they finished the small tour and sat on the steps of their dorm. " come I get to room with an upper-classman?"

"Quite the contrary, Casey. I'm the one who gets to room with a lower-classman. Dr Greene, our Head Mistress, doesn't exactly know how to appreciate the smell of rotting fish in her car." Julia's rich laughter trickled through her statement. "She's taken away my senior privileges. No and I will make it up to her, I'm sure."

That first semester at Storm King opened Casey's eyes to a whole, new world. It wasn't long before Casey was borrowing Julia's clothes, gathering with her friends and making them her own. They spent their days walking from class to class, and reading Hemingway under the campus trees. Julia would stretch out a quilt on the tailored lawn, multi-colored leaves fell around them, and sometimes landed on whatever page Casey was reading. Julia would lean over and pluck them away, taking a moment to tuck an errant strand of hair behind Casey's ear. At night they would talk about nothing for hours, with an occasional pillow toss, or giggle fit. During the weekends they traveled to the movies, or lounged around the room in their pajamas, occasionally running down the halls to gather in another room. Whenever her mother insisted she come home for a weekend, Casey put her off-- citing the need to study for an exam.

The holidays inevitably rolled around and threw a strain over the campus that showed even on Julia's strong exterior. As they closed in, she grew quiet and distant, leaving Casey alone to study while she laid on her bed listening to her Walkman. Julia never studied; whether she aced the class or barely passed it made no difference to her. Unsettled by Julia's change in character, Casey chose to leave her to her thoughts. Although it nagged at her constantly, she was weary of prying.

One night before vacation, Casey walked in to find Julia in her usual position on her bed. She was resting her head on her arms, staring at the ceiling, the tinny sound of music playing on her headphones. She'd had enough of the silent treatment and purposefully sat on the corner of Julia's bed, tugging on her toe.

"Alright, what gives?" Casey asked, pushing at Julia's calf with her elbow.

Julia pulled off the headphones and gave her an exasperated look. "What are you talking about?"

"This." Casey pointed at the bed and Walkman. "You barely say anything anymore. Except for class, you hardly leave the room. So what's bothering you?"

"I just get moody around this time of the's nothing."

"You're lying, Julia. I can tell, your brow wrinkles just a tad...right there." Casey pointed at the spot just above the bridge of the girl's nose, causing her to cross her eyes and laugh. "Gotcha."

"I just get bored at home."

"But Christmas is so much fun. I bet you'll have lots of parties, and...I can't even imagine the gifts you'll get this year..."

"It's not like that, Casey," Julia snapped. "Maybe the help will get me a small trinket or two, but if I want something I'll just go do a bit of shopping one day or another."

"But what about your parents, won't they-"

"I have none, they're dead. My lawyer sees that the house is up and running, sometimes my Aunt will stop by from a business trip, but usually it's just me and the help, and they all have families to get home to. Don't worry, it'll pass, I promise." Julia sat up and, tenderly holding Casey's face in her hands, planted a light kiss on the younger girl's forehead.

True to her word, Julia returned as extroverted as ever, organizing gatherings and staging practical jokes on the teachers. In class, she discussed the efficacy of a financial embargo on South Africa, the responsibility of Exxon to foot the bill on the Alaskan oil spill, and whether or not Reagonomics could be blamed for the nation's ills. At dinner, she tutored Casey as to which utensil to use, and how to hold her pinky up when she drank so that it seemed natural. Every now and then she would remark as to how she was as much a part of Casey's education as any text in the entire campus library.

Sometime during finals week Julia had a breakdown. With all of the senior activities and her own busy social life, she had neglected to attend to her school-work. Casey offered her whatever help she could give, which quickly translated into the writing of an English paper Julia was having trouble with. When it was all over, a pair of black Doc Marten boots magically appeared at the foot of Casey's bed one morning. Julia smiled down at her as she put them on for the first time, and ruffled her hair uttering a soft "Thank you." For once, it was Casey who was being looked after.


Following a night of restless sleep, Casey began to tire behind the wheel, and was glad to finally pull into the prison's visitors' parking lot. She followed the instructions from a posted guard, who told her to find a spot then return to the gate. There, a Correction's bus would pick her up and take her into the prison proper. By the time Casey found a spot in the crowded lot and made her way back, there was a painful knot of anxiety in her chest. With every pass she had made to enter another lane in the lot, she was met with the looming white edifice of the prison; it seemed to surround her on all sides. She recognized the vehicle on sight; it was much like the one she had seen in downtown Manhattan by the courts, with its bright orange stripe and grated windows. Apparently, visitors were to experience the degradation of prison right along with their loved ones, before even entering the campus.

A motley crew of men and women waited by the gate for the bus; some held unwrapped packages to their chests, shivering in the cold mountain air. Casey stuck her hands in the pockets of an old leather bomber she had found in Magali's closet. As of late, she'd taken to wearing any article of clothing belonging to the dark woman, anything to keep her closer. Rusted bolts creaked as the vehicle rumbled to a stop before the small crowd, its cloud of exhaust staining the air around them with the smell of burning oil. One by one they loped into the worn interior of the bus; if not for the added armor, it could have been a yellow bus taking children to school. Casey couldn't help but think of those who had, at some point, sat in the very same seat she was occupying. Perchance, one of those manacled beings had been her Black Velvet. She imagined what she might have looked liked years ago, a young Magali. Had her scowl been as deep back then, or fiercer? Somehow she doubted that. Resting her chin on her palm, she gazed out the window as they passed the parking lot, traveled down a long paved road and entered the first gate of many they would negotiate.

Every gate, every post acted as a gaping mouth, each swallowing and transporting her deeper into the belly of the beast. At the center of the labyrinth, the Minotaur waited, disguised as a windowless block of white. Rumbling to a stop in front of a gate marked "visitors entrance" the vehicle sputtered and coughed. Casey walked along with the others through a corridor of gates, past another post and into the building. The visitors' center was one immense room, lined by a glass enclosed counter, and filled with rows of bolted down, plastic seats. Children ran along the aisles, jumping off chairs and causing general havoc. Above a swirling line of people impatiently waiting, a hanging sign read "All visitors line up here." Casey took her place in line.

An hour passed before she finally reached the one guard attending the counter and, before she could utter a single word, a stack of papers was shoved under the window slit. "If this is your first time here, fill these out and come back. Next!" Taking the proffered forms, Casey sought out a seat, finding one at a safe distance from the stampeding children. She frowned at the sheer volume of papers in her lap, and began the process of filling them out. Luckily she found a pen in the jacket's inside pocket. Magali almost always left a pen in every one of her coats, and this one had been no different. The papers, she noticed, were a tedious affair of establishing her identity, riddled with warnings of what she could and could not bring in to a prisoner. Once finished, she ambled back to the counter, where she was instructed to get back to the end of the line. Another noise-filled hour later, Casey angrily pushed the papers back under the slit.

"Hey, listen, Miss. Don't come over here in that kind of mood, 'cause you can take these papers back over to a seat and wait until you're calmed down."

"But I-" Casey began.

"Did you want to make a visit today or not?" The guard was raising his eyebrows the way civil servants did when they were issuing a threat of delay.

Casey swallowed what she was going to say and instead took the route of the diplomat. "I'm sorry...of course, yes, I want to make visit. I apologize."

He took a long look at the papers she had toiled over, checking some boxes in red and nodding. "Alright...take a seat. Names will be called at 11:00, when you hear the name of the prisoner you're here to see, just step up to the correct window."

Daylight hours had never seemed as long as the ones she wasted waiting at the visitors' center. Inexperienced with the entire system, she had neglected to bring anything as entertainment, and it gave her mind a chance to wander.

At the end of the year Casey, attended Julia's graduation. She was the only guest on the young woman's list. Following a tearful good-bye, the two friends went their separate ways. Julia was scheduled to meet her aunt in Paris, while a summer of swimming with her siblings waited for Casey. Before driving away in her chauffeured town car, Julia undid the lock of her necklace and, slipping the small diamond over Casey's head, promised she would stay in touch.

Summer was both what she had and had not expected. She spent her days amusing her two younger brothers and chasing down her small sister who had begun walking. With the unexpected disappearance of her father, Casey was left alone to care for them. At night she ordered pizza, while they waited for their mother to arrive from a late shift at work. Maxine would return home frustrated and angry, half-heartedly hug her children, then retire to her room with a bottle of gin. Russell and Cliff would yawn and insist on staying up; they wanted to wait for their father, but Casey tucked them into bed despite their protests. She knew their father would not return soon, if ever at all. "He ran off," Maxine would tell her when she asked. The Storm King School was off limits the next school year; she could no longer afford it. That September, she registered at the local public high school, and put aside any hope of ever reaching beyond the world she was born into. College, she thought, would be next to impossible.

Burnt-orange and yellow leaves littered the miniscule lawn of the trailer; some neighbors had hung skeletons and effigies of witches from a few of the community's trees. Maxine was working, and Casey shouldered the task of improvising costumes for her siblings. Strapping them into old shirts and using her mother's cosmetics to disguise their faces, she made them into little hobos. Becky had found a pencil to stick in her mouth and, as Casey wrestled it away, the phone began to ring.

"Hello..." she managed to get out just as Becky's fingers found their way into her mouth.

"Good evening, is Casey Bridges home?"

Her heart leapt at the familiar note of the voice on the phone, and she couldn't help but smile around Becky's tiny fingers. "Julia? It's me, how are you, where are you?" she rushed out, pulling Becky's hand away from her mouth.

"I'm fine, I'm at New Paltz. I decided to stay local; besides this school has a fine Anthropology department. What is all that noise?"

"'s just my brothers."

"So...why aren't you at King? I went there looking for you, and I can't tell you the trouble I went through to get your home number."

"Long story, I'll tell you some other time. I really need to get these kids knocking on doors soon, or the little ghouls are going to eat me. How can I reach you?" she asked, glaring at her brothers who were effectively smudging her make-up work.

"Well, that's why I was calling. I thought you might like to do a little riding with me this weekend."

"Riding? As in horses?"

"Yes, as in horses, or we can take in a movie."

"I'll go for the movie, but I have to clear it with my mom first. She may need me."

"Oh...well, how about I stop by your place-"

"No...just give me a call tomorrow night, I'll know by then."

"Listen...if you're worried about what'll think of where you live, you misjudge me, Casey. I know where you are; I've known for a long time. You're my friend and that's all that matters to me. I've been in worse."

"Ummmm...okay, but just call me tomorrow.

"Alright, I'll do that. Wait 'til you see what I brought you from Paris, oh you're going to love it! Tomorrow then, adieu."

"Bye." She heard the click of the terminated call, and reluctantly returned the receiver to its cradle. It had been the first call she had received in weeks. All of her former friends had given up on trying to reach her. She was constantly busy. With her mother working night shifts, she had to be home to watch over Russell, Cliff, and Becky, and it left little room for anything else.

Julia kept her word and called the next day and, with some convincing, Casey gave her the directions to the trailer park. Over the next three years, Julia became a familiar fixture in the home, often staying until the kids were asleep. She and Casey would stay up, watching movies she'd rent, or they would spend a few long hours discussing the state of the homeless in New York. Julia became her diversion. Prom night Russell had a fever. It made no difference, Casey had not planned to attend. Instead, Julia brought over a collection of the newest CD's out on the market, and they danced all night in the small cluttered living room to their favorite songs and drank away a few beers.

They sat on the couch, panting from playing air guitar to the latest Guns 'n Roses song. A light sheen of sweat glistened on Julia's forehead. Unconsciously Casey wiped it away with her hand and then blushed. Julia caught the flush in her cheeks and, cautiously, reached for the hand Casey had hastily removed. She entwined her fingers with Casey's, letting her palm warm the sudden cold settled there. The strength belied by the tender caress exuded protection and comfort; Casey drifted into it. She could feel the heat off of Julia's body nearing and, closing her eyes, allowed Julia's fine feathery lips to brush her own. For a moment she was lost in the touch and guardianship of the arms that held her. Without warning, Casey's defenses fell and, slumping onto Julia's chest, she began to weep. Graduation was around the corner and, although she had been accepted, her academic endeavors were coming to a close. Financial Aid insisted she count her father's income, and she had no idea where he was.

"I can't pay for it, Julia. There's just no way. Soon, you'll be gone too." she sobbed.

Julia smiled at her, reminding Casey of a certain pair of boots. "Don't be silly, I'm getting my Masters at New Paltz; you'll see me all the time. And if you think I'm going to let money stand in your're sadly mistaken."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying...consider your tuition paid."

"No, Julia. I can't do wouldn't be right. I could never re-"

"Shhh," she whispered, caressing the nape of Casey's neck. "Never stop...kissing me."

Casey complied.


"Guerrero, Magali Guerrero! Anyone here for Magali Guerrero?" Casey thought it was funny how Magali's last name meant warrior; Jesse always made a joke about it. Out in the middle of the room, a rather large guard was calling out names; he had run through a long list before Casey recognized the one she was waiting for. "Me, that's me!" she yelled running towards the guard, who eyed her suspiciously from afar.

"You're here to see Guerrero?"

"Yeah, why?" Casey had just about had it. First the bus, then the guard at the counter. There was a definite conspiracy against her in the stars.

"Sorry, but you're gonna have to come back in six weeks. She can't be seen."

"What the hell do you mean, she can't be seen?" Overcrowded or not, the visitors' center suddenly fell silent, every eye turned in her direction. No doubt they all fancied a scene.

"She's being detained." he replied, taking the customary stance of defensiveness, one foot slightly behind him in case he needed to use force.

"No shit, Sherlock! She's in prison!"

A firm hand grasped her shoulder, and Casey spun to meet the invader of her private space. A dark-skinned, elderly woman faced her, with the universal expression all mothers took on when explaining the difficult to the innocent. "That means she's in solitary, honey. You're just gonna have to wait."

Part 4

Shades of black and gray darted around one painful spot of white. She drifted in shadows, avoiding the summoning brilliance with waning energy. It was cold and soundless in the nothingness: no name, no corporal feeling, numbness was all. In vain, she struggled to remain there; something told her she would not like the light, but it nevertheless pulled at her relentlessly. Her resistance faded, and she fell, reeling towards the thrumming pain and breath. Dull at first, it sharpened quickly; the ache at the back of her head made it difficult to open her eyes. The light was gone, but the cold remained. There was a steely chill against her chest, cheek and arms, and she recognized the feel of metal binding her wrists. Carefully, she managed to open her eyes but, finding herself in total darkness, jerked her arms towards her chest defensively. Metal clanged against metal, her knuckles hit damp steel, a shot of pain bit into her wrists and ran up into her shoulders. Water rippled softly near her face, and the cold curve of the steel toilet banged into her breastbone. Shit, this is not good.

A door opened, flooding the compact room with an intolerably white light. The tiny bit of layout she was able to briefly catch was familiar; it sent a chill down her spine. Inky forms passed before the light, hovering above her and surrounding her. She could hear their ragged, hurried breathing as the door shut. Yellow beams glared down on her from all sides. She could count five but, unable to turn, was unsure how many were behind her. A coarse male voice broke the deathly silence, and as the words registered in her foggy brain, she felt the first strike hit her side. "Cop killer, you'll learn to respect the uniform."

With each blow the breath left her lungs in small puffs, a bit at a time. Straining against her bonds, the cuffs that held her cut into her wrists. She gasped for air repeatedly; thwacks to her ribs impeded her breathing. A short club pounded her upper back and arms; the throbbing in her head gave way to the searing agony from every smack and pummel. She was blinded by the sudden radiance of flashlights flickering in and out of her sight. A kick between her shoulder blades crushed her against the bowl, and the sickening feel of breaking bone nearly made her retch. Magali bit down on her lip, the pressure enough to split the delicate skin, and kicked back with all her force. There was a deep groan; her hair was snatched and pulled back before a hard thrust sent her head slamming against metal. The blow deadened the pain and brought back the comfort of oblivion. "Shit. Is she dead?"

Dead... dead?

Magali stood by the window of the second floor apartment watching the steady file of kids walking to school. Backpacks swung from their shoulders as they strolled by smiling and chatting loudly. She searched the crowd for her little brother, Jorge. In the morning light, they appeared fresh and clean; summer was nearing, and their wardrobe was light and comfortable. She glimpsed the red sweatshirt she was wearing and frowned at its sad state. The cloth was dingy from its frequent washings, and the cuffs and neck were stretched far enough to cover her hands and expose her collarbone. The wiry woman with the wide-rimmed glasses was back, inspecting the condition of the apartment and asking inane questions. She appeared every two to three months, requesting the presence of one out of the three household children. It was Magali's turn.

"Really, Mrs. Guerrerro, this is the last chance I can give you. Your children are all malnourished, all you have in the refrigerator is a jar of pickles, and...this place is a pigsty. It's just not healthy. Now I know you receive a check every month. Where does it go?" The thin woman didn't wait for an answer, but proceeded with her barrage. Magali's mother sat passively, akin to a child being scolded. "The next time I make a visit I need to see some improvement, or I'll be back with two officers, and your children will have to come with me." This last statement drew Magali's attention away from the street; gritting her teeth, she glared at the caseworker. There was something familiar in the gestures the woman was making as she continued to speak.

Magali enjoyed sitting on the fire escape while she read. In her own private space, she could extricate herself from the noise of her brothers playing and her mother yelling. From her iron balcony, she observed the street: the drunks on the corner; the deal under her window; the junkies hiding in the alley shooting up. Pedro was a nickel and dime dealer. He set up shop on the stoop of the building, selling a few bags of weed. He wasn't flashy, and he managed to supplement the worker's comp he received every two weeks. His kids ate. It was from watching Pedro that Magali knew the silent signals the caseworker was giving her mother. She had watched a police officer do the same to Pedro, just before he put a wad of money in the cop's hand and strolled away. Pedro continued his transactions in peace. She looked back down at her shirt and frowned, her empty pockets taunting her.

Not long after the angst-filled visit, she found a complete bag of Pedro's product half-hidden under a car tire. She counted it as her luckiest stickball game ever and, for once, was not annoyed at having to retrieve the ball. The idea came easily: she would make separate joints and sell them for a dollar each. Plenty of her friends occasionally indulged in a bag now and then; she was going to make it easier for them to get their hands on the stuff. Then maybe she could pay for her brother to get a haircut. The plan itself was simple: make a little money and then spend it. It didn't work out that way.

The joints were all gone and she had made a profit of three dollars plus the usual cost of the bag, since she had not had to buy this one. Not an hour had passed after her last sale when other kids, friends of friends, came asking for a smoke of their own. It couldn't hurt; Pedro did it; it was just a little money; no one would notice. This time she was forced to buy the bag she needed. Pedro was all too happy to help.

After school, she gathered with her friends on the corner. A few hours and she was off for another bag, then two, then three. Not a month later, money was burning a hole in her pocket. Jorge got his haircut and she bought a new red sweatshirt; Efrain Anthony asked for a fresh notebook. There was more than a jar of pickles in the refrigerator, and Jorge was discovering he enjoyed cooking. Too busy hiding in her room, drinking herself into oblivion and lamenting their imprisoned father, their mother didn't notice the small changes. Pedro did.

Nights became longer for Magali, and she was often sleepy in class. Her teacher warned her she wouldn't get out of the eighth grade if she didn't start doing her work again. To make up for it, she slept less.

Two in the morning meant about as much to her as two in the afternoon. The streets were quiet and all her wares were sold. Exhausted, Magali padded to the entrance of her building. The metal door was missing the lock, and it creaked as she opened it. Her footsteps echoed in the lobby and up the first dark flight of stairs. A piece of glass skittered across the floor of the landing; Magali watched it as it hit the wall. When she looked up, Pedro was glowering down at her from the next floor, a long curved knife in his hand. She swallowed, sucking in her breath when the man took one long jump down to her. The edge of the blade pressed softly across her throat.

"You're crazy, you little bitch, if you think you're gonna take food out of my mouth. I'll kill you first."

She was pinned against a wall, a knife to her throat, and a body much larger than hers was pressing the air out of her. She could smell the scent of the weed he had been smoking on his breath; the red streaking the whites of his eyes made him all the more demonic. She refused to flinch when his lips touched her neck, the knife pushing harder into the other side. Her skin tingled painfully under its edge; any more and blood would pour. Sometimes it was easier not to fight. Magali opened her legs and arched her back as much as she could under Pedro's weight. He let out a deep groan when she pressed herself onto his thigh; the knife's edge receded, his kisses on her neck roughening. Committing herself to what she had to do, Magali struck out, kneeing him in the groin. He backed away from her. As he did, she latched onto the wrist of the hand holding the knife and twisted it. His arm was weak and she took advantage of the pain he was in to turn the blade on his neck. He couldn't speak; his lips moved but there was no sound. Brown eyes pleaded with her, begged for forgiveness and leniency. They found nothing but cold blue and, turning away, looked for an escape.

"Look at me, motherfucker. I do this to you." she spat between clenched teeth. Butter, she decided. Skin was as easy to cut as butter. Warm dark fluid ran over her hand, down her arm and under her sleeve. His eyes rolled back, white and glassy. She let him slump to the ground, leaving a streak of thick fluid against her pant leg. She stepped away from the cooling body, a pool of black spreading on the marble of the floor-- a legacy of its once prosperous status. The bit of energy she had, fled, and she trudged to the steps, jumping over the spilt blood. Grabbing on to a railing for support one flight up, she came close to heaving. Had she eaten anything that day, she would have.


Hurt rushed in on all sides; she was nothing but one immense, constant pain. Her throat ached, and at first she thought the screams she heard were her own. Slowly, she peered out at the world. Expecting to see herself surrounded by blackness, she was relieved and surprised at the clean white of the ceiling. Sharp odors of disinfectant and medicine assailed her sense of smell. She coughed from it, immediately regretting the involuntary action. A stocky nurse leaned over her, pointing a small penlight into her eyes.

"Good, you're up. Tssk, I just don't understand why you girls are always giving the guards trouble. You ought to learn not to fight so much."

Ah, the infirmary. Joy.

"You have a broken rib in there. It'll heal as long as you stay still. I've given you a sedative, and you shouldn't be alarmed when you don't wake up in here. In a little while, they'll come and take you back to solitary. I'll pop in and visit you every day, just to see how you are healing. Don't remove the bandages," the nurse warned.

If you don't shut up, I'm going to strangle you with the bandages. What is that fuckin' screaming?

The yells were fuzzy, and they echoed and faded simultaneously in her mind. No doubt an effect of the sedative. Still, she turned her eyes towards the piercing screams. Through a wired window a few feet away from her she could view a room. In it, legs spread wide by stirrups, was a woman dressed in a short hospital gown. Both her hands were bound to the side railings of the bed, the handcuffs clanging as she pulled against them. Sitting calmly between the woman's knees was a doctor, gently giving her instructions. Magali could see the stain of sweat on the chest of the blue and white gown the woman wore. The mother-to-be suddenly fell back, and her wails were replaced with the high-pitched cries of a newborn. Someone in a dark suit stepped up to the side of the bed. From behind, Magali could tell it was a woman.

The babe was cleaned quickly and put in swaddling clothes. For a moment the doctor held onto it, gave it a small grin and then passed it off to the woman in the suit. The new mother howled, imploring with each lament, "No, please. I've changed my mind." She screamed, looking with tears and pleading in her eyes at the woman holding her child. Blonde and tall, in her dark clothing she looked like an angel of death carrying away the child. A diamond hung from her neck, dangling from a golden chain above the newborn's face. "You took the money, child. Too late for doubts," the angel whispered and, gazing lovingly at the babe in her arms, she walked away. Magali felt the room spin once and, coughing, the shadows descended.



"Solitary? What...why-" Casey wanted nothing more than to question the guard, but he ignored her, turning back to the clipboard he held and his task.

"Don't bother, honey. He won't know anything, and even if he did, he wouldn't tell you." The plump, older woman patted her arm, giving her some comfort.

He called another name and, giving Casey a small smile, the old woman got in line. She stood frozen to the spot watching as the group of visitors was led through a door without her. When it closed, another door-- adjacent to the first-- opened, and a small stream of people filed out. One woman was crying as she held onto the hand of a small child who wailed for her mother. Casey, busy watching the small drama, didn't notice the taller woman who strolled confidently behind them until she was just a few feet away from her.

She forgot to breathe. Blonde hair fell lightly on the woman's broad shoulders in layered wisps, pale blue eyes narrowing in on Casey. Julia had not changed; the power in her stride commanded respect, her gait smooth and assured. She smiled pleasantly, stopping squarely in front of Casey.

"Casey, what a pleasant surprise. Are you here to do some sort of internship? I would have thought Cornell would have found you something closer to the city than this."

Out of habit, Casey dropped her eyes, but remembering herself, faced the paleness of Julia's gaze with her own. "I'm here visiting a friend." Better for you not to know. Forgive me, Gali.

"Really?" she asked arrogantly. "Now who would you know that would end up in a place like this, hmmm? One of your classmates dip into the medicine cabinet?"

"Something like that. What are you doing here?"

"That's simple; actually, I'm rather proud of it. I run a few programs that help these women earn an early release. Perhaps your friend would benefit from one. Here," she continued, handing Casey a small business card. "Give me a call, if you'd like. We can talk about it." Gently, Julia stroked Casey's cheek and turned away from her, signaling to a man holding a baby, who stood discreetly away from them, to follow her. "Oh, by the way...found anyone to take my place yet, or are you getting along on your own now?"

Casey could do nothing but stare at Julia's back as she sauntered out of the visitors' center. She crushed the card she held in her hand and cast it away. Gali would beat you over the head with that card, Julia.

Back in the safety of her car, Casey leaned back and breathed out the tension knotting her shoulders. Her cheek blazed where Julia had touched it, the light caress demanding and proprietary. She closed her eyes, and tried to focus on Magali, but Julia's words were reverberating in her mind.

They found an apartment near enough to campus for Casey to walk there from classes. With Julia taking graduate courses, it made sense for her to have a place to stay in town, rather than travel the distance back to her estate every day. When her mother wasn't working Casey would stay, spending the night with Julia and away from reality. The first time, with Julia, she had floated on waves of security, letting the older woman guide her, hand and body. With each encounter Casey grew more confident, more inclined to please the woman who gave her everything she needed. It was easy, to give up control and put aside responsibility, when Julia carried the burden so willingly.

She was writing a paper for her English class using the most advanced of computers available on the market. Julia had purchased it for her, but insisted it remain in the apartment.

"Casey, come here."

Casey recognized the tone in Julia's voice; it was a command, however gently it was issued. She turned the computer off and walked to where Julia sat in her armchair, a book open on her lap. At ease, she had undone the top buttons of her white shirt, exposing her collar and the swell of her breasts. Julia looked up at her and, having learned what pleased the tall woman, Casey lowered her eyes and body to the ground. Julia stroked her hair tenderly, as Casey knelt by her feet. She planted a loving kiss on the young woman's lips and, running a hand down her neck, rested her palm lightly on a firm breast.

"Do you trust me?" Julia whispered in a husky voice.

With slender fingers pinching her nipple, Casey gasped, bowing her head and putting her hands behind her back. "Yes, Mistress."

Julia pulled her hair back, making her crane her neck, and bit at the soft exposed skin. "Your clothes displease me, Casey." She spoke closely to her ear. "Remove them."

Remaining on her knees, Casey began to disrobe, carefully unbuttoning her shirt one button at a time. She knew Julia enjoyed watching her expose herself slowly, relishing every inch and devouring her with her eyes. She rose only to strip away the jeans she wore, and then quickly resumed her former position. Her heart raced, struggling between the fear of the unexpected, and the freedom of losing control. She sat on her heels, hands open on her thighs, palms up. In that posture, she gave up everything; her mind, body, and spirit belonged to Julia to do with as she pleased.

"Wait here, Casey."

Julia walked away, leaving her shivering in her vulnerability and the chill of her nakedness. She could hear her footsteps as she entered the bedroom, the squeal of the closet door when she opened it; the pounding in her chest grew. When Julia returned, standing beside her, she could make out the tips of a black leather flail streaming down her leg. She was taunting her with what was to come.

"Present for me." Julia said, moving to stand behind her. Casey placed her hands on the floor and, arching her back, spread her knees far apart, completely exposing herself for her Mistress. A few hard slaps to her ass warmed her skin, and Julia rubbed the heat there with a soft caress. The flail came down once, streaking her skin with bright red stripes. Julia's fingers found her moist folds, teasing her with pain and pleasure. Each strike of the flail brought another gentle touch to her center, the speed of both increasing until her ass and back were covered in red welts, and her core sopped with silky juices. She bucked with the sting of the lashes, groaned with the constant fondling of her clit; sweat beaded on her skin.

"Please...please, Mistress..." She didn't know when it happened, only that Julia was pulling her back up on her knees, and was pressing her lips onto her. The tall woman stood before her, naked, legs spread open. Casey tasted her wet nether lips, using her tongue, teeth, and lips to show her passion. Julia would not allow her to use her hands.



A knock on the window startled her out of the memory; reflexively, she hit her knee against the steering wheel and flinched. Dark shades covered his eyes, and the collar of his trench coat was pulled tightly around his neck, but Casey knew the face. He motioned for her to open the door to the passenger side, and walked around the front of the car. She clicked the lock open and sat back as Daly climbed in. Raising his hand to eye level, he showed Casey the crumpled card she had discarded at the visitors' center and frowned.


He took a toothpick out of his pocket, chewing on it thoughtfully. He had tried all day to get in and see Magali, even representing himself as her lawyer had done him little good. He had to use whatever means were presented to him, no matter who was hurt. That was the company way. Magali was easy, she was already lost; no innocent bystander there. Casey, on the other hand, was a different story. Other than her involvement with the infamous Zero, she was one of the people he had been sworn to protect. That assessment had wavered as he watched the exchange between her and Julia Stanton, but watching the woman throw away the card had affirmed what he believed. Now he had to make a decision: follow up on a lead and possibly endanger a non-combatant, or rely solely on the unpredictable woman strategically placed behind bars.

Originally, the company planned to use Magali's connections to bring down the lowest ranking members of the Blue Gauntlet. The cops that exchanged favors for money from big time drug lords, and filtered it up into the upper echelon, were part of Magali's daily life. Once they were identified, it would simply be a matter of infiltrating the ring and going after the members with the real power. With her arrest, Magali would have a chance to get into yet another of the Blue Gauntlet's schemes, but a short prison sentence would have afforded her little time. Her first judge, a member of the Gauntlet, would have given her no more than two-months, and she would have most likely been released within six weeks. . Daly took care of that. Putting the needle into the arm of that judge, giving the old guy a heart attack, had been a satisfying and necessary move. Getting the old man out of the way decreased the influence of the Blue Gauntlet in Magali's sentencing. Placing an honest judge in his stead, insured that she was given more time so she could do what he needed her to-- embark on a collision course with one of the Gauntlet's biggest players, Christopher Winslow.

"Where do you know Julia Winslow from?" he asked in a clipped tone.


He flicked the card onto her lap; it landed face down and she picked it up. In elegant letters across the top, next to an Old World emblem, was written the name, Julia Stanton Winslow, Ph.D .

"We were friends in school," she replied, sighing and running a hand through her hair.

"Friends? What do you-"

"Okay, fine, Daly, we were more than friends. I'm not having a good day here, so just spit it out. What do you want?"

Oh yes, this is just too perfect. Daly, Lady Luck is smiling on you today after all. With Magali on the inside getting proof, and Casey out here...with Stanton... "How close can you get to her?"

"Why? What do you want with her?"

"It will help Ze-"

"What do you want with her," she repeated with a bit more strength.

He had always thought she had a little fire hidden somewhere, her teeth were showing. "She's involved in something of interest to me."

"If you want my help, then you'd better spell it out, Daly."

"Did you ever hear Zero mention a Blue Gauntlet?"

"No," she said, shaking her head.

Daly inhaled deeply, trying to figure out the most prudent way of telling her as much as she needed to know, without putting her in any more danger than he was prepared to. "All right, then you have to have noticed the tattoo on her wrist, it's-"

"A blue exclusive club." Casey shuddered, remembering the dank smell of the basement and the burning of the rope on her wrists, when Webster had held her captive. There, in the darkness, he had narrated a tale of greed and corruption, weaving Magali right through its center. Somehow it was related to the small tattoo on the inside of her wrist. The one-sided conversation, at the time, had been the least of her worries. She still dreamt of the blue, electric streak of the stun gun that he had used to cause her pain. He said he had used it on Gali.

"Where'd you hear that? An exclusive club."

"Webster." Casey rubbed the back of her neck; the day was getting worse by the minute. "What's all of that have to do with Julia?"

"It's her husband, Christopher Winslow. That exclusive club... he's an important member. I think they're selling babies, but I need proof."

"Selling babies, from...?" Casey's eyes wandered over to the white walls of the prison, and she answered her own question. "And Zee, what's she have to do with it?" Please, please don't say she's involved.

"In this case...nothing, but she's in the right place at the right time." He glanced over to where she was staring, confirming her suspicions. "If she does the right thing, she can be out of there soon, but I'm afraid she's made it a little difficult on herself right now."

"What do you need me to do?"

"Call," he said, pointing at the card she was holding.




Magali laid on her back trying to ignore the throbbing in her side. The nurse had kept her word and came in once a day to check on her progress. She kept track of the passing time that way. The room was smaller than her cell, and the steel bunk was replaced by a square of concrete-- padded with a thin foam mattress-- that took up more than half of the space. For some time, she was unable to move very much; reaching the toilet not a foot away from her mattress was agony. At first, a guard would bring in a tray of food for her but, in time, the tray was slid in through an opening in the solid door, leaving the nurse as her only human contact. Encased in a cinderblock tomb, Magali didn't have much to look at. There was no way to tell the time. Except for when the nurse came, the light was either dim or non-existent. She wasn't sure how long she sat in the dark, nor how long she slept under the influence of painkillers. Her thoughts jumbled, dreams and reality overlapped. The path she had chosen came back to haunt her, reminding her that Casey had judged her correctly.

Eddie always seemed to show up at the most inopportune of times, and he always nearly brought a crisis with him. She had known him for years, a skinny runt with spiky, short black hair, who couldn't bat a ball to save his life. When her business grew so much that she stayed away from school, he asked her for work. Neither set foot in a school building after they graduated from junior high school, and Magali learned that, with the right amount of money, she could pay off everyone from the mailman to the Bureau of Child Welfare caseworker.

A year and a half after Pedro's death, she had not only filled his shoes, but had also surpassed his wildest dreams. A greedy landlord rented her an apartment, where she housed her merchandise and safely peddled it away. She made enough money to employ some of the other kids she grew up with, and support her mother's drinking habit without her brothers starving. No one on her street starved anymore. Although she was comfortable financially, there was always someone asking for help, so she thought of ways to make more. It was when she purchased a used motorcycle that she got the opportunity to do just that.

The Dragons were a Chinese gang in downtown Chinatown, mostly young immigrants who owed allegiance to a larger Chinese organization. It was from one of their members that she bought the bike, and who, she ended up racing at least once a month. She beat him every single time, earning his admiration, and an invitation to meet his friends. They introduced her to a new product, one that was guaranteed to bolster her profit, but also increased the margin of danger. Cocaine was the flavor of the day. She made her choice and, after learning everything she could about the care and distribution of the stuff, bought a gun and set up shop. Although, by virtue of her ethnicity, she could not be a member, (nor did she want to be), she enjoyed being around the Dragons. Learning their code of honor and their language. One member, in particular, took to tutoring her privately.

Mei was beautiful; her long, red-dyed hair cascaded down her back in silky waves to the top of where her back curved out. She was thin in stature, delicate to the touch, with flawless skin that smelled perpetually sweet. Her almond-shaped, brown eyes, occasionally tender, spoke of intelligence and tranquility. Magali couldn't get enough of her satiny, pouting lips. A foot shorter than she, Mei's head reached to Magali's chest, and, whenever she leaned her back to a wall, the girl was in the habit of laying her head just under Magali's chin.

Routinely, Magali waited for a call on her beeper every morning, letting her know a delivery of fresh supplies was on its way. On this particular morning, they had been out riding. Traffic was slow during the hours when most were at work or school, and Magali sped up the length of Manhattan deciding to squander some time groping Mei. Business came to a halt during the early hours of the day, and the apartment was empty. Pinning her to a wall, she had one hand down the front of the girl's jeans, and the other up the front of her T-shirt. She attacked when she kissed, pushing her lips forcefully against Mei's mouth. Mei panted and squirmed as Magali's fingers repeatedly entered her and withdrew. The girl bucked along with the rhythm she set, urging her exploration further. Mei was nipping at her neck when Eddie made his appearance; stumbling through the door, he almost tripped.

"Magali, come quick. Man, I think she's dead...I...oh shit, I'm sorry." Eddie blanched when he realized what situation he had walked in on, and avoided looking straight at them.

"Relax, stupid, and tell me what the fuck you're talkin' about. Who's dead?" she barked, pulling away from Mei as if she had been doing nothing more than washing her hands. Buttoning her jeans and pulling the belt of her chaps tightly around her waist, she picked up the gun she had laid near her feet and tucked it into the waist of her pants.

"That little kid, you know...the girl whose father you blasted a few months ago." His eyes darted to Mei as he spoke.

"You didn't tell me that story, my...Yun-Fo." Mei cooed, rubbing Magali's bare shoulders.

"It was nothing," she said, glowering at Eddie and throwing Mei a knowing smirk. Yun-Fo was Mei's pet name for her, and she rather liked it. Human fire. Eddie didn't understand any Chinese and, even if he knew what the words meant, he wouldn't have been able to comprehend the ideas and sentiments behind them. Human Fire: passionate, urgent, consuming, uncontrollable, violent. She was all those things to Mei, and the girl loved her for it.

"Was it necessary?"

Magali let her head hang, thinking of the day she had killed the man in the hallway, and the raging anger she had felt at the time. She was having trouble with one of her workers, her brother Jorge had disappeared for two days, and she was due for another visit from the caseworker. But when she heard the screams in the hallway, she had acted for one reason alone. A stronger force was hurting the defenseless.

"It was scaring the customers...bad for business." she stated flatly, pulling a white thermal shirt over her head. "Take me to the kid, Eddie."

Emaciated and deathly pale, the young girl was sprawled on the cold ground of the alley. Her honey-brown hair was tangled and matted with dried blood, and she was grimy from the dirt of the street. She wore a thin, filthy T-shirt; her dirty jeans and panties were bunched around her ankles, and blood stained her thighs. A few feet away, lay the neighborhood's oldest junkie. He was asleep in his stupor, and his equipment lay strewn at his feet, the needle in his hand. Winded from running she stopped to recover, and surveyed the entire scene before approaching the body. She squatted down by the girl, her breath showing on the air in hurried clouds. Carefully she searched the girl's neck for a pulse, and nodded when she finally felt one. Her blue eyes flashed in momentary relief.

"She's not dead, Eddie, but she will be someday...soon." she said, pointing to the telltale pinpricks on the girl's legs.

"We should call social services, right?"

"Social services is why she's here, Eddie."

Magali gingerly picked the girl up off of the ground. She was light, and Magali cradled her as she walked, looking down on the girl's blue lips. She took her to the apartment and dumped her in the bathtub. The water from the shower washed away the grime, and Magali stripped away the clothes the girl wore, throwing them into a corner. Mei helped, scrubbing the girl's skin with a towel and the dishwashing liquid they used to clean the equipment. The girl never woke, but some color slowly suffused her features. Clean, Magali laid her on a mattress they kept in the back room. Eddie had gone to fetch some clothing from her home, and returned with an added blanket.

"What the hell are we gonna do with a little girl?" Eddie queried, handing the clothes off to Magali as she dressed the unconscious girl.

"Look at her, Eddie...She look like a little girl to you? She used to be, man...I put an end to that."

"What the hell are you sayin'?"

"Think she would be here if her father was alive? Come on, Ed. Shit, her mother sliced her wrists not two weeks after I capped her pops. What the fuck do you think I'm sayin'?"

" gonna take care of her, too? Money's tight, Magali. We have a bunch of 'em on the payroll already."

She was always quick, sometimes too fast for Eddie to even see her movements, but he knew she had lunged at him when he felt her hand tighten around his throat.

"It's my money, Eddie, and I do whatever the fuck I want with it. Never, never question me again. What the fuck do you care anyway? You get yours."

He was glad Mei was there. She had laid a gentle hand on Magali's shoulder, and the effect was visible in the stone blue eyes boring into him. The squeeze on his throat loosened.

"Yun-Fo, either trust your right hand man, or kill him. But you can't have both."

"Ma...Mariana's pregnant," he managed to croak out, and Magali's hand fell away.

"Damn." Her shoulders were strained under the weight they carried; not a day passed that didn't add to the burden. She slapped the back of his head and smiled. "Well then, I guess we have two more on the payroll now..."

The girl on the mattress moaned, clutching the blanket she was wrapped in, and opened her eyes. The surprise in them was evident but, with the practiced ease of one used to waking in strange places, she calmed. Magali looked down on her, her expression stoic.

"What's your name, kid?"

"Callie," she answered meekly, knowing full well to whom she spoke.

"You belong to me now, Callie. You do what I say, no questions asked." She threw a look at Eddie, "And no more junk. I catch you doing that stuff and...I'll do the job myself. Got it?"

Callie nodded and passed out.

After a few weeks of eating properly and gaining some warranted rest, Callie filled out. Days were spent in the apartment helping Magali package the crystal powder and roll joints for sale. When the dark, young woman stood out in the street at night with her workers, Callie was by her side. One night, when Magali was busy arguing with Jorge, who had resurfaced after his latest binge, Callie asked her for the knife she kept tucked in her boot. She handed it off not giving it a second thought, until she heard the shrieks of terror from some of the girls that surrounded her. Across the street, Callie was hugging the junkie she had found her with; her arm was pumping viciously at the man's stomach, and Callie was smiling. By the time Magali reached her, the man was curled at Callie's feet, dying. She glared at the young girl, who had risked bringing the police down on the street, and grabbed the bloody knife away from her.

"You could have told me that's what you were planning."

"Sorry, I didn't want to-"

"Never mind. You like to kill...time to start earning your keep."





Callie was tired of waiting; the last word down the pipeline was Zero's order to continue the war in Brooklyn. She'd been restless to carry it out, and now she was playing nursemaid instead. It rattled her nerves the way nails on a blackboard vibrated in one's teeth. She just wasn't cut out to be around small children, or any children for that matter. Although Eddie had been adamant in his command that she wait outside, curiosity had gotten the best of her. The guys watching the building knew her; they didn't stop her. The only obstacles in her way were a few locks which she dispensed with easily. Magali had done a good job of teaching her. She put the toddler in front of her as she opened the door to Magali's apartment; that stopped the charging Devi in her tracks. Once inside, Callie took her time gazing at the apartment's furnishings. Alejandra was torturing Devi, pulling her cropped ears and grabbing for her small, stubby tail as the dog tried to run from her. Devi didn't mind it nearly as much as it seemed; she showed it in the way that she trotted back to the little girl when she did manage to escape. Callie wandered about the living room, poking the books on the shelves. Zero reads? She decided the CDs in their towers were more to her liking. I've never heard her play this shit, she thought as she read the titles of a classical music collection. Must be that little blonde bitch's shit. Bored, and with Alejandra entertained, Callie padded her way down the long hallway, towards the bedroom. She knew exactly where it was. She took in the interior, the large bed draped in dark colors, the balcony door overlooking the river, the lush carpet under her boots. With a sigh, she sat herself on the edge of the bed. How long ago was it I lay here, willing to hand everything over to you, Zee? How long? It seems like forever. God, but I love the way blood looks on you.

Closing her eyes, remembering that day, envisioning Zero standing on the stoop of the building, surrounded by her faithful, she drew in a long breath.

Danger sparked in the air with her very presence; Callie could smell the scent of the woman's sweat. She herself had never liked Ricky. As far as she was concerned he was a parasite, a disgusting roach. Zero's posture was all warning. Eddie was behind her holding a bat, and Callie knew what it meant. She savored the sting of the slap that crossed Ricky's face; she had felt it herself, before. Zero was in full bloom, savage and sensual. In an attempt to escape from her brand of justice, he ran from her, a car nearly hitting him, Zero on his heels. She was graceful, the way she glided across the hood of the car bat in hand, her focus on the terrified man fleeing her wrath. Callie licked her lips as she watched the bat swing down on Ricky, blood splattering Zero's face. Her heart was racing with the determination and rage that was imprinted on Zero's countenance. A tingling in her neck spread out and trickled down her back. She knew Zero would be smoldering, her savagery flaring into an insatiable hunger. And then, she knew, Zero would come for her.

She hadn't.

Now, of course, Callie knew why; she ran her hand across the silken sheets of the bed, twisting the smooth fabric in clutched fists, her knuckles white. A burning seized her, knowing the sheets she held caressed the naked form of the blonde who took her place; a woman who panted and sweated beneath the dark form who should have been hers.

Instead of the feel of strong hands gripping her arms, pulling her into an enraged embrace, Callie had stared in disbelief as Zero rode off in her Jeep. The police, who had foolishly shown up, had been dismissed. "Fuckers."

Callie waited on the stoop, knowing that eventually the beast would want to be fed. She thought of her last encounter with Zero, and shivered, not from the cold, but the sheer terror of its aftermath.

In a heated moment of passion, when Callie knew she was between blood-thirst and lust, Zero noticed a needle mark on her arm. The rest was a blur. She remembered little else but Zero's bestial features hovering over her, as she delivered blow after blow. And just before she slipped into unconsciousness, she had heard Zero say: "If you ever disobey me won't wake to regret it." She had told herself over and over that she had deserved the beating Zero had given her, knew she had been wrong. It took her a week to recover.

They had not been together since then. It had hurt when, after dispensing with Ricky, Zero had not come right for her. But she returned within the hour; and Callie, who had hoped she would, had still been standing on the stoop, waiting for her.

The black armored Jeep skidded to a stop in front of the building, its driver side window slid down, exposing the stony features of Zero behind the wheel. Zero gave Eddie an order, then motioned for her to come to her. Callie hesitated just a moment, until Eddie patted her shoulder on the way into the building.

" come with me. Now go tell Eddie...You won't be back anytime soon." Zero's wishes were clear, a lump in her throat prevented her from speaking, and silently she turned to do as she had been told.

Zero was more than angry, her eyes radiated pain, and Callie raced to join Eddie, anxious to be with the woman who had ignored her for months. When she finally reached him at the top of the stairs, he reminded her to obey Zero's wishes. The order was unnecessary; she wanted nothing more than to be commanded by the woman who owned her existence.

She was stoned as they drove; it showed in her reckless sharp turns. Callie knew where they were headed. It would be the first time Zero, with raw carnality flashing in the blue of her eyes, took her to her home. Usually they ended up at a downtown hotel. Desire was burning her chest, and she risked reprimand by laying a hand on Zero's thigh. It was snatched up and brought to the dark woman's lips.

"What's your name?" Zero was asking her, sucking on each of the digits of the offending hand. It was an old game between them. Zero had returned from prison fiercer, her darkness deepened; and with her first lover Mei gone, her every step bordered on violence. When it was at its worst, Zero turned to Callie, who reveled in the brutality with abandoned submission. It was then that the game had begun: Zero would give her a name for the night, to which Callie would respond. She suspected it made it easier for Magali to let go.

Callie's thoughts returned to the present, as she felt the same bed beneath her now. But not that night, Zee. I made you face me as myself and still you took me. Ripping my jacket off and throwing me on this bed; you needed me then. So I could make you forget whatever it was that burned in you, tame the beast, let it tear me to shreds. God, when you stopped I thought I would die; I thought you were still angry with me, about the drugs. Then I found was her, she was taking you away...and when she angered you, instead of coming to me, you went to those three bitches. Oh, I'm not angry because you fucked them; God knows how many women you've made scream. But the beast...the beast is mine, and mine alone.

A scraping sound interrupted her thoughts, and she rose, smoothing out the sheets crumpled from where she had sat on the bed.


Casey fumbled with the key to the door; it kept sliding on the metal circling the lock and passing the key entry. Having difficulty sleeping after discovering Magali was spending a few weeks in solitary, something she knew little about, made her lethargic. She hadn't had a good night's rest in over a month. The door swung open, and she knew something was strange, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Two steps in and she braced herself for Devi's customary leap. It never came. A creak from the floorboard and a weird squeal from the living room caused her to jump. Someone was in the apartment, someone who was cunning enough to slip past Nelson or Ruben or whoever was currently watching over the place. She faced the long hallway that branched from the entrance back towards the bedroom. There were four doorways in the corridor: one to the kitchen; one to the bathroom; the third to the master bedroom; and the first, wide archway opened out into the living room. Nervously she watched them all, stumbling over what action to take in her exhausted state.

Booted footsteps hit the wood of the hallway floor, and a slender woman strolled out from the bedroom. Her light brown hair fell around her face, focusing an onlooker's attention to her greenish-hazel eyes. Casey thought about running and tackling her, but there was something in the way the woman moved under her red-and-black leather riding suit, that gave her pause. The jacket was open, and she could see the bulletproof vest the intruder wore, its hem just over the butt of a gun tucked into the front of her pants. Casey heard the squeal again, but kept her eyes on the threatening stance of the woman; she seemed familiar.

"You're Casey, right?" Callie said, smiling and throwing her hands up in a gesture of conciliation. Just then Devi bounded into the hallway, a dark-haired toddler straddling her like a horse. The woman laughed, pointing at herself, "Callie," and then the toddler, "and this is Alejandra, Alex for short, or better yet, Jefita, little Boss." Devi wiggled, throwing the toddler to the floor. "Eddie will be here any minute. He sent me ahead."

"Careful, Devi, you'll hurt her." Casey reprimanded, holding out a hand to the panting dog.

"Oh, that's one kid she won't hurt, guaranteed," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

Casey wrapped her arms around Devi's neck. She thought it was more likely that the dog needed protection from the child than vice versa. "How can you be so sure? She's just a tiny thing."

Callie knitted her brow and put her hands on her hips. "Don't you know who she is? I thought Zero would have told you, seeing as you and her are so tight and shit. I're shacking up in her crib, right?" Callie gestured to the apartment, shaking her head and chuckling.

"Of course I know...Zee doesn't hide anything from me. I was just being careful, that's all." she said, shrugging and holding off the struggling toddler who was trying her damnedest to get her hands on Devi.

"Yeah...right...why would Zero keep you from knowing about her-"

"Ca-llie..." he drew out her name in a tone of warning. Eddie had found the door to the apartment open, and had caught the tail end of the women's conversation. "Papi!" the little girl cried, jumping into his arms. He held out a bottle of apple juice to her, and she greedily took hold of the drink. "Hey, Casey. I wanted to get here before ya did, so I could introduce ya myself. But it looks like someone beat me to it, huh?" He bounced the toddler on his hip. Letting her go to scamper across the floor and into the living room, he glowered at Callie.

"Didn't I tell ya to wait outside?" Fuck, if Zee finds out I had these two in the same room together, she'll skin me alive.

"It was cold out there, and Alex wanted to see Devi."

"Nelson let ya in?"

Callie shook her head, holding up a small leather pouch she had in her jacket pocket. "I picked the lock."

"Alright, fine, but next time I tell ya to do it." Eddie waved his hand toward the door, dismissing her.

"Bye, Alex-- You're not Zero, Eddie. Don't try to be." she paused whispering in his ear, before sauntering out the door. Eddie threw her an annoyed look.

"So...what do ya think of my baby girl?"

"She's a handful," Casey answered, giving Eddie a curious glance. " what do I owe this visit? And why was there a strange woman in my bedroom?"

"Oh..uhm, sorry about that. She's a little you know...strange. I'll have the locks changed, alright? Come on, let's sit down. Man, my butt is tired from chasing that kid around all day. She takes after her god-mother."

"Who's that? Wait...let me guess. Zee?"

Eddie nodded and stretched his legs out as he sat, making faces when the bones in his back settled. His leg still ached from his most recent gunshot wound. Alejandra was falling asleep with her bottle atop a worried Devi, her hands grasping onto the dog's ears.

"Can I get you something? Water, soda, a drink?" she asked, pointing towards the kitchen with her thumb and settling into the corner of the couch.

Eddie shook his head, turning down Casey's offer. "Just sitting down makes me happy."


"Huh? Oh yeah, sorry. Well, first, I wanna know how come ya didn't come tell me Zee was gonna be in solitary? I hadn't heard from her in days, and I waited for ya to call or something. I figured ya went to see her, and if anything was wrong ya would tell me. I finally had to call the prison myself, and talk to a friend I know is doing time up there to find out what was up. She told me Zee was in the hole."

"Oh God, Eddie. I forgot-"

"Hey, it's all right. I was just worried about ya. I know what it's like to see her behind a glass...I thought maybe you got spooked or somethin'."

'No I...I didn't even get to see her, but I can't stand thinking of her locked away like that, Eddie. All I know is what I see in the movies...and she's..." Casey hid her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking. "She probably doesn't even think about me. I...I abandoned her."

He didn't want to tell her it was worse than what she imagined. Wrinkling his nose from the sharp pain in his thigh, he scooted over to her, throwing a huge arm around her shoulders. "Aw, Casey. Don't cry. I can't stand it when women cry. She thinks about ya, really she does."

"How can you be so sure?" she mumbled.

"You know why she's in the hole?" Casey shook her head, not lifting her face from its hiding place as she cried. "Some stupid guard broke that rosary you gave her. She attacked him...that's what I heard anyway." It only made her weeping intensify, and he threw his strength into a bear hug, trying his best to console her. Alex was dead to the world; she had gone all day without a nap, following him into every seedy place he went. "Hey, I know what can get your mind off it all."

"Yeah?" Casey was curious; the torment in her was driving her insane with exhaustion. She was up for anything, until she noticed where Eddie's eyes had fallen.

"No, Eddie, no way. I can't babysit now. I have work tomorrow. Where's your wife?" She was pleading with him, the thought of looking after the rambunctious toddler draining.

"She had to go to a funeral in Florida. Alex is too small to go to something like that, so she had to leave her with me. But, Casey...with Zee gone I have to do everything. It's dangerous to have Alex with me. Please." He begged, all of a sudden turning into an overgrown, pouting boy.

Casey remembered the vest she had seen Callie wearing; its twin sat under Eddie's shirt. She knew he had a gun tucked away somewhere, and it made her weaken for the small toddler. She stared at the sleeping child. Her black curly hair spread out over Devi's haunches, small fingers clutching the bottle of juice. The sight made her surrender, and it showed in her shoulders as they drooped.

He smiled and stood up. "Thanks, Casey. I'll be back in the morning...she'll sleep through the night, I promise." He gave the girl a kiss and, waving, tiptoed out the door.

"But I'm...suppose to meet Julia tonight," she whispered once the door had closed.

It had taken a few days before Julia returned her call, citing her busy schedule in an unapologetic excuse. Casey talked her into meeting, saying she was interested in any program that would help her "friend" shorten her stay behind bars. Julia didn't need much convincing; the domineering woman's intentions were clear in the tone that she used as she spoke. Casey would pay for whatever "favors" were granted to her. Julia's motto hadn't changed: something for something. The question remaining-- would she be able to follow through-- haunted her every waking hour. What if Gali finds out? What if I can't? God I don't want her hands on me. What the hell have I gotten myself into to? Buck up, Casey, relax. It's not like you haven't traded your body for what she can give you before, right? Right. Shit, what do I do with the kid? Jesse, yeah, Jesse.



It still hurt, but that didn't stop her. She was tired of lying on her back, staring at the ceiling, letting the memories flood over her in an overwhelming tidal wave. Magali held her hands close to her sides as she lay on her stomach. The floor was cold and hard, but the chill seeping through her shirt and bandages soothed the pain from her healing rib. She guessed she had two more weeks to go, then they would set her loose on the general population. If she didn't start moving, regaining her strength, she would be easy prey for anyone trying to establish themselves. The nurse continued to visit, bringing the medication that did little more than put her to sleep. She'd place them under her tongue when the nurse handed her a glass of water, and once the pudgy woman was gone, she'd spit them out into the toilet. Sleeping for hours on end wouldn't bring her back to fighting condition. Unfortunately the hours were longer now without the oblivion of the pills. And when she wasn't doing push-ups or sit-ups in the small space afforded her, she was mired in the frightening pit of her mind. Somehow, Smoke had managed to get a pack of cigarettes to her through the "book woman". Once a week the "book woman" would come around, pushing a cart loaded with badly abused books, their covers torn and worn. She'd give them out to the prisoners being held in solitary row. Just a small measure of insurance the warden had taken to counteract the effects of deprivation. Some prisoners were known to go insane while alone, making them harder to handle after their punishment was complete. Far from cowed, they would end up spending months in solitary, only to return over and over again. Taking the lives and bodies of a few guards along with them. Magali guarded the cigarettes jealously, careful to mete them out, lest they run out and she have nothing to look forward to.

She pushed herself up from the floor, using the last bit of strength in her arms, and collapsed on the flimsy mattress. Sweat ran down the sides of her face, down her neck and onto her chest. Her breathing was heavy, but she was satisfied with finally reaching her goal of a hundred push-ups, and it made her smile. It wasn't a happy smile, more of a feral grin, resulting from the knowledge that she would be ready when they came again. And they would, she knew, but the next time, hers wouldn't be the only broken ribs needing tending to. The walls closed in on her, their whiteness blinding, even in the dim light. Borders disappeared, and she turned to her only escape. Where did it all go so wrong?

She had been satisfied with owning her little piece of the neighborhood. There was enough money, now with the cocaine added in, that she could support her ever-growing army of workers and their families. Enough of the profit went into her own pocket that she could pay the rent and utilities of her mother's home. It was no longer hers; she spent weeks without setting foot in the place. Her brothers were happy. Efrain continued in school, coming closer to graduation with every successive year. He was on the Dean's honor roll at Cardinal Hayes high school, and the debate team, as well as the chess club. Jorge had become involved in the trade, but he consumed more than he sold, until consuming was all he did. Magali knew he was trying to imitate her, and she could do little to stop him, short of beating him senseless. She had done just that once, and he had disappeared for days afterward. She couldn't honestly lecture on the dangers of taking the stuff, everyone knew she dabbled in it herself occasionally. It kept her awake and put the pain to sleep.

One early evening, as the sun, in its death throes, cast an orange glow over the street, the grim reaper touched her with a light kiss. She was dismounting the bike, its engine hot at her thighs from her latest race. Her mood, almost always dark, was light. It hadn't been a secret that Mei was related to Zhu-ge, her bike's former owner and racing partner; they were brother and sister. What had been kept from public knowledge was their relation to a Mr. Wu Jin-ming, their uncle. The man practically owned Chinatown and its people. He used the Dragons to keep the neighborhood in line, and in constant fear. He made Chairman Mao look like an angel. The newly acquired news had lifted her spirits somewhat. With a connection to a man like that, she could easily increase the hardware her people carried, and keep the block safe from ambitious intruders.

With both feet on the ground, and her bike propped up on its stand, a sharp sting to her side shattered her thoughts. A sudden warmth ran down her leg, and she fell to the ground clutching her side. They say you never hear the one that gets you; she knew it for the truth then. Eddie was by her side in a flash, lifting up her head and laying it on his lap. The gun gleaming in his hand heightened her sense of dread; his eyes darted around the street, looking for the shooter. Grimacing, she tore open her shirt, wiping away the blood with a gloved hand, trying to get a better look at the wound. Under the gore, she found a straight line a few inches long, puffy and white. Nothing was spilling out. There was no hole. The bullet had missed, and had just skimmed over the top of her skin. She bit down the pain as she struggled to get to her feet, ignoring the urgent requests of Eddie to stay down.

"I'm going upstairs, Eddie. Just go get me some fuckin' towels or something. This blood is ruining my pants." She pushed him aside and straightened. Her workers on the stoop were staring; she wouldn't let them see her weakened, even if it was a bullet. She had known them for years, had traded baseball and Charlie's Angels cards with them. But she knew them for what they had all become, beasts of prey. The pain turned into a raging fire as she made her way into her working area. The apartment had seen its share of blood; she knew at some point it would see hers as well.

By the time Eddie returned with a stack of multi-colored towels, Callie right behind him, the blue jeans she wore were scarlet. She stripped them off, catching the look of want from Callie, and piled the towels onto the wound. She nearly let out a scream when she pressed down on them, hoping to stop the flow of red fluid flooding from her side. Instead, she bit on her lip, the color draining from her face. Consciously she kept her tone casual, as if it were just a scratch she was applying a Band-aid to.

"Callie, get one of the guys to call that doctor over at Columbia-Presbyterian. You know, the one that likes to buy his shit un-ground. Tell him I want him here, now...and I'll make it worth his while. And then get back here quick, Callie." The girl ran from the room, screaming out a myriad of familiar names. Magali winced; the pain was getting worse and her head was spinning. Eddie knelt by her side, adding his strength to the waning pressure needed to staunch the bleeding. Magali took a deep breath; she had to get it all out before the darkness came. "Eddie, find out who the fuck wants me dead... really dead. Not just the ones that hate me, but because I'm in their way too. Then...find that shooter. Got it? I wanna know by the time I wake up."

"Wake up?"

"Yeah, wake up. And one but Callie...and that... doctor... are allowed in here...until I do. If I don't,...kill the bastard who got me...slow." She fought to get out the last words. The cocaine in her system was making it hard to stop the bleeding; she hadn't eaten or slept in days and the loss of blood was zapping her strength. With any luck, the doctor would get there in time to close the wound, and if she died, then there would at least be payback.

Hours later she did wake- an IV dripped fresh blood into her arm, and the burning of the wound had given way to the sting of stitches. For his trouble, the doctor was rewarded with enough drugs to tide him over for a week. It had been worth the loss in product; the man had even managed to steal a pint of blood from the hospital supplies. Magali's foresight had saved her. When she had found out the man's profession and where he worked, she had given him all of her medical information, in preparation for such an eventuality. Not bad for just a kid.

Callie had kept watch over her, shutting out any of the many "friends" who wanted to check up on her, telling them she needed to rest up a bit. In truth she wondered whether the young woman would ever wake, and it had her in a foul mood. Magali opened her eyes to the sound of Callie knocking out someone's teeth when they asked if she was dead. Eddie was trying to keep her from drawing a gun on the guy.

"Would you guys shut up, Jesus fuckin' Christ, can't anyone take a fuckin' nap around here!" At the sound of her voice her guards came running, slamming the door behind them. Eddie looked ragged, his knuckles were bleeding and his hair was standing on end. Callie had a scowl; it relaxed when she gazed into the blue of Magali's eyes. She could hear voices in the street yelling out the message that she was fine and, "I tol' you nothing can take her down, stupid."

Eddie seemed relieved to see her awake; he masked it with a look of nonchalance. "I found out who it was."

"What you do? Beat it out of them?" she asked, glancing down at his hands.

"Yeah, something like that," he replied with a sheepish smile. "You know that guy, a few blocks down, the one that sells shit out of that corner building?" Magali nodded as he went on. "Looks like he wants to expand. Idiot's been telling people he wants to build an empire. You want him dead?"

Death had touched her, for the first time; it had been an intimate embrace. She had danced with him before: he guided her hand when she pointed a gun, or swung her knife. This was the game; she had been playing it for over a year, had made a game-piece of herself to stay alive. She didn't want an empire, just a secure place to live without the specter of poverty over her head. A place where the greater bureaucracy, designed to keep the poor where they were, could be beaten. No one starved, no one wanted for anything, and everyone worked towards a common goal. It was a world unto itself, but not alone.

"It can't be that easy, Eddie. Someone else will just take his place. There are only two ways that block won't come back after us." She rubbed the back of her neck, her scheme falling into harrowing place.

"How's that?" he said scratching his head.

"We either destroy it, or make it mine. I think...better for it to be mine, without a doubt"

"What about the block after that?" The plot was making his skin crawl, whether from fear or anticipation he couldn't tell, but the look in his friend's eyes was sending shivers down his back.

"That's easy...we take that too, and along the way...we give anyone who's thinking about it...a reason to think again."

"Where do we stop?" Callie chimed in, a smile on her face, hoping she would get the answer she wanted.

"We don't. Not until there is no one left to challenge us; then we can be safe."

"So how do we do it?" he asked, slumping down next to Magali, the weight of what waited ahead barreling down on him.

"This guy have friends?" her voice was cold.

"Yeah, a bunch, and a big guy that's like his right hand man and shit."

Magali turned her eyes, orbs void of emotion, to Callie. "Then they go at a time." Fixing her eyes on Eddie, she smiled for the first time. "Call Mei for me. Tell her I need to meet her uncle."

Callie ended up being a valuable asset, her first assassin. She spent nights showing the girl how to use and care for a gun, what silencers were best, and how to adjust a scope of a rifle in the dark. The Dragons had been good to Magali; they respected her for her determination, and desire to learn. She, in turn, passed what she learned in the matter of killing on to Callie; and, when she finally set her loose, Magali gained territory virtually over night. All-out shooting sprees, where Magali waged war on a particular street, and strategic take-outs by Callie, earned Magali control of Upper Manhattan. It was a complicated exercise in power, even more so at the hands of a merciless fifteen-year-old, who was backed by a contingent of ruthless killers. Opponents died by her hand, if they were formidable; at her will, if they refused her; and at her command, in a show of might.

For three months, Upper Manhattan erupted into warfare that made headlines and the nightly news. The Mayor sent out a special task force to quell the violence; officers died, their blood staining the streets. They didn't know what or whom they were fighting, and their plan of action was haphazard at best. Each fight became fiercer, each killing increasingly brutish. It was during this time that she collected most of her scars as well; the junkie doctor was very busy. In retaliation, Magali's orders to Callie expanded until they not only included anyone surrounding a druglord, but his family as well. The only ones excluded were women and children younger than she was; anyone over fifteen was fair game. Callie lost track of her original tally. More than once, Magali sent someone out to order a surrender, only to have them returned in a body bag. Retribution followed. Block after block fell, first those of importance-- their death making a statement that she was coming if nothing else. Then, when least expected-- in the middle of the day, the morning, the darkest hours of the night-- Magali attacked. With a small, heavily armed army of followers she rode onto a street. Fires erupted; explosions went off as cars were set ablaze. Through it all Magali opened fire at anyone standing. Not once did she mask her features; she wanted those who opposed her to know her face. She'd cut a bloody path towards the one in charge, once she had him or her, what followed was enough to make onlookers violently ill. The last to fall was found only because of a trail of rotting intestines marking a path to his body.

When the smoke cleared, Magali owned Washington Heights, Inwood, Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Morningside Heights, and Alphabet city (a neighborhood she claimed as a favor to Wu Jin-min; it bordered Chinatown). All who had followed her, raged with her, and bled with her, went from simple runners to lords representing her in the various neighborhoods. Anyone left standing at the end found their old jobs were still available to them; they had only to swear allegiance. The bloodshed was over; peace settled on the island; the task force had nothing more to do and was disbanded.

On the roof overlooking the block where it all started, Magali faced the skyline of the city sprawled under her feet. Summer had arrived, the music of ice cream trucks wafted through the air along with the sound of children's laughter. With the warmth of the sun on her face and a light breeze fanning back her hair, Magali smiled. She filled her lungs with the sooty air and its scent of the new season. Untouchable, no more killing, it's's all over. Thank you, Holy Mother. Come on you stupid rich bastards, buy your poison. "You're mine! You hear me, New York? I own you!" Her voice was hoarse from barking out orders and screaming at the dead. "You didn't take me down, I took you! Fuck you! Fuck you bastards." She flung her arms above her head as she yelled to the sky, the veins in her neck showing. "I won, I beat you." With an air of finality, she fell to her knees; shaking, she wept in relief. "No more," she whispered.

She spent a few days searching for her little brother, Jorge. He was able to do what no other could-- stay one step ahead of her. The search and the activity of the past few months caught up to her, and she retired to her mother's home. There she headed straight for the living room, where she slept for two days on the couch, getting up only to go to the bathroom or order take out. She missed her brother's cooking. Efrain studied at the kitchen table, scowling at her when he thought she wasn't looking. Once, she heard him whisper "low-life," and she purposefully moved, making him jump and fall out of his chair.

Having enough of take out she went to the refrigerator to take stock of its contents. No milk, no bread, no peanut butter. "Heh, peanut butter and jelly, I can make that, I think."

"Hey, Efrain, go to the store. I'll give you a list."

"You go, I'm busy."

"Fuckin' incredible. Anyone else would shit if I yelled, but not you, huh, Efrain?" It was her attempt at a joke.

"Don't compare me with those thugs you hang with, Magali."

"Thugs?" She slammed the door to the refrigerator. Inside it something fell over, most likely one of her mother's beer bottles, and Efrain did jump. She pushed over the table he was working on, papers and books spilled to the floor. She backed him into a corner, the smell of his fear sickening her. "Those thugs, like you call them, lay their asses on the line so you can have those fancy clothes of yours, you pissant. You have what you have, because I am who I am. And together, me and those thugs...feed this whole fuckin' neighborhood."

He was trembling with her closeness, her eyes nailing him to the wall. "You've brought nothing to this neighborhood but death. You make them sound like you're a hero." He was trying to be brave, but the quavering in his voice betrayed him.

"I'm no hero, Efrain, but just remember-- I save about as many lives as I end, and you're one of them."

"And our brother's is one of the ones you've ended." As he spoke the words, he knew he had crossed the line, and he shut his eyes against the impending fist he knew was headed his way.

"I'll fix that too," he heard her say as the door slammed behind her.

She returned a half-hour later to find that Jorge had chased Efrain up to the roof, insane with the need for more money. She killed him then, snapping his neck as she had learned to do within the past few months. Then, it had saved her bullets and it was cleaner. She never thought she would use the move on her own brother. Efrain had watched the entire thing, and if he hadn't lived in complete fear of her before, he now did. With her arm around Jorge's neck and head, she twisted and felt the pop of vertebra snapping. Her baby brother went limp in her arms; his life was over. She barely heard the Miranda act when cops surrounded her and pushed her to the ground. The rasp of Jorge's last breath drowned everything out.


A tray of food appeared in the slot below the door. The sound of metal scraping against the concrete of the floor drew her away from the memory of her brother's death. She didn't bother to move from where she sat on the concrete block that supported her thin mattress. She could tell by the smell what was on the tray, and it did nothing for her appetite. A thick, coagulating gravy covered a slab of brown meat like slime on stagnant water. They called it Salisbury steak.

A sandwich was the usual fare for her while she waited, listening to the disgusted tones used to describe her life, her actions. As usual, she refused to eat it. At night, while she waited alone in her cell, they'd bring her a tray of food. It reminded her of school lunches. She had refused them as well. The trial took weeks, with reporters stationed just outside the courtroom. Those who were allowed in carried only a notepad. Her lawyer told her to plead. There was no doubt as to her guilt, he had said; her brother would testify. They had held out as long as they could. Any longer and she wouldn't get out before her thirtieth birthday. They'd managed to have her tried as a youthful offender, but it was clear, that with the lack of maximum security for juveniles, she would spend her time among adults. That was fine with her; she didn't feel like a youth.

They sat her in the judge's chambers cuffed to a hard wooden chair so old it creaked when she moved. Rarely was she allowed anywhere in public view. As a minor, the system was doing its best to protect her identity. As a result, she saw no one but her lawyer, cops, prosecutors and judges. She hadn't seen her mother since before her arrest, her father was still behind bars, and Efrain hadn't bothered to show up either. Magali didn't expect to see any of her workers in the courtroom; it would have been stupid for them to have stepped foot in a federal building of any sort. She had ordered them away on the one chance she had had to use a phone. She was alone.

They brought the paper in for her to read her moniker. Bajo Zero was plastered in bold letters across the top of the front page. She'd seen it before-- the descriptions of her brother's murder, the conditions under which she had lived, her alleged involvement with drug trafficking. She was a cold-blooded murderer, they had written: colder than ice, below zero. The personification of everything that was wrong with American youth, an example of the rampant violence of society, and its disregard for authority. They were right. She believed them.

Short and stocky, the judge wore his robes naturally. She did her best to keep her chin up as he sat behind his desk, his dark gaze fixed on her. Her fate rested in his hands. The lawyer, hired by legal aide, stood behind her, his hands resting on the back of her chair. She wanted to slap them away, carve him a new asshole, watch him beg at her feet. Even with all the hoopla surrounding her case, she knew, without knowing a thing about law, that he had pissed her case away. He had too many other cases waiting. The prosecutor sat next to her. As if claiming her for the state wasn't enough, he wanted her to know she had lost. He was just doing his job, she had tried to tell herself, but then she found he enjoyed burying her a little at a time over the course of the final few weeks.

"You're making a wise decision, young lady. I'm sure your lawyer here has given you the best advice possible, and you are fully aware of the penalty you face by pleading. I'd like to give you more time than what you'll end up with. Jorge Guerrerro's death was a tragedy. Such a young boy...but, such is the case when a defendant pleads." He had been directing his speech to her alone, and with the same ease turned his eyes on her lawyer. "Have her guardians agreed to the bargain?"

There was a long moment of silence, and Magali wondered how they could have gotten her mother out of her stupor long enough to agree to anything.

"I'm sorry, your Honor, but...the defendant's father is in custody, and...her mother, as of last night, is deceased. The decision is hers alone. As her attorney and guardian at this time, I have advised her to take the plea."

Part 5

Jesse rubbed the sleep from her eyes and ran her fingers through her short dark hair. It tended to stick up in all directions when she slept. Kristin was asleep next to her; her pale skin glowed under Jesse's darker colored arm. The woman was boyishly thin, with small breasts and thin hips, but what Jesse enjoyed the most was plump and firm. Her hand squirmed its way under the sheets, and she laid a hand on one of the rounded mounds. Mmmm...booty. Incessant ringing from the phone had awakened her. She was glad, remembering that she had forgotten to set the alarm. She'd been otherwise occupied before falling asleep. The sheets were scented with the sweet scent of women after sex. Keeping her hand on Kristin's ass, she turned on her back and reached for the phone, knocking over an empty beer bottle in the process.

"New York City Morgue, you stab 'em, we slab 'em." she answered in her sing song way.

"Jesse? God, Jesse, that joke is getting old. I almost hung up, thinking it was the wrong number."

"Casey? What the hell? Don't you fuckin' sleep?"

"Jesse, it's five in the afternoon."

"Yeah, but we do the night shift. This is early. Besides, I didn't get to sleep right away," she added, patting the comfortable slope of flesh under her hand and smiling.

"Kristin's there I take it." Casey responded rather smugly.

"Mmm..hmmm, and how. So what's up?"

"I need a favor, a big favor."

"Who do I have to kill?" Jesse immediately winced, reminding herself that sometimes she spoke without thinking, and with Casey her particular joke wasn't really funny. Casey was acutely sensitive to who-- and what-- her lover was, especially after what had transpired between them, and Jesse knew it. The spunky blonde who had managed to fall in love with her murderous cousin had become a dear friend. "Sorry, that came out all wrong. What do ya need?"

"You know Alejandra?"


"Alejandra, Eddie's daughter?"

"I've heard her mentioned, never met her though. Why, is the kid all right?"

"She's just fine. Feel like babysitting?"

"What's in it for me?"

"My undying devotion?"

"Oh baby, I love it when you talk nasty. Mmmph-" her breath was stopped by a hard slap to her midsection by an annoyed Kristin, and Jesse smiled sheepishly. Casey wasn't the only one who thought her jokes were getting tired.

"Thanks, Jesse, and tell Kristin I'd have slapped you too."

Jesse replaced the cordless phone on its cradle once Casey had hung up. The last thing she wanted to do was to get out of bed. Her back ached from pulling a heavy, patient-laden gurney up the hospital emergency room ramp, and she had acquired a few new bruises from bumping into corners and railings. However her real distraction was the warm bare skin of her new lover rubbing against her torso. The woman was insatiable. She wasn't complaining, but it did make getting up extremely difficult. Still, Casey rarely asked her for a favor, and when she did the reasons were far from trivial. How much trouble can the kid be?

After pulling on a pair of loosely fitting black sweats and a tight T-shirt, Jesse headed for the door throwing on her padded uniform jacket. Winter was taking its last shots at the city; some days brought a bit of warmth, while others blustered with cold, biting winds. The sun was setting behind the tall brick buildings of the neighborhood, bringing on the orange glow of street lamps and the yellow of car headlights. Sounds became more pronounced, the gurgling and clanking of Jesse's car muting them all out. A short ride up congested Broadway, avoiding running pedestrians and the aggressive passings of taxicabs, and Jesse was on the stretch of street leading up to the exclusive neighborhood in which Magali made her home. The sidewalks, lined with trees, were as clean as downtown Manhattan. Pre-war architecture alternated with the modern look of glass and concrete created in the sixties. Magali's condo apartment was located in one of the more modern buildings, burnished in gold and glass, with an old-fashioned lobby boasting wood, marble, and imitation kerosene lamps. The edifice faced the main avenue into the neighborhood, its rear overlooking a sheer cliff above the roiling waters of the Hudson River. Jesse knew that, besides her own place, Magali owned a second condo in the building. There dwelt her guards, who took shifts overseeing the comings and goings of residents and visitors. Luckily, the building encompassed a basement garage spacious enough to accommodate the cars of invited guests. Parking anywhere in New York was a hassle.

Casey was waiting at the door fully dressed, looking as if she were off for a business meeting. Jesse thought she looked incredible. The charcoal grey blazer of her suit was cinched at the waist, flowing down to pants which fit perfectly-- snug over her bottom and tapered at the ankle. Her blonde hair swept out at her shoulders; her eyes mirrored the dark pine green of her boat collar blouse, stretched taut against her breasts and tight around her waist. Jesse could see the small protrusion of the navel piercing hidden under the fine woven fabric. She could tell the woman had applied some makeup, carefully put together to portray a natural look; it was convincing. Jesse had never seen Casey looking as radiant as she did then, but on closer inspection there was a solemn sadness behind the façade.

"Hey, woman, where the hell are you going?" Jesse asked, giving Casey a quick hug and then entering the apartment.

Casey took a furtive look down the carpeted hallway before closing the door behind them. "I'm off to meet with an old school friend of mine. What do you think? Too chichi?" Casey replied, gesturing to herself with both hands and inviting appraisal.

"You look umm...well...fuckable would be an understatement. You sure she's just a friend?" Jesse had the family's wicked trademark smirk; it ran in the blood, and she used it to make her point.

"Oh, yeah, just a friend...nothing more, really." The lump in her throat was hard to swallow.

"Why the get-up then?"

"Rich friend, fancy restaurant sort of thing."

"Oh. Well then you'd better get going. Hey, where's the kid?"

"I laid her on the bed; she's knocked out. I won't be gone too long, but just in case, Eddie's beeper number is on the fridge. Call him if anything goes wrong, all right?"

Jesse nodded and padded into the bedroom, waving a goodbye at Casey as she did. "Have a good one."

She heard the door close as she stepped into the dimly lit room. Devi was curled at the foot of the bed; her stubby tail thumped the mattress when she spotted Jesse. "Hey, girl. You keeping a look out?" Jesse whispered, patting the dog on the head. The small girl was curled on her side, a little hand resting under her face, black hair running in every direction. Jesse grabbed the quilt for covering the toddler, she had apparently kicked it off, and pulled it up to the girl's shoulders. She tucked the sides in around her, and pushed back a few dark strands from the child's face. A pair of blue eyes peered sleepily up at her. Jesse gasped. Lying peacefully in the soft glow of the room, was a face that littered almost every picture album she owned. The piercing depth of the eyes, innocent and trusting, brought tears to her own. A ghost from more than two decades past was staring at her.



La Nouvelle Justine, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was interesting to say the least. Casey had cautiously approached the steel door with its one, shuttered square of a window. It reminded her of the speakeasys of the Prohibition era. Only gold lettering on a purple flag above the door announced its location; all of the windows were blacked out. The carefully kept anonymity foreshadowed what Casey could expect of the evening. Although the air of the place made it seem as though she would need a password, she entered without even knocking. Immediately she was greeted by a long bar counter topped with a clear glass and displaying a variety of leather toys and apparel. Behind it, wearing rubber pants and a spiked collar, a female bartender served drinks. Her breasts bulged from a black latex bra.

Off to the left behind a wooden podium, another woman in a leather corset, flail in hand, eyed her with authority. Casey recognized the poise and stare for what it was-- this woman was a dominatrix, and would brook no lack of subservience. With a quick crook of her finger and an arrogant turn of her head, the hostess summoned Casey. She didn't look at her as she spoke.

"Do you have a reservation, my sweet, or are you here for me alone?"

"'m meeting with someone here."

The hostess smiled; she had noticed the quick, almost unconscious change in her patron. The eyes had turned down, and the voice was near to a hushed whisper. "It's Mistress Debra, my pet.'re here with someone already. What a pity. I would have enjoyed hearing you whimper at my feet. Perhaps your Master would grace me with the small gift of warming your skin up for him?"

"She, Mistress Debra...she just might ask you to." Casey hid her smirk, falling in with the game.

" it's Mistress Julia you've been summoned by...lucky you. She draws out the most exquisite of screams," she sighed, her voice filled with longing. "Come, follow me. I will lead you to her, and do behave, otherwise..." Debra pointed to a small, raised stage, fixed with eyebolts on four poles in each of its corners, "I may be requested to perform." She added a wicked smile to her warning, inviting Casey to contradict her command.

"Thank you, Mistress Debra, for the reminder."

Casey followed her into the dark interior, around small round tables and leather-upholstered booths. The walls were papered in deep scarlet; dim lamps cast a dreamy glow on the diners. They passed scantily-dressed and collared waiters carrying trays loaded with plates of roasted duck a l'orange, and filet mignon. The smell of wine and baked bread wafted and mixed with the scent of oil and leather. Two small T.V sets ran a looped tape of various sexual encounters, ranging from scenes from "Caligula" to "Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, Kill." The droning of gothic type music mixed with Gregorian chant underscored the sounds of conversation.

Casey spotted Julia sitting alone in a semicircular booth, one empty wooden chair at the opposite end of the table. Above her, hanging from the wall, a man-sized, gothic crucifix towered. Her short blonde hair contrasted with the dark silk blouse; she wore its top buttons open, exposing the swell of her breasts; a diamond lay brilliantly against her skin. At her sides stood two well-oiled and muscled men. Each wore a thick collar around his neck, a long chain leash dangling from one metal loop at their throats. She took a swallow of a dark wine from a crystalline goblet. One of the men re-filled the glass, while the other buttered a piece of bread, knelt, and offered it up to her from his kneeling position. She took a bite of the bread and casually ran her fingers through his hair, silently thanking her pet.

As she expected, Debra led her to the vacant wooden chair which, despite its looks, was reasonably comfortable. Julia smiled at her and snapped her fingers. The men bowed and backed away from the table, disappearing into a corner of the restaurant.

"Did you have any trouble finding the place?" Julia asked glancing away from her momentarily to pick up a hunk of Camembert cheese. She held it in the palm of her hand and picked up a large, curved bladed knife from the table. Its ivory handle reminded Casey of the antler-handled knife Magali carried in her boot. Julia cut a thin slice of the cheese and offered it to her.

Delicately, Casey took the offered slice. "No, no trouble at all."

"I've ordered for us. I seem to remember you enjoy Cassoulet."

"Yes, I do. Thank you for meeting with me," she said between bites of the slice.

"It'll be my pleasure, Casey. Some wine?" Julia did very little for herself and, at the snap of her fingers, one of the men re-appeared with a second goblet and filled it, placing it in front of Casey. She dismissed him with a small wave of her hand when he was done. Casey sipped at it. "So, about your friend...I can get her into a rehab program. That should shorten her time a bit."

"She's not an addict, just goon." Casey took another sip of the wine and followed it with a longer swallow. This was the part she had been dreading. She would have to explain to Julia why Magali was in prison without revealing too much. It had to be genuine, Daly had told her in their last phone conversation. Julia would have to believe that Magali was nothing more than an acquaintance, and that Casey's real interests lay with Julia. It was the only way to get close enough. "She's the cousin of a good friend of mine, someone I work with."

"For shame, Casey. Getting yourself involved with people like that."

Casey faked a small laugh. "Well, I'm really friends with her cousin. She and I are a team in the paramedics corps. I just took pity on the woman, you know how I am, Julia. For God's sake, she never even finished high school. She's project of mine, that's all," she said with exasperation. I'm going to be sick.

Julia grinned bemusedly and took another drink of her wine. "I see. Well then, perhaps a G.E.D program would help."

Casey nibbled what was left of the cheese before responding; she needed to wash out the taste of her words. "I don't know, she's stubborn in that way. Proud. You know how they are." She said, laying soft fingers on Julia's hand. Come on, Julia, give me something that will give her the chance to get into your good graces. Once you see'll know exactly how to use her, right up until she rips your throat out.

Julia squeezed Casey's hand in reassurance, then cut another slice of cheese and gave it to her. "Now don't you worry, dear one. I'll take care of that. I have a way with those women. I'll just have a talk with her, and I'm sure she'll see it my way."

Casey nearly choked on the bite she was attempting to chew; her appetite was diminishing by the minute. Julia had used the term 'dear one'; it cued the upcoming change in protocol. She hoped Magali wouldn't kill the woman for being obstinate when they 'spoke'.

"Ah, here comes our food," she smiled as she spoke, looking over Casey's shoulder. "Now finish all your dinner, Casey. You'll need the energy if you're to please me."

Casey's eyes lowered to the table. She could no longer look at Julia; it was forbidden from the moment she had named her as a submissive. "Yes, Mis..." It begins. I can't, I can't do this.

"Finish what you were saying, Casey." Julia's voice was patronizing.

I can't; God, I can't do this.

"Casey?" The tone was becoming aggressive.

What happens if I don't? What happens if I stop this right here? They continue selling babies. Magali remains in prison, getting into more trouble than she's in now. She's already attacked a guard. I may never see her again... not without bars separating us.

"Finish," Julia demanded.


The food was set on the table, and Julia signaled Casey to begin eating. The glare in the woman's eyes told Casey she would later pay for her hesitation.

Casey glanced back at a hand on her shoulder; Mistress Debra was walking past, giving Julia a smile of approval and a nod. With her authoritative stride she approached a table near them; at it, surrounded by three young women, sat a peppered-haired man in a dark suit. He gestured to them with an open hand and cocked his head to the side. Casey couldn't hear his words over the rhythmic music, but from his expression she could tell he was giving instructions. Out of the corner of her eye Casey observed as Debra commanded the women to stand. They filed in behind her and followed as she strolled to the stage.

"Look, dear one, at our entertainment. It would please me not to have to send you off with her, would make a splendid spectacle."

The short speech was intended to give her permission to watch, whether she wanted to or not. Casey turned in her chair, glad to have something other than her plate to look at.

Mistress Debra was talented; she wasted no time, every action devoted to a specific purpose. The women were experienced, and not from among the many tourists who visited the restaurant for a thrill or change of pace. These were dedicated slaves, who possibly shared a roof and a loving Master. For some reason they had displeased him and, although their faces were somber, they were most likely in heaven with the attention they were receiving. After all, their Master was paying for their discipline and they for his displeasure.

Quickly, Debra bound each of the dark-haired women's wrists with plain leather cuffs. Each wore a long straight skirt that showed off her voluptuous figure, and a spaghetti strap, silk blouse in a dark shade of red. They hung their heads and kept quiet, saving their voices to please the crowd of onlookers. Debra turned them one by one to face towards the wall, and bound their cuffs together to one loop in a whipping post at center stage. The binding forced them to stand shoulder to shoulder and, when Debra commanded them to bend at the waist, there was a perfect row of plump asses begging for her to go to work.

"Spread your legs, little darlings. Don't make me ask twice."

Dutifully the three did as they were instructed, straining to be the one to provide better access. Tenderly Debra ran her hand over the tantalizing row of firm globes, giving each a playful slap. Beginning with the center slave she hiked up each woman's skirt to wreathe around her waist, revealing to the crowd that all three wore plain, black silk thongs under their clothing. Debra laughed in glee as she placed a thigh against the crotch of the middle slave and began a steady spanking on the two at the sides to match the rhythm of her leg's pushing. When their skin was nearing pink and they were all panting and whimpering, Debra stopped and turned toward their master, who gave her a wave and a nod. From a hook on her belt she removed her flail and struck it once against her own bare thigh. The loud snap made all three slaves jump and writhe; Debra was pleased with the effect. It was then that the Mistress showed off her very special talent. With finely directed forehand overhead strokes, and alternating backhand overhead strokes, she worked her way towards swift, beautifully arced figure-eights. The whimpers turned to groans and then all-out cries before the cheering crowd.

"That's enough, dear one. Finish your food now."

"Yes, Mistress." What would Gali do if she saw me in here? Oh God, she'd carry me out over her shoulder, then...she'd find out how wet I am, and...freak...or, God I can only hope, fuck me silly. Heheh, Jesse definitely would enjoy the show, her and her butt fetish.

Julia drank from her goblet as she watched the rest of Debra's performance, occasionally taking a morsel from her plate.

When they had finished, Julia paid the bill and escorted Casey from the restaurant with a proprietary arm around her waist. Outside a black Lincoln Town car's headlights turned on, and a chauffeur, in cap and suit, stepped around the car to open the passenger door. With a gentle push Julia guided Casey into the car and followed. The car was as dark inside as it was outside. Halfway through the ride Casey felt Julia's hand fall on her knee and make its way up her thigh. Genuine, Daly had said. Casey let her knees part; it was hard to breathe. She placed her hands to her sides, palms up, and let her head drop back onto the cushion of the seat.

"Another ten minutes and we will arrive at the town house. It hasn't changed any since you were last there."

To anyone but Casey, the statement would have been nothing more than an old friend's invitation. But she knew what Julia was insinuating-- all of her toys would be exactly where she knew them to be, and Casey was to serve. When the car stopped, Casey waited for the chauffeur's hand before standing.

Julia walked ahead of her without so much as a fleeting look back. She opened the door and strolled in, expecting Casey to lock it behind them. As Casey took in the furnishings and decorations around the sunken living room, she agreed--the house had not changed. She could pretend she hadn't changed, that she had never met Magali or Jesse, that she had never struck out on her own and tasted unfettered freedom. It could possibly make things easier.

"Go on, Casey. You know where it is. Prepare yourself for me, dear one."

Casey had known better than to sit anywhere, and had waited, standing, for instructions from Julia. She had uttered them, subtle but strict. Julia poured herself a scotch as Casey walked off towards the back room.

Casey lit a match from a box on a tall stand next to the door; right where she knew it would be. With it, she set a taper candle aflame; it was the first on the iron candelabrum. When they were all lit, she could better see the room; it too had not changed. The chamber was large and sponge painted a dark blue, giving the walls the faded texture of old parchment. Flickering light from the candles shone off the highly polished cherry wood floor, lending the place an air of stunning elegance. Bolted to one wall was a large wooden x-frame padded in leather; the studs of its wrist and ankle cuffs glinted in the candlelight. Casey walked around the room lighting other candles that sat cold and alone along one shelf that ran the length of the room. With all the wicks burning, she could easily see the rest of the furnishings.

A four posted, wooden bed lay at the far end, leaving a wide space in the middle of the room. Another wall held a Katherine wheel; it was constructed from the wood frame of a wagon wheel and padded. On it, bound and gagged, Julia could spin her submissives to her heart's content. There was a rack and a spanking horse any gymnast would have loved to train on, minus the handholds. A sling hung suspended from the ceiling, retracted to be out of the way when not in use. Erected in the center of the room's floor was Julia's favorite site-- a pair of whipping posts elegantly decorated with gold leaf. Four eyebolts, two on each post, held chains from which dangled jeweled leather cuffs. In a corner, from various hooks hung an assortment of collars, leashes, cuffs of all kinds, spreader bars, harnesses, gags, and blindfolds. A fringe whip, a braided cat whip, and everything from a rubber whip to a bullwhip hung miscellaneously alongside canes, paddles, and crops of different lengths and styles. A group of shelves under the hanging collection sported vibrators, dildos, strap-ons, plugs and beads of many colors, sizes, and shapes. In short, if Julia didn't own it, it didn't exist. Casey inhaled deeply, the residual odors of incense easing her reluctance. Beneath the displayed tools of Julia's secret trade, she was surprised to find the brass and leather chest Julia had purchased for her. Once emptied of its contents-- the trinkets that Julia demanded Casey wear-- the chest would hold her mundane clothing, keeping it, and the evidence that she had an identity other than that of a servant, out of Julia's sight. She knelt beside it and, gently lifting its hood, peered inside. There, wrapped in silk and stored in small velvet boxes, were the only items in the room she was allowed to touch.


"One hundred and forty-eight, one hundred and forty-nine, one hundred and fifty." Magali's arms weakened and she fell painfully to the floor panting. She'd been allowed to have her jeans and an A-shirt back, and was grateful to have gotten out of the hospital scrubs she had had to wear while in solitary. One night left, just one more. Is it mornin' yet? Fuck, I hate not knowin' the time. Her rib had healed, although it was still sore, and the bruise on her forehead had disappeared into a yellow splotch. She pushed herself from the cold floor and let herself fall onto the mattress. She barely registered the pain in her elbow as it hit the block of concrete that served as a platform for her bed. She hadn't been able to get Casey out of her mind. When she slept, she would see the terror in the green eyes as she held her gun on Russell. Awake, she would hear the woman's laughter, or would catch a whiff of her perfume. While doing push-ups she would envision the blonde under her, her legs wrapped around her waist as she ground into her. It had all been Eddie's fault: he had found a way to get in touch with Smoke, and the message that the blonde had come on a visit reached her within a few days of the phone call. She came to see me. Maybe she was here to say goodbye, yeah, she would do something like that. Could it be that she came to give me another chance? Yeah right, maybe another chance to fuck up again. I don't want her to see me in here! Ave fuckin' Maria, but I'm going nuts without her. All right, Zee. Think of something else, think.

Magali stared up at the white ceiling and shook her head. She knew where her thoughts would lead her--back into the past, back into the stinking swamp of deeds and misdeeds that had led her to where she was. Not right now, later, Zee. You can kick the shit out of yourself later. She folded her hands on her belly, rubbing the crease between her abdominal muscles with her thumbs. She could almost feel Casey's hand stroking her there, inviting her, tantalizing her. One thumb brushed against a nipple, it swelled at the attention. The other was jealous and, as she obliged it with her other thumb, her pulse began to quicken.



A thin black leather collar bordered with diamonds adorned her neck; from it, thin strands of silver chain hung in loose arcs from four silver loops. On her wrists she wore thin diamond bracelets; smaller strands ran from them to attach themselves to diamond rings on all four of her fingers and thumb. Her ankles and feet were jeweled identically. Around her waist a delicate silver chain, heavy with small silver bells, was connected to the silver loop piercing her navel. The piercing allowed for one single diamond, hanging from the loop, to sit snugly in her belly button. Perfumed oil shone on her skin, glistened on firm young breasts-- her nipples erect and dark pink-- and the curls of her triangle. With her head slightly lowered, her hair cascading down her back, she waited, hands obediently at her sides.

Casey heard her enter the room; she didn't dare move and risk offending her. Tenderly, Julia's hand lifted her chin and brushed her hair back away from her face. Her warm, scotch-flavored lips touched Casey's. Teeth nipped, and Casey winced as they broke the skin, but she made no move to get away. Slowly Julia's tongue ran across her blood flushed lips, and licked the small, crimson drop that appeared on them. Casey closed her eyes, neither inviting nor rejecting. The kiss was not to be savored by the slave; it was to be Julia's alone.

"My poor dear one, you've needed this...haven't you?"

"Yes, Mistress," Casey whispered as Julia circled her, then stopped before her. She could feel the woman's eyes taking in every inch of her exposed skin.

"Who's touched you?" she asked tauntingly.

"No one, Mistress."

"No, no one can, not...the way I do."

She felt Julia's fingers lightly brush her belly as she stepped behind her. There was the soft rattle of chains and the tender touch of a fingertip running the length of her back. Soft velvet covered her eyes; the blindfold tightened and she was in total darkness. Secretly she thanked whatever demon guarded her--she wouldn't have to watch what was being done. It's Gali, not Julia, Gali.

"Feel, and remember, dear one. What it feels like to be with me."

Her hands were held and, gently, she was led by them for a few steps. The next touch she felt was that of cuffs being fastened to her wrists and ankles; they were pulled taut, spreading her as if she was an eagle readying for flight. There was music in the background. She couldn't tell what it was; the sound of her own breathing and heartbeat disrupted it. A tingling began at her ankles, slowly winding its way up her thighs and belly. Feathers, she's using feathers. When the feeling stopped, she stood in dark silence, for what seemed like an eternity. The smell of incense became thick, followed by the smoky sweet scent of a snuffed candle. She felt fingers glide across her skin, trace the lines of muscles on her back, caress her ass with soft touches. She imagined Magali's hands and bit her lower lip tasting the blood of her Mistress' bite.


With her left arm under her head, she kneaded the nape of her neck. Her Saint's hands caressed her. Above the stiff material of her jeans, she stroked her crotch. The rubbing became harder with each touch, more urgent, oscillating. Her hips began to move slowly. Reaching with both hands, she pulled the A-shirt out of her jeans' waistband. She breathed deep, satisfying breaths. The hem of her shirt rested on her wrists; her strong hands, under the fabric, pinched and twisted at engorged nipples. It was Casey's mouth torturing her, making her desire build. She arched her back into it, increasing the pressure, the pain. Her breathing quickened as she squeezed her thighs together, the seam of her jeans pressing against her core. Magali let one hand roam down her belly, its warmth a pleasant sensation, the muscles there rippling with her snake-like movements. With two fingers she undid her jeans and then slipped her hand in; the metal of the zipper scraped the skin of her forearm-- it was her Saint's nails. With her index and ring finger she parted her moist lips; her middle finger flicked at her nub. A wicked smile formed with the jolt of sensations coming from her clit. She imagined she touched Casey, pictured the soft pink skin of her Saint's labia, the scent of her-- intoxicating. A soft moan escaped her lips.


An icy trickle bit down on her nipple; it ached with the chill. She could feel the cold drip marking a path down her belly towards her mound. She focused on it, the feel of its touch, and gasped in surprise as the cold clamped down first on her other nipple, then her clit. She shivered and moaned; the contradictions had begun. The scent of melting wax and burnt wick assaulted her sense of smell and, as her hair was pulled bringing her head suddenly back, she felt the first searing burn fall on her breast. She gritted her teeth against the pain and groaned in relief from the warmth. Her skin was on fire; the heated wax streamed slowly down her breasts in scalding veins of pain. It touched her belly, fell onto her thighs, and when she thought it finished, it began to ripple down her back. The sensations appeared and vanished too quickly for her to react. While she was groaning at one soul-piercing trickle of heat, another one had started and disappeared. She pulled at her chains, the cuffs bit into her palms; she struggled against her bonds praying they would stay. Gali, Gali...

"Mmm, look at you struggling for me. You want me to stop, don't you?

Casey nodded, words failing her.

"But you know I won't. You let me do this because you want me to. You dream it, hunger for it. I complete you. You love this, don't you? Don't you, my dear one?"

Casey threw her head back; her throat aching, she forced out the words she needed. "If it pleases you, Mistress."

"That's it, darling. Please me."

In the darkness, bound and blinded she lived in her body. Every nerve reached out to touch the world; she could feel the blood pumping in her veins, the thumping of her heart growing louder. Breathing and feeling only what she was given, she became arms and legs, flesh and bone, her mind retreated inward. When the first smack of the paddle hit her ass, it shot through her, traveling up towards her heart and out to her limbs. Strike after strike sparked within her, beads of sweat forming on her skin, dripping down her back and chest. Screams ripped from her throat, leaving her chest pulsing with the effort.


It was hard under her fingers as she circled and teased it. Strands of black hair stuck to her face and neck. A v-shaped stain of sweat on her A-shirt clung to her chest, a tear of perspiration rolled down her cheek. She tasted herself; her left arm draped across her bare stomach, stroking her skin with a slicked palm. It was sweet nectar off her Saint's lips. Her legs trembled with effort. Casey was with her-- she could hear her voice moaning in her ear, feel her lips nipping her neck. She longed to wrap her hand in the golden tresses. Magali shoved her hand back under her jeans and allowed her finger to circle her clit once again-- her Saint's tongue. Slick and warm, her folds seduced her, and roughly she plunged two fingers deep inside herself. Her moans grew louder. Her hand ceased its caresses of her midsection to fall on the sheets, gripping them with white-knuckled ferocity.



Smooth against her wet entrance, the dildo inched its way inside her. It glided in and out, entering deeper with each easy push, opening her deliberately and igniting her hunger for it, the need to have more of it. Casey gasped as its full length was introduced and held in place. She was being filled to capacity; straps buckled around her waist and thighs kept the rod deep within her. It moved with the sway of her hips as thin strips stroked her back, stinging her skin.

"Yes, that's it. You are sooo...beautiful this way. Show me how much you need me." Julia's voice was tinged with vindication.

The flail was leaving marks; she could feel its sweltering touch conquering her flesh. Silky fingers probed the entrance to her ass, lubricating it with a warm jelly.

"Please, Mistress, please."

"Tell me, dear one. What is it you want?"

"I...I need to..."

"Not yet...not until I'm satisfied." She enjoyed making Casey wait, beg, cry for release, having the woman hang on her every sadistic pleasure.

A soft round surface pressed against her, and Magali's distant voice ordered her to push. She felt it slide in and, with one forceful intrusion, her inpalement was complete. Casey writhed, her legs were weak, her arms useless.

"I know what makes you scream, darling. Only I can fuck you this way...and you love it, don't you?"

"Yes, God yes," she whimpered.

"That's my good girl."

Fingers teased her nub as she bucked, rocking the dildoes inside her. The sounds of her voice, groaning and pleading for mercy, were far away. Tears wet the blindfold, streaming down her face in anguish and supplication. Her clit throbbed for release.


She had held on long enough. Enflamed and aroused beyond retreat Magali turned onto her stomach. With one arm she held onto her pillow, and bit down on the coarse fabric. Her hips bucked, forcing her fingers in and out of her as her palm rubbed against her swollen nub. Casey was beneath her, moving along with her, clawing at her back, biting her shoulder. She pushed faster and harder, wanting to scream, to cry out her Saint's name in abandon. It was agony, alluring and seductive, more necessary than air. Her fingers clawed at the sheets; the muscles in her back and legs tensed. She cried her Saint's name.


At first it was a tender pull-- lips surrounded and took in her clit. A tongue, warm and soft, stroked at her swollen core. The pressure came faster, more attentive, clamps on her nipples made every breath a gesture of exquisite pleasure.

"Come," Julia demanded, removing her mouth from Casey's slippery folds. She watched her body quiver with effort, glisten with oil and sweat as she rubbed Casey's clit with the butt of her flail.

Her hands became fists; her body trembled; an inferno was boiling; flames licked at her. She flung her head back, her arms and legs shook, her chest heaved. Rapture broke loose, stealing breath and thought, a thrall to the suffering. She fought to bring her legs and arms close around her, wailing in gratification.


The sheets were cool against her fevered body. Uncontrolled, she trembled in aftershocks, muscles sore from the intensity. Casey was gone, vanished with the last tendrils of release. She turned on her back; the ceiling felt too close. Her Saint had been whisked away by the stark white of cinderblock and stagnant air. She zipped-up her jeans and pulled down the A-shirt. Anger rose in her chest, billowing and strangling. She reached for the hidden pack of cigarettes and matches and laid her head back on her arm. With deft fingers, she popped the lid of the pack and pulled out one of the cigarettes with her teeth before flinging the pack away. Folding a match and snapping it onto the striker between two fingers, she produced a flame. She held the filter with her teeth while she brought the flame up to the end of the cigarette, inhaling the heat of the lit match and the flavor of the newly lit tobacco. Taking in a long pull of smoke, her nostrils flared as she squeezed her eyes shut and let the smoke out. It floated around her face, disappearing as it traveled up and away from her. A fierce roar left her throat and she hollered to the blocked heavens, cursing everything under it. Over and over, enraged, she slammed her fist into the wall until red smudges colored one white square.


The stink of too much incense mixed with the scents of oil, sex, and sweat made her head spin. Her legs came together slightly when her ankles were unbound. The blindfold fell away revealing the sudden light of candles and the shadowed form of Julia inches away from her. Arms encircled her waist as Julia's sweat-dampened skin came in contact with her exhausted body. She let her head fall forward in fatigue and land on the tall woman's chest. Julia squeezed Casey's leg between her own, her hot, wet center against Casey's thigh. Julia ground cruelly into her, fast and furiously. Unmindful of the welts lining her back and arms, she clawed at her, eliciting weakened yelps of pain and discomfort. Casey's screams had brought her to her own pinnacle, and she bit down on the smaller woman's shoulder causing the small, weak whimper that finally drove her over the edge.

With one last shudder, she pulled away from her indifferently, and unfastened the cuffs holding Casey up. Julia watched with hooded eyes as Casey fell forward to the floor, and she snatched the bullwhip she had left hanging off the whipping post. She would relish the last part of their reunion with every tearful cry. Casey had fallen conveniently, with her knees and forearms touching the cold wooden floor. No need to move her, she was already cowering.

"The minute you had everything you left me, Casey. You were matter what else you may have, you still need me."

Through her exhaustion, Casey was aware that now was the time she would pay for her faltering, her abandonment of Julia, and anything else the older woman could think of.

"You're nothing without me."

The first lash was always the worst.


The door banged opened. Its hinges were surprisingly silent for a door that only opened once a week to let her out for a short shower. Two guards waited outside for her, shackles in hand. One peered in, taking in the condition of her hand and the blood splattered wall, and shook his head. Prisoner 0329, although not serving time for any violent crimes this time around, was known to be prone to violent and destructive behavior. Hence, the shackles. She was curled on her side, as if asleep, and the curious guard was reluctant to enter. Instead, he called out to her.

"Hey, you. Get the fuck up, unless you plan on staying here. Time's up."

In the dim light he watched her slowly turn, one hand reaching for the lumpy pillow under her head. He could see her desire to throw the thing at him. If he were lucky, it would be all she wanted to do to him.

"I'm coming," she said with a mischievous grin, her voice hoarse from either lack of use, or screaming.

"Hands clasped behind your head, toes on the line," he barked, pointing to the painted line on the floor just outside the door.

Magali stepped out for the first time since her last shower, and inhaled the seemingly fresher air of the corridor. She kept her mind blank, the last feeling she wanted to register was the cold touch of iron bonds. When her movements were restricted to their satisfaction, they led her down the hall towards the only barred door in the passage. She hadn't been awake when they had transferred her to the confinement block. The walk would have been interesting if it were marked by any distinction at all but-- the walls all looked the same, bars all looked the same, and the floor was one long grey surface of nothing. She had started counting her steps when they reached the entrance to her block; it was too quiet. A quick glance at the clock above the guards' station told her it was ten o'clock. The lack of light confirmed that it was night.

Shadows fell where there shouldn't have been any, creating linear, inky stains across the concrete floor, and re-creating the rows of tiered cells with sinister accuracy. A shy spark in a cell, blue and dim in the darkness was a dying star in a sky cut short by boundaries. She could hear the distant echo of breathing, the friction of sheets as inmates tossed and turned on their steel bunks. Tightness in her gut gave rise to the taste of bile in her throat, adding to the pounding in her chest and ears. The obscured concrete walls weighed down on her oppressively. She shed years with every passing second; standing in her shackles, she was no more than a thin fifteen-year-old again, frightened and alone.

Back in her cell, she found the folded sheets at the end of her bunk and began the task of stretching them across the mattress. The sounds of snoring reached her. It was Smoke; she had heard the raspy breathing for enough nights to recognize it. Somewhere in another cell, a prisoner moaned; she knew what the timber implied. She took in the smell of ammonia and the sounds of people-- coughing, and complaints, the guards moving in their room, the clock-- how the hand counted the seconds. . Her time alone had thrown her internal clock into chaos and, fully awake, she paced the larger cell. Space was a luxury.

It shouldn't have, but the pressing immensity of the place made her hands shake with edgy anxiety. There was nothing new, nothing she hadn't expected from the depressing mausoleum; still, she couldn't and wouldn't sleep. Finally away from the small white cell after weeks of confinement and living in her mind, she was having difficulty with real time. It had become habit to look inside for sights and events that the cinderblock kept from her. Time held no meaning and, like flashing slides of a family vacation, it alternated between the present and the past, leaving little to distinguish the differences by. Murky and clouded, her mind created a dimension of its own: where every dark corner hid an attacker, and she could swear the guards were watching her alone, keeping track of her movements. Her nervous energy compounded her paranoia, giving way to the controlled chaos of her rage. What I wouldn't give for a neck to wring.

When she grew tired of pacing she sat on the edge of the bunk, her elbows on her knees, her hands clutching the sides of her head. Get a grip, Zee. This is now, that was then, she chanted to herself. But the ghosts of her yesterday refused to relinquish their hold and one, especially insistent, was poking at her consciousness from deep within, fueling her confusion.


She'd spent countless sleepless nights in the small holding cell on Riker's Island waiting for court appearances. The endless back and forth, recriminations and honorifics, points and counterpoints, was enough to send anyone reeling. She'd wait her turn for a shower, and argue to get to a phone; there was business that needed taking care of. Guards pushed her along dirty hallways; she pushed back. They pressed their guns to her sides and threatened to crack her skull; she eyed their holsters. Sitting behind the worn oak table, facing the bench, she glared at the judge and the prosecutor; they glared back. She fidgeted in her seat, her lawyer whispered reprimands to her for her energy; she smirked at him. They brought in the next door neighbor to testify; she took one look at Magali and blanched. Questions flew, and although the woman denied Magali was into any illegal activity, she admitted to seeing her run up the stairs in a fury before her brother was killed. Her brother's pediatrician testified to the damage she had caused her sibling before, when the boy had run away for days trying to escape her. She protested, screaming that she had tried to stop him from getting high; they ordered her silent. They displayed photographs of her sitting with the Dragons, kissing Mei; she threw a chair, they bound her to it. School records showed her lack of attendance. Efrain's exceptional progress in school provided evidence that it wasn't the family, but she who was dysfunctional and anti-social. The prosecutor called her a ruthless thug; she threatened to kill him-- the judge held her in contempt for two days. Her defense stated the fact that her brother was a junkie; the prosecution produced evidence of drugs in her own system. They offered her a plea bargain; she accepted.

Dark rings circled her eyes. The long haul of a trial with headlines, and the deprivation of human contact, caused her to have a loss of appetite. Inevitably, she lost weight overnight; her strength waned. Her mother's suicide drowned her in antipathy, stealing any interest she would have otherwise had for her circumstances. She accepted her sentencing in silent rage and crushing defeat.

Her lawyer had advised her to do whatever was necessary to shorten her stay. It would serve her best interests to take classes and get a G.E.D. The first chance she had to meet with a caseworker, she requested the classes. She was eligible; her sentence ensured she would be eighteen at her release. It was better than doing nothing

The 'classroom' was little more than a converted supply closet furnished with old desks too small for an adult. Once a day, save weekends, a small group of women would pile in and suffocate in the miniscule room. Magali didn't understand why she was the only one who could read anything other than "The Little Engine that Could", and often fell asleep. The unfortunate teacher, who had somehow been chosen to work in the state penitentiary system, administered simple tests, all of which she passed with ease. The teacher appreciated it. At the end of class they would file singly into the mess hall and, after inhaling whatever slop was available, the guards would set them loose in the common yard. A few days a week, she would be taken to the nurse instead, who poked and prodded while threatening to have her force-fed, then dismissed her after giving her a vitamin shot.

After weeks of sleeping on the tiny desk, the teacher brought her an 'advanced' book, "Manchild in the Promised Land". Its cover was worn past the point where the author's name was legible, and if she wasn't careful the tenth chapter fell out. Magali carried it out into the yard where she could sit alone in a corner and read under the sun. When her rec-time was up, she would follow the other inmates back inside, but while they returned to work, she and her 'classmates' would be ushered into the showers.

They were older, hardened and strong. One would never see the outside again; she had killed and then dismembered her abusive husband's body. Magali knew they weren't pleased with her relative ease in class. She thought that staying to herself would keep her out of trouble, but it only served to reinforce the attitude of aloofness the others perceived from her. When they decided to take their revenge on her for their difficulty, to teach her that she was no better than they were, the lesson was swift and brutal.

Only one guard supervised the small group, and he was partial to their type of nocturnal activity. She heard his laughter as her head hit the cold tile wall of the shower.

Magali looked at the clock-- twelve midnight; the hours were dragging. Quietly she laid back on the bunk, the cool sheets making her shiver. She clamped her jaw, biting down the taste of soap and water.

Warm water cascaded down her body, and she stuck her head under the stinging spout of the shower. The push from behind, the hand tangled in her hair, came without warning, slamming her face-first into the wall. When she turned to fight, a kick sent her reeling backwards, the faucet punching into her back. She fought with every last ounce of strength she had, kicking and biting, shattering a knuckle on a jaw. The room spun, and her back burned; try as she might to summon her strength, her body had none to give. Too many hands took hold of her. In the end they had her pinned, wrists and ankles tethered by knotted towels; the stiff fabric left burns on her skin. Painfully violated, she concentrating on shutting herself off and blocking out the intrusions; she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Barefooted kicks slammed into her sides; her body throbbed with the ache of the bludgeoning. Their words, screamed into her ears, seared themselves onto her soul-- raw, festering wounds.

"You think you better than everybody? You ain't shit, Bajo Zero."

Her bindings were pulled taut; she gritted her teeth against the friction. A gash on her forehead poured red over her eyes, blurring her vision.

"Baby killer, we know what you did. Kill your brother over money, you stinkin' piece of shit." She tried to protest.

A hand clamped down on her mouth; she bit at it. A square fist landed on her cheek, another one broke her lip; blood streamed from the cut.

"That's why you got nobody. No body cares for you in here, little bitch. You nobody."

The joints of her hips stung with the unbearable stretch of her legs; it wasn't enough. They kicked at her thighs, punched at her stomach; she nearly retched.

"No book gonna help you motherfucker, no education. You what you are now and forever."

Water from the showers, turned icy cold, ran past her shoulders and down her thighs; she shivered with the chill, digging her nails into the cracks between the tiles of the floor.

"Twenty-one, Zero, that's your last birthday, If you lucky."

Blood ran down her throat; she choked on it. Coughing violently, she tried for air.

"Count on it."

She held in the cry at the forceful, malicious jab to her pussy. Dignity was fragile and fleeting.

"Nobody, Zero, nobody...just... a... thug, a... thug, Bajo... Zero... a thug..." Unmercifully, the fingers that tore through her opening pushed deeper and with increasing force with each uttered, bitter word.

She wanted to scream, to beg, to become what they wanted her to be: nobody. Her back arched involuntarily at the powerful thrusts of the clenched fist inside her, ripping her in two. She bit into the inside of her cheek; she would bear it...for now. Water splattered around her, it gurgled, spiraling down a rusty metal drain, sluicing pink with her blood. Over time moisture had seeped into the paint of the ceiling. Brown spots of mold dotted the surface and clung to the edges of peeling wrinkled flaps of white. She stared, unblinking, at the shapes they made. The pull on her arms and legs had ceased. The room was empty except for her and a huge brown roach that crawled along the wall. It slipped from the tiles and fell on its back into a pool of cold water; there it struggled for air, turning and fighting with rapid legs and spread wings. A stream flushed it upright and towards her hand. Desperately it snatched at her fingers in search of a safe haven to dry off on and survive. Snapping her hand shut she crushed it, teaching it her own final lesson: like her, it was alone, without protection, intent on surviving by all means necessary, defeated and in the end-a nothing.


Magali never closed her eyes in the shower again, never turned her back to anyone, and never set foot in a classroom again. Running her tongue along the edgy scar on her inner cheek, she finally closed her eyes. She wasn't weak, young, or foolish, anymore, but they had been right. I'm still a thug.


The chauffeur held the lobby door open, and gently handed her back her coat. She ignored the cold wind, keeping her mind focused on the chore of walking; she was exhausted. The soft cloth of her blouse chafed against the welts on her back. They stung with memory. For a brief moment she had feared Julia would continue, but she had stopped at five lashes when the last bled. Casey knew all of the countenances she wore: the one she publicly presented-- cool, reserved, and arrogant; the one that smiled at friends, and gave a shoulder when one was needed; the dark mask she wore as Mistress; and the fire and ice of her own personal demons. None had prepared her for the face of Julia as a lover spurned. Once she had vented her anger, she had gently cleaned and cooled her strikes with a clean towel and soothing ointment, pecking her cheek with a soft kiss as she sent her off-- the friend had returned.

"Thank you for the help, I can get along from here." She said, closing the door and staggering to the elevator. She hoped Jesse was asleep.

The elevator hummed softly in its ascent; she inspected her face in the mirror, despite knowing Julia wouldn't mark her where it could easily be seen. A low bell announced the completion of her ride, and the doors slid open. She straightened, cautiously aware that one of Magali's guards was probably watching. She didn't hear any noise from the apartment as she turned the key, and her hopes that Eddie had retrieved his daughter and Jesse had left were renewed. Devi sat patiently waiting in the center of the hallway, her head tilted, a baby bottle hanging from her mouth.

"Aww, Devi, that's just too cute, but boy are you ever in trouble. Give me that."

Devi spat out the nipple and, as the bottle bounced across the floor, she padded off into the bedroom. Casey peeked into the living room, to find Jesse asleep with a toddler spread out on her chest under a quilt. She tiptoed in, forcing herself to cross the room and shut off the light, then quietly left.

All the lights were on in the bedroom, pillows were strewn on the floor and the blankets lay in heaps, half-falling off the bed. Devi had made herself at home in the middle of the soft mattress. Casey had no desire to expend anymore of her energy and, stripping off her suit, carelessly threw the garment into a corner and crawled into bed. Casey reached over to the nightstand and turned off one of the lights; she was too tired to try for any others. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, hoping to catch a small whiff of Magali's fragrance on her pillow. It had been too long since the dark woman had slept in her own bed, and the scent was gone. Frowning, she fell asleep.

Jesse loved to pretend to be asleep; she watched through thin slits as people tiptoed around her, trying not to wake her, being polite, occasionally stubbing a toe. Casey's walk disturbed her; there was something foreign to her step. She looked as if she were in pain, but was holding it in check. She heard the light turn off in the bedroom and gently, so as not to disturb the hyperactive toddler soundly asleep, she turned over and sat up. Alejandra stuck her thumb in her mouth and continued sleeping; Jesse breathed in relief. It had taken her hours, and a few wrestling matches, to get the girl to sleep. No way this kid isn't yours, Zee. No, fuckin' way.

Casey had left one of the lamps on, and it cast a half-circle of soft light onto the bed. Devi was its star. In a corner, crumpled and discarded, were Casey's grey suit and green blouse, as well as other more delicate garments. Jesse stifled a giggle as she went to the floor on all fours and crawled to the bed. She had no doubt the blonde had probably drunk too much with her friends and was sleeping the effects away. I just love fuckin' with drunk people. Wonder if she'll jump when I grab her...What the fuck?

Angry marks streaked the otherwise flawless skin. Some were long and pink, fanning out like the spines of a fin. A few were dark red where they met the rounded ends of burns. Still others were turning into bruises along the tops of her arms. The deepest were a set of five wide, angry welts; one, just under the tips of Casey's hair, was black with dried blood. Jesse swallowed, her previous mirth stolen away by the grim sight of Casey's battered, naked skin.

"Casey? Babe, are you awake? Casey...I'm calling the cops," she whispered with gentle urgency.

"For what?" Casey mumbled.

"Casey...somebody attacked you, don't you remember any of it?" As she spoke, she tried to evaluate how much the woman had drunk; she suspected it had been too much.

" police, Jesse." she answered groggily.


"Not here, Jesse...not in Zee's apartment." It hurt to move, a sort of pleasing discomfort, and she was in no mood to argue or explain. She wanted only to sleep, and to deal with herself in the morning. "I'll take care of it, Jesse, please, I just want to sleep."

"Zee's gonna be pissed but, alright, get some rest. Don't worry about the kid, I'll take care of her until Eddie comes."

Casey's eyes were shut; they hadn't opened once throughout the whole conversation. Satisfied that the blonde was asleep once more, Jesse padded quietly out of the bedroom and straight for the phone in the kitchen. She heard Casey moan in her slumber and mumble the word 'whore' as she left.

She marveled at how the tendons in Julia's neck stood out when she was angry, and yet she managed to keep her voice calm and demanding all at once. From her favorite armchair in the den Casey watched her pace the room in her long elegant strides. They were all supposed to take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and Julia, after her morning ride was interrupted by a long distance phone call, was still in her riding breeches and boots. Carelessly Julia tapped her thigh with the long black riding crop she most cherished, as she stomped to the bay window looking out onto the long paved driveway of the estate. Casey's brothers were wrestling in the backseat of her car. Along its manicured lawns and gardens, apple trees bloomed lush and green, scenting the air with their heady perfume. With Julia's professional life slowly taking over, Casey saw less and less of the tall, domineering woman.

Casey knew, despite appearances, that Julia's inheritance had dwindled to next to nothing, thanks to her eccentric aunt who had mismanaged the account until Julia's coming of age. It had taken years of careful planning by Julia to replenish frivolously spent funds. She hosted various social gatherings where she closed private deals with the ferocity of a lioness hunting its prey. Casey knew little about her investments and projects, but she knew how Julia had accumulated the money to cover her half of the business ventures. In the elite, stuffy world of old money, traditional values, and long dynasties of staunch, conservative Republicans, Julia carved her niche in leather. Where their money flowed from oil, steel, publishing and the like, Julia founded her fortune on their masochistic pleasures. She was, secretly, to the wealthy and powerful of New England, what the Marquis De Sade had been to the French aristocracy- a purveyor of pain at its finest. Julia's private townhouse in the city of New York, to many, was an unholy shrine where they went to worship. Men, and women, who held their heads high as they commandeered funds and commanded hordes of corporate workers, knelt at her feet in sublime submission. She assured Casey, various times, that it was only for the money and she was merely an actor performing for a fee. Casey had watched her 'perform' on occasion; when she wasn't occupied with her studies, she played the role of dutiful slave to the reigning Mistress. Julia told her she added credulity to the scene she played out. For Julia, that translated into heavier premiums for her talents in the fine arts of dominating body and mind.

After a few moments of still silence, Julia whispered angry words into the phone and hung up. She stayed by the window, gazing out through its clear panes with her arms crossed at her chest. Casey was familiar with the posture; it was the usual stance she took before having to disappoint her. She had promised to spend the day with her and her siblings.

"I'm sorry, Casey-"

"Yeah I know, I know. Something's come up, right?"

Julia nodded in confirmation without looking at her. She hated displeasing the one person she had any affection for, and to her dismay it seemed she did it much more often lately. Turning away from the window, Julia strolled over to the armchair and cupping her hands around Casey's face, she gave her a small smile and a wink.

"I'll make it up to you, sweet-"

Casey snapped her head away and closed her eyes; she was nearing the limits of her patience. "Is that all you ever think about, Julia? I swear, sometimes I feel like all you want is to use me."

Julia's smile faded, her voice became the deadly calm she used for her deals. "Everyone uses someone."

Casey stood up from the chair; she kept her eyes lowered from force of habit. "But not everyone loves it as much as you do."

The air sang with the force of Julia's flung hand. It came so fast Casey didn't have the chance to move out of its range. Her face stung with the open slap and, sucking in her bottom lip, she took a deep breath. It was the second time within the past couple of weeks that Julia had struck her in anger. This wasn't roleplaying conjured to send her to heights of sexual arousal, this was Julia's self-righteous, unreasonable reaction to indignation.

"You think I use you? You don't know what it is to be used!" she yelled as Casey turned and walked away from her

"Are you so sure?" she responded with sarcasm. "After all, I'm just your whore."

Casey stomped off to the servant's bathroom just opposite the kitchen, with Julia's retort ringing behind her. "And why not, I pay you don't I!"

The room was small and immaculate. It showed no signs of the number of workers that used it on a daily basis while gardening, cleaning house, or doing any of Julia's daily bidding. She opened the cold water tap-- it's simple silver and porcelain handle richer than anything she had at home-- and filled the sink. One look in the mirror confirmed what she had suspected at the first tingling of the smack-- she would have a small bruise along her cheek and her lip was cut. Easy enough to explain as yet another riding accident-- Julia had been insistent on teaching her how-- but the presence of her younger brothers and sister waiting out in the car for her would complicate matters somewhat. She was splashing some of the water on her face when she heard Julia's distinctive voice of authority and her brother's yelp, just before a sudden crash and the sound of breaking glass came from the foyer.

"She's not a whore, she's not, you witch!"

"Witch? You little brat, how do you think you got those fine clothes you're wearing, huh?

The entire entrance was a fantastical expanse of white and grey marble; doors were outlined in rich wood and polished brass, and not a speck of dust lay anywhere. At its center a finely crafted spiral staircase wound its way up to the second floor, separating the east and west wings of the residence. Casey's mad dash through the corridor leading towards the foyer and the bellowing voices, came to a halt at the sight of Julia towering over her young, kneeling brother. With her snug breeches and shining boots she looked every inch the lord of the manor. The hand holding her crop was clenched into a tight fist. Along the white, mirror-like floor were scattered pieces of crystal-cut glass swimming in splattered pools of golden liquid. It had been Julia's favorite scotch glass.

"If you ever hit my sister again..I'll...I'll kill you!"

"Why you little-"

It was then, as Julia raised her arm to strike at Russell with her crop, that it dawned on her. The little scamp had watched the whole argument; it wouldn't have been the first time he played peeping Tom. Casey wasn't quick enough to get to him before the first blow landed on his forearm as he cowered, tears already staining his ruddy prepubescent cheeks. She did manage to come between them and, a few of the rapid strikes fell on her back as she shielded the young boy from an infuriated Julia. Casey grabbed at him, bringing him to his feet and flinging him out of the way.

"Stop, Julia...stop!" Casey cried, near to panicking.

Her face red with anger Julia straightened, and pointing at Russell with her crop, hissed between clenched teeth, "Get him out of here, and teach him some God damned manners, Casey."

She pulled her brother to his feet, shielding him with her arms from Julia's striking words. She knew how the woman could wound with a sentence.

"I am, Julia, and he won't be back, I promise. But neither will I."

Julia fixed her smile on her, cold as ice, its own proper menace. "You'll be back...your mother's mortgage has to be paid by someone."

Casey swallowed back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her and melt her resolve. Mama had warned her not to displease Julia; she knew she would have to return.


The number displayed on the tiny gray screen of his beeper was a familiar one, but the tell-tale code of 9-1-1 attached to the end of the numerical series nearly gave him a heart attack. It was code for an emergency, and his first thought was one of Alejandra hanging out a non-childproof window, stories above the street. He dialed the number with shaking hands, and the unfamiliar voice that answered the call almost caused him to drop the phone. It was Jesse, calming him at first, and then reassuring him that nothing was wrong with his daughter. But, when he had thought to breathe in relief she whispered to him of an attack on Casey, and as before his heart crawled into his throat. His sudden leap for his Toyota Camry interrupted Callie's deliberate torture of a junkie's testicles;-she wasn't pleased, and complained the entire ride over from Brooklyn. He ordered her to wait outside and leave the engine running just in case; he wouldn't be long.

While they stood in the hallway outside the bedroom, Jesse explained, in a near whisper, what she had seen. When she finished, he asked her to go inside and check to see whether Casey was still lying on her stomach. He hesitated to enter the room when he pictured Zero's scowl at his seeing Casey in the nude. She'd have my left ball for breakfast, and have a batting practice wit' the right one. Jesse took a quick peek into the dimly lit room and nodded to Eddie that it was safe to go in. Although the light was low in the room, he didn't need much to see the dark welts covering Casey's toned back. Even with the marks, she was beautiful. He made a note to kick the shit out of himself later. She slept with both her hands tucked under the pillow, flat on her stomach. Her hair fell gently over her shoulders. He frowned at what he saw. Unlike Jesse, he knew what they were. He had seen them on Callie's back after she spent a night with Zero. All right, there has to be an explanation for this. She wouldn't two-time Zee, would she? For a brief second he hoped Zero would magically appear from the balcony and scream at him for being in her bedroom, but he knew there was no way she would be there. Fuck, fuck, what the hell am I supposed to do? I can't ask Zee, and there's no way I'm asking Callie. His hands clenched in his pockets as he paced around the bed, taking in all the angles of Casey's body as she lay asleep, or rather, semi-conscious-- probably from the damage she had incurred. She would need a few hours sleep just to recoup enough to stir. Mariana would...I don't know what she would do. Eddie ran his hand along the smooth slope of his scalp. It was times like these he wished he hadn't shaved off all his hair. Hold up, I'm in charge for now, I can get someone to follow her. Right? Right. That's what Zee would do..yeah, that's what she would do. He snuck out of the room so as not to wake her.


"Jesse," he whispered, "she'll be a'ight, just leave her alone. And don't tell her I was here, okay?"

Jesse nodded and rubbed the back of her neck; with people like her cousin and Eddie, it was best not to ask "why". "Yeah, okay. Ummm, Eddie?"

"Yeah," he whispered, still jumpy from what he had seen.

"That's Zee's kid, isn't?"

Aww, shit this just gets worse. "Why ya askin' me that? Who's Zee's kid? She ain't got no kid, Jesse."

"Alejandra, you dim-wit. Please tell me you're not the daddy. I swear I'll puke right here."

"Alejandra?" he stated incredulously. "She's my kid, I tol' ya. Zee ain't got no kid."

"Yeah, sure, Eddie. You suck at lying, you know that."

"Just keep ya mouth shut about me being here. I'll take care of the rest, understand?" He waited for some gesture from her and, when she finally nodded, he grabbed for the sleeping toddler and left.

She watched him leave and close the door-- a slumping in his shoulders that wasn't there before, Alejandra cradled in his arms. "You really, really suck at it, Eddie," she voiced quietly behind him, and began to gather her own belongings to head for home.

Part 6

Magali opened her eyes at the sound of the piercing siren; the night's terrors faded with the lighting of the luminescent lights of the block. She walked out onto the tier for the morning head count; Smoke gave her a secret smile and a wink to welcome her back. She nodded once in response. Her number was called out along with the other prisoners on the tier, and they began their day. She noticed the guard she had attacked wasn't on call; she missed the weight of the rosary around her neck.

Breakfast was bland; work was as dirty as ever, if not as cold, but it gave her something to occupy herself with. Before she knew it, the end of the work day had come, and she was wandering around the yard with the other prisoners on her schedule. It was much too short of a trip after weeks of close quarters and, as she walked back into the confines of the prison, she inhaled one last deep breath.

Keeping in shape with push-ups and maintaining fitness by lifting weights were animals of two different kinds altogether. She pushed herself way beyond her limits just to prove to her audience that she was as formidable now as she had been before solitary. They had all heard of the misfortunate 'accident' that had broken her ribs, and weren't expecting her to return with quite the same level of strength as when she had left. Smoke was nowhere in sight when she finished, and without the benefit of a towel Magali walked into the center hall of the block covered in a light sheen of sweat. Mail call had begun, and inmates crowded into the area with groundless hopes held high. She stayed out of the crush, remaining instead on its outskirts, pacing.

"Guerrerro! Inmate 0329, Guerrerro!"

Magali stopped her pacing and shook her head; she was almost convinced she was hearing things, when she heard her name yelled out once more. She craned her neck to get a better look at the soon-to-be-dead practical joker.

"Guerrerro, 0329, you got mail!"

"Hey, Zero, that's you man! Shit, give me the letter; I'll pass it to her." It was Smoke screaming from somewhere inside the mob, her short stature keeping her from being seen.

Magali watched the small white envelope make its way towards her from the edge of the horde, hand to hand, floating over a sea of human heads. She thought that possibly she was dreaming or, in her case, she would open the envelope and a load of flesh eating worms would drop on her lap. Unbelievably the unexpected prize appeared in her hand, passed to her by a triumphant Smoke-- who had pushed her way through the crowd to be the last to hold the treasure. Magali turned it over in her hand, not bothering yet to look at the inked letters; instead she held onto it, to make sure it was real. Smoke slapped her on the shoulder then vanished back into the mob, and Magali was left, with her letter, as alone as possible in a room filled with a hundred women. For her, the room was silent save for the pounding of her heart.

On the back, scribbled in purple ink, was a facsimile of Devi, a boot hanging out of her mouth. The corners were dotted with small purple flowers, all marked with the same sweeping gestures of the hand that had drawn them. Neat purple letters wrote out her name and number over the prison's address; in the adjacent corner, small but ornate letters printed out her home address under the name Casey L. Bridges. Without looking up, she found the stairs leading up to her cell. She had trouble remembering if she had ever been as surprised by something so small before, and she was still thinking when a faint voice called to her from under the stairs.

Immediately she wanted to ignore the calling and continue up to her allocated space but, grimacing, she stuffed the letter into her back pocket and jumped back down the two steps to the ground floor. It was bad business to go behind the stairs, especially when all she really wanted was to go read Casey's letter. She hadn't yet begun to speculate on what Casey would write her about, and she didn't want to start. She had a bad habit of always expecting the worst.

It was no wonder the underbelly of the staircase was the favored spot of many. The steel flight of stairs shaded the small area from the bland white lights of the prison and acted as a shield of sorts, creating a very private space, a clear architectural oversight. Pressed up against the rising flank of the stairs, half-hidden in its shadows, a small frail woman held her hand out, beckoning her to step further in. The woman moved nervously, as if she expected to be pounced on at any minute. Magali recognized her as the woman who had come in with her and had nearly driven her insane with her crying. That day she had her mind occupied with other things and hadn't taken a second look at the woman, but still, she never forgot a face.

"Hi...umm...Zero...I...umm...I see you got a piece today; that's really,"

On close inspection, Magali didn't see anything more than a very scared young woman. Her dark curly hair just barely touched her thin shoulders, and Magali could tell she had lost weight from the way the uniform hung on her frame. Under an ugly cut just starting to heal, a badly hidden shadow of fear lurked in her gray eyes. A bruise along her cheek was fading, and Magali noticed her wrists matched the color of it. The girl flinched when Magali raised her hand to take hold of her face.

"They'll kill you if you don't defend yourself." Repeating the words made Magali ill; she could almost hear her father's voice flowing from her own lips.

"That's what I wanted to you about." she said, stepping closer to the taller woman. Magali could feel the brush of her breasts against her stomach.

"I'm not for hire," she spat, and turned to walk away, but was halted by the girl's pleading voice.

"No...that's not...what I meant," the girl whispered gently, reaching for her with a cautious hand.

"Then what do you want?" The girl was near enough that she could smell her scent, soft and mild upon her freshly bathed skin. It tempted her while the bulge in her back pocket pinched.

"I've heard that...whoever safe, you know?" Magali felt the girl's petite hands land lightly on her waist. The girl was getting closer; her body's heat was seeping through the A-shirt she wore. Magali breathed, fighting the urge to have a satisfying, if transitory, moment of contact with human flesh.

"How old are you?" Magali questioned, knitting her brow.

"Nineteen. They call me Greenie." the girl uttered seductively.

"Greenie." Magali repeated the name in a throaty murmur; the girl's arms had encircled her waist, and her warm breath skimmed the sweat-dampened skin of her bosom.

"They say my eyes look green when I'm...hurting." She mouthed the last word into Magali's neck, grazing her with supple lips.

"Look, kid, you've got the wrong idea." It took all of her resolve to push the girl away as she spoke. "You need to fight your own battles. I'll be out of here soon, and then what? I pass you off to a friend? Is that what you want?"

"Please, you don't understand. I can't take it anymore...I swear, I'll do anything, anything you want me to do. Just..."

Magali pried at the fingers holding her shirt, but as the girl pleaded with her, harsher voices muttered her name. They were looking for her, and Greenie shrunk back into the darker shadows. When the first woman came around the bend, she walked straight into the brick-like wall of Magali standing guard over the girl.

"What the fuck you looking for?" Magali hissed and, as if on cue, Greenie slunk in behind her and threw her arms back around the toned waist.

"Ah, nothing, Bajo Zero, nothing. Eh, she wit' you?" the woman asked, pointing at Greenie.

"What's it look like, stupid?"

"My mistake," she admitted, throwing her hands up in a gesture of surrender. "I didn't know she was your bitch, Zero, I swear."

"Yeah, well now you know...and I don't like what I've heard."

One single upper-cut from Magali, and the woman fell flat on her ass in. Her mouth spewed blood onto the floor along with a tooth, and she wiped at her red stained lips with the back of her hand. "Sorry," she managed to lisp out, scuttling away from Magali with her hands and feet, dragging her ass across the floor. Magali glared at her until she was out of her sight.

"That's gonna cost you, kid," she stated flatly, turning to face the young woman.

"I told you, I'll do anything..." Greenie purred as she ground against her.

"Uh-uh, you don't get off that easy. Tomorrow, you meet me in the rec-room-- by the weights." This time Magali got away from her without difficulty; the girl was too stunned to speak.

Magali sat on the corner of the bunk, then stood and leaned against the bars. She paced out onto the tier and grabbed the gates barring the railing; she padded back into her cell and slumped against a tiny space of wall, her foot on the seat of the steel toilet. From a pack of smokes hidden under her pillow, she took out one of the cigarettes and dangled it from the corner of her mouth. She had a few matches left and lit the end of it with a deep pull; she had to fan some of the smoke away. Halfway through the cigarette she slumped back onto her bunk and leaned her back to the wall. She didn't know whether to stand, sit or lay down, tear the envelope open or carefully pry the flap up. With a quick finger she ripped the flap of the envelope and plucked out the sheet of paper neatly folded within it.

Dear Gali,

Baby, I miss you so much I don't know how to say it. Yeah, I just did, didn't I?

Magali smiled. She could almost hear the woman's voice in the first few words of the letter. Only Casey called her anything but Zee or Zero.

I know you and I didn't leave off on the best of terms, and I think, I know, I owe you an explanation. It wasn't you, Gali, the way I reacted, that was all me. Truthfully, sometimes I wish I had the gall to beat the crap out of Russell myself, but he's got his own problems, and they're mostly my fault too. I wish I could see you face to face and explain everything to you right now. I hate having to write this all out to you, it'd be much better if we spoke about it instead. But right now we don't have that luxury, and from what I've heard, I won't have enough time with you when I come up to visit. I was there a few weeks ago, and they told me I couldn't see you. You don't know how much I just wanted to slug that guard. Hey, maybe they would let me be your bunkmate if I did? Stop scowling. It was a joke. I really would love to be in your bunk right now; it's lonely here without you.

Magali grinned; she had been scowling. A creeping warmth was filling her, and she was no longer trapped in her cell-- she was with her Saint. So, this is why everyone fiends for a letter everyday. Casey's letter gave Magali an understanding of it she had not had the opportunity to have before. Simply put, the inmates were fiends for contact from the outside world; they yearned for it the way a drug addict yearned for a 'fix'. She reread the last two sentences. Fuck the bunk, Baby, I want you in my bed. Damn, Magali looked at the return address printed on the envelope; she is sleeping in my bed...without me.

Anyway, before I met you, before I even moved to the city I was involved with someone. I don't really want to go into all the details, but we used each other; it wasn't pretty. Russell sort of got into the whole mix of things; he's never let me live it down. I'm sorry, Gali. I didn't think Christmas Day would turn out the way it did, I wish it hadn't. I don't know how you feel, or even what you are thinking right now. You could be tearing this letter up, for all I know. I tried to get to the courthouse to see you, but I didn't make it on time. I did bump into your lawyer, and he told me what had happened. There are some things going on here that I need to tell you about, but I don't think it wise to put them down on paper. I don't know if they read your mail or not. I love you, Gali. I need you more than anything else, and I need you whole, here with me. Please keep thinking about that while you're in there. Devi just told me to send you a lick for her; she has no idea. Jesse says hi, and sends her love. Hang in there, Baby. I'll be up to see you soon. Promise.

Love always,



Magali read the letter over, taking note of each squiggle above each smaller case I, how each period seemed more of a dash than a dot. She rubbed the corner of the paper gently, thinking that the last hand to have touched it had been her Saint's. Carefully she folded it back along its original folds, and placed it back into its envelope. She would save it to read again later, when the walls closed in. Damn, it'll take me weeks before I can buy paper at the commissary. Fuck it, I can call, maybe in a week or two I'll have worked up enough credits, and then I can use the phone for a minute or two. I could beat someone else's minutes out of them...but, Casey wouldn't like that. God, Casey. I miss you, baby.

The noise of mail call had finally died down, there wasn't much time left before the bars would close them in for the night. She hoped morning would bring a peaceful repeat of the day with only subtle changes. There was a strange comfort in monotony, an illusion of peace. But the day would not remain exactly the same; perhaps a fight, where there wasn't one the previous day, would break the forced tranquility. She could only hope it didn't involve her. A shadow fell across the floor; she didn't have to look up to guess who it was.

"What do you want, Greenie?"

Greenie stepped into the cell, her hands behind her back. "Can I come in?"

Magali scowled and raised an eyebrow at her while glancing at the girl's feet. "Looks like you already have."

Greenie looked down and smiled, the effort of the unaccustomed expression plain on her face. "I guess so. I just wanted to bring you something, I thought maybe you would want this back."

Magali's eyes widened at the small object coiled in Greenie's open hand. The crucifix was the first thing that caught her attention; it froze her to the spot, her back to the wall. She hadn't expected to see the necklace again.

"Don't you want it?" Greenie asked, giving her a confused look.

"Come here and sit down," Magali muttered, patting an empty space beside her on the bunk. Greenie complied, the rosary still in her hand. "How'd you get that?"

"Well, when everyone else was running around...after they clocked you on the head, I sorta just went around and picked it all up. It took me awhile to get some string for it, and even longer to put it all together. They wouldn't let me have a sewing needle." She shrugged shyly.

Magali nodded and held out her hand. "Thanks," she stated simply, curling her fingers around the warm beads of hematite.

"Can I stay here a little while. Free time's almost up."

"Yeah, sure." Free time... now that's an oxymoron if I ever heard one. She couldn't refuse, not with the soft glow of reassurance left by her Saint's letter; she still had her love, and it settled around her like a warm blanket.

Greenie scooted over, putting more space between them and then laid her head on Magali's lap. The dark woman threw her arms up, not sure where to put her hands. Sighing she finally settled on resting a hand on Greenie's head; then she heard the girl's slowed breathing, and knew she had fallen asleep. Defend yourself, Magali, or next time...they'll kill you, he had said and she had believed him.


Magali had to stay in the infirmary for a few days, while she was monitored for hemorrhaging. It was a simple open area, lined with metal beds draped in white sheets. A long window lined one wall where guards overlooked the beds and patients under the care of whatever nurse was scheduled to work. She was asleep when she heard the chair being dragged across the floor, its metal legs emitting a high pitched squeal against the surface; but it was his voice that made her suddenly jump, despite the sedatives given her.

"Well, well, look at you, Magali Guerrerro. They got you good, huh?"

When she opened her eyes he was there, sitting in the same dark type suit she had always seen him wearing. There were more white strands in his hair than she remembered.

"Papi?" She squinted to look up at him.

"That's right, kid." He leaned his elbows on his thighs and narrowed his eyes at her. "What are we doing? Trading places?"

"When did did you...shit."

"Watch your mouth, Magali," he ordered, straightening out his suit. Suddenly she felt as if she were five again, and he was scolding her, and like a five-year-old caught, she shrugged. Her back ached.

"They told me about your brother's...and your mother's death a week before I got out. They didn't tell me how...your lawyer did. I guess he thought I should know. I wanted to kill you, you little shit...but then, it's my blood in your veins, I blame myself as much as I blame you." His expression changed to a deadly cold.

"Fu-," she paused, catching herself. " I'm sor-"

"Too late for apologies and too late for you...your brother Efrain, yes, but not you. I can see it in your eyes, Magali. It's the same look I see in mine."

"What are you talking about, Papi?" she asked, knowing exactly what he meant.

"Very good...real big shots don't talk." He bent over, coming close to her ear and whispered, "How many did you kill, Magali? Hmmm? I know what you've been doing. I spoke to Eddie. He didn't want to tell me anything, but let's just say...he recognized I wasn't the bad guy. Don't get me wrong, my little one, I'm not angry. You did what you had to do...I'm proud. You and I, we're the same; and we're going to make that little world of yours into an empire. And, time I come see you, they better not bring me over to the infirmary. I hate these fuckin' places."

He patted her shoulder and smiled at her as he stood from the chair. Visiting a sick inmate, although more intimate without the separating glass of the visitor's room, required a shorter stay. His last words to her never faded.

"Defend yourself, Magali...or next time...they'll kill you." Then he gave her a wink and left.

For the rest of her time in the infirmary, Magali thought of little else but her father's words to her. She had understood from the very beginning what had been done to her, and knew deep down that she had expected it. It didn't make it any easier to accept, and the position it had placed her in was even worse than the act itself. Her father's warning had spelled it out clearly-- she was marked; and if she did nothing, she was dead. It infuriated her to think of her status having been so neatly robbed, and night after night she punched at her pillow, scheming and cursing. When I get out of here, they're fuckin mine.

It should have felt better, more human to be out of bed, and wearing something other than the open-backed hospital gown; but the orange zip-up jumpsuit issued her felt like a scarlet brand pressed onto her skin. Through the reflection in the wire-crossed window stretching the length of the infirmary, she could see her image in the suit. P.C, protective custody, was printed over her heart in small black letters, and between her shoulder blades in bigger blocks. The suit, designed to make her easy to spot and keep her safe, was to her yet another insidious mantle of shame. 'They shoulda just made a public announcement that I'm easy pickin's,' she thought. Faded, were the deep bruises around her mouth and jaw, and all that was left of the cut on her forehead was a yellowish smudge, Jesse had paid her a visit when they were darker. After her father's visit she had decided to avoid the forced feedings by eating on her own; and the few weeks of supplements, meal-replacement shakes, and three regular meals a day had somewhat restored her previous physique.

Magali shook her head at her reflection. A guard waited for her with shackles in hand-- her arms crossed at her chest, feet shoulder-width apart, a deep scowl on her face. "If you don't like it...refuse it," she spat. ""I don't give two shits or a rats ass, if I haul you out of here in orange today...or a body bag off the premises tomorrow. But, walk out of here in gray, and you'll be signing your own death warrant. You'll be a lamb going to the slaughter...Think about that, and make it quick." Officer Kreski spent more time behind steel and concrete than she did in her own bedroom. Day after day, she watched overa succession of women, voluntarily or involuntarily placed in protective custody. It was a confinement within a confinement, but it extended the lives of those miserable few dressed in bright orange. Either way, one more or less to look after would change little in her day. She inspected Magali with weary eyes-- a cub trapped with beasts. If the girl chose her protection, there was a good chance she would survive no more changed than she already was. If she didn't, and she lived long enough to complete her sentence, Kreski knew that a faster, more hardened criminal would be set loose-- grown, tutored and more dangerous than ever. There was no better school; and from what Kreski understood, the cub had learned enough on the streets to make her a master pupil. Prisoners like her were growing in number, and the child was no more.

Even the way she looked now belied her youth. A straight back design of corn-rows gave her a hardened appearance, and she missed the old coot who had put them in. She had been a grandmotherly inmate-- permanently stored in the infirmary while she waited for her heart to finally give out-- who had neatly and patiently braided the rows into her hair. "This long-ass hair of yours is gonna be trouble for you in here, child," she'd laugh out sardonically, and grumbled, "best for you to keep it outa the way for now. Mhmmm, right outa the way," as she pulled and twisted the raven tresses. Whenever Magali winced at the pulls, the old inmate ordered her to "stop that weepy bitchin'", gave her a playful smack to her head and continued the hour-long ordeal.

A small barred window high on the wall behind Magali let in dusty streams of sunlight from the outside world. One beam touched the shoulder of a husky inmate in a gray jumpsuit sitting on the edge of a stretcher. With the sleeves cut off, her muscled arms were exposed from bulky shoulders to large hands; one arm sported, in intricate lines and shadows, the image of a prison watch-tower, complete with surrounding gates and barbed wire. A score of Cyrillic letters arched in a U below the gates. She watched Magali with a deadened look under one scarred eyebrow, while absently fingering a fresh line of stitches raw across the knuckles of her right hand. The woman was a fighter.

Magali glanced down towards her feet, then back again at her reflection, she could see the inmate behind and to the side of her. She took a deep breath, clutched the front of the orange suit and, in one swift pull, ripped the zipper open.

"Fuck this, and fuck you," she growled at the guard, flung the suit aside, and wondered why it didn't bother her to be so openly naked under scrutinizing eyes.

Kreski picked up a folded gray suit from a bed and threw it at her in disgust. "Suit yourself. Now get a move on."

Magali slipped into the fresh suit, deliberately taking her time. She closed the zipper, stopping mid-way up her chest, and folded the collar down. Finally, with a smirk, she held out her hands for the shackles. From the stretcher, the menacing inmate rubbed back the red, prickly brush of her crew-cut, and gave her a short nod of approval as Kreski pushed her out of the infirmary, frowning.

Back in the mainstream, Magali requested a work detail that assigned her a space near the immense red-head. She learned that the woman was serving what might as well have been a life sentence, with convictions to be served consecutively summing up to almost forty years before a chance at parole. She'd begun her stay with a simple two-to-ten stretch, before she wracked up more years for strangling a guard during a riot. Few remembered her real name, and even the guards called her Red, as in Red Sonja, the fictitious warrior of the Conan stories. Sonja rarely spoke; when she did, her speech was guttural and restrained, her accent heavy.

The laundry, like so many details involving machinery, was a dangerous place to work. Long rods shots flames to heat the air of dryers, metal hooks pulled loads of sheets and clothing over carts, everywhere there were loose pieces of metal among churning, spiked wheels. A prisoner could easily lose a digit, a limb or a life to any one of the perilous gaps between the turning belts and grinders. Sonja made her home among it all, becoming, after eight years, the room's supervising ruler. In particular, she took an interest in the angry, black-haired teen who had been meticulously and furtively stealing pieces of wire coil from the carts. It wasn't difficult to guess what the wire was for. Sonja had done the same.

"Vengeance is better when it runs warm down your's messy, but faster," came the whisper from over Magali's shoulder. She recognized the roll of the r's over the din of the spinning washers.

"Vengeance?" she tried nonchalantly, tucking her latest prize into the waist of her suit. She didn't bother to look back.

"Here, I found this piece on the's just a skinny piece of metal; must be from that old vasher. Throw it out for me, okay?" A wide grin spread across her face, and she laughed with hands clutching her wide hips. "Heh, if one of the guards were to see it, they might tink somebody was planning to make a...hmmm, how is it they call it again? A shank?" Sonja shrugged her broad shoulders and took hold of Magali's wrists; she shoved the rectangular piece of metal into the younger woman's hands and then casually lumbered away.

Magali flipped the green painted piece a few times in her palm; its potentially sharp edges scraped the heel of her hand as she did. "A shank"-- a makeshift knife, made from any solid object that could be sharpened or given a point, "Oh, yeah." She knew what Sonja had meant, and it sent a cold chill down her back knowing her intentions had been so coolly identified. She knew the precious gift would eventually bear a price. In the meantime, Magali scraped away at the concrete floor of her cell at night, sharpening and honing her piece of contraband to a deadly sharpness. She found scraps of terry cloth in the laundry and wound them around the roughly fashioned blade as a handle. The weapon was sure to hurt going in and even more coming out; she liked the idea of it. Her intended targets, her former classmates, had continued to attend classes, making it difficult for her to get near them. But she was patient; she had nothing but time.

Once a month the prisoners were ushered into the mess hall, where, on a large screen, they were shown two-year-old movies. A small privilege. It mattered little to them when the film had been released; for most of them, it was new. Magali was filed in along with her block, the edge of the shank biting into her skin under her suit as she moved. She kept herself from wincing as she scanned the room for any one of the five who had laid her out. Two rows ahead of her sat the biggest of the group, who walked with a pompous swagger and laughed at the top of her voice. She wore a doo-rag over her shaven head, partly to hide a section of burned scalp she had suffered in a fire as a child. The puffy scar on her cheek was a recent 'accident'. Magali guessed that it had been her who had orchestrated the entire thing. And she would be the first to go.

When the lights were dimmed, and the blinding light of the projector blasted images onto the screen, Magali fidgeted in her seat. She'd have half an hour to plan it all out, steel herself to the deed, find the best route of attack with the best chance for escape afterwards, and then help hell break loose. Sonja was sitting behind her. She could hear her laughter, felt the woman poke her in the back with a huge knee. It gave her the inspiration she needed. Keeping her torso as still as she could, she kneed the blonde woman sitting in front of her. She'd seen examples of the woman's temper. In the dark, Magali saw her turn to search for the perpetrator of the offensive gesture, then look to the woman at her side. It was a perfect set-up-- the prisoner to Magali's side happened to be an ex-lover of the hot-tempered blonde; the fight would be spectacular. When she kneed her again the reaction was explosive, and Magali found herself on the floor with the ten other women who had been sharing her bench. Fists flew past her as one after another inmates jumped into the fray. A fist landed on Magali's cheek, but she ignored it; her eyes were set on another quarry. While guards screamed for the lights to be turned on, and bodies lunged at each other in the darkness, Magali retrieved her shank from the recesses of her suit, and thrust it into the throat that housed the voice of her nightmares. There had been no sound other than a gurgling and a short gasp. It was quicker than she had hoped, almost too fleeting to savor except for the warmth of black ooze running down her hand. Magali left the weapon where it had stuck, and when the lights turned on, she was pleased to see that her chosen spot of entry had sprayed all those near enough with its gushing of red. The guards would never know who did it for sure, and they would never be told. All around her eyes cast glances of fear in her direction; she basked in them as if she were bathing in the light of a new sun. Sonja had been right.


A siren blew, clearing the web of memory into which Magali had sunk while Greenie slept on her lap. The young woman didn't move at the sharp shriek, and Magali was sure the youngster hadn't slept as soundly since her admittance to the prison. She shoved the sleeping girl's shoulder, hesitant to put her hands anywhere else, and Greenie moaned. The soft parting of her lips gave Magali a tingling sensation in her chest. She wanted so much for them to be the lips of her Saint, but they weren't, and Magali shoved at her shoulder again.

"Hey, sleeping beauty. You need to get out of here, and back to your own bed. You let me know if anyone bothers you from here to there. You scream like they're killing you, alright?"

Greenie nodded sleepily and shuffled from the cell. Magali leered at the sway of the woman's figure under the thin dress, and clutched Casey's letter. The cells closed, and the lights went off. When they returned, the day would start anew. Magali hoped it would be uneventful-- Sonja had died slumped over a railing...


Julia was having a bad day at best. Christopher, her husband, was due back from his latest venture concerning the legal contracts for a hostile take-over, and her hair just wouldn't flip the right way. Somehow her driver had forgotten to fill the tank first thing in the morning, and she was forced to sit in the back seat and wait as he did. She hated the smell of gas stations. The blue dress she had wanted to wear was still at the dry cleaners, and she'd had to wear her blue pants suit instead- blue gave off just the right feel of authority. There were countless phone calls in the morning that had interrupted her breakfast, and her coffee had gone cold. In the afternoon, she was scheduled for a scene at her city townhouse, and she still had to somehow make it out to the prison to interview Casey's acquaintance. She had put it off for weeks. Casey's 'friend', she thought as the gas fumes filtered in through the open door as her driver got in. Shouldn't take me more than a few minutes to convince the scoundrel to take a class or two. No, not difficult at all. That kind has little, if any sense at all. Unless they're stealing one thing or another.

Julia picked up her cell phone and dialed Christopher's number. By now he would be airborne and on his way in their Cessna. When his voice mail picked up, she disconnected the call. Two weeks had passed since she had last seen him; their conversations on the phone were often brief and formal. Such was the way with marriages of convenience. A convenience to him, a nightmare for me.

Christopher Winslow, a bright, fellowship, law-school student from the back streets of Boston, knew exactly where to put his foot in and who to erase. He'd changed his surname from O'Reilly and his style of clothing, and adopted the airy accent of the Bostonian elite. Gone was the son of a drunkard Boston cop. When he spotted Julia with his best friend, he had known instantly what she was. Andrew's love of punishment was no secret to him; but it was for Andrew's daddy. One good camera-- bought from a pawnshop-- and an excellent angle, gave him just the leverage he needed. Those first few shots provided him with a neat portfolio that included not only Andrew and Julia, but a substantial assortment of 'clients' who liked and needed their personal business to remain private, as did Julia. His admittance to the corps of American Aristocracy, initiated in the lines of a marriage contract, was sealed and guaranteed.

With time, Julia grew accustomed to his company, though she was perpetually angry. His preference for boys kept her out of his bed, while his presence kept Casey out of hers. She hadn't been able to keep her temper at bay, nor explain to Casey the "behind closed doors" arrangements that were sending her into unreasonable tantrums. In the end, her use of her only tool, force, drove the petite woman away, once she was able to subsist on her own. That fact confirmed the suspicions that Christopher had haphazardly planted. For Christopher, her aunt and even Casey, Julia and her position were merely opportunities, stepping-stones on the way to higher status. Someday, Casey would be a doctor, instead of a retail salesperson at Walmart, like her mother.

Although Bedford Hills Correctional Facility was a maximum-security institution, Julia may as well have been given a key. The guards, so accustomed to her comings and goings, simply waved her car in. She didn't even park in the visitors' lot; a spot was reserved for her in staff parking. She and Christopher privately funded a number of programs for the incarcerated women: a rehabilitation program, G.E.D classes, vocational training, and therapy were among them. When one of the women was discovered to be pregnant, Christopher had immediately provided an avenue to remediate the situation, including the money for the transaction. At first, Julia, hadn't been happy with his proposal, but his argument that "it'll keep one more kid from entering the system" convinced her.

Her driver opened the door for her to get out, and the chill of winter's air, though it was fast approaching spring, drifted in. She picked up her dress coat and threw it around her shoulders; it was a short walk into the corridors of the staff entrance. A few of the caseworkers greeted her with a smile; others were busy haranguing an inmate or talking on the phone. An assistant, upon seeing her, picked up a folder from her desk and trotted to meet her. It had surprised the prison's faculty when she had first conducted an interview herself. They had expected someone else to do it for her, but Christopher was suspicious of everyone and had insisted she do them. Julia had requested Magali's record the day before and, as she continued down towards the interviewing rooms, she leafed through it. Sheet after sheet annotated behavior-- mostly violent episodes-- and work detail involvement. A long computer print-out listed address information, family, arrests and convictions-- with a censored juvenile section-- and medical treatments. Julia shook her head at the thought of Casey's association with such a woman.

The room was small and painted a dark green; it was a horrendous color. A short table was set up with two chairs at either end. A two-way mirror glinted from the light coming in from a grated window at the opposite side of the room. Julia was grateful for the light; it tied her stomach up in knots to be in any of the prison's sections that were devoid of windows. There was a door of thick steel behind each set of chairs at the table, one for the prisoner to enter and the other for the free. The prisoner's was dented and scratched in certain places. She finished reading the file's contents and shutting the folder just as the lock on the prisoner's door squeaked open, and two guards entered the room followed by a tall, dark, manacled woman in the blue denim and A-shirt of the labor prisoner. Another two guards followed behind her.

Julia straightened in her chair and crossed her legs as one of the guards pulled the other seat away from the table for the shackled woman. A second put his hand on her shoulder, and Julia caught the gleam of instant menace in her cerulean eyes. The guard took his hand away and, instead, gave her back a shove, pushing her towards the chair. Chains dangling from her waist to her ankles rattled as the woman moved and sat. Julia noticed how closely cuffed to her waist the woman's hands were and donned her domineering expression. The prisoner tilted her head, slumped back into the chair and sniggered.

Nice look, lady. You remind me of my third grade school teacher...until I threw a chair at the bitch; and this one's nice and heavy.

"Gentlemen, are those absolutely necessary?" she asked, clearing her throat and gesturing at the bonds holding Magali. It wouldn't do to try to convince the prisoner of her good intentions while she was being restrained, it shattered the needed aura of trust.

"Sorry Mrs. Winslow, but this one here just did six weeks in the ho- in solitary confinement for attacking a guard. We'd have a hard time explaining it if anything happened to you."

"Aha, I see, Officer Williams," she said, crossing her arms and squinting at his badge. "But I don't think you have anything to fear officer; I doubt Ms. Guerrerro would harm me," she continued, leaning forward with her elbows on the table.

There was nothing she hated more than when someone called her 'Ms. Guerrerro'. It smacked of patronization, and Magali rolled her eyes.

"But Mrs. Wins-"

"Take them off, Officer. She and I have a mutual acquaintance. I'm perfectly safe."

Who the fuck do you know? Oh, yeah, must be someone from the country club I'm a member of.

Grudgingly Officer Williams nodded to one of his colleagues, who produced a key from his waist belt and cautiously approached Magali. When the chains fell away, the dark woman brushed back her hair and crossed her arms, eyeing Julia with a glare of barely concealed suspicion. Julia smiled at her.

There lies more daggers in men's smiles....

"Now that's better, isn't it?" she queried, going into the pocket of her coat, draped neatly on the back of her chair, and bringing out a pack of cigarettes.

Magali smirked at the textbook routine. She swore that there were directions written on a placard somewhere as to how to talk to an outlaw. Sure, thanks, those nasty chains were hurting my dainty, little wrists, Magali mimicked a prissy voice in her head. It was entertaining.

Julia placed the pack and a lighter squarely in front of Magali and leaned back, still smiling, and waited.

Ah, what the fuck, they're free, Magali thought, reaching for the pack, and the guards behind her tensed. Easy boys, I'm going for the smokes, not your necks...not yet anyway.

Julia watched quietly as Magali took out one of the cigarettes, lit it, and after taking one satisfying pull, blew the smoke out at one of the guards.

This woman loves trouble, Julia thought, as she waited for Magali to take another drag. "So, Ms. Guerrerro, thank you for meeting with me. I'm Julia Winslow and-"

Like I had a choice...hel-lo, did you see the chains? "Who is it?"

Julai shook her head, momentarily caught off guard by the first words the woman had spoken, and a brief glimpse of a familiar shade of blue on the inside of the prisoner's wrist. "Excuse me?"

"I said...who is it? This person 'we' know." Magali rolled the cigarette between her index finger and thumb, gazing at the glowing embers under the white of ashes, and then flicked them onto the floor.

"Oh, I understand, you want to know to whom I was referring." Her raptor smile returned; she had the woman's attention at least.

Magali gave her a short nod and stared at the window-- sunlight was precious. Smart, pretty...and blonde.

"Ms. Bridges."

Expecting to hear a name following some legal title, Magali held back the need to cough. It can't be. "Bridges?"

"I'm sorry, you must not recognize her surname. You probably know her better as Casey. It's Casey Bridges."

"Yeah, I know her," she replied, focusing harder on the white light glowing through the window. "How do you?"

"We went to school together. She thought I could help you out, maybe get you into a-"

"Don't need it," she deadpanned.


"Whatever you're selling, I don't need it," she clarified, throwing down the cigarette and stomping it out.

"You misunderstand. I'm not 'selling' anything. But I can try to get you an early release, or at least, when you get out you can have a diploma. Then you can get a decent job." She was using her business tone, the one that conveyed seriousness and finality.

"A decent job?" she spat. Damn, Casey. So that's what this is all about? That's good, Zee, jump on the defensive right away. Bad habits.

"Yes. I mean...I've looked at your record. Haven't you learned yet? Do you want to keep coming back here? To this place or another like it? I'm offering you a chance, Ms. Guerrerro."

"The name's Zero," she corrected with menace, "and if you want to help me, then find a way for me not to be bored to death. Now...can I leave?" she finished, raising both her hands, palms facing Julia.

At last Julia got a clear look at the icon on the inside of the woman's wrist- a small blue hand, just like Christopher's. I don't believe it, a woman like this, with that mark? Think, many ways could Christopher use her-- in here, out there? "Officer Williams? Could you please leave us alone for a minute? You can time us if you like."

"Mrs. Wins-"

"Now, Officer Williams."

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed with resignation, and motioned to the others to follow, as he opened the door and left.

Julia took a cigarette out of the pack and, sitting back, lit one for herself. "Do you like to play games?" she whispered.

Shit. Magali stone faced her and clenched her jaw tightly before responding. "That sounds like a challenge. Are you throwing down the gauntlet?"

"The stakes are high." Again she whispered, a smirk beginning at the corner of her mouth.

"Those are the only kind worth playing for." The too familiar phrase came out wrapped in bitterness. There you have it, bitch; now you know what I am, and I know who you are.

Julia smiled and stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray on the table. "You'll be hearing from me again, Zero...soon." The guards were back in the room before she had picked up her jacket; as the door shut behind her she could hear the chains being refastened. The day was looking up.


Daly rolled over under the blanket for the hundredth time and sighed. The mattress was one of the few things his ex-wife had left him with, and every time he slept on it he remembered why. A corner of it sloped nearly to the floor, and the springs jutted in waves across its surface. He was better off on the floor, but he knew that if he got up he would head straight for the overflowing mass of documents that owned his living room, and he was in need of some sort of rest. One step into the room and he would be in thrall to the files and papers, photos and graphic trees of names that had seized control of his life for the past fifteen years. The coffee table alone was buried under piles of black and white glossies, some as much as fourteen years old and others as recent as two months.

Having his morning cup of coffee, he would lean over the table and stare at the images captured on the shiny paper. In the shower, the face and gestures of the photographs' main subject flicked through his mind, grainy and shaded-- like the scenes of a silent movie. Over the sink in the kitchen, a faded eight by ten hung from the edge of a cabinet by one tattered piece of tape. He'd gaze at the strong, young legs clad in leather, straddling the chrome of the motorcycle's engine. The snug T-shirt hugged the girl's defined shoulders and budding breasts, its sleeves straining at the bulk of her biceps. At the waist of her chaps, just above the bleached blue of her jeans, a dark rectangle pressed itself against her belly; it was the butt of a gun. Dominating the framing of the photo, the girl radiated a splendid mix of danger and beauty. But what captivated him the most, with a breeze blowing back her raven hair, was the wild grin of unrestrained laughter on the girl's face as she threw back her head. It was the only picture he had of her smiling-- a rare moment forever frozen in time over his dirty dishes.

He threw the covers off his head and glared at the wide-open doorway of his bedroom. It was officially his day off, but Daly never really had a day off in his entire career. His job, and a certain raven-haired scofflaw, devoured all his time; it was his true heart's marriage. As a matter of fact, he hadn't been at all surprised at the divorce papers left for him on the refrigerator door, when his wife had finally worked up the courage to leave them for him. For months beforehand, he had known she was hiding them in the bottom of her bureau drawer. Daly drummed on his bare chest and shot alternating glances at the door and the ceiling, trying to decide whether to battle his way into sleep or just get up. At last he sat up and jumped to his feet. Pushing the blonde, loosened tresses of his ponytail back away from his face, he trudged into the bathroom. His skin exhibited the pallor of a New York winter spent out of the sun and, combined with the shadow on his unshaven face, he looked a mess. He splashed his face with cold water running from the faucet and rinsed out the dryness of his mouth. The waist of the boxers he wore hung loosely, and he had to hold them up with every other step as he walked into the kitchen to put his poison on to brew. As he poured water into the pot, he winked at Magali's picture and smiled.

"Morning, Darling." Then knitting his brow, "What's that you ask...what are we doing today? Why...what we do every day...take over the world," he said, continuing his ritual.

With the ruthlessly slow dripping of the coffee permeating the air with its scent, Daly carefully removed the picture from its resting place. He held it gently at the corners and carried it over to the inundated coffee table in the living room. A thin haze drifted in through the half open shade, illuminating his precious and strange collection of a life spent on the edge of chaos. He opened a clear space amongst the piles and tenderly placed the photograph in it. With extreme care, he rubbed off the sticky remains of the overused piece of tape, and, peering under the table, found a roll of clear tape, its edges colored with bluish-gray lint. Daly tore a piece off, and calculated his distance to get just the right amount of the strip on the edge of white around the image; as he did so a pile fell to the floor and scattered, most of the photographs landing face down. He finished his small task cursing under his breath, then stooped to pick up the newly created collage of violence and destitution. His eye was caught by a snapshot that he had not seen for quite a while and, retrieving it, he laid it next to the first on the table.

Her hair in a neat French braid, decked out in a silk, crimson blouse and black, worn, leather jacket, an older Magali sneered at the viewer. Menace shone from her eyes-- unabashed and raw. In her hand, her knuckles white, the tendons hard, she held a .45 automatic--its barrel half hidden by a mouth stretched in terror. The large ring on her hand was a gleaming blur, set off by tears running down paled cheeks. Daly picked up another photo. There was Magali again, squatting in front of a crying toddler, her hand caressing his face, while with the other she held onto one of her signature weapons-- the .45 caliber she preferred. A fourth showed her walking at the head of a crowd; she was wearing a leather sports top, baggy jeans that hugged her hips just under her navel, and an antler-handled hunting knife sheathed and strapped to her belt. Her face and neck were draped with dark streams of blood from a cut above her eye; her abdomen and chest were speckled with it. One after the other, Daly collected the prints: Magali running through the gray snow of New York screaming; her hair clinging to her skin as she bathed in the gushing stream of an open hydrant, children running and laughing at her feet, the summer sun bronzing her skin; Magali tall and dark, enigmatic shades hiding her eyes, as she bent over a coffin to place one single rose on its cover; her jeep, double-parked, its hood serving as a temporary bed as she rested on it, exhausted, her arm folded over her eyes; Magali, her lips open to the sky, catching raindrops with her tongue as she exhaled a cloud of smoke from a joint she was enjoying. Still more followed. A wrestling-match with her right-hand man. A sullen look as she fought off the pneumonia that plagued her for weeks. A visit to her mother's grave, her motorcycle off to the side. Her cool-look as she sat at a table with four men, a discreet envelope being pushed towards her. If he chose to string all of the shots together, he'd have a pictorial novel of the most dangerous woman he knew. But the collection was for him alone, to be shared only with those with whom he kept professional company. And they were few. Daly frowned at the life strewn before him and rose to fetch his first cup of caffeine. He needed to pay Magali a visit, and the drive was a long, and boring one.

On the way to the prison he cursed each annoyance that arose: he couldn't find his clip-on tie, he had forgotten his second cup of coffee on the kitchen counter, and the tape deck in his car was broken. He bitched when he was forced to stop for gas, then grinned at the pizza shop next door. Prison food sucked; Magali would appreciate the treat. At the gate he produced his credentials as Magali's lawyer, and the guard waved him in. He waited an hour before an interviewing room was available and his name was called. The daily paper was interesting at least, with an account of new eruptions of violence in Brooklyn.

B'klyn Courts Bursting
After Cop Crackdown

Daily News Staff Writer

The anti-crime initiative Operation Condor has increased the Brooklyn Criminal Courts' caseload by a whopping 83.4%, more than double the rate of the other four boroughs, legal experts said yesterday.

By the end of last month, pending cases in Brooklyn had soared to 10,470, from 5,694 a year ago, according to Office of Court Administration figures.

The contrast is most striking with Manhattan, where the caseload was nearly flat, up a mere .8%.

The Queens caseload was up 40.6%, Staten Island's was up 25.1%, and the Bronx's was up 22.8%.

Judges and prosecutors in Brooklyn attributed the skyrocketing numbers to Operation Condor, a $20 million citywide program that pays cops overtime to fight violent crime and quality-of-life offenses.

Law enforcement officials yesterday were at a loss to explain the disparity among the boroughs.

Police Department spokeswoman Marilyn Mode said Operation Condor did not specifically target Brooklyn.

"The deployment is based on where the crime complaints are," she said.

She said police brass credited the operation with helping to drive down the crime rate 7% this year.

"It might be a citywide operation, but it seems Brooklyn has gotten the brunt of it," said First Deputy District Attorney Mike Vecchione.

But he added that the prosecutor's office is not griping about the extra workload. "It goes with the territory," he said.

To handle the flood of cases, the district attorney's office has put three additional prosecutors on weekend duty and at least one more on weekday arraignments.

The office also has assigned supervisors to arraignments because they have more authority to work out pleas and dispose of cases quickly.

Original Publication Date: 5/24/00


When he stepped into the dark green room it occurred to him that he was now as much a prisoner as Magali was. With practiced ease he took a toothpick from the pocket of his jacket to twirl between his fingers while he waited. Somewhere down the long corridors lined with large, round, hanging globes spewing a sickly light through their spiraled grates, was an unpredictable element in the female form.

That factor was, at the time, being very predictable. A little sweat mingled with a little pain, helped chase away the bile taste that had been engendered by Julia's visit. The sickening feeling had begun the moment she had heard her visitor utter the phrase that invoked her link with the Gauntlet, and with a woman she knew she most definitely did not like. A need to dispel that feeling had prompted the afternoon's activity. With the workday at an end, and a small crowd of women gathered around the bench where she pushed on a heavily stacked weight-bar, Magali bore her pain for all to see. As she strained the weights upward, a lanky, caramel woman straddled her thighs, holding a humming implement in her hand-- the motor of a radio concocted into a tattoo gun. Wires in a myriad of colors looped around the small engine parts, taped together with haphazard pieces of duct tape. A pair of popsicle sticks pumped rhythmically, the speed of their movement blurring the sewing needles at their ends. Some of the onlookers cheered her on to mask the sound; while others stared casually, Greenie winced periodically. The bare skin of Magali's stomach rippled with the contractions of her abdominal muscles as she pushed the bar up over her, and the artist bent forward to complete the last of the Gothic script on the tender flesh as a trickle of sweat fell from her brow. The job finished she stood to admire her work. Thick black lines crossed and arched, just under Magali's ribs and across her abdomen, looping dramatically into three, two inch high letters: S-I-N. As simple as it was, it was beautiful, with its darkening lines of settling ink beaded with crimson drops. Here and there a tiny red rivulet ran from where the needles had gone in too deeply too often.

Magali settled the bar into its niche atop the supports of the bench and pulled down her A-shirt-- which was immediately stained with small ruby specks-- and donned the clean denim shirt she had earned from her earlier shower. Unless it was filthy, the shirt would be worn for a week, with a fresh A-shirt being the only clean garment given her daily. She had been foul after pushing garbage around all day. Silently she handed the artist a bar of Hershey's chocolate she'd traded from Smoke for a mirror, who had traded that for a sketchpad; the mirror had been a gift of appreciation from Greenie. She didn't need to look at the fresh wounds carved into her hide, she'd felt each sharp puncture of every curve and corner, and had worn the word engraved invisibly on her spirit since the birth of Zero. She was tucking in the tail of her shirt when the yelling out of a familiar number jolted her out of her numbness.

"0329! Guerrerro! Lawyer visit!"

The crowd disappeared and the artist hid her tool; Magali scowled.

"You sure are popular today, Guerrerro."

"Bite me."

Magali strode in followed by guards who promptly left once she was seated. Lawyer visits were private. Daly expected some sort of reaction from the dark woman, but what he had not expected was the look of studied indifference he received instead.

"Look, Daly, they don't respect you enough to put me in chains," she said teasingly, gesturing with her unrestrained hands.

"What?" he asked, bemused.

"Nevermind. What the fuck do you want?"

"Are you gonna eat the treat I got you?" he queried with a smirk, and pointed at the slice of pizza on the table.

Oh goodie, one brings me cigarettes and the other junk food. Must be my fuckin' lucky day. "No thanks, I'm trying to cut down."

Daly shrugged and took the piece for himself, ripping at the hardened cold cheese with gusto. "Fine with me, I'm starving. I love cold pizza...must be a college thing."

"Yo, Daly. Is this what you called me in here for? To watch you eat, while you dick me around?"

"Why? You have some pressing business to take care of?" he dripped with sarcasm.

"Very fuckin' funny, you're a real comedian, Daly. You should quit your day job, go do stand-up."

"Nah, I like what I do."

"And what is that, exactly? Set people up?"

He stopped chewing and glared at her; she shrugged it off. His briefcase, up until then sitting on the floor between his feet, landed on the table with a thunk; she didn't move. He opened it and took out a manila envelope designed for protecting delicate documents and took out one stiff eight by ten and spun it across the tabletop to her.

"Do you know her?"

She glanced at the photo lying in front of her without touching it, and slumped a bit into her chair. Months earlier, she lay in a hospital recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound, charged with the serious crime of the homicide of a Police Officer. Though she was not guilty as charged, she faced the possibility of the death penalty. Daly had made his appearance into her already hectic life, offering to arrange for her acquittal. The added incentive of having Casey in her life had all but convinced her; she hadn't been ready to exchange time with her Saint for a lethal injection. At the time, he had asked for nothing in return, insinuating only that eventually he would require a...service...from her. But now, looking at the picture he had produced, she knew the time to start paying had come; it had been the exchange of one certain death penalty for the likelihood of another.

"Yeah." she breathed. Within the white borders of the print, with the backdrop of a downtown Manhattan street, a distinguished couple strolled side by side. She recognized the tall blonde woman wearing a business suit and a lofty expression-- mere hours before she had sat with her in much the same way she was now sitting with Daly. The predatory atmosphere had been present then as it currently was.

He smiled, the way a shark would at the splashing of an injured fish. "She came to see you already," he stated knowingly. "Any idea how she fits into the picture?"

"Sort of. I'll know more sooner than later," she replied, and lowering her eyes rubbed at the blue tattoo of a closed hand on the inside of her wrist.

"You'd better hope it's way sooner."

Magali looked up. Not liking the tone in his voice, she glowered, giving him warning that she would and could pounce on him easily. Her initial reaction, however, was put on pause by the second print he nonchalantly tossed on top of the first. She raked her nails into the wood of the table, leaving lighter scratch marks on the surface of its age-darkened stain. The time of day was clear, sometime at night. A proprietary hand was on Casey's waist, as she was led into a Town Car. The undisguised look of lust was plain on Julia's face as she followed.

"What the fuck did you get her into, mother-fucker!" was the last thing he heard as Magali bounded over the table and straight at him. His head hit the floor and he was still clearing his vision as a stick came down on her from one of the guards who rushed in. Struggling against them she took hit after hit, ignoring the strikes to get at her intended target, Daly. When the small room was nearly filled with uniforms, and her form had disappeared under them, they were finally able to drag her away, her curses filling the air.


"I spoke to your friend." Julia's voice was hurried, as if she were balancing the phone and a few dishes, but Julia never cleaned.

"Good morning to you too, Julia." Casey rasped sleepily.

"Oh sorry, dear. I'm in the middle of something. But I'll be in the city this evening. Are you busy?"

Suddenly Casey was very much awake, Julia's first statement registering at last. "Did you say you spoke to Magali?"

"Yes, I did. Now what about tonight?" she continued, the sounds of an office drifting in from the background.

"What did she say? Is she all right? How'd she look?" Her voice was desperate, she knew, as the flurry of questions came out of her rapidly.

"My, my. Casey Bridges, if I didn't know better I would say she's more than an acquaintance. "A pet project"-- isn't that how you put it?"

"It's just one has heard from her in a very long time. No phone calls, no letters, and...well...I'm concerned." She tried to calm her voice; it barely worked. "Concerned" my ass, I'm dying here...please God, just let her tell me something, anything.

"Weren't you there to see her when I first saw you?"

"I wasn't allowed to," she replied sadly.

"That's right, she just came out of solitary...or so I was told. Letters take awhile to get to the prisoners. They scan them you see. Phone calls? If she hasn't earned enough credits from working, she wouldn't be allowed a phone call. Well, rest assured. She seems fine. But if you're that worried...why don't you go for a visit?"

Casey sighed, "I've been in the middle of midterms, and her visit dates come up only twice a month. I think I just missed one, so I won't be able to go up, nor will her cousin. And I need to make up a few days at work. With my luck that'll be when she's allowed visitors."

"I see. Alright then, I have a plan of action. Come out with me tonight, and I can take you up tomorrow, then you can catch a train back. I'm pretty sure you're on spring break now, so you have no excuse. What do you say?"

" I mean, if it's not her-"

"You let me take care of that, dear. Oh God, look at the time. I have got to get going. My driver will pick you up at nine." Click.

Casey hung up the phone and cuddled closer to the warm spot of a curled Devi by her side. The prospect of seeing Magali after nearly four months left her with a permanent smile and a bit lightheaded. But first there was Julia to deal with, and the thought of spending another night with the woman made her queasy with its unwanted arousal. Under the lash it was easy to forget whom one was with, but it was Magali she hungered for more than anything else. To sense the pacing of the caged animal, barely controlled, in the depths of her pale blue eyes as they fell on her. Feel the power she was capable of, being harnessed in passion-- the gentle strokes of hands capable of killing, tender for only her. Knowing that her lover didn't need to make control an issue, she simply was, by nature, sovereign; and under her rule, potent and benevolent, she reigned because she could and had to, yet never claimed it as a right. A shiver went down her spine and she hugged Devi tightly to her chest.

"Devi," she whispered, "wanna go for a wa- humph." With that she was left with empty arms and a cold spot.

It was incredible the way the dog could finish sentences without ever speaking. At times she reacted to just a syllable, and at others, scarcely a look. Devi was entertaining, and when alone she provided Casey with an unexpected comfort. She understood well why Magali treasured the animal so highly and, of course, the added bonus that no one approached her in the street when they went for their walks was fine with her. Although spring was just around the corner, the chill of winter held on tenaciously. She was grateful for the collection of heavy jackets Magali seemed to have in abundance. The bitter wind was enough to keep people off the streets, and those who were outside hurried by with upturned collars. Her stomach grumbled, loud enough for Devi, walking steadily at her knee, to turn her nose up at her.

"How about a donut, hmmm?" she smiled, still thinking of Magali, and the sticky sweet of a glazed...

Down the hill, a Dunkin' Donuts blew the smells of fresh coffee and baked pastries out into the street. Casey tied Devi to a parking meter, needlessly, since the animal never wandered, by a sidewalk grate pushing up warm air from the underground train system. Devi sat on her haunches and gave her a curious look then, turning her attention towards the corner, whined softly.

"Don't worry, girl. We'll go to the park as soon as I get a little bite...and yes I'll share." She patted her on the head and turned into the shop. A few customers later, Casey was walking out with a cup of steam in her hand and a donut in her mouth. She swallowed down half of it and gave the rest to a happy Devi, then bent to untie the leash from the cold pole around which it was wrapped. As she bent, she caught sight of a shadow moving quickly out of her vision at the corner; Devi was watching the same thing. For days she had had the sensation of eyes on her constantly, but had more than once dismissed it as part of her residual fear of Webster-- the cop who had held her prisoner in a stinking Brooklyn basement, while he tortured her with a stun gun for her lover's whereabouts.

She picked up the leash and began a slow walk towards the park, and in the direction of the shadow, her heart banging away in her ears. It's nothing, just my imagination. It's just my imagination. At the corner she looked furtively in all directions before crossing. Seeing nothing unusual she walked across and proceeded to the mass of dead trees in the park. Along the way she passed other neighbors out for a walk with their pets, one Chihuahua decided she was tougher than Devi and yelped wildly. Devi to her credit, ignored the small rodent. Around a few bends in the path leading around the park in several directions, she came to the beginning of a stone tunnel. It usually gave her the creeps to walk through it at night, even with Devi, but during the day she had no problem traversing it. It was an old tunnel cut in through the middle of one of the park's many hills, built when the site served as a fort. Blocks of stone, stained with years of dripping water, surrounded her. The cobble of the ground was worn and broken in places. Halfway through, Devi suddenly stopped and turned, growling. Casey's breath caught in her throat, as she too turned at the soft crunch behind her but found nothing.

"Time to go home, girl," she whispered worriedly, and walked quickly out the other end of the tunnel.

At the door of the building she fumbled with her keys, her hands shaking. Almost running to the elevator, she nearly screamed when she heard the door open and shut behind her and, with Devi at her heels leaped into the arriving elevator, furiously punching the button for her floor. Casey slumped against the mirrored wall of the elevator and caught her breath, trying to convince herself that she was over-reacting. No one would follow me in here, not with Nelson and Ruben watching the place like hawks over a brood. The door slid open, and there was silence. Her breathing had calmed a bit, and the apartment door was just a few feet away. Devi wasn't acting strangely, quite normal actually, and she took the necessary walk to the door. Inside, the phone was ringing, and she could hear the beginning of the message on the answering machine as she struggled to get inside and answer the call. Devi trotted in, her leash dragging behind her, and Casey ran to the phone to pick it up.

"Hello...hello." Nothing. The caller had hung up and left dead air for her to answer to. Could it be Daly? No he wouldn't hang up. Gali? No, she wouldn't either. Shit, shit. What the hell is going on? I can't be imagining all of this. It's not the first time. How long has it been, a few weeks, since...since that night with Julia. But I just spoke to her. It wouldn't be her. What if it's the cops. No, Gali has most of them in her pocket. And why would they follow me anyway? Alright, where's that number? Eddie, he might know, or at least he can find out.

She found the scrap of paper still taped to the fridge, and dialed the number printed on it. One beep and she dialed in the number she was calling from, then hit the pound key and hung up. She didn't know how long it would take for him to call back, and to keep busy until he did, she started breakfast, cracking an egg over a bowl. She was beating it senseless when the phone rang.

"Casey? What's up?"

"Ummm, God this is gonna sound stupid, Eddie. But I'm glad you called, cause I think I'm in trouble."

Yeah, I know you are. When Gali finds out about whoever it is ya been seeing, ya gonna see a whole new side of her. "What's the problem?"

"I think someone's been following me."

Yup, they have, I told 'em to, and they're not doing a good job of it if you know. "No shit? I'll check it out for you, alright?" Little shit Nelson can't do nothing right.

"Thanks, Eddie."

"No problem. I'll talk to ya later." After I fuck Nelson up.

Eddie hung up and frowned at Callie lounging on the couch. She held a small bottle up to a nostril and inhaled, then turned the small knob on its side to close its tiny opening. They had been up the entire night counting money and talking to workers from around the borough.

"Zee's gonna kill ya, Callie."

"Yeah, well she's not she?" she spat menacingly.

"No, but she's still gonna kill ya."

"Yeah? And who's gonna tell her anything? You?"

Eddie shook his head and ignored her; half the time she was as irrational as a surprised rattlesnake, and he had other matters to take care of. Namely, Nelson.

"I gotta go. Go get some sleep and lay off that shit."

"Fuck you, Ed."

He closed the door behind him and suppressed the urge to carry the slender woman over his shoulder and dump her in the street. It was cold; and winter had taken root in the hallways and staircases as if hiding from the wrath of summer. He hadn't seen his family in days, and it was just about the time of day when Alejandra would be throwing round, green pieces of puffed cereal at Enrique. Mariana would be yelling, picking up the mess from the night before. Eddie wanted to go home, if only for a quick nap, a shower and perhaps a moment with his wife. Whenever Magali was away it was always the same. Whether she was on a trip or behind bars, he stepped into the vacuum her absence created. It was no wonder to him why she closed herself off to the world, when she lived in a zone void of time, out of the reaches of anything common to the rest. She fucked when she wanted to, killed when she had to, fought to the limits of exhaustion and slept sporadically. He had hoped that all of that would change; that she would find some peace, an excuse to leave and live a normal life with Casey, maybe up in that cabin she loved so much. But as the weeks passed, and problems built on top of problems, he began to doubt any change was forthcoming. His heart told him he was wrong, but his mind said that Casey was betraying Zee, and in the end she would sink deeper into the murk of their world. And he would follow her there too, simply because, without her, he would never have had the chance to think of alternatives.

The apartment was quiet, but neat. In the kitchen, where he expected to find his family, he instead found empty packages of dye, multi-colored stained bowls, and a half-eaten yellow, marshmallow chick.

"What the...?" It can't be; it's too cold for Easter. Aw shit, Mariana is gonna have my head!

He looked at the calendar from the Chinese take-out place, hanging next to the window, and scratched his head. There, under a landscape picture of mountains he thought were probably somewhere in China, in bold red letters was the printed word "April". Magali had gone in to do time just after Christmas, and he had not spoken to her since then. It didn't surprise him. She left instructions; he followed them until they changed. Still, he knew her lack of communication could only mean that she was finding her own brand of trouble behind the walls. He knew her well enough not to worry. His bed summoned him to the bedroom, and he trudged in, promising himself not to wastefully sleep away the entire day.

When Mariana nudged him awake, it was dark, and she wasn't speaking to him. He looked at the time and grimaced, rushed into the shower and quickly dressed. Enrique gave him a sad smile, and Alejandra stuck out her tongue as he kissed his angry wife and petted them on their heads on his way out. His car was double parked outside, and a ticket under the wiper flapped in the wind. He turned the key, and the engine hummed to life. The tires left marks on the street as he skidded away.

Nelson was dozing on the mattress they had laid on the floor, while Ruben stared at the TV screen scooping ice cream out of a container with a fork. The kid smiled and pointed at the TV.

"Hey, Eddie, check it out. Just in time, bro'."

Eddie glared at the sleeping Nelson then turned his eyes to the screen. It showed the street outside from a camera they had hung from the roof. A Lincoln Town Car had pulled up, and a woman was standing by it, leaning on its trunk with her arms crossed. She was tall and lean; short hair flipped away from her face in wisps. Eddie took the controls from the floor and turned the knob to focus on the woman alone. She was attractive, with strong features and the air of confidence that accompanied money. Then he saw her smile, and he focused back to a larger range of scope. Exiting the building, dressed to the nines and with a clear bounce to her step, was Casey. The woman kissed her, then put her in the car.

"Hey Ruben? Who's gonna follow her?" Eddie growled.


Ruben's head suddenly came forward, propelled by a blow from behind by Eddie.

"He's asleep you idiot!" he screamed as the car pulled away.



She had spent the day cleaning the apartment and watching TV, filling the time with whatever she could. Julia had surprised her by coming herself, and it made her more nervous than she had thought it would. To see her standing calmly by the car, in plain view of what she knew would be the watchful eyes of Nelson and Ruben, added to her uneasiness. Julia had given her a peck on the cheek and then, with a hand on her shoulder, guided her into the car before getting in on the other side. For a time they rode in silence. Julia took a call on her cellular and a drink from a small bar at her feet. She poured one for Casey and handed it to her without asking. For Julia, it was second nature not to ask-- she wanted Casey to drink. When her call was over, Julia took a careful sip of her drink and laid a hand on Casey's thigh.

"I apologize for not seeing you sooner. I've been busy for the past few weeks."

I didn't mind. "That's all right, Julia. I know how...hectic things can be for you."

She chuckled. "That's what I love about you, Casey, so damn honest."

"So where are we going?" She hadn't bothered to ask earlier, knowing how Julia preferred to control everything.

"I thought we could take in the opera. La Boheme is playing. Christopher abhors it. Then...let's just play it by ear, shall we?" Casey gave her a skeptical look, and she sighed. "Alright, you have me pegged...I've just really missed your company, Casey. And I've had a busy week. Let's just enjoy the leisure time." The weariness in her voice was indisputable; Julia wanted to drown out the world.

She's had a busy week...I bet. How many begged you to stop before you became too exhausted to continue? Well, better for me. She just wants to hang out, for now, anyway.

After the last soaring aria echoed through the halls and touched every heart, they left the elegant mob behind for the darker confines of a small bar in Greenwich Village. After a few Martinis downed by Julia, and a few beers for Casey, the hard façade Julia wore like armor faded. It wasn't a part of her, only a mask she forcefully employed on a daily basis. Her smile came through, genuine and full of mirth, gentle and concerned. She joked about the woman at the bar, flirted with a waitress and tapped her finger to the music from the jukebox. When Casey knocked over a beer bottle and splashed some of the sudsy fluid on her lap, Julia jokingly wiped it away with a napkin, insinuating and giggling.

In the tender quiet hours of the night, they left the bar, with Julia as young as she had been at Storm King school. Patiently the driver had waited until they were ready and, upon seeing them, opened the back door. Casey went in first, with Julia slumping in next to her, telling the driver to "Take me drunk, I'm home." An old joke, but one she enjoyed. Losing the rest of her poise, Julia laid her head on Casey's lap and gazed up at her. Tenderly she reached up and caressed Casey's cheek, a sudden sadness rushing into her eyes. She turned on her side, curling into herself. Casey put a hand on her shoulder and felt her shudder, wondering who, if anyone, was comforting Magali.

Part 7

She had always hated Christopher. He was an arrogant back streets Boston boy, who had aspired to the delusions of grandeur that a bit of luck and successful risks had encouraged. It had been his appearance that had begun the chain reaction of outbursts from Julia that had ultimately driven them apart. Casey wasn't sure precisely what had happened, but her then- lover and friend had become nearly alcoholic and turned abusive, holding Casey's allegiance only through financial dependence. In retrospect, the end of their relationship had been a godsend. It had given Casey the strength to pull away from her family and venture out into the world by herself. Then there was Magali-- had she never left...they would have never met. Still, the fact that Julia had then married the son-of-a-bitch threw Casey's perception of the whole scenario into such confusion that she didn't even want to think about it. Water under the bridge.

Julia had passed out shortly after their arrival at the townhouse, mumbling something about Christopher's arrival. Supporting the weight of the taller woman, Casey had just about managed to push her onto the bed, before she too fell. Whether Julia was drunk or not, her strength held Casey pinned as the woman used her as a pillow. Luckily they were both fully clothed, or Christopher would have gotten an eye full of glory when he unceremoniously walked in on them.


"Nice, Julia. Just like you to set up something like this for me to come home to," he sniped from the doorway.

Casey couldn't argue that he was handsome, but she'd sooner spit in his face than talk to him. When she began to move away from Julia, the woman came fully awake and grabbed onto her.

"You don't like women, Christopher. So please don't try to feign some sort of jealousy now, dear, it's unbecoming to you."

Christopher sucked his teeth and stalked away, calling over his shoulder, "Nice to see you again, Casey."

"Fuck off," Casey spat under her breath, and rubbed Julia's back. "I need to go, Julia. You can take me up to Bedford Hills another day," she suggested, too tired to try to keep disappointment from her voice.

"No, Casey. I promised you I would get you in to see your 'friend', and I will. Just give me a few minutes with Chris, alright?" Funny, she seems a little more upset then she should be over just an acquaintance. Casey nodded as Julia sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

She could tell the alcohol had stayed with her when she pinched the bridge of her nose and inhaled a deep breath before getting up. . Her head was pounding, and she saw, as she walked out into the living room, that Christopher held out a remedy for it in his hand. She took the glass containing the concocted hangover cure she had patented in college from his hand and slumped onto the Italian renaissance couch she favored. Her husband, sensitive as he was, was swirling the ice in his own glass, producing the sort of chiming sounds that were great for a headache.

"Christopher, please, don't be deliberately annoying. I'm not in the mood."

"Oh, poor mean you're not happy to see me?" he pouted, thinking that his boyish looks made him nearly irresistible. That morning he had chosen a casual look for his homecoming: khaki Dockers and a button-down shirt in a soft blue, with the top button open. His short, black hair was brushed straight back, and he sported a day old beard.

"Cut the crap, Chris. You're here so we can make a few public appearances, shake a few hands, balance the checkbook and then schedule our next rendezvous. I'll ask you for a divorce, you'll refuse...then I'll go on with life, while you go visit your boyfriend. Isn't that how it works, 'dear'?"

Christopher smiled, his perfect teeth brilliantly white against his tanned skin. "You are quite the darling, Julia. A man couldn't get any luckier than having a woman like you for a wife. So brilliant, such ideas...such a fine grasp of reality"

Julia swallowed her hangover cure in one gulp and shook her head. "No Christopher, I'm a conniving bitch...just like you." He grimaced and moved toward her threateningly; Julia smiled and held up a hand. "Ah ah, dear," she said gesturing towards the bedroom with her thumb. "Witness." He turned away from her, casually dropping his open hand to run his fingers through his hair, instead. "I have something for you...something you just might give me that divorce for," she said coolly.

He paused in his walk towards the door and faced her. "Really? Now what would that be?"

"What if I told you, that I have a contact for you...someone who could make your 'campaign' fund raising much simpler."

"I'm listening."

"I know who the Gauntlet's 'warlord' is." She smiled as she said it.

"Who? Who is he? How-"

"Easy Chris, you're liable to have a coronary," she soothed. "The papers, Chris, signed and delivered...then, you get your prize not before. Now, if you'll leave me to my company, I have numerous things to do today."

Christopher scowled. He had been searching for years for a way to circumvent his dealings with the "blue" section of the Gauntlet-- the corrupt police officers who dealt directly with the underworld source of the organization's money. But the structuring of the organization was such that only a few members knew one another's identity at a time, jealously guarding that information and the edge it gave them. It was their system of checks and balances. He would give anything to bring that system down, to be able to get closer to that source of money, himself. It was the reason he had started the "charitable" programs in the prison system. Putting Julia in charge of them increased the chances that he would eventually come across some piece of information he needed; but he had never dreamed of finding the very fountainhead. "Very well, Julia. But if this is a ruse, some sort of game you have orchestrated...riding accidents do happen." He had the spectacular talent of changing tone in the blink of an eye, showing his own brutish roots in one single phrase and then refinement in the next. His Bostonian elite accent faded then. "This is the plan. Tomorrow, I will show you your divorce papers, then we will go down to the bank and open a safe deposit box in your name. There, we'll store the papers, and when I have my 'warlord', then you'll have your key. Deal?"


They shook hands, as all married couples do, and Christopher pulled on a jacket to leave. He had opened the door when Julia's seductive voice drifted to him, dripping with menace; it was the voice she used to bring men down to their knees.

"Just remember, Christopher...riding accidents do happen, especially to novices."

The door slammed, and she massaged her temple; the blend of tomato juice, Tobasco sauce and pepper, along with the other essential ingredients, had begun to work. She wished it would work faster. A shower will help. She thought of Casey waiting for her, and all the beautiful things she could do to her in a warm stream of water; but her brief contact with Christopher left her with only the desire to be alone. She would have to face him again later at their usual dinner party routine.

Casey heard the door slam after Julia's thinly veiled threat to Christopher, and finally let out the breath she had been holding as she ducked back into the bedroom from her viewing vantage point. She was well acquainted with all of the angles of the townhouse and had known just where she could stand unseen. The sound of flowing water, and the lack of Julia's reappearance, gave her a gauge by which to assess the woman's mood. It would be sour for the rest of the day and, judging from what she had overheard, she didn't blame her. She knew her hatred of Christopher had some basis, but it had never been so clear. He wanted to hit her. The thought made her wonder whether the circumstances under which she had lived with the woman during the last throes of their relationship had been a simple case of the victim becoming a victimizer. Julia might enjoy swinging the flail, but abuse was abuse.

A soft click as the front door opened and shut announced the arrival of the maid. She was a short, plump woman with curly salt and pepper hair, and she gave Casey a meek smile and a nod before rushing off for the kitchen. Casey wandered off to the bay window looking out onto the street from the living room. A short while later, as she stared at the passing of cars in the early morning, the maid brought her a tall glass of orange juice. Then, without a word, shuffled off to mop up the wet trail Julia left marking her passage from the bathroom to the bedroom. Except for the sounds of Julia dressing, and the faint rushing noises of the street, there was a still silence. Casey sipped at her juice. At the smack of a hand violently meeting flesh and a small cry, she closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head as she bowed it. Somethings never change; they just get worse.

Julia had donned a dark skirt suit and gestured for Casey to follow her out. She gave the driver directions for the morning and then nodded at Casey's request to be taken home first to change. The Julia of the night before had disappeared with the dawning sun, replaced by the cold, manipulating woman sitting wordlessly by Casey's side, staring impassively out the car window.

"Don't be long." Julia ordered as the Lincoln Town Car stopped in front of the building Casey tentatively called home. She still had to explain Julia to Magali.

She knew better than to make the tall blonde wait and hurried through a shower. The phone rang as she was pulling on a pair of jeans, and she nearly tripped trying to get to it. Devi licked her face.

"Good morning, Casey. Busy night?" It was Daly and his usual know-it-all tone.

"I'm in a hurry right now, Daly. What do you want?"

"Will you be seeing Zero any time soon?"

"You could say that." I hope, she thought, rummaging through a drawer for a long sleeved T-shirt.

"Good. Then give her this message for me. Tell her to get to the hospital as soon as she can, get me records, and then mail them to you. I'm sure you know which ones I'm talking about?"

"Prenatal, right?" She found the shirt and put her arms into it.

"Good girl. I'll talk to you again...soon." Click.

"I hate his phone calls." She looked for her favorite, purple, hooded sweatshirt-- the one that brought out the blue in Magali's eyes-- and threw it on. By now Julia would definitely be impatient. She was; and after making a remark as to how big the sweatshirt was on Casey, Julia gruffly demanded that the driver get on with his job and get her to her destination.

It didn't surprise Casey when they rode past the visitors' parking lot and through the gates of the prison. Not even the thick leather of Magali's jacket shielded her from the icy intensity of the concrete and steel; the immensity of the place gave Casey the shivers. Unconsciously she wrung her hands. The guards knew Julia; Casey could tell from their sidelong glances that she was no stranger to them. What did catch her off guard was the relative ease with which they walked through the principal gates and straight into the offices of the institution's administrative branch. Leaving Casey out of ear shot, Julia paused by a desk and engaged in a short conversation with a woman who furiously punched away at a computer keyboard and shook her head. Although spared the cutting sharpness of Julia's tongue, it was plain to Casey that she was demanding something unusual. Julia had a way of using her body that spoke volumes. The small, seemingly frightened woman dialed nervously at a phone and then, after muttering a few words into the receiver, passed it over to Julia, who smiled pretentiously as she spoke. Not a minute later she was returning the handset back to the secretary and holding out her hand for a notepad. With it in hand, she walked complacently back towards Casey.

"Here," she said, pushing the notepad into her hands. "Seems your 'friend' has gotten herself in a bit of trouble again. I've arranged with the warden to have my assistant finish the interview I started. It seems that they are preoccupied with my safety around here, so I've agreed to let you go in my stead. Not to worry, Casey dear. You'll be perfectly safe; the warden's just a bit overprotective of me."

"Wait, I don't get it. Where am I going that you can't go? And what's with the safety issue?"

"Oh...she's back in solitary. They'll give you sometime with her alone. Be careful, Casey, I understand she's a bit unstable now, and dangerous to say the least. I doubt she would do anything to you, though...after all she is your lover...isn't she?"

Casey's mouth dropped open, and she struggled for a denial. None was forthcoming and, too late, she caught on to Julia's ruse.

"I guessed as much. Really, Casey, how long did you think you could hide it from me?" Julia murmured, running the tip of her finger down Casey's cheek and neck, stopping just at her collar. "Nevertheless, please give her my regards and do warn her-- if she gets into trouble once more, the warden has sworn to press charges. That would mean a longer stay for her, and I doubt you want that." And I don't want that either; not when I can use her to get rid of Christopher for good, she thought. "I would have my driver take you home afterwards, Casey, but I have need of him. There's a bus that will take you to the metro-north; I'm sure you can find your way home from there. Adieu, Cher. I'll call."

Casey stared at Julia's back until she was out of sight and then mouthed a 'thank you.' A tap on the shoulder from a guard brought her back to reality, and she began the long awaited walk to her Black Velvet. Her legs felt like gelatin, unsteady and numb. She wasn't sure, how, if at all, she could manage the task of putting one foot in front of the other, when the steady beating of her pulse threatened to throw her off balance. Her insides quivered, and she had to take conscious control of her breathing to quiet the nervous tingling running through her body.

Deeper into the bowels of the prison they went, the static calls coming through the guard's radio preceding her. She followed him through the dreary corridors that angled forever downward in slants and sharp turnings, the weight of the building becoming more oppressive around her as they walked. The clanging of metal against metal and the obnoxious scent of ammonia were everywhere. When she had awakened that morning, she hadn't imagined a walk through the prison as part of her itinerary, and especially not a visit to a solitary block. It was just one long hall-- dark enough to hide its gloomy end, but with enough light that she could make out one other tier of solid doors. Just above her, a narrow walkway of grated metal loomed, the silence stifling. Fear, she realized, could be tasted, made solid.

"The doors are soundproof, Miss. There's a small speaker in each cell-- we can hear in, but they can't hear out. You'll see a small red button on the speaker by the door; it's there for emergencies, though they press it all the time just to bug us. If you get into trouble, use this," he said holding out a small black spray canister, "and press the button. We'll be in faster than you can scream," "I would stand guard outside, but I have other tasks to take care of, and the shift is nearly over. You understand?" He pointed to the walk above and down towards the end of the hall. "See those guys? They're constantly walking around, so don't worry."

Casey nodded, and took the can of Mace. "Thank you, officer. I'm sure I'll be fine."

"Well, I don't know...she's one of those," he said waggling his hand. "Good looking woman like you...could get into trouble locked in a room with the likes of her. Beats me why you would waste your time on her anyway."

She could have said a thousand different things, but prudence being the watchword of the day, she kept quiet. It had been four months since she had last seen her Black Velvet, and there was nothing, being so close, that she would do to jeopardize her chance to be alone with her, if only for one minute. Casey took in the shadowy corners and thick walls that closed in her lover and had leeched her humanity when she was barely more than a child. She couldn't imagine spending more than a day within its confines; her Black Velvet had spent years-- putting an edge on her skills and her hatred. So lost was she in her thoughts, that she nearly trampled the guard when he stopped suddenly at a door. It was no different than any of the others-- a solid gray slab of steel with a long, narrow opening just under a knobbed, dense, square flap. The flap emitted a soft squeal as he opened it and pointed inside.

Through the exposed, scratched pane, she could see the entirety of the room. The small window was cut in a descending angle so as to make it easy to scan the room from the outside, while limiting the view of whomever was inside. The light was dim, and she could just make out the extreme confinement of space and the plain white walls. Off in a corner a round shape looked to be a steel toilet, while a block of concrete, topped with a thin mattress, took up most of the limited area. Her lover sat on the mattress; with her back slightly towards the door she faced the wall, her arms resting on drawn up knees. Below the hem of her jeans her feet were bare and, in an A-shirt, Casey could only think of how cold she must be. Raven hair fell to hide her face, as she laid her head on her arms and rocked back and forth, her feet pushing the rhythm of her body. A long dark bruise fell from her shoulder towards the middle of her back and, squinting, Casey could make out smaller ones on her arms. She suppressed the cry in her throat to keep it from being voiced, and hugged the notepad to her chest.

"What happened to her?" It was tasking to hide her anger.

"She had to be restrained," he said matter-of-factly. "She's a strong one. Took seven of us to get her in there."

Casey chewed on her bottom lip, wishing she could slug the guard for his smug rendition of what probably was more than restraint. Next to the door, just as he had described, was a speaker. He flicked a switch on its corner and brought his mouth close to the plain box.

"0329, Guerrerro, you have someone here to see you. Play nice. Remember, one more fuck up and you face the judge." He let go of the switch and closed the flap, pulling out his club in one easy move while he jangled a set of keys in the other. "Excuse my language, Miss. Sometimes its all these animals will pay attention to. Ready?"

Casey nodded, unwilling to open her mouth and let loose the anger that was boiling just under the surface. As the door swung open, she heard the last of Magali's response to his warning.

"-I don't give a fuck," she was mumbling into her lap.

Casey waited standing stock still until she was sure the guard couldn't hear her. "Magali Guerrerro, don't you dare get more time," she begged, as the door shut tightly behind her with a thud.

She was on fire, her lungs pulling nothing but stale air into her body, her mind torturing her with the sweet melody of her Saint's voice. Her Saint, somewhere, was in peril because of her. Placed in harm's way because she was a part of her life: a vital, life-sustaining necessity she couldn't bear to keep close, and yet would kill, and die, to hold by her side. If she could only stay where she was, away from her, with no excuse to run headlong to where-ever she was, then her Saint would be free to go on without her, safe from the taint she put on everything she touched.

"Gali?" Casey whispered gently, taking the last small step to close the distance between her and her Black Velvet. She's unstable, Julia had said. Magali reminded her of an abused child cowering in a corner waiting for the next barrage of blows. She couldn't imagine what could have put her stalwart, stoic lover into that type of condition, but it couldn't have been whatever had caused the bruises-- she had seen worse. The sight was tearing her to pieces. Cautiously Casey extended her hand towards her, the heat rising from the woman's body brushing the tips of her fingers.

Magali felt the tender touch close to the searing pain left behind by a well-placed strike. She didn't want to look up and find a stranger where she needed more than anything to see her Saint. Impossible, her mind echoed. This hand touching you is just another taunt, a spit in your face.

Casey's chest tightened at the continued rocking of Magali's body. It seemed her touch did little more than further aggravate her, and she began to think there was more to the bruises and the fact that her lover was caged in like some maniac. She caught a flash of white as Magali rocked; the top half of an envelope protruded from her back pocket. She reached for it cautiously, hoping -perhaps-- it would give her some clue as to her Black Velvet's condition. It wasn't her wisest choice. There was no mistaking the intent of the abrupt hand closing on her wrist, and Casey prayed, with the Mace still in hand, that she would not have to use it.

"Gali," she pleaded, the pressure on her wrist becoming painful.

The name burned her, contemptuous to her, coming from a voice so like, so...

Mace and notepad fell to the floor as the tall, dark woman rose abruptly to her feet and brutally grabbed Casey's arms, pinning them to her sides. There in the cerulean profundity of her lover's eyes, brimming wet with tears of anger, Casey could see the beast prowling. In a flash, recognition and disbelief battled for domination and, when her Black Velvet crashed and crumpled against her, Casey knew her lover had won. Carefully her dark lover's hesitant hand came up, strong fingers tenderly touching a reddish wave of hair that fell along Casey's cheek. Relieved that her vision was real, Magali wrapped long arms around her Saint, hugging Casey tightly against her chest, giving her neck and face desperate kisses.

"It's you, right? Not something my mind made up? Please let it be you," Magali rasped franticly into her collar, and captured her Saint's lips with her own as if they were the sustenance she needed to survive. Salty tears flavored Magali's lips, and the strength with which she held Casey was crushing; but there wasn't a force on earth that could have detached her from the embrace. Casey cherished the scent of her Black Velvet, finally real and near to her and not some remnant left behind on cloth for her to hold at night. She parted her lips for the hungry tongue her Black Velvet was sliding past her teeth, exploring her mouth and taking in her breath. Strong hands roamed to feel every inch of her, memorizing each curve and dip of her body with the urgency of a starving lover. The walls became unimportant; they faded into obscurity with the feel of her Saint safe in her arms.

"Nothing but me," Casey affirmed. She could feel it building, the need to satiate the growing longing, to devour and be devoured, and scream in pure bliss to the heavens.

At that moment, water in the toilet decided to trickle noisily. It reminded Magali, as much as she wanted to ignore it, of where they were. She straightened and locked her eyes on the green that had drifted through her sleep and her every waking hour of discontent. Magali stuck her hands in the front pockets of her jeans and threw her head back to stare at the ceiling. She took a deep breath and one step back to sit down on the concrete block and leaned her elbows on her knees, with head bowed and face somber. "How'd you get in here, Casey?" she asked, pressing her lips together and clenching her jaw, the tense muscles showing in her face.

Casey felt the blood leave her face. A storm cloud loomed, threatening to change Magali's perception of her forever; there were explanations that were owed, and deep wounds to expose. Much had happened in a relatively short time and, considering their last exchange and her lover's temperament, Casey was unsure of where to start. She knew she would have to explain her reactions on Christmas, and that would lead to Julia. How would the dark woman who demanded so much of herself and so little from her, take her latest transgression? Licking her lips, she began. "You always put yourself in the darkest light, Gali. You first think of the worst case scenario, and drench everyone in a wave of suspicion. I understand, it's kept you alive." Casey turned away from her and faced the stark walls that were her lover's only companion. "But you don't do that with me...and you should." She wanted very much to feel her Black Velvet's touch, but not a rustle of movement came from her lover, and she knew Magali was giving her the distance prescribed for letting go. "You've met Julia, haven't you?"

"Yeah...what the fuck is goin' on, Casey?" she asked, in a voice carefully stripped of emotion; she looked off into a corner. First your letter telling me you have shit to explain. Then Daly...then that fuckin' picture. Then you get in here. Who the fuck ever gets in here? "She told me you two were friends at school." Was the bitch lying to me, and you didn't know each other at school or somethin? Did Daly get you in contact with her? Are you part of the Gauntlet? Are you in it with Daly? Now you're telling me not to trust you? Shit, Baby, if I can't trust you... Magali shook her head to clear it of the clamoring voices and thought of the look on Casey's face before she turned away. Madre de Dios, she looked as if she had to shoot her dog.

Casey bit her lip; the serrated truth was creeping closer. "We were, in high school, for a while at least. But...we became, for several years, lovers...and more than lovers," she uttered, with the fatalistic pang of the condemned accepting their fate--saddened yet resolute.

"More than lovers?" she asked, confused, and dreading the explanation that could send her reeling down into the black abyss of her rage. Don't even think of the possibilities, Zee. Let her tell you...even if it kills you right here.

"I was her...willing submissive for a time. Do you know what that is?"

I've had those, and some not so Greenie could have turned out to be. She nodded, then realizing that her Saint couldn't see her acknowledgement, forced out a guilt laden, "Yes".

Surprised, but glad that she didn't have to explain, Casey continued. "I gave myself to her freely, as a it should have been, because she gave me an escape. When I wrote you," she said, holding up the letter in her hand, "I told you how we used each other? I was just a kid, Gali, with the responsibility of an entire household and three kids on my shoulders. All I wanted was to go to the movies, or maybe a party...Julia made it so I could have another life, and I thought I loved her for it."

Magali sat on the mattress, and leaned against the wall. Visions of what had transpired between Casey and Julia filled her mind's eye, and she was caught between rage and the arousal of it. Her own dealings with women carried a sadistic strain of their own, though nothing as elaborate as she had seen in live performances. Those exhibitions had left her seething with want, enough for her to feel the power of it all. Picturing Casey in those positions was ripping her apart; it was what she had seen on Julia's face in the picture Daly had shown her. "You said you thought you loved her. Do you still?" Magali picked at the cuticle of her thumb; her Saint wasn't watching.

"No. Julia began changing, I doubt her feelings for me did, but her behavior went off a deep ravine somewhere. At the time, I didn't know why. I think I do now." Casey crossed her arms over her chest. Regardless of how the woman had treated her, she couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for her.

I think I know too...the Gauntlet happened. "What did she do to you?"

"She became sounds funny considering our relationship, but there's a huge difference. When I threatened to leave, she reminded me why I couldn't. I whole family was, dependant on her money. One day we had an argument, and Russell came to my defense. She had a riding crop-"

"Christmas...that's why..."

Casey finally faced her and, with her eyes downcast, nodded. It was enough. Her Saint was baring her soul and laying out her deeds as if they were unforgivable crimes. In comparison, they paled in the light of what Magali knew she had done, and was capable of doing, with little regret. Magali rose to embrace her, knowing in her own way what it was like to use one's body in return for a 'benefit'. It was how she had come to bear Alejandra. Furious at what Casey had gone through, she contented herself with knowing that the throat of the woman responsible would soon be within arm's reach. Casey stopped Magali's approach with a tender palm laid against the tall woman's chest and a soft shake of her head.

"There's more," she gasped, fighting back the tears that were rising in response to how readily Magali had accepted everything she had told her. The dark woman let her arms fall to her sides. "When I came to visit you a couple of months ago, I bumped into her at the visitors' center." Seeing Magai's intent stare, she hastened to add, "It's the first time I had seen her since I left her." She got a slight nod of acknowledgement, and it encouraged her to continue. "Daly saw us together...he thought I could help you get to her husband. So I-"

"I'm gonna kill 'im! He's done." Casey waved her hands, motioning for her to keep her voice down and pointing at the door. Magali ignored her. "Who the fuck does he think he is, getting you involved?" She was past furious; it showed in the clenching and unclenching of her fists, and the sudden, deadly calm of her face.

"It worked, didn't it?

"That doesn't make it right. I'm still gonna kill 'im."

"Stop, Gali. From you...that's not speaking figuratively."

"You don't understand, Casey. He likes to fuck with people...he...he brought me a picture of you with Julia. You were leaving a bar or something...she was putting you in a car. It kinda looked like-"

"I went home with her that night? I...did." She was barely able to get the admission out before her own throat closed in and stopped her breath-- choking off her words, and searing her chest with the gravity of what she was saying, and what it could mean. There it is. Be bright, Honey. Catch what I'm telling you here. Don't make me draw a picture of it for you; I don't want to have to hurt you any more than I already have.

"Yeah, that's exactly what it- You went 'home' with her?" She was tempted to look down at her stomach, sure she would find the handle of a knife sticking out of her belly. Magali couldn't remember anything that had hurt as much. What did you expect, stupid? You're in here. Fuck this, what's mine has always been mine, and no one else can have it. I demand what I want, and take what I need. And...she drew a mental breath. That's what makes her different, don't have to take or demand, she just gives...just because. She needs me now...right now. Don't be a fool, Zee, don't let her down.

Silence, ominous and heart wrenching; she had expected it, and worse. "If you never want to see me again, I'll understand. I just couldn't stand the thought of you trapped in here. Daly made it seem like it would help you get out sooner, and I needed Julia to trust me...with her there's only one way for me-"

"Shh." Magali pressed the tip of a finger to Casey's lips, halting the rapid flow of words that she realized were hurting Casey as much as her. "I don't care what you did...whatever it was, you did it for me." How can I be angry with you? When I fucked three women just because I was pissed at you...pissed at myself. "Casey, I..." Magali gathered her Saint and brought her close. "I can' without you. You're more important to me than anything you've done. It doesn't matter...only you matter."

Casey slumped onto the thin mattress, emptied and overwhelmed. "She figured out who you are to me. Took her long enough, I suck at lying, and she knows when I am."

"You have to stay away from her, Baby." Magali demanded, almost pleading, as she began to pace the small space of floor allowed her. "You don't know what you're in the middle of."

Casey watched her move back and forth, turning sharply after every two steps to take another two steps in the opposite direction. It was like watching a caged tiger at the zoo, and she dared to take the animal by the hand and stop its treading, bringing it face to face with her. "Gali, all I care about is...having you. And I'm not as blind as you think I am. I know about the Gauntlet. I don't know what it is for sure, but I know it has to do with you, and that tattoo on your wrist, and Julia, and...Webster. I know Daly is trying to help you. Okay, maybe not in the best of ways, but it's the lesser of two evils, right? I won't stand by and do nothing."

"You don't understand, Baby. These are bad people, who will stop at nothing to get what they want...and that includes Daly. The price is mine to pay, and I refuse to have you put yourself in danger for me." She tried to reason with her Saint, cupping a cheek with a tender hand, but the turmoil in green eyes told her it would be a hard won victory if her Saint gave in.

"You refuse?" she spat, pulling her face away from Magali's hand. "Gali, I've been in danger since the minute I was born. In danger of dying alone, unwanted, and unneeded, in danger of being ordinary, of never finding love. And if you think I'm going to risk losing the one thing that makes my life uncommon, that gives it meaning...and sets me free, then you are the one who's in 'danger', Magali Guerrerro. And 'you' are the biggest fool I've ever met." Casey poked at her chest as she spoke the last words, hoping she hadn't gone too far.

She didn't have long to wait for her Black Velvet's reaction. "I would give up anything, before I would lose make me more than what I am. You are worth more than me, and should anything ever happen to you...I could never forgive it." Magali fixed her with her eyes, hoping Casey could see beyond her simple words.

"Impossible," Casey deadpanned.

"Huh?" Magali questioned, knitting her brow.

"That anything would happen to me," she clarified, stepping forward into Magali's arms.

Magali raised an eyebrow. "How do you figure that?"

"Because you would never allow it." Casey whispered into her chest.

"Baby, not too long ago you were..."

Casey knew exactly where she was going; she was thinking of Webster. It was unacceptable. "I make my own decisions, Gali. You can't take the blame for everything."

"No one has ever risked anything for one." Magali snuggled into the golden hair of her Saint, breathing in her fragrance and filling herself with it. "Eres, dueña de mi alma-- You own my soul."

"That's good...because I gave you mine a long time ago."

"If you're gonna follow me through hell, then we walk it together."

"Now that I like...I think."

"You're crazy...absolutely crazy, and I love every insane inch of you." She hugged the smaller woman to her, wanting to keep her there as long as possible, to shelter her with flesh and bone, with all that she had. Magali's voice, sweet and low rumbled in her chest and into Casey's hearing. "You have something of mine." Casey looked into the cerulean eyes for the answer to what she could possibly have. They directed her to the crumpled envelope she clutched in her hand and, smiling, she returned it to Magali, taking a firm grasp of the solid body she yearned for every night.

They stood wrapped in each other in comforting silence. Time was fleeting, and there was much left unsaid, but the contact spoke words unuttered in a way that sounds could never relay.

Black Velvet's voice broke the quiet. "You should go, Baby."

"Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"Never," She spoke in a hushed tone, leaning in close to Casey's ear and nipping her neck. She felt the sharp intake of her Saint's breathing, as she brushed her breast with a teasing stroke of her hand, letting her thumb trail behind. Casey couldn't help but arch into her when Magali's hand caressed her back, snaking its way down to cup her ass and pull her closer. A muscled thigh spread her legs open and pushed upwards. A thrill of sensation coursed through her. Heated lips fed off of her own, scorching her with her lover's need. She was lost in the closeness.

"I've missed you, Baby," Magali said, pulling away from Casey. If she continued she would not be able to stop.

"I don't want to leave you here," Casey grieved.

Magali shook her head-- the level of distress was growing, and she hated to see her Saint cry. "You don't know what this has meant to me, but this's not where I want to see you. Bad enough for you to see me here."

Casey nodded; she understood the subtle shame Magali was hiding behind her speech. "One more thing, Daly gave me a message for you." Casey tore a page from her notepad and scribbled a few hasty lines on the paper, then handed it to her. She stepped toward the door and reached for the red button on the speaker; Magali's hand stopped her finger from pressing it.

"I love you, vida mia." Magali voiced, bending as she did to take her Saint's lips one last time. My life. She savored them, not breaking the contact until she pressed the intercom button herself. "Guard! You sonofabitch, I know you can hear me. This lady's done with me." Madre de Dios, I hope that's never true. "I'll see you when I get out."

Casey gave her a weak smile, too close to tears to speak. Magali's message was clear-- she didn't want her visiting again; it was too hard, on both of them. For Casey to see her caged, and for Magali to let her go.

"Step back, Guerrerro," the speaker scratched, and Magali moved away from the door, her eyes locking on Casey's.

Casey turned and walked out, clutching the blank notepad to her chest. Magali swallowed, hard. The sealing of the door was a knife cutting through her, severing her lifeline, and she ran to the window to catch one final look. The flap was shut, and there was only darkness.


Free time...again. Just three more days...three-more-fuckin' days. Magali glanced at the clock on the wall, and shot a look at Smoke, who gave her a brief covert nod. Greenie was braiding her hair with an inadequate comb that bent through Smoke's tight curls, and currently she was pulling on a rather stubborn snag. Smoke had decided not to cut it when Greenie mentioned her love of longer hair. Well, at least I don't have to worry about her; she can stay with Smoke...hopefully. Magali moved up in line and leaned against the wall impatiently. Each prisoner had a time limit of twelve minutes, but with two phones for a hundred women there was always the chance free time would end before everyone had their turn. More fights had been caused over phone time and line skipping than over anything else.

Somehow Magali had managed to keep out of solitary for the extraordinary length of three weeks; most of her sentence had been done while in it. With the work time she had done while out, she had finally accumulated enough credits to use the phone again. One to go...god damn it, hurry the fuck up. Shit, alright relax, Zee. If you start some shit now...Damn, I curse a lot don't I? Gotta stop that shit. Shit!, fuck it. She wiped her forearm across her forehead, her shirt stuck to her, a wet V staining her chest. The woman ahead of her stepped up, yelled a few angry words into the phone and then slammed the handset back into its silver holder.

"Sonofabitch won't bring my goddamn kids...again!" she yelled to no one in particular and stomped away.

Magali shrugged and took her place in front of the battered black box. Hastily she dialed a number and tapped her foot while it rang on the other end. One, two, three...pick the fuck up!

"Yeah?" Eddie barked.

"Havin' a good time without me?" she joked; it was encouraging to hear his voice.

"Zee! Now you fuckin' call, Jesus fu-"

"Shut up Eddie, and listen carefully. I'm in the Hills, I get out in three days, that's Friday. Come get me."

"Yeah, alright, Zee. You know it's about fuckin' time you-"

"See you then, peace," she snapped and hung up, quickly dialing another number, her hand slightly shaking.

"Hello?" Casey answered sleepily.

"Hey, Baby."

There was a moment of silence, and Magali could hear the rustling of the sheets on which she lay. "Gali...God it's good to hear your voice."

"Not half as good as it is to hear yours. Hot enough out there for you?"

"I wouldn't know. I have the air on."

"Ours broke; feels like an oven in here."

" must be really sweaty."

"Hmm? Yeah...looks like I just got out of the shower."

"I love it when you sweat," Casey hissed.

That did it, I think my heart just stopped. "Yeah?" Magali looked around, and cupped her hand over the mouthpiece. "How much?"

"Enough that I want you sweating over me right now."

"Umm, Baby? You're not being nice."

"I don't think you'd say that if you were here."

"Why?" she asked, gulping down hot air.

"Because I think you would love to see what my hand is doing," she whispered, a soft moan trailing her words.

Oh, yeah. Magali turned her back to the women that walked and breathed behind her, and gripped onto the corner of the phone. "What's that?"

"It's just where I need you to be...licking me, kissing me. Biting me." Another moan.

Her knuckles went white and she kicked at the wall with the tip of her boot. "God I need you, Baby."

"Mmmm, and I need you...inside me."

Magali's heart threatened to break out of her chest, she could imagine her Saint wrapped in clean sheets, writhing. "Ba-"

"Maybe...I should just do it for you."

There was a gasp, followed by small moans that grew in intensity. She's gonna kill me, right here. I'm gonna drop dead, and no one will know why.

"Oh, God, Gali...I need you...God, I need you. Right here, fucking me...hard."

She listened to the susurration of sheets, the groans, and cries as she pictured her Saint thrusting her fingers into herself, deeper with every passing second; Casey's taste haunting her lips.

"Please, Gali, tell me, tell me to..."

"Come for me." Magali murmured bewitchingly. The sounds that followed gripped at her, and she squeezed her thighs together; it wasn't enough.

"I love you , Gali," Casey uttered seductively.

"I-" The phone went dead; her time was up, and in turn she too slammed the receiver down, gritting her teeth. Shit. Okay, damn, breathe, you gotta get your head straight. She looked at the clock, fifteen minutes left; it was perfect.

Magali hadn't taken two steps when the fighting broke out behind her. Bodies were piling into the fray, the heat giving fuel to the perpetual anger of the place. She watched an inmate get up and reach into her pocket; everything slowed. Keep your head, keep your head... With just three days left to go, the last thing any short timer would be willing to risk was more time, and she was among those on the threshold of freedom. Magali swallowed the thought down as pain sliced through her, chilling her to the bone and leaving her without breath. The ache spoke to her, telling her the assailant had done her job well. She fell to the ground, Smoke kneeling by her side, clutching the corner of Magali's shirt screaming, "She's hurt. Guards! She's hurt! Somebody stabbed Zero!"

A few, including Greenie, screamed their heads off, others continued fighting until the riot squad arrived and put them to sleep. Throw a little blood onto a concrete floor in a room full of a hundred convicts sitting and fighting in a room at 101-degrees, and there's drama. It wasn't as bad as everyone made it seem. None knew the gash was nothing more than pierced skin, though it was made to look like a serious abdominal wound. She'd take a few stitches and a day in bed and then walk it off. It had to be convincing; the pain was real enough, she hoped the wound would be as well. Magali had clutched her side; pulling the excess skin from her waist was like holding on to a slippery reptile. With a wink she had waited, pinching the skin and pulling just as Smoke took her final step and plunged the jagged makeshift knife into her. The searing pain as the blade came out made her buckle, and she clutched the bleeding wound whispering, "Good job, Smoke. I'll send ya what I promised." Smoke had given her a secret smile and, as she screamed out the danger of the wound, had wiped the bloody handle off on the "victim's" shirt. I should have been an actress, Magali thought as they brought in the stretcher and wheeled her out. Shit, this hurts. Fuck you, Daly. Fuck you big time.

The nurse sliced through the waist of her jeans and cut her shirt off, wiping the blood away with a clump of gauze bandages. Was that necessary you witch? A doctor rushed in, at least someone who was pretending to be a doctor, and clucked over the wound then settled in for his sewing job. He began it before the anesthesia was working. Sonofabitch. Popping through, the hook-like needle punctured the first layer of skin, reappearing in the spongy seam of the wound and looping back in. The pulling of the gut as it went through burned, and she gritted her teeth against it, refusing to make any sound, or flinch. Every stinging bite of the needle brought her closer to strangling the doctor and doing it herself; a guard watched her for any movement, his hand idly on the handle of his gun. As the suturing neared completion, the numbness finally kicked in; a tear of sweat ran down her cheek.

When it was done, the doctor pulled a sheet over her and dumped two aspirins in her hand. The nurse came back with a small cup of water and, wincing, Magali sat up and drank it all down. She would wait for the lights to be turned down low to play out the rest of her plan. So far, so good. At least Smoke didn't hit any organs, but hey, it'll make a nice scar. Maybe I'll get a tat there. She was left alone feeling like a product on a factory conveyor belt, zip, zap, plunge, you're done. The medical staff returned to their files and coffee; she kept an eye on them. Gotta see where they keep those files.

Magali shut her eyes. It was quiet in the infirmary and somehow the air conditioning was working just fine in that section of the prison. She thought of Casey, of her conversation with her, and scowled knowing she wouldn't have the chance to take care of the burning need left from the call. Soon...real soon. Casey's visit weeks before, although agonizingly short, had been enough to maintain her sanity. Until today, she hadn't had any communication with her since then, but hearing her voice and knowing she was safe gave her a measure of undeserved peace.

When she opened her eyes again, it was dark; her side was sore, and her throat was an endless desert. The air was off, and a trickle of sweat was stinging at her stitches. Figures, the staff is gone. Sitting alone in his chair was the night guard. The infirmary only ever used one under the supposition that the sick of the prison were in no condition to do much, other than lie still. They hadn't restrained her; it was a fortunate detail she had hoped for. An open window above her head let in the night air, warm across her bare body. They hadn't bothered to clothe her either. She sat up and flung her long legs over the side of the bed. Let's tease the guard. She crossed her arms in front of her naked chest and walked to the window separating her from the guard. She wore nothing other than her blood stained jeans and the bandage covering her wound; it was all she needed to get his attention.

"I need your help," she husked in a silky voice.

"Wha..what, do you need?" he responded, gawking at her.

"Water...just have to wet my lips."

"That's all? I that."

"Ah ah, pain killers, I need some more of those, too." Purposefully she dropped one hand to touch her bandage, and the guard got a peek at what she had been concealing.

"Ummm, I don't know where they are. The doctor...he ...didn't leave me a note about you or anything." He was fumbling, nearly knocking over the cup of coffee on his desk.

"I can show you, I know...where you need to get into, and make me feel all better." You stupid fuck.

He looked her over, leering as he did. "And why would I want to do anything to help you?

She let her gaze drop to his crotch; then looking him in the eye and baring both breasts, teasingly uttered "Because helping others can bring you such deep satisfaction."

He smiled, and got up straightening his belt, then reached over to open the door for her. Her long legs carried her into the room in two easy steps, right up to inches away from him. She could smell the coffee on his breath.

"So what is it you want me to do, again?" he queried with a lustful sneer, his hands resting on her waist.

" go to sleep," she growled head butting him hard enough to knock him out. He fell hard to the floor at her feet, and she shrugged. "Minute man."

Everything was locked, and she had to use a paper clip to unlock the cabinet with the files. She leafed through the folders until she found the one she was looking for. Magali took a quick look out into the infirmary to make sure no one was coming and turned on the Xerox machine. It took forever to heat up; when it did she loaded the papers onto it quickly, making a single copy of each. She made twenty different facsimiles of prenatal records, each for a different inmate, and then shut off the machine. On the desk she found a stack of manila envelopes, scratched her address onto the surface of one with the guard's pen, then shoved the copies into it. The prison was old, and a slot in the wall sent all out-going mail through a chute down into the mailroom. There the envelope would be stamped and sent off. She was about to walk out when the idea of playing a cruel joke on the guard occurred to her. She stooped, hooked her arms under his and, popping a stitch, slung him back onto his chair. Conveniently, his head hit the desk and he looked as if he were asleep on the job. Carefully she did away with any evidence of her ever having been in the room and re-entered the restraint area, closing the door behind her. The white of the bandage was turning red, but not enough for her to worry about, and as is, she returned to her bed, chuckling. He'll never admit to what happened.

Morning filled the infirmary with noisy staff who teased the sleeping guard. "Hey, Ted. You're lucky she didn't kill you in your sleep! New guys, you just don't get it. Think these women are harmless just cause they're women?" Magali gave him a wink and turned over; he glowered at her and stomped out. "Idiot!" a nurse called after him. Magali snickered under the sheets and went back to sleep.


Her first breath took in the scents of freshly cut grass and damp earth after the night's rains. A cloudless sky allowed the beaming sun's rays to beat down on the dark fabric of the suit she wore. It was made of a heavy winter material, best suited for the arctic-like weather she had left behind with her freedom for six months of captivity. An envelope in her hand held two hundred dollars, the "gate money" all prisoners received when released. In all there were ten women who were tasting liberty that day, and they lined up to file out of the gates of hell and into purgatory. Most would climb a bus that would take them to the nearest train station. From there they would make their way back to the city or where ever else they had come from. Back to dealers and junkie friends, abusive boyfriends and children dispersed by social services into the arms of foster families. Magali was lucky; her family waited intact just outside the gates.

In one raucous wave of sound, ten Ninja cycles, parked in one neat row, gunned their engines as she walked out past the gates. At the front, its soft-top on, was her Jeep with a grinning Eddie sitting on the hood. He slid off with a neat bounce and strolled towards her, holding an open box in his hand.

"Welcome back, boss. Here." He held the box in front of her and she gave him a leering smirk. In it were her necklace, ring and the silver stud she wore in her tongue. She didn't waste any time, donning them right away, replacing the clear plastic plug in her tongue with the real thing.

"Good to be back, Eddie. But please tell me you bought me some clothes, man. I'm gonna suffocate in this monkey suit."

"They're in the Jeep with-" he began when he was interrupted by a flying mass of tanned skin and brown hair.

Callie, wearing little else but a pair of skimpy leather shorts, thigh high boots and a tank top with no bra, wrapped her arms around Magali's neck. Her hardened nipples showed through the thin fabric, and she hugged Magali with all her strength, giving her a fast heated kiss on her lips. Callie scowled as Magali pushed her away and a door slammed shut with a loud thud. Blue eyes turned towards the direction of the noise to take in the sight of one angry blonde standing next to the Jeep.

Long tresses of golden hair, tinged with red, flowed from under a neatly folded and tied bandana. The glower Casey projected was cutting, even behind the dark lenses of the shades she wore. Magali swallowed at the sight of her Saint. Shoulders and sculpted midriff bare, the curve of her breasts alluring over the yellow cut of a string bikini top. Baggy jeans fell midway down her hips, exposing the thin strips of a yellow thong, and bunching on the tops of suede Timberland boots. Glimmering from her navel, on a silver hoop, was the gold letter Z that usually hung off the rearview mirror of the jeep.

"-with Casey." Eddie finally finished, glaring at Callie.

With the back of her hand Magali pushed Callie to the side and sauntered towards her Saint. Damn. She must have left her lungs somewhere, because somehow, breathing was forgotten as she placed her hands on the warm skin of Casey's waist and drew her near.

"Hi, Honey," Casey uttered seductively, licking Magali's lips, sure the brown-haired menace was watching.

"Mmmm, not that I'm complaining. But why are you dressed like this?"

"The weather channel said it would get hot today sometime after noon, and here you are...afternoon. Let's get you out of these clothes," she murmured, opening the Jeep door and climbing in as she pulled Magali inside with her.

Without a word, her Saint's hands were stripping her; her lips coating her skin with wet, hot kisses; her tongue licking the deep lines of her shoulder muscles and abs. Casey reached into the back seat and produced a clean black T-shirt and light, pleated rayon dress pants. She pulled them over her, completing her Black Velvet's ensemble with a golden buckled belt and her favorite boots. The sleeves of the shirt were snug over her biceps, pumped as they were through the highly nutritious food of the prison and the innumerable pushups Magali had forced on herself. The golden chain and medallion around her neck shone against her chest, and she kept the crucifix of her rosary safely under the fabric and close to her skin. Casey reached up and undid the straps of the soft-top, throwing it back to dissect the Jeep and expose them to the sky and sun. Eddie was waiting, her knife in his hand held out to her. Stealing a look towards the prison, she quickly tookit, and stuffed it into her boot.

Casey climbed onto her lap and ground into her once then slipped into the passenger seat, whispering in her ear as she did "Let's get out of here." Eddie climbed into the back seat and Magali stood up, waving to the riders and taking her seat behind the steering wheel. It was good to be free.

They took off, the wind cool and sweet, as the bikes hummed from behind. A few, Callie at their head, raced in front to form a multi-colored escort for the mistress of the underworld. As she passed, Callie blew Magali a kiss, and raising her ass high in the air-showing off the perfect curved-T rearview of her shorts-swerved into the lane. Casey growled from her seat, and Eddie shook his head.

The feel of the road under her and the warmth of the sun on her shoulders broke small cracks into the fortress walls with which she guarded herself. They melted through the steel web of indifference that cloaked her, and she couldn't help but smile. Casey's hand on her knee began to roam towards her inner thigh, rubbing her skin through the airy material of her pants. Blood rushed to all the right places. Up ahead, Callie continued to perform, swerving in and out of the highway lanes, while the others maintained their quasi-military ranks. She pulled up the back of her tank-top and exposed the newly inked design at the curve of her back. Swirling waves of rainbow colors knotted around one thick, scripted letter "Z". She slowed, bringing herself up next to Magali on the driver's side.

"Like it? Something for you to look at, Zee...when you ride." Callie yelled with a growl and an evil grin over the roaring of the engine between her thighs.

Casey's hand left her leg and opened the glove compartment; Magali's hands froze to the wheel.

"Do it, Casey!" Eddie barked enthusiastically from the back seat, as Casey sneered.

Glimmering streaks of sunlight shone from the weapon in Casey's grip, and Callie raced off. Magali's hands refused to let go of the wheel, her foot, as if controlled by another force, increased its pressure on the gas pedal. Casey stood up holding onto the edge of the windshield and extended her arm.

"No, Casey, no!" Magali cried into the gushing air.

Sparks flew with the sounds of short thunder, and Magali cringed as a splattering of bone and gore hit the windshield and sprinkled her face and arms. Casey sat back down, a satisfied smirk on her face. She leaned close to Magali, replacing her hand, still holding the gun, on the dark woman's thigh. Magali could feel the burn of the weapon's heat.

"What's the matter, Honey? Don't you like me like this? It's what you've made of me, what you've taught me," she sneered. "I'm a part of your life now...a part of you," Casey husked lustily, giving Magali's neck a lick from collar to jaw.

Casey's dark laughter echoed and twisted, growing fainter until she opened her eyes to the sight of a smiling nurse. The sheets were damp with her sweat.

"Well...he hasn't been back in two nights. Must have requested another station...since we caught him sleeping that morning," she finished as she caught the blue of Magali's open eyes. "Good morning, it's a beautiful day, Guerrerro. You're leaving us in just a few hours...for good I hope."

"Not just yet, Lilly. She's got a visitor." A guard interrupted, holding a long set of manacles in his hands.

"You can't put those on her, she has an injury at her waist," the nurse protested.

"The hell if I care...these go on whether they hurt or not. No way am I endangering Christopher Winslow himself."

"I can refuse visitors, you know?" Magali sneered from her bed as she sat up.

"Not this one, you can't. Up on your feet, 0329, hands behind your head," he demanded, tapping his billy club against his leg.

Grudgingly she got up and did as she was told. Last day..last time, last bid, I swear it.

Christopher Winslow waited for her alone; unlike his wife, he made no requests to have her chains loosed. Captive, she bored into him with unblinking eyes that, if they could have, would have struck him dead, unflinchingly. It was the same room in which she had met with both Julia and Daly; the view was the same through the window, though she doubted any room made a difference. Third time's a charm, she thought as she assessed him. His chin was of the strong sort, dented subtly with a crooked cleft, and clean-shaven. His clothes were expensive and austere, the kind a politician wore when he was preaching about family values while having a torrid affair with his aide. Christopher's dark hair was slicked back, and the green of his eyes gave him an otherworldly appearance. But his hands betrayed him. As manicured as they were, his were hands that had seen hard times; and the light scar nearly hidden by his eyebrow marked him in her eyes as one of her own. You can hide it, but I see the rough-neck in you. He made a point of playing with his watch, furtively giving her a look at the tattoo on the inside of his wrist. While hers was of a closed fist, his was an open hand; the officers Magali dealt with had theirs with only the pinky and ring fingers closed.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Magali Guerrerro...Bajo Zero," he said, bowing his head slightly.

"I'd say the same...Christopher Winslow. But I take my pleasures at my own leisure, not on demand."

He smiled then and gave the guards a nod. They promptly left the room. Magali didn't take her eyes off of him.

"You plan on making this difficult?" he hissed arrogantly. "I can destroy you with a word."

"Not before I could squeeze the life out of you," she said nonchalantly, raising her eyebrow and pressing down on the booted foot she had placed at his crotch, unseen under the table. "I'm tall...they have to use longer chains on me. Somehow when I sit, I have much more room to move." She shrugged. "Threats with me will get you nothing but a shorter life span."

"Mmmm, yes I forget. How stupid of me. You kill children for sport, don't you? Or is that only when they're related to you? Hmmm?"

She had known it was coming when he mentioned children, and had prepared for it. "There's nothing you can do to me, Winslow, that hasn't already been done. You want me on your side? This 'I'm the big man on campus' routine is old. Try to remember who you're talking to. In here," she pointed to the walls, "you might have some sway, but out there?" she smiled gazing at the window. "I have hundreds like you who depend on my largesse for their...endeavors. To them, you're a little fish swimming where you shouldn't. You have to get through them to get to me. I, on the other hand...I'm the shark," she finished, narrowing her eyes.

"Well, spoken...shark. Please pardon the expression, but I do have another card to throw on the table...before you go biting my leg off or something." he said, brushing his pants leg with his hand.

She decided she didn't like his smile at all, it was akin to a hyena looking over a carcass, and it widened as he crooked a finger motioning to the door behind him. It opened painfully slowly, the sounds of the office just beyond its frame filtering into the room. The man who walked in brought the bile taste of her rage floating to the surface. If it weren't for the brown of his eyes and the angle of his nose, he would have been the spitting image of her. Regal in his dark-blue suit, and with the same confident gait that came naturally to her bloodline, he floated in.

"You know my new assistant, don't you? He has a brilliant legal career ahead of him...and enough goods on you to put you, and your whole posse in here for life...or death." He shrugged, then narrowing his eyes spat out the rest. "That includes your little bitch, Casey."

"Efrain." She sat back, clutching the chains at her waist, and lifting her chin. A mountain was crumbling above her, smothering her every route of escape. He was her older brother, arrogant and educated thanks to the blood she had shed, some hers and some not. Efrain had watched her snap the neck of their younger brother, Jorge when, in the throes of withdrawal, he had chased his elder brother to the roof of their apartment's building. He had never forgiven her for it, and because of that, she had agreed to her father's proposal that the young man be educated. "Move the family the Kennedys," her father had said. She hadn't cared about that at all, just getting the boy --and the looks he gave her-- as far away as possible was enough of a motive. Not a day passed that looking at him didn't conjure up the dead stare on Jorge's face when she was done with him.

"Anthony, Zee."

"Anthony? Last I checked it was givin' that up too...bro'?" she asked, cocking her head.

"Pay attention, Zee. This is important. Mister Winslow is giving you one hell of an opportunity."

"You mean he's giving you an opportunity." She didn't want to look at him, but the steel of her eyes had the effect she desired on her brother and he wavered momentarily.

"No. He's giving our family a chance to get out of the mud and it all starts with me, Zee. The American dream. Look at you...look at the chains around you, Magali. You're a necessary evil, nothing more. You're not going to live long, and you know it. It comes with the territory. You, Eddie, Callie...all of you are living on borrowed time. The future is here. Now you either let what's left of our family stop wallowing in the shit you put us in, or..."

"What family, Efrain? There's only you, you sonofabitch. Haven't you gotten enough?" she yelled, the frayed ends of her tattered and bloody memories of what "family" meant rubbing her raw.

Anthony leaned in close to her ear, pausing for a breath before he spoke. "Eddie and Mariana won't be able to take care of her forever, Magali. Eddie will inevitably die by your side in one of your 'excursions.' Mariana will blame you, and then...How long do you think Mariana will stand looking at the image of her husband's killer, before she gets rid of her?"

She held onto the air in her lungs, a hot poker gutting her. "What do you want, Winslow?"

Again she was favored with his smile. "I think you and I...are gonna make a shit load of money. But more about that in...a more suitable location." His accent slipped.

Part 8

Eddie loved the smell of her Jeep, with all its leather and gadgets, and the smooth coolness of the skull-shaped gear knob. Mariana wouldn't let him have anything fancy, or 'macho' --the way he thought about it. She said it would attract too much attention, and whatever it was he wanted wasn't suitable for a family. She was right; she was always right. She told him time after time that Hispanic men were like peacocks-- they needed beautiful feathers, but only when they were without a mate. He had one, so no feathers for him. His son Enrique, on the other hand, was already accumulating his own set, asking for a ring and a gold bracelet to wear. "Like yours, Papi," the kid chimed. He glanced at his wrist-- a rather large medallion linking two parallel gold chains hung there, and he thumbed the raised figure of the saint on the golden plaque. It was the patron saint of Cuba--La Caridad, the same holy mother Magali had etched into the skin of her back. The bracelet had been a gift from Bajo Zero, a badge of allegiance; and it was his. "Nope, Enrique, you can't have one like this...not you, son...not ever," Eddie said to himself. Everyone knew he was Puerto Rican, and it made little sense for him to wear La Caridad; it should have been Saint Barbara, but he wore it with pride, his public link to Zero.

He had thumbed through the collection of CDs as he waited outside the prison gates, rain battering the windows and hood of the Jeep. Magali had a motley collection of music in a small case under the seat; some of them he knew-- they were Rap. The rest were all angry pieces of everything from Metallica to Tracy Chapman. He chose the Chapman CD; it was the mellowest of them all. It had been six long months since he had last seen his friend, speaking to her on only two occasions, and the last had been surprisingly brief. She hadn't given him the chance to tell her about Casey, or Shy and Violet.

For weeks he had Nelson follow the woman who occupied a corner of Zero's life; the news hadn't been good. To top it all off, both Shy and Violet had been killed. He had an idea of who had shot them, but thought it best for Zero to handle it. It hurt him to think of how relieved he was at Magali's release, moreso because the burden of ruling the unpredictable streets would once again fall on her shoulders. He would be free to go back to his family; they hadn't seen enough of him.

Tracy's low, dulcet voice sang out between the pattering of rain and the rumble of distant thunder. "Two weeks in a Virginia Jail...for my lover, for my lover. 20,000 dollar bail...for my lover, for my lover. Everyday I'm psychoanalyzed...for my lover, for my lover. They dope me up and I tell them lies...for my lover, for my lover. Everybody thinks I'm the fool...they don't get...any love from you. Things we won't do for love. Climb a mountain if I had to...risk my life so I could have, you, you..." Eddie tried, throwing his head back, straining his vocal cords to match her notes, but his voice was best for yelling, not singing.

"Two weeks-", the door was swung open violently and his throat seized by a familiarly strong hand. Damn, was I that bad? "Hey, Zee," he choked out, "nice to-"

"How'd he find out, motherfucker? How'd Efrain find out about her?" Her voice was filled with panic and rage, her eyes wild as she pushed him out of the driver's seat, and he landed on the Jeep's floor, the gearshift painfully banging into his knee. She was above him, her hands squeezing, cutting off his air.

"Wh-o?" His fear grew. He knew from experience what being locked up did to Magali. If she was feral before, she would be brutal after, and she wasn't showing any signs of playfulness.

"Alejandra! How does he know about her, Eddie?" She gave him a shove and let go of his neck, throwing her weight against the back of the driver's seat as she sat.

"Alejandra? Shit, Zee. Nobody...knows know that. Just me, Mariana and...Callie..." he said catching his breath and rubbing the red marks left by Magali's hands.

She turned the music off and, with her voice lowering to a sad whisper, spoke. "Efrain knows...You gotta disappear with her, Eddie. Get you and your family out of New York. Go anywhere, and don't tell anyone...not even me."

"But, Zee..." he protested, a ten year old once again. He had spent two decades being Magali's shadow, running where she ran, playing what she played, watching her back when she fought. He had seen her at her worst, and at her best. She was as close to a sister as he had ever had. A sister who had saved his life more times than he could remember.

"No buts, Eddie. Don't you get it, bro'?" She punched at the dashboard with every word. "! You, Casey, Alejandra, Callie...Jorge."

"That's what this is all about? Jorge? He was a junkie, Zee-" The force of the blow made his head swim, blood pouring from his lip.

"Shut up, Eddie. You're not listening to me, goddamn it. Just get your wife, get, and leave me the fuck alone! Understand? I'm taking you home, Eddie, then I never want to see your fuckin' face again. Got it? I do...and I'll kill you myself."

He was covering his mouth with his hand, a red trickle dripping from his chin, his eyes wide. He swallowed and wiped at the blood with his forearm, cleared his face of emotion and nodded. "Whatever you say...boss." Who's gonna watch your back? Who's gonna be there to catch you before you slam right into the grim reaper on purpose? Who's gonna drive you home cause you're too fuckin' stoned to walk and you haven't slept in days? Not Casey, man, she's playin' games. Not your father, not Moreno...

She wanted to rip the world to shreds, stack it high into a pyre and set it aflame; maybe it would bring her some warmth. She skidded off, wanting with a fiery urgency to be away from the eclipse of the prison, and the resonance of Efrain's words ringing in her ears. She peered down at her side, feeling a sudden tepidness crawling down her skin. The white T-shirt she had been given to leave in, along with the used jeans donated for released prisoners, were stained red. Another fucking stitch...fuck it. The rain came down in torrents, tapering off and then pouring in hard sheets. A fierce wind blew, first in one direction then another, causing the Jeep to swerve. Magali kept her mind on steering. If she focused hard enough, the reality of what she was doing faded. Deliberately, and with her heart torn in two, she was pushing away her dearest, closest friend. She had scarcely ever shown him any affection, unless the constant slapping of his neck could be considered fondness. She had only ever dragged him through the dark passages of her life, and he had followed without complaint. I won't lose you too, bro'. And Alejandra will not be another me. I didn't go through all of that shit for nothin'. She turned up the volume to an ear piercing level and blocked out the silhouette of Eddie, sitting quietly, his eyes straight ahead.


"Choose for your life...tonight the riots the back streets of America...they kill the dream of America." Tracy sang on.


The screaming of brakes reached to the rooftops and shook the guards standing watch. They ran for the edge to peer over, the black, armored Jeep they had awaited erupting suddenly out of the mists. Drenched, they cheered an inaudible chant through the wailing wind. Bajo Zero was back. They watched her slam the door and stomp up the front steps, Callie would be waiting for her in the lobby. She had been there all day.

As threatened, she had left Eddie at his door and sped off without so much as a look back. It's better this way; it is. In the lobby, Callie stood from her seat on the first step of the stairway, brushing the dust off her backside as she did.

"Welcome back, Zee," she said cheerily.

Magali grunted; walking past her, then stopping abruptly she grabbed her wrist and dragged her up the stairs with her. On the fourth flight up, the dark woman halted her ascent and looked her in the eyes. Her mouth opened to speak and then, just as suddenly, closed with a shake of her head.

"Get my books, Callie, and meet me upstairs," she commanded, dropping the girl's wrist.

The smell of urine and burnt food greeted her-- the smells of home, stale, stinking, home. Some believed the world stood still in their absence; Magali knew it for a fact. Nothing changed; it was all as she had left it, waiting for her return. Eddie had left all the possessions she had cached with him in a plastic bag on his seat; jeweled and armed, Bajo Zero turned the knob of her 'office' door. It didn't give way immediately, and she shoved at it with her shoulder. The bang of the door as it hit the wall made those inside scurry like rats abandoning ship.

"Who the fuck left the door unlocked?" she barked.

" was locked, Zero," came a small voice from behind the dilapidated sofa.

She turned back to the door and inspected its edge, splintered and cracked where the lock had been. "There are three locks on this fuckin' door. You idiots only had one locked? Somebody better fix that shit before I leave here." Scurry, scurry... She pulled the gun from her holster and slapped it onto the table, her hand resting on it. "Bring me all my money,!" Scurry, scurry...boys went running in all directions, half glad she was back, but mostly scared to death. Anger rolled off her body in tangible waves, searing through anyone close to her.

"Zee, are you hurt?" Callie queried as meekly as she could, a stack of notebooks in her arms.

"What?" Magali had forgotten the stain of blood on her shirt, reddish-brown after drying. "If I needed you to play nurse, Callie, I'd tell you to. This shit is nothing...did you bring me my books?"

Callie nodded, afraid to say the wrong thing, or to even look into the chips of ice that were drilling into her. She hung her head and laid the stack of notebooks she carried on the couch. In one long stride Magali was inches from her, gripping the collar of her T-shirt and throwing her against the wall. Her back hit the surface with a resounding thud; such was the force that her head was flung back painfully. Magali took a deep breath, her lips inches away from Callie's ear.

"I know what you've been doing," she hissed into the younger woman's ear.

"No, Zee, I swear, I haven''s a lie, I wasn't, please, Zee. I swear, I wasn't getting high. I swear."

"Liar!" she screamed, throwing all her force into a backhanded slap across Callie's face. "Get out of my sight, Callie. Never, ever...set foot in my presence again." Her voice was cold and seething, and she wiped the blood from the girl's cheek on her pants, the ring she wore doing its damage. A troop filed in, some carrying small duffel bags. She reached into one and produced a fist-sized roll of money. For a brief moment she looked at it silently then, leering, threw it at a cowering Callie. Run, Callie. Just run as fast as you can, kid. "Take this and get out!"

Callie picked herself off of the floor and, crying, ran out through the broken door.

"Start counting, boys. Quickly...and it better be right."

Fumbling and with shaking hands, the boys began to pile the rolls of money onto the table. One, close to tears, clenched a tight blunt between his teeth. Magali snatched it away, re-lit the rolled weed in its skin of tobacco, and leaned against the window frame deeply inhaling the pungent smoke. She closed her eyes for an instant, feeling the gripping tear of steel talons ripping her insides apart, and exhaled.


Casey sat by the computer playing one of the various games Magali owned, but never had the time to play. Her mind wandered, occasionally focusing on the fourth failed final she had discarded on the coffee table. Julia had called, repeatedly, and Casey was grateful for the answering machine that allowed her to screen the calls. Devi slept peacefully by the door, sometimes lifting and tilting her head; she was expecting her mistress. But then, she had expected her for every night since the woman had left. The phone rang. She made no move towards it but, leaning her head on her hand, listened.

Beep. "Zee, come on, man. Don't do this...I know you're there, you have to be there...Zee please...god-damn-it. Magali, please, you just can't-"

She's not with him? Almost tripping over the upturned corner of an area rug, Casey ran for the phone, picking it up just as Eddie issued another plea for Magali.

"Eddie, she's not with you? Why isn't she with you? Where-"

"Enough already, Casey...damn. No, she isn't with me...alright? Not that you would fuckin' care anyway-" he mumbled.

"What?" she cried, disbelieving what she was hearing. "What the hell's wrong with you? Have you lost your mind? How can you say that?"

"Me? Me, lost my mind? I don't think're the one who's fuckin' crazy! Goin' out with that rich bitch who fuckin' beats the shit out of you...and Zee getting' her ass kicked in the pen 'cause of a fuckin' rosary you gave her-that shit's cursed, man. I-"

Casey paced the room, clutching the phone in her hand hard against her ear. Shit, he knows about Julia, how the hell-Nelson, that little fuck. They don't know what's going on...Gali knows, shit, shit, I must look like... "Eddie,'s not what you think it is. Please, just calm down. Tell me what happened," she implored.

"Why should I?"

His voice was bitter and angry, and Casey could imagine the tightened features of his face as he spoke.

"Because, Eddie, I love her me." The idea occurred to her that with someone like Eddie, things were best expressed in person.


"Meet with me, right now, I'll come to wherever you are...I'll explain it all, and then if you don't believe me...think what you want." Gali trusts him; she's trusted him almost all her life.

After a moment of silence, Eddie's voice, calmer but shaken spoke, "Fine, corner of one-fifty-six, twenty minutes," and then the line went dead.

She needed to know where Magali was. The plan had been for Eddie to pick her up in the morning, while Casey finished her shift at work and then bring her home. Apparently something had gone wrong, and with Eddie's suspicions flaring out at her, it was critical that she found out what it was. She didn't bother to change out of her shorts, but with the weather being as unpredictable as it had been, she grabbed a sweatshirt and headed out. Casey took the elevator down to the garage where her yellow Beetle was parked next to the now empty space where Magali kept her Jeep. Normally she wouldn't drive anywhere in the city unless she was in a bind; the traffic made her nervous behind the wheel.


Seven o'clock in the evening, and the sun was still out. It was summer, and although the suffocating heat of the city had not completely settled in yet, it threatened. Concrete made for a perfect oven, the humidity of the northern East Coast an added annoyance. Magali loved the light of the sun, it had a way of softening her life's ordeals, much like Casey's love did. When night floated in, soft and cooling, and the heat of the day still boiled in the blood, the streets would run red. Her world would snake out from the cracks in the sidewalk, the bends of alleyways, and the shadows of tenement building lobbies. Through it all, this time, Casey would remain, bringing the sunlight with her.

Magali turned the volume of the radio down as the Jeep rumbled into the underground garage. There was a subtle murmur coming from the engine that wasn't there before she had left; only her ears would have picked it up, so familiar was she with the sounds of her iron stallion. She turned into her parking spot, something she could probably do blindfolded if she wanted to. Immediately she noticed the empty space where Casey's beetle should have been. At first it gave her a start, memories of finding an empty apartment suddenly haunting her. She had gone looking for Casey, sneaking down the fire escape of the woman's building to take a peek through her window. Instead of finding her asleep, she had found a broken window and evidence of a struggle. It had been then that Webster had gotten his grimy hands on her Saint, and the deal had begun. Her bargain with the Gauntlet- Webster's life in exchange for unleashing hell on Brooklyn.

She rode the elevator up, its glide augmenting the lightheadedness left by smoking more weed then her body had been ready for after six months of abstinence. The mirrored wall gave her the first full view of herself she had had in months. She looked a fright; the meager clothing she had left the prison in was blood stained and disheveled-- her jewelry glimmering in sharp contrast. Impatient and anxious in the confining space of the elevator, she twirled her keys; they jangled like miniature chains.

Opening the door, she expected the massive push of muscles leaping up at her; nevertheless, the weight of Devi pouncing sent her a step back. She kicked the door closed and wrapped her arms around the frantic dog, who roughly squirmed to get at her face with a stream of slobbery licks. They ended up wrestling on the floor. Magali soon gave up and lying, on the floor, let Devi have a go at her.

"Hey, baby girl; yeah, I missed you, too," she said in between licks and playful nips. "How many of my shoes did you go through, huh? Have you been good? I'll have to skin you if you haven't been?"

"It was a joke, Devi!" she screamed as Devi ran off into the bedroom, coming back at a light canter, a rope hanging from her mouth.

"What's this?" she asked, taking hold of one end of the new toy. "Casey's been spoiling you I see...lucky girl." She chuckled as Devi jerked her body back in a display of gentle strength; the force pulled Magali a few inches along the smooth wood of the hallway floor before she let go of the rope. Devi's body control prevented her from crashing backwards, and she lunged at Magali once again. Anticipating the jump, she sat up quickly, and Devi missed her by a few inches. Undaunted, Devi jumped again and, as Magali caught her in mid-air, the phone began its torturous ringing. She shrugged at Devi, whose face was inches away from Magali's, panting, her tongue lolling from the side of her mouth. "Here we go, Devi. Same shit, different day."

Magali pushed herself up from the floor and went in search of the phone, finding it on the last ring before the answering machine would have picked up.

"Yeah?" she snapped, slumping into the couch.

"I see you made it out alright."

"Julia Winslow," she sung in mock surprise. "How the hell did you get my number?" The laughter coming from the other end was annoying her.

"How else did you expect for me to maintain contact with Casey?"

"I don't," she deadpanned, drumming her fingers on the arm of the couch. "Stay away from her."

"My, my, aren't we protective? You know, it isn't me you should protect her from."

No? You're just one on a long list, bitch. "Meaning?"

"You do far more damage than I ever could. Has she told you?"

She told me lots of things, and you're treading on really thin ice. "Told me what?"

"Well, I was calling to find out how her classes had turned out. Do you even ask her? It's her dream, you be a doctor. Last I heard...she was failing them all. I guess she's been a bit preoccupied...with you." Julia was being casual, a tactic she thought would annoy the dark woman; she thought correctly.

Magali's eyes fell on the coffee table, a blue book she recognized as an exam glaring at her, its red marked "F" circled on its cover. "Like you haven't been a nuisance yourself."

"Oh, you're right. I've taken her__time__ on occasion. was because of me that she got this far to begin with. Where are you taking her?"

"Wherever she wants to go." Magali flipped her a bird. "This conversation's over. You want contact with Casey? I suggest you try telepathy." Magali pressed the call button on the phone and cut off the call; tempted to throw the thing across the room, she placed it gently on the table and picked up Casey's exam. She leafed through it, the tight script showing anxiety in comparison to the loops on the letter she had received from the blonde. "Damn, Baby."


It was a long trip back from Coney Island on the D train; he knew that's where Mariana had taken the kids, and it would be late when they returned. For hours he had sat in his Lazy Boy flipping through the hundred satellite channels that never seemed to have anything good on to watch, brooding. His jaw ached from the blow he had taken from Magali, but it was his chest that burned with sadness and betrayal. Years of struggle and friendship cast away in an unreasonable moment of fury, and he grappled with the cause of it. Three years of keeping her secret, three years of loving Alejandra. He had never found out who the father was, he didn't care. It had been a small slip that had inadvertently allowed him to discover her condition, when he had given her a hug after winning a bet he had placed on the Knicks. A father himself, there had been no mistaking the swell of her abdomen under the large sweatshirt she wore. For reasons she had not fully explained to him, either, she had thought her stay in prison had rendered her sterile. Out of fear, she confessed her body's deception to him in secret. For months before Alejandra's birth, he silently watched Magali carefully hide her pregnancy, never changing her behavior, although the woman had stopped taking any drugs and drinking. When the day finally came for her delivery, he had been left alone to tend to her. In a panic, he called on the one person he could trust with Magali's well-being-Callie. Together, on the dirty floor of a bathroom, they had delivered Alejandra, screaming, into the world.

After running through the scenario in his head numerous times, he decided he wouldn't be able to figure out how Efrain had found out; and no matter how stubborn Magali was in her decision not to see him again, it was something they would have to reason out together. When Casey picked up the phone, he had to stop himself from immediately hanging up. He wasn't happy with her; he knew what she was doing while Magali was away. Nelson had told him many things; the whip marks on her back had told him more. Magali goes and fucks women to kill whatever she's feeling; you, you do it so you can feel, he had thought when Casey's voice filtered in through the phone line. But when she offered to meet him, it had given him a moment's pause. No better way to get to Zee than through her.

The door opened as he was about to leave, having just finished his yelling match with Casey. Marianna dragged in the odors of the beach, salt air, oil and sunshine. He was about to greet her when her wide eyes and her white knuckled clutching of their children's hands warned him. Too late he reached for his gun.

"Don't even think about it, you sonofabitch. You know better than anyone else how quick my trigger finger is," Callie growled, holding the barrel of a nickel-plated .22, a weapon of execution, inches from Mariana's head.

Eddie held his hands up, away from the butt of the gun tucked into the front of his pants. "Let my family go, Callie. Please, they're all I have."

Callie gave Mariana a push from behind, and leered. "Get you and your brats into the bedroom, this is between me and your fuck-up husband. You come out, and I won't think twice about addin' a few more orphans to my count."

Mariana swallowed; tears running down her face, she took a long look at Eddie and quickly walked into the bedroom. Enrique was shaking; Alejandra, her thumb in her mouth, calmly took in the scene with innocent, blue eyes.

"Why'd you tell her, Eddie? You knew what she would do if I got high again! Tell me why!" Callie yelled, her voice shaking.

Oh boy, psycho on the warpath. Think, dummy..."She threw you away too, didn't she? Yeah, I know it hurts, like you just lost everything, right? Look at my face, Callie. She said she would kill me if she ever saw me again."

Reluctantly Callie lowered the gun she had been pointing at him. "She said that to you?"

Eddie nodded and took a step closer to her. "Efrain found out about Alejandra. I don't know how, but I think she's blaming us."

"Alejandra? But how? We're the only ones who know, man." The spark of her insanity flashed in her eyes, and she brought the gun back up. "You didn't tell her? You didn't say shit about me-"

"No. She cares about you, Callie. Telling her how you kill yourself a little at a time drives her nuts. And the last thing I wanna do is hurt her. That's what you don't get, kid. What you do to yourself, destroys her. You think she doesn't blame herself for what became of Jorge, what almost became of you? God damn, Callie, she sells drugs from here to Florida, and she beats the shit out of you if you take just a little! Why do you think that is?"

Finally, Callie's gun dropped away into its hiding place, and the girl squatted on the floor, hugging herself. "I'm sorry, Eddie. The kids...God, I'm sorry-" The slap of his open hand, large enough to cover her face, threw her to the ground; it didn't hurt half as much as the one she had received from Magali.

Eddie crouched down next to her, stroking her hair. "My the most precious thing in my life, and as much as I can't stand've been a part of it. It's the only thing keeping me from killing you right now. Both you and I...lost something we care about today. Work with me, and we get her back, or slink into some corner and shoot your veins with enough shit to end it all. But as much as we're hurtin' right's nothing compared to what Zee is goin' through...I may not be that smart, but I know enough to be sure of that one thing."

Callie hid her face in her hands, rolling herself onto her stomach to lay flat on the floor. "What do we do?" she mumbled into her palms.

"I'm gonna go see the only person who can get through to her right now. Come with me...but I'm warning you, one stupid move and I'll have your head, Callie."

When she nodded, he rose to his feet and, trembling, walked into the bedroom to calm his wife. She met him with a steely gaze and, without a word, slapped him across the cheek. Mariana crumpled against his chest as he grabbed onto her. "It's alright, Mami. She's just a little crazy right now-"

"We have to get out of here, Eddie. I can't take this any more. Please, Honey."

He held her close, whispering "I know" into her ear, and then let go. "I'll be back, then...we'll talk about where to go from here, okay?"


Casey waited in the air conditioning of her car on the corner of One-hundred-and-fifty-sixth Street. The heat of the day was fading, and in the growing shade, the street had grown busy with shoppers and stragglers; children rushed in and out of the corner bodega with bags of flavored ice sticks and candy. She saw his approach, a swaying saunter as he walked, with the all- too-- familiar presence of Callie at his side. Casey knew she could trust Eddie; Callie was another story. When he opened the door she leaned towards the passenger's seat. "Not her, Eddie. This is for your ears only."

Eddie gave her a strange look of doubt and put his hand on Callie's shoulder. "Wait out here." When the woman frowned he added, "Trust me," and slid in, closing the door after him.

"Alright...I just want ya to know, I don't trust a hair on your this better be good."

Casey pressed her lips together, a lance of sunlight shinning through the window and onto the hands with which she held the steering wheel. "Gali's working with the government," she rushed out, waiting for his reaction of doubt.

"What? Yeah sure."

"Remember when she was shot, they had her for the murder of that cop?" Eddie's nod gave her permission to continue. "This cop, at least I think he's kinda like a cop, offered her a way out, Eddie. Proof that she was innocent. Without it, right now, she'd be on death row."

"You tryin' to tell me she's sellin' out? I don't believe that, not in a hundred years; she wouldn't do that...I know Magali. She'd die first."

Casey could see his fingering of his gun--an unconscious reaction, she hoped. "No, she's not selling you out. She's just helping this guy get rid of an...organization."

"The Gauntlet?"

Casey turned to him, the smile in his eyes at her response evident. "How'd you-"

"I know everything about what Magali does. I may not have a lot of school or anythin', but this..." he gestured to the street, "I know all about. I know she makes pay offs. We all know." And I was the one who took care of her when they tested her; they nearly killed her then. "Who they are?" he shrugged. "What they are," he pointed to his head, "I know."

"That's what this guy is after, Eddie. Not anything else, just that."

"I still don't see what this has to do with you...and what you-"

She clutched onto the steering wheel harder; it wasn't something she was proud of. "This woman...the one...she's a part of it all, at least her husband is. She's an ex of mine...and...I was instructed to help Zee get in touch with her...and anything, and I do mean anything, that helps Zee, I'll do."

"And you gave yourself to her? Knowing what it would do to Zee if she ever found out?" he spat angrily.

"I'd rather lose her and know that somewhere she's breathing in the same air I do, than lose her entirely," she said in a low voice, knowing that the possibility was always there.

He bowed his head. Too many times he had known the fear of losing Magali to death. "What else do they have on her?"

"Other than the shooting, and her involvement in it all...nothing else that I know of. Why?"

"Alejandra." It seemed he was speaking more to himself than anyone else.


"Is Efrain in it?" he replied, directing his stare at her.

"Who?" she questioned, arching her eyebrows.

"Her brother," he said, as if she should have known.

Casey knitted her brow. "I don't know. Why?"

"This guy, the "kinda cop", does he watch you?" Eddie was ticking off his fingers compulsively.

It was her turn to shrug, "I don't know. He always seems to know what I'm doing."

Maybe...he could have seen Alejandra that night I took her to Casey. If he likes setting shit up...maybe...he told Efrain? "Listen to me, you've got to get Zee to talk to me, it's important."

Casey rubbed the back of her neck, the tension building in her shoulders. "She's not talking to you?" What would make her...

"I can't really explain it all right now, Casey. She...she threw me out, kicked both me and Callie to the curb."

It was then that Casey first noticed the darkening bruise around Eddie's mouth, so wrapped up had she been in her own drama. "Please tell me it wasn't Zee who did that," she groaned, pointing at his injury.

"Yeah, it was. Just get her to talk to me, alright?" He opened the door and swung one thick leg out, then leaning over, gave Casey a kiss on the cheek and smiled. "I'd do anything for her, too."

A blast of warm air gushed in through the open door, and Casey wondered how Callie could stand the heat in the leather pants she wore. Eddie was circling his big arm around her shoulders as they walked away. He spoke into her ear and Callie stiffened, pulled away and shot a look at the beetle, catching Casey's eyes with a hint of respect. Casey drove away, hoping that, with the setting sun, she'd find her dark lover sitting at home.


Magali stared at the television, twisting, gyrating lines of gray and white static crossing the screen. In the dark, the set threw an eerie glow on its viewer; Devi was curled on the couch with her head lying on Magali's lap. The dog's head lifted, and her tail began to wag. She was the best alarm system in the city, and judging from her reaction, Magali knew that reaching for her gun was unnecessary.

Her Saint strolled in, the faint glow of the sun's effects on her skin. The denim shorts she wore stopped at mid-thigh, the sleeves of the sweatshirt tied around her waist dangled at her pelvis, a taut T-shirt outlined the swell of her breasts; and Magali was speechless. Here there were no boundaries, no eyes to watch them, or watch her. Her Saint smiled, leaning on the edge of the living room entrance. Was that relief on her face? Magali rose, her long legs carrying her over to her Saint before the woman could get any closer.

"Gali-" she breathed as her Black Velvet's body pressed against her, and she caught her fragrance.

"No words, Baby. I can say much more with this..."

Magali's lips brushed her neck, taking small nips of the skin just under her jaw and ear. Her hands closing around Casey's waist, pulling her closer as she pushed her Saint's body harder into the wall, her thigh pushing Casey's legs apart. Light hands trailed up Casey's sides, thumbs stroking her breasts, circling in on nipples already hardened by the close contact and the intentions of her Black Velvet. They teased her, roaming her arms and cradling her fingers, searching her waist, untying the knot of the sweatshirt and pulling out the T-shirt tucked into her shorts.

Callused and strong, Magali's hands touched Casey's warm skin, and she took in a sharp breath as her Saint groaned. Tenderly she grazed her Saint's skin, rubbing harder in some places as the heat in her built. She reveled in the feel of Casey-- the tightness of her midriff, the dip just under her ribs, the heaving in her chest as her fingers hooked under Casey's bra and jerked it up over her breasts, Magali's heart pounded. She bent, cupping one of the firm globes with a hand while the other caressed the back of her Saint's neck, Magali captured a nipple with her mouth. She suckled it with loving lips and teasing tongue, pinching it gently between her teeth; Casey moaned, straining her hips forward to arch into her Black Velvet.

Magali's hand left her breast and stroked its way downward to the waist of her shorts. The hand pushed itself under the fabric and over the silky material of her undergarment. Magali felt the wet heat emanating from her Saint's core and began to rub at it. Casey's hips bucked at the friction, and she bit into her lower lip. The sounds of Casey's pleasure drew her in; it was all that mattered. Casey brought her hands to her Black Velvet's shoulders, kneading and clawing them. Urgent hands grabbed onto her wrists and pulled her arms over her head. A forceful twist sent her reeling and Casey found her chest to the wall, an arm around her waist, her hands pinned above her.

"Stay," her lover commanded, as Magali's hands closed on the back of the collar of her T-shirt and ripped the garment in two before pulling it up over her extended arms. Her bra discarded and flung away, she shivered. Deft fingers undid the button of her shorts and lowered the zipper.

Magali thrust her hand back to Casey's silky nether lips, fondling her clit and lips tauntingly, as she pulled off the shorts and they slid to the floor.

She was naked, her Black Velvet driving her crazy; she was helpless before her strength. The hands that were driving her into a frenzy, left briefly, returning with the added ecstacy of her lover's naked skin against her back. Demanding hands spread her legs and, as two fingers invaded her depths and a palm rubbed against her engorged nub, her Black Velvet's wet center pushed against her ass. Magali's cries came deep and wanting; shuddering, she let the feeling run its course, branching out in tingling fingers throughout her every limb, burning through her chest, her wail of deliverance ripping from her throat.

Magali wanted more, needed to satiate the hunger of months without her Saint, but she was unwilling to let go, to stop the writhing her touch was eliciting from Casey. She slid her fingers out of her, pressing them into the deep folds, delving into the natural curves of her laden with the satin of her arousal, her Saint's clit growing harder under her attentions. She held onto Casey's hands, and in a gentle movement mimicking dance turned her around. She tasted her lips with a searing kiss, their tongues touching and sliding against one another. Magali laid Casey's arms on her shoulders and lifted her legs to encircle her waist, as she carried her into the living room, their lips never relinquishing their entanglement. Tenderly she sat her Saint down on the couch and knelt before her: Casey's legs on her shoulders, her hands pressing the small of Casey's back, arching her forward seductively. Magali inhaled the scent that had lingered in her dreams and brought her mouth down to kiss at the wet lips of her Saint. She tasted of heaven.

Her Black Velvet's lips on her further enraged the inferno by which she was engulfed, and she contorted as she clutched at the fabric of the cushions she sat on. It was slow and agonizing, her devouring, intensified by the warm ball of metal driving into her most sensitive niche. Without warning, her Black Velvet filled her, leaving a hand behind her to urge her movements on, her thrusting unhurried and deep. She was close; so close that the delay was making her body tremble with effort, her lover's satisfied grunts feeding her craving. "Yes," Magali murmured, and Casey let go. Her body exploded into convulsive shakes and piercing, moaning thrashes as the orgasm she had held onto was allowed release at last. Magali held on, continuing her adoration, and taking her Saint through a series of shattering aftershocks until the woman pleaded for mercy.

Casey settled down, too weak to move, too satisfied with the present to set a future in motion. Magali's breath hotly brushed her inner-thigh, her arms hugged Casey's waist in a death grip. Satiated the lovers spoke not a word but, instead, sojourned in the silent knowing of each other.

She was conserving their strength, wanting nothing more than to make her Saint scream her name over and over. Magali let Casey rest; she wanted their lovemaking to be filled with energized passion, and the delay in taking her again increased her want. She had carried Casey into the bedroom and, laying her supine, had straddled her Saint's head. Thrusting and grinding her release into her lover's mouth, while Casey performed for her with her own hand. A vision that had stayed with her since their phone conversation and one she requested in definite terms. Her Saint's hand had stroked her thigh and wandered up her torso, feeling the puffy line of the wound at her side. Magali had felt her reaction to it, and squeezing Casey's hand, had made it clear that it was to be ignored. Casey was sleeping soundly under her, as she listened, with her head on the woman's belly, to her steady breathing. Her side throbbed from the pull of the stitches, and the sting of her sweat, as unpleasant as it was, wasn't enough to distract her from the comfort of Casey's body in her arms.

Devi began barking at the door, scratching at its wood, and a grumbling Magali arose from the bed, taking a sheet to cover her naked body with. She looked through the peephole at a fidgeting Nelson, obviously nervous about something, and thought it best to see what was the matter. The last thing she wanted was to have him in the apartment, but standing at the doorway naked and vulnerable was worse. No matter how much security she piled around herself, her habits were still those of self-guarding.

"Nelson, you just got me out of bed and away from a very warm and delicious body. This had better be real good."

The young man wrung his hands, craning his neck to look down the hall in suspicion. "Well, Zero, see that's what I came to talk to you about."

Magali tightened the sheet around her, feeling a chill in his words. "About me in bed, or the body in it?"

"It's about Casey," he whispered, watching the hall.

"What about her?"

"See, Eddie told me to follow her." He squinted, expecting an outburst.

Shit, he probably saw her with that bitch. "Why?"

"'Cause the night she was babysitting his kid...she know...was fuckin' someone else."

It was flaring; the monster that lived within her yawned and stretched. "What did you just say?" she whispered angrily, stepping close to him.

Nelson swallowed. Don't kill the messenger, please, shit, don't kill the messenger. "She fucked...someone else?" he said cringing.

"No, before that...what was that?" she spat out, grabbing his throat with one hand.

"What?" he choked, the pressure around his neck increasing.

"Whose kid?" she hissed at him.

"Eddie's kid, the little one, the one that kinda looks like-"

"Get out, Nelson, just...get out. And for your sake, never repeat what you just told me, got it?"

The boy nodded as best he could with her hand around his neck, and then rubbing it when she let go at last, left as quickly as possible.

Alejandra, she was here and...she brought Julia here. In my room, on my bed. It was a nightmare come to life, her instincts screaming deception. Her legs, unfeeling, took her back into the bedroom, where Casey remained sleeping as she had left her-- her body bare and soaked in the passion of what had passed between them. Magali gazed at the wooden posts of her bed, a place no other woman had ever slept besides Casey. She took her whores to hotels. As she looked on, Casey's body appeared draped in glistening oil, bound and chained, writhing under Julia's touch. Her Saint's arousal permeating the air, her screams echoing off the walls. Here, with Alejandra under the same roof. Julia could have seen her...Casey would figure it ou;, she could have told her. What was that about not trusting you, Casey?

Magali shook her head, scattering her thoughts and drowning in her rage. She paced back and forth, glancing at Casey and running her hands through her hair. It grew --the scorching torch of her anger-- and she stomped to where Casey lay. Infuriated, her mind going in all directions, she gripped Casey's hair and brutishly jerked on it, waking Casey in a flash of terror.

"You did that here?" she seethed. "In my bed!"

Casey couldn't breathe, her neck arched back so far she couldn't look at the raving maniac that held onto her. Defensively she brought her hands up to push at her attacker. "Gali? What...are you...talking about?"

"You knew...didn't you? That's how Efrain found out! You betrayed me." Magali pulled her further up and, glaring at her, let go, pushing her onto her side.

Casey landed face down on the mattress and, turning in a rush, prepared to confront Magali once again, but the woman was gone from her side. She could hear her in the bathroom, slamming things around, the water running. Unsure of what to do, she sat still, listening to the rush of activity coming from whatever room her lover decided to stomp into. When Magali entered the bedroom, dressed completely in black, she tried to speak. The sudden clicking of a gun being loaded silenced her as Magali donned her holster and armed it.

"Gali, please, just talk to me." Casey pleaded. "We were fine just a little while ago, what the hell happened?"

"You told them about Alejandra. Efrain knows about her, and now they've got me by the balls."

"I don't know what you're talking about! Eddie's kid? What's she got to do with anything?" Casey yelled, punching at the mattress.

"Don't fuckin' play with me, goddamnit. You brought her here, into my fuckin' house! Go back to her, Casey, since she's so good for like to get slapped around. When I come back...don't be here."

Magali pushed her shades onto the bridge of her nose and slammed the bedroom door. Casey heard the fall of her footsteps as she left. Devi whined, and Casey was left with the humming of the central air conditioning. Her hands were trembling, and her neck throbbed from the sudden yanking. Magali was unreadable. She could tell when she was in for it with Julia, but this was another sort of creature. She was confused. Without any clue as to what had triggered her dark lover's outburst and not knowing who could tell her, she dialed the first number that popped into her head. When the woman picked up, she couldn't hold back her tears, and her words came out in long sobs.


"What the fuck? Casey? Are you alright? Where the fuck are you?"

"Home...Jesse...she...she's gone crazy...I don't know what-"

"I'll be right there, Casey. Hold on, Babe."

Casey had little desire to dress, and when Jesse arrived she met her at the door clad only in a T-shirt and panties. Her face red and tear stained, Casey turned from the open door and Jesse's gaze. Jesse locked the door and gave Devi a rub, then putting a hand on Casey's shoulder, turned the woman to face her and gave her a hug.

"I'm sorry, Babe. But I warned you a long time ago, my cousin's nuts." When Casey stiffened in her arms, she pulled away and gave her an apologetic look. "Okay, that was stupid of me to say, but I just had to. Now, you wanna tell me what Her Craziness did?"

Casey nodded and, hugging herself, meandered into the living room and sat on the couch cross-legged.

"She woke me up. She was so...angry. I don't know at what really. All she kept saying was that I brought her here, and that Efrain knew about Alejandra. I don't get it.

Listening intently, Jesse began to piece together what she thought might have happened. It made sense to her that if Magali had a child she would have hidden that fact from everyone, especially her family. Why it would cause such uproar if her oldest brother found out she didn't know, and why she would be angry with Casey for bringing the child into her home was another mystery. The crux was that Casey had no idea who the girl was or could be, and for a woman privy to Magali's most intimate goings-on, it would be she who could best piece everything together. Casey hadn't gotten a good enough look at the girl to put two and two together; Jesse had spent hours playing with the girl.

"She told me not to be here when she got back, and when I spoke to Eddie earlier he told me she had pretty much kicked him away..."

"Casey, I think there's something you should know. I didn't know myself until recently, and I thought Zee would tell you eventually. But we're not seeing the whole picture, and maybe together we can figure it out."

The ring in Jesse's voice set off alarm bells. As a paramedic she was well aware of the tone needed to handle dire news, and it was that tone Jesse was using, one meant to soothe and forewarn.

"What is it, Jesse? Don't use that 'prepare yourself' tone with me, just come out and say it."

Jesse sat in the armchair and leaned her elbows on her knees. " Zee's daughter."

Casey took a deep breath, her mouth slightly opened in surprise. "Her daughter?" Suddenly it was clear what Callie had meant by what she said when Casey had first seen the toddler. "Don't you know who she is? I thought Zero would have told you, seeing as you and her are so tight and shit." At the time she had been unwilling to let the obnoxious woman know that she didn't know what she was talking about, now, it made sense. " do you know?"

"Remember that night you were watching her, and I came over 'cause you were going out? I took a good look at that kid, her eyes, the way she acts, there's no way she isn't. And when I asked Eddie about her, he kind of wobbled around it...I know when that guy's lying. Shit, I've known him since we were kids." She indicated the height of a child as she finished.

"Why would it make her so angry though?"

"I don't know, but maybe Eddie does."

"Yeah, he might. We're calling him right now, and I know someone else who might know, too." Daly, that sonofabitch.


The lobby to his building, where a few short flights up his family waited, was inviting. Not like the other buildings he was used to loitering around in. This building was clean and quiet, free from any illegal activity; he made sure of that. The door squealed open, and he stepped into the cool shade of the building's interior. His beeper, firmly attached to his belt, went off with a strong, silent vibration. What now? he thought, looking down at the small monochrome screen. That's Gali's number. Yes, Casey, you did it! It was small, but it was there-- a spark of hope. He looked up the stairs, wanting to race to the phone and make his call, but he knew, one step into his house and he would be hard pressed to leave it again. Mariana had not been agreeable the last time he had seen her, and rightly so. He walked back out, grateful the sun was down and the heat was dissipating. Eddie remembered the public phone on the corner, always in use, and walked away from his home to seek it out. As always, a young man was whispering into its handset, but upon seeing him, nervously hung up and made way. Eddie nodded at him and took the young man's place, effortlessly dialing the number.

"Hey, Zee-"

"Sorry, Eddie, but it's me."

"Casey? What's up?" he asked, twirling the metal wrapped phone cord around his meaty finger.

"Zee took off, I don't know what happened...she just got real mad and...she told me to leave."

"Look, I'm on my way. Don't go anywhere."

Eddie put the phone back hard enough to make the post it stood on shake, and motioned to the kid who had been using it. "Go ahead, call that girl back before she goes to some other guy," he joked, out of a need to have some respite from the hurricane of events plaguing him. He wasn't far from Magali's home. A ten-minute ride in his car, and he was double-parked, as was his custom, in front of the condominium complex. Nelson would watch it for him.

He rang the bell when he could have used his spare, and waited for Casey to open the door. The hallway was quiet, and he eyed the hidden camera he knew would be pointed at the door.

"Casey, it's me, Eddie," he called out, and the door opened, but instead, Jesse was there giving him a wide grin.

"Hey, big guy. Nice lump."

"Yeah, thanks. Your cousin does a mean right-hand jab."

"Oh, shit. Sorry." She shrugged as she moved aside to let him in.

Casey was sitting on the couch, wearing a pair of baggy jeans at Jesse's request. She watched him lumber in, his size taking away any grace he could have put into his swagger. The bruise on his face made him appear more dangerous than he really was, and the armchair squealed in protest as he threw himself into it, exaggerating his exhaustion.

"Okay, no secrets now. We put it all out on the table and get it straightened out. Now, tell me everything she said.

Casey sighed; she could recall it all in vivid clarity, the words, while confusing her, had burned with hurt. She left out, except for their lovemaking, not a single detail. Her voice cracked when she repeated Magali's harsh words and the pulling of her hair.

"So?" Jesse asked impatiently when he remained quiet.

"No secrets, Eddie, that's what you said." Casey repeated his conditions.

He grimaced, and letting his eyes fall, took in a defeated breath. "Fine. You're right, Jesse, Alejandra's hers...but she's my kid. No, I'm not the 'daddy', I don't know who is, but I raised her, alright? And Zee...she didn't want anyone to know 'cause...she might be a target with me, but...if anyone knew, she'd be more than a target. If Zee's father found out...can you imagine? Her life would have been decided long ago, and that's not what Zee wants."

Casey rubbed her neck and tilted her head to the side, trying to grasp all the new information that was being undeniably confirmed about her lover. "She said Efrain knows. Why is that so catastrophic?"

"Other than the obvious? I have no idea, but it's what pissed her off with me, too. The only thing I can figure is that maybe that 'cop guy' found out when I brought her here, and he told Efrain. Don't trust motherfuckers like that, Casey, they do more back-stabbing then all my thugs put together."

"She said they 'had her by the balls'," Jesse laughed, finding the phrase funny and already content at having correctly guessed Alejandra's parentage. "Who're 'they'?"

Both Casey and Eddie shrugged, as the shrill ringing of the phone pealed out from under the sofa's cushions. Casey dug her hand into the crease, hoping it was Daly; she had beeped him while she waited for Eddie.

"Hello?" Casey smiled; it was who she had been waiting for. Her lover's cousin and best friend silently looked on, their faces expectant as she spoke.

"What can I do for you, Casey?" Daly started.

"Tell me all you know about Efrain, Zee's brother."


"Because I need to know, Daly. You want my help, I need this info." She wasn't in the mood for his games, talented as he was at beating around the bush.

"Up until a couple of days ago, very little-- law school kid, straight shooter. Surprising, considering the family he's in."


After an ominous moment of silence, Daly brought it all home for her. "He's working for Christopher Winslow. He's the guy's new aide. Should look good on his resume, too-"

"Thanks, Daly, that's all I needed to know," and for the first time ever, Casey had the chance to hang up on him instead; she didn't pass up the opportunity. Eddie gave her a palm up, in the very Hispanic gesture for 'so?' It was her turn to give out.

"Efrain's working for Christopher," she said with deadly calm.

"Who the fuck's Christopher," Eddie interrogated.

"Julia's husband," Casey replied, lowering her head as Eddie slumped back knowingly in his seat.

"Hel-lo, who's Julia?" Jesse was feeling out of place; she was suddenly out of the loop. But the look Eddie shot her told her everything. "Eddie? Did you tell Magali about that?"

"Nope, I didn't get the chance."

Casey glared at them both, and mimicked her lover's stare. "Tell her what?"

Eddie harumphed and fidgeted in his chair. "Umm. I kinda had you followed, Casey."

"Followed? That's how you knew?" Things were becoming clearer, as Eddie nodded. She had thought, perhaps, Nelson had watched her through the cameras, but the plan, it seemed was more complicated than that. "Why? Why did you have me followed, Eddie?"

It was Jesse's turn to fidget, and the movement earned her a glare from Casey. "Because that night you came home, with ummm...well you know...those marks on your back and stuff. I...called...him."

"You did what?" Casey yelled, getting up from her seat and walking across the room to the window, clutching at her hair. "Jesse, I told you I would take care of it!"

"Yeah, I know, but I got scared, shit...if something had happened to you and Zee found out I did nothing, she wouldn't be talking to me either!"

Casey looked down at the street, the embarrassment of knowing Eddie had seen the aftermath of her session with Julia prevented her from looking him in the face. "Who'd you have follow me?"

Eddie's face lit up in a twinkling of clarity. "Nelson, that little shit! He probably told her Alejandra was up here. That has to be it."

"Wait, Eddie, when she said that I 'did it in her bed', she wasn't talking about Alejandra, she was talking about Julia. Zee thinks I..."

"Oh, shit." Jesse whispered, the thrill of untangling the messy web of miscommunications fading with the fear of the type of rage her cousin would be in.

"Yeah, and she probably thinks you told Julia about Alejandra, and she told...Christ whatever...and then Efrain...Damn, we'll be lucky if she don't set the whole city to burn, like that Roman guy." he said with apprehension.

"Nero?" Jess chimed in.



"So what now?" It was too much to fathom; the thoughts were cutting and disarming. Casey sat back down, looking to, of all people, Eddie, for a plan.

He saw her eyes, and felt sad for her; he would have to work it all out, Casey was in no condition to face Bajo Zero, and he had done it almost all his life. "I know where she is. Let me go to her, we'll get this fixed up. I promise," he added with a small, cheering, smile.

Part 9

A steely gray sky announced the coming storm; the summers of New England were filled with such showers, passing with no more than a flash of thrown water splattering the sidewalks of New York City. Magali took the corner at high speed, the Jeep leaning dangerously close to overturning, and pulled deeply on the sweet petite cigar hanging from her mouth. The gun in her holster pressed against her side, and she delighted in its security. The only sure thing left in her life. When she had left the streets behind for the confinement of prison walls, a war raged on over the asphalt of Brooklyn. Those she had trusted, carried on her work despite her absence; and she had pushed them aside like so much trash, to keep them safe-- alive without her-- while she continued to walk death's path. It was into its jaws that she rode, defying it to reach out and snatch her away. She had every intention of playing with The Reaper: as the deliverer or the recipient of his dark touch-- it mattered not.

On the porches of houses falling apart from age and neglect, some of the local denizens sat, grimy and drinking beer out of forty ounce bottles, enjoying the respite from the sun and the simmering heat of the concrete. Tenement buildings rose between the homes and squatted opposite empty lots filled with garbage and debris-- breeding grounds for cat-sized rats. Gangs were popular in Brooklyn-- more so than Manhattan, where the object of the affiliation wasn't belonging but making money. She stopped the Jeep in sight of the gaping eyes of an abandoned brownstone, some of its windows boarded up with rotting planks of wood and cardboard. She locked the doors as she stepped out. Few knew her face in the neighborhood, but she was about to change all that.

The street itself smelled of urine and stale spilt beer. Her boots crunched on shards of glass; some shone embedded in the tar of the street-- half-covered diamonds in the streetlight, green pieces lingering in the dark unseen at night, emeralds in the sun. A pack of wild dogs ran past, ribs protruding and whip-like tails; cowering away from her, they fought over a chicken bone in the gutter. She rolled her shoulders, the holster settling familiarly by her side, and inspected the brownstone. An alley to the right sheltered the sound of a toppled, tin garbage can, and someone cursed. She followed the noise, then melted into the murkiness of the enclosure and the shadow of the building. Falling away from a doorway, hanging off one old, rusted hinge, a metal door leaned on its corner. She stepped through, crushing the cigar she flung to the ground. The smells of burning crack, sweet and sick, thickened the air. Shades ran down the corridor, stumbling away from her approach; others lay where they were, off in some fantasy world of their own creation.

"Cop!" someone yelled, and Magali cursed under her breath.

"Don't be insulting, shithead," she spat, drawing the .45 out of its cradle.

A body appeared, its defensive posture apparent even in the dark of the hallway. She squeezed the trigger, the impact of her gun's kick pushing against her palm, running up her arm --a lover's embrace. Whoever it was, fell screaming, holding their knee, and she was over them before they could speak.

"You know me?"

The boy shook his head, biting back the tears his pain cried for.

"You better. I own you, motherfucker, you and everything I lay my eyes on."

"Bajo Zero?" he stuttered out.

"Who else?" she deadpanned, walking past him, the gun still in her hand. "Anyone else?" she yelled into the lightlessness. A small mob emerged from the gloom, and in the reflected light of their lighters, she could see the yellow bandanas they wore. "Where's your king?" she asked, tilting her chin up towards them. A tall young man sauntered to the head of the crowd, his cockiness and pride obvious.

"I am...reignin' and immortal," he replied, in his thick Brooklyn accent.

His brains splattered the faces of those at his side when Magali released her anger, aiming and shooting in the span of a thought.

"Not anymore, you're not. Who's next in line?"

Short and stocky, another boy stepped up. She could see his shaking, smell his fear. Good, look at the grim reaper come to get you.

"You wanna stay alive, fucker? You do as I say." He nodded. "My shit don't get used where it's sold...junkies bring cops, cops bring money lost, money lost brings me. Got it?" Again he nodded, and she pointed her gun at the boy who still lay nursing his wounded knee. "One more thing...get rid of his body and this one too."

"But he's still-"

Pop, pop, the .45 spat.

"Lesson number two...I always get you before you get me. Wanna learn lesson number three?" She grinned as the entire crowd shook their heads in rejection. "Good, now get back to fuckin' work and clear this place." The boys melted away as quickly as they had materialized, and as Magali walked back the way she had come, she heard the beginning of kicks and complaints; some bones shattered.

She made it back to 164th street just as the rain died away. Her space, always empty, waited for her, and she slid the Jeep in with a screech of brakes. Her workers, forever loitering on the front stoops, gathered in the lobby. She picked up the folded cover of a matchbook from the ashtray, opened the Zip-lock bag resting on her lap, and scooped out a small mound of white powder. She inhaled it quickly, the bitter numbness dripping down into her throat, then wiped the evidence away from her face with the back of her hand. With bag in hand and lukewarm gun cooling in her holster, she sauntered into the building, her swagger more pronounced in her fury. Two dead did nothing to assuage her wrath, and she shook a few hands, hard, as she pushed her way through the throng. Upstairs two young men and one young woman sat on the couch before the T.V set, playing video games. Magali sat on the corner, their sudden silence making her laugh, an ill-natured chortle. She threw the bag on the old, weathered coffee table and put her feet up. "Wanna get high? It's on me."

Their conversation resumed as they dug into the bag she offered, and she listened to their words; they were entertaining in their simplicity.

"Alright, I got one. What's Spiderman's girl's name?"

"Mary Jane. That one was easy, stupid."

"Yeah? Then you think of one."

"What superhero used cards as a weapon." That one earned the questioner a slap.

"Gambit. Jesus Christ, ya'll are fuckin' dumb."

"Yeah, fine. How about this? What mouse had another mouse as a partner?"

"Pinky and the Brain."

"Tom and Jerry."

"Did not."

"Did too, that little one with the Pampers!"

"Mighty Mouse."

"Mighty Mouse? Who the fuck worked with Mighty Mouse?"

"That little bitch know with the little, teeny-tiny skirt and the glasses."

"He was banging her."

They laughed in unison, stopping only when they noticed the suddenly serious countenance of their superior staring blankly at the ceiling. She was banging her. In my bed. The same bed I... Magali unhooked her cellular from her belt and dialed Nelson's number. He would know...where that bitch lives.

"Nelson, when you followed Casey...where did she go?"


Eddie tapped at the dashboard waiting for the light to turn green. She'll be at the spot...please let her be at the spot...she's gotta be there, gettin' high, she's gotta. He was pulling up when he caught the taillights of Magali's Jeep speeding off, and he banged on the steering wheel, cursing. As he crossed the street a hand fell on his shoulder, but when he spun, ready to strike out, it was Callie's forlorn face that avoided his fist.

"She's gone, Eddie. Didn't you just see her?"

"Where were you? Hidin' across the street?"

Callie nodded, a sheepish grin on her face. "I was hopin' she'd be in a better mood, and I could..."

"Seduce her? Fat chance, Callie. You think they know where she was goin'?" he said, motioning to the building.

"We can find out," she leered.

It wasn't long before Callie had him screaming in pain. She was good, and she liked it. The others had run out, but she only needed one, and the slowest to react would be the easiest.

"Where'd she go you, sonofabitch?" she was yelling.

"I don't know, she didn't say," he cried putting his hands before him to shield his body from Callie's blows.

'You fuckin' liar; you gotta know. She didn't say anythin'? Nothin' at all?"

"No, she made a phone call and left. She wasn't here that long...we got high for a little bit-" he cringed as another kick came flying at him, but it didn't strike. Eddie was pulling Callie back and staring down at him.

"Who'd she call?"

"Ah, Nelson, yeah, it was Nelson...I swear, she didn't say nothin'-"

"Nelson! Are you sure?" The boy nodded and Eddie grimaced. "Shit, shit...give me the phone."

Callie handed him her cellular and crossed her arms as he dialed.

"Casey? Zee went after her...Julia whatever. You gotta tell me- Case, Casey? Sonofabitch!" he yelled when she hung up on him. He quickly redialed the number-- no answer. "Gotta call Nelson. What the fuck is his number?" he demanded exasperatedly.

Callie grabbed the phone away from him and pushed at the small spongy numbers, then handed it back to him. He waited for an answer. "Nelson, I swear to better just tell me what you told Zee, or I'm gonna play dentist on your fuckin' teeth, and I don't use anesthesia."


Julia finished her dinner and excused herself, the divorce papers safely tucked away in her purse. She was free of him, and although he kept proof of her diversions, so she would still have to do his bidding, she would at least never have to play the 'happy wife' role again. The pictures, she had learned, he kept as a guarantee; they were damaging documents-- to her and to every one of her clients. But she hadn't sacrificed herself for nothing all those years ago; she had to keep her social standing. If she wanted to remain accepted in her oh-so-proper circle of friends, then her more ... interesting...activities would have to remain in the dark.

Her driver was quiet, more so than usual, but she enjoyed the peace. Earlier in the day she had made a reservation for a flight out to Los Angeles. There the weather was warm all year around, and she wouldn't have to see Christopher. She was glad of the home she had purchased there months beforehand; snug in the canyons of Pacific Palisades, it would be a welcome retreat. She thought of Casey, by now in her lover's embrace, crying out for more. Her skin tingling under the loving strokes of the dark woman she had chosen to be with. Julia pictured her. The way she bit her lower lip just as she was about to climax. Her trembling as she moaned, a sound that could be taken as dispute or covenant. The price for her freedom from Christopher was high; too high it seemed.

The Town Car slid to a smooth stop, and her driver got out to open the door for her. He would stay outside for a few minutes to make sure she was safe, and then he'd head home for the evening, returning again in the morning. She would spend a quiet night at the townhouse and then, since there were no 'clients' on her schedule, leave in the morning,. She turned on the lights in the living room and walked over to the bar-- one last nightcap to top off the evening. Her driver watched from outside, a custom she had picked up from the ever-watchful Christopher.

Carlos was bored out of his mind. He counted off the minutes on his watch and watched the lights blink on in the townhouse. It was a living. A dark Jeep rolled up next to him, the passenger side window sliding down. He could hear the bass resonating from the stereo.

"You stayin' or goin', buddy?" the woman behind the steering wheel asked in typical New York fashion.

He shook his head and held up five fingers, glancing again at the lighted window. "Just give me a minute, will ya'?"

"Yo, I'm in a rush here. You gonna take that space or not?"

In New York City, where parking spaces along the street were scarce, it wasn't unusual for a fight to break out over them, and he had no desire to argue in the warmth of a summer's night.

"I'm goin', I'm goin', relax," he said, pushing the switch to bring the window up and taking the car out of park. As he rolled away, the Jeep took his place.

Magali reached into the back seat of the Jeep and brought out a small backpack. In it were all the supplies she needed to break in: a magnetic plunger, a diamond tipped glasscutter, a set of lock picks, wire cutters, magnets, duct tape and an assortment of wrenches and screwdrivers. She had used the same bag to train Callie, having the girl steal TV sets and stereos from homes she designated, in order to refine her skills. It had been a long time since she had done it herself. Just like riding a bike, she thought. Magali tightened the straps of her holster. Although she didn't plan on using her gun, it was better to have a back up than nothing at all. Her hands would be her weapons this night; she wanted the satisfaction of feeling the life drain out of the tall blonde while she watched. She lit a cigarette and took a few hurried pulls, then popped a stick of gum in her mouth-- it would keep her from gritting her teeth as she played her tricks on whatever alarm system Julia kept.

When she walked out, the wind died. The world stood still, as she made her way to the vacant townhouse directly next to Julia's. The locks to the front door were easy, and the alarm box next to the door was a breeze. Quietly she walked up the steps to the top floor, into the master bedroom, and out onto its fire escape facing the alley behind the row of townhouses. She took the iron stairs up to the roof and crossed over. As she neared her target, her anger whipped and flailed with the determination of an animal struggling to free itself from a trap. Her pulse quickened, and she knew that she had to consciously maintain control of it. She seized her emotions in a death grip, not wanting them to run rampant too soon. Loss of concentration could lead to a mistake, and she wanted nothing to interrupt her. She wanted to savor every terror-filled second, quench the fiery thirst left by betrayal, and sate the territorial beast that cried out for revenge against the trespasser.

Beneath her feet was the dwelling place of her heart's torment; and she grinned. Climbing down the fire escape of Julia's home, she peered in through the windows in search of the perfect room. On the first floor, she found what looked like the master bedroom. Her entry began: foreplay-- looking for the key that would allow her to take the next step in. A quick blink of a flashlight, and she located the wired box of the alarm system on the window's frame. Damn, they're still using this system? That little box there rubs that little box ther;, pull them apart and the bells go. So stupid. She attached the plunger and, using the glasscutter, cut a wide circle out of the pane. Her hands, steady, caressed the glass. The case holding the metal tools unrolled soundlessly, and quickly she flicked out the slender instrument she needed. In her firm grip the tool would tease and prod until it found its niche. With the small screwdriver, she unscrewed the box from the window, attached a magnet to both pieces, and taped them together. It was the final, satisfying union and, with an icy calm, she was free to open the window without any danger of setting off the alarms. A twist of the lock, and she was pushing the window open, gracefully slipping inside, cracking her knuckles. Life, and it's taking, were most enjoyed one finite moment at a time.

Julia downed her drink in one even swallow, the hairs on the back of her neck rising inexplicably. "Hope you enjoyed that," came a voice from behind her, dripping with hate. She turned to face the intruder and her pulse sped up, as the first thought she formulated was how quickly Christopher had taken action. To her astonishment, the assassin she had expected wore a familiar face.

"Already following orders? Hmmm?" Julia stated, the glass still in her hand. Screaming, she threw it at her assailant.

Magali ducked the object, the injury at her side straining as she did. "Yeah...fight me bitch," she leered, cocking her head.

Julia looked around for any object she could use to protect herself. The dark woman was empty handed, and as long as she held no weapon, Julia thought she stood a chance. In one leap Magali was at her, grabbing a fist full of hair and slamming her fist into her jaw. The blow took Julia's certitude. She felt her body bent over brutally, and she came in contact with the deadly woman's knee. Blood gushed from her nose and mouth, and she fell onto her hands and knees. The steel tip of a boot crashed into her stomach, stealing her breath; she choked on the stream of bile that rose in her throat.

Magali watched the woman try to crawl away and, stepping closer, put her foot on the back of Julia's neck, pushing her down to the floor. Fear's sweet tang intoxicated her, dragging the pain inside her into the numbness of rancor. She put more weight on her leg and grinned as Julia struggled for air. The relentless grip restraining her fury was slipping deliciously away. "Death is a mercy, Julia...and I don't give any. You have to earn it." She took her foot away and grabbed Julia's collar, yanking her up to her feet and bringing her face close. Ah yes, there it is, that just realized how much of a joke life is, and how much you want to keep laughing at it. Magali held up a finger and ran it through the blood streaking the woman's chin and cheek. Julia looked on, catching her breath, as the deceptively calm lunatic holding onto her life licked the sticky red liquid off the stained digit; the look in her eyes orgasmic. Another strike to her mid-section, and Julia staggered back, falling on the couch. She struck out, only to have her arm caught in its flight, and her wrist snapped by strong hands. She was thrown, her shoulder hitting the brick corner of the fireplace. Magali knelt over her holding a shining curved blade to her exposed throat.

"You know what a Colombian necktie is? I slit your throat...then pull your tongue out through it. Believe me, I'll enjoy it much more than you will." Undulating in her depths a red streak made its way through her raw and pure-- blood thirst; she drew the knife back an inch and leaned in for the kill. A muffled cry behind her drew Magali's attention. A flash of white, and her vision blurred. She thought she heard Casey's voice as everything dimmed.

Casey gripped the hideous remnants of the alabaster statue of David that Julia hid away in a corner of the foyer. Although she knew she was drawing in a breath, the air was fleeting. She had used her key to come in, fortunate to have not thrown it away, in time to see Julia hit the floor and hear Magali's words. It was clear to her, even before she set foot in the house, that her lover would be in an uncontrollable rage. Knowing what she was capable of, Casey's first priority was to stop her at all costs. If Magali succeeded there would be little for her to do but watch as her world was dragged away in chains once more, and see her former lover drown in a pool of her own blood.

Julia held on to her broken wrist and fought her way out from under Magali's slumped body. Her weight was crushing, but she managed to squirm out, delighted to see Casey standing dumbfounded but as her rescuer.

"Looks like that stupid statue Christopher bought had its uses after all. Thank you, Casey, for saving my life."

"I didn't do it for you," Casey uttered, still in shock and not knowing what to do next.

"Oh please," Julia laughed, "it couldn't have been for her!" she yelled pointing at Magali with her good hand. "For God's sakes, she's an assassin at best, a thug at worst," Julia reasoned, walking towards the bar and opening a drawer. Casey stared at her, still numb from what she had done; glaring trickles of blood crossed Magali's face. "Not only did she break into my house, but she was going to kill me." Julia's voice was calm enough to send a chill down her spine. "Only one thing stops a woman like her, Casey," she sneered as she held out a revolver, pointing it at Magali. It snapped Casey out of her daze. She definitely had a thing for the unstable. She threw herself across Magali's unconscious bulk.

"No! Julia, please, no!" Casey yelled, the crashing of breaking glass sending sparkling shards across the living room floor, a blur flying in through the shattered pane.

Callie stood at the center of the room, an assault rifle in her hand. Her eyes darted from Casey to Julia, finally settling on Julia as Eddie ran in.

"Back the fuck up, Blondie." Callie voiced coldly.

"What the-Zee!" Eddie yelled at seeing his friend laid out cold.

Casey swallowed back her fear. Any moment there would be a spray of bullets fanning the room, and anyone of them would be dead. "Okay...let's all relax here. No one has to get hurt...Eddie?"

"Umm, yeah...let's all just back away, alright? Callie."

"No fuckin' way. I put this shit down, and that cunt is gonna shoot." Callie responded, taking a firmer grip on the rifle she held.

Casey rose from the floor, gently so as not to startle anyone, and held out her hands. "Julia, put the gun down. I promise, they won't do anything."

Julia narrowed her eyes, taking in the wink and blown kiss Callie threw her way. "Are you insane, Casey?" Julia hissed. "What guarantee do I have, but your word? And I don't think someone's word is worth much in the present company.

"Fuck you, bitch," Eddie retorted. "Shoot her, Callie.:"

Callie shrugged, smiled and tensed. Julia tensed. Casey ran right smack into the middle of it all.

"Stop...wait! There's gotta be a way out of this without anyone shooting anyone!" Casey pleaded.

A stream of flashing red and yellow lights hit the billowing white curtains of the window. Howling in from all directions, sirens screamed their warning; and Eddie winced. "Fuck...cops."

Casey leaned on Julia, pitching her voice into the begging tone Julia thrived on. "Julia, I'm begging you, please..." Julia was unmoving, a smile of victory slowly taking shape on her lips. "I'll stay with you," Casey spat out. "Just...just get the cops to go away and let my friends go...with Zee. I swear, I won't go anywhere."

Banging on the door broke the tableau and forced a hasty negotiation.

Julia chanced a look at Casey, aiming the gun at Magali's form. "Permanently? You'll stay away from her?"

Pounding on the wood, the officers called for Julia. Callie brought the rifle up. Eddie shook his head.

Casey bit down on her lip, tears running from her eyes; she committed to the agreement-her life for Gali's--, sobbing. "Yes."

Julia let the gun fall away from her intended target and tucked it into her pocket, straightening her hair and wiping at her face as she walked towards the door. Eddie glanced pointedly at Callie, and she threw the rifle under the couch, kneeling next to Magali. Silently the trio listened to Julia talking to the police officers standing at her door. Apparently it hadn't been the first time they had visited. They warned her to press charges, citing her husband as unstable. She chuckled them away, saying it was a fair fight, and it would never happen again. They were divorcing, and she was leaving. Eddie studied Casey's face: the resolute melancholy of her features, the way she diverted her eyes from the figures of Callie and Magali near the fireplace. He hurt for her, recalling the whip marks on her back, knowing the sacrifices she had already made for Magali. Julia sauntered in, confident and unperturbed.

"They're gone. Now get out and...take the trash out with you," she said waving them towards the door.

Callie gathered up Magali's ankles, bracing them between her arms as Eddie hooked his under their fallen leader's shoulders. Neither looked as Casey turned her back to them, Julia eyeing their retreat. To the one-whatever happened to Casey didn't matter; to the other-- it would have sent him into a fit of angry tears, but he hadn't cried in years. Casey had told him she would do anything for the dark woman he followed. She was proving her words in a way he had never expected.

They dumped her into the back seat of her Jeep; Eddie drove as Callie followed in his car. He had insisted. It was his rule to never let anyone drive his vehicle, but having to make the choice, he valued Magali more, and trusted Callie less; so he was forced to trust her with his car.

Casey was by the window when they sped off, her heart in her throat, as she watched the Jeep turn the corner. Her soul reached out to her lover, imploring any spirits that watched to look after her Black Velvet. Julia's hand rested on her shoulder, and she shrugged it off.

"I agreed to stay with you...that doesn't mean I have to like it." Casey argued.

"You'll come around...dear. Come, I need to get to a doctor for this wrist, and you will accompany me."


Her vision wavered, sunlight falling across her eyes blinding her. Her throat felt like the Sahara had taken up residence, and her forehead was threatening to explode. She shaded her eyes with the back of her hand. Sudden movement inches from her head made her instincts flinch and she stiffened. "She's up," she heard in a familiar voice filled with trepidation. Magali focused on the dark depth of a gun's bore, and sat up. For all she cared, they could shoot her where she lay.

"What the fuck happened?" she croaked, as Eddie came into her line of sight. He was drawing the blinds of the balcony door. I'm in my bedroom?

"Chill, Zee. Lie the fuck back down and let me explain."

She had always been stubborn, headstrong regardless of the situation. Might was right, even when it was wrong. She growled deep in her chest, and watched as Eddie swallowed.

"Look, I'm only gonna go through this shit once. So pay attention...then you can tell me to get lost, if ya' want." He waited for a signal of dissention from her, and when there was none, he took a deep breath and spewed out everything he knew. " goes. First of all, Nelson's a little shit, 'cause he didn't tell you everything. Shit was getting hot, then Mariana had to go to a funeral in Florida. She left Alex with me. I knew Casey was down in the dumps 'cause you were away, so I figured-who better to watch the kid, right? Well, I brought her here." He held up a hand to forestall her reaction. "Don't kill me yet, Zee. Anyway, that night Casey was supposed to go see that bitch, whatever her name is."

"Julia," Magali grumbled.

"Yeah, her. So, she called Jesse in to look after Alex, and took off. See, Casey did not bring that bitch here, she went...wherever. When you went haywire, Casey called me. We- Me, Casey and Jesse-- figured it all out. Why you were pissed, ... 'cuz Casey had no idea of what you were talkin' about. She tol' me about that cop guy, how he got ya' off the hook way back when ya' was in the hospital. So, I know everything, Zee."

"Why'd you have her followed?"

"That night...when she went to that bitch...she came back in real bad shape, Zee. Jesse got scared and called me. I saw her when she was asleep. Casey didn't know I knew."

"Bad shape?"

Eddie glanced at Callie, who was paying more attention to the story than to where she was pointing the gun. "Casey was sleeping on her stomach, and Jesse told me I had to take a look 'cause she'd been attacked or something. Well, she had...marks...on her, like someone gave her a good whuppin'...Worse than I ever saw on this one," he said pointing at Callie; she glared at him."

The marks Callie had borne had been her own handiwork, and imagining anything harsher brought her anger to a boil. "Worse? What do you mean worse?"

"They were bloody. One was real deep, like it was done to...punish her or something...Man she looked like something out of that movie Roots."

She slumped back down, the pillow under her head harder than she remembered. "I thought I told you to stay away from me," she whispered, the pain in her temples throbbing.

"Yeah, you said you'd kill me. But you know what, Zee? I thought about it, and..." he pounded on his thick chest, "you want me to go on with my life...I can't do that if part of its missing...So there's no way you're chasin' me away, alright? Like it or not, you are as much a part of my family as Mariana, Enrique...and Alejandra."

Magali sighed. Eddie was an incurable, sentimental fool, but she loved him. Callie moved out of the shadows, and she saw for the first time who it was that held a gun on her.

"The pupil becomes the teacher? What's with the gun, Callie?"

"Shit, I ain't stupid. Even the way you are, you can rip my head off...I know why you got rid of this fool, Zee. But me? Like I'm anything without you."

"You're plenty without me, Callie...both of you are, you're just too stupid to realize it. But...if you fools wanna stick around, that's fine with me. Anyone know where Casey is?"

They had both begun to smile when she said they could stay, but their initial smiles now faded in response to her question, and Magali propped herself up on her elbows. She didn't like the looks she was getting from them. Eddie walked to her side. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her gently back down. She resisted, but with the rest of her stitches blown to hell it was hard to maintain her position, and she gave in. He lowered his voice, speaking to her as if he were calming her back to sleep from a nightmare. In excruciating detail he spun his second tale, relating how they had gone looking for her and how Casey had taken off for Julia's before Eddie could stop her. The images of the night before, the feel of breaking bone and the taste of Julia's blood came back vividly. She had been out of control, in a fervor the devil would have been proud of, hot-blooded and murderous. Someone had hit her and knocked her out; she realized now that it must have been Casey. As calmly as he could Eddie finished the story, describing the arrival of the police and how Casey had bargained for them. She became abusive, Casey's voice in her ear. They were bloody, one was real deep, like it was done to...punish her or something, Eddie's words echoed, like something out of Roots.

Magali grimaced, forcing herself up and pulling the sheets away from her naked body. There was blood on her hands and a rusty-red stain at her side. Eddie blushed, and Callie flashed a brief smile.

"Where the hell are you goin'?" Eddie barked.

"I gotta go get her, you fuck. Why'd you leave her there, stupid?" she yelled at him, furious.

He reached for her, trying to put a stop to what he knew would be impossible to delay.

"Get off me, Eddie!"

"Damn it, Zee. You're hurt. You've probably got a concussion. And I bet you did enough shit last night that you're still flying high! You're gonna get yourself killed!"

"I don't give a fuck, Eddie. Now let me go!" she screamed shoving him aside and stumbling towards the bathroom. When Magali opened the door, Devi ran out from where she had been imprisoned. Holding a gun to her mistress' head was not wise while she was loose. Hearing the apparent rage in Magali's voice, she ran and hid under the bed. Magali locked the door behind her and opened the cold water, splashing the icy flow on her face and wringing her hands clean. She reached for a towel, nearly falling, and dunked it into the cold stream. With it she rubbed at the wound on her side, cleaning it as best as she could.

"You're not gonna find her, Zee! That...whatever you call her..."

"Julia!" she yelled back at him through the door.

"Yeah, her. I heard her tell the cops she was leaving for El Ay, man. She probably already left."

"Then I'm goin'' airport, Eddie! God damn it!" she cursed at the sudden dizzy spell that weakened her knees. Bereft of any clothing, the fact unimportant to her, she straightened her posture and sauntered into the bedroom, pulling clothes from her closet and throwing them on the bed. "Where the fuck are my boots?" she bellowed. Callie handed them to her, and Magali snatched them away.

"Come on, Zee. Be reasonable, will ya'?" he said to her as she sat on the bed pulling on her socks.

"Reasonable? Oh good, you learn a new word, and its gotta be reasonable?" she proclaimed sardonically. "You wanna stop me? Then shoot me. Cause it's the only way I'm staying here while that crazy bitch drags Casey across the fuckin' country." Magali was dressed and standing strong. Eddie glowered and moved to let her pass; he would follow her 'til doomsday.

"And another crazy bitch goes chasin' her," he mumbled when she was out of earshot.


The garage was warm from the air coming in through the wide entryway. Magali's eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the darkness, and she made her way towards her Jeep, holding on to the trunks and hoods of other cars. The door had been left unlocked, undoubtedly by a frantic Eddie trying to get her unconscious body out of the car. She turned the key in the ignition and the radio blasted the latest Red Hot Chili Pepper's song as she sped out the tunnel and into the street.

"Pour my life into a paper-cup...the ashtray's full and I'm spilling my guts...she wants to know if I'm still a slut...I've got to take it on the other side..."

A quick glance in the rearview mirror, and she spotted Eddie's car following her closely. Callie was playing with something on her lap. If Magali knew her at all, she knew it would be the woman's weapon that she was so lovingly fondling.

"Scarlet starlet and she's in my bed...A candidate for a soulmate bled...Push the trigger and pull the thread...I've got to take it on the other side..."

She took an underpass onto the Harlem River Drive. No matter how many renovations and safety upgrades the highway was blessed with, it drove like a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Eddie slowed down, his car too low to the ground to take the road with any greater speed then the posted limit. It was part of the reason she had purchased a Jeep; to survive the New York City streets and highways, a vehicle that could off-road was key. Especially when the driver continually abused it past its limits. The airport was thirty minutes away, twenty with the way she was driving. She had no idea where to look first, but taking into consideration the type of person Julia was, she either had her own plane or was flying extremely expensive.


Julia had packed a small bag, and she rolled it behind her on tiny black wheels that bumped on the ridges of the airport floor. Casey carried nothing but herself, and her heart in her hand. La Guardia airport, with its immense runways and countless companies, was an eyesore. Huge concrete blocks, passed off as terminals, were almost always under some type of construction; signs posted on sheet-rock announced the new and upcoming gates and corridors. A loudspeaker sounded out the arrivals and departures above the cacophony of witty New York remarks and attitudes; the place smelled of new carpet and floor wax.

Casey surveyed the flow of would-be passengers filing past her, their hands loaded with packages and flapping ticket envelopes as they fought to take their places in the long check-in lines. Her hands were empty, and except for her wallet in Julia's carry-on, she had nothing of herself to take with her. Frighteningly, Julia had all of her clothing she had left behind when their relationship had ended, keeping it in a storage bin at the bottom of her closet. This morning, she had pulled it out, choosing which articles Casey would wear on their trip. She hadn't been surprised when Julia chose a pair of black, tight-fitting bell-bottom pants with unseen snaps for side seams; they had been Julia's favorites. The dark blue, silk top Julia had picked was snug around her shoulders and chest; the bottom half of the blouse spread open, exposing her waist and a bit of her tight stomach. The tall woman hid behind dark shades, but Casey could feel the weight of her eyes caressing her body. She decided to annoy the woman by playing with her navel ring while they waited to be attended to. Julia pursed her lips, and Casey stopped her twisted play of the ring. Instead, she lay her hand on the cold ring flat against her collar, braided lengths of leather strung tight around her neck. It was a public collar, one that only those who knew what a collar was would recognize. They didn't wait long before they were at the counter, showing identification and getting their boarding passes. Those flying coach classes glared at them.


Traffic began to build, and Magali swerved around it, the Jeep careening to-and-fro. Through the music she heard the high pitched crying of her phone and picked it up off the seat, annoyed at it.

"What?" she yelled.

"A 'good morning' would suffice, Zero."

"Daly, what the fuck do you want now? I'm in the middle of something," she spat, taking another turn around a slow moving van.

"That's what I get for caring about you? I just wanted to remind you that's it's been twenty-four hours since you were let out."

"Yeah, so?" Another car, a curve and a straightaway.

"Has it been that long? Your P.O, Zero. Parole Officer...ring a bell? You have to appear, remember?"

"I'll get to it...later," she said throwing the phone down, just as an inclining median came into view, and she had to jerk the wheel to get away from it. That was when the strange sound she had heard the day before, and had begun to feel on her present drive, decided to show its true hazard. The steering wheel locked, and pulling on it with all her force did nothing but naturally force her foot down on the gas pedal. The first scrape was a mix of screeching metal and a thunderous crunching, as the concrete of the median rose under her sliding Jeep. She braced herself for the lamppost she and the vehicle were headed for; as the Jeep twisted onto its side, the front end hit the post and sent the automobile toppling over into the opposite lane of traffic on the highway.


Casey twiddled her thumbs as they called out the boarding order: first class was first, and that meant her. She was finding it harder to breathe with every passing minute, Julia's casual touches disarming. Knitting her brow, she glanced down the long hall of gates, searching for the wild blur she so desperately wanted to see running, insanely pushing people out of her way. Come on, Gali. Isn't this when you come barreling down here, guns blazing or something? Julia's hand grabbed onto her shoulder and the woman's lips moved, Casey didn't hear the words spoken, only felt the commanding push against her body that guided her in the direction of the boarding ramp entrance.


The steering wheel hit her full force, and she felt the snapping of bone reverberating through her. Propelled upwards, she hit the dashboard on her way towards the ceiling. Everything fell silent, and she could only see what was happening as if she was merely observing it all. The door flew open and she was headed towards it, as the last jolt of the Jeep's landing put half her body outside of the vehicle. The smell of gasoline rose around her. She felt heat at her feet and painfully dragged herself away from the gaping mouth from which she had been spewed, using only her aching arms as aids. The ground under her shook with the explosion, and she shielded her face from the pluming flames, laughing, because there was nothing else she could do. Something was wrong in her chest. Casey...

Callie snatched the wheel from Eddie as he jumped out of the barely stopped car. Traffic was slamming to a halt, and Callie was amazed yet again at Magali's seeming luck; most of the cars had been headed south when she crashed onto the northern side of the highway. She put the car in park and ran after Eddie, flames and oily, black smoke rising from the burning hulk of metal and parts that Magali was infamous for appearing in.

"Zee! Magali! Jesus fuckin' Christ," he cursed, fanning the smoke away from his eyes.

Spread out across the white line separating the lanes, he saw her lying face down, her hands clutching at the pebbled surface of the road.

"Callie! Quick, get over here!"

Callie's lithe body jumped the height of the median in one smooth arc, the speed granted from the rush of adrenaline bringing her to Eddie's side in a flash.

He knelt by her side, pushing bloody tresses away from her face and leaning in close to hear her.

"I...can't...breathe," she whispered to him. ""

" need help, Zee. Just hold on, the paramedics will get here soon, I promise."

Magali gripped his wrist, her strength surprising him given what he had seen happen to the Jeep.

"Cops...they...lock me...up. Get-," she began to choke, coughing and cringing as she did.

Callie tapped him on the shoulder and gestured with her thumb towards the fiery wreck. "Parole violation," she stated matter-of-factly. "Can you feel your legs, Zee?"

Magali nodded as much as she could with not an inch of her body pain free.

"Pick her up, Eddie. We can get out before five-oh gets here. That Jeep isn't even registered to her; it belongs to some dead guy."

Eddie turned her as gently as he could and cradled her in his arms. He was glad for his bulk then; she was a heavy woman. With Callie's help he got her into the front seat of the car, and as the news helicopter made its first pass, they were off.

"We can take her to my place," Callie murmured, stroking Magali's hair.

"You have a house?"

"Yeah, stupid. Williamsburg, Brooklyn."

"Great," he finished with a touch of sarcasm, and sped through the cars slowing down to get a look at what had happened.

Williamsburg Brooklyn was a recently restored neighborhood. Its rows of factories and warehouses near the river had been astutely turned into spacious lofts for sale or rent, and all the 'artists' of the city snatched them up in a matter of weeks. Callie told him where to turn, and when they were halfway up the street, the answer to the mysterious black box Callie carried was finally forthcoming. A garage type door lifted as she pointed the gadget at it, and Eddie drove the car through the rather large entrance.

The loft consisted of one immense space with cathedral ceilings; a row of hanging fans spun. Dark stained wood paneled the walls, and a high platform with a captain's bed provided for an open spaced bedroom. It was a place that would be considered paradise by a claustrophobic. Two floor lamps cornered a leather living room set. At its center, a long entertainment system seemingly rose up out of the floor. The door shut behind them with a soft thud. Callie squirmed her way out of the back seat and ran up the wooden staircase to the bedroom.

"Get her out of the car...I'll bring down a blanket for you to put her on!" she called behind her.

It was just as tricky to get her out as it had been to get her in. Although conscious, she was dead weight. Callie reappeared with a stack of thick blankets and quilts, quickly throwing them on the floor and arranging them into a soft cushion for Magali.

"Here, Eddie, put her down."

Eddie obliged, and as he set her down he could feel her body stiffen at the movement. Callie leaned over her, pushing and pulling at the blankets to make her comfortable. She stopped, bent close to Magali's mouth, and shut her eyes.


"What?" Eddie asked in panic.

"It's her rib-- it's pressing on the lung."

"I knew it, I knew it! We should have waited. So what if she broke parole..."

"Shut up, man...We have to help her."

"Help her? How? We need a fuckin' doctor."

"No time for that now...She'll die if we don't get her to breathe."

"How the fuck do we do that?"

"Upstairs, there's a closet. On the floor I have a bag; bring it down here." She held on to Magali's hand and took a long look into her eyes. "Don't you go anywhere, we'll be right back."

Eddie rushed up the stairs. Spotting the closet right away and throwing the door open he reached for the bag Callie had described and ran back down the stairs. By the time he arrived at her side, Callie was kneeling on the floor, a deep pan lying before her. She opened a bottle that read alcohol and dumped its contents into the pan. When she held her hand out, Eddie handed her the bag. Quickly she opened it and pulled out a small black case. Unzipped, Eddie could see its glimmering contents-- a collection of knives and blades, including a scalpel or two.

"Where the fuck did you get that?"

"I kill people for a livin', Eddie. What the fuck do you think I use?"

"What ya gonna do?" he asked bending over her.

"You don't wanna know...but I need you to help me out, alright? Just do what I tell you to."

Eddie nodded and stared at Callie, waiting for her to give him instructions.

"Eddie," she said without looking at him, "in between the cushions of that couch, I got a little pouch. Bring it to me."

Callie placed the knives into the alcohol and waited, monitoring Magali's breathing as she did.

"I'm sorry, Zee, but you know I gotta kill the pain first, right?"

Magali signaled her agreement when she didn't try to fight. Her instructions had been clear enough for Callie-- a woman who spent hours taking bodies apart-- to follow. Her eyes wouldn't focus properly, and the pain was giving way to sheer torment, but she managed to see the darkened metal of the spoon in Callie's hand as she held it above the flame of a candle. The piece of cotton she put on the bubbling surface, the eye drop syringe she was plunging into the small white bundle. Callie tapped on the tube and put the needle down, a long rubber hose in her hand. Magali felt it wind its way around her arm, just above her elbow, and tighten.

"Are you crazy? That shit's gonna make her sick!" Eddie's voice echoed from a distance.

"No it won't...It's not her first hit. She won't feel a thing..."

The pinprick to her skin was a drop in a storm. Warm and comforting, the liquid relief raced through her bloodstream. I don't need to breathe. Do I? The blade of the scalpel hovered above her, its sharp edge neatly cutting away her shirt. Her skin slid open under Callie's deft touch, warmth fanning down her sides. She pushed her head back in reaction to it, sweat beading on her forehead and chest. Callie's hand was in her-- she could feel its pressure-- pulling at the bone pressing against her lung.

Callie heard it snap and pull away. Magali's breathing returning to normal as unconsciousness mercifully claimed her at last. Eddie had gone for towels, and she piled them over the wound, praying the bleeding would stop. Her fingers were crimson with it.

"Call Jesse, she's gonna need antibiotics...The good ones."

Casey? Casey, where are you? she screamed into the abysmal darkness surrounding her. I can't see you, Baby. It's cold here. Casey! Don't go. Mother, don't let her leave. She reached out, feeling for her Saint, grasping at thin air for a hold on anything. I'll come for you, Casey. Wait...wait for me.


The first few minutes of a flight were always the worst. Her ears were stopped up, and she was pinned to the back of her seat as the plane angled off, and away from the city. Not a cloud in the sky blocked her view of the miniature skyscrapers and highways. Ant-like, cars flowed down the city's veins, clogging in places and speeding through others. Casey kept her face to the oval window, hiding the one tear that rolled down her face and fell towards the asphalt jungle below. I love you, Gali. Keep safe.


Time trickled away in small racing currents, winding around crystalline pebbles and luminescent, stone pools. Images sped by and froze: still shots of the world that moved around her. Callie was never far from her side-- wiping down her fevered skin with cold compresses, pressing the rim of a glass to her lips, and forcing down a chilly stream of water down her throat. At some point, she wasn't sure when, Jesse had sat by her side, taping clear dripping tubes to her arms and shooting her eyes with bright, yellow beams of light.

The gentle haze faded, pulling back away from her and taking with it its blessed oblivion. The sensations that rose in its wake revealed the thinness of the veil of tolerance separating pain from agony. Her body trembled with its awakening, craving the rogue relief delivered by a flame and the sinister prick of a needle-leeching blood, extruding poison.

A sudden, involuntary cry of pain burst from her lips. Callie reached for her-- holding onto the end of a mustard-colored hose with her teeth, while wrapping the rest of the coil around Magali's bicep; the frail syringe was clamped gently between index finger and thumb.

"No more..." Magali rasped, aware through the mists that her temporary salvation was fast becoming more of a peril than her injuries.

Hesitantly Callie pulled away, loosening the hose she had prepared. "Just a little, Zee. Let me give you half a shot at least...So it won't hurt so bad," Callie pleaded, dreading the critical hours that would inevitably come.

"No," she ordered. "Let me feel it...I can't tell...if I'm dead...or alive." Her words were slurred and dimmed with torment.

Sympathizing with what she knew Magali would go through next. Callie opened one of the drawers in the frame of the king-sized captain's bed. The wooden seams of it protested against the weight of its contents. She reached in and pulled out two thick bundles of heavy chain, and four thick leather straps. As tenderly as possible, she fastened the straps to Magali's wrists and ankles, clipped the chains to them and attached the ends to eyebolts screwed into the bed frame. Lovers Callie had taken didn't come close to having the dark woman's strength, and she could only hope that the bonds would hold.

Magali had been kept numb and still by almost two weeks of oblivious rest. The stitches Jesse had tearfully sewn in were dry and tight, the skin's healing eased by Magali's motionless slumber. A constant flow of intravenous antibiotics fought off any infection that might have resulted from the hack surgery Callie had performed. Her skin, pallid and distinctly bruised, became ashen with the loss of the illusory solace Callie had provided. Magali's lips turned violet and her hands clenched, but she remained motionless, fighting through the ever-growing, pain-wracking spasms. Eventually she would lose the battle and wrestle against the chains that held her.

Callie checked and secured the bindings restraining Magali, then left the room. It had been difficult administering the heroin to her savior, knowing how much she loathed the use of it. It was one product Magali refused to peddle. As impervious as she knew the woman to be, Callie was fairly certain that eventually the screaming would begin. But there would be time enough, while the withdrawal sickness was only a burning, for her to get some sleep.

Hours later, Magali realized she knew what a disemboweling felt like; it was what was happening to her from the inside out. She clutched the sheets, the white T-shirt and boxers she wore drenched in sweat. Crying out with yearning, she called her Saint's name.


Wretched thoughts, banish yourselves
Your name I do not require
To touch a stranger in that way
Reduces the risk of what transpires
My anger is my pain, my burden to shift
Your pain is my pleasure, your penance to give.
And yet you come...
Come into my nightmare
Sliding through these musty catacombs
See the biers of those I've loved
Choose which shelf will be your home
My pain is my suffering, my penance
Your pleasure is my hope, a rare happenstance
And still you remain...
Remain with me in this space
Your name I have and hold so dear
Your voice my tether in the cold night fog
Your image, my saint high atop my altar
Our hope is our love, which none may deny
Our penance is our life, which none may destroy
And yet, we are...

Makaris Anam 6/9/00


Mail Morrig


Prologue to the next Sacrament

Under the merciless stroking sun of the Los Angeles sky, short cropped hair gleamed almost white. She pulled off the sunglasses that shielded the dark brown of her eyes, the tiny loop decorating her eyebrow sparkled. She sat side-saddle 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. Her eyes raked the woman's body, 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 creamy 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.


Note from Morrig: Phew! Okay now relax, this is just the second in a series so don't go sending me e-bombs. This particular piece took me nine months to write, but remember I'm just a poor teacher with limited time during the school year. The next will happen much faster since I'll be home. My Baby, Dee, wrote the poem at the end. Anyway, I want to thank my "Beta Woman" Dawn and my "Proofer" Day, and of course my partner for life, Dee. Ummm, I must have something for women whose names start with the letter D, huh? :::shrug::: I have to thank EM, for all her insightful feedback, and Alpha Mom Missy Good for inspiring me to take up writing in the first place. Without all these women I would not be able to pull through these stories, heck without women...what would Morrig do? Heheheheh. Midget? You are the woman...nuff said. Hope you enjoyed it! I did...especially the moan at the end. <VBEG>

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